The Feminist Re-Purposing of Fan-Fiction
The other day, one of my students told me I was his coolest teacher. This is funny to me, because I have spent the majority of my life being not-cool; my high school years were spent cross-legged on a rolling chair in my parents’ den, feverishly typing out my own fan-fiction, commenting and critiquing others’ fics, and consuming pages and pages of what-ifs about the teenage years of Harry Potter’s parents. Dear reader, I am a recovering fan-girl of the early digital age, squeeing and reading fluff, interacting with other fans, and most of all, engaging in critical discourse, though in an alternative, feminist writing community.
Fan-fiction is the creation and subversion of cult materials, books, TV shows, movies, and webseries, specifically, “stories produced by fans based on plot lines and characters from either a single source text or else a ‘canon’ of works; these narratives often take the pre-existing storyworld in a new, sometimes bizarre, direction” (Thomas 1). Writing fan-fiction fulfills the first step of feminist repurposing, according to scholar Shari Stenberg, “. . . highlighting and critiquing existing conditions,” meaning that the critical non-canon changes, re-tooling of narratives and story to a fan-fiction writer’s needs, critique the author's text and critically engage with it (10). Fan-fiction writers and readers do their own purposeful, critical meaning-making, re-purposing and interacting within a dominant framework. While fan-works can be brushed off as derivative, appropriative, or even plagiaristic (Derecho 63), fan-works can, in fact, be feminist repurposing of texts, “as a transgressive force, offering a voice for marginalized groups and revealing the subversive potential of seemingly safe or familiar storyworlds” (Thomas 7). We might consider how Paradise Lost is fan-fiction of the Bible, or Wide Sargasso Sea as filling in the gaps of Jane Eyre, telling and reinterpreting important cultural texts, filling in the gaps of story for a fuller understanding or seeing the story through fresh eyes and perspective. As rhetors within this discourse community, fan-fiction writers are able to critique and interact with other fans, and the exchange of critique also makes for writers that continue to produce, edit, revise, and improve as creators.
The second principle of feminist repurposing is “to reclaim what has been cast off or suppressed to be used for new ends” (Stenberg 10). I feel that fan-fiction, as a writing community which values writing as a work in progress, sees writing as mutable, and encourages constructive criticism and peer interaction, reclaims texts and media through remix, and is repurposing pop culture for self-empowerment. Betsey Rosenblatt and Rebecca Tushnet found that “[survey] responses overwhelmingly described how both fanwork creation and participation in fan communities helped girls and young women find their own voices, explore and understand themselves, and gain skills that served them later in life,” creating their own valuable work through something they love so much, and beginning to value their writing and expression through the support of fandom writing communities (387). As a practice, fan-fiction is largely created, moderated, and engaged in by women, and this in itself in empowering, if not also fascinating. Consider what media critic Lindsay Ellis says of the works that girls and young women engage in:
I know I may get blowback for stating what is kind of the obvious to everyone of all stripes, but we and by we, I mean our culture, we kind of hate teenage girls. We hate their music . . . we hate their stupid books and their stupid, sexy actors they made famous, and their stupid sparkly vampires. (“Dear Stephenie Meyer,” 6:38)
As a society, as Ellis states, we’ve looked down on the media marketed towards teenage girls and young women, and writing fan-fiction allows them to reclaim and repurpose this media as their own, to turn it into something they want and relate to, and this gives these writers power and agency.
One participant to Rosenblatt and Tushnet’s research, Libitina, found herself writing collegiate essays with ease, and the encouragement of her fan-fiction readers helped her find her writing style. She reported that fan-fiction was allowing her to “have my own voice, and having the time, space, and encouragement to find that voice” (388). As a writing instructor, Libitina having the regular practice and habits of mind of writing active make this a valid discourse practice alone, hence her easy transfer to collegiate-level writing. While critics of fandom writing practices may again cite the repurposing of property, the social nature of reading and writing --the exchange between reader and writer-- gives the reader just as much authority over the storyworld as the writer.
Let’s consider the final step in feminist repurposing; by invoking Roland Barthes’ “death of the author” for fan-fiction writers, writing fan-fiction then locates “new possibilities for teaching and learning, for relating to one another, and for enacting cultural change” (Stenberg 11). Fandom commonly recasts and reimagines characters for more inclusion. Popular non-canonical changes accepted by fan communities (often referred to as “head-canons”) are Harry Potter’s Hermione Granger as a black woman (given her vague description of wildly curly hair within the text), Percy Jackson’s Annabeth Chase as a transwoman, and Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games as asexual and aromantic. (See scholar Adrienne Raw’s fans-on-fandom.tumblr.com for more of these interesting revisions and fandom discourse.) Fan-fiction writers re-write characters meant for them to relate to in new and purposeful ways, so that they can see their own identities recognized and re-interpreted.
As a genre, fan-fiction is not unfamiliar to readers-- Dante’s Inferno, another Biblical and theological fan-fic, is commonly taught in public schools-- but as a practice, it is educational, empowering, and subversive, and yet underestimated. According to Rosenblatt and Tushnet’s research, fandom writing is further producing young women who are more assured of their own voices as writers, creating communities of critical discourse and inclusion. The feminist repurposing of texts into fan-fiction makes texts into more diverse and just as purposeful a product. Does my own feminist repurposing and radical revisions of Harry Potter make me cool? Fan-fiction is often a secretive practice, hidden behind anonymous usernames, lost in tumblr reblogs and forum posts, but in viewing it as a feminist repurposing, fandom writing becomes an alternative discourse community that creates a writer prepared to critically engage with a text, to re-examine it for improvements, and to learn to write for an audience, sometimes beyond just other fans.
“Dear Stephenie Meyer.” YouTube, uploaded by Lindsay Ellis. 22 January 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8O06tMbIKh0&t=398s.
Derecho, Abigail. “Archontic Literature: A Definition, a History, and Several Theories of Fan Fiction.” in Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet: New Essays, eds. Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse. McFarland. 2006.
Rosenblatt, Betsey, and Rebecca Tushnet. "Transformative Works: Young Women's Voices on Fandom and Fair Use." in eGirls, eCitizens: Putting Technology, Theory and Policy into Dialogue with Girls’ and Young Women’s Voices, edited by Jane Bailey and Valerie Steeves, University of Ottawa Press, 2015. JSTOR.
Stenberg, Shari J. Repurposing Composition: Feminist Interventions for a Neoliberal Age. 1 ed., Utah State University Press, 2015.
-their daring, nerve, and chivalry set Gryffindors apart-. 2016, gin-draws.tumblr.com/post/154124106760/their-daring-nerve-and-chivalry-set-gryffindors.
Thomas, Bronwen. “What Is Fanfiction and Why Are People Saying Such Nice Things About It?” Storyworlds: A Journal of Narrative Studies, vol. 3, 2011, pp. 1–24. JSTOR