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Iconography: Figuring Fan Fiction

I was twelve or thirteen when I first started reading and writing fan fiction, and I can't see myself stopping any time soon. Fan fiction is not only creative, I haven't simply been a part of great communities, but there are some really interesting dynamics going on with feminist refiguring of literary icons.

"Fan fiction" refers to works by fans of television shows, movies, books, and such using the source material's storylines, characters, world and so forth. Legally, therefore, they inhabit a tenuous position. Fan fic is often shared with fellow fans, formerly mostly in zines and now largely on the Internet. There are large fan fiction communities online, some specific to particular fandoms, and some catering more widely, as with FanFiction.net.

On first making my way into fandoms, I was amazed to find that I was participating in communities full of women. Geekery, running about in costumes and attending conventions and such, is often held to be a men's domain (just see what the folks at Geek Feminism have to say about that!). But here I was finding groups largely comprised of women: writing, sharing, bouncing ideas off each other, editing each others' work, participating in fic writing challenges. Here I found women working collaboratively, getting creative together and building women's cultures on women's terms. It makes my feminist heart sing.

Women's fan fiction communities are a fabulously feminist project just for that, but there's still a world of possibilities to be explored. Have you ever felt like an author simply did not do right by a character? (I'll be examining Bertha Rochester from Jane Eyre later on in this series, for example, because for goodness' sake, Charlotte Brontë.) Well, here's where many have taken the chance to rewrite endings from a feminist angle, or to examine the bits of women's lives left unexplored in published literature. Fan fiction has particularly emerged as a means of taking queer subtext and making it text; I may have read more Harry/Draco slash ("slash" refers to fan fic about a same-sex pairing) than I've had hot dinners. Where usually only certain kinds of fiction get to be iconic in popular culture, this subculture gets to tease out the subversive might-have-beens.

I love it both when fan fiction furthers the legacy of feminist writers and when misogynistic elements in classic or popular works are turned to the feminist. I love the transformation of a one-dimensional stereotype to a fully fleshed out woman, giving the female sidekick the chance to live out her potential (hello there, Hermione Granger), and the rejigging of a plotline so that it no longer leaves a bad taste in your mouth. And it's especially cool when you get transmedia interplay. For example, "In An Interstellar Burst" by such_heights is one of my favourites for upending the end of Doctor Who series four, in which, spoiler alert, the main female character has her memories of all her heroic deeds erased. I don't want to convey that fan fiction is especially about making creative works do what the fans want. Rather, it's about taking your own perspective and engaging with iconic texts, something that often eventuates in a beautifully creative engagement with social justice or just plain old fun.

Fan fiction allows writers to jump off from iconic works and learn and practice their own skills. Where women are often told that their imaginings are silly and inconsequential, fan fiction provides some support with already publicly validated worlds in which to run free. And then there are many writers who have found their way into paid writing work on the back of their fan fiction. In a fandom like Doctor Who, that's famously men, but there are women starting to emerge too, like Harry Potter fic fandom's most famous daughter, Cassandra Clare.

Writing is often all about the icons, but with fan fiction it's about turning them (as well as works not as famous) to popular use. A fair part of the time, it's about turning them to women's communities, cultures and creativity. It's about creating the kinds of stories we want to read, even if we're not lucky or privileged enough to get our own work out there in established and accepted forms. How gloriously feminist is that?

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Comments

11 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Would Wide Sargasso Sea (one

Would Wide Sargasso Sea (one of my favorite books of all time) by Jean Rhys be considered fan fic then? :-)

I don't think so! I guess you

I don't think so! I guess you could make an argument for it, but it's considered a literary work in its own right and has all the legitimacy of a publishing house behind it. I'll be covering it later in the series, by the way: it's one of my favourite books, too.

ah, your milage may value

This discussion, of course, is held all the time in fandom (especially when people start questioning whether fic should be allowed to exist.) But it becomes problematic when the only difference between fanfic and profic is that you're getting paid for profic. I'd rather see an increased awareness that no fiction is created in a vacuum, and more respect for transformative works (ignoring the term "fanfic" I think TWSS fits nicely into the transformative category) in general. And just think about all the scifi tie-in novels. Physical books, backed by publishers and written by paid authors, but that is really ALL that differentiates them from the fanfiction in the same universe. It's not terribly clear-cut.

Exactly so. :)

Exactly so. :)

Excellent!

