Speculative Separatism – NWSA 2018

Here’s the text of my talk at the National Women’s Studies Association conference in Atlanta this morning. I was part of the panel Transformative Works/Transformative Worlds: Radical Imaginaries in Media Fandom with Casey Lee, Regina Yung Lee, and Alexis Lothian (her co-author Kristina Busse was sadly unable to attend).

Speculative Separatism: Remixing Toward Utopia in Fan Video Community and Practice

Our panel considers fan works and fan communities as a site of vernacular worldmaking, “practices of radical imagination” that operate to leverage and transform mainstream representation. My presentation will explore fan video remix as an example of these possibilities, specifically in the context of the annual “vid party” event at WisCon, the feminist science fiction convention. Vids are a technology for seeing into alternate universes, and WisCon aspires to be an alternate universe, in a sense. The two pieces I’m analyzing thematize this utopian impulse in their focus on separatist nations: Black Panther‘s Wakanda and Wonder Woman‘s Themyscira. As such, they can be figures for the utopias that some fan formations strive to realize more abstractly. As a member of the WisCon Vid Party community, my approach is very much participatory; the Wonder Woman vid I’m presenting is my own project, so I will talk about that in personal terms.

I became interested and invested in what I perceive as a resurgence of separatist discourses since the rise of Trump. Exploration of separatisms today is clearly tied to attacks on identity-based “safe spaces” and caucusing models. In a formative essay on feminist separatism, Marilyn Frye wrote that “The creation and manipulation of power is constituted of the manipulation and control of access…. When those who control access have made you totally accessible, your first act of taking control must be denying access.”[1] Through this lens, we can understand why demanding exclusive spaces for marginalized groups is such a threatening act of resistance.

Separatist ideas, particularly within second wave feminism in the 1970s, were shaped by a dialogue with speculative worlds. The Amazon mythos has been an omnipresent touchstone for feminists, including its instantiation in the Wonder Woman lore created by William Marston (along with Elizabeth Marston and Olive Byrne) in 1941.

The Black Panther character in Marvel comics was created by white men (Stan Lee and Jack Kirby) but likewise reappropriated by Black readers and communities as a narrative of speculative possibility. The character debuted shortly before the formation of the Black Panther Party in 1966, thus Lee claims that the shared name must be a coincidence. But it’s undeniable that Black Panther comics through the years have been in close dialogue with US racial politics.

One commonality between diverse visions of separatism is the importance of place. Lesbian separatist communes prioritized female autonomy through land ownership and rural self-sufficiency, navigating the corresponding entanglement with patriarchal capitalism and settler colonialism. The Black Panther Party was not strictly a separatist group, but their city-based branches focused on what they called “survival programs” serving urban Black communities, and their Ten-Point Program included demands for land and housing. On the speculative side of things, the nations of Wakanda and Themyscira exist on contemporary earth, but are literally separated and hidden from it through mystical means.

It may be obvious that separatism implies a spatial logic, but the materiality of place is often not a key rubric for understanding diffuse online communities, so I want to point out the ways that these political tropes reassert it – whether their lands are real or imaginary (or both).

This brings me to WisCon, which I view as simultaneously a virtual community and a time- and place-bound event. WisCon is held annually over Memorial Day weekend in Madison, Wisconsin. Here I’m discussing the 2018 convention – the 42nd year of WisCon.

I’ll read the description from their website:

“WisCon is a 1,000-member science fiction convention with a feminist/social justice focus.  Every year we celebrate, dissect, and transform speculative literature, television, film, comics, and games.  We specifically aim to foster conversations about feminism(s), gender, race, disability, and class.”

Because it is a physical place, WisCon can explore these values not only in content but in form, through intentional interventions like proactive anti-harassment policies, disability access measures, purposefully restricted spaces, and offering free food and childcare. Although messy and imperfect in practice, it is aspirationally utopian in ways that resonate with the science fiction it celebrates and which set it apart from the everyday world outside.

The approach of some fan vidders also resonates with the mission and focus of WisCon to “celebrate, dissect, and transform,” which was surely an inspiration for the inaugural Vid Party at WisCon in 2010. Vidding is a vernacular remix genre that has become ubiquitous in fan communities. A typical fanvid flows like a music video, recutting mass media source material to match up with a song. Francesca Coppa defines vids as “a form of in-kind media criticism: a visual essay on a visual source.” She observes that “editing is not just about bringing images together; it is also about taking mass-media images apart… This customization of the visual text is particularly important for women and people of color, who often find their desires marginalized.”[2]

My co-panelist Alexis Lothian links the practice of vidding to what she terms “critical fandom,” which may “mobilize the practices of fan creativity in order to demand more from the futures that speculative pop-culture production makes available.” She writes that “Exchanging these technologies among networks on and off line has been a form of queer world making.”[3]

This ethos animates the vidding community of WisCon, although it is couched in less academic language – according to the Vid Party blurb, “Vids are fan-created remix videos with something to say.” Vid Party is a 5-hour screening extravaganza held one evening during the convention. Although shared spectatorship is the primary activity at the event, the preparation is collaborative and involves various forms of community participation. Enthusiasts are invited to curate themed playlists of 4-6 pieces that tie into WisCon’s broader ideas and to create relevant vids that will premiere in the show. Shortly after the first Vid Party, organizers were already talking about cultivating a “WisCon vidding aesthetic”:

“If you’re a vidder you’re probably aware that there is a style or aesthetic of vid associated with many of the major vidding premiere venues, and we think that having a premieres show associated with Wiscon may, in time, lead to a ‘Wiscon vidding aesthetic’, which, if it shares anything with the sorts of discussions and ideas that are found at that con, will be amazing.” [Dreamwidth]

This comment illuminates the importance of place-based events and face-to-face communities in vidding history and culture, even though vids and vidders largely circulate in “virtual” online spaces. The impulse to situate a vidding venue within WisCon arises from the possibilities of WisCon as separate sphere, a utopian happening that can magnify the critical utopian aspects of vidding as a practice.

