Transmedia Theory’s Author Discourse and Its Limitations

Radha O'Meara, Alex Bevan

Abstract


As a scholarly discourse, transmedia storytelling relies heavily on conservative constructions of authorship that laud corporate architects and patriarchs such as George Lucas and J.J. Abrams as exemplars of “the creator.” This piece argues that transmedia theory works to construct patriarchal ideals of individual authorship to the detriment of alternative conceptions of transmediality, storyworlds, and authorship. The genesis for this piece was our struggle to find a transmedia storyworld that we were both familiar with, that also qualifies as “legitimate” transmedia in the eyes of our prospective scholarly readers. After trying to wrangle our various interests, fandoms, and areas of expertise into harmony, we realized we were exerting more effort in this process of validating stories as transmedia than actually examining how stories spread across various platforms, how they make meanings, and what kinds of pleasures they offer audiences. Authorship is a definitive criterion of transmedia storytelling theory; it is also an academic red herring. 

We were initially interested in investigating the possible overdeterminations between the healthcare industry and Breaking Bad (2008-2013). The series revolves around a high school chemistry teacher who launches a successful meth empire as a way to pay for his cancer treatments that a dysfunctional US healthcare industry refuses to fund. We wondered if the success of the series and the timely debates on healthcare raised in its reception prompted any PR response from or discussion among US health insurers. However, our concern was that this dynamic among medical and media industries would not qualify as transmedia because these exchanges were not authored by Vince Gilligan or any of the credited creators of Breaking Bad. Yet, why shouldn’t such interfaces between the “real world” and media fiction count as part of the transmedia story that is Breaking Bad? Most stories are, in some shape or form, transmedia stories at this stage, and transmedia theory acknowledges there is a long history to this kind of practice (Freeman). Let’s dispense with restrictive definitions of transmediality and turn attention to how storytelling behaves in a digital era, that is, the processes of creating, disseminating and amending stories across many different media, the meanings and forms such media and communications produce, and the pleasures they offer audiences.

WalterWhite

Can we think about how health insurance companies responded to Breaking Bad in terms of transmedia storytelling? 

Defining Transmedia Storytelling via Authorship

The scholarly concern with defining transmedia storytelling via a strong focus on authorship has traced slight distinctions between seriality, franchising, adaptation and transmedia storytelling (Jenkins, “Transmedia Storytelling;” Johnson, “Media Franchising”). However, the theoretical discourse on authorship itself and these discussions of the tensions between forms are underwritten by a gendered bias. Indeed, the very concept of transmediality may be a gendered backlash against the rising prominence of seriality as a historically feminised mode of storytelling, associated with television and serial novels.

Even with the move towards traditionally lowbrow, feminized forms of trans-serial narrative, the majority of academic and popular criticism of transmedia storytelling reproduces and reinstates narratives of male-centred, individual authorship that are historically descended from theorizations of the auteur. Auteur theory, which is still considered a legitimate analytical framework today, emerged in postwar theorizations of Hollywood film by French critics, most prominently in the journal Cahiers du Cinema, and at the nascence of film theory as a field (Cook). Auteur theory surfaced as a way to conceptualise aesthetic variation and value within the Fordist model of the Hollywood studio system (Cook). Directors were identified as the ultimate author or “creative source” if a film sufficiently fitted a paradigm of consistent “vision” across their oeuvre, and they were thus seen as artists challenging the commercialism of the studio system (Cook). In this way, classical auteur theory draws a dichotomy between art and authorship on one side and commerce and corporations on the other, strongly valorising the former for its existence within an industrial context dominated by the latter. In recent decades, auteurist notions have spread from film scholarship to pervade popular discourses of media authorship. Even though transmedia production inherently disrupts notions of authorship by diffusing the act of creation over many different media platforms and texts, much of the scholarship disproportionately chooses to vex over authorship in a manner reminiscent of classical auteur theory.

