When Transformative Media Isn’t So Transformative

Recently, fanfiction and fandom have started to get more mainstream attention, with pieces on NPR and The New York Times Magazine. The increased awareness of what has historically been a somewhat shameful internet subculture has been kind of a mixed blessing, resulting, for example, in embarrassing interviews where celebrities are confronted with explicit fanfiction about their characters. Fanfiction has never had a stellar reputation – many view it as little more than written pornography, or the recourse of writers too unimaginative to make up their own characters. A number of authors have written impassioned screeds against the very idea of fanfiction, including Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series now being adapted for TV, and Anne Rice of Vampire Chronicles fame.

As fanfiction specifically and fandom more generally moves into the public eye, however, fans are making an effort to legitimate their hobby. According to Vulture’s fanfiction primer, for instance, fanfiction is “reshaping the power dynamic between creators and consumers.” The non-profit Organization for Transformative Works produces a peer-reviewed academic journal, Transformative Works and Cultures. Tumblr essays abound on how fanfiction is a revolutionary mode of story-telling, a breeding ground for fresh ideas unencumbered by the pressures of the market that constrain more traditional modes of publishing, a return to folk-myth created and shaped by a group rather than an individual. Fandom is, in a word, transformative.

I am a longtime member of fandom, and so it is with love that I say: no, not necessarily.

While it is true that there are a number of innovative aspects about fandom and fanfiction, I do not think it’s quite the paradisiacal space that some legitimating efforts make it out to be. Like all media in our culture, fandom and the fanworks it produces continue in large part to reproduce the biases and problems of the larger context in which they are embedded.

While it is true, for instance, that fanfiction largely ignores taboos still present on the writing of same sex relationships, those same sex relationships written tend to take one form: two white, cis men. (In the Vulture fanfiction primer, the “must reads” list of fanfiction included one heterosexual romance and otherwise consisted entirely of white male/male slash.) There has been a great deal of ink spilled over why fandom, a group that is frequently mostly female, focuses so much of its writing on slash, romantic pairings between two men. Explanations vary from a paucity of complex female characters to a desire to rewrite the limits of romantic relationships, but the fact remains that while crossing one boundary with respect to heterosexuality, others, such as race and gender, remain intact. Female characters frequently remain on the fringes of fandom, and female characters of color even more so.

I don’t mean this post to say that fandom is evil because it fails to totally overthrow the rules of the dominant culture, or that individual fans are evil for not writing more Rhodey/Tony slash. What I am saying is to be mindful of how we present ourselves, and whose voices are being heard. If we are going to talk about fanfiction as transformative, as rewriting the rules and overturning expectations – we need to remember that our own community is far from perfect and certainly not immune from criticism.

I respect – and support! – the project of trying to legitimize fanfiction. But let’s not do it by pretending to be better than we are. Let’s not do it by papering over the ways in which we fall prey to racism and sexism in our own communities, and continue to reproduce the inequalities of representation in fandom. When fandom is called “revolutionary,” it ignores those for whom it isn’t revolutionary at all – who continue to see themselves written out twice over, once in the original and once in the transformation.

Further reading: see this page for a list of the fandom statistics analyses by Tumblr user destinationtoast, which were a main resource for me in writing this post. For more discussion on the problems with the Vulture fanfiction “syllabus” see here and here. Here‘s one piece on the treatment of Black female characters in fandom.


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