This is my senior honors thesis. It has been reformatted for the web. I highly recommend reading it as a Word Document, which you can download here.
Why fan fiction?
Fan fiction, or fan fic, is a fictional work that borrows characters, plots, and/or settings from a pre-existing fictional world. As the name implies, fan fiction is written by fans, not the official sources, such as an author or director. It is “an essentially parodic, some say parasitic, art form: it cannot exist from the creative text… on which it is based” (“Legitimacy, Validity, and Writing for Free” 1092). Just as some say it is parasitic, some also say it is unoriginal because it relies on “original” sources. Such an assumption is a weak claim, and one too simple to accept.
In my research, I’ve learned that very few things—if any at all—are original. To study a history of fan fiction based on the concept of originality would be nearly impossible. It would mean studying the history of stories and narratives—before the term “fan fiction” existed. “Although the term fan fiction was not used until the 1960s, it must be acknowledged the fan fiction is a subgenre of a larger, older genre of literature that is generally called ‘derivative’ or ‘appropriative’” (Derecho 63).For some of the oldest examples, look to Homer’s epics The Illiad and The Odyssey. Homer told his lengthy oral tale using characters from Greek mythology. Mythology was used to explain events our ancestors did not understand. These stories did not come from any “original” source, but was inspired by the world around them. I could even argue that the Bible is not original. Many of the books in the Old Testament recorded Jewish law and history. There are four Gospels telling the same story of Jesus Christ, each with slight differences. Before these stories were recorded as we know them today, they were told orally. Who knows how many changes the Gospels went through given the amount of people spreading the good news? Or when the Bible was translated into the local vernacular? Before those translations, only the leaders of the Catholic Church—the Pope, cardinals, bishops, and priests—were able to access the Bible and understand it in Latin. Men in those leadership positions were also the ones who determined the Biblical canon, or the legitimate set of books to be included in the Bible. Any books failing to adhere to the canon were denounced as illegitimate, heretical, and/or rubbish. (In a rather ironic twist, fans have adopted the term “canon” to refer to an official source from which they borrow content.)
Fan fiction critics—both from within and outside fandom—have said similar things of fan fiction for years. “In the early modern period, fans were known as lovers, a term that has survived in English today as ‘amateur’” (Keller). The word amateur has a distasteful connotation with it, implying a lack of professionalism or talent. But the English Oxford Dictionary defines the word as “one who engages in a pursuit… on an unpaid basis.” There are definitely fan fics that are poorly written—plenty of them. But the writing quality is not what I want to focus on in this thesis. It seems as though quality and money are equated with legitimacy. Due to copyright issues, the vast majority of fan fiction writers are not paid for their work. (Parody law protects fan fiction writers from lawsuits in most cases.) Even so, that doesn’t stop fans from writing. But who would write something like this for free? The vast majority of fan fiction writers are women. But this in part might explain the lack of validity and perhaps historical studies.
Fan fiction is worth studying from a variety of angles. Though fan fiction might not be measured in cold, hard cash, its worth stems from exchanges: stories (as gifts), conversations, and close-knit friendships. Websites like fanfiction.net and Archive of Our Own provide a safe space for female fans to talk with one another, give feedback, and exchange stories.
In order to go more in-depth with the broad subject of fan fiction, I am going to focus on the history of three different fandoms and their fanworks. Archive of Our Own—or AO3 as fans call it—divides its fan fiction into several subcategories: Anime and Manga, Books and Literature, Cartoons and Comics and Graphic Novels, Celebrities and Real People, Movies, Music and Bands, Other Media, Theatre, TV Shows, Video Games, and Uncategorized fandoms.
The first fandom is Harry Potter. It covers “Books and Literature” and “Movies.” It’s one of the best-selling books in the world; naturally, Harry Potter has the highest number of fan fictions on AO3 and fanfiction.net—respectively 13,300 and 761,000. But there are forums and sites dedicated to Harry Potter fan fiction. Within these forums lurks drama regarding legal issues of plagiarism and publishing fan fiction.
The second fandom is Voltron. I’ve selected this title for multiple reasons. One of which, admittedly, is personal investment. But Voltron falls under roughly three AO3 categories: “Anime and Manga,” “Cartoons and Comics and Graphic Novels,” and “TV Shows.” Voltron has been around since the 1980s as a dubbed and sanitized Japanese anime series. It’s had several failed reboots, but its most recent and successful is Voltron: Legendary Defender (2016), which was created by Voltron fans. I’ll talk about adaptation as a form of fan fiction, compare fanworks between the 1980s series and Voltron: Legendary Defender, and the relationship between diversity and fandom.
The third and final fandom is Fall Out Boy. This fandom—or bandom, as fans refer to this fandom sub-group—centers itself around people who exist. With the AO3 categorization, it falls under “Celebrities and Real People” and “Music and Bands.” This type of fiction is known as “real person fic,” or “RPF.” RPF is controversial, even within the fan fiction community. Most of its controversies stem from “shipping” two real people and putting them in a romantic relationship. And more often than not, most fans will “re-write” characters (or people, in this case) as queer. In nearly all cases, these characters are male. This will further develop into a comparison about why women write fan fiction—slash in particular.
