A Portrait of the Auteur as Fanboy
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A Portrait of the Auteur as Fanboy

The Construction of Authorship in Transmedia Franchises

Anastasia Salter, Mel Stanfill

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A Portrait of the Auteur as Fanboy

The Construction of Authorship in Transmedia Franchises

Anastasia Salter, Mel Stanfill

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About This Book

Increasingly over the past decade, fan credentials on the part of writers, directors, and producers have come to be seen as a guarantee of quality media making—the "fanboy auteur." Figures like Joss Whedon are both one of "us" and one of "them." This is a strategy of marketing and branding—it is a claim from the auteur himself or industry PR machines that the presence of an auteur who is also a fan means the product is worth consuming. Such claims that fan credentials guarantee quality are often contested, with fans and critics alike rejecting various auteur figures as the true leader of their respective franchises. That split, between assertions of fan and auteur status and acceptance (or not) of that status, is key to unravelling the fan auteur.In A Portrait of the Auteur as Fanboy: The Construction of Authorship in Transmedia Franchises, authors Anastasia Salter and Mel Stanfill examine this phenomenon through a series of case studies featuring fanboys. The volume discusses both popular fanboys, such as J. J. Abrams, Kevin Smith, and Joss Whedon, as well as fangirls like J. K. Rowling, E L James, and Patty Jenkins, and dissects how the fanboy-fangirl auteur dichotomy is constructed and defended by popular media and fans in online spaces, and how this discourse has played in maintaining the exclusionary status quo of geek culture. This book is particularly timely given current discourse, including such incidents as the controversy surrounding Joss Whedon's so-called feminism, the publication of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and contestation over authorial voices in the DC cinematic universe, as well as broader conversations about toxic masculinity and sexual harassment in Hollywood.

