How Fanfiction Can Inspire a Meaningful Cultural Activism and Challenge Social Stigmas
Milena Popova on the Real-World Impact of the Fandom Community's Discussion of Sexual Consent
Fanfiction has great potential to create and make accessible new knowledges, to explore difficult issues, to allow us to see ourselves reflected in culture that habitually erases us, and to enable us to imagine things differently. On issues of sexual consent in particular, fanfiction is a form of cultural activism. Readers and writers come together and as a community explore the kinds of difficult questions about consent that the dominant ideas in our society make all but unaskable. In their interactions with each other, their community practices, and their infrastructures, fanfiction readers and writers enact a praxis of consent, making their knowledges manifest in the real world. In this way, they show us what a world without rape culture might look like.
While not directed at a wider public, this kind of creation and enacting of knowledges through culture and creative writing does open up new possibilities for community members: it changes how they understand themselves, their sexuality, and their own sexual practices. It has tangible effects on the real world, and is therefore a meaningful form of cultural activism.
The Guillotine or The Shopping Mall
Fanfiction communities are sites of cultural activism on sexual consent. But what does this actually mean? I submitted the PhD thesis on which this book is based the week after the Weinstein allegations broke. We’ve had #MeToo. People have gone to prison. Aren’t we done with sexual violence and consent activism yet? Where is this kind of activism going next? Historian and cultural theorist Stephen Duncombe remarked rather cynically that revolutions have a tendency “to end at the guillotine or in a shopping mall.” So, can we see signs of fanfiction communities’ activism heading in either of those directions?
There has been a certain level of cooptation and commercialization—or, at the very least, mainstreaming—of both fanfiction and discussions of sexual consent in the last few years. For decades, fanfiction was an underground, clandestine activity, both because of its murky copyright status and because the expression of women’s and queer sexualities is stigmatized in our society. If you are an Old Fan like me, you remember every piece of fanfiction being preceded by a copyright disclaimer along the lines of, “I don’t own anything and am not making any money from this, please don’t sue.” But this trend has pretty much disappeared in recent years, to the point that younger community members stumbling upon older fic are extremely puzzled by this particular kind of paratext. “Why would anyone sue fanfiction writers?” they wonder.
The founding of the Organization for Transformative Works (OTW) in 2007 has a lot to do with this development. The mid-2000s saw several attempts by various rightsholders and other commercial companies to capitalize on fanworks (Kindle Worlds, in 2013, was a latecomer to this trend, and it probably won’t be the last). There were also several run-ins with platforms like LiveJournal, where some types of fanfiction were banned and users’ accounts outright deleted. So, the OTW was founded both to provide “an Archive of One’s Own… run BY fanfic readers FOR fanfic readers,” and to make a strong legal case for fanworks as legal, not infringing on copyright, and themselves protected under US law as transformative works. This removed the perceived legal pressures on fanfiction and other fanworks to remain clandestine.
On the social stigma side of things, we have seen a mainstreaming of discussions and representation in culture of women’s and queer sexualities, and we fan studies scholars have done our bit by relentlessly (and sometimes less critically than is warranted) celebrating erotic fanfiction as subversive and transformative. And, of course, rightsholders’ attempts to capitalize on fanfiction and other kinds of fan engagement haven’t stopped. As Henry Jenkins argues, “the media industry is increasingly dependent on active and committed consumers to spread the word about valued properties in an overcrowded media marketplace, and in some cases they are seeking ways to channel the creative output of media fans to lower their production costs.”
Studios encourage cosplay (dressing up as favorite characters, often involving the creation of elaborate handmade costumes), game developers run fanfiction competitions, and CBS and Paramount are trying to both accommodate and control the production of Star Trek fan films through a set of official guidelines. The publication of Fifty Shades of Grey, which originated as a piece of fanfiction for the book and movie series Twilight, is perhaps the most notorious incident of commercializing fanfiction, but there are plenty of other examples. These factors combine to create a much greater awareness of fanfiction and other fannish activities in the public eye, to the delight of some fanfiction community members and the chagrin of others. Some fans feel validated by this commercial attention. Others would much rather keep hiding in our gutter, thank you very much.
