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Flashback to 2015. Some may say I was a connoisseur of fanfiction genres. From hurt/comfort to alternative universes, I appreciated and devoured all forms of fan writing. A lot of the time, I was reading slow-burn, enemies-to-lovers SwanQueen fanfiction on Archive of Our Own as I went about my morning commute to high school. Or flicking my eyes between my bedroom door and an explicit Sam Winchester x Reader fic on my phone as I humped my pillow as quietly as possible. Or dreaming I would someday be able to write like the fics with 100k+ words and thousands of kudos that were so popular they created fandoms within fandoms.
I stopped reading fanfiction once I got to college. A large reason why is that I was simply too busy. I double majored in English Literature and Gender and Women’s Studies. Shakespeare and feminist theory — instead of a fictional character realizing they were in love with their best friend the whole time or getting their brain fucked out — had me up until 3 a.m. With school, work, and extracurricular activities, my days of fervent fanfiction consumption were long gone and forgotten.
Another, deeper, reason is that I was on a quest to sever ties with the pieces of me that weren’t aligned with the version of myself I wanted to be. That version was measured by quantities — I needed to be less weird, less awkward, more social, and more in tune with whatever the popular social climate was. I ditched pillows for a vibrator and dildo. I told myself I needed to ditch my ties to fandom culture as well.
In literary history, there’s arguably a surprisingly high amount of texts that’d be considered fanfiction. Paradise Lost is fanfiction of the Bible, The Iliad is fanfiction of ancient Greek orality, and Lancelot’s basically an OC (original character) who was never a part of the original Arthurian Legend canon. But they’re all considered literature.
Fanfiction isn’t considered literature. It’s juvenile, written by amateurs, uncreative because it’s based on existing material. There’s never any “depth” or “universal truth” (whatever that means). It doesn’t matter that it’s an accessible route for writers to publish their work, a celebration of beloved works, and a vehicle for people to form connections. It doesn’t matter that there are many people whose only way to read is through free fanfiction websites because they may not have the means to go to a library or bookstore. Fanfiction isn’t managed by publishing companies or sold at bookstores, so it’s not taken seriously.
Fast forward to February of this year. Time feels stilted, like I’m stuck in traffic and there’s barely any movement. It’s excruciating to go from being in a fast-paced environment, inundated with responsibilities, to spending my days waiting for a “We would like to offer you the position…” email or relentlessly applying to any job posting I can find.
When nothing’s happening in the present, you either look to the past or future to fill in the gaps. I had no idea what the future held, so I chose the past.
I can’t explain how exactly it happened, but from idle browsing on the internet, I found myself back where I was at 15 years old. Back to OTPs, chapters with gut-wrenching cliffhangers, and characters getting the happy endings they didn’t get from their original stories. Obviously, I’m more mature and have had more life experiences since adolescence but, alongside rediscovering fanfiction, I also rediscovered my teen self. She never left and was merely forced into a box with a lock and key under layers of self-hatred. The best version of myself wasn’t achieved through reinvention. It was achieved through acceptance.
From PEN15 to Turning Red, there seems to be a rise in the “Cringey Teen Girl.” Though similar, it’s not exactly the overly white, often male-gazey category of quiet and nerdy girls in movies and television. The Cringey Teen Girl’s awkwardness isn’t palatable, nor is it constructed to be portrayed as “cute” or “endearing.” The Cringey Teen Girl’s lack of grace, like obsessing over a celebrity or failing in social spheres, is unbearable and creates an unsettled feeling in viewers because her behavior isn’t accepted by the general public. The category also doesn’t necessarily fall under the “Not Like Other Girls” trope; she is like other girls, because so many girls are, or once were, her.
The Cringey Teen Girl is a reflection of how mainstream society wrongfully invalidates the interests of teen girls. Whether it’s fanfiction, a celebrity crush, TikTok, or any other form of pop culture, if it has a fanbase largely made up of passionate teen girls, it’ll be dismissed. It’s misogyny at its finest; the interests of teen boys aren’t nearly as ridiculed. It’s also another weapon to make teen girls hate themselves.
I’m not in the place I was in February. I have a job and am in grad school. But I also make time to read some juicy fanfiction. On the train or in the comfort of my bed after a long day of work or class, you may find me fangirling from characters having their first kiss or bookmarking a specific fic if it has a sex scene I want to try in real life later. If you look hard enough, you’ll also find my inner teen fangirling with me, happy and unashamed.