In scholarly terms, a chief distinction between serial storytelling and transmedia storytelling lies in how authorship is constructed in relation to the text: serial storytelling has long been understood as relying on distributed authorship (Hilmes), but transmedia storytelling reveres the individual mastermind, or the master architect who plans and disseminates the storyworld across platforms. Henry Jenkins’ definition of transmedia storytelling is multifaceted and includes, “the systematic dispersal of multiple textual elements across many channels, which reflects the synergies of media conglomeration, based on complex story-worlds, and coordinated authorial design of integrated elements” (Jenkins, “Transmedia Storytelling”). Jenkins is perhaps the most pivotal figure in developing transmedia studies in the humanities to date and a key reference point for most scholars working in this subfield.

A key limitation of Jenkins’ definition of transmedia storytelling is its emphasis on authorship, which persists in wider scholarship on transmedia storytelling. Jenkins focuses on the nature of authorship as a key characteristic of transmedia productions that distinguishes them from other kinds of intertextual and serial stories:

Because transmedia storytelling requires a high degree of coordination across the different media sectors, it has so far worked best either in independent projects where the same artist shapes the story across all of the media involved or in projects where strong collaboration (or co-creation) is encouraged across the different divisions of the same company. (Jenkins, “Transmedia Storytelling”)

Since the texts under discussion are commonly large in their scale, budget, and the number of people employed, it is reductive to credit particular individuals for this work and implicitly dismiss the authorial contributions of many others. Elaborating on the foundation set by Jenkins, Matthew Freeman uses Foucauldian concepts to describe two “author-functions” focused on the role of an author in defining the transmedia text itself and in marketing it (Freeman 36-38). Scott, Evans, Hills, and Hadas similarly view authorial branding as a symbolic industrial strategy significant to transmedia storytelling. Interestingly, M.J. Clarke identifies the ways transmedia television texts invite audiences to imagine a central mastermind, but also thwart and defer this impulse. Ultimately, Freeman argues that identifiable and consistent authorship is a defining characteristic of transmedia storytelling (Freeman 37), and Suzanne Scott argues that transmedia storytelling has “intensified the author’s function” from previous eras (47).

Industry definitions of transmediality similarly position authorship as central to transmedia storytelling, and Jenkins’ definition has also been widely mobilised in industry discussions (Jenkins, “Transmedia” 202). This is unsurprising, because defining authorial roles has significant monetary value in terms of remuneration and copyright. In speaking to the Producers Guild of America, Jeff Gomez enumerated eight defining characteristics of transmedia production, the very first of which is, “Content is originated by one or a very few visionaries” (PGA Blog). Gomez’s talk was part of an industry-driven bid to have “Transmedia Producer” recognised by the trade associations as a legitimate and significant role; Gomez was successful and is now recognised as a transmedia producer. Nevertheless, his talk of “visionaries” not only situates authorship as central to transmedia production, but constructs authorship in very conservative, almost hagiographical terms. Indeed, Leora Hadas analyses the function of Joss Whedon’s authorship of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D (2013-) as a branding mechanism and argues that authors are becoming increasingly visible brands associated with transmedia stories.

Such a discourse of authorship constructs individual figures as artists and masterminds, in an idealised manner that has been strongly critiqued in the wake of poststructuralism. It even recalls tired scholarly endeavours of divining authorial intention. Unsurprisingly, the figures valorised for their transmedia authorship are predominantly men; the scholarly emphasis on authorship thus reinforces the biases of media industries. Further, it idolises these figures at the expense of unacknowledged and under-celebrated female writers, directors and producers, as well as those creative workers labouring “below the line” in areas like production design, art direction, and special effects. Far from critiquing the biases of industry, academic discourse legitimises and lauds them.

