Emotional Realism, Affective Labor, and Politics in the Arab Fandom of Game of Thrones

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This article examines the Game of Thrones (GoT) fan phenomena in the Arab world. Although I contextualize GoT as a commodity within HBO’s global ambitions to attract a global audience, I study GoT Arab fans as an organized interpretive online
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  International Journal of Communication   11(2017), 3740–3763 1932 – 8036/20170005 Copyright © 2017 (Katty Alhayek). Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial No Derivatives (by-nc-nd). Available at http://ijoc.org. Emotional Realism, Affective Labor, and Politics in the Arab Fandom of Game of Thrones    KATTY ALHAYEK 1   University of Massachusetts Amherst, USA This article examines the Game of Thrones   (GoT) fan phenomena in the Arab world. Although I contextualize GoT as a commodity within HBO’s global ambitions to attract a global audience, I study GoT Arab fans as an organized interpretive online community. I examine the Arabic fan Facebook page “Game of Thrones ‒ Official Arabic Page” (GoT-OAP), which has over 240,000 followers, as a case study of cultural production and consumption by fans. Based on interviews with members of the administration staff of the GoT-OAP Facebook page, as well as textual analysis of the page’s posts, I ask: How is fan culture around GoT produced in the Arab world? How are the boundaries between being fans, media producers, and consumers negotiated? Are there connections between the themes of GoT and the current unrest across the Arab region? If so, how are they articulated? Through emotional realism and hybridity, I show that Arab fans find ways to negotiate their fandom of GoT with their local context and lived experiences. Keywords: fandom, Arab world, Game of Thrones, quality television, hybridity, emotional realism, affective labor, affective economics In this article, I focus on the Arabic fan Facebook page “Game of Thrones–Official Arabic Page” (GoT-OAP), which has over 240,000 Arab followers, as a case study of cultural production and consumption by fans. While the page’s administrators come primarily from three countries ― Tunisia, Egypt, and Palestine ― most of the page’s followers are from Egypt, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Statistics provided, upon my request, by the page’s administration staff show that 80% of the page followers are male and 20% are female, 48% of the fans are between 18 and 24 years old, and 28% are between 25 and 34 years old. Throughout this article, I use the term Arab   not to refer to a specific race necessarily, but rather to refer to an identity with the Arabic language and the geography and history of the so-called Arab World. GoT-OAP’s fans belong to a variety of nationalities, ethnicities, and religions within the Arab world. Katty Alhayek: katty.alhayek@gmail.com Date submitted: 2017 ‒ 01 ‒ 22 1  Sincere thanks to Lisa Henderson for her help in the elaboration of this article and to the IJoC anonymous reviewers whose revisions were invaluable. Many thanks to the administrators of “Game of Thrones–Official Arabic Page” for their vital collectively authored letter. I am also very grateful to Ben Nolan and Basileus Zeno for their insightful feedback and comments.  2 Katty Alhayek International Journal of Communication 11(2017) My primary interest in this article is in investigating fandom of quality television (QT) in the Arab world. Game of Thrones   (GoT) is one of the most successful representatives of this type of American television that has been described as the “new Golden Age of television drama” (Hassler-Forest, 2014, p. 160). GoT has achieved widespread popularity globally, averaging more than 25.1 million viewers per episode in 2016 (Shepherd, 2016). This viewership number does not include illegal downloads and represents only terrestrial viewers, digital recordings, HBO GO, HBO NOW, and HBO On Demand. It is difficult to estimate the actual size of the international audience of GoT, especially as the show holds the dubious honor of being the most illegally downloaded show of 2015 (Hibbard, 2015). The show is an HBO srcinal American fantasy drama based on the adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s series of fantasy novels A Song of Ice and Fire   (ASOIAF). It depicts struggles for political, social, and personal power in a fictional, quasimedieval setting with magical elements. GoT has drawn both acclaim and criticism for its graphic depictions of sexual and political violence. The producers, the author of the book series that inspired GoT, as well as many fans of the show have defended the inclusion of such violence as “realistic” (Itzkoff, 2014). The show even draws comparisons, in popular media outlets, with real-world life events such as the Syrian conflict. These comparisons demand a deeper exploration of how this show is perceived by Arab audiences. GoT fandom has become a significant international cultural phenomenon. Fans of the show include popular culture celebrities including Madonna as well as politicians such as Julia Gillard, David Cameron, and Barack Obama, who was depicted in a manipulated image published by the White House official Twitter account sitting