Finding success around the world, the Norwegian teen series In each season of Although
In each season of
In this article, I discuss
My task in this article is to see how (and also to an extent why) What kind of spatial imaginations support and frame the Russophone fan's perception of
What kind of spatial imaginations support and frame the Russophone fan's perception of
The discursive space in which my analysis operates comprises the original episodes of Fan fiction stories are not published on the fan profile, but the fans post links to fan fiction sites and quotes from fan fiction stories on the forums. Russophone fans circulate fan fiction written in both Russian and English.
Fan fiction stories are not published on the fan profile, but the fans post links to fan fiction sites and quotes from fan fiction stories on the forums. Russophone fans circulate fan fiction written in both Russian and English.
In this context, the fan's perception of Norway is devised in an interactive relationship between the technology-driven online communication environment, transcultural exchange of ideas, and a number of different symbolic resources that inform the fans’ sense of spatiality, identity, and connectivity. Therefore, I hypothesise that the complexity of this communicative space allows for a creative reconfiguration of geopolitical spaces by the fan community. A close examination of this type of mediated cultural exchange by grassroots actors advances our understanding of the meaning of popular geopolitics and digital transcultural communication in the age of global television. In this respect, my article reflects on the cultural and geopolitical meanings of Norden and the role of Russophone audiences in producing these meanings.
The focus of my analysis is, in particular, the participation of Russophone fans in conversations evoked by On social media use in Russia, see Levada Center, 2019. For more on Russophone online spaces from the perspective of Russia's relations with the neighboring ex-Soviet states, the Russian-speaking diaspora, and Russian linguistic imperialism in the region, see Uffelmann, 2014.
On social media use in Russia, see Levada Center, 2019. For more on Russophone online spaces from the perspective of Russia's relations with the neighboring ex-Soviet states, the Russian-speaking diaspora, and Russian linguistic imperialism in the region, see Uffelmann, 2014.
As Danielle Fuller (2019) demonstrates,
I will proceed with first contextualising my case study with a description of
The Russophone online
The cultural exchange of the Russophone
The Russophone fan community can, thus, be understood from the vantage point of superdiversity of the Internet, that is, continuous “diversification of diversity” of new linguistic and cultural forms through global digital connectivity (Vertovec, 2006: 1). In this type of interconnectivity, translation from one language to another, multimodal communication, and the use of multiple simultaneous cultural resources play an important role. As Varis and Wang (2011) point out, this diversity is, however, controlled through multiple layers of self-, state- and peer-imposed normativity and, they continue to argue, communication in online communities evolves in the “dynamics between freedom, creativity, and normativity” (Varis & Wang, 2011: 72). In my analysis, I examine how the fans’ symbolic production of different spaces is embedded in this dynamic of the Internet's communicative space.
Fan studies has increased relevance across disciplines with the digital turn in communication and the emergence of new modes of participation on online platforms. As Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse (2014: 15) observe, “fan cultures have moved from being a tolerated or ignored unruly fan response to an important and sought-after audience of engaged readers”. Applying fan studies to popular geopolitics will help increase context sensitivity in the analysis of globally circulating popular culture, as reception is tied to, and even “constrained”, in the physical (geographical, nation-state, technological) context in which cultural representations and meanings circulate (Dittmer & Dodds, 2008). Global communication technologies have significantly intensified cultural exchange between different contexts of reception, which consequently has to do with the change in the ways geopolitical narratives are embedded and read in popular culture. For example, Paul Adams notes, “geopolitical discourses now reverberate in a multitude of communication spaces stretched between nations via a range of media”, and continues to argue that this type of mediation of geopolitical narratives contributes to “exacerbating tensions between national populations with different interests and worldviews but also [to] framing ephemeral supranational communities that dissipate tension” (2007: 2, cited in Dittmer & Dodds, 2008: 445). In this article, the Russophone online fan community of
Currently, fan studies remain a marginal area in the study of Russophone media and culture. The few fan communities that have been the focus of previous scholarship are studied from the perspective of participatory reading practices and fan fiction (Samutina, 2013, 2016, 2017), online video production (Ratilainen, 2019a), and football subcultures (Glathe, 2016). These studies view fan communities mainly from the perspectives of identity building, cultural belonging, and politics of culture. Unlike previous works, my analysis here illuminates Russophone fandom not merely by looking at the interactions between “global” and “local” forms of cultural organisation, but at those established in a transcultural community, that is, in “a group in which people from many […] backgrounds find a sense of connection across difference, engaging with each other through a shared interest while negotiating the frictions that result from their social and historical contexts” (Annet, 2014: 6). In transcultural communities, recognising tensions between “Sameness” and the “Other” becomes a central line of engagement. This focus will also help devise a nuanced reading of the popular geopolitics involved in Russophone fans’ response to
