Research update


Seeing Fans, edited by Lucy Bennett and Paul Booth, is available now from Bloomsbury Academic (at extortionate monies, so beg your library). I have a chapter in this collection looking at the representation of mature female fans of male singers (e.g. Rod Stuart, Daniel O’Donnell) are betrayed in local and national newspapers. The collection itself is great-a real mixture of academic and industry insights into how fans are portrayed in different contexts.

A few weeks ago, I presented a paper at the celebrity studies conference in Amsterdam, written with Kathryn Murphy, one of my research students.  In this paper we looked at newspaper representations of YouTube star Zoella. You can access the slides here. We are also presenting at the YouTube conference in Middlesex in September looking at how mainstream media are portraying YouTube stars.

I’ve also got an article available in Celebrity Studies on the ‘fame cycle’ and celebrity reality television, and this summer I’m completing work on ethics in fan studies and safe spaces in higher education as well as continuing work on gaming audiences and their relationship to corporations.

Sims 4 post-release survey now active!

babyglitchI have now closed the Sims 4 pre-release survey with around 800 completions and will be working my way through the data in advance of the Fan Studies Network conference in September where I’ll present some of the preliminary findings.  Now The Sims 4 is out (in most of the world anyway…) the post-release survey is live. I’d love as many people as possible to complete it – whether or not you have TS4, and whether or not you completed the earlier survey.

There will be two types of questions – a set for those who have played TS4 and a set for those who haven’t. The survey will be live until the end of October. If you are planning on getting it before then, please can you wait until you have played before completing it? But if you have already played or you know you won’t be getting it before the end of October, go right ahead!

As before, it’s entirely anonymous (and this survey is a bit shorter too). Results from the pre-release survey are likely to be available late September after the conference and I’ll keep people posted about the results of this one.

Pull the trigger

Trigger-Only-Fools-And-Horses I’ve recently become part of a small group of academics who are engaging in conversations about the phenomenon of trigger warnings, after we noticed there was a lot of debate about the issue within the blogosphere and wider media, and increasingly within sectors of the academy, but little in the way of published research. None of us were that sure we wanted to take on a huge research or writing task with our other commitments but as this topic was cropping up increasingly as we went about our work (which between us covers areas such as fandom, religion, psychology, gender, literature, sexuality, media, internet cultures and probably other stuff I’ve forgotten), we decided it was probably time we at least had some conversations about it and curated some of the other conversations going on ‘out there’ on the issue. One of the things we are wanting to do is open up discussion with each other – and with anyone else who was interested – about these things within an academic framework, and part of that includes blogging about our ideas, thoughts and findings.

This is the first of (at least) three blog posts I want to write on the topic. Here I’m really just providing some ground work in terms of highlighting other people’s comments on the debate with a couple of links to other discussions. As someone whose research is often concerned with internet technologies and media/fan audiences, naturally I am also intending to blog about internet and fan cultures and the ways trigger warnings are debated in spaces like Tumblr, Reddit, LiveJournal and fan blogs (particularly regarding so-called Social Justice Warriors or SJWs) so that’s another post or two. My third area of interest in this topic is the way TWs are presented primarily as an American phenomenon and how people (both US and non-US citizens) comment on this within wider frameworks of conceptualising ‘Murica’. (This is an area I’ve been interested in since my PhD work where I found a very clear narrative within British media about negative attitudes towards the USA).

For those who don’t know what trigger warnings (or TWs) are, they’re a way of highlighting (sometimes through tags, sometimes labels etc) potentially problematic (or ‘triggering’) content. They work in much the same way as product allergy warnings or those little boxes on the back of DVDs with the certificate rating. There can be trigger warnings for a whole range of things, but mainly we’re talking about things like rape, violence, sexual content, racism, sexism, cissexism, homophobia, suicide, eating disorders and so on. You may well have seen articles in the news or via social media about whether or not to use such warnings in literature, teaching materials and so on – mainly relating to the USA, which I will return to in a future post.