on the Iron Throne in the Oval Office with the king’s crown on his lap (Figure 1). Writing for The Telegraph  , Boulton (2015) explains GoT fandom among politicians, “[GoT] displays power-politics in the raw, where no motive is ever entirely pure, and even good deeds have a downside” (para. 11). Boulton’s comment can be read as an explanation not only of GoT’s popularity among politicians but also of who is in the show’s perceived/intended audience. Polan (2007) illuminates the latter point in his description of HBO quality series’ intended audience: Typical HBO episodic series play to an intellectually savvy and culturally informed spectator who has been trained (or is being trained) to take cultural works to be enigmas or puzzles in which one goes beyond the text at hand to something else. (p. 280) In GoT, this “something else” can be understood as intellectual questions of struggle over political power. Polan cautions us against studying QT as valuable in and of itself. Rather Polan invites us to study QT within the context of the cultural industry, to understand it “as a commodity fabricated to flow from producers to consumers” (p. 268).  International Journal of Communication 11(2017) Emotional Realism, Affective Labor, and Politics 3 Figure 1. Screenshot of the White House official Twitter account showing Obama on the Iron Throne in an image posted May 3, 2014. To study GoT and Arab fandom, in this article I contextualize GoT as a commodity that meets HBO’s ambitions to attract a global audience. HBO has licensed GoT to be broadcast by multiple television networks around the world. For example, on February 1, 2016, Orbit Showtime Network (OSN) launched a new channel (OSN First HD–Home of HBO) which allows regional Arab fans of HBO shows such as GoT to see them the moment they debut. Although I am contextualizing GoT as a commodity within HBO’s global operation, in this study, I do not want to study GoT and Arab fandom as a mere relationship between the show’s producers and the fans as consumers. Following Radway (1984) and Jenkins (1992), my interest here is in studying Arab fans of GoT as an interpretive community, to focus on fans as cultural producers themselves, and not strictly as consumers. Indeed, what distinguishes fandom from the larger group of media audiences is the sense of community and the social interaction among its members. According to Busse and Gray (2011), fandom consists of    members/fans who share a specific identity   that constructs their membership beyond the mere fact of their shared media consumption. However, as Jenkins, Ford, and Green (2013) highlight, in the digital age “we are seeing the erosion of traditional boundaries—between commercial and grassroots, fan and producer” (pp. 28 ‒ 29). Thus, in examining the Arab fan phenomenon surrounding GoT, I am interested in exploring what it means to be an Arab fan and a consumer of American QT. Through interviews with members of the administrative staff of this Facebook page as well as textual analysis of the page’s posts and the loyal followers’ comments, I ask: How is fan culture around GoT produced in the Arab world? How are the boundaries between being fans, media producers, and consumers negotiated? Are there connections between the themes of GoT and the current unrest across the Arab region? If so, how are they articulated?  4 Katty Alhayek International Journal of Communication 11(2017) Online Correspondence As an Arab fan of HBO QT and particularly GoT, I am interested in understanding the ambivalent relationship between being a consumer and being a fan of this type of television. While HBO aims to draw in as many consumers as possible, HBO’s brand uses masculinity and “offers to ‘re-mark’ subscribers as  ‘masculine,’ thus repositioning its audience as powerful bearers of cultural capital that is free from the commercialized trappings of regular [feminine] television” (Santo, 2008, p. 34). As Hassler-Forest (2014) notes, HBO QT aims to attract “a desirable global elite audience” promising its audience, regardless of their actual gender, to change their relationship to television “from  ‘passive,’ ‘feminine’ spectatorship to that of an ‘active,’ and therefore ‘masculine,’ connoisseur” (p. 166). This strategy might explain the large number of young male fans of GoT globally. Around 82% of the English-speaking adult fans are male and around 90% are under the age of 44 (The ASOIAF Crypts, 2017). Similar numbers were presented to me in 2016 by GoT-OAP administrative staff showing that 80% of the page followers are male and 76% are under the age of 34. 