In previous Derivative Works pieces, I’ve written about how the stigmas regarding fanfiction are inaccurate, and how derivative works can use a majority-centric work to create a space for a minority. In that last essay, I wrote about how cover songs can ‘queer’ a mainstream song, giving queer voices a way to access a song friendly to them in a landscape that usually isn’t. I’d like to explore, for a moment, how fanfiction does something similar with other works; in this example, television.
(This is a first draft, and I am completely open to criticism and response. I’d love to hear your point of view!)
‘Hypothetically speaking’ is a Dreamwidth journal belonging to thingswithwings, a pop culture fan and critic who also creates derivative works. The journal also includes personal reactions to pop culture, and the entry that sparked my thoughts related to this essay are below, about the series finale of Lost (with spoilers for the series finale of Battlestar Galactica):
In comments recently I was talking with someone who said that the problem was that the ensemble gradually came to focus on a set of white characters, who were mostly white dude characters, and that’s really how it felt to me. Even though you’re still getting a bit of Sun, Jin, and Sayid up till the endish, and even though no one ever dies on Lost (uh, literally I guess), the last two seasons felt like they could’ve had the exact same plotline without Sun or Jin or Sayid or even Kate or Hurley being there. So that was disappointing, because one of the things I had nostalgia for, that compelled me to try the other three seasons, was that there were ladies and chromatic characters in (relative!) abundance.
the final episode: did what almost all final episodes of almost all tv shows do, which is demonstrate to me beyond a shadow of a doubt that THIS SHOW IS NOT, AND HAS NEVER BEEN, FOR YOU. I often watch shows and find A B and C important and compelling; the final episodes (or sometimes final seasons) of those shows will inevitably tell me that not only are X Y and Z the important/compelling parts, but also that it’s ludicrous to even think that A B and C were important.
I’m looking at you, Battlestar Galactica.
so the final episode has everyone in the altverse reconnecting and helping each other to find their memories of the island, which I think is a beautiful plotline! I love how it was done visually, I love the idea, I think it’s a beautiful statement about community (overall). but then of course the only only only way you can build community is via heterosexuality (or sometimes babies and heterosexuality. and in one case ablism. and I guess Jack is special or something, but even his montage-realisation begins and ends with het makeouts). didn’t even uncritical inculcated heterosexual people notice how painful and repetitious this was? it was like, “what could bring Hurley’s memories back? Libby!” “what could bring James’ memories back? Juliet!” “what could bring Charlie’s memories back? Claire, even though their relationship was never particularly soulmatey!” and on and on and ON. Sayid/Shannon, Jack/Kate, Sun/Jin, etc etc etc. It’s almost a plotline about a heterosexuality virus; Charlie’s the carrier, Typhoid Mary who has it but isn’t affected by it; he passes it to Desmond, who passes it to everyone else on the whole show, and eventually back to Charlie again. and it doesn’t help that for the most part it’s also from the POV of the dudes, looking for their special ladies. so, like, the things I liked about the show, or thought were important – Hurley and Charlie’s friendship, Jin’s cross-language-barrier friendships with Sawyer and Michael, Sawyer’s maturation into a real person, Sun and Kate confiding in each other, the little village that raises Claire’s child, all that – doesn’t really matter. This show wasn’t ever for you.
This outlines exactly why the current pop culture environment, though improving, is still deeply problematic if you are a minority viewer of television. Lost has characters like Sayid (an Iraqi man) and Sun and Jin (a Korean couple) in its regular core cast, but ultimately the stories are about a centre that is white, heterosexual, cisgendered, and nondisabled – and, more often than not, male. Even those characters who survived through six seasons of the show are shunted to the side and, more often than not, ignored.
Even though mainstream television is able to devote stories to ‘others’, even within episodes where those characters are given whole episodes and arcs at the centre of the narrative (such as Grey’s Anatomy), ultimately these shows are about key characters, few of whom stray outside the lines of the ‘mainstream’ version of what a person looks like. Grey’s Anatomy is ultimately about Meredith Grey and Derek Shepard, after all. Gay characters, non-white characters and disabled are often relegated to – often troped, though this is becoming less common – supporting roles, and trans, nonbinary, asexual characters, to name a few, can’t get on TV at all, unless it’s a brief guest spot. The only sympathetic trans character I’ve encountered in TV is Carmelita (played by the fantastic Candis Cayne) of Dirty Sexy Money, and within a season of new showrunners coming in to ‘dirty’ and ‘sexy’ it up, she’d been killed off.
What fanfiction offers is a chance for fans of these shows, who love “A B and C” and are told those stories are lesser, or are ignored, to reorient the universe of the show in order to pay attention to these alternate voices and stories. Stories that are seen as within the possibility of the character, but not possible to explore in mainstream television, are suddenly possible.
For example, in Glee fandom: the show has been great with telling stories about gay characters like Kurt, Santana, Blaine and Karofsky, but a taboo you’d never be able to seriously play with is a straight male experimenting with his sexuality – especially the show’s romantic male lead Finn, who otherwise has been hinted to have issues with his sexuality. Other forms of experimentation are acceptable – for example, Marissa Cooper of The O.C. having a lesbian affair, or gay male Blaine on Glee experimenting with heterosexuality – but ideas of masculinity are so powerful that executives would likely shy away from a storyline where Glee romantic lead Finn Hudson explores his sexuality with another guy, despite being able to do the same story with a gay guy. That would be set aside for – maybe – a cable show. Whereas in fanfiction, that’s a story that can be told.
A fan can write a 40,000 wd. epic about Lost‘s Sun and Jin, or an intimate 200 wd. ficlet about Battlestar Galactica‘s unacknowledged-in-series Gaeta/Hoshi relationship, without being forced to orient their story around the mainstream-centric folks at the centre. They are able to connect with others about a work that has access to thousands, if not millions, of fans. This is something that minority-centric works are very likely not able to access. If Meredith Grey were a lesbian, or if Rachel Berry were black… well, we know what would happen, because they would be Arizona Robbins and Mercedes Jones: beloved characters who nobody would be able to build a popular show around because nobody would spend the money to make it. The system privileges mainstream voices so intensely that it is near difficult for a work to focus on a minority audience without shedding the majority audience. If you have a black lead, why aren’t you pitching to BET? If you have a gay lead, get your ass to Bravo. Despite the fact that these shows are segregated into a place where those elements are the centre of focus, often not the writer’s intention, and are also specialised cable networks whose budgets are much more limited than the mainstream networks. This is slowly changing (see: Undercovers this past season on NBC, or ABC’s Scandal upcoming for next season), but not as fast as one would hope.
There is hope. Modern Family‘s gay couple, for example, is unequivocally part of the centre of their show. The CW picked up its Nikita remake with Asian-American Maggie Q in the lead role, a first for an Asian-American woman in American network television, and that show will be seeing a second season. Shows are being pitched, and picked up, every year on the main networks with minority leads, and nowadays it’s even happening without much comment. It’s not common, but it’s not nearly as rare as it once was. But gaining traction is difficult: the airwaves are filled with shows that are five or more years old, and only 1 out of every 3 new shows sees a second season, so progress is somewhat slow. And for some fans, they’re not ready to wait to tell stories that connect with other fans, and with their own experiences.
Fandom allows these communities to connect with one another, and fanfiction allows them to tell stories together that reframe popular culture to let them in. Until our system does so on its own, this is a function fanfiction performs that few others do, and deserves respect.