We’re starting 2018 with a bang and an interview straight off my wishlist.
After Robin Epley started a little Facebook page known as Drunk Austen, she asked her friend, Bianca Hernandez, to join her as co-admin, and the rest is history.
Drunk Austen, the social media community built on a love of novelist Jane Austen, hilarious, Regency Era-themed memes, and pics of hot guys from the Austen film adaptations, with a healthy dollop of pop culture, social commentary, feminism, and inclusiveness, recently celebrated 50,000 likes on Facebook.
The Drunk Austen community hit a fever pitch of Austen-worshipping goofiness over the holidays with clever seasonal memes, Star Wars mashups, and a challenge in which followers were urged to whisper the phrase “What excellent boiled potatoes.” — a la Mr. Collins — in the midst of awkward family gatherings.
Known as “Admin b,” Bianca isn’t just a devoted Janeite with a sly sense of humor, she’s also a self-proclaimed “grade A nerd” with a passion for the Star Wars Expanded Universe, including badass Jedi Mara Jade; a skilled seamstress who crafts everything from cosplay outfits to Regency ballgowns; a bibliophile who includes “everything” on her to-read list; and a connoisseur of Star Wars-themed cocktails.
Let’s follow her to Austenland, shall we?
Tell me about the origins of the Drunk Austen social media phenomenon. How did it begin and how did you become involved?
Admin R started Drunk Austen after seeing a viral video. She started with a couple of memes, and then I sent her some of my own since I was deep in escaping adult responsibilities (like reading theory for class, looking for jobs, etc.). She added me as an admin and it’s been a journey ever since.
You’re known as “Admin b,” alongside Robin Epley, who is “Admin R.” Explain your dynamic as co-admins.
We went to j-school together, that’s how we knew each other before Drunk Austen. We’ve just tried to have fun, but learned a lot along the way. As we’ve gotten older and our followers have increased, we’ve learned a lot about how to handle a social media community. We both have our soft spots (Admin R is a “Little Women” fan, while I inundate followers with Star Wars), but in the end it always has an Austen-vibe of some kind.
Do you remember your introduction to the novels of Jane Austen?
A used book at a library book sale. The cover was awful, but it called to me. I read it when I was maybe 12 or 13, but a lot of the sharp wit went over my head. I just didn’t know a lot about the era or literature of her time.
What prompted you to become a full-fledged Janeite?
I read more of her work as I got older, but I think re-reading certain novels at certain times solidified my love. Emma, a painful character, was someone I could really relate to as I was starting college. After college I related more to Fanny at times. I think my love of the novels really peaked beyond casual interest when I was in Los Angeles for grad school and found a local Jane Austen book club. They were welcoming and made the experience of reading her works richer through discussion.
Which of her novels is your favorite and why?
Oh man, it changes. I think right now I’m really intrigued by “Persuasion.” I don’t relate to Anne, but I’m working (slowly) on a modern retelling of it because I think certain themes really translate well to today.
Why do you think her novels have endured and, indeed, flourished to the point that there’s an entire Facebook page devoted to her with thousands of followers?
Again, each time you reread her, you get something new. Besides that? I think the community can be a wonderful experience. So many people bond through this shared love, whether it’s the purists who love her work, the people who adore the hunky men in movie adaptations or the fanfiction writers, they all like a different flavor of Jane and that’s totally ok. I think Drunk Austen has tried to be really welcoming to all flavors, and there are communities that focus on one aspect, which allows people to find micro-communities that suit them.
Drunk Austen is, of course, famous for its Austen-themed memes. I feel like the memes are extremely on point lately. Thanksgiving was epic! And I love your recent Star Wars/Jane mashups. How do you come up with the perfect meme? Where do you draw your meme-spiration from?
I spend a lot of time on the internet (literally, my career involves working on social media). I see a good meme in another place and think, “Add some Darcy or a potato and we’ve got gold,” or something similar. Honestly, all of my memes are made because they make me laugh. If someone along the way is also amused then I’ve done a decent job.
The “boiled potatoes” challenge was the best thing ever. What did you think of the reaction to that?