Meg John Barker kicked off the discussion a few days ago with their thoughtful post. They argue here for opening up conversations between people who take different approaches to the phenomenon and argue that neither polarised position about being ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ TW is particularly helpful at engaging with the nuances of hugely complicated and multi-faceted issues such as trauma, freedom of speech and censorship. As Barker puts it, ‘So instead [of debating pros and cons of TWs] it is helpful to ask ourselves what it has the potential to open up, and what it risks closing down. We might helpfully consider this question on multiple levels, i.e. what it opens up and closes down for the individuals concerned, for communities in which they are embedded, for achieving their aims, and for wider culture.’ I think this point is particularly pertinent, which I’ll come back to in a bit.

Barker’s post links to a couple of other blog posts on the topic, Jack Halberstam’s post, entitled You are triggering me! The neo-liberal rhetoric of harm, danger and trauma and Scott Alexander’s ‘The wonderful thing about triggers‘. These are both interesting posts that cover a lot of ground and have resulted in large comment streams, with commenters often adopting the binary positions on the topic Barker cautions against.

Halberstam rightly notes that trauma, offence and ‘social justice’ are complicated issues and one person’s attempts at preventing trauma can be seen by another person as simply censorship. Halberstam also raises a slightly uncomfortable (and importantly uncomfortable) point about a ‘hypersensitivity’ to discrimination and abuse that threatens to detract discussions in (in this example) LGBT communities from wider social issues around economics, class etc. Halberstam: ‘I want to call for a time of accountability and specificity: not all LGBT youth are suicidal, not all LGBT people are subject to violence and bullying, and indeed class and race remain much more vital factors in accounting for vulnerability to violence, police brutality, social baiting and reduced access to education and career opportunities’. However, I think Halberstam’s post, as funny, articulate and provocative as it is (and should be), neatly evades some of the important issues around trigger warnings and the people who are negotiating them, including what it might mean to have a traumatic response to content and whether or not mitigating against that through TWs has a purpose. This is perhaps as a result of specifically addressing an LGBTQ audience and their concerns than looking at some of the other functions of TWs such as warnings about rape, violence, mental health issues etc. It also, as Julia Serano notes, seems to create a sense of generational divide which is perhaps not all that helfpul. However, in a follow-up post, Halberstam acknowledges the dangers of publishing a polemical piece (which the first article was) and employing humour in an arena full of sensitivities and offers links to several response pieces which you can follow from there to see how the debate is developing.

Scott Alexander offers a thoughtful debate about the pros and cons of trigger warnings and makes an eminently sensible suggestion (to me) about placing TWs (or content warnings) in subtle places such as the copyright etc parts of books where if you want to find them, you can, and if you don’t, they’re easily avoidable. Of course, this doesn’t solve the issue of which kinds of material (Plays? Newspapers?) would merit the use of such warnings and which kinds of content would be deemed warning-worthy, but nonetheless there’s food for thought for content producers in what Alexander is saying. Alexander’s conclusion: ‘If, like me, you think the social justice movement has a really serious kindness and respect problem, then you know that it’s really hard to bring this up without getting accused of unkindness and disrespect yourself. I don’t know how to best respond to this problem. But I’m pretty sure that the very minimum one can do is not to actually be unkind and disrespectful. And I worry that some of these arguments against trigger warnings are failing to clear even this very low bar.’

