I have a confession to make: I read fan fiction for things I don’t even watch.
That’s right, I’m lurking in ur fandoms, prompting AUs in ur kink memes. And I’m doing it because, as much I have no interest in watching the source material, I kind of love the hell out of the world building that happens in fan fiction.
Now, this isn’t because I think whatever the source material is blows. No, I’m sure it’s lovely, for certain values of lovely that encompass all the issues I have with primetime television and Hollywood-produced movies.
I’m just really actively terrible at sitting still long enough to pay attention and watch anything. I haven’t seen a movie in the theater since the Star Trek reboot movie (AOS, for you fans), which came out in May of 2009.
I had every intention of seeing the new Muppet movie in the theatre -- I have a Muppet tattoo, after all. But I just never got around to it because sitting and watching things isn’t really a high priority in my life. This isn’t relevant to fan fiction -- though I’m sure Muppet fan fiction exists. It’s just my latest failure to engage with a film I really ought to like.
Here’s what I love: READING.
Here’s what fan fiction gives me: lots and lots and lots -- and LOTS -- of text to read. And, even better, it’s text that is often produced by people who, even if they aren’t actively involved in activist communities, are aware that these issues exist.
Fan fiction, for those not familiar, is a work of fiction -- though other fan works include art, vids, parodies, fan mixes and more – that is created by fans for fans. The source material is generally a popular media work; it’s a television show or a movie or a book or some actors that everyone loves. Think of the world created in a movie as a sandbox; fan fic plays in that sandbox and builds some alternate castles.
That’s really the key -- the castle that brought everyone to the sandbox is still there and people still love it. But some people want to build more houses and outbuildings and maybe an international airport so they can spend more time in the world, with the characters that they have grown to love.
That’s the usual route. You love a thing, like, the BBC’s modern version of "Sherlock," for example. And then you have to wait a year for more episodes and, oh my goodness, that can be agonizing. Instead of flailing around all over your living room, you take to the Internet! Often, you find yourself on Tumblr, refreshing your dashboard to see screen caps and gifs people have made from the newest episodes. And then… then maybe you make up a story. Because it’s better than waiting.
Alternately, you watch a thing -- and you love it. Except for a few… small… or maybe large… things. Like, hey, why does the BBC’s modern version of "Sherlock" treat women so badly? [This assertion is still up for debate, in my opinion! I will debate it! -- Lesley, Sherlock Fan] Maybe you ask that about "Doctor Who." Or you want to know why we can’t see Charles Xavier being a badass in his wheelchair.
You still take to the Internet, you still refresh those gifs on Tumblr (there are some great gifs on Tumblr). But maybe you write a story that fixes a problem you have with the source text.
Or, you know, maybe you just want to write some hot action -- not gonna lie, a lot of fan fiction is unashamed porn. And even that’s notable because most fan fic is written by women for women -- which is more than can be said for most porn. And unashamed porn stands out in a culture where sexual agency plus women equals a whole lot of angry people and debate.
There are, of course, issues with this. Fan fic is very often centered around two male characters who are not romantically paired in the source material -- source material is hereafter referred to as canon, okay? The “fixes” applied to get these dudes together are often problematic; there’s a surprising strain of woman-bashing in fan fic, though maybe it’s not so surprising when you think about how deeply ingrained sexism is in our culture.
There’s also a thing called femslash, which romantically and sexually pairs women from canon. That’s, uh, that’s usually pretty hot. Just saying.
In a world where default pairings are heterosexual and kink is relegated to Very Special Episodes About Tolerance or whatever, fan fic that "slashes" (i.e., sexually and/or romantically pairs) two men or two women or any number of other combinations are a huge and necessary relief for marginalized identities. There’s something deliciously transgressive and transformative about taking figures from popular media and repurposing them in the image of relationships Hollywood doesn’t want to show us because they are afraid of offending the paying viewership.
I read fan fic because I don’t trust the people who make popular entertainment to produce media that is meaningful to me. I’m not going to see my body in the movies. I’m not going to see my relationships portrayed as a totally normal thing.
In fact, most popular media is going to cast my body as a sexless sidekick or the butt of a joke. Most popular media is going to just pretend that the variety of ways people can care about each other is imaginary -- there is only sexual love and it is heterosexual. Or it’s, you know, a groundbreaking drama or something.
Read that last sentence with a tone of uncharacteristic cynicism, y’all.
A lot of people seem really angry about fan fic. And I don’t mean creators of popular media so much as I mean people who just, uh, seem really angry about it for no reason that makes any sense to me.
Fan fic is one of those things you really have to go looking for. There are a couple of archives, a couple of scholarly journals (because, yes, people are studying this stuff in an academic setting), and a whole bunch of conventions. You aren’t likely to fall over into a giant pile of Kirk/McCoy unless you’re Googling the right terms.
But if you are Googling the right terms, you can read about an asexual Sherlock Holmes navigating a relationship with a totally sexual John Watson (three-continent Watson, as a friend of mine called him the other night). You can read about a trans Kirk being supported by his whole crew. You can read about characters from virtually any media that you love in situations and relationships that are relevant to you and your individual life and experience.
You can also have conversations with other people about how important these representations are. There’s a whole lot of community drama, true, but there’s a whole lot of really varied, really rich world-building and character-developing going on.
I’m never going to see that in the Batman comics -- by the very nature of archetype-centered comics, the main characters must, by and large, remain static. Bruce Wayne is never going to get into therapy. Unless someone writes a story about Bruce Wayne going to therapy. (And I would totally read that, because, OMG, positive portrayal of mental health, yes. If one of you writes that, let me know, OK?)
So that’s my confession. I read fan fic, and I’m not particularly ashamed of it because shame is for oppressive power-play paradigms. You probably won’t know I’m there, in ur fandom. But I am. And I’m loving it.