“‘This boy will be famous— a legend—I wouldn’t be surprised if today was known as Harry Potter Day in future—there will be books written about Harry— every child in our world will know his name’” (Rowling 13)! Minerva McGonagall’s words were more prophetic (if not ironic) than Harry Potter’s author first intended. As of 2013, there are 450 million copies of the Harry Potter books in print around the world, translated into 73 different languages (“Because It’s His Birthday: Harry Potter, By the Numbers”). Indeed, Professor McGonagall was correct: there are books written about Harry, and just about every child in our world knows his name.
And yet, the famous Boy Who Lived did not stay in the limelight forever—at least in the United Kingdom, where muggle mums helped make Fifty Shades of Grey become the fastest selling paperback of all time. By now, just about everyone knows that Fifty Shades of Grey started out as Twilight fan fiction. Legally, this is an acceptable practice, but it sits in a—pun intended—grey area of morality. Personally, I am not the biggest fan of publishing fan fiction for monetary gain, but I do see its benefits.
Fifty Shades of Grey established a movement for “officially” published fan fiction writers known as “pulling to publish,” in which the author goes back and changes certain details of their story (such as names and settings) and then deletes it from online archives. When Fifty Shades writer E.L. James did this, “she deleted a part of the cultural heritage of her fellow fans to the detriment of their community, and she denied the explicitly communal nature of the authorship of her work” (De Kosnik 122). If she had any beta readers—fic writer slang for editor—their work would go without credit. If anyone had helped her come up with the concept, they would not receive credit. By no means did E.L. James commit plagiarism, but there are those within fandom who have done so—and worse yet, were published with immense success.
Such is the story of Cassandra Claire, though nowadays people will see the name Cassandra Clare embellished on books set up on the bestseller table at their local Barnes and Noble. Clare is known for The Mortal Instrument series, a paranormal teen romance series. But Cassandra Claire was one of the big name writers in the Harry Potter fandom in the early 2000s. Her claim to Potterhead fame was an epic sized trilogy known as The Draco Trilogy, respectively published in three epic-sized installments: Draco Dormiens, Draco Sinister, and Draco Veritas. First posted on fanfiction.net, The Draco Trilogy was a monstrous success. Cassandra Claire’s fans adored her works for their witty, snarky dialogue—and the fact it centered around a romantic relationship between Harry and Draco. However, it turned out that much of that back-and-forth banter was not her own.
In fact, a good portion of Cassandra Claire’s trilogy was not her own handiwork. A fan going under the username avacado wrote long-drawn out explanation of events regarding Cassandra Claire’s plagiarism filled to the brim with more than sufficient evidence. Sadly, avacado’s lengthy multipart post is no longer online, but it is still available thanks to the help of the wayback machine. Likewise, Cassandra Claire’s trilogy is not available on fanfiction.net. But this was not because her “official” series was going to be published. She’d been caught red-handed plagiarizing and had been banned from the site.
As with many celebrities accused of a crime, diehard fans of the Draco Trilogy (and Cassandra Claire) refused to believe this amazing writer did anything wrong. A group of them left fanfiction.net to create their own Harry Potter fanfiction site called FictionAlley. Cassandra Claire was made one of the mods, along with a handful of other big names in the Harry Potter fan fiction writing circles. She continued writing the Draco Trilogy, free of further plagiarism accusations. Come 2005, she announced her retirement from fandom writing and finally took down the Draco Trilogy from FictionAlley and any other fan fiction archives.
Leafing through the pages of her profic—short for “professional fiction”—stories, there are many parallels between—if not exact passages taken from—her fan fiction. The name for her series The Mortal Instruments came from the title of a previous fic she’d written. Fans familiar with The Draco Trilogy often see Cassandra Claire’s interpretation of Draco Malfoy written into Clare’s character Jace. There’s even “one passage from Draco Veritas, which tells the story of Draco’s pet falcon [that] appears word-for-word in City of Bones; the only differences are minor punctuation changes and the amendment of ‘Draco’ to ‘the boy’” (“Cassandra Claire”). Naturally, fans who were around from the plagiarism debacle were—and some still are—livid over her success as a profic writer.
Personally, I do take issue with Clare’s claim to fame because her works directly plagiarized from other sources. As for Fifty Shades of Grey, I can’t say I do. My biggest concern regarding Fifty Shades is how it might characterize fan fiction and the writers. Yes, a lot of fan fiction is about sex, but not every fic is about abusive relationships and BDSM. Nor is every fic as poorly written as Fifty Shades of Grey. And while a lot of fan fic is poorly written, there are still gems out there, waiting to be discovered. Keep in mind that many fan fic writers aren’t adults. Many of them are starting to learn how to write, and fan fic is a great starting place.