Whilst I am cautious about such a categorisation of the ‘social justice movement’ – something I’ll come back to in a later post, as I think the criticisms against so-called SJWs are often couched in a (sometimes barely) concealed cloak of sexism, ageism, homophobia etc in a 2014 rendition of the old ‘political correctness gone mad’ line that is usually the preserve of the prejudiced – I think the key to it all is very much the maxim of being kind to one another. In a world, and an internet in particular, where being able to understand each other is valued highly, the trigger warning offers us an unusual conundrum – is it “better” to warn people of potentially harmful content or “better” to allow people to speak freely? Really, there is no way to ‘win’ if we consider things in such binary terms. As Barker says, better to ask questions about who is producing content and who is reading it – to consider what kinds of response may be produced, and, above all, to think about what is the best way to deal with these topics kindly and respectfully. It shouldn’t be about policing content and forcing labelling upon people in a censorious manner, nor should it be about accusing those advocating TWs of being crybabies and needing to grow up. (I even make myself LOL a bit with the idea certain sections of Reddit might be a space of kindness, but that’s for another day) In this respect, then, I am less interested in the rights and wrongs of applying a trigger warning (or a content warning, which I think may be a more helpful term – something I intend to return to in another post) or not applying one, and more in the discourses surrounding the phenomenon, the ways in which territories are contested and the voices of certain groups – often those of the marginalised – are shut down or go unheard amongst all the shouting (Julia Serano’s blog post is great on this idea and I’ll revisit her discussion in a future post).

UCU ‘Stamp out casual contracts’ day


Today (May 7) is UCU’s Stamp Out Casual Contracts day. In the HE sector, a large number of staff are on zero-hour contracts in associate lecturer roles, research roles and so on. UCU is trying to highlight the prevalence of these contracts in the sector and fight against the casualisation of HE – not least as it impacts on student experience – if your lecturers are jobbing at several institutions and not paid to be there for anything other than class time (practice varies wildly from institution to institution – I’ve heard some shocking stories about how these staff are treated at some places – thankfully none of the institutions I have worked for) – then they’re not as available to see you or answer emails. High use of casual staff can also equal high turnover and students seeing several different faces.

That’s not to say all staff in HE should be permanent full-timers – there’s a need for guest lecturers, short-term or low-hours contracts for people like professionals who input into one or two modules a year, PhD students etc – but the problem with zero hours rather than alternative systems is that it is no guarantee of work, in some places this may also mean the organisation doesn’t see itself as having the same obligations or duty of care to these staff, yet staff are seen as being employed to all intents and purposes for organisations like the job centre.

Zero-hours contract jobs have been in the news a lot this week because of the Job Centre declaring that people with zero hour contracts can’t claim benefits. My first reaction to this story was that I was surprised this was a new policy. I’m ‘lucky’ (it seems bizarre that you have to consider yourself ‘lucky’ to have a job, but there we are, this is why days like this exist) in that I have a permanent academic contract. But I didn’t always – I worked variously as an ‘hourly paid’, ‘associate’ or ‘visiting lecturer’ at different institutions, each with different benefits and drawbacks, different expectations and different pay. The flexibility of that work was quite nice, but the insecurity was horrible – never knowing what your income will be that year or when you will actually get paid is terrifying. But the one I want to mention today is about the Job Centre and how it treats people in education (and this does not just apply to HE but any sort of education) on zero hours contracts just as a raising awareness tale.

I worked on zero-hours academic contracts 2006-2011. In 2006 this was alongside another job, but that job came to an end and I got enough work in universities and colleges that it became my sole income. (In Sep 2008 I secured PhD funding which meant my income became more stable until I completed my doctorate in 2011 and secured a permanent job). However, summer 2007 came and I was facing a long time between May and September with no income. I signed up with temp agencies, but in the meantime went to the Job Centre to sign on whilst I waited for the temp agency to provide work. I was told I was not eligible to sign on because I worked in education and people who work in education know that they have a long summer and if they choose to work in that sector, they have to just accept that. I explained I was on a zero hours contract and had no idea if I would get work in September. They said this didn’t matter, I was on the books of those institutions, I was clearly hoping to go back there rather than secure permanent work elsewhere (I guess I could have lied and said I was looking for a permanent job but what good would that have done?) and I was studying for a PhD anyway (part-time) so I would only get JSA if I was prepared to change career and stop studying should a permanent job opportunity arise.

This was under the Labour government so I can only imagine what it’s like under the Coalition. The message was clear: in education, you put up with zero-hours contracts, insecurity and four months of the year with no income, or else you change career. As pretty much the only way into academia is through working on a casual contract first, your choices are essentially presented as either work in a different sector (which is looking even harder if zero-hour contracts are common and equal ‘permanent employment’ to the job centre in other sectors too), or deal with it.