Russia as a geopolitical actor appears in
Below the Russian subtitled episode, there are a total of 153 comments, and only 3 are reactions to the Putin reference, none of which receive any response from the community. One of the comments actually asks: “Why isn’t anyone talking about Putin?” Why, indeed, isn’t anyone talking about Putin, although this fragment can certainly be read as an invitation to apply a Russia-centric great power framework to the further LGBTQI+ related themes in the third season of
Natalia Samutina (2013) has discussed in detail how Russophone fandom around global popular culture (Harry Potter in her case) is an essentially queer space where contesting sexual and gender norms is at the centre of creative engagement with the popular genre of fantasy fiction. She stresses the role of fan fiction as an alternative space of individual freedom and liberation from the restrictions felt strongly elsewhere in society. Currently, Russia's state paradigm of sexual politics is defined by the federal law banning “propaganda of non-traditional sexuality” among minors, passed in State Duma in 2013. This legislation significantly contributed to Russia's international image as the Eastern European homophobic Other (Baker, 2015). Homophobic discourses have become widespread in Russian domestic media while empowering representations of homosexuality are marginalised from the mainstream circulation. Homophobic and anti-Western sentiments intertwine in the discourse of “geiropa” (gay Europe). This sensationalist media discourse plays an important role in maintaining a symbolic gap between Russia and Western Europe (see Persson, 2015; Hutchings & Tolz, 2015). Due to the legislation, broadcasting
Currently, Russia's state paradigm of sexual politics is defined by the federal law banning “propaganda of non-traditional sexuality” among minors, passed in State Duma in 2013. This legislation significantly contributed to Russia's international image as the Eastern European homophobic Other (Baker, 2015). Homophobic discourses have become widespread in Russian domestic media while empowering representations of homosexuality are marginalised from the mainstream circulation. Homophobic and anti-Western sentiments intertwine in the discourse of “geiropa” (gay Europe). This sensationalist media discourse plays an important role in maintaining a symbolic gap between Russia and Western Europe (see Persson, 2015; Hutchings & Tolz, 2015). Due to the legislation, broadcasting
In fact, the Russophone online
Those fans who take part in the celebratory reproduction of the Isak-Even romance on the separate spin-off fan site acknowledge the differences between Norwegian and Russian state politics concerning LGBTQI+ rights, as well as the effect the national context has on the surrounding media discourse. The fan page starts with a disclaimer: “The age limit of this forum is 18+ and the administrators do not take responsibility for people younger than that seeing content on this site”. With an even more direct reference to the current Russian legislative framework banning “propaganda of non-traditional sexuality” to minors, the post continues: “All information […] is provided exclusively for entertainment, not for propaganda purposes”. The closing statement of the disclaimer, however, makes a conceptual transition from this mandatory labelling of media content into the realm of
Further, on the forum, the affective engagement with the same-sex relationships is expressed through intensive repetition of the scenes the fans find most striking, for instance through a sequence of screengrabs visually chronicling all kisses between the two male characters. The most impressive romantic encounters between Isak and Even are also reproduced in fan-art images. In fan production, the original storyline blends with popular fan fiction stories circulating across the Internet. Certain fan fictions imagining Isak and Even's future together have been established as well-known extensions to the original storyline, to which the fans regularly refer in their communication: Isak and Even will get married and have two children, a boy and a girl.
In some other fan fiction stories and drawings, Isak and Even are portrayed as participating in LGBTQI+ activism, that is, wearing the rainbow symbol and taking part in Pride. These representations relocate Isak and Even from their usual high-school environment to the new context of the global LGBTQI+ rights movement and adult everyday life marked by social status and parenting responsibilities. However, combining the normative value of the nuclear family with LGBTQI+ identities, these images also build on ideas of homonormativity and the “international gay” criticised by many queer theorists for taming the subversive potential of queer representations through patriarchal institutions and neoliberal branding of identities (see Schoonover & Galt, 2016). Following the ideas of Schoonover and Galt, Russophone fans’ perception of Isak and Even can thus be read as a homonormative fairy tale, in which “queer relations represent progress and modernity” (2016: 61), and, when set in transcultural context, they reinforce the conflict of values between the “liberal west” and “other” parts of the world.
