From Fanon to Canon:
Fan Efforts to Affect Change in Canon through Social Media

Roundtable presentation at National Pop Culture & American Culture Association Conference, March 2013, Washington, D.C.

Abstract
With the advent of new social media such as Twitter and Tumblr, audiences have become significantly more accessible to writers and actors. Many media-savvy celebrities and networks have used these outlets to mobilize their fans for charity work, such as Misha Collins’ work in Haiti, or on behalf of their show, such as when MTV and the cast of Supernatural encouraging fans to vote for Derek/Stiles and Dean/Cas in the AfterElton Slash Tournament. However, Twitter and Tumblr also work in the reverse, making writers and actors more available to their fans and in recent months we have seen fans take advantage of this two-way exchange. Campaigns such as “Cookies for Sterek,” “Coulson Lives!,” and “Save Castiel” have attempted to influence writers to make canon reflect the desires of fans. The willingness of fans to express these desires, and their displeasure when they are not fulfilled, challenges the traditional role of the audience as primarily passive or receptive. In this roundtable we will examine some of these fan-driven campaigns to influence canon and provide an opportunity to talk about what this means for the shows and the fandoms we love.

Presentation slides and notes for Supernatural fandom
Even if you’ve never watched the TV show Supernatural, you’ve likely heard about its fandom. The show’s fans are often described as “rabid” and yet they set the standard for the contemporary online community. In fact, the “SPN Family” won the 2013 People’s Choice Awards for Favorite Fan Following and made sure Supernatural also took home the award for Favorite SciFi Show, despite claiming a viewership that’s significantly lower than many other shows in the running, including Once Upon a Time and The Walking Dead. One thing is certain: Supernatural fans know how to mobilize.

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Engagement with the Supernatural writers, creators, and actors through Twitter has become a fandom norm, and with so many guest stars on the show, there is a near-constant stream of requests for characters to return—the most recent example being the Badges for Mills campaign, in which fans of Kim Rhodes’s character Sheriff Jody Mills are advocating for her return to the show by sending in toy sheriff badges. It originated on Twitter with Rhodes’s participation—she retweeted the campaign to the CW network herself. But no movement has yet been more concentrated, more vocal, or more successful than the Save Castiel campaign.

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1. Save Castiel was initiated May 2011, just after season 6 finale in which the character of Castiel—an angel of the Lord who was an ally of the Winchester brothers—had absorbed too much power and became a megalomaniacal self-declared “new God.” Fueled by reports that Misha Collins was not signed to a contract for season 7, it seemed the beginning of the end for Castiel and fans were devastated to see the underdog angel who had rejected Heaven’s corruption and championed free will turned into Sam and Dean’s nemesis. In a chat room in the wee hours of the morning after the finale, savecastiel.com was born. The collective of fans who originated the idea promoted it on their own Livejournals (for example, though this was not used in the presentation), but the campaign found its home on Twitter. It advocated emphasizing Castiel’s importance as a character to the show and to viewers by

  • sending mail to the show writers/creators (postcards, pre made Christmas cards, angel-shaped or decorated baked goods);
  • commenting respectfully and positively on public articles about SPN in favor of Castiel’s return and his significance as a character; positive behavior emphasized (but dealing with fangirls can be “like herding cats”);
  • holding viewing parties on Thursdays and a marathon of Cas episodes as a run-up to s7 premier to get #SaveCastiel trending on Twitter—a goal which was never achieved, but the events did serve to solidify the community and garner attention within fandom.Fans lobbied for two years, and their efforts resulted in Misha Collins getting a season 9 contract as a series regular—a position he hadn’t held since season 5.
  • 2. Similar to Sterek, there’s also an ongoing movement to see the Dean/Castiel ship made canon.