Fanfiction communities are sites of cultural activism on sexual consent.
The #MeToo movement and other more or less mainstream discussions of sexual violence are another important development in the environment in which fanfiction communities operate. They have drawn the attention of the wider public to something feminists have known for decades: that there are many powerful, high-profile abusers who come from all walks of life and industries, and that sexual violence isn’t so much the exception for many of us but commonplace, everyday, pervasive. Just look at the sheer number of us who can say “me too.” Exposing rape myths and the role of the law in rape culture has been one key focus in feminist public debates around #MeToo.
So, with both fanfiction and issues of consent becoming much more prominent in the public eye, what can we say about the future activist potentialities of the kinds of cultural activism that fanfiction communities engage in around consent? Has the mainstreaming of fanfiction eliminated the pressures that previously allowed it to be a clandestine, transgressive, and subversive space? Has the mainstreaming of consent issues made obsolete the kind of activism that fanfiction does?
I would argue that the answer to the last of these questions is a resounding no: even, and perhaps especially, in the wake of #MeToo, consent continues to be a contested idea, even in feminist circles. There has also been a concerted effort to push back against the small victories #MeToo has achieved. Fanfiction, then, remains a crucial tool for developing our knowledge and understanding of consent. It continues to operate outside traditional knowledge production and validation structures. It builds on epistemologies rooted in lived experience and, at the same time, accounts for and challenges our society’s dominant ideas about sex. We will continue to need these kinds of new, marginalized, and subjugated knowledges for some time to come.
The impact of the mainstreaming of fanfiction on its activist potential, however, is a potentially thornier issue. The external pressures that made fanfiction a clandestine activity were also key enablers of its subversiveness. There is a reason the Omegaverse arose where it did: in anonymous online communities on the margins of the margins of fandom. Some fanfiction communities continue to resist cooptation and commercialization by rightsholders. Others are happy to settle in the walled gardens provided by the cultural industries and abide, for instance, by restrictions on sexually explicit content. The recent demise of Tumblr as a viable social media platform for sexually explicit material has fragmented and dispersed fanfiction communities. This highlights the importance of the OTW as a fan-owned, fan-run space.
Fannish cultural activism also has the potential to shape and influence mainstream culture. One of the most striking features of the fanfiction community is the conviction that fiction, culture, and art do real work in the real world through the stories they tell and the ideas they develop or challenge. With that in mind, authorial intent—terribly unfashionable in recent cultural and, to an extent, literary studies—becomes an important factor in how we read the text. This is not because it tells us the text’s meaning but because it reflects the connection between the text and the real world. There is a desire in fanfiction communities to hold creators of culture accountable for this work. This desire translates into community norms and practices—it is what ultimately gives rise to the fannish praxis of consent we saw in chapter 7.
But demands for such accountability are no longer limited to fanfiction authors or to fannish circles: fans are making demands of creators of mainstream culture and critiquing political dimensions of popular culture works. Fans are increasingly vocal in challenging problematic media practices such as queerbaiting—the way TV shows use promotional material and paratexts to create an expectation of queer content to attract queer viewers, but never actually deliver on it.
Fan studies scholar Eve Ng suggests that there are three factors at play here: the actual queer content of the show, which she maps on a spectrum from subtextual to overtly textual; official paratexts around the show, such as trailers, producers’ comments, or cast interviews; and what Ng calls “queer contextuality.” Queer contextuality encompasses viewers’ wider experiences of queer representation in media. Several competing trends shape such expectations.
On the one hand, there is more queer representation in mainstream media than ever before. This in turn counters a historical lack of representation that has shaped the experiences and expectations of older viewers, in particular. On the other hand, this representation continues to be mired in problems and stereotypes. Our TV screens are littered with well-buried gays. Increased representation and producer comments aimed at attracting queer audiences therefore generate much higher expectations of overtly textual, high-quality queer representation than has historically been the case. But, in many cases, producers fail to deliver on those high expectations, and that drives the accusations of queerbaiting.