We hope that scholarship on transmedia storytelling might instead work to open up discourses of creation, production, authorship, and collaboration. For a story to qualify as transmedia is it even necessary to have an identifiable author? Transmedia texts and storyworlds can be genuinely collaborative or authorless creations, in which the harmony of various creators’ intentions may be unnecessary or even undesirable. Further, industry and academics alike often overlook examples of transmedia storytelling that might be considered “lowbrow.” For example, transmedia definitions should include Antonella the Uncensored Reviewer, a relatively small-scale, forty-something, plus size, YouTube channel producer whose persona is dispersed across multiple formats including beauty product reviews, letter writing, as well as interactive sex advice live casts. What happens when we blur the categories of author, celebrity, brand, and narrative in scholarship? We argue that these roles are substantially blurred in media industries in which authors like J.J. Abrams share the limelight with their stars as well as their corporate affiliations, and all “brands” are sutured to the storyworld text. These various actors all shape and are shaped by the narrative worlds they produce in an author-storyworld nexus, in which authorship includes all people working to produce the storyworld as well as the corporation funding it. Authorship never exists inside the limits of a single, male mind. Rather it is a field of relations among various players and stakeholders. While there is value in delineating between these roles for purposes of analysis and scholarly discussion, we should acknowledge that in the media industry, the roles of various stakeholders are increasingly porous.

The current academic discourse of transmedia storytelling reconstructs old social biases and hierarchies in contexts where they might be most vulnerable to breakdown. Scott argues that,

despite their potential to demystify and democratize authorship between producers and consumers, transmedia stories tend to reinforce boundaries between ‘official’ and ‘unauthorized’ forms of narrative expansion through the construction of a single author/textual authority figure. (44)

Significantly, we suggest that it is the theorisation of transmedia storytelling that reinforces (or in fact constructs anew) an idealised author figure.

The gendered dimension of the scholarly distinction between serialised (or trans-serial) and transmedial storytelling builds on a long history in the arts and the academy alike. In fact, an important precursor of transmedia narratives is the serialized novel of the Victorian era. The literature of Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe was published in serial form and among the most widely read of the Victorian era in Western culture (Easley; Flint 21; Hilmes). Yet, these novels are rarely given proportional credit in what is popularly taught as the Western literary canon. The serial storytelling endemic to television as a medium has similarly been historically dismissed and marginalized as lowbrow and feminine (at least until the recent emergence of notions of the industrial role of the “showrunner” and the critical concept of “quality television”). Joanne Morreale outlines how trans-serial television examples, like The Dick Van Dyke Show, which spread their storyworlds across a number of different television programs, offer important precursors to today’s transmedia franchises (Morreale). In television’s nascent years, the anthology plays of the 1940s and 50s, which were discrete, unconnected hour-length stories, were heralded as cutting-edge, artistic and highbrow while serial narrative forms like the soap opera were denigrated (Boddy 80-92). Crucially, these anthology plays were largely created by and aimed at males, whereas soap operas were often created by and targeted to female audiences. The gendered terms in which various genres and modes of storytelling are discussed have implications for the value assigned to them in criticism, scholarship and culture more broadly (Hilmes; Kuhn; Johnson, “Devaluing”). Transmedia theory, as a scholarly discourse, betrays similarly gendered leanings as early television criticism, in valorising forms of transmedia narration that favour a single, male-bodied, and all-powerful author or corporation, such as George Lucas, Jim Henson or Marvel Comics.

GLucasSouthpark

George Lucas is often depicted in scholarly and popular discourses as a headstrong transmedia auteur, as in the South Park episode ‘The China Problem’ (2008)

