What do Emily Fields and Clarissa Darling have in common? You know, besides generally being able to bewitch anyone in their presence? The answer is that the guys who wrote/produced their shows have also written fan fiction about them. For Pretty Little Liars, it’s Joseph Dougherty’s charming “Yellow Sweater” series about Paige and Emily. It currently includes five novellas published on Amazon’s Kindle Worlds platform, all of which imagine Paige and Emily meeting in an alternate universe in the mid ’60s. For Clarissa Explains It All, it’s a new novel by creator Mitchell Kriegman titled “Things I Can’t Explain” that follows Clarissa into adulthood on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where she struggles to find love and a satisfying career. It was released just yesterday.
The fact that these stories exist only proves what fandom has been saying all along: That characters aren’t containable inside the restricted narrative worlds we see on our TVs. Fandom has been taking characters out of the box for decades, reimagining them in worlds that are free of network standards and practices, studio control, popular opinion, and the limitations of writers who are confined by episode time limits and showrunner visions and advertising money and other things that are the opposite of poetry. Yes, TV is awesome, and there is nothing quite as powerful as quality representation on shows watched by millions of people, but TV isn’t the apex of good storytelling. Fandom takes it farther.
I think we’re seeing the beginning of a trend here. I think in the coming years, as TV writers find more ways to work with studios and networks, there will be dozens of fan fiction novels written and published about our favorite TV characters and written by our favorite TV writers. Will those stories be as good as the ones crafted by queer women inside queer fandom? It’s doubtful. (It also doesn’t make fan fiction more “legitimate.”) However, talented writers having the freedom to explore these worlds the way we do (and to see them outside the confines of the advertising delivery system they exist in on-air) can only be a good thing.
J.K. Rowling once said if she had the time, she’d write Jane Austen fan fiction — but even the world’s greatest storyteller probably wouldn’t understand that Emma Woodhouse and Jane Fairfax belong together.
This month, I have five witchy story recommendations for you, an essay from my dear friend Tammy about what fandom means to her, a round-up of mainstream fan fiction news, and answers to some of of your fandom-related questions.
Fan Fiction Friday: Something Wicked This Way Comes
It’s a good time for witches here at Autostraddle dot com. Not only is Mey Rude curating Witch Hunt, the coolest witchy column on the internet; but also, Rachel just wrote an essay about the Salem Witch trials called Who Is It That Afflicts You? and it’s one of the best pieces of writing I have ever read in my life. Add that to the new Clarissa book, and it’s time to explore some witchy fan fiction. Here are five of my favorites.
Pairing: Elphaba/Galinda, Wicked
Plot: Galinda is furious with herself that she’s fallen in love with someone so weird.
Length: 13,000 words
Pairing: Hermione/Luna, Harry Potter
Plot: Hermione is too clever to be surprised by anything — except the fact that she really, really likes Luna Lovegood.
Length: 2,700 words
Pairing: Willow/Tara, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Plot: Okay, this is an adorable Willow/Tara AU set at Hogwarts.
Length: 3,600 words
Pairing: Maleficent/Aurora, Sleeping Beauty
Plot: “Briar Rose has never known anything but love and kindness. Now, with all the evil of the world placed upon her shoulders at once, she finds herself terrified, ill-equipped, and completely fascinated.”
Length: 67,000 words
Pairing: Emma/Regina, Once Upon a Time
Plot: An OG SwanQueen fic that always makes everyone’s “best of” lists.
Length: 130,000 words
Listening to the news! Again?
Fandom in the news and around the world this month.
+ Marissa Myer, writer of the NYT bestselling Luna Chronicles, got her start writing fan fiction. So when she was planning the release of the final book, she invited fans to submit their own fan works about her story for a chance to win cool things. The winners were just announced.
+ The New Statesman discusses the way fan fiction has gained credibility over the years, which is a really gross reality — that women exploring ideas about sex and sexuality and gender and relationships deserve to be mocked and derided, but when professional writers do it they deserve to be celebrated — but it’s an interesting read nonetheless.
+ Vulture is doing a fascinating High School TV Showdown right now. This week they pitted Buffy against Friday Night Lights and things got heated when FNL won. One cool thing to come out of that particular matchup, though, was an article about the glory of Buffy’s perpetual resurrection due to fan fiction.
It’s not surprising that Buffy the Vampire Slayer inspires a Hellmouth-size amount of fanfiction. After all, the television series has a rabid fan base and loads of mythology to unpack and expand upon. The show also gave its titular slayer two ill-fated romances — Angel and Spike — leaving fans to fulfill those relationship story lines in their own fictionalized worlds. (Sorry, not sorry, Riley.) To truly understand Buffy’s fanfic reach, though, consider the following: One site featured 351 Buffy-related fiction updates last month, even though the series ended its run more than a decade ago.
+ The Advocate asked some folks to debate the pros and cons of fan fiction. It’s cute! I also got a good new Hermione-centric post-Hogwarts story out of it!
+ The deadline has passed, but Southpark was asking for slash fan art submissions for the actual show last week. I hope Disney does that one day.