I love Wide Sargasso Sea too and can't wait to see the entry. Foe by Coetzee is another good reworking of a (very egregiously racist) side character, Friday from Robinson Crusoe, with the added intellectual treat of a complex female protagonist.
Re: "I don't think so"...I tend to argue that fanfiction includes "literary works" and is not necessarily unpaid or unsupported by the people behind the source material. Even if a TV show's network is paying an author to write about its characters and laying out parameters as to what they may or may not do within the text, the author is taking figures they did not create and dreaming up new scenes for them to inhabit. The online, unpaid fanfic community is indeed an innovative thing (even if some stories, well, don't make for great reading) but the concept of fanfiction is not so narrow. (It also can be difficult to write, as I learned when I sat down to explore what might have happened between Veronica Mars and Mac.)
As a side note, I never realized Cassandra Clare started with fanfiction. That's wonderful.

I've had mixed experiences

I've had mixed experiences with fan fiction. While I think it's a nice way for readers to interact with their favorite stories and provides a space for writers of all ages and levels to contribute their ideas, I've also experienced fan fiction as incredibly uncomfortable to read, and the writing of fan fiction, particularly among younger females, is definitely stigmatized in popular culture. Girls who write fan fiction are often branded as social outcasts and weirdos, even, sometimes, to the point of cult status (the "My Immortal" phenomenon, for example). I have to say, though, that some of the fanfics I've read, many of which are on FanFiction.net and are, incidentally, were by female authors, were downright disturbing, with rape and misogynist violence occurring in the storylines very frequently, and being celebrated as "sexy" rather than deplored. It's especially disturbing that some of these kinds of stories are written by relatively young girls, and it bothers me that they might think of rape and violence as something romantic. (I don't purport that they do, because I don't know them, but the stories are pretty creepy, as are the comments that compliment the "hotness".) Any thoughts on that?

I'm not saying, of course, that this is the norm in all fan fiction writing, and I think that fan fiction is an excellent way to think critically about media, as well as being a good jumping-off point for writers to begin their own fictional universes. I also really appreciate when the media itself celebrates fan contribution--Star Trek: The Next Generation held an episode-writing contest for its fans some years ago, and produced the winner. Maybe if fanfiction, like gaming, was brought out as an acceptable public activity for all types of people, we could lose some of the stigma.

Meh

On the topic of misogynistic/rape fanfiction, I agree -- it's creepy. Fanfiction has served for many an outcast as an outlet for subconscious [or conscious] rage and lust, which manifests as the copious amounts of rape found on FFnet. This combined with the corruption typically associated with wallowing in corrupt things causes the eventual appreciation of this kind of fanfic by those more susceptible to "fitting in." They consider themselves nonconformist, but this is a misappropriation; in actuality, they conform to something that isn't mainstream.

Most of the problems on the internet [or the planet] in general emerge from people using it as a channel for their anger or stress. Rather than act like complete idiots and lust/rage/angst blindly, people need to just scream in a damn pillow.

Yeah, I figured a lot of the

Yeah, I figured a lot of the creepier, rapey-er stuff I've come across is just misplaced frustration. It's still bothersome to me, however, and speaks to a larger societal issue that young female writers are using rape/misogyny to "fit in."

fan communities aren't shiny, happy places

While I am a regular reader of fan fiction and appreciate it very much, fan communities often do nothing but replicate the racism and sexism of society at large. It's funny you mention Doctor Who, because Martha Jones has been one of fandom's most mistreated WOCs as of late. While there are pockets of amazing, progressive, feminist women in fandom, they are the exception and not the norm. If I never see another female character called a slut or whore for getting in the way of someone's favorite pairing, canon or extratextual, it will be too soon. In short, fandom has aggravated me and let me down too many times, so it's a bit puzzling to see it written about it in uncritical light.

(Oh no, not Cassandra Cla(i)re, noted plagiarist. I'd call her fandom's most infamous daughter--I'm not sure if it's a real win for someone who extensively plagiarized a multitude of works to go on and be successful in the "real" world.)

Erm, I was writing about fan

Erm, I was writing about fan fiction, not fandom dynamics in general. I'm aware that there is plenty to criticise about fandom, and, had I been writing about it, I would have included critiques. I'm aware that Cassie Clare is a plagiarist, but that doesn't make her not a woman, and a famous one, who got her start writing fan fiction, which was my point in mentioning her.

Nice post on fanfic legitimacy

While I tend to find fanfic.net to be a pit of terribleness, it was a place I spent a long time seeking out Labyrinth fanfic (my first and still beloved fandom) but I tend to avoid it at all costs choosing blogging fic communities and the AO3 by preference.

I love the way you write about how much of a contribution it can make, and while there is the disturbing threads as mentioned in a couple of the other comments, as a whole the community shows it self to be willing to grow and change and take on that things are not always like that, that there is a reason for changing those elements and that culture transformation starts with them.

Really enjoying your series of articles here too. :)