You Write It! Or, The L Word Is Labor

Curator's Note

This online video promoting The L Word season five features the lucky winner of a fan-written script contest as she claims her prize: a visit to the set to see her scene filmed (you can also watch it at SHO.com). The program launched this marketing series with a complete user-generated "fanisode" in 2006, contracting the start-up FanLib to orchestrate the web-based competition. The successful venture garnered a mention in the Wall Street Journal’s article about the transformation of fan fiction from a "fringe pursuit" into one that "helps unknown authors find mainstream success." The assumption that fans’ labors of love have the same goals, motivations, standards and economies as professional production is shared by FanLib — although in their business model, it’s the corporation rather than the authors who profit from monetizing fan fiction. Because of this attitude and related PR blunders, FanLib’s commercial fic archive (operating May 2007-August 2008, when the company was bought by Disney) was criticized for its lack of respect for the values of predominantly female communities of fan creativity.

 

In this video — which presents a later installment in the user-generated scripts campaign, titled "You Write It!" — showrunner Ilene Chaiken says the fact that "the fans of The L Word write a lot of fan fiction on their own" inspired the contests. But the majority of fan writers aren’t aspiring professionals like Molly or the Wall Street Journal’s winning interviewee. Chaiken’s equivalence effaces the anti-commercial traditions of fandom’s gift economy, which cultivates alternative modes of sharing the characters and stories that originate in the corporate media. However, Chaiken’s outlook both reflects and promotes The L Word’s strategic branding of "lesbian" identity, work modeled by the characters’ culture industry vocations. Like Jenny, Alice, Tina, Shane, Dana or indeed Chaiken herself, Molly is the exemplar of fans’ lessons in commodifying our passions, a didactic parallel that represents lesbianism as the privileged form of labor on both sides of the screen.

 

Inviting fan-written scripts may imply a breakdown of the distinction between amateurs and professionals, but the video’s rhetoric more emphatically reasserts the ideological gulf between fans and producers. The comments addressed to Molly, while well-meaning, are starkly condescending, informing her of banal aspects of television production as if she didn’t already have the knowledge to be a screenwriting success. The "You Write It!" contest was a perfect match with season five’s Lez Girls, a movie-within-a-TV-show that campily remixed The L Word’s early seasons. Molly’s scene earned its winning vote tally by enhancing these self-reflexive layers with a Charlie’s Angels mashup, alluding to the history of lesbian viewing. In contrast to the discourses of "we" and "our" that characterize much of The L Word’s marketing, however, the turn to calling fans "you" highlights the limits of this openness to appropriation. Chaiken may profess an interest in "the way interactivity is taking over our lives" that is borne out in The L Word’s cutting-edge online promotions, but this provocation extends only as far as fan labor channels value into the "lesbian" brand — because "you" work for free.

Comments

Gina Mitchell's picture

The Role of Actor Interviews in the Promotion

 Julie— your critical reading of the treatment of amateurs and professionals in this clip is fascinating! As you show, the majority of the clip suggests the collapse of the “gulf between fans and producers”. During the first few minutes, Chaiken emphasizes the (non-monetary) rewards of Molly’s labor by dwelling on the experience and exposure she’ll gain as an aspiring writer. But in the last 30 seconds, there seems to be a slight shift in focus and tone. The misleading emphasis of the “interactivity” between producers and fans is joined by an additional fantasy- one of the interactivity between actors/characters and fans. Jennifer Beals, Leisha Hailey, and Katherine Moennig take over for Chaiken, expressing their enthusiasm to meet Molly and recreate her scene. Hailey’s promises of “bear hugs” and “love” from the cast and Molly’s star-stuck remarks about meeting the actors allude to the more glamorous benefits of Molly’s hard work. Beyond her brush with celebrity culture, there is a sense that Molly will be temporarily induced into the chic and intimate female clique featured on the show. So by winning the contest, she gains entrance not only into the realm of professional television production, but also into the exclusive worlds of the actors and characters. In this sense, the conclusion capitalizes on more general viewer fantasies, as well as those specific to fan-fiction. At the same time, it contributes to the "condescending" treatment of Molly by reminding us that she is a fan first and a writer second. Of course as your original analysis suggests, this portion of the clip ultimately “reasserts” the distinction between cast and fans; Molly’s clear idolization of the cast and the characters they represent elevates and promotes both the actors and the show itself.

Kelly Kessler's picture

Oh, Ilene, why must we do what you want?

 I found this clip fabulously telling.  Ilene, Kate, Jennifer, and Leisha are omnipresent when it comes to OurChart related materials (as they are the ones who invested in the spin-off venture).  Their ability to erase ideological concerns through bubbly enthusiasm is amazing to me.  As  you’ll see in my clip on Wednesday, they maintain the same enthusiasm for a project that is similarly fraught and limiting.  Aside from the condescension and commodification already discussed, another effect of this type of structured fanfic competition is the erasure of the alternative voices produced through fan fiction. Obviously to win this competition the fan would need to produce something that stays without the bounds of the show’s pre-established narrative.  Questioning the norms of the diegesis would result in immediate disqualification.  As a result, this project that professes to welcome fan voices largely mutes them in favor of a "who can best pretend they are us" competition.  Oh girls. 

Julie Levin Russo's picture

one of us one of us one of us

Yes! Thanks for these expanded readings, Gina and Kelly. In my more generous moods, I can see reflected here the worthy project of nurturing queer female filmmakers to diversify an industry dominated by straight men (a la PowerUP). That is, I don’t disagree that it’s important to have some professional lesbians in Hollywood. But this utopian scheme relies on a narrow conception of how we could put lesbianism to work. The video really highlights the insidious cliquishness on which it rests, as you both point out: Gina in terms of the insiderish tone and Kelly in terms of the closed circuit of the creative challenge.

 

Gina, I love that you elaborated on the role the actors play in the clip, because I think that slippage between the characters and the actors’ visibility in the fandom (as Kelly notes, because they’re investors!) plays into the parallel I’m drawing about the show’s lessons in lesbianism as labor. It’s a pet peeve for me how, in promotions addressed to fans, access to STARS is considered the ultimate reward, and I find it obnoxious that Molly is expected to perform the fan position here. The paradox — being one of them is a PRIZE only if we reassert that you’re not really one of them — is instructive.

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