A Circle of Men: Fans, Creators, Stories and Theorists

Interestingly, scholarly discourse on transmedia even betrays these gendered biases when exploring the engagement and activity of audiences in relation to transmedia texts. Despite the definitional emphasis on authorship, fan cultures have been a substantial topic of investigation in scholarly studies of transmedia storytelling, with many scholars elevating fans to the status of author, exploring the apparent blurring of these boundaries, and recasting the terms of these relationships (Scott; Dena; Pearson; Stein). Most notably, substantial scholarly attention has traced how transmedia texts cultivate a masculinized, “nerdy” fan culture that identifies with the male-bodied, all-powerful author or corporation (Brooker, Star Wars, Using; Jenkins, Convergence). Whether idealising the role of the creators or audiences, transmedia theory reinforces gendered hierarchies. Star Wars (1977-) is a pivotal corporate transmedia franchise that significantly shaped the convergent trajectory of media industries in the 20th century. As such it is also an anchor point for transmedia scholarship, much of which lauds and legitimates the creative work of fans. However, in focusing so heavily on the macho power struggle between George Lucas and Star Wars fans for authorial control over the storyworld, scholarship unwittingly reinstates Lucas’s status as sole creator rather than treating Star Wars’ authorship as inherently diffuse and porous.

Recent fan activity surrounding animated adult science-fiction sitcom Rick and Morty (2013-) further demonstrates the macho culture of transmedia fandom in practice and its fascination with male authors. The animated series follows the intergalactic misadventures of a scientific genius and his grandson. Inspired by a seemingly inconsequential joke on the show, some of its fans began to fetishize a particular, limited-edition fast food sauce. When McDonalds, the actual owner of that sauce, cashed in by promoting the return of its Szechuan Sauce, a macho culture within the show’s fandom reached its zenith in the forms of hostile behaviour at McDonalds restaurants and online (Alexander and Kuchera). Rick and Morty fandom also built a misogynist reputation for its angry responses to the show’s efforts to hire a writer’s room that gave equal representation to women. Rick and Morty trolls doggedly harassed a few of the show’s female writers through 2017 and went so far as to post their private information online (Barsanti). Such gender politics of fan cultures have been the subject of much scholarly attention (Johnson, “Fan-tagonism”), not least in the many conversations hosted on Jenkins’ blog. Gendered performances and readings of fan activity are instrumental in defining and legitimating some texts as transmedia and some creators as masterminds, not only within fandoms but also in the scholarly discourse.

RickMortyMcDonalds

When McDonalds promoted the return of their Szechuan Sauce, in response to its mention in the story world of animated sci-fi sitcom Rick and Morty, they contributed to transmedia storytelling.

Both Rick and Morty and Star Wars are examples of how masculinist fan cultures, stubborn allegiances to male authorship, and definitions of transmedia converge both in academia and popular culture. While Rick and Morty is, in reality, partly female-authored, much of its media image is still anchored to its two male “creators,” Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon. Particularly in the context of #MeToo feminism, one wonders how much female authorship has been elided from existing storyworlds and, furthermore, what alternative examples of transmedia narration are exempt from current definitions of transmediality.

The individual creator is a social construction of scholarship and popular discourse. This imaginary creator bears little relation to the conditions of creation and production of transmedia storyworlds, which are almost always team written and collectively authored. Further, the focus on writing itself elides the significant contributions of many creators such as those in production design (Bevan). Beyond that, what creative credit do focus groups deserve in shaping transmedia stories and their multi-layered, multi-platformed reaches? Is authorship, or even credit, really the concept we, as scholars, want to invest in when studying these forms of narration and mediation?

At more symbolic levels, the seemingly exhaustless popular and scholarly appetite for male-bodied authorship persists within storyworlds themselves. The transmedia examples popularly and academically heralded as “seminal” centre on patrimony, patrilineage, and inheritance (i.e. Star Wars [1977-] and The Lord of the Rings [1937-]).  Of course, Harry Potter (2001-2009) is an outlier as the celebrification of J.K. Rowling provides a strong example of credited female authorship. However, this example plays out many of the same issues, albeit the franchise is attached to a woman, in that it precludes many of the other creative minds who have helped shape Harry Potter’s world. How many more billions of dollars need we invest in men writing about the mysteries of how other men spread their genetic material across fictional universes? Moreover, transmedia studies remains dominated by academic men geeking out about how fan men geek out about how male creators write about mostly male characters in stories about … men. There are other stories waiting to be told and studied through the practices and theories of transmedia. These stories might be gender-inclusive and collective in ways that challenge traditional notions of authorship, control, rights, origin, and property.