These images, vaguely spatialised “elsewhere” from Russia and in the “liberal west”, however, co-exist and intertwine with spatial and geographic imaginations anchored more explicitly in
The background location of Oslo in particular receives an idealised, almost mythical meaning through further reproduction of Isak and Even's kisses against images of natural landscapes, which can be read as a metaphor of untamed lust and passion behind the attraction between these two characters. Reshuffling and re-combining well-known images with new ones (for instance, landscapes that are not self-evidently from Norway), emphasises the role of imaginary Norway as a metaphorical space where fans are entitled to reach beyond their immediate symbolic realms. However, the oscillation between different geographies – realistic and metaphorical, city and nature – can be interpreted to mean that there is also something unattainable in this love, something that continues to escape to the domain of the imaginary and metaphorical.
This symbolic work can thus be interpreted as a tension between freedom of expression, provided by transcultural communication online, and normativity of the social realities in which the fans live. This tension activates a discursive struggle for finding expressions for the variety of forms love can take. This interpretation is confirmed by a small conversation between two fans under a picture of Herik Holm (actor playing Even) in the role of a prince in a theatre production he did after
Other visual reminders of Norwegian state institutions and national symbols are not prominent in the forum but remain in the background. When national symbols are used by the fans, the message is, however, strong. Norway's Independence Day (17 May) coincides with the International Day against Homophobia, which is not left unnoticed by the Russophone fans: on 17 May 2017, a screenshot of Isak and Even was embedded in a picture of the Norwegian flag. A year later, a different adaptation of the same theme appeared: different coloured T-shirts of the kissing couple formed the colour-scheme of the Norwegian flag. In this representation, the nation-state Norway refers to LGBTQI+ rights and sexual liberation through a metonymic relation.
Overall, these posts published in celebration of Norway's Independence Day, in my view, capture the whole range of geopolitical imaginations (re)produced by the Russophone
One of the most important geopolitical narratives of
From fandom's point of view, Sana's season is as important as the previous one with Isak and Even. When the trailer of the fourth season was released and its focal character announced, the fans found out that this was going to be the last season. The fans started to mourn the end of their beloved show even before the start of the final season. Even though Sana was not the obvious number-one pick for the lead character among the fans, the hype around the news about
This makes Sana perhaps the first (female) Muslim lead character in a Nordic television series. Visually and culturally, her character resembles, for instance, the main heroes from Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel
Sana's overall story in
By Sana's season, Russophone fans had subtitled and shared all episodes of the three previous seasons and established the fan forums on VKontakte as an active and rapidly expanding discussion space. The updates on the general, non–character-specific fan sites were steadily gathering over a hundred comments each and a new forum, Skam.zone, was founded in anticipation of the fourth season. When the fourth season was about to start in Norway, Russophone fans were catching up with the speculations on the new main character and the release date in real time. The fourth season was now shared on VKontakte clip-by-clip from the beginning. Despite the attempt from the production team to geo-block NRK's video service, the most eager fans from the Russophone community found a way to watch the original clips through Norwegian applications already before the subtitled versions appeared on VKontakte. Since these fans obviously were not Norwegian speakers, the first Russophone comments on the fourth season were only trying to guess what was going on and what the characters were saying. One comment captures very well the feeling of watching the beloved series from behind the language barrier: “7 minutes of incomprehensible words and super-enjoyment!”
Russophone fans were also actively engaging in conversations about Islam. Overall, these conversations reflect an encounter with a cultural and religious framework with which the majority of fans is not particularly familiar. Islam is mainly understood through the idea of rules and regulations, and more specifically through the question of whether Sana is or is not allowed to take off her hijab, which the fans frequently raise in comment threads. For someone following Sana's story from outside her religious context, the hijab, then, becomes the main signifier of Muslim identity and religious lifestyle. The conversations focusing on Sana's hijab only are in line with the overall fascination of the fans with the appearance of
It is also because of the hijab why the fans will never find out what Sana's hair looks like. The fans turn this question into a riddle and a game. The idea of this game is crystallised, for instance, in a meme shared first in the forum's newsfeed and later in the comment threads. The meme is a collage of still images from a popular Russian quiz show portraying the host and a competitor (who looks like a wizard from
When the fans address Sana's hijab more seriously, outside the game discourse, they usually discuss the meaning of hijab in Islam and the ways Muslim women wear it in different social contexts. In a similar vein as in the actual series (in conversations between Sana and her friends), these comments also emphasise that to wear a hijab is a Muslim woman's own choice, not something she is forced to do. They also emphasise that devout Muslims will not take off their hijab even “for TV or fans”, as some fans wish Sana would do. These comment threads show how, on the fan forum, the religious identity of actress Iman Meskini who plays Sana and the religious identity of her fictional character blend together in the online
In terms of geopolitical imaginations, the Russophone fans reflect Here, again the cultural proximity to the Russian context becomes apparent. Muslims are Russia's largest religious minority. Over 10 per cent of the Russian population are Muslims, and Islam is one of Russia's four officially acknowledged “traditional” faiths, together with Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism (Dannreuther & March, 2010). At the same time, Russia's Muslim population is stigmatised in media and political discourse by associating Islam with separatist radicalism and terrorism in the same way as in public discourses of many Western countries (Hutchings & Tolz, 2015). This discourse became particularly prominent in the early 2000s, at the time of the Second Chechen War. Putin effectively appropriated the post-9/11 discourse of Islamic terrorism to consolidate his power during his first term, significantly contributing to Islamophobia, stigmatisation of all Muslims as a potential security threat, and increasing numbers of racist attacks towards the Muslim population of the North Caucasus region (Verkhovsky, 2010; Hunter et al., 2004).
