graphic by Conner Maggio

Fanfiction: innovative but irresponsible

Anything is possible in the world of fan media, which is ultimately a blessing and a curse.

At some time or another, everyone has looked at a piece of media they like and not seen someone they could relate to in core ways. Or even media that they don’t like, but their friends do. Like, what, I’m supposed to watch Sherlock or James Bond or whatever the male power fantasy of the week is and relate to these straight white men who can’t keep up healthy relationships with women? No, thank you. I wouldn’t even if I could.

And what about media I do like? What about the things I love that I want to spend more time with, or think about more? What about the plot lines that the creators forgot about or dropped because of contracts? What about the ending to “How I Met Your Mother”? You wouldn’t fix that if you could?

That’s where fanfiction — and fan media in general — comes in. If you could change something with a decent premise into something that you actually like, wouldn’t you? If you had the option of making a sandwich with grape jelly (gross) or raspberry (excellent!), wouldn’t you go with the raspberry?

Fan-created content is a way for people to make a space for themselves. People of color, LGBT+ people, women and other minorities, lack the kind of representation and story lines that straight white men get in mainstream media. Which is, I’m sure, why so much fan content is created by these marginalized groups (though, notably, the majority of fanfic readers and writers are white).

That content is more diverse than just its characters. Fanfiction can make the kinds of decisions that traditional storytelling hasn’t, or can’t, embrace. It can help establish new worlds, examine gender roles and educate and mock in equal measure. Sure, we could all live without the parts of fan content that make actors uncomfortable (looking at you, roleplay fiction about real people) or the unsavory parts (looking at you, literally anything to do with incest).

To be fair, fanfiction also tends to be diligent about warning about these issues. There are entire tagging systems that rate the maturity levels of the work, the genre and the content itself — whether something involves sexual content, for example, if it’s in an alternate universe or if it involves chefs, or BDSM or anything else under the sun. The tagging etiquette varies by time and website, but it’s been a staple of fanfiction for decades now. Content creators make sure to warn people about their content, keeping their work community-oriented.

And at heart, most fan content is a feature, not a bug of modern storytelling. Without fan content, we’d miss out on the community that comes with it. People from all over the world tell each other stories about this thing that they love! They create relationships that last beyond their enjoyment of whatever it is.

Stories weren’t meant to exist in a vacuum, either. They don’t pop out of the creator’s head like Athena popped out of Zeus’s. Stories are never the fruit of just one person’s labor — they’re edited and revised by others, and they’re bounced off of friends and editors and family to see if they’re working before they ever reach their final incarnation.

So why do we assume that any stage of the story is its final form? Where do we draw the line on “not done” and “done”? Is it the author? And if so, why? Why does the author get to say what is and isn’t complete in, for example, books, whereas in TV shows, the writers have very little to do with when a story is actually done?

Spoiler: there is no end. A new translation of “The Odyssey” just came out last year that’s different than any other translation available! No one said Emily Wilson, the translator, had any right to do so, but she had the right to reimagine the work anyway. Sure, translation is more devoted to the original material than fanfiction, but it still requires a reimagining of the text, what it meant at the time and how that works into a new language; it’s just another kind of fresh perspective on old canon.

Most important, fanfiction gives people a way to express themselves within a preexisting structure. Writing a whole book or script is difficult. It takes time, revisions, encouragement and a sense of imagination that isn’t stifled when considering things like continuity or worldbuilding. Those are resources that not everyone has or wants to pursue. But creating a derivative work gives people a chance to flex their imagination and creative writing skills.

Instead of creating entire relationships and worlds, fanfic writers can write their favorite aspects of the media, or play up their own strengths. Not everyone is great at action sequences, but they can write about the emotional impact that the original writers didn’t seem to consider. They can use the world that someone else created to make stories of hope and empowerment.

For instance: take “Supernatural.” Most of the women are killed off in gruesome ways, while the (straight, white, generally boring and forgettable) men live long after the third or fifteenth time they’ve been killed off. But with fanfiction, women can write powerful women, or even just replace the main characters with men who aren’t, y’know, misogynists who use women almost exclusively for sex and manpain.

Fanfiction is subversive. It’s punk rock! It’s a way for people to reclaim their own stories by writing themselves and their stories into mainstream media. It says, “We’re here, and we’ve always been here, and we’ll be here even if the world would rather not show us to other people.”

That’s not to say that fanfiction is always, or even mostly, a good thing. Like any social medium, it’s got it’s pitfalls — and like anything on the internet, those pitfalls are deep, dark and full of badly-written porn.

Remember how, in elementary school, the teacher would leave the class for two minutes and say something like, “Do whatever you want except use your markers on the wall. Literally anything else, just not that.” And, inevitably, a kid or two would instantly think, “Gee, it’s been a while since I used this marker on the wall! Gotta go do that!” The teacher would come back and, even though she knew who did it, the whole class got in trouble.

Fanfiction is a lot like that, except there’s no teacher to come in and make everyone skip half of their recess in penance. And when you tell someone they’re doing something wrong, they often don’t want to accept personal responsibility for the content they’ve created.

There’s something to be said for creating guilt-free content. There are safe searches and tags so people know if the content they’re about to click on is something they’re interested in, and no one is forcing anyone to even go onto these fanfiction websites. That’s all fair and true, but no one is forcing people to watch hours and hours of content on TV either, and it still impacts our culture. Why should consuming fan content be any different?

Fic writers are producing content that other people will consume, and so they’ll necessarily be influencing the way other people think. So of course they have a responsibility to create content responsibly! And, too often, that responsibility is dropped.

For example: fanfiction is dominated by female writers. While it’s difficult to quantify (online accounts don’t always require gender reporting, for one thing, and most surveys don’t look at multiple websites’ statistics), it’s usually more than 75 percent female-written.

Combine that with the knowledge that most works (at least on websites like Archive of Our Own that make their statistics readily available) center on male/male relationships, and you often get, at best, well-meaning writing that oversimplifies and mischaracterizes male/male relationships and, at worst, is grossly fetishizing. If we can all agree that lesbian porn for men is not okay, then we should also think critically about gay porn for women.

While some men do write fanfiction, they’re in the minority, and you’re more likely to find works created by women.
And it’s not just the relationships that get fetishized — real people often do too. Some authors write about the actors or people they admire (cool, fine) in relationships with other, real people they admire (problematic). Real people aren’t dolls you can dress up in new scenery and with new love lives!

Of course, most people understand the line between real and imaginary, and they can distinguished between characters and their actors. But if we want to legitimize fanfiction and compliment it for the innovative medium that it is (and I certainly do!) then we also need to address the ways that fanfiction should be scrutinized and held accountable.

Fan content is driven by communities, and those communities should hold one another to a better standard than letting bad behavior slide with a shrug. It should be a place to work together, to tell interesting and exciting and eclectic stories, not to create something that leaves a bad taste in your mouth and your morals at the door.

Post Author: Raven Fawcett