Fan fiction in and of itself is not plagiarism. And as seen with avacado’s “The Cassandra Claire Plagiarism Debacle,” fan fiction writers are generally very good about policing and reporting plagiarism. I’ve reported a user on Archive of Our Own for plagiarizing text from David Clement-Davies’ The Sight. But avacado made a fascinating observation about plagiarizing profic: “[The FanFiction.Net Terms of Service] was not explicit, but plagiarism seemed to fall under the heading of “not allowed”… at least, plagiarism of other fanfiction was clearly not allowed. Plagiarism of published works? It was unclear” (“The Cassandra Claire Plagiarism Debacle”). Granted, this was back in 2001. Fanfiction.net’s current Terms of Service, which was last updated in 2009 (yikes!), doesn’t list anything about what constitutes as plagiarism. It does have a copyright section, but it is specifically for the creator of the copyrighted material. The Content Guidelines page, however, warns writers not to copy material outside of the public domain. It also lists a handful of authors who have stated time and time again to not post fan fictions of their works. Should a writer try to submit a Game of Thrones fic, they’d be banned from fanfiction.net permanently.
Of course, miffed plagiarizers can take their work elsewhere as Claire did; but again, fans tend to keep an eye out for issues like this. “When fan fiction writers reposition the morality and ethics of copyright to friendship and community… they re-insert cultural texts back into the cultural life of a community, the very purpose of creative works” (“It’s Like Rape” 906). The last thing fans want is the elimination of fan fiction writing. Taking out plagiarists like Claire (though her removal from fandom was due to her own decision to pull and publish) keeps fandom safe from angry authors’ lawsuits. If fans didn’t support one another, fan fiction would probably cease to exist.
Should such an event occur, fiction would lack diversity and creativity with the same names and people writing. Fan fiction gives readers access to a beautiful and diverse new world of stories. Fan fiction costs nothing to create and has relatively little effect on profic authors’ profits. For them to take fan fiction away from aspiring women writers would be a sick display of censorship, capitalist greed, and sexism. This could allow media companies to continue producing works about white, neurotypical, straight, cisgender men.
Where’s the fun in that?
Japanese animation—or as most know it now as anime—has found its way into American pop culture. Some of the most popular and recent American cartoons, such as Steven Universe, reference anime verbally and visually. Fast food chain Arby’s doesn’t try selling their roast beef and cheddar sandwiches on Twitter. Instead, they share artistic renderings of pop culture references using cardboard, ketchup, and curly fries. Ten years ago, I never thought I’d see that company tweet a quote from Princess Mononoke (@arbys). Nor did I ever think I would find myself hooked on an animated series about five teens who pilot sentient lion robots that can transform into an even bigger robot to save the universe from evil aliens at the age of twenty-two.
Voltron: Legendary Defender is reminiscent of Power Rangers, with each Lion and Paladin (robotic lion pilot) having corresponding colors. For example, the Black Paladin pilots the Black Lion. Black Paladin Takashi “Shiro” Shirogane is the heroic head of the team. Hot-headed Keith is the Red Paladin, and a foil to Lance, the overcompensating, flirtatious Blue Paladin. Tiny tech guru Pidge operates the Green Lion while the sturdy, anxious worrywart Hunk pilots Yellow.
After watching three episodes of the Netflix Original Series Voltron: Legendary Defender, I was in love with it. The animation was stunning, the characters compelling, and overall a great show. I wrote a fan fiction and posted it online, garnering a couple thousand hits—a record for me at the time. Addicted to the buzz of positive feedback, I went on to write my longest story to date. Phone Tag ended with 20 chapters, 100 pages on a Word Document, and 10,000 hits (and counting) from an international following.
Along the way, I encountered and befriended several fans, many of whom I talk to on a daily basis. From one of them, I learned Voltron: Legendary Defender was not entirely an “original” show. It was a reboot of one of the most popular children’s shows in the 1980s.
Voltron ran between 1984 to 1987 and was one early exposure American audiences had to Japanese anime. Its Western creators licensed material from two unrelated Japanese anime series, Beast King GoLion and Armored Fleet Dairugger XV. Due to the differences in these two series, the first Voltron series had two variations: Voltron Lion Force and Vehicle Team Voltron. When Voltron first aired in the U.S., these variations were less distinct. Collectively, these two variations were called Voltron: Defender of the Universe. And that name stuck.
Production-wise, Voltron was a mess. The creators had no means of Japanese-to-English translation and had to cut out violent scenes. That being said, a lot of the dialogue and story took guesswork. Other than sanitizing blood and gore, the production team Westernized characters’ names and settings. Takashi Shirogane became Sven; Akira Kogane became Keith; Isamu became Lance; Tsuyoshi became Hunk; and Hiroshi became Pidge. This is still a fairly common occurrence, especially for anime aimed at younger audiences. However, these productions choices have declined since the late 1990s. Despite some of these setbacks, Voltron managed to become the number one syndicated children’s show for two years (Koppel).