What is important about both queerbaiting discussions and Ng’s analysis of them is that, like fanfiction readers’ and writers’ emphasis on authorial intent, they show that audiences perceive a clear link between media texts and real-world concerns. If we can’t see ourselves reflected in our culture as living happy, fulfilling lives and having meaningful agency in the world, that has an effect on how we see ourselves more generally. It limits our options and choices in life; it tells us there is no space for us. And we demand better from our culture.
We see similar demands for mainstream media to do better when it comes to issues of gender, sex, sexuality, and consent. Discussions of the character of Sansa Stark, and of sexual violence more generally, on HBO’s Game of Thrones in media and on progressive blogs have used the kind of close textual analysis combined with critiques of the author and producers that we are normally only used to in fannish circles. These critical practices seem to be spilling out of dedicated fandom and into more casual audiences as well as more traditional activist and community settings. Here, too, the interplay between text and real world is a central issue, with discussion moving seamlessly from a close reading of the text to explorations of political issues and back.
We are seeing increasing use of engagement with popular culture for activist and political purposes. Audiences beyond fans are starting to ask questions about the interactions between text and real world, the role and responsibility of authors and producers. The resurrection of the author in this context—as a symbol for the work media texts do in the real world—is a wake-up call for the cultural industries who are increasingly being held accountable not only by fans but also by casual audiences for the world their output helps to build.
There is plenty of work left to do for fanfiction in this space. We still need the kinds of knowledges about consent that fanfiction communities create, and we need those knowledges to continue spilling over into other spaces. If recent political developments are anything to go by, the #MeToo revolution is not headed to the guillotine. As to the shopping mall, that is a tightrope that both #MeToo and fanfiction-based consent activism have to walk. Mainstream attention is vital for new knowledges about consent to be disseminated beyond the communities where they originate. But mainstream attention is also very good at diluting the message.
“We Don’t Soothe All Pain Equally”
Recent fan studies scholarship has started engaging in more depth not only with the activist potential of fanfiction communities, but also with their failings. In addition to the kind of cultural activism I have talked about in this book, Leetal Dean has argued that fanfiction communities practice an “activism of care.” They define this as activism that sees care as radical, makes use of community members’ existing skills, is embedded in everyday community practices, is at least in part intersectional, and is specific to the needs of individuals and the community. When we write fanfiction for each other in which our favorite characters share our struggles—be those depression, anxiety, or existing within rape culture—we are caring for each other and helping each other survive in a hostile world.
But, as Elise Vist notes, “we don’t soothe all pain equally.” Fanfiction communities are far from homogenous. There is diversity of opinion, diversity of experience, and demographic diversity. Some of this is celebrated both by fans and fan studies scholars. Look at all of these queer women and nonbinary people doing weird but revolutionary queer women and nonbinary people things! In other cases, the diversity within the community is obscured in favor of blanket statements that assume a particular kind of default fan. What that default fan looks like has shifted somewhat over time; in her 1992 ethnography of fanfiction fandom, Camille Bacon-Smith suggests straight, White, American, educated, and underemployed women in their 30s and 40s.
Today’s fans and fan studies scholars probably picture a slightly queerer, maybe slightly younger default fan, but one who is still very much White and probably American. Indeed, the data we have on fannish demographics indicates that fanfiction readers and writers are predominantly women and nonbinary people, a majority of them identify as queer, and that fannish spaces such as Tumblr and AO3, where most of the data comes from, are majority White. But we are also increasingly hearing from both fans and scholars of the role race and racism play in fandom (and in fan studies).
This essay is excerpted from Dubcon: Fanfiction, Power, and Sexual Consent. Copyright © 2021 by Milena Popova. Used with permission of the publisher, MIT Press.