Probably not like the Mystery Science Theater 3000 audience, though…
Although it’s not something I recommend writers think about too much during the early creative side of building a story, audience is very important when you get close to the publishing side of things. But just because your story has a natural, intended audience, doesn’t always mean that will be it’s exclusive audience.
This week I’ve been thinking a lot about audience. Or, more specifically, the weirdness of liking something that’s not aimed at you.
Recently, I’ve fallen back in love with the anime Dragon Ball Z. Even if you’re not into anime, you’ve likely heard of this show (or seen some of the art), because it was one of the early powerhouse franchises when anime was first sweeping the American airwaves back in the 90s and aughts. Back in the day, you only had a few options for anime on tv, and one of the most “mature” (aka aimed more at teenagers) was Dragon Ball Z. It was about heroic warriors defeating grand villains in dramatic one-off stands, often on other planets, and usually involving a good amount of comic relief and ridiculous abilities. It was campy, macho, and at least a little self-aware. And 12 year old Lucy was absolutely obsessed with it.
I never expected 3o-year-old Lucy to be able to still care about it.
I am not now, and have never been, the intended audience for this show. It’s aimed at boys in the child-to-teen range, and prides itself on being badass, tough, and occasionally gross. These are not normally things that I like, and I’m always kind of stumped when pressed to explain what I like about it. Sure, at this point nostalgia plays a heavy roll, but I wasn’t any more into those things when I was 12 than I am now (possibly less so).
I guess the easiest explanation is that at the time it delivered all the other things that drew me to anime: grand, overarching plot; characters who were allowed to grow and change with the show; nuanced approaches to the concept of good and evil. It gave me in a cartoon the kind of complex stories I was used to only finding in books.
Now, I’m no stranger to liking things that are not expressly aimed at me. Steven Universe is one of my favorite shows, and it’s definitely not aimed at 30-year-olds (although, I could go on and on about this show, and probably will at some point). I read a lot of YA literature, despite being now nearly twice as old as most of the characters. But I feel especially weird when it comes to DBZ. I don’t know if it’s the gendered thing. It is very aggressively aimed at guys. But I like super hero stuff, which has essentially the same audience.
I think it comes back to some habitual embarrassment about anime. When I was a teen, it was just coming into its own as a medium in America, and most people thought anime was either A) only for little kids (because it was animation), or B) porn (because the fact that there was anime porn pretty much traumatized everyone who was expecting option A). Anyone who knew better, but wasn’t actually in to it, just thought it was nerdy in the extreme. Which, maybe it was. I guess as a teen I got used to either having to defend my love for a show, or just pretend I didn’t care about it. Like a true hipster, I learned to love things ironically before it was cool, because that was easiest.
Well, I’ve been trying to get better at loving things unironically, but it’s hard with DBZ, because it seems so completely opposite to how I think of myself. I mean, I still love Sailor Moon, and I can see how it influenced me as a writer. I have no idea how DBZ influenced me, and that’s a weird feeling.
I think some of it does come back to how much of a boy show it was. Even at the time, I felt like it was something I shouldn’t be watching. Not because it was any sillier than Sailor Moon, but because it wasn’t for me. In reality of course, girls watched DBZ and boys watched Sailor Moon (and everyone watched Pokemon), because that was what we had to watch, and because both were compelling and fun in their own ways.
Still, whenever I see art or merchandise for the show, I’m reminded how much it’s not targeted to me. Often when I hear guys talk about it online or at conventions, I’m reminded how much it isn’t targeted to me. And the show is actively sexist; from the lack of female characters to the creepy sexualization of what few woman there are.
It’s a weirdly alienating feeling. It’s probably also a very privileged feeling, as it’s not that hard to find things that are aimed at me.
Actually, lets talk about that. Most of the things I like are not aimed at me. Sure, there are things aimed at women in their late twenties and early thirties. They’re mostly romantic comedies. I enjoy a good rom-com as much as the next person, but I’m not really drawn to them. Be it literature or movies, I like things that are a little darker, a little rowdier. And sometimes, a little more juvenile. But as a white woman who dates men, it’s not like I’m being ignored as a demographic, and it’s pretty easy to find characters who look like me who I can at least somewhat relate to. There are certainly many people who are more ignored by pop culture than I am.
Lets take Steven Universe again. I’m not saying it’s the be-all-end-all of television, but I love this show. More than I’ve loved any piece of popular culture in a long time. And it’s not aimed at me. It’s definitely aimed at kids, but it feels like it was written just for me. It plays with gender norms, bucks heteronormativity, and is full of awesome, diverse, interesting ladies. It’s also got kind, intelligent, complex men. It makes me feel a little bit better about humanity.
I think a big reason Steven Universe clicks for me is it feels like I could have written it. Or one of my friends could have. More and more, I’m finding things that are written by my generation, by people who were influenced by the things that influenced me, and there’s something so awesome about that. And perhaps unsurprisingly, Steven Universe definitely has some DBZ influences in it. Also Sailor Moon, and Revolutionary Girl Utena (and I hear Transformers, but I can’t speak to that). Basically, it’s by my people, so it’s not that surprisingly that I would fall in love with it.
That doesn’t really solve my frustration over DBZ, though. It just brings it around again.
I guess I’m not going to come to any conclusions here, but as a writer, I think it’s important to remember that there are probably more audiences out there than I’m thinking about. Even if I’m aiming for this specific idea of a person (maybe a little bit like me, or a while lot different), I can’t predict who my story will resinate with. I can’t control who will find it and love it, and that’s a good thing. I just wish more shows recognized their varied audience. I’ve been let down by Dragon Ball before, and I will be again, because I’m really not on their minds. But I’m still here, and I’m still watching.