A couple of reboot attempts tried to reach the same success as Voltron of the 1980s, but the 1998 CGI-animated Voltron: The Third Dimension and 2011’s Voltron Force just couldn’t find the momentum.
But in 2016, the most recent reboot Voltron: Legendary Defender aired as a Netflix original series. And it was a hit. It’s had two seasons with a confirmed third season. (And presumably more on the way.) What does Voltron: Legendary Defender have that its predecessors lacked?
Netflix and Dreamworks (part of Legendary Defender’s production team) made a good call in asking the writers, animators, and producers behind Avatar: The Last Airbender and its spin-off series, The Legend of Korra. Avatar: The Last Airbender aired on Nickelodeon a little over ten years ago. It was praised for its diverse characters, contrast of humor and seriousness, and long form plot. Although the world the story takes place is not our own, its inspiration from our world’s many cultures is clear. Its main cast was made up entirely of people of color. The Waterbenders are based on Inuits; the Earthbenders and Firebenders, a blend of Japan and China; and the Airbenders—Air Nomads—were heavily influenced by Tibetan Buddhism. And the animation itself is heavily influenced by Japanese anime.
It should, then, come as no surprise that many of the show’s staff members are anime fans. Many of them grew up watching Voltron and similar shows. The creators—including a handful of the voice actors—are part of the generation who watched Voltron: Defender of the Universe as children. That being said, the staff doesn’t want to make the show exactly like the original. Voltron: Legendary Defender’s executive co-producer Joaquim Dos Santos explained the process of adapting from the older Voltron series:
We’re in a weird, unique position, having the original show to kind of bounce these ideas off of. It kind of gives us an ability to say, “This is what we’ve done before, what’s our spin on this? What do we stay true to? What do we deviate from?” So it’s kind of cool. It’s like this free radical floating out there, kind of adds a little fuel to the speculation fire. (Yehl)
It could be argued all adaptations are socially acceptable fan fictions. Taking the contents of a book and recreating them for a film is akin to an alternate universe fan fiction. Although the screenwriter takes more than just characters to make a movie, they’re still taking elements of a story that do not belong to them and putting them in a different world.
Since Voltron: Legendary Defender is not entirely tied down to the source material, it allows the creators to make improvements in areas they felt the Voltron of their childhood lacked. One of the most obvious areas aside from plot was that of diversity.
There’s racial diversity galore. Gleaning information from Shiro’s full name, Takashi Shirogane, viewers know he is Japanese. Lance talks about the things he misses back home in Veradera Beach, which is in Cuba. Hunk’s dark skin tone and black hair has made people assume he’s Polynesian—although his voice actor has said Hunk is Samoan (@tylabine). Keith’s heritage is unclear—and more complex, as viewers discovered in season two. And Pidge is the only Caucasian Paladin.
Even the alien characters are diverse in appearance. Princess Allura, who in the original series was a white woman who fainted at the sight of blood, is now a black woman (with pointed elfin ears) who’s willing to risk everything she has left to fight the Galra, the aliens who destroyed her home planet and pretty much run the universe. She’s an active character who will go out and fight on the battlefield. The only survivors from Planet Altea are her, some Altean subspecies of mice, and her mustached advisor Coran.
Voltron: Defender of the Universe had a nearly all male-cast, save for the princess. At first, Voltron: Legendary Defender appears to have that same problem regarding gender diversity. But it’s not the same. There’s another girl on board: Pidge Gunderson. The person who pushed for this change was the executive co-producer Lauren Montgomery: “It was my need to show those… fans that this character can occupy space regardless of whether it’s a boy or a girl… They can occupy that same space” (Betancourt).
Pidge’s real name is Katie Holt. Her father and brother went on a space exploration with Shiro as their pilot a year before the story begins. Everyone on that mission vanished.
In a flashback, we see her frozen from shock halfway down the stairs, staring at the blaring TV: “The Galaxy Garrison’s mission to the distant moon of Kerberos is missing, and all crew members are believed to be dead. The Galaxy Garrison [a militant NASA and flight school] has said that the crash was presumably caused by pilot error.” (As it turns out, they were all captured by Galra—the evil aliens.)
Katie Holt refuses to believe her brother and father are dead. She breaks into the Garrison and hacks into their government, finding no sign of pilot error.
In other words, Commander Samuel Holt and his son Matt are still out there. (Oh, and Shiro.) The authorities catch Katie mid-computer hack and ban her from the grounds. If anyone finds her there again, she’ll be charged with treason. What’s a girl to do? Cut her hair and re-enter the Garrison as a boy named Pidge Gunderson, of course.
As clear cut as her backstory is to the average viewer, her gender identity is a source of contention amongst fans. Some argue Pidge is transgender or non-binary—and all of their evidence is based on canonical information for Voltron: Legendary Defender.
When Pidge tells her teammates about her little secret she says, “I need to come clean, and I’m afraid this may change the way you all think about me. Just so there are no secrets between us anymore, I can’t ‘man up.’ I’m a girl” (“Taking Flight”).