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Steven Moffat and Fandom’s Favorite Troll
I’m going to be honest and fans may hate me for it but they have to remember that I am a fan myself. A proper list-making-borderline-autistic fan. I am head mingmong. I’m King Ming. But I don’t do anything for the fans. I honestly don’t think that the fans want me to do anything for them. Except maybe for the odd little line now and then. Some little thing somewhere. Russell does that. I do that. We all do that. And only you will get it. But we don’t do anything for the fans. There aren’t enough fans. There’s the whole audience. There are fans but there’s millions of an audience. (Soon 2008)
Steven Moffat is, at first glance, very different from some of the other auteurs profiled here. His work is primarily located in Britain and less integrated in the US media landscape, but is nonetheless decidedly influential. The properties he leads are centered in television, and unlike Joss Whedon, he hasn’t made the leap to film with its correspondingly larger potential audiences and budgets. However, he is perhaps the quintessential example of a fanboy auteur, having a high degree of both making media of which he’s specifically a fan and taking a textual-fidelity affirmational approach. Moffat is also an inheritor of Doctor Who, a franchise that has been increasingly centered on its devoted audience since its return in 2005. In fact, Matt Hills (2006, 103, 107) argues that Moffat shows “how fans can become celebrities by virtue of moving across into the category of media professionals/producers working on the very text which they are fans of,” as one of “an elite group of fans who have written for and produced the 2005 BBC Wales-produced” Doctor Who. Hills (2006, 111) further notes that the existence of this group “is partly a product of Doctor Who fans having grown up with the show they love, being inspired by it to work in the media industry,” and subsequently being in a position to work on Doctor Who when it was reinvigorated. While Moffat is part of a larger group of fans-turned-media-makers, he in particular has emerged as an auteur figure. Hills (2010) argues that Moffat’s auteurization started in the Russell T. Davies era of Doctor Who, when common fannish practices of finding out everything about production led them to learn about the other figures involved with the show, including Moffat, and their distinctive creative characteristics. However, it has also been reinforced by Moffat himself through practices of self-praise, tight control, and insistence on his vision at all costs. Moreover, Moffat functions particularly clearly as a brand; as Louisa Stein and Kristina Busse (2014) argue, his involvement with Doctor Who brought that cult audience to Sherlock out of the gate. In this way, Moffat crystallizes the fan auteur in particularly clear form.
In this chapter, through an analysis of more than 950 news stories, we interrogate how Moffat both avows and disavows fandom. On the one hand, Moffat-as-fanboy is both the author of the show and his own ideal audience, both performing and expecting broad and deep knowledge of the text’s history. On the other hand, he has tension with actual fans—as opposed to the imagined fans who are just like himself—and rejects those he thinks are being fans the wrong way. We then explore Moffat’s auteur side, characterized by insistence on doing things his way; his past as a continuity- and detail-obsessed curatorial fanboy shows through in sometimes overly complex stories and a dictatorial approach that at once leverages knowing all of Who and Doyle and abides by it only when it suits him. Indeed, we contend that the most salient characteristic of Moffat’s brand may well be being abrasive to anyone and everyone. We finish the chapter by considering the substantial concerns his work raises around inclusion—or lack thereof.
Is He or Isn’t He? Avowing and Disavowing Fandom
Moffat’s status as someone whose media-making is bound up in his own fandom is well known. Notably, he turned down a three-movie deal with Steven Spielberg to make films based on the comic book character Tintin— considerably higher profile—to focus on Doctor Who instead. In an article describing Moffat as “fandom’s evil overlord,” a fan and critic notes that he “writes fanfiction for a living”:
While Doctor Who is something of a cult favorite in the U.S. and overseas, it’s mainstream family viewing in the U.K. Three generations have grown up with the show, and Doctor Who has now reached the point where most of its cast and crew are lifelong fans of the show. Basically, its writers are filming fanfic of a TV series they watched as kids. And what’s Sherlock if not a modern-era fanfic of the Sherlock Holmes stories? (Baker-Whitelaw 2013)