Fast-forward to 2018 – the first WisCon after the release of two blockbuster films about speculative separatisms: Wonder Woman (dir. Patty Jenkins, 2017) and Black Panther (dir. Ryan Coogler, 2018). These timely stories seemed to merge with and magnify renewed energy around separatist discourses in US popular culture.

Wonder Woman‘s portrayal of the Amazons’ island paradise Themyscira occupies only the first 40 minutes of the movie, but the film’s vivid portrait of a lush and sophisticated culture of warrior women made a huge impact with audiences, and it was formative for this revitalized version of Diana as a character. Themyscira is the Amazons’ refuge from the atrocities of “Man’s World” and they have chosen to cut off all contact with it.

The mythical African nation Wakanda plays a more central role in Black Panther; because of a meteor-fall of the powerful element vibranium, Wakanda is wealthy and technologically advanced, but its leaders have chosen to sequester their society to prevent vibranium from being exploited.

The two fanvids I will now discuss premiered at the most recent WisCon, and I understand them as inspired by the utopian face of separatism in both superhero movies and the convention itself. Although both films are structured by the protagonist’s internal struggle over whether and how to join the outside world, neither vid project emphasizes this outward narrative trajectory.

Black Panther in particular was much anticipated at WisCon, so much so that the moderator of Vid Party (who, full disclosure, is my partner) gave a special extension for Black Panther premieres. The source material wouldn’t be available until the digital and DVD release on May 8, but the standard Vid Party deadline was May 4. To accommodate this, Black Panther vids were accepted until May 22, just a few days before the event.

The first piece I’d like to show is a premiere made on this timeline – I will play the entirety because it is only a minute and a half. “Tightrope” by Anoel is a tribute to three primary female characters in Black Panther: Nakia, Shuri, and Okoye

Tightrope

This is a fairly typical vid in its format, editing, and approach, so it can serve as an introduction to the genre if you’re not familiar with it. I’d like to point out the principle of selectivity: Black Panther‘s title character and his antagonist Killmonger are almost entirely absent from this piece in order to center female characters, emphasizing their heroism within the film and supportive relationships with each other. Although this vid’s tone is playful and celebratory, recoding fight scenes through the motion and rhythm of dance, it offers a meaningful perspective on Wakanda’s utopian elements. Nakia, Shuri, and Okoye have different roles as activists, builders, and fighters, but they are presented here as exemplars of Wakanda’s gender egalitarianism. That is, we view Wakanda as utopian through the lens of “Tightrope” precisely because women are key agents in its culture and its story.

This understanding mirrors some of the remarks by the six black women on WisCon 42’s Black Panther panel, who spoke to the importance of the diversity of female roles and female representation in the film. Its world shows Black women “at the center of life,” with different kinds of competence, different modes of service, and different ideologies – but still able to share a community and common cause.

Like Vid Party itself in the context of WisCon, “Tightrope” makes Wakanda’s utopian project of gender and racial justice into a dance party.

I’d now like to turn to my piece, “Transmission,” which chronicles the “transmission” of myths about the Amazons and their home Themyscira throughout Wonder Woman comics and media canon.

Transmission (I showed a 1-minute clip)

In this project, I wanted to explore how seeing Themysciran culture represented on the big screen in 2017 could activate and revitalize the lesbian separatist imaginary. The multiplex historical arc of the Wonder Woman franchise that I tried to capture parallels the complex histories of utopian feminisms that have referenced or resonated with Amazon mythologies.

Like Anoel, my archive of Themyscira operates through selectivity. Many of the images are repurposed from highly problematic storylines or freed from a pervasive imperative that men can and must enter the narrative. Thus, it is not only about utopia but mobilizes utopian editing techniques to render Themyscira as the separatist “paradise island” that can never quite remain in focus amidst the morass of DC comics canon.

This piece was the genesis of my talk today, in that I created it specifically for WisCon as a place and an interpretive community. To contextualize and extend its message, I situated it within a playlist I curated on the theme of “Foremothers.” This set included vids about Hidden Figures, Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars, Born in Flames (that’s Alexis’s), and vidding itself – and it gestures to the generational feminisms woven throughout our experiences of these stories. This a broader idea behind the “Transmission” I explore in my vid that ties it to the transmission of separatism as a speculative project.

[1] Frye, Marilyn. “Some Reflections on Separatism and Power,” first printed in Sinister Wisdom 6, Summer 1978. here

[2] Coppa, Francesca. “An Editing Room of One’s Own: Vidding as Women’s Work.” Camera Obscura 26.2 (77), 2011:123-30.

[3] Lothian, Alexis. Old Futures: Speculative Fiction and Queer Possibility. NYU Press, 2018.

Leave a Reply