An Apology to Fanfiction

A few days ago I went through the Internet in order to find a blog post that I’d written back when I was working as a media product manager in India. I found the post. I was reading it through and all seemed OK, until near the end, when I came across this bit:

One possibility is to approach user generated content the way Amazon is trying to approach “fan fiction.”  (Hear me out!) Amazon has found a way to possibly monetize fan fiction (which is a genius idea, only slightly unhinged by the fact that almost all fan fiction is absolute drivel.)

To be honest, I don’t remember writing this, and I’m utterly shocked that I did. (In my only possible defense: this was around the time that 50 Shades of Grey came out and tarred fanfiction with a pretty dense brush.) But, I’m sorry anyway. I’m sorry that I wrote those sentences, because I was so, so wrong.

The weird part is, I’ve always identified with fandom’s hardcore, and fanfiction (and fan creativity more broadly) has always been a presence in my life. At age 13, a friend and I convinced our parents to let us go to the World Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention. I spent most of my adolescence with Mercedes Lackey and George RR Martin, and so did my friends. I fantasized about Hogwarts before there was Hogwarts. I played online RPGs (I was, at one point, a Celtic sorceress). At age 16, I wrote a fantasy novel and sent it to all my friends and a lot of the kids in my tenth grade class (oh, yes I did). So it’s kind of weird to me now that I would have written a post in which I denounced fanfiction as “drivel.” Pretty weird, coming from someone who knew what filking was back in eighth grade, and who liked Game of Thrones when everyone still thought of it as A Song of Ice and Fire. Although I never posted any fanfiction, I think that’s partly because, by the time the Internet came out, I was already so deeply used to writing my own creative fiction that I kept on with that.

Somewhere between age 16 and 26, I drifted away from fantasy and science fiction, and from fandom. Sometimes, now, I think it’s because I was tired of the way great fantasy epics kept breaking my heart by ending. Maybe it was because I genuinely wanted to try something else. Maybe it’s because, like a lot of people, I somehow internalized the assumption that fandom is for kids, not adults. The idea that we can or should grow out of fandom is both damaging and useless, because it’s just untrue to my experience. It’s also a remarkably widespread notion: as recently as this month, Wired ran an article on fandom that ended with:

At some point, we all have to grow up.

But actually: the experiences of fandom and love are not that different, despite the different relative ages at which society expects us to experience them. Consigning parasocial interaction to childhood is about as useful as the flowery but vague stories of romantic adult love that we keep telling ourselves. Real life isn’t like any of this stuff.

A huge part of my experience at MIT has been recovering the intense love I felt for those teenage passions. This return has occurred on both a personal and a professional level. In my particular graduate program, people revere fandom. Our founder, Henry Jenkins, has written about fan culture extensively. In fact, he’s considered one of the early founders of fan studies as an academic discipline. In my first year of classes, we read a monograph by our professor Ian Condry, who among other things talks about the intensive and loving world of fansubs. Recently, Henry met with a bunch of us (the current grad students), and talked about mixed-race and black readings of the character Hermione, from Harry Potter. (Mixed-race Hermione is a thing.) For a long time, mixed-race Hermione existed only in certain readers’ imaginations and dreams, as well as in fan art. Fan art became the place to explore a possibility that the canonical text neither allowed nor disallowed. But by allowing a space to contemplate this potential, and by demonstrating a desire for greater diversity in the character, fan art may have contributed to the casting of a black actor in a Harry Potter play, leading to this Tweet by JK Rowling:

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Our interpretation of texts forms its own texts that in turn form history. But even if the canonical text had specified that Hermione was white, fanfiction might have taken the opportunity to suggest otherwise, and it would still have been an important provocation. After all, fanfiction has at one point suggested that almost every male character in the Lord of the Rings was gay, and rather than get squeamishly insistent about how Frodo and Sam did or did not survive the lonely trek to Mount Doom, it might be more worth it to say: brava, readers, for being a bit more progressive than Tolkien himself. And who knows? One of my other teenage passions was musicals based on novels (yes, yes it was). Lyricist Nan Knighton, who wrote the book for The Scarlet Pimpernel, decided that in the musical, the characters of Chauvelin and Marguerite would be lovers. She defended the choice by saying that if the Baroness Orczy were alive today, she might have written it similarly.