However, despite this diagnosis, scholarly analysis differs on whether Moffat is more fan or auteur—perhaps because he himself both avows and disavows fandom. Ellen Harrington (2014, 79) argues of Moffat and his Sherlock collaborator Mark Gatiss that “their status as fans legitimizes their connection with these characters, allowing them to pursue Sherlock Holmes and reinvent him, all the while unabashedly following Conan Doyle’s detective formula and including the sort of nostalgic details that reward fans of the original series.” That is, because they are fans, they can stick quite closely to the “formula” without shame. Hills (2014, 35), by contrast, contends that there is no such full-force embrace of fannishness, as “distinctions of media professionalism need to be conserved and defended, such that showrunners are always positioned as more than just fans.” Hills (2014) calls this approach “heretical fidelity”: Moffat and Gatiss emphasize how faithful they are, but also play up their authorial agency to make different choices. Breaking with faithfulness is key because “if production discourse was one-dimensionally about faithfulness to Sherlockians and the Canon then Sherlock would move too close to the realm of fanfiction, lacking markers of professionalized and valorized official authorship” (Hills 2014, 35–36). Indeed, this need to both embrace and distance himself from fandom is visible across Moffat’s career.
On the one hand, Moffat performs the quintessential fanboy. Echoing the common fannish approach of authority through length of tenure, he stakes a claim to have consumed the media text from its inception: “A dedicated ‘Whovian,’ he claims to remember watching the first Doctor, William Hartnell, who quit the Tardis when Moffat was four” (Burrell 2011). Moreover, he compounds this hipsterism with an insistence on how much harder he had it back in the day: “That form of fandom was much more active than it is now…. You only had what you could create yourself. There was no Who on TV. We had nothing” (Colgan 2014). This, too, is a bid for authority through authenticity. Further, he makes a point to stake out his broad and deep knowledge of the text’s history. He certainly does so with Doctor Who: “Steven Moffat has joked he would triumph over [Who actor and fan] Peter Capaldi in a battle of who is most knowledgeable about the hit show,” saying, “His love, we can compete on that, just let it be understood. But in a face-off, in a head-tohead [sic], he’s nowhere bloody close…. I’m ahead on knowledge. I am. Honestly” (Liverpool Echo 2015). Moffat similarly frames himself as even more knowledgeable than Arthur Conan Doyle himself:
We were also trying to work out an obscure point of continuity that Doyle gets wrong…. In his first story Watson has a wound in his shoulder and in this second story it’s transferred to his leg. So we came up with the idea it was actually psychosomatic. Therefore he was in therapy. We were just to trying to fix an incredibly obscure continuity error. That’s how it started. We get paid for this. (Burgess 2013)
Moffat’s fannishness is particularly clear here in his excitement that they can be obsessed for a living, but also in his deployment of encyclopedic knowledge.
Moffat brings his fandom perspective to bear repeatedly, as when, in an interview following the leaking of unfinished episodes, he admitted that he too would have looked when he was a fan:
To be honest, I don’t blame the guys who went and looked, cos I would’ve. I would’ve as a fan. It would have ruined it for me but a new Doctor? I’d have had to go and have a look. They have at least learned something, which is what episodes look like when we sign off on them, like Into The Dalek, it just looks ridiculous! It’s some people running around some rooms that have an extraordinary fixation with green curtains. It’s nothing at all! (Mellor 2014)
This fannishness also spills into production. Sometimes, the collapse of the self as fan auteur and “the fans” is overt, as when Moffat says, “You’re writing what you would want to watch. You are writing your personal obsessions and hoping that people will share them” (S. Heyman 2014). At other times, it is more indirect. As Hills (2014, 34) notes, the discussion in commentary tracks centers on “Moffat and Gatiss’ own status as ‘Sherlock Holmes fanboys,’ with this gendered identity being (problematically) extended to those assumed to be listening to the DVD commentary.” Many incidents thus demonstrate that Moffat-as-fanboy both is the author of the show and serves as his own target audience.
At the same time, however, Moffat disavows fandom. In one interview about Sherlock, he said, “Once we decided to make it modern day it all fell into place. I am a total Sherlock fan but I do think on some adaptations the attention to period detail gets in way of the action” (Batley 2010). This “I’m a fan, but” is exactly the intersection of claiming and disavowing that Moffat occupies. He also projects it onto others: “Showrunner Steven Moffat said he is not worried about signing up self-confessed fan of the show Capaldi to the starring role. ‘He can absolutely separate the two things. I mean, he can separate the job he’s doing from the fact he’s a fan of it’” (Leigh 2013). Although the comment is overtly about Capaldi, one cannot help feeling that Moffat is also talking about himself here.
There is even greater tension between Moffat and actual fans as opposed to the imagined fans who are just like himself. Joss Whedon’s and Kevin Smith’s engagement in fan forums over the course of many years created a stronger bond with their audiences; Moffat, by contrast, used his forum and Twitter posts not only to share with his fans but to criticize them. While the original posts are no longer available, fans have archived quotes and screen captures from some of Moffat’s more memorable engagements on the Gallifrey One forums. For example, in response to discussions of whether Rose and the Doctor had sex raised by “The Doctor Dances,” Moffat wrote:
