To Whom It May Concern,
Fandom is a means of expression, much like the clothes you choose to wear. Choosing what shows to watch or what books to read is not so different than choosing a new pair of shoes. We each have our own criteria: do we pick them because they’re comfortable? Because they’re attractive? Because everyone else has?
The reason I choose my fandoms, and my shoes, are my own and they are no less valid than yours.
I write in response to recent events in one particular fandom, but what I say concerns all fandoms: the shaming of fans because of their interests not only contributes to the negative stigma of fan culture, it promotes it. When you tell me that I’m not a “real” fan for not having seen every episode or having read the books or shipping a particular couple, you are perpetuating the idea that to participate in fandom, you have to know the specific combination of elements, the “formula,” that makes you a fan.
If you’re a woman and are reading this, you already know how hurtful these formulaic expectations can be. You see it on the cover of every magazine, in every cosmetic commercial, in the airbrushing of every supermodel. Such formulas leave no room for diversity, for uniqueness, for creativity. We are not all 5’11” blonde-haired, blue-eyed goddesses with 24″ waists and C cups. We are not all fans who love the same episodes or attend all the conventions or ship the same couples. Some of us only watch the show, some of us write fan fiction (some of us write really damn good fan fiction), and some of us spend more time on Tumblr than we ever have interacting with the canon. And that’s okay.
But, fandom is not always fun for us. Fans can be cruel to other fans, even if they love the same thing. We can be the butt of jokes because of our clothing, teased mercilessly by girls who never left high school because we choose shoes that aren’t “popular.” For fans, when we love a book, show, or film written by someone else, it leaves us open, vulnerable to their thoughts, their ideas, and these ideas may not necessarily align with our own. Not every writer or showrunner understands that the construction of the meaning in their work is not their responsibility alone. What they intend for it to mean is one part; it is the foundation on which fandom is built. The text, or the canon, can also speak for itself; some of the most beautiful sentences ever written or moments ever filmed were unintentional or afterthoughts, and their importance was only later discovered by audiences.
Yes, by us.
We also give a story meaning. Fandoms are audiences, and whatever society may say, without us, many important facets of our culture would not exist or would be forgotten. The construction of a story’s meaning is a shared responsibility; the author can only give so much detail and we fill in the gaps.
This is why there can be no formula for the “ideal” fan, because no one person will respond in the same way as another, just like we don’t all wear the same shoes.
I have studied literature and the craft of writing for my entire adult life, and most writers recognize the importance of archetypes (or tropes) in stories. Archetypes are the original molds for storytelling; psychologist Carl Jung believed them to be universal patterns that could be recognized around the world, regardless of cultural background or language. So if a writer gives me a story of two characters who should have never met but are brought together by extraordinary circumstance, I call it fate. If they are from families, from backgrounds, that continuously conflict with each other–a la Romeo and Juliet–and it seems as if the stars are aligning to keep them apart, I call them star-crossed lovers.
If an archetype such as “the star-crossed lovers” is a universal pattern, should it matter if the characters are both men? Will it make the motif any less valid? Will it make it any less true?
But what if the writer didn’t intend for these two men (one of whom may or may not be a being of celestial intent who is using a male body as a vessel) to be seen as lovers of any sort?
Not everything that the writer intends to happen, happens. Sometimes a simple improvisation transforms an entire scene into something more. In this scene from Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back, Harrison Ford improvised his line, “I know.” It is now one of the most famous scenes from the original trilogy.
One actor’s improv changed a scene, which changed a film, a film which has, arguably, defined a generation. Is his interpretation of the character any less valid than the writer’s, or any more creative than ours?
But Harrison Ford changed one line, and it didn’t change what George Lucas intended for the character. Right? Well, George Lucas didn’t intend for Han Solo to shoot first (he thought that Han shooting first would make the character into a “cold-blooded killer) in that famous scene in Star Wars Episode IV and yet a large majority of the fandom refuses to accept the alternative, and nobody thinks of Han Solo as a ruthless murderer.
As a writer, I know it can be a hard pill to swallow when readers define your work in a way you never expected, when they see aspects of your characters that you never noticed. I can’t imagine that it would be any easier to see the characters you created defined in differing sexualities, when you so carefully crafted them into a palatable heterosexual bite for society’s consumption. I understand why you write that way; in today’s world you have to conform if you want your writing to be seen on bookshelves or on television screens. The status is quo, and you’ve done your job; you’ve created rounded characters that connect with audiences in marketable ways. You intended for your characters to be white attractive heterosexual males because that’s what sells.
But to the fandom, these are not just charted humanoid outlines of meticulous consumer research and dressed up in plaid and leather; you’ve given us people that we care about. To us, they’re real, and real people do no always conform into societal expectations. Yes, heterosexuality is what you’re telling us is acceptable for your characters, but I am reminding you that it is entirely possible for a person to live one’s life in denial of their own sexuality. If we are trained by your products of socially-acceptable and “moral” consumerism that we need to be white and heterosexual, can you blame us for living in denial when you tell us it’s not okay to be any different?
The meaning of a story is derived from three things: the author, the text, and the audience. If the canon and the author tell us that heterosexuality is the norm, how is the audience to interpret that? Do we ignore the archetypes, the subtext, and take a story as is because that’s “not how the characters were written” or it’s “not how the actors ‘play’ the characters”? Should we marginalize the sections of fandom who choose to interpret texts differently? Should we shame them, harass them, for challenging the status quo?
It’s ironic that in my literature classes at a private Christian university, I was entirely encouraged to read into and analyze the homoerotic subtexts in Frankenstein or Hamlet, but I’m discouraged from doing the same thing to pop culture and fandom because I shouldn’t “read into what’s not there” or I “shouldn’t care that much about a television show/book/film.” Is it okay for me to write about one and not the other because Mary Shelley and William Shakespeare aren’t here to tell me how to properly interpret their characters?
This letter has gotten much longer than I intended, but should I apologize for caring so much about a piece of our culture? Of our history? When our children and our grandchildren look back to now, what will they study? What will they see? Will they be ashamed of our cookie-cutter models, of our whitewashed heteronormative story lines?
This is how we will be remembered. This is history. These are the cultural shoes we choose to wear, and perhaps we should consider more what kind of footprints they will leave behind.
Respectfully yours for interpretation,
Update 5/30/2014 I am both humbled and amazed by the amount of support my letter has gotten so far. I am truly honored that my words speak for so many in fandom. So now, let’s get it to TPTB, shall we? You know what to do. -TC