I was shocked. I mean, I knew we had a great community, but I was so gratified to know there were other people who were down to be as goofy as I am.
Drunk Austen is more than just a social media community. It’s a public service, helping Janeites cope with awkward family gatherings or pepping depressed followers up with threads of hot guys. And there’s a hefty dose of feminism, too. Is this intentional?
Yes. At first it wasn’t, and I know we kind of grappled with stepping anywhere outside of Austen. Jane wrote about awkward families and would definitely have been a feminist. So I think we felt like if it was in the vein of her work it was still good.
I know I posted whole lot of hot man photos on a certain election night because I was in need of something, anything, to make me feel anything other than devastated. The response we got was amazing. Knowing that seeing a man with overgrown sideburns and a wet shirt brought joy to someone across the globe made me feel a little less like everything was crap.
Drunk Austen regularly navigates many Janeite controversies, such as who is the best movie Mr. Darcy or which is the best adaptation of “Pride & Prejudice”? How do you handle these hot-button issues?
We tell out followers to keep it civil when we do bring up those topics, but if we didn’t bring it up for discussion we have zero-tolerance for bashing other people’s favorites. We’re all here to love Austen, why divide ourselves over who is a more perfect Darcy?
Aside from your admin duties, you’re also involved with the Jane Austen Society of North America. Tell me about your participation in that group.
I was the Regional Co-Coordinator for my region, but recently stepped into the Secretary role. I volunteer a lot of time in making sure we have meetings that run smoothly and appeal to our members. It’s honestly just a fun way to get the local community socializing and learning together. I also started two Jane Austen book clubs that are still running (without me!) today.
You’re a self-described “book hoarder.” Were you into books as a child? How did your love of reading begin?
I was a late-reader. I was really, really shy and had undiagnosed vision issues in first and second grade, but I was too scared to speak up about not being able to see the whiteboard. My teacher at the time didn’t notice or try to intervene, just kept doling out my bad grades. My grandma was a teacher and finally realized there was something wrong. After I got glasses and a more understanding teacher, it was a love affair. I dominated library summer reading programs and always have a book or two somewhere on my person.
What are some of your all-time favorite books?
I have a book for every mood. If I need to be angry it’s Caitlin Moran’s “How to be a Woman.” If I want to feel the magic of being young I go to Harry Potter or “Sabriel” by Garth Nix. I cannot say enough good things about Gail Carriger’s “Prudence.” Then, of course, there’s Jane Austen’s works, with “Persuasion” whisking me away every time I open it.
What are you reading now?
Tamora Pierce. I’ve put off reading her works and recently took a swordfighting class that reminded me I needed badass ladies to look up to.
What’s on your to-read pile?
Everything. I actually want to reread some classic Star Wars books in 2018, then tackle the Shakespeare plays I never got to.
On your website, you describe yourself as a “grade A nerd” who once made a reference to “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” on your business card. What was the reference?
It’s a phrase I need daily. “Don’t panic.”
Tell me your nerd origin story. When did you embrace the “geek lifestyle”?
Picture this: Junior High. Library. I was in braces AND glasses. I think those were the years where I just knew I wasn’t going to be athletic or really into punk-rock. I was just going to read all the Expanded Universe books I could get my hands on.
Drunk Austen followers can’t help but notice that you are very into Star Wars. What’s your personal Star Wars saga?
My story isn’t worthy of a crawl across the screen. A substitute teacher showed one of the films in class and I was so intrigued I bought the movies as soon as I could. The prequels were my first intro, but it was the original trilogy AND the EU books that got me hooked. I was totally in it for the badass women (lightsaber wielding ones at that!).
Tell me about your discovery of the Star Wars Expanded Universe in junior high.
Another library book sale. I stumbled on the Thrawn trilogy and was excited for more Star Wars in my life. It was the beginning of a beautiful journey into EU.
You once created your own Mara Jade Jedi costume for Star Wars Celebration. It passed approval for both Rebel Legion and Saber Guild. That’s quite an accomplishment. Please elaborate about that experience.