+ Inverse posted a really thoughtful article about the science of why being a fan is good for you.
Fans want to make the things they love that much better, so they find something that they don’t agree with — a problematic representation or a social issue that could be highlighted — they talk about it, work with it, try to explain or understand. This is how significant social change happens — it’s very difficult for media creators to be able to see their own blind spots. Having students learn from fans is a way of allowing students to become more critical of the media they watch.
A handful of answer to a handful of TV questions.
Do you have any news about Paige returning to Pretty Little Liars?
No, my darling coconut cupcake, I do not. I know she’s not in season six at all and that the more noise you make on Twitter about a Pretty Little Thing thing the more likely your voice is to be heard by the people making the decisions about love stories. I wish I could tell you something more optimistic, or give you a more elegant solution for seeing Paige rise from the ashes like a trash can-smashing phoenix, but it turns out the noise is the thing.
Is Emison Endgame?
What are your thoughts on the overwhelming privileged visibility of m/m slash fic when mainstream media does bother to report on fandom, and how do you think femslashers can work to make our fandoms and our work more visible?
This is an awesome question. The problem, of course, is that so much mainstream media is baffled by the concept of storytelling and sexuality that does not center on male experience, and so even if it’s women writing slash fiction (and most of the time, statistically, it is), people have to find a way to make that female experience about a dude. I did a research project one time in which I surveyed about 2,000 women who write m/m fan fiction and the overwhelming majority of them said they chose m/m because they are attracted to men and enjoy writing about men but they don’t like to write straight fiction because of the intrinsic power dynamics/gender roles at play in those relationships EVEN IN THEIR OWN IMAGINATIONS. And so writing romance about two men allows them to swoon about love outside the confines of societal expectations about partnerships. When mainstream sites cover women who write m/m fic, that’s the angle I want to read about, that these women can’t even escape patriarchal oppression in their own minds. Alas.
As for making femalsh more visible, the tricky thing is it needs economic traction. It needs to be published and make money, like all the thinly disguised Twilight fic that’s around in bookstores these days, or like Rainbow Rowell’s Draco/Harry fan fiction (and it is Draco/Harry fan fiction), Carry On. One really good thing that’s going to happen in just a few weeks is Carol is going to hit theaters, and because it’s going to make some money and be nominated for about 20 Golden Globes and Oscars, mainstream media is going to have to find lots of new angles to talk about it, and they’re going to have to dig into Patricia Highsmith’s The Price Of Salt and they’re going to go looking for more lesbian pulp. Femslash is there, just waiting for them. And also, book publishers wanna follow that Hollywood trend. Carol gives me a little hope.
I can only make time for three TV shows at the moment. Which three would you recommend?
Jane the Virgin, Master of None, Steven Universe!
What do you think about the Red Warrior rumors and do you think that means TPTB aren’t ever going to give us Swan Queen?
I think Once‘s writers/producers were never going to give you Swan Queen, actually. Like they have no intention of doing it ever in any circumstance no matter what, and so adding this potential pairing isn’t going to change anything on that front. The two questions that are interesting to me here, and we won’t know the answers until after it plays out, are: 1) Are they really, seriously going to give this Red Warrior thing the soul it deserves, or are they just going to paint-by-numbers their way through it for two episodes and be like, “God, we gave you lesbians, what do you assholes want from us?” 2) Where does SQ fandom go from there?
I think there is tremendous value in femslash fandoms organizing around all shows, even ones that are never going to go there with their favored pairing. Because, for starters, femslashers always elevate the critical conversation about story consumption. Being in fandom just makes you smarter and you can take what you learn and extrapolate it and apply it to all the TV you watch and all the fandoms you join in the future. And also because the people who create TV need to know they’re being held accountable. And so do networks and studios. And fandom does that too. It forces engagement with critical feminist thinking.
Is Carol as good as you said it was for real? Don’t lie to me, Hogan.
It is, yes. It’s even better than I said it was. Words failed me.
Daily Prophet: What Does Fandom Mean To You?
I asked my dear friend Tammy (@tylynn_sings), who I met through Pretty Little Liars, to write about the experience of coming to fandom in her 30s and also about what fandom means to her. And so she did that and this is what she had to say. It’s very insightful!
I joined Twitter in 2012. At the time I was a 33 year old high school teacher who had stated on several occasions that I “didn’t see the point” of that particular social media platform. What could I possibly have to say in 140 characters that was so important or so engaging that it had to be put out on the internet for others to see? What were other people saying that they thought was so great? Why were people spending so much time talking to strangers online? (#GetOffMyLawn) However, at this time I was also about a year or two into my discovery of this thing called “fandom.”
I’ve been a television fan for my entire life. I remember vividly every Sunday of 3rd grade making sure that I had taken a shower early enough so I wouldn’t miss any of Dolly, Dolly Parton’s short lived variety show. The Tanner family felt like my extended family. I have known since I was 14 that my romantic story would never be as good as Cory and Topanga’s. I remember Melissa Joan Hart as Clarissa and Sabrina. As I grew older, I fell in love over and over again with different shows. Lois and Clark. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Xena. Alias. Smallville. Gilmore Girls.