The phrase “come clean” and her fears about how her teammates will take the news mirrors what coming out is like for many people. Almost everyone on her team knew her secret—and it never changed how they treated her. (This echoes Montgomery’s words that a character can occupy space no matter how they identify: male, female, neither, both, or a mixture.)
Another reason stems from her appearance and interests. She doesn’t have any feminine curves, girly interests or behavior. When Allura discovers Pidge is a girl, looks over a balcony and sees Pidge clean out her ear with a spork and sniff whatever it was she dug out, then stuffs food into a giant backpack. Allura looks at her informant skeptically and says, “Are you sure” (“Fall of the Castle of the Lions”)?
The contention for Pidge’s gender identity is even more clear on Archive of Our Own. Archive of Our Own uses a “tagging” system to organize content for fan fiction readers and writers. Tags often include information about the main ship(s), as well as where the story might take place. But character tags also exist. Writers typically use these tags for all characters involved or even who are simply mentioned in their fan fic. But sometimes they might provide extra information about a certain character. To list a few: “Nonbinary Pidge – Character,” “Pidge (mentioned),” and “Trans Male Pidge” (“Pidge | Katie Holt”).
Finding anything written about gender identity in the 1980s about Voltron or most other series would’ve been (and is) near impossible to find. Gender identity and other representations aside, most fan fics from then would be found in fanzines. Even in the digital age, stories and art from decades-old fanzines are tough to find. I managed to find two Voltron fan fictions printed in fanzines: “Lions & Dreams” and “Black Diamond.” However, here, I will focus on only the former due to its age and content.
“Lions & Dreams” was published in a 1987 issue of NOVA, which called itself the “official clubzine of the Earth Defense Command” (NOVA 1). This is a reference to a popular anime series known in the U.S. as Star Blazers (or Space Battleship Yamato in Japan).
This fic opens with a first-person perspective with someone watching Voltron during the day and summarizing the episode. They do so in a script format—fitting, considering they’re watching these characters panic because they’re missing a pilot. What are they to do? Allura suggest that they check out a doorway to another universe in a lab she helped raid.
As it turns out, the narrator wasn’t the only one observing the screen; the characters had been observing the narrator:
Pidge: “Several times when we’ve been working with [the door], we have seen this creature who seems to be watching us. We’ve figured out she is on our side, but in her dimension, she we’re a fantasy. Even so, I have a feeling she can help us.” (Todadler 26)
The narrator’s gender has been established at this point. But just who are they? The narrator’s “TV suddenly go bananas” and they look up to see Allura stand before her as a not a cartoon character, but as a real person. It’s established the narrator knows who Allura is, but Allura doesn’t know the narrator’s name: “I introduce myself: ‘I Todadler. You seek someone to help Voltron, you come to right place. I have many powers that can help him’” (Todadler 26).
Todadler shares the same name as the author who submitted this fan fiction. This is not just a Voltron fan fic, but a self-insert fic. A self-insert fic is pretty self-explanatory. It’s when authors write themselves into the story. This type of storytelling is generally frowned upon. It’s seen as amateur or immature, lazy, or unprofessional. But look to works like Dante’s Inferno, in which Dante himself is the hero of the story.
Self-insertion, too, is frowned upon within the fan fiction community. But for newer, younger female writers, it is an empowering exercise. “As a result of dominant patriarchal and cultural media discourses, many women often feel bad about themselves, feeling as though they cannot measure up to what they may perceive as society’s norms or expectations” (Kalinowski 664). Fan fiction—self-insert fan fiction in particular—can help women fight back against these norms and negative feelings.
“Lions & Dreams” deals with this directly when Allura’s Nanny first sees Todadler:
She exclaim: “Oh! What an ugly monster!” Princess say: “She’s not an ugly monster; she’s our friend! She has come to help us!”
Keith say: “I don’t care what she looks like just as long as she can fly the Red Lion.” (26).
For Todadler to receive support from a beautiful princess and Keith (who, in Voltron: Defender of the Universe, was the team leader who falls for Allura) is empowering. The heroes defend her against Nanny’s insults—and in turn, she winds up saving the Voltron crew from a real monster “uglier than I [Todadler]” (27). She continues to describe herself as ugly or hideous throughout her story. But the characters accept her as is. Acceptance like this is rarely found in the media. More often than not, “ugly” female characters are designated as Other. They are more likely to be the butt of the joke or a villain later on. If these women are the main characters, they go through some sort of change, like Allison in The Breakfast Club. But in reality, such changes are unlikely to occur.
Female characters in fan fiction are not held to these sexist standards of changing for a man. It’s more acceptable for them to be gross. Granted, there’s been improvement with “canon” sources over the years. Voltron: Legendary Defender has allowed Pidge to be a little more “gross.” She admits to Allura she sweats a lot (“Fall of the Castle of the Lions”), yet we never see Pidge look very sweaty.