I always like Mara because she was a badass lady with a purple lightsaber. I’d never been to Celebration, so I threw together a cheap costume for the con. I was so thrilled by how many people recognized the character. I got back and decided to make an accurate costume that I could get approved for costume groups. I’m not thrilled with wearing a catsuit, but I do feel kind of like a badass when I wear it.
You’ve sewn many costumes for yourself, including a Hamilton-themed ball gown and other historical outfits. What do you enjoy about that?
I like sewing for fun and for my Etsy store. It’s fun to learn to make full gowns and teach yourself new skills related to that. It’s a challenge, but in the end I can feel empowered dancing in my newest creation.
What’s challenging about it?
Teaching yourself new skills and being patient about it. I look at the first projects I ever took on and then the ones I have done over the last year and see a huge difference. It takes time to get good at something.
Have you done other geeky cosplays besides Mara Jade?
Ilana from “Broad City.” Prudence from Gail Carriger’s books. Agent Carter. Doctor Aphra. Probably many, many more.
Is it my imagination or did you attend the “Last Jedi” premiere?
What are your thoughts about “The Last Jedi”?
It was like an EU book come to the big screen. It’s not my favorite movie, but I really enjoyed it and can admit it was great.
Why do you think fans are having a collective meltdown over the film?
Because tons of folks have made followings based on their theories out of “Force Awakens,” and this movie ties up so many loose ends. What do they have to talk about now? I guess just their annoyance with the movie? I’m pretty tired of the kind of weak arguments for why this movie is bad. It’s just different, and that’s fine.
You recently called out the Star Wars community for its lack of support for women. I applaud you for that. Why did you decide to say something?
When I was first really into Star Wars as a teen I had a gender-neutral screen-name because even back then it was pretty hard to be a lady-fan in that community. Now, though things have gotten a bit better, I’m just really fed up with seeing blatant sexism. The post I called out was trying to act like it wasn’t a sexist argument, but it was, period. I was on the fence about doing anything, but I can’t sit back and watch this keep happening. I can’t let another generation of lady-fans feel like they’re being attacked.
And now for a serious question: Porgs. Yes or no?
Yes. All the porgs. Especially the giant Target exclusive porg that I technically won, but never received!
You seem to be pretty into Star Wars-themed cocktails. What’s your favorite?
There’s a blue milk cocktail made by one bartender in San Francisco. I’ve had others, but his is legit because he garnishes it with peach rings.
Can you draw any parallels between Star Wars and Jane Austen?
I think we’ve done a couple Star Wars/Austen mashups before, and I think it works because Jane Austen wrote about real people and Star Wars has characters that are pretty relatable too. Luke is really naive and gets thrown into adulthood with no guidance, something a lot of Austen heroines have to face. C-3PO bears a striking resemblance to the awkward properness of Mr. Collins.
What other fandoms are you into?
I love Agent Carter, Harry Potter and Doctor Who.
What’s the next big release you’re looking foward to (movies, books, TV, etc.)?
Oh man, I feel so behind in major media right now. I think the one thing I’m actually stoked for is the new adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice,” just because I have no idea what they’ll do with it. Besides that I think “Black Panther” and the Han Solo movie are the only things I’ll be dragging myself to the theater to see.
What’s left on your Jane Austen bucket list?
I haven’t visited Chawton or her resting place, so I guess that’s what I’d still need to do.
One of the questions I’ve been pondering lately is why do so many geeks also happen to be anglophiles? If anyone can help me answer this, it must be you. Thoughts?
I think the UK has a rich history, a literary legacy and some powerhouse nerd communities (like Whovians). That helps.
I think a lot of it is exposure too. If you’re raised knowing only English, and there’s a whole country that has content in English, it’s easy to get into. If there’s some cool content in French, but you don’t know French, you aren’t as likely to take time to learn it or find translations if they aren’t readily available. I have a limited understanding of Spanish, so I enjoy some shows and authors, but don’t participate in communities because I’m just not fluent enough.
I think access is also a factor. Masterpiece distributes a lot of UK shows to the US and a lot of people have BBC America now.