Hey, kids. Indulge me for a moment, will you? I want to tell you all about this great fanfic series I’ve been enjoying lately. It’s a modern-day retelling based on a thing that was popular a few decades ago. The dialogue is sharp, the plot twists are many, and the characters are compelling. The author decided to get really creative with things, too, so a lot of characters who were originally written as men are now women, and there’s a much higher degree of racial diversity now. And I’m super in love with their ships! There a lot of good ones to pick from, but the best is totally the budding relationship the two male protagonists have. There’s so much sexual tension as they both try to come to grips with their mutual interest in each other. Super hot. They’re my OTP now.
How does this series sound to you? Good? Interesting? Boring? Just another weird fanfic sex-thing? Are you thinking that this kind of nonsense is why fanfiction will never be taken seriously?
Well, congratulations if you picked that last one, because I just described the award-winning TV show Hannibal.
For a long time now, we’ve all been taught that fanfic is a four-letter word. It’s the purview of emotionally underdeveloped teenage girls and perverts who want to put slashes on everything. Fanfic is your go-to for low quality writing, people self-inserting into a series in order to be “special”, and weird shit that no human should ever read. Need proof? Just look at 50 Shades of Grey, that used to be Twilight fanfic! How awful! Look at all those foolish women, getting off on such self-congratulatory crap! Ugh. I’ll be over here with my real books.
I’d be lying if I said that I hadn’t also held these views, and shouted them from the rooftops for most of my life. The last time I seriously engaged with fanfic was when I was in my preteens, and too young to know any better. (Then again, was it truly ignorance, or was it that the strict gender-coding and cultural disdain for fanfic hadn’t quite formed yet?) It was a lot of fun, but young Mandaray quickly realized how much cultural safety and currency there was to be gained by not only avoiding fanfic, but actively disparaging it. These were values that I internalized quickly and held on to for over a decade, and am only just now starting to truly examine.
So now that I’ve finally dislodged my head from my ass, what say we analyze a few things?
We’ll go with the most obvious one first: The term “Mary Sue”. This is an inherently gendered term which quickly gained popularity as a way to point out how sad it was that all of these kids were wasting their inborn talent trying to be Harry Potter’s girlfriend. Generally speaking, Mary Sue is a shortcut to describing a character which lacks a sense of realness; they’re too perfect, too smart, too fast. They don’t have enough flaws to be taken seriously or seen as “interesting”, especially to people who are older or who tend to stay outside of fandom.
This sounds like a useful term, doesn’t it? It’s easy to remember, and it communicates a fundamental problem that a lot of authors–especially new ones–can face.
The problem is, in my opinion, the term does not get enough use. Because of its origins and because of how fanfiction has been coded as feminine, Mary Sue is a term that largely gets thrown around to describe anything which involves an element of self-insertion into a story. This is seen as something shameful and to be avoided, (which is another thing I’ll be looking at shortly) but what happens is that a lot of folks seem to mysteriously stop using this term when they’re outside of fanfic.
For example, James Bond is the ultimate Mary Sue. He’s good looking, obscenely competent, and everyone is either constantly falling in love with him or scrambling to get out of his way. James Bond is superhuman, and would not exist in a realistic setting. He’s impossible. No one human being is that compelling and that good at everything. And yet, very few people call James Bond a Mary Sue. He is seen as an exciting, culturally relevant character that people want to engage with. People will go out of their way to explain why the things he does are possible, because they want to keep using him as a form of wish fulfillment. No one points at the authors of the different Bond movies and laughs at them because gosh, look at them enjoying such an obvious self-insertion fantasy. No, instead, we hand them obscene amounts of money.
Let’s say for the sake of argument that the term Mary Sue isn’t inherently gendered (ha, ha) and that how it’s currently used is perfectly acceptable. That brings us to the next element of the term: Why is the act of self-inserting oneself into a work of fiction seen as negative?
There are gendered connotations here, too. When a man inserts his personality into a work of fiction, not only is this perceived as a normal (even desired!) thing for him to do, it’s expected for him to be the protagonist of this situation. (Even if he is impressing himself onto a secondary or minor character, the social narrative shifts so that you get conversations like “Well the show says it’s about Bob, but it’s really about Dave.”) There is literally such a thing as an “every-man character”, a type of character that writers use so people–men–can relate more easily to their stories.
When a woman self-inserts into a story, most media (and people) expects her to take on a secondary role. She will play the part of the love interest, the villain, the Trophy which is bandied about between the male protagonists, or the plucky sidekick. Reforming the narrative to center around her both feels and is perceived as selfish. When stories do center and focus on women, suddenly the work is considered boring or vapid, implying that something meaningful is missing. It’s why we have “chick flicks” and why the term “rom-com” immediately brings to mind giggling and hysterical women bonding over tubs of ice cream.
A lot of people say Mary Sues are bad because they’re unrealistic. But saying your work must always and constantly be “realistic” sounds eerily similar to the arguments which say you can have dragons and magic but not elves with brown skin because it’s not “historically accurate”. These are both situations in which it is essential to examine our assumptions about what is desirable. Are any of our favorite characters truly realistic? Are our worlds? And what, exactly, does this obsessive adherence so-called gritty realism truly bring to our lives? Being “realistic” is not inherently moral, desirable, or good simply because the cultural assumption says so, just like being unemotional and logical aren’t both inherently desirable because men are brought up to feel uncomfortable expressing emotions. Fiction is more than the sum of its parts.
