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Libby Hemphill

Principal Investigator

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I will present work about the #gayzzoli subtext readings of Rizzoli and Isles at the 2017 Society of Cinema and Media Studies Annual Conference. This project has been a few years in the making (learning to write for a new academic community is hard!), and I’m excited to talk with SCMS researchers about it. I think the subtext readings have tremendous socio-political potential and yet am surprised by how frequntly subtext readers rely on and reify conservative stereotypes about lesbians and lesbian relationships.


On Monday nights in the summer, a group of dedicated Rizzoli and Isles (R&I) fans gather on Twitter to talk about the show while it airs, but the show they discuss may not be one mainstream viewers recognize. These Twitter users are discussing R&I’s lesbian subtext in which the female leads are more than colleagues and close friends, they are lesbians in a committed, loving relationship. Subtext readers use the hashtags #gayzzoli and #rizzles to mark their conversation, and in doing so, make public polysemic readings visible. Visibility and representation in mainstream media are critical for members of marginalized groups such as lesbians and queer fans. R&I subtext readers are especially interesting because the show and subtext readers differ from previously-studied shipping, slash, and subtext communities in a few critical ways: (1) they engage in the subtext reading publicly, (2) the show is a mainstream procedural, (3) some of the artists involved in the show explicitly support the subtext, and (4) the entertainment press recognizes and covers the subtext.

LLBFFs - Rizzoli and Isles

This paper builds on research about shipper communities among X-Files fans (Scodari and Felder 2000), lesbian subtexts in Xena: Warrior Princess (Hanmer 2003), gay relationships in Six Feet Under (Bury 2008), and polysemic television readings generally (Fiske 1986) to explain how readers assemble a shared lesbian subtext using the material of the show, lesbian and queer subculture references, and social media’s affordances. I show how fans have appropriated aspects of R&I to produce a subtext that is at once resistant and conservative. Much like the Six Feet Under fans who “straighten out” gay story lines (Bury 2008), R&I subtext readers engage in a conservative reading of the Jane and Maura relationship. While they resist the main text’s platonic relationship, the subtext readers reinforce heterosexist norms of monogamy, jealously, bickering, and constant companionship.

I analyze data from tweets posted during the show’s broadcasts, lesbian subtext recaps on AfterEllen, and comments that accompany those recaps. Live tweeting affords us an opportunity to eavesdrop on viewers’ listening activities and provides data useful for testing theories about reading/viewing and participation. Here, I demonstrate the utility of analyzing live tweeting and provide examples of how live tweeters publicly read resistant subtexts. The #gayzzoli readings are a specific example of the broader phenomena of slash, fan fiction, and media interpretation from which we can learn about how social media facilitates active audience interpretations and enables us to critically examine particular instances of textual poaching. The lesbian nature of the subtext also affords an opportunity to better understand queer representation and reception (Dhaenens, Bauwel, and Biltereyst 2008).


Bury, Rhiannon. 2008. “Setting David Fisher Straight: Homophobia and Heterosexism in Six Feet Under Online Fan Culture.” Critical Studies in Television: An International Journal of Television Studies 3 (2): 59–79. doi: 10.7227/CST.3.2.6.

Dhaenens, Frederik, Sofie Van Bauwel, and Daniel Biltereyst. 2008. “Slashing the Fiction of Queer Theory Slash Fiction, Queer Reading, and Transgressing the Boundaries of Screen Studies, Representations, and Audiences.” Journal of Communication Inquiry 32 (4): 335–47. doi: 10.1177/0196859908321508.

Fiske, John. 1986. “Television: Polysemy and Popularity.” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 3 (4): 391–408. doi: 10.1080/15295038609366672

Hanmer, Rosalind. 2003. “Lesbian Subtext Talk: Experiences of the Internet Chat.” International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy 23 (1/2): 80–106. doi: 10.1108/01443330310790453

Scodari, Christine, and Jenna L. Felder. 2000. “Creating a Pocket universe: ‘Shippers,’ Fan Fiction, and the X-Files Online.” Communication Studies 51 (3): 238–57. doi: 10.1080/10510970009388522