Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Media and the Fanbase

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Over the weekend, a curious event occurred at a Q&A session with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. Led by author and reporter Caitlin Moran, she made the actors read fanfiction that she had found on the internet, claiming that it wasn't racy, only to have selected passages that seemed to be heading in that direction. The actors were uncomfortable with the situation and refused to read further. And now the internet had erupted in anger over Moran's actions and is furious at the treatment of fandom by the media.

Being part of media myself - I am a blogger, I express my thoughts through this medium - I can understand how it can often be difficult to show all the various, dynamic sides of fandom without focusing only on the negative aspects or most well-known, and sometimes it's hard to talk about the issues within fandom without speaking in generalizing terms and/or stigmatizing it. I have certainly had these issues in my writing and failed before and know there is a strong tension of fandom and its representations. The mainstream media especially takes an unsavory look at fandoms, despite the fact that they often fuel and promote the very things that make other forms of media, such as films, books and movies, successful. What then, is going on here, and why is inappropriate about what Moran did?

There are two very good reactions that I've see. One I found on Tumblr, from the blogger fireplum. The other was sent to me by a friend and is an article from The Telegraph. Let's start with The Telegraph article. It highlights some really key issues - using the fanfic without permission from the author, not wanting to break the fourth wall between the fandom world and the source material, and the development of skills that writers gain from writing fan fiction. These quotes are some of my favorite from the article:
Using and extending an existing universe can help writers who don't yet have the hang of creating fully rounded characters, and offers unique challenges to experienced authors more used to rolling their own.
It's entirely possible that thanks to Sherlock fanfic, someone who never before considered writing professionally might decide to give it a try. It's also possible that some who considered doing so may now be scared to, fearing the long memory of the internet and the ridicule they might receive. And to those authors I say: forget the haters, sally forth and conquer all worlds. There is nothing shameful about stretching your wings.
This article gives me a lot of hope and makes me feel much better about the relationship between the media and fandoms. Dr. Brooke Magnanti, the author of this piece, seems to really understand what fandom and fanfic celebrates and why its so important to its participants.

The post from fireplum likewise has some really powerful points: fireplum talks about how fanfic writers may use this as an opportunity to better their skills in another language that is not their mother tongue and better develop their writing in this second (or third, or fourth) language. The blogger also makes a really interesting point about not wanting the fourth wall broken - these fics were never written for the creators of the source material to see and they are not meant for them. It's written for fans, by fans, and likely feels somewhat like a betrayal to have that world ousted into the faces of those working with the source. Most of all, fireplum catches on to Moran's tweet that responds to calling fans virgins, as if fans were simply a bunch of hysterical, virginal girls who needed to get laid and stop writing smut. Last time I checked, virginity was a construct - and a warped one at that - and writing fanfiction has nothing to do with being a virgin or not. Moran plays right into a stereotype of fangirls and, as fireplum explains, expresses misogynistic ideas of women who are passionate about things. Her handling of this situation makes her appear terribly uncouth and unprofessional. It saddens me that she would think that giving fanfic to Misters Freeman and Cumberbatch to read would be appropriate and that it's acceptable to mock the fans that care about these actors so dearly. No one mocks fantasty football - so why mock fanfiction? 

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The emotions are different and the participants are different, that's why. Fantasy football is about "strategy" and "commitment" and "hanging out with the guys." Fanfiction writing is "passionate" and "sensual" and is a generally a solitary act (though I have a friend who's written fanfiction with her roommates and it sounds like a great way to spend an evening). Fanfiction writers are seen as obsessive and indulgent while fantasy football participants are seen as devoted and committed, though both are just as likely to become obsessive or detached as the other. And while we can of course acknowledge that not all fantasy football participants are males and not all fanfic writers are women, there is a general difference of gender - and one that media continually emphasizes in negative ways. It's also interesting that football players would not be told about how fans view them in fantasy football teams but it's seen as okay to tell actors about their fanfiction, despite the fact that they want to separate themselves from, as Mr. Tom Hiddleston called it, "all of that energy." It is a lot of energy and it can be a lot for actors to deal with. While they generally seem very appreciative of fandom, its another thing to have reporters and talk show hosts force them into it by forcing fan art and fanfic upon them. There is a certain separation between the practices of the actors and the source material and the practices of the fandom, and it's important to respect and recognize that.

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I am no authority on fandom and I am a novice at writing fanfic, but I can tell you this - it is one of the most positive experiences I have had. It's one of the few ways that you can write about something that really interests you, play around with characters and plots and themes, explore subjects that other forms of writing or mainstream media may not accept, and publish it for free, all while having a willing audience happy to review and critique it for you. Yes, there are haters out there who may lambaste your writing and yes, not all parts of fanfic writing are great. Fandoms are flawed - people are flawed. We know this and there's not much more to be said on the topic. So it's time to do something more constructive when viewing fandoms - for people like Moran as well as myself - and stop provoking stereotypes and harmful ideas of fandom. While it may be difficult to deal with fandom and its relationship with source material, it's important to understand what boundaries do exist to the participants and understand what one is doing when interacting with them. Respect the fandom. And, as Dr. Magnanti said, "Conquer all worlds. There is nothing shameful about stretching your wings."

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