But fan fic writers use that information and push it to the next level. In “You Smell Like Trash,” Garrison dropout Keith finds Pidge doing research for the Galaxy Garrison in the desert. The two begrudgingly work together when they find a strange obelisk in the middle of the desert, not too far from where Keith’s taken shelter in a tiny shack. By and by, the two fall for one another. It seems like a cute story. But there’s a lot of disgusting moments these two characters share:
“Look at this.”
She thrusts her hand into Keith’s face. The index finger on her right hand… has become a muddled purple black color. Like she hit it with a hammer or dropped something heavy on it. “The skin is all dead and sloughing around it too look.”
…Keith takes her hand in between both of his and holds it up to his eyes. “Wow that is really cool,” he admits. “And gross.” (BoxWineConfessions)
What I find really cool (and not at all gross) is in this fic and others like it is that Pidge does not change who she is for Keith—or anyone—to like her. She’s also allowed to be more disgusting than she is within the limits of the show. To break free of these boundaries is liberating for both character and writer.
Just as Voltron and its Paladins work to free the universe from evil forces, fan fiction liberates women writers. It allows them to create diverse representation, fight back against current patriarchal and capitalist systems, and find a safe space to write and create long-lasting friendships.
Fall Out Boy
“I Slept with Someone in Fall Out Boy and All I Got Was This Stupid Song Written About Me” sounds like the title of a fan fic. It’s actually the title of a Fall Out Boy song. While the lyrics of the song have little to do with the title, it does make a statement about the relationship between fans and the band.
A little background on this particular band: Fall Out Boy (affectionately shortened to FOB by fans) is made up of four members: Bassist Pete Wentz, vocalist and rhythm guitarist Patrick Stump, main guitarist Joe Trohman, and drummer Andy Hurley. Fall Out Boy’s history as a band is usually laid out very broadly into two eras: pre-hiatus and post-hiatus. But within each era are more time-divisions.
It all starts with the pre-hiatus era. These musicians—with the exception of Andy Hurley—laid out the foundations for Fall Out Boy around 2001. Fans refer to this as their formative era. A logical name, given that they’d just formed a band.
Of course, they didn’t become popular or famous overnight; and they certainly weren’t rich, either. Eventually Hurley joined the trio that would be known as Fall Out Boy. Together, the four of them recorded the album Take This to Your Grave. They found themselves a record deal and a very small cult following. But they didn’t find a ton of financial success.
What’s a better way to make some money than to stuff some guys in a van and tour the country? Enter the Take This to Your Grave Era (alternatively nicknamed “The Van Days”). The album and era name suited this time, especially when FOB had a close call that could have taken them to their graves. They were en route to New York City to a film a music video for the single “Grand Theft Autumn/Where Is Your Boy.” The “Grand Theft Autumn” part of the song name (a reference to video game series Grand Theft Auto) is eerily fitting, too. They’d been in a car accident. No one was physically hurt, but certainly shaken. Perhaps there’s an exception for Pete Wentz, who felt intense pressure from writing an upcoming album.
Instead of falling apart at the seams from these events, Fall Out Boy used the car accident as inspiration for their next hit album, From Under the Cork Tree. (The album’s cover image features a white van buried in snow, which directly references the accident.) Maybe it was due in part to karma, but this album is the one that skyrocketed Fall Out Boy into the heights of fame. But the transition from the average joe to celebrity is rarely an easy one.
In the midst of recording this 2005 album, Pete Wentz tried to kill himself in an event that’s been since dubbed “the Best Buy incident” (Cripps). This incident involved Wentz driving into a Best Buy parking lot and trying to overdose on anxiety medication. But Wentz refused to be silent about his suicide attempt. As the band’s lyricist, he wrote a song about it called “7 Minutes in Heaven (Atavan Halen).”
Some bands might’ve gone on a downward spiral after such an event, but not Fall Out Boy. This might be in part for the band’s musical genre: emo. “Emo… is characterized by expressive and personal lyrics and cathartic performances, often in a… confessional mode” (Hagen 49). The honesty of this genre appeals to fans on a number of levels. (And yes, this includes fan fiction writers.)
Perhaps part of this Era’s success stemmed from the Best Buy incident. Whether or not it did doesn’t really matter in the long run. From Under the Cork Tree is what shoved Fall Out Boy from a niche group of fans into the mainstream—and into their most successful era: Infinity on High. Other than this being Fall Out Boy’s best-selling album, there were relatively few issues the band members dealt with around this time.
But problems started arising in 2008, during the Folie a Deux Era. The album itself was a bomb. Fans hated it to the point they’d boo Fall Out Boy in live concerts. (And yes, people paid for tickets to do this.) Rolling Stone quoted Patrick Stump in a (now defunct) blog post: “Touring on Folie was like being the last act at the vaudeville show: We were rotten vegetable targets in Clandestine hoods” (Perpetua). Haters weren’t only the fans, but the band members themselves.
