For the people who are out there “fighting the good fight” and “trying to make fandom a better place,” I have two important questions for you:
1. Is the author dead? x
2. Is your baby in the bathwater? x
What do I mean by those things? Let’s start with #1. The Death of the Author is a type of literary criticism, the extreme cliff notes version of which is that art exists outside of the creator’s life, personal background, and even intentions. I’m using it slightly differently than Barthes intended, but that’s okay, because the author is dead and I’m interpreting his work through my own lens.
In fandom, the author is dead. In fact, the author was never alive in the first place, not really. The author has only ever been the idea of a person, because unlike published fiction, the only thing we know about a fanfic author is that which they choose to tell us about themselves.
Why is that important?
Because it might not be true. Hell, that happens in real life with published authors, who have SSN’s on file with their publishers, who pay taxes on the works they create and have researchable pasts. If the author of A Million Little Pieces could fake everything, why can’t I? Why can’t you? Why can’t the writer of your favorite fic in the whole wide world?
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: “you can only write about [sensitive subject] if [sensitive subject] has happened to you personally, otherwise you’re a disgusting monster that deserves to die!!” Or maybe “you can only write [x racial or ethnic group] characters if you’re [x racial or ethnic group] otherwise you’re racist/fetishizing/colonizing!”
You can play this game with any sensitive subject you can come up with. I’ve seen them all before, on a sliding scale of slightly chastising to literal death threats.
Now, I could tell you that I’m a white-passing Latina whose grandmother was an anchor baby. I could tell you that I speak only English because my family never taught me to speak Spanish, something which I’ve been told is common in the Cuban community, though I only know my own lived experience. I could tell you that I’m mostly neurotypical. I could tell you that I’m covered in surgical scars. I could tell you lots of things.
Are any of these true? Maybe! I could tell you that my brother has severe mental development problems, so uncommon that they’ve never been properly diagnosed, and that he will live the rest of his life in a group home with 24-hour care. Is that true? Am I allowed to write about families struggling with America’s piss-poor services for the handicapped now?
Am I allowed to write about being Cuban? After all, I did just say that I’m Cuban. But is it true? Can I instead write a character that’s Panamanian? Maybe I really am Panamanian, not Cuban. Maybe I’m both. Maybe I’m neither. Maybe I’m really French Canadian. Should we require people to post regular selfies? I can’t count the number of times I’ve had someone come up to me speaking Arabic, and I’ve been told that I look Syrian. What’s stopping me from making a blog that claims that I am Syrian? Can you even really tell someone’s race and ethnicity from a photo?
Am I allowed to write about being a teenager? Am I allowed to write about being a college student? Am I allowed to write about being an “adulty” adult? Can I write a character who’s 40? 50? 60? How old am I?
All of this is to say: you can’t base what someone is or is not “allowed” to write about on a background that may or may not be real. No matter how good your intentions. And I get it - this usually comes from a place of well-meaning. You’re trying to protect marginalized groups by stopping privileged people from trampling all over experiences that they haven’t suffered. I get that. It’s a very noble thought. But you can’t require a background check for every fic that you don’t like.
If you say “you can only write about rape if you’re a rape victim,” then one of three things will happen:
Real survivors will have to supply intimate details of their own violations to prevent harassment
Real survivors will refuse to engage and will then have to deal with death threats and people telling them to kill themselves for daring to write about their own experiences
People who aren’t survivors will say “yeah sure this happened to me” just to get people to shut up
Has that helped anyone? I mean really - anyone??
So now let’s get to point #2: is your baby in the bathwater?
If your intention is to protect marginalized people from being trampled upon, stop and assess if your boot is the one that’s now stamping on their face. Find your baby! Is your baby in the bathwater? Which is to say: find the goal that you’re advocating for. Now assess. Are you making the problem worse for the people you’re trying to protect? Does that rape victim really feel better, now that you’ve harassed and stalked them in the name of making rape victims feel safe?
Let’s say you read a fic that contains explicit sex between a 16 year old and a 17 year old. Is this okay? Would it be okay if the writer was 15? 16? 17? Should teenagers be barred from writing about their own lives, and should teenagers be banned from exploring sexuality in a fictional bubble, instead of hookup culture? Is it okay for a 20 year old to write about their experiences as a teenager? Is it okay for a 20 year old to write about being raped at a party as a teenager? Is it okay for a 30 year old? How about a 40 year old? Is it okay so long as it isn’t titillating? Is it okay if taking control of the narrative allows the writer to re-conceptualize their trauma as something they have control over? Is it okay if their therapist told them that writing is a safe creative outlet?
Is your author dead?
Is your baby in the bathwater?
Now let’s take a hardline approach: no fanfiction with characters who are under 18 years old. None. Is the 16 year old who really loves Harry Potter and wants to read/write about characters their own age better off? Should they be banned from writing? Should they be forced to exclusively read and write (adult) experiences that they haven’t lived? Will they write about teens anyway? Should they have to share it in secret? Should 16 year olds be ashamed of themselves? Should we just throw in with the evangelicals and say that the only answer is abstinence, both real and fictional?