VaderLuke

Obsession with male authorship, control, rights, origin, paternity and property is recognisible in scholarship on transmedia storytelling, and also symbolically in many of the most heralded examples of transmedia storytelling, such as the Star Wars saga.

Prompting Broader Discussion

This piece urges the development of broader understandings of transmedia storytelling. A range of media scholarship has already begun this work. Jonathan Gray’s book on paratexts offers an important pathway for such scholarship by legitimating ancillary texts, like posters and trailers, that uniquely straddle promotional and feature content platforms (Gray). A wave of scholars productively explores transmedia storytelling with a focus on storyworlds (Scolari; Harvey), often through the lens of narratology (Ryan; Ryan and Thon). Scolari, Bertetti, and Freeman have drawn together a media archaeological approach and a focus on transmedia characters in an innovative way. We hope to see greater proliferation of focuses and perspectives for the study of transmedia storytelling, including investigations that connect fictional and non-fictional worlds and stories, and a more inclusive variety of life experiences.

Conversely, new scholarship on media authorship provides fresh directions, models, methods, and concepts for examining the complexity and messiness of this topic. A growing body of scholarship on the functions of media branding is also productive for reconceptualising notions of authorship in transmedia storytelling (Bourdaa; Dehry Kurtz and Bourdaa). Most notably, A Companion to Media Authorship edited by Gray and Derek Johnson productively interrogates relationships between creative processes, collaborative practices, production cultures, industrial structures, legal frameworks, and theoretical approaches around media authorship. Its case studies begin the work of reimagining of the role of authorship in transmedia, and pave the way for further developments (Burnett; Gordon; Hilmes; Stein). In particular, Matt Hills’s case study of how “counter-authorship” was negotiated on Torchwood (2006-2011) opens up new ways of thinking about multiple authorship and the variety of experiences, contributions, credits, and relationships this encompasses. Johnson’s Media Franchising addresses authorship in a complex way through a focus on social interactions, without making it a defining feature of the form; it would be significant to see a similar scholarly treatment of transmedia. At the very least, scholarly attention might turn its focus away from the very patriarchal activity of discussing definitions among a coterie and, instead, study the process of spreadability of male-centred transmedia storyworlds (Jenkins, Ford, and Green). Given that transmedia is not historically unique to the digital age, scholars might instead study how spreadability changes with the emergence of digitality and convergence, rather than pontificating on definitions of adaptation versus transmedia and cinema versus media.

We urge transmedia scholars to distance their work from the malignant gender politics endemic to the media industries and particularly global Hollywood. The confluence of gendered agendas in both academia and media industries works to reinforce patriarchal hierarchies. The humanities should offer independent analysis and critique of how media industries and products function, and should highlight opportunities for conceiving of, creating, and treating such media practices and texts in new ways. As such, it is problematic that discourses on transmedia commonly neglect the distinction between what defines transmediality and what constitutes good examples of transmedia. This blurs the boundaries between description and prescription, taxonomy and hierarchy, analysis and evaluation, and definition and taste. Such discourses blinker us to what we might consider to be transmedia, but also to what examples of “good” transmedia storytelling might look like.

Transmedia theory focuses disproportionately on authorship. This restricts a comprehensive understanding of transmedia storytelling, limits the lenses we bring to it, obstructs the ways we evaluate transmedia stories, and impedes how we imagine the possibilities for both media and storytelling. Stories have always been transmedial. What changes with the inception of transmedia theory is that men can claim credit for the stories and for all the work that many people do across various sectors and industries. It is questionable whether authorship is important to transmedia, in which creation is most often collective, loosely planned (at best) and diffused across many people, skill sets, and sectors. While Jenkins’s work has been pivotal in the development of transmedia theory, this is a ripe moment for the diversification of theoretical paradigms for understanding stories in the digital era.

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Keywords


transmedia; seriality; authorship; gender



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