In 2008, Wentz married Ashlee Simpson. Suffice to say, Fall Out Boy’s members were not a fan of her. This put Wentz in a difficult position. His wife or the band? Other fights broke out as well, often regarding the creative process.
The events from the Folie a Deux Era led to the band deciding to go on hiatus in 2009. Between 2009 and 2013, Fall Out Boy members decided to try other projects. Stump went solo, which did not get very far into the mainstream. He also lost weight and dyed his hair blond. Wentz jumped into another band and out of his marriage with Simpson. Trohman and Hurley formed a duo (The Damned Things) for a little while; then Trohman tried to start up his own band (With Knives).
In 2013, the hiatus came to an abrupt end. This was the post-hiatus era. Fall Out Boy was together again. Since the hiatus, Fall Out Boy has released two albums (Save Rock & Roll and American Beauty/American Psycho) and are still going strong.
Now that the history lesson’s over, where does fan fiction come into play? Welcome to the “real” world of Real Person Fic, or RPF for short. Just as the name implies, RPF is fan fiction about real people. A subgenre of RPF is called “bandom,” a portmanteau of the words “band” and “fandom.” Bandom focuses mainly on bands within the pop/punk subgenre known as “emo,” which is short for “emotional.” Such bands include Fall Out Boy, Panic! At the Disco, My Chemical Romance, and the recent addition of Twenty Øne Piløts.
Just as all of these divisions within bandom and fan fiction exist, there are also divisions between fandoms. One of the most recent divisions is between fan fiction writers and RPF writers. Many fan fiction writers feel uncomfortable about RPF regarding ethics, especially when it comes to real person slash fiction.
Slash “refers to the presence of a homosexual relationship featuring at least one canon character… [and is] Derived from the “/” used to indicate the specific characters paired off” (Moonbeam’s Predictions). For example, a fan fic shipping (or pairing) Fall Out Boy vocalist and guitarist Patrick Stump with bassist Pete Wentz might be tagged on AO3 as “Patrick Stump/Pete Wentz.” The “/” symbol (or slash) indicates it as a pairing. There’s also a separate term for lesbian slash fic, which is femslash. However, slash (m/m) works tend to be far more popular than femslash (f/f) or male/female (m/f) ships.
So why might women write about the love lives of gay men? “Fans are dissatisfied with mainstream (heterosexual) portrayal of romance and sexuality… even if they happen to identify as heterosexual” (Tan 128). The cyclical nature of these narratives grow old and tiresome, especially when they reinforce a societal expectation on all women: find a boyfriend, get married, have babies, be a good mother and wife, and work a job while taking care of all of these other objectives. That being said, many female characters in media aren’t interesting or compelling due to trying to check off these objectives. But the men? Compared to the women, they are interesting and compelling. And that’s only one reason of many, like allowing more room for diversity that’s portrayed in a positive light. It’s rare to find a slash fan fic in which a same-sex couple struggle with a diagnosis of AIDS. Despite positive portrayal, queer writers feel there’s homophobia within slash, particularly with the fetishization of gay sex and the lack of historical and political queer struggles (“My Life is a WIP on My LJ” 211). These concerns are valid, as slash tends to be heteronormative. Most gay ships are made up of two men: one who is hyper-masculine dominant; and the other, a feminized, submissive man.
Another concern regarding real person fic—real person slash in particular—involves legality. Would a celebrity sue the writer for this story? It’s not unlikely. Fortunately (or unfortunately), many celebrities are fully aware of the existence of real person slash and sometimes even cater to the whims of fans. Fall Out Boy is definitely aware of real person slash. They’ve catered to fans by kissing one another on stage—a performance known as “stage gay.” In fact, most bands included in “bandom” have done so at some point during concerts. And it’s not tame kissing: it’s full on hot and heavy making out between bandmates (Ulaby). For many fans, it’s a dream come true. Some might call it a brave, subversive move. However, such a performance has its criticisms. Queer fans in particular took offense to stage gay, as the band members were “performing homosexuality as a privilege” (Hagen 52). Nearly all members of Fall Out Boy are involved in a heterosexual relationship. But making out with one another is indeed a privileged statement. These men do not face the consequences of what it means to be queer.
Concerns of queer representation does have other aspects to it. It’s a far more complex topic. To simply claim it as problematic is in itself a problem, as there’s more to it that what’s written. Slash works as a commentary on women and female communities. Slash might also be a way for women to talk to other women about the kind of sex they want to have. For women to be even mildly interested in the pornographic is seen as unnatural. Their sexualities are quashed, whereas men are meant to flaunt theirs. “There’s a genre of fanfiction called PWP (Plot? What Plot?) consisting of fanfics with very little plot and consisting mainly of explicit sex scenes” (Tan 134). In PWP fics, the men get right down to it. There’s not much talking beforehand, if any. This is very different when compared to the average Harlequin romance novel.