Who decides what is canon, and why is canon sacrosanct? If this is true of the Bible and the Constitution, then it can certainly be true of the Lord of the Rings.

Some people like to say things like “Keep your identity politics out of my media. Not every character needs to be someone you can identify with.” Most of the people who say these kinds of things, I can only imagine, either do not care about any form of media or are clueless about the way that media inform and reflect society in significant ways. Media portrayals change the way we view the world, with very real implications.

On a personal note.

Like I said, part of being at MIT has been returning to some of the textual spaces I once loved, whether that’s watching Firefly or Doctor Who, or going back to the novels of Robin Hobb. In fact, I started watching Doctor Who a month ago, and have become wildly and unexpectedly obsessed (a great delight to my Dad, who was the lonely fan in our house for all the years I grew up). For the first time, I find myself contemplating cosplay: I want to dress up as the Doctor.

The Doctor, of course, has always been cast as male. While Googling, I came across a lovely io9 article about female fans who dress up as male characters, particularly the Doctor. The quote that spoke to me the most came from academic and fan Courtney Stoker, who has studied female Doctor cosplayers:

While there are plenty of awesome companions, there are no female heroes in Doctor Who. The companions are, definitionally, sidekicks. And femme Doctor cosplayers are very aware of this. They want to be heroes, not followers and sidekicks, however badass. And Doctor Who does not offer them a hero that matches their experience, who looks anything like them. So they invent her.

Rarely has a piece of journalism so perfectly expressed something I hadn’t expressed so clearly even to myself.  But wait, Stoker says more, and it gets even better:

Further, I don’t think femme Doctor cosplay is just a critique of the show. It’s also a critique of the fan community. Nightsky, a cosplayer I met at Gallifrey 2011, told me “I do want to get my fellow fans thinking about the roles that fiction has for women, and how that has and hasn’t changed since 1963. I want them to say, ‘A female Doctor???!? Whaaat?’ and then think about why that sounds so ridiculous, even inside their heads. […] I want them to say, ‘Impossible—she could never run to save the day dressed like that’ and then think about how fashion (and, more broadly, societal expectations) hobbles women and constrains their choices of roles.” …Femme Doctor cosplayers are often trying to critique the way the Doctor Who fan community treats gender and how that community ignores the ways that women are constrained by society, science fiction, and this show that we all love so much.

These are not unimportant concerns to raise, whether about society, science fiction, or this show that we all love so much. These kinds of questions, when raised, force people to reconsider their views, as Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat admitted to doing when it comes to questions of how race plays into the casting of the show. And the casting of shows matters because, well…#OscarsSoWhite? Of course, what the Oscars and people like Moffat (for a long time, anyway) failed to account for was the fact that the demand for greater diversity was less a matter of politics than one of commerce: the key consumers of their product were shifting. This is something that Moffat finally seems to have come to terms with, noting that the “all blokes” atmosphere of early Doctor Who gatherings has now given way to “loads of women.”

Finally, Stoker completes the loop by linking fan cosplay back to the wider world of performance:

While cosplayers are fans, they are also usually costumers, or even actors.

If I’m blurring the lines between sanctioned and unsanctioned forms of creative endeavor, it’s because creativity doesn’t recognize copyright. Moffat deserves some credit, at least, for admitting that he writes fan fiction for a living. Creative spaces have always been how we explore not just what is, but what is possible.

So to cosplayers, fan writers, fan arists, filkers, and everyone else: thanks for creating a world where a small Indian adult woman can dress up as the hero she’s always wanted to be, and still feel less alone and less ridiculous. Thanks for understanding that this act is not just about media, it is about the world. Thanks for realizing that doing creative shit is fun, even if people don’t always like what we do. I’m sorry for being an asshole, and for trying to diminish labor of love by referring to their end product as “drivel.” We’re in this together; we always were.

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