Here, again the cultural proximity to the Russian context becomes apparent. Muslims are Russia's largest religious minority. Over 10 per cent of the Russian population are Muslims, and Islam is one of Russia's four officially acknowledged “traditional” faiths, together with Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism (Dannreuther & March, 2010). At the same time, Russia's Muslim population is stigmatised in media and political discourse by associating Islam with separatist radicalism and terrorism in the same way as in public discourses of many Western countries (Hutchings & Tolz, 2015). This discourse became particularly prominent in the early 2000s, at the time of the Second Chechen War. Putin effectively appropriated the post-9/11 discourse of Islamic terrorism to consolidate his power during his first term, significantly contributing to Islamophobia, stigmatisation of all Muslims as a potential security threat, and increasing numbers of racist attacks towards the Muslim population of the North Caucasus region (Verkhovsky, 2010; Hunter et al., 2004).
Through these ideas, which also speak to the cultural proximity of the Russophone fan community to the Russian national context, the nation-state of Russia as a geographical space is relocated in a global religious space where Islam, as one of the comments puts it, “can be found”. At the same time, when the fans discuss Sana's religious identity, it is almost impossible to push the boundaries of discourse on Islam beyond repetitious comments on the hijab. In almost every comment thread, the discussion continuously jumps back to the hijab and Sana's veiled appearance. Furthermore, the fans do not, for instance, compare Sana's religious practice to the traditions of Orthodox Christianity, such as fasting before Easter and women's use of headscarves in churches, which would offer another framework in which to discuss the meaning of
The overwhelming popularity outside the national context and fast-expanding online dissemination beyond industry structures prompted my analysis of
Analysing the response to the third and fourth seasons of
My analysis has demonstrated that the Russophone fans’ discursive work around identity is spatially bounded. The spatial dimension of identity building is often activated through the discursive act of relocating compelling representations of identity “elsewhere” from the fans’ immediate context. This elsewhere, as it turns out, is both culturally and geopolitically motivated imaginary space. The imaginary realms of popular culture include the worlds of fairy tales and games, as well as the global celebrity cult obsessed by the looks of people seen on screen. At the same time, these spatial imaginations convey a shared understanding of an idealised Nordic space – an imagined Norway – which becomes a desirable, yet mythological place for the fans. The geopolitical position of Norway is further emphasised by creating semiotic links between the geographical space Norway and different cultural images of the “liberal west”, such as open manifestations of LGTBQI+. In questions of religious identities, Norway's geopolitical standing becomes more ambiguous and embedded in the ideas of individual choice and personal religious conviction as contrasted with institutionalised ways of religious practice.
All these processes are reflective of the fans’ personal desires and emotions, and thus the popular geopolitics of Norden at the background of these forums can best be captured in the paradox of emotional closeness and sociocultural distance between the Russophone context of reception and the Norwegian context of production of global television. The fans find a new home for their personal desires in the Norway reimagined.
The multitude of semiotic registers active in online fan communication requires close reading and analysis of multimodal and, to an extent, multilingual, texts, which is a challenging task, especially in a multidisciplinary setting (such as this special issue). However, tuning in to the “cacophonic” communication style of fan forums adds much needed nuance and depth to our understanding of how individual consumers participate in and contribute to the construction of geopolitical imaginaries. With this case study, I hope to inspire more textual-analytical research on geopolitics and transnational communication in different analytical settings, as well as to engage researchers from literary and cultural studies backgrounds within the popular geopolitics field. A broader focus on different languages or a comparative study between multiple fan cultures would furthermore help create a more comprehensive picture of grass-roots geopolitical imaginations and their role in globalisation, evolving television cultures, and identity construction around the globe.
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