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  • No central organization/website* but the idea is perpetuated through heavy Tumblr discussion/participation and Twitter engagement with writers. (See Tumblr screencap with poster saying “now is the time to speak up!” and a reblogger jumping in to say “ok, but here’s how to get our message out”—e.g., “GWHAAA KISS NOW” means something different inside/outside of fandom; again we have this strategizing and coordinating of message, taking care to represent themselves well, and as reasonable, to TPTB.)
  • Fandom wins/overwhelms media polls for favorite pairing/couple, often at the behest of Misha Collins or other show creators via Twitter.
  • Actors and writers have stated they are very aware of the Destiel shippers and although they report nothing has been officially discussed about advancing that storyline, their knowledge of the ship has resulted in heavy fanservice—characters are given lines imbued with deep emotion that emphasize Dean and Cas’s connection (i.e., the popular “more profound bond”), and sexual innuendoes or gay jokes pepper dialogue (i.e., “Cas get out of my ass,” “So you strictly into Dick now?” “He was my gay thing”). (See fanart example from Tumblr emphasizing Dean/Cas love bond; fanart of show creators shipping Dean and Cas—idea that they are on our side.)
  • 3. Thought-provoking questions:
    The success of these movements necessitates change in the show’s storyline—writing Castiel back into the show as a regular character necessitated a shift in emphasis back to the Heaven versus Hell storyline, for example, and certainly an active romance between Dean and Cas would arguably necessitate some realignment of Dean’s apparent canonical heterosexuality. I’d like to discuss how fan movements such as these affect the “intent” of the show writers/creators.

  • If fans successfully lobby for outcomes that shift plot emphasis or characterization, who ultimately is the “author” of the show?
  • Can we read fanservice as “genuine”? Can it be used to determine whether a ship has become canon? That is, do we maintain a perceived difference between fanservice and narrative arc?
  • What, therefore, does fan influence mean for media analysis? Can it ever be discounted?
  • Might this “choose their own adventure” approach through social media engagement with TPTB be a trend/viewer expectation in future media? That the entertainment media have to tell the story you want?

    * I am aware of profoundbond.com and its affiliates, but I couldn’t verify it as a well-known, heavily frequented space or gauge the “average” fan’s engagement with it.

    Discussion
    My presentation partners gave short histories of fan movements within the Teen Wolf and Marvel movie-verse Avengers fandoms. The Teen Wolf presentation addressed the “Call to Love” campaign directed at show creator Jeff Davis and the MTV network to see the slash pairing Derek/Stiles (or, Sterek) made canon, including the Teen Wolf fandom’s activist role in raising $10,000 for a wolf shelter in Northern California. Notably, MTV has appointed a staff liaison specifically for Sterek fandom. The grassroots movement Coulson Lives! was an outpouring fan grief/denial that fan-favorite character Agent Phil Coulson had died during the Avengers film. Rather than a specific campaign directed at Marvel to take action, the Coulson Lives! movement was something that the powers that be decided to capitalize on by creating a television show, SH.I.E.L.D., to feature a very much alive Agent Coulson.

    Discussion after our initial overviews centered around authorial intent and reader-response theory—the “death of the author,” etc. One early claim stated that, given their strong influence, fans would have to be considered show authors. After some active discussion, participants came to the surprising conclusion that for as much as we rail against the powers that be and as often as fans claim they want to control their own media through campaigns exactly like these, we all continually fall back on/trust/appeal to/cite/need/seem to just really, really want an author out there, controlling the narrative.

    There was also talk of queerbaiting and the desire for representation of queer characters on screen. We discussed the cycle that leads to it a little—how fans want an OTP to become canon, so the powers that be offer fanservice/tease them in the form of queerbaiting, which some fans interpret as canon “evidence” of their OTP, which increases the demand for it to happen, ad infinitum. I pointed out that this is possible because the mode for tracking viewership is not just Neilsen ratings anymore. Social media work both ways in that TV networks are no longer just tracking if we’re watching a show but what we’re watching in that show.

    The roundtable concluded successfully, with several positive comments from participants afterward.