Slash also challenges traditional gender roles. Men can cry and be emotional: “It hit him like a fucking bus… before [Pete] knew it, he was on the ground, shaking and crying like the scared teenager he thought he wasn’t anymore” (brendonboydurie). It’s a rare thing in most “officially” published works to witness a complete breakdown from a male character. Female characters, on the other hand, are often expected to behave as Pete does in the above snippet from “Nothing’s All I Need.” Referring to Pete as a character in this fan fic is somewhat misleading. After all, Pete Wentz is not a character, but a real person. The writers don’t really know the “real” Pete Wentz or other members of Fall Out Boy. How do real person slash writers differentiate what’s real and what’s fictional? How do they create—or recreate—the identities of real people?
RPF doesn’t have a canon. In terms of writing, there are fewer rules. There’s less concern of writing band members’ personalities and reactions incorrectly. “[Real person slash] canon is a constructed narrative evented by selecting ‘official’ and ‘personal’ material” (“My Life is a WIP on LJ” 214). The so-called official material can be anything from interviews, DVDs, CDs, music videos, and concert footage. Even the general background of Fall Out Boy I wrote would be part of official material. Some events are even included as a specific reference point. For example, “Nothing’s All I Need” is tagged under “Pete Wentz’s Suicide Attempt (Best Buy Incident)” and “reference to divorce.” The latter tag is general and can work as a potential trigger warning. The personal material is usually derived from celebrity-fan encounter stories and social media.
While slash writers reconstruct their own canon versions of real people, they also reconstruct their own narratives and identities. Slash writers are not the only people who do this. Look to social media. People pick and choose what they want the world to know about them through their Facebook page. Slash writers, as do most fan fiction writers, tend to keep their status as fans separate from their “real” identity. Generally speaking, fan fic writers rarely share their works with familiar friends or family, but are more likely to invite readers and fellow writers into their real life.
There’s a certain amount of shame that comes from writing fan fic. It’s generally seen as trashy, unprofessional, and sometimes even deviant. Doubly so is the case for RPF and real person slash writers. But this is why the community aspect of fan fiction—whether it be more “traditional” fic, RPF, or slash—is significant. These communities are a safe space for women writers to discuss a vast variety of subjects. Just as real person slash writers “queer” celebrities, these writers also queer relationships within fandom:
The goal of community-building transactions in online media fandom is the creation of a stable space set apart via implementation of rhetorical strategies that exclude outsiders, from what fans call “real life,” to permit performance of gendered, alternative, queered identity. (Helleckson 116)
Fan fiction writers create this community through the use of a gift economy, in which they swap their writings with other writers. Sometimes, it’s simply a gift when a friend within a fandom has a bad day. During others, there might be a fic exchange event.
This gift economy makes publishers and their writers nervous. If women are writing for fun and for free, what does this mean for the future of the male-dominated publishing industry? To the capitalist system? These corporate powerhouses declare fan fiction writer as illegitimate or parasitic. But when they do that, these organizations hurt themselves. They fail to realize what women and other minority groups want to see on the big screen or in books. Fan fiction writers create content that’s written by women, for women.
The line between so-called “original” works and fanworks is a very, very fine one. In RPF, the line between reality and fiction may be even more thin:
It… emphasizes the multiple ways in which identities are construction, in which we perform our identity depending on our environment by creating hundreds and thousands of versions that coexist and all trace themselves to the same source text (“‘Digital Get Down’: Postmodern Boy Band Slash and the Queer Female Space” 110).
RPF and real person slash writers’ performances mirror that of their favorite subjects. Fall Out Boy—and other bands who are subjects of RPF and slash—and RPF/slash writers are both subject to creating their identities, both online and off, using a variety of source material. Through slash, writers perform—not unlike Fall Out Boy’s “stage gay” acts—different roles through their writing and interactions with other women. In the vast majority of cases, these interactions lead to discussions, sharing stories—both fan fic and personal accounts—and eventually, long-lasting friendships.
Fan fiction is a product consumed and created mostly by women. Fan fiction does have ethical issues regarding copyright and publication, but those issues are easily outweighed by its benefits. Fan fiction allows writers to re-create a more diverse world, experiment with sexuality and creativity in ways publishers would not accept. It’s a safe place for women writers to work together, send one another valuable, meaningful stories through a gift economy, and feel validated and accepted. Fan fiction is worth studying from every possible angle.
Though I initially started with studying fan fiction from a historical angle, this thesis turned into something else entirely. I’ve learned that fan fiction is everywhere—every book, film, and TV series out there is a work of fan fiction. I’ve learned more about RPF than I ever thought possible, and have come to accept it more openly than before. I’ve found support through fandom, through which I’ve found friends who I love to talk to, even if they live in England or the Philippines or a couple states over.
Sometimes I question why I would ever write a fan fiction. It’s not paid work and sometimes, it’s agonizing to write. But whenever someone leaves a little “kudos” or a kind comment on my stories, it reminds me that I can write, and that somewhere out there in the shrinking internet-connected world, someone likes what I do.
And that makes all the difference.
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