I say, no I didn’t! The whole scene was about the fact they WEREN’T at it— indeed, it was the Doctor being slightly hurt that Rose hadn’t even considered him in that light.
There’s precious little evidence they ever got up to anything, I’d have said—that it doesn’t stop it being a love story, of course (it clearly was) but unrequited surely? Oh, it’s all sex with you lot, isn’t it? And when the writer of Coupling says you’re banging on about sex too much, it’s time to start listening. (lolcoholic 2008)
This response exemplifies Moffat’s refusal to listen to fans when they disagree with him—it’s total and does not entertain the possibility that the fan interpretation has any basis in his text. The tendency was even more dramatically displayed when he deleted his Twitter account: “Fans first noticed that the account had gone missing in the wee hours last night when they attempted to reference Moffat’s account in their tweets about the latest episode, ‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship.’ Speculation abounded that Moffat deleted the account because of heaps of negative commentary from fans” (Byrne-Cristiano 2012). While often such deletions are framed as resulting from fans who harass someone off the platform, Moffat’s brand is such that what makes sense to this journalist is that he was fleeing from criticism.
When speaking about fans rather than engaging, the contours of Moffat’s disavowal emerge even more clearly. His unwillingness to engage with fans, on display with the Twitter deletion, is a recurring theme. In a mild version, he simply denies a role for engagement. Thus, while he acknowledged the fan fiction and fan video explaining Sherlock’s survival of a fall at the end of Series 2, he denied that his own work was in dialogue with them: “We don’t look. We can’t look. I’m running two shows that have got very large and very vocal fandoms. I wouldn’t admit it to myself if I had to look at it. No, the meta feel comes from the original Sherlock Holmes, the original stories” (Cornet 2014). His refusal to look here is overdetermined—he’s too busy, but also it would be shameful. His response seems almost inherently contradictory to his performed identity as a previous respondent to fanboys on forums, but does help re-secure the lone genius model of the author. More dramatically, he has actually argued against engaging fans as opposed to the broad audience:
How do you tell really? You only hear from the die-hard fans, and they form a tiny untypical fraction of the audience. Far as I can tell, it’s [Coupling] been pretty good. Some very good stuff in the press. A lot of Richard Coyle fans frothing away [after he left the show], of course, like I assassinated him or something, which is fantastically funny and reason enough alone for the internet to have been invented. But leaving aside that inevitable portion of the audience who should only watch television with a handy rag to chew, we generally seem to win people over by the end. The general audience—the vast majority who watch it if it’s on and forget about it afterwards—barely seem to have noticed the change. (Author 2005)
While undeniably fans are only a tiny fraction of any mass media audience, they are a particularly active and loyal one that provide a great deal of free labor (Stanfill 2019). Disavowing them entirely was relatively common in 2005, but Moffat held much the same attitude nearly a decade later: “I love Doctor Who fans … and I am a Doctor Who fan, but the show is not targeted at them” (A. Harrison 2013). This statement of “it’s not for you” is at odds with the demand implicit in his writing to watch like an affirmational, detail-obsessed fan, which we will discuss more in the next section, and his DVD commentaries’ explicit invocation of fanboys, again showing the structuring tension of avowal and disavowal.
At other times, though, Moffat frames fan desires as something to heed. As one journalist reported, “co-creator Steven Moffat has admitted that he felt the pressure of expectation from fans and their many speculative theories about how Sherlock survived” (Owen 2014). He even directly contends, “I’ve been a fan all by my [sic] life and I know we have to deliver” (Western Mail 2013), and it’s likely not coincidental that this embrace of fandom bolsters himself. Moffat has also acknowledged taking inspiration directly from a fan film for the Series 8 credits:
Billy Hanshaw just decided to make a Doctor Who title sequence…. He put it up on YouTube. And I happened across it and I thought it was the only new idea for a Doctor Who title scene since 1963. And we got in touch and we said, “OK, we’re going to do that one.” So, I suppose when we talk about Doctor Who fandom online, that’s what we should be talking about. Not all the random madness and hate-filled nonsense that goes on, but we should be talking about the extraordinary creative response that there is to Doctor Who. That we give them a show and they give us our show back, sometimes better. (K. Butler 2014)