In 2012, I was no different. Pretty Little Liars was about to start its third season. Glee was wrapping up its third season. But what was different for me at this time was I had discovered people were talking about these shows online. There were brilliant, articulate people posting recaps of television shows at different sites, and the comment sections were full of debate, analysis, and speculation. People were talking about television! And they were talking about it in a way that I had never experienced.
This is what led me to Twitter. I wanted to talk with the people who were talking about television! I wanted to have conversations about compelling storylines and relatable characters and portrayal of minorities. Twitter offered this conversation, and it offered it with the added bonus of speaking anonymously.
Why was the anonymity such an appeal for me? I could tell a half truth and say it’s because I’m a teacher, a gay teacher, and at the time I was in a very conservative community. That was certainly part of it. But I had plenty of friends and colleagues who knew I was gay, but I wasn’t talking to them about television. No, the real reason I wanted the anonymity is because of this perception in society that television is not an intellectually stimulating form of entertainment.
We’ve all encountered that person, right? You bring up a television show you watch and they brush you off with an airy, “Oh, I don’t even own a television.” They read books (but only certain books). They watch movies (but only certain movies). They have no time or brain cells to waste on the “boob tube.”
And it just makes you feel so small, doesn’t it? They’re implying that they have something that you don’t, some ability to be discerning about what is cultured and worthwhile, whereas you are satisfied with entertainment made for the masses. They want to order a steak for dinner, but you’re okay with Spam, is what they’re trying to tell you.
So I took to Twitter, using a handle that told you nothing about who I am and an avatar that was certainly not an actual picture of me. I waded out into the unknown waters of online fandom, and my life hasn’t been the same since. I discovered what has been no secret to anyone who’s been involved in fandom for any length of time. People were elevating the conversation around television shows.
Fandom takes every storyline from their favorite show and mines it for everything it’s worth. They analyze dialogue for subtext, they scrutinize facial expressions and direction choices to see if there’s a story under the story, they deconstruct wardrobe to see what it has to say about a character. Absolutely nothing is taken at face value. Fandom can have an entire episode of a television show deconstructed completely within an hour of its airtime. But make sure you come back to the conversation the next day as well because it’s almost certain someone will have discovered something else to talk about.
This level of dissection of stories has forced show runners to step up their game. They know if there’s an inconsistency in plot line, or if editing leaves an interpretation of emotion unclear, fandom will have something to say about it. It’s certainly true that different show runners are reacting in different ways to the voices of fandom. But it’s apparent that they all hear those voices. In my opinion, it’s because of this critical analysis that television has become the most influential storytelling platform.
Fandom is helping television become the nuanced, cultured, worthwhile form of entertainment that we need. And fandom is full of people who exactly the people who are right for that job.
Because let’s talk for a minute about the glaring problem with there being the “right” kinds of books and movies, or any kind of stories that we should be consuming in order to be considered informed. Who decides what the “right” ones are? Who has access to these stories? What criteria are used to differentiate between stories? I can tell you the people who don’t get to make these decisions. People of color. Women. Members of the LGBT community. These are not the voices that typically get to choose the “right” stories.
This is still true when it comes to television. The writers and producers and other show runners involved are not typically members of any minority group. Fandom, however, is a very diverse group. And fandom, at its very best, understands the need for diverse stories and they clamor for them.
I think it’s pretty accepted that the Brittany and Santana relationship wouldn’t have happened on Glee had it not been for the uproar from fandom, demanding that their story be explored. It sounds like something similar has happened with the relationship between Root and Shaw on Person of Interest. And while there have been eras in the past where it seemed like television was moving to more diversity (remember the early ‘90s when Family Matters, Fresh Prince of Bel Air, In Living Color, and Living Single were all on at the same time?), it always turned out that we were too optimistic and what we saw returned to the status quo. Now when diversity disappears from our screens, fandoms point it out and demand to know why it happened, and what it will be replaced with.
Fandom has provided the most intellectually stimulating conversations about stories that I’ve ever experienced. Fandom taught me about feminism. Fandom taught me about the need for intersectionality in feminism. Fandom taught me how to examine a story for what it is, and then gently extract only what it is I need from that story to make me feel whole.
Now I’m a 37 year old high school teacher. I recently had a conversation with a fellow teacher after she and I overheard two of my students debating who was cooler: Kim Possible or Buffy Summers.
Her: I’ve never seen Buffy.
Me: You really need to fix that.
Her: I’m not into vampires.
Me: It’s not about vampires.
Her: She’s a vampire slayer.
Me: It’s not about vampires.
Her: So what’s it about? Sarah Michelle Gellar?
Me (voice elevated, cheeks flushed): It’s about a young girl’s struggle for her own agency in a society of patriarchal oppression that won’t let her have any power!
Fandom gave me the courage to use my voice about the importance of television. (Oh, and don’t worry. I set my two students straight on the fact that no one is cooler than Buffy.)
If you have questions for the next column or are interested in writing an essay or being interviewed here, send me an owl!