Alan McKee expresses his disdain for the segmenting powers of the low-brow connotation. Frothing over his beloved Simpsons, he found himself being condemned to the fiery hells of inferior pop culture for his association with ‘low-brow’ interests. When Henry Jenkins unleashed his ideas of fan cultures on the world in Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (1992), he focused on the science fiction Star Trek fan as the exemplar of the nerdy, pathological boy spending too much time in his bedroom pouring over a text with an associated lack of taste.
Over at The Trek BBS forum, ‘the number one place to talk about Star Trek with like-minded fans’, explodingmuffin asked, “How would you define a real trekkie…do you think they have the right to call themselves Trekkies when they probably haven’t even seen more than five episodes?”
USS Triumphant wisely replied:
'There are casual fans…and then there are Trekkies. Trekkies come in three categories.1. People who believe in the ideals and values of some aspect of the show on a religious or almost religious level,2. People who are obsessed with the minutae of the show, and usually, canon, and,3. People who find the stuff of the show - phasers, uniforms, Klingon foreheads - to be their playground of choice.'
USS Triumphant identifies as a ‘pretty strong a number 1’, 'with a touch of the third…and a tiny bit of the second.'
In this post, I look into questions of genre, and their associated ‘taste cultures’ and assumptions, using HBO series Game of Thrones as a fascinating myth-busting example.
What I meant to communicate at the beginning of this post is that our likes and associations define our conception of identity, an idea Brian Morris raised in the Week 6 lecture. Taste is used to interpret ‘us’ to categorising effect; it has become even more important in ‘this era of lifestyle cultures where our identities are plastic’ and the way we manage it is often through our taste dispositions:
'We live in a tasteful world…we ourselves must constantly choose from a wealth of options open to us; we are seduced by our own preferences our likes and our dislikes.' Brooks (1982)
Relevantly in those examples, television as a medium is inherently responsible in the facilitation of kinds of taste cultures, sometimes to the extreme. One way of looking at this is through genre.
Maddy @ Stevie Vulture likes long-format drama: “I like a slow burning drama as much as the next person…”
Blake @ yearingcat can’t help but enjoy reality tv: “…I was a little naive to suggest I ‘dislike reality TV’…the voyeurism that is innate in this viewing is undeniably enjoyable.”
Kit @ Tomorrow Comes Early enjoys high-concept anything: “That’s what I like about “high-end” programming. There’s something there for most people.”
Alex @ alexenglandtvcultures alternatively likes some comedy on her box: “Comedy: I like Modern Family but not the Big Bang Theory.”
Genre, in any case, is one way in which television contributes to conceptions of our identity. It can be said then, that television audiences can be understood by the types of programs they consume. Bignell & Orlebar in The Television Handbook (2005) define genre as a, “…sharing of expectations between audience and programme makers”.
It is the viewer saying to the producer, ‘I am familiar with this text before it has begun’, and further, the comforting “recognition of familiar genre conventions provides both security and appeal for the audience.” Drama, for instance has long been associated with gossiping, crying women. Action is a man’s world. Soaps allow a high degree of emersion attractive of the senior female. Hang on, these are just clichés!
Game of Thrones presents an interesting example of debunking traditional assumptions associated with the fantasy genre. Fantasy has been historically positioned as a ‘low culture’ form and from my observations – coded masculine. Sword-wielding, battles on horseback, pretty women in dresses who pray and monster-slaying – action of this kind in my mind has long been associated with masculinity. Perhaps contradictory then, is its broadcast by HBO – that high-concept, long-form, narratively-complex, drama factory. Cue crying women?
GoT's great and widespread popularity would suggest all kinds of people are digging it. Now exists television that demands a degree of heightened attention and does not assume a passive audience. Writers litter their plot with tiny allusions to future seasons (for reward later when remembered), it’s produced with exceptionally high production values (I’ve heard up to US$6m per episode), and holds back on the magic and CGI classic of full-fantasy freak shows like Merlin.
The show even falls prey to Jenkins’ Star Trek obsessives too. GoT’s audience have spawned series dedicated online forums, secured second and third seasons just days after pilots aired, and have become ‘textual poachers’ by re-appropriating the original content into fan-made trailers on YouTube. The series appears to be a fantasy gamble that has resulted in a mainstreaming acceptance of fantasy fandom in a ‘high culture’ context:
'Rejecting media-fostered stereotypes of fans as cultural dupes, social misfits, and mindless consumers, this book perceives fans as active producers and manipulators of meanings…who transform the experience of watching television into a rich a complex participatory culture.' (Jenkins, 1992)
In the lecture, Brian Morris asked: “Have ‘fannish modes of engagement’ become mainstreamed in contemporary television culture?”
For GoT, timely emerging online communication technologies provide for online fan communities – platforms that allow for an extension of the norms of engagement with television texts. Spin-off web series, cast interviews, behind the scenes videos, bonus scenes, series-dedicated forums of discussion. Alongside an American system of television production with the values of epic film and where writers are empowered to produce, both of these revolutions have, in Graham Blundell’s words, undoubtedly “intensified the experience of drama in a way without cultural precedence”.
…but to mainstreaming effect?
Blundell acknowledges how cool television has become in it’s own right. With the advent of both internet technologies and a quality system of production, television is considered a legitimate cultural form, where once associated with a lack of taste.
'It's easy to see that a speedier, snappier, television-rooted sensibility has taken the thinking person's high ground. Storytelling and style, increasingly absent from noisy cinema entertainments, are a living, vibrant force on what we once contemptuously called the goggle box.'
Fandom has either become more normalised or less-demonised with television a legitimate cultural form, blurring the lines of distinction between high and lo culture. Online content allows for higher levels of fan engagement, a closer proximity to the text now not considered irrational, and further, a distinction of identity.
In the case of Game of Thrones, it is easy to see why the series has garnered such critical and widespread enthusiasm. It’s a show I could easily see myself becoming involved with because of its exceptionally high production values. Long-running, convoluted, well-acted and scripted, detailed dramas spawn a different type of audience – an audience who have to engage. That’s what I like.