Thing is, I deserve to be the heroine of a story just as much as anyone else. I deserve to kiss cuties and slay my enemies and be admired by everyone around me. I deserve all of that and more. Wanting it doesn’t make me less, and nor does writing about it. And if I write a story which bends its plot into an “unrealistic” shape in order to satisfy my personal desire for wish fulfillment–so what? Men do this all of the time and are praised for it. Fiction is a form of representation, exploration, and escapism. If people put barriers on that, then it’s time to take a moment and ask why.
Everyone’s line for what characters they find acceptable and compelling is different, of course. Sometimes I cringe when I see a Mary Sue. Other times, the Mary Sue in something is my favorite character. It’s subjective. But I say “so what?” if an author (of any age) wants to put a version of themselves into their story. Everyone who writes does that to some degree. It’s important to be able to imagine yourself as being capable, loved, and admired. Especially when the media (and world) around you actively discourages all of those things.
Next up, let’s take a look at romantic relationships in fic, because when you say “fanfic” 9 times outta 10 what flickers through people’s minds is “sex”. And I’ll admit, when I started reading fic, I was afraid to explore those Explicit tags because I figured what I’d find would (somehow) be worse than what I read here. Like many folks, I had been told that fic-sex was where all the really awful, weird stuff was and that I should stay far, far away.
Well, I’m me, and I’ve livestreamed myself reading two goddamn Chuck Tingle novels, and if I can survive a jet plane and a dress suddenly growing penises then I can survive whatever fic has to throw at me. So I did a quick search and picked several of the dirtiest, most explicit things I could find, and dove in headfirst. (Pun intended)
It was fucking awesome.
Imagine my surprise when these fics I’m reading–which are supposed to be absolutely terrible–turn out to be easily 1,000x better than every single shitty romance I’ve read on this blog. Remember that post I wrote awhile back, describing some of my experiences? Let me tell you what these fics had, in handy bullet-point form:
- Asking for consent for pretty much every act, no matter how mild
- Enthusiastic consent
- Trigger warnings
- No stalking, harassment, or otherwise harming another person emotionally
- A man discovering his own bisexuality without relying on homophobic concepts (such as “panicking”, shame, or “but we’re both men!”)
- Healthy poly relationships
- Frequent communication between partners
- Healthy D/s relationships of all flavors
- Did I mention there’s a lot of consent?
- Emotional connection
- Relationships that evolve and grow in a healthy, natural way instead of relying on trauma
- Sex that’s actually sexy and interesting instead of an endless chain of weird descriptors and purple prose?
Since most romance novels struggle with having even the most basic concept of consent in their stories, as well as relying heavily on male protagonists who are clearly abusive either emotionally or physically (or both), you can imagine my surprise that fic was like stepping through the fucking looking glass into a land where, holy shit, we can all just love each other.
Now, this isn’t to say that everything I read was perfect. Some fic I found traded on racially-coded concepts that were…perhaps not thoroughly examined before being casually used. Some reduced canonically gay characters into the dreaded Gay Best Friend role, where they existed only to facilitate the romance of the straight protagonists. (Blech.) Some traded very obviously on the “virginal and nervous” female protagonist in order to attract the attention of male protagonists who were considered “pure” and “good”. (Double-blech.) Others just didn’t make any goddamn sense. (Keep track of how many holes everybody has and remember most humans have spines, please.)
But for the most part? Damn.
Reading all of this also made me think back on one of the reasons I had stepped away from fanfic growing up, which was all of the so-called “ridiculous” pairings. I realize now there was a large amount of silent praise to be found in rejecting something that a great deal of fanfic centers around: Gay, lesbian, bi, and poly relationships. If I stayed away from fanfic, then I could consume “serious” media which didn’t glorify such nonsense in an effort to be politically correct. After all, how dare anyone re-imagine characters who were So Obviously Straight? Didn’t they realize that source material trumps all? What’s next–white characters being re-imagined as black? The scandal!
Unfortunately for pop media, turns out that I grew up into an untamed bisexual heathen who is no longer interested in seeing straight, cisgender people in abusive relationships as “normal”. Oops!
In closing, I think my biggest takeaway from reading fanfiction again is that, despite it being just as legitimate as other forms of fiction, we as a society have collectively decided that it is Other. This saddens me, because even in my short time engaging with it, I’ve found so much that’s been worthwhile. Writing it has taught me a lot, and reading it has too. I hope to share what I’ve learned. (This is code for “there are going to be a lot more posts on this blog about fanfic.”)
And I’m not here to tell you that all fanfiction is golden, because it isn’t. But then, no one really says this of published, “legitimate” works either. (Here’s another miniature brainteaser for you: Why are things more legitimate and acceptable to our culture when someone has been given money for them?) So maybe it’s time we re-examine a few things when it comes to fanfic, accept that it’s here to stay, and enjoy it for what it is instead of trying to tear it down.