I got temp work that summer, so I only went a couple of weeks without income. Summer 2008 I managed to do so much marking I could afford to live without temping. The quality of my marking was not good enough though – I took on too much, too fast because, as I saw it, I had no choice in the matter if I wanted to pay my rent and eat AND work on my PhD studies.

I am not saying this as a slight against any of my employers – they did what the sector does, and compared to some, I was treated well when on zero hour contracts. But the stresses of those summers and not knowing how I could make ends meet were horrible and terrifying, especially given the Job Centre’s attitude, which now seems to apply to all sectors. So I want to post this today in solidarity with colleagues – in both HE and other sectors – nationally who are fighting for some security in knowing where their living costs will come from – and to highlight that, for many, to get into a career of their choice has so many hurdles, it can feel almost impossible to get there.

Communicated sex and gender

About Time trailer - video

Today I deliver the final ever lecture on my Level 4 module Communicating Sex and Gender – with presentations to come this week and after Easter. It’s a slightly sad moment in a way. I’ve been involved in lots of modules that no longer exist (indeed, we said goodbye to another L4 module, Approaches to Media, in semester 1 and I’ve been on that module since its inception), including as module leader but this is the first module I have really ‘made my own’ over a few years that I’ve actively been involved in killing.

We’re re-approving our undergraduate courses from September and there won’t be any more Level 4 electives. I’m very excited about the new courses and modules – I’m going to be running a Media Audiences module at Level 4 and at Level 5 will be part of the team on Media, Identities and Representations, a new mandatory for Media students that will replace some of the content from Communicating Sex and Gender as well as looking at a range of other issues relating to identities – we’re expecting to change the content yearly to reflect current issues and debated in the media (I would imagine were we to have run it this year we’d have covered Benefits Street, the rise of UKIP, Scottish referendum and equal marriage, for example). So new things are coming, but it’s still kind of sad to lose things.

I’ve been running Communicating Sex and Gender for about four years now, I think, and had taught on it before that. It was a module that originated in Comms studies but over the years has been an elective for Media, PR, Comms and Journalism students. I’ve met some fantastic students through this module, students whose university journeys I’ve been part of until graduation, with many of them taking my other modules, (either by choice or because they had to), and I have worked with a great bunch of associate lecturers.

We’ve covered a whole range of topics from language to the built environment; from selfies to same-sex marriage. This year we managed to cover things such as the #nomakeupselfie and #cockinasock trends, the pros and cons of the Bechdel test, Facebook’s 58 genders (in the US), slutwalks, the Sochi games and LGBT rights, the role of gender in specialist journalism, Gogglebox, Sam Bailey, Robin Thicke, Britpop (just before the BBC announced the 20 year anniversary specials, that’s how zeigeisty I am. Or how living in the past I am), Netflix, Breaking Bad, slutwalks and a bunch of other topics. It’s been a weird year for me as we’ve had fewer students at Level 4 all round and I didn’t have a seminar group, so it has been a bit subdued, but I have enjoyed revising my teaching each year, looking at new developments and seeing students grappling with a range of topics in this area.

So if any of my current or former students are reading – I hope you enjoyed taking this module – I really enjoyed working with you, and I’m looking forward to the challenges the new modules will bring!

Fifty Shades special issue

home_coverI co-edited (with Sarah Harman and Bethan Jones) the current special issue of Sexualities journal (December 2013, 16 (8)) which is all about the Fifty Shades phenomenon.

My own paper is a co-authored piece with Clarissa Smith looking at audience responses to the books, whilst Sarah and Bethan look at snark responses.  We’ve also got contributions from the likes of Meg Barker, Alex Dymock, Feona Attwood and Caroline Walters, IQ Hunter, Deborah Whitehead, Angie Tsaros and Amber Martin.  It’s open access until March, so go and read!