Let’s say that no rape is allowed in fiction, at all. None. What happens to all the hurt/comfort fics where a character is raped and then receives the support and love that they deserve, slowly heal, and by the end have found themselves again? Are you helping rape victims by banning these stories? Are you helping rape victims by stripping their agency away, by telling them that their wants and their consent doesn’t matter?
Is your baby in the bathwater?
Fandom is currently being split in two: on one side, the people who want to make fandom a “safer” place by any means necessary, even if that means throwing out all of the marginalized groups they say they want to protect - and on the other, people who are saying “if you throw out that bathwater, you’re throwing the baby out too.”
The whole point of fandom is to be able to explore all kinds of ideas from the safety and comfort of a computer screen. You can read/write things that fascinate you, disgust you, titillate you, or make your heart feel warm. This is true of all fiction. People who want to read about rape and incest and extreme violence and torture can go pick up a copy of Game of Thrones from the bookstore whenever they want. Sanitizing fandom just means holding a community of people who are primarily not male, not straight, not cis, or some combination of those three, to higher and stricter standards than straight white cis male authors and creators all over the world.
There is nothing you can find on AO3 that you can’t find in a bookstore. Any teenager can go check out Lolita, or ASOIAF, or Flowers in the Attic, or Stephen King’s It, or Speak, or hundreds of other books that have adult themes or gratuitous violence or graphic sex. The difference is that AO3 has warnings and tags and allows people to interact only with the types of work that they want to, and allows people to curate their experiences.
Are these themes eligible to be explored, but only in the setting of something produced/published? Books, movies, television, studio art, music - all of these fields have huge barriers to entry, and they’re largely controlled by wealthy cishet white men. Is it better to say that only those who have the right connections to “make it” in these industries should be allowed to explore violence or sexuality or any other so-called “adult” theme?
Does banning women from writing MLM erotica make fan culture a better place?
Does banning queer people from writing about queer experiences make fan culture a better place?
Is M/M fic okay, but only if the author is male? What if he’s a trans man? What if they’re NB? Who should get to draw those lines? Should TERFs get a vote? What if the author is a woman who feels more comfortable writing from a male character’s perspective because she’s grown up with male stories her whole life, or because she identifies more with male characters? What about all the trans men who discovered themselves, in part, by writing fanfiction, and realized that their desires to write male characters stemmed from something they hadn’t yet realized about themselves?
How can we ever be sure that the author is who they say they are?
Who is allowed to write these stories? How do we enforce it?
Is it better for none of these stories to ever exist at all?
Have you killed your author?
Have you thrown out your baby with the bathwater?
Since this post is going around again with some new commentary, I want to make one thing extremely clear: this post is not about excusing racism in fandom, or saying that fanworks are above criticism. Quite the opposite, actually. If you read a fic and go “oh holy shit that was RACIST,” then the work was racist. It doesn’t matter who the author is. There’s not much point in going to the author’s page to try and figure out what their race is because it doesn’t actually matter, and you can’t verify it anyway.
If the author does have a post that says something along the lines of “well I am [X minority group], so there, I can’t be racist,” that doesn’t mean anything, and it certainly doesn’t excuse anything. Maybe that person is telling the truth and has unwittingly internalized some really harmful shit; maybe that person is telling the truth and is self-hating; maybe that person is lying; maybe that person is actually white and is deliberately and maliciously pretending to be a minority online to evade criticism. White people do this all the fucking time. I’m not going to drop a dozen examples here because I know you all have seen them.
The point is that the harm of creating a racist work isn’t undone by the author’s identity, so it’s pointless to try and criticize fanfic solely through that lens.
Any author writing about a sensitive topic of any kind should approach it with respect, and, if writing outside of their own experience, should research and make sure they’re portraying the subject respectfully. I would never claim otherwise. This post is about a very particular type of (primarily) online extremism that pushes faux-progressivism all the way back around to actual run-of-the-mill racism again. This goes hand-in-hand with people who claim that learning another language is cultural appropriation, or that eating another culture’s food is racist. Obviously, this is a fringe belief, but a few years ago a surprising number of people parroted that shit uncritically.
Additionally, a person’s identity can be important to fandom criticism, and I won’t claim that that isn’t true. But disclosing any kind of minority status, either on the part of the creator or in criticism from a reader, is only one piece of an effective discussion. It should be the beginning, not the end, of a conversation. Your background can inform a discussion and lend weight to your opinion, but it doesn’t make any one person the arbiter over whether or not something is appropriate.
An important thing to remember is that no minority group is a monolith. Two people with the exact same background can disagree about whether or not something is insensitive, and one person’s beloved representation can be another’s racist caricature. Two queer people can disagree about queer-coded villains as representation; two women can disagree over whether or not a franchise is sexist; two Latinx people can have totally different experiences watching the same exact TV show. I don’t want to get lost in the weeds giving a bunch of hypothetical examples here, but you get the picture.
I don’t have a great way to wrap this up because I’m mostly writing on the fly, but the most important thing is to be kind to each other. Listen when people talk about experiences that you haven’t lived through, don’t harass strangers on the internet over fictional ships, and, as always, remember that anyone who claims that everything is black or white is probably trying to sell you something.