There has been a ton of attention in recent times devoted to the phenomenon of fanfiction. A lot of it is based around the legal issues associated with it. Some argue that it infringes on the copyright of the writer of the original work, and there is a growing movement fighting against such legal challenges. The Organization of Transformative Works (OTW), a not-for-profit that also runs the Archive of Our Own, one of the most popular fanfiction sites, works with law agencies to categorize fanfics as pieces of “transformative” work, no longer subject to copyright restrictions. Amazon recently launched a platform called “Kindle Words” that allows fanfic writers to work with copyright owners and derive commercial benefits from their work.
I wouldn’t dare to venture an opinion on the legality of the matter, especially when authors themselves hold varied opinions on how they feel about it. JK Rowling is a famous supporter of fans deriving upon her work. Steven Moffat, co-creator of BBC’s “Sherlock” (which, by all definitions of the word is fanfiction) actively encourages people to write more of it. George RR Martin vehemently opposes any use of his creations in fan-written stories. Robin Hobb received a lot of ire in late 2005 for publishing an angry article titled “The Fanficion Rant” on her blog, outlining how fanfiction offended the writer of the original piece.
Setting the legalities aside, I do want to address some of the gender stereotypes inherent in the ways our society has responded to the culture of fanfiction and online fandoms. It is true that fanfic writers are predominantly female, followed closely by gender queer and LGBT youth. Let’s consider the term “fangirl.” It is a popular term today, routinely used to refer to a female person obsessed with or deeply enthusiastic about a book, a TV show, a movie or any other form of pop culture, typically called a “fandom.” I find it interesting that when it is a woman who likes something deeply, she needs the added epithet of the “girl.” Suddenly, the word “fan” is no longer sufficient.
Sure, the term “fanboy” is also common internet lingo. But do a google search of the two terms. Look them up on urban dictionary. Read some of the comment forums. Look at the context in which they are used. One term will be used to describe somebody who spends too much money on DC comics. The other term will imply the person to be in need of mental help; refer to them as preying, lustful, out-of-control beasts; mindless, shallow and ditzy in the pursuit of their obsession. No awards to guess which is which.
Let’s back up a second. I understand that much of the modern perception of fanfic writers is based on the attention devoted by mainstream media to the “Fifty Shades of Grey”phenomenon. While fanfic has existed since the “Star Trek”years as a perpetual beast functioning behind the curtain of mainstream society, it was “Fifty Shades of Grey”that brought the term to the attention of the average Joe. If we could have picked off a list, it would not be the work fanfic writers would have chosen to put on display.
Here’s my problem: if there is criticism directed at “Fifty Shades of Grey,”then it should be about the writing (which, in my opinion, leaves much to be desired). It should be judged on the agency of its characters, the quality of its plot, the dangerous precedent set by its poorly researched BDSM and its merits as a novel. While a lot of critics did address these glaring issues, there was great deal of attention devoted to associating the poor quality of material to fanfic writers in general.
Sure, not all fanfic is good. Some of it is terrible and insane. The quality of the writing is poor, there is little or no plot and the characters are shallow and poorly represented. However, if people are to criticize fanfiction, then, they should be doing it for the right reasons, not because "fat, illiterate, silly women who can't get a life” spend their time writing it. It is also true that a lot of online fanfiction is porn. Here’s a shocker: women enjoy porn. Women enjoy sex. Some people watch videos to masturbate, and some people read two thousand words of man on man action. Get over yourselves.
Consider the term “mommy porn.” The concept of a woman writing about BDSM and other women enjoying it apparently deserved a whole new category outside of regular porn. Why? To distinguish it from all the other 5 million pornographic resources on the internet that men enjoy and is, therefore, more serious?
I am concerned about this social inclination to dismiss or trivialize fanfic works. The implication is that something written by women and read majorly by women is somehow less important and unworthy of respect. There was a loud and angry twitter campaign a while ago called #fakegeekgirls. The premise was that several women were attending comic conventions in costumes in order to “seem nerdy and pick up the interest of men.” Female cosplayers were specifically picked on and accused that they were dressing up to get attention. Yes, I saved up for weeks, tailored my own spandex outfit and took a nine hour flight to trap you in my romantic clutches, dear stranger.
Setting aside the misogynist notion that everything women do revolve around finding a boyfriend, there is also the concerning implication that women need to go to greater lengths to justify a passion that honestly should not require a defense. The campaign demanded that female fans to show proof of legitimacy. “Oh, so you are a Captain America fan? Name all of Cap comics from the 1990s.”
Consider how, by trivializing and marginalizing an entire body of work as unimportant, we are not paying attention to the trends that are manifesting in fanfiction. Think about the profound space fanfiction provides for representation of minority communities. Canonical books, comics and TV shows revolve around the white male. Fanfiction provides the space for a gay Clark Kent, a genderqueer Sherlock Holmes, a lesbian Nancy Drew or an asexual Harry Potter. Most mainstream blogs are cis-gender owned, but Tumblr has more out and proud gender-queer writers in fandoms than any other social media site.
Consider that the most serious criticism of the dubious consent sexual practices in “Fifty Shades of Grey”came from other fanfic writers. Works of fanfiction come with tags, warnings, potential trigger associations and level of maturity — something not offered by published books. There is a lot of good fanfiction is doing in the world, if only we took the time to lift our eyes from the misogynist haze and take notice.
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Nandhini Narayanan is a student in the Master’s of Engineering Management program. Her column runs on alternate Fridays.