2  However, Hassler-Forest assures that although GoT includes Playboy  -inspired erotic scenes involving naked women, “the series makes sure that it caters to progressive tastes and female viewers by including many women characters in nontraditional gender roles, including Brienne, Arya, and Daenerys” (p. 170). The large number of scenes featuring naked women (e.g., there are 60 flashes of female breasts in the first five seasons) has provoked female audiences and actresses like Emilia Clarke to ask for gender equality in television nudity by disseminating the social media hashtag #FreeTheP (“ Game of Thrones   nudity,” 2017). While I am an Arab woman scholar who lives in the United States, I was struck to find a large fandom of GoT among Arabs in Arabic-speaking countries. Since 2014, I have observed rapidly growing Facebook Arab fan pages including GoT-OAP (over 240,000 followers), “Game of Thrones Arabs Fan Club” (over 88,700 followers), “Game of Thrones Arab Fans” (over 80,000 members), “Game of Thrones Fans–Syria” (over 64,000 followers), and “Game of Thrones ‒ Iraq” (over 45,000 followers). Of these Arab fan pages, GoT-OAP is the largest and oldest. In the summer of 2016, I exchanged correspondence via Facebook Messenger with the GoT-OAP administrators expressing my interest in interviewing them. To establish credibility, I included in my initial recruitment message a link to a biographical page about myself on a well-known bilingual (English/Arabic) academic e-zine where the administrators could check samples of my writing. While my communication efforts were welcomed, I did not learn the specific identity of those communicating with me. Those who chatted with me via the GoT-OAP Facebook Messenger account always used collective pronouns speaking in the name of the whole GoT-OAP administrative staff. I offered to conduct interviews via Skype or phone or to send the questions online. I was asked to message the questions to the administrators as a private message via the group’s Facebook page. In response to my message, I received a 15-page, collectively authored letter signed by six members of the administration staff. The letter was written in standardized Arabic language and was structured as 20 answers to the 20 questions I had sent them. 2  These numbers only reflect an estimation by the mentioned fan sites and are not generalizable for the larger fan and audience community of GoT.  International Journal of Communication 11(2017) Emotional Realism, Affective Labor, and Politics 5 It is worth noting that the administrators’ anonymity is safeguarded throughout not only their communication with me but also most of their public posts on GoT-OAP. Two possible reasons for their choice to maintain anonymity are (a) the administrators of GoT-OAP act as an editorial board and have developed a formal or informal editorial policy of preferring to work under the anonymous collective identity of GoT-OAP to enhance the collective motivation and professionalism of the team and/or (b) although GoT-OAP generally steers away from politics, it still publishes political commentary, satire, and cartoons that tackle local politics in post–Arab Spring countries. Anonymity may be a self-preservation strategy for administrators located in politically unstable countries known for suppressing freedom of expression such as Egypt and Tunisia. Arab Fandom of HBO’s “Quality TV”  In his study of fan community within social networks, Jenkins (1992) defines organized fandom as “an institution of theory and criticism, a semistructured space where competing interpretations and evaluations of common texts are proposed, debated, and negotiated and where readers speculate about the nature of the mass media and their own relationship to it” (p. 88). GoT-OAP can be viewed as a form of organized fandom due to these fans’ use of GoT to develop and organize an online community around the series and their interpretations and evaluations of it. In their coauthored letter, the administrators identified themselves as group of TV and cinema “geeks, nerds, gamers, and otakus” who are “obsessed Arab followers” of GoT, the novels it is based on, and the accompanying material such as soundtrack and podcasts. The growth of American QT took off in the late 1990s, a moment of high media convergence and globalization in which television channels were highly concerned with retaining their most valuable audiences—affluent, highly educated consumers “who value the literary qualities of these programs” and  “that advertisers were prepared to pay the highest rates to address” (Hassler-Forest, 2014, p. 162). The GoT-OAP administrators fit the profile of HBO quality series’ intended audience outlined by Polan (2007). They are highly skilled, tech-savvy professionals whose skills include translating texts from English to Arabic, fansubbing, video and audio editing, graphic design, and montage. Some members of the GoT-OAP administration staff also have experience in writing, reviewing, and editing as well as Web management and design. The coauthors of the 15-page letter I received are six members of the GoT-OAP administration staff  3 : Samer, a 29-year-old Tunisian man who has a college degree in law and works in a governmental organization inside Tunisia; Mounzer, a 26-year-old Tunisian man who has a college degree in computer engineering and works as a media engineer in a private company; Safauan, a 24-year-old Egyptian man who has a college degree in pharmacy and works as pharmacist in Egypt; Rami, a 36-year-old Egyptian man who has a college degree in civil engineering and works as an engineer in Saudi Arabia; Nabil, a 31-year-old Egyptian man who has a college degree in accounting and works as an accountant in Saudi Arabia; and Loubna, a 19-year-old Palestinian woman who is studying media and biotechnology and is an employee in a local store in the occupied Palestinian territories. 3  I use pseudonyms to refer to the GoT-OAP administrators.
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