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Expectations and Interpretations
by Deborah Wright

The following was originally posted to my LiveJournal page and has been revised slightly for this column. 

The other day, while wasting time amusing myself by LJ-skipping through links of friends of friends and such, I once again came to the conclusion that I'm out of step with being a fan (snark). I'm not really surprised.

This isn't about any one particular fandom. I suspect that what it's really about is expectations and my own snarkiness towards The Powers That Be who control what we're allowed to see on TV in the U.S. I'm only talking about TV here, because that's the medium that I seem to be attracted to for what I refer to as my "participatory fan behavior" (i.e. writing fanfiction, creating vids and maintaining webpages).

I've read quite a few LJ posts recently--posts going back over several weeks regarding various TV shows. Some of these posts are rather incredibly detailed analyses of various episodes of particular shows. I find these posts fascinating. Reading them, whether I agree with the analysis or not, can be a revelation. I've been taken down different paths for shows that I might not have found on my own. I'm grateful and amazed all at once. Broadening the possibilities for and expanding my understanding of characters that I love is something of which I can't get enough. To those of you who have written those posts (too many to name)--I thank you.

What makes me shake my head in perplexity and decide that I'm just not a fan are the many posts that do one or more of the following with much wailing and gnashing of teeth:

  • Posts that lament how TPTB have treated their favorite character (whether plot-wise or personality-wise) Posts that lament the direction (plot-wise) that TPTB have taken their favorite show Posts that lament the poor writing and/or massive plot holes in Episode X of their favorite show or the continuing poor writing and/or massive plot holes in this show over many episodes Posts that lament the lack of character interaction between the fan's OTP (slash/het/friendship) in Episode X or over the course of many episodes
  • Posts that lament the dearth of/abundance of slashy moments between the fan's OTP (perspective obviously depending on whether the fan is a slasher or not)

There's a fine line between the kind of thoughtful analysis that I mentioned enjoying (which usually includes a certain amount of candid criticism of the show being analyzed) and the kind of breast-beating lamentation that I don't understand. These lamentation-posts generally convey a tone that suggests that there's something personal about all of this, as though TPTB are knowingly and deliberately doing these things just to piss off the fans who hold certain points of view about the shows in question. Or, perhaps I just don't have the requisite depth to be able to comprehend the tragedies done to shows and characters that require this kind of emotional blood-letting. (okay, maybe that was a bit too sarcastic - if so, I apologize)

As a fan, I'm free to feel any way that I decide to feel about a show and so is any other fan. I wouldn't deny anyone their feelings. However, for me, this is where I think expectations come in. I honestly don't expect TPTB in charge of any show to behave in the way that I want them to behave. I watch my favorite shows with an open mind, wondering where I'll be taken in a new episode and whether I'll enjoy it or not. Am I frequently disappointed? Sure...I guess.

There have been times that I've wished certain characters had not done certain things (or had done others). Times that I've wished certain plots hadn't happened or wondered why we didn't see certain key things that obviously had to have happened off-screen. I've mourned when favorite characters either died or moved on. I've cursed at obviously inept writing and wondered if a particular show was being written by the apocryphal infinite number of monkeys before they got around to writing all of the works of Shakespeare. I've even written posts or rantings about many of those things. But--and this is a big but--I've never expected that anything that I wished to have happen would ever show up on the screen.

Why? Because I'm not in control and even if I were, I would be just as constrained in my actions as the current PTBs are in what they can and cannot do. For better or worse, commercial TV is just that--commercial. TPTB have to sell a product, which means they have to market their commodity just like Ford or GE or IBM or any other person or company looking to make a profit. And that means that they have to play to a certain standard of thought about what is and isn't acceptable and what will and will not sell.

Does this limit creativity? Of course it does. Does this mean every show is doomed to mediocrity? No. There will always be a few shows that push the limits of what TPTB deem acceptable, though probably never far enough for some fans. That doesn't mean that I'll never be disappointed with those shows, too. Why? Because I'm still not in charge. I don't make the decisions. I don't have the control. So long as that's true, my fandoms have the power to disappoint me, if I let them.

Do I let them? Sometimes. When that happens--if I've been disappointed badly enough--I'll stop watching a show. I'll take the good moments, the pre-disappointed moments, and cherish them, ignoring the rest. Because, in the final analysis, it's just a TV show--and even more--it's a TV show created by someone else.

When I feel particularly strongly about a show I usually end up doing something creative relating to it (the "participatory fan behavior" that I mentioned earlier). And if I really feel strongly about the characters, whether I agree or disagree with what's been done to them on the show, I'll write fanfiction. This is where I have control. This is the place where I can make those decisions that I wish the PTBs would have had the guts to make. This is where I can have my vision of the characters realized.

In a sense, I almost live for the parts that others complain so bitterly about. Something had to have occurred off-screen? Hmmm, let me write it my way--then I'll know it's right for me. Not enough interaction between certain characters? No problem, I can think up plenty of that to suit me. Such things are a fanfiction writer's dream.

Is my interpretation of the characters as presented in my fanfiction any more valid than anyone else's interpretation? No. It's just mine. Do I feel the need to insist that everyone agree with my interpretations and that if they don't they are therefore somehow either, a) evil and must be destroyed, or b) sadly wrong and must be harangued at until they see the error of their ways? No and no and no and no and many more times no.

This difference, this way of seeing that's counter to my own, is also something that I find fascinating. I don't expect to be able to accept or enjoy or agree with everyone else's view of my favorite characters. The fact that others can see the same characters and have such different interpretations as my own keeps me constantly questioning what I really believe about the characters. It's like an ongoing voyage of discovery, keeping the characters fresh and new for me.

Does all of this mean I think people should just accept what they see on their favorite shows and be happy? Of course not. It just means that, for me, if I disagree with TPTB or don't like what they've done to a show or a character, I can make the decision to correct those "wrongs" by writing fanfiction. Others may not see that as a viable choice -- that's up to them. However, the choice to take control is available to anyone who wants to make it.

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