Moffat’s framing of the new credits sequence suggests the relationship with fandom he is looking for—a give and take, but one where fandom is receptive to and productive for his idea of the canon. However, he also doesn’t miss a chance to reject those he thinks of as not being fans the right way, the ones who are not so useful to him.
The Abrasive Auteur
As this begins to suggest, Moffat’s auteur side is characterized by insistence on doing things his way. Some might view this positively as being an iconoclast, but he is also eligible for some less flattering words. His writing is complex— or overly complicated; referential—or self-indulgent; he guides franchises with a firm hand—or is a control freak. If we think of the auteur as having a distinctive style, Moffat definitely fits the bill. His writing is notoriously labyrinthine, and has variously been called “convoluted and alienating” (Kelly 2017), “too complicated” (Todd 2011), “confusing” (Burgess 2015), and even “baffling” (Wells Journal 2015). As one critic noted of his run on Doctor Who, “Sadly, today most of the talk surrounds the over-complexity of the storylines and the fact that script-editor and showrunner Steven Moffat doesn’t end stories, instead providing yet more twists and turns, before triggering another story-strand entirely” (PR Script Managers 2017). That is, while sometimes narrative complexity is valued as compelling storytelling, Moffat’s critics suspect him of complexity for complexity’s sake.
In addition to being complex, Moffat’s stories are often very insider, assuming a lot of familiarity with the text’s history; in one colorful phrase, a critic suggests that Doctor Who is at risk of “disappearing up its own space-time vortex” (A. Harrison 2013). As one broader comment on Moffat’s work noted, this tendency can be off-putting for those who aren’t hardcore followers:
Even shows as successful as Doctor Who and Sherlock should be aiming— especially given the accumulating publicity they receive—to introduce new viewers, and there were stretches of “The Time of the Doctor” and “The Empty Hearse” that must have been almost incomprehensible to new or casual consumers. The sections involving the number of Doctorly regenerations and the way in which Sherlock cheated death sometimes felt like a chatroom for aficionados rather than a programme for a general audience. (M. Lawson 2014)
By making such choices, that is, Moffat often closes the doors to viewers not willing to follow him in his obsessions, despite his frequent refusal of the idea that fans are his target audience.
One way to interpret these plot acrobatics is that Moffat is focused on being clever, even at the expense of being substantive. One journalist noted that a particular plot “is no doubt ingenious, and Doctor Who under Moffat is a stylish, madcap fantasy. But I wonder whether I really know Amy Pond. Beneath the sass and the sauce and the wit and (there’s no getting away from this) the skirts, I’ve yet to completely empathise with her, or work out what makes her tick” (Martin 2010). One shortcut taken by Moffat’s writing, then, is character development. Another journalist recounts: “‘A story is an ending,’ Moffat said at Comic-Con, ‘and how you get there.’ This implies that he landed on his dramatic twists first (‘What if River Song is Amy ...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Title Page
  3. Copyright
  4. Contents
  5. Acknowledgments
  6. Introduction: Fanboys to the Rescue!
  7. 1 Steven Moffat and Fandom’s Favorite Troll
  8. 2 E L James and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Fangirl
  9. 3 J. K. Rowling and the Auteur Who Lived
  10. 4 Kevin Smith and the “Independent” Fanboy
  11. 5 Joss Whedon and the Allegedly Feminist Fanboy Auteur
  12. 6 Zack Snyder and the Professional Toxic Fanboy
  13. 7 Patty Jenkins, Ryan Coogler, Taika Waititi, and the Fan Auteur as L’autre
  14. Conclusion: Fanboy Backlash and the Futures of Fan Auteurs
  15. Notes
  16. Works Cited
  17. About the Authors
Citation styles for A Portrait of the Auteur as Fanboy

APA 6 Citation

Salter, A., & Stanfill, M. (2020). A Portrait of the Auteur as Fanboy ([edition unavailable]). University Press of Mississippi. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/1732921/a-portrait-of-the-auteur-as-fanboy-the-construction-of-authorship-in-transmedia-franchises-pdf (Original work published 2020)

Chicago Citation

Salter, Anastasia, and Mel Stanfill. (2020) 2020. A Portrait of the Auteur as Fanboy. [Edition unavailable]. University Press of Mississippi. https://www.perlego.com/book/1732921/a-portrait-of-the-auteur-as-fanboy-the-construction-of-authorship-in-transmedia-franchises-pdf.

Harvard Citation

Salter, A. and Stanfill, M. (2020) A Portrait of the Auteur as Fanboy. [edition unavailable]. University Press of Mississippi. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/1732921/a-portrait-of-the-auteur-as-fanboy-the-construction-of-authorship-in-transmedia-franchises-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Salter, Anastasia, and Mel Stanfill. A Portrait of the Auteur as Fanboy. [edition unavailable]. University Press of Mississippi, 2020. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.