I wrote my first fic in the 7th grade before I even knew what fanfiction was. It was a Dragonball Z story involving three female Saiyan warriors (modeled heavily after myself and my two best friends) who crash-land on Earth, beat up Goku and company, and basically take over the world (and yeah, eventually fall in love. Don’t judge me.)
After that came Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, the X-Men, and lots of other stuff involving dragons and magic and epic quests and saving the world from evil. Writing became a central part of the way that I expressed my interest in the stories that I loved. I think that fanfiction can be described as filling in the blanks. The blanks I wanted to fill were the places where I wished people of color existed- specifically, Black girls like me.
I didn’t know a lot about media literacy at that age, but I knew instinctively that something was wrong when a girl like me could love so many books and movies and TV shows over a number of years but never, ever see a character even remotely like her. Every single world seemed devoid of Black girls and women, save perhaps a few silent background figures. It made me feel like I was something strange and alien, so I tried not to think about it too much. (That, of course, did not work.)
There’s been a lot of public debate regarding fanfiction in recent years. Some authors (and actors) are against it; some are more vocal in their views than others. This is the part where I’m supposed to rush to the defense of fanfiction by reminding everyone that it isn’t all crazy sex stories where like, Harry Potter hooks up with Legolas and the Boy Who Lived gets pregnant with twin elf babies and Aslan officiates their wedding or whatever.
I could do that, but honestly, why? What’s so wrong with outlandish fanfiction? If there are people in this world who can eat chickens inside of ducks inside of turkeys, then I can read a story about Harry Potter meeting someone in Middle Earth and taking a vacation to Narnia. It’s my literary turducken, and I love every crazy bite of it.
The uncomfortable truth that many detractors ignore is that hatred of fanfiction is symptomatic of a larger issue. Our society-wide denigration of anything associated with or intended for girls and women. The creative expression of girls (especially teenage girls) and women have long been devalued in our society. It’s the reason why women who write solely about romantic relationships are viewed differently than male authors who do the same. This is often why female fans are referred to disparagingly as “teenyboppers” by so-called real fans (usually older males with unchecked superiority complexes). It’s as if passionate, enthusiastic teenage girls represent everything wrong with the world?
The viewpoint that fanfiction is inherently wrong ignores the real transformative power fanfiction holds for people of color. Those who tend to be all but completely invisible in mainstream media and whose authentic voices are absent.
As a Black girl, when I first started to write fanfiction (privately), it was born not out of a need to see a fictional version of myself hook up with the show’s resident dreamboat (but even if it was – so what?). It was to combat the nameless feeling that came over me every time I fell in love with a story that took place in a world where people like me didn’t exist — or worse, served only as punchlines or background characters. If I did see characters like me, their dialogue seemed to consist mainly of tired stereotypes– your standard ‘oh hell no’s’ and ‘You go girl’s’. There’s nothing wrong with talking like that– I have been known to spout the occasional ‘oh hell no,’ I will happily admit – but when that’s what the only Black girl on your show is reduced to, then we have a problem.
And so, so much of what I see on TV and read in books– especially in the genres I love, like fantasy and science-fiction – has a huge problem.
I first noticed it when I was a pre-teen, and falling very passionately in love with fantasy and science fiction. The worst feeling is being a nerdy teenage girl in love with something that doesn’t love you back. You try to ignore it; there are no Black characters, the protagonists make “jokes” that are rooted in racist stereotypes, let’s just forget that scene exists because you really love the story or the hero of this show or the writer and you want to keep that feeling safe.
It doesn’t work, though. Sooner or later, you always get that reminder that it’s not “for” you. When it becomes clear (either through a joke, a throwaway line that marks POC as foreign entities, whatever) that the writers wrote with an assumed white audience in mind, it can feel like a slap in the face. You feel awkward, exposed, maybe even ashamed, without exactly knowing why. Something in me needed to make that right. I needed to do something so I could feel ok loving this show, this universe. There’s no reason Black girls can’t be heroes in stories like these, I thought, I’ll prove it.
For those who ask, “Well, why not just write your own story and have all the non-white people you want in it?” Many of us sure as hell do, but fanfiction often serves as a restorative training ground. It is a place where young writers can grow accustomed to challenging dominant media and narratives in the way we must always do if we’re to create and share our own stories and counter-narratives. It’s a way of practicing, a method with relatively low stakes. I am wholeheartedly in favor of anything that emboldens young writers of color to keep writing and creating.
Fanfiction was a way of taking feelings of not belonging to some of my favorite stories and using that to find ways to fix the problems in media as I saw them. It was a practice that helped me to envision something different. Black girls could travel through space and save the world, even though I’d never seen it in a movie or read about it, and no one else seemed to think so. It was enough that I thought so. It was enough that I could write it and share it and make it real, in that way.
It was my way of saying that I do exist – I’m not just a punch line or a silent Black friend who gets killed at the end of the episode so that the white leads can narrowly escape. I’m not just the maid, or the bus driver, or the sassy side character with no real personality independent of providing comic relief. Maids, bus drivers, and sassy side characters can save the world. They don’t have to be side characters at all. I am the star of my own story. I exist. I exist in outer space, in alternate universes, in enchanted forests. If you hate that so much if your perfect worlds are places where you never have to look at or root for anyone who doesn’t look like Jennifer Lawrence, you need to ask yourself why that is.
I’ve never felt that the value of fanfiction was in its quality. Though, much of the writing really isn’t as bad as people like to claim. The same way all published works aren’t the height of absolute literary genius. It’s not about who likes it and who doesn’t. It’s not about branching out and landing a book deal one day. It’s the process of writing it. It’s re-directing the camera onto those so often ignored, not only in fiction but in reality. Reshaping canon to include diverse identities is not self-indulgent – it’s a powerful act of self-love.
For a girl like me, who didn’t look anything like the characters in the books that I loved, fanfiction was my entry into the worlds I was being implicitly told weren’t for me – and I suspect it serves a similar purpose for many other fans as well. Mainstream media may be filled to the brim with angsty white dudes, but through fanfiction, we can begin to envision a world much more diverse than the lily-white universes we see on TV.
So, consider this my love letter to fanfiction and the people who write it. Thank you to the fans who see possibilities even after the credits roll. Those who wonder what if, why, and how, and answer those questions just for the sake of satisfying curiosity. To the fans who can write 15,000 words of a character study of minor background figures that can make me look at an entire book series in a different light. To the fans who love and write about the characters that not even the writers seem to care about –the rejected love interests or the POC thrown in the background who never gets to talk.
To the fans who sit in coffee shops over winter break with their fanfiction journals, smiling to themselves at the thought of anyone knowing what they were writing about. To the fans who dare to explore the existing canon by imagining how the hero’s life would play out if he couldn’t rely on the benefits of white privilege during his travels. To the fans who can take the awesome and make me love it even more, and to the ones who keep writing, even as others insist that what they do is silly and self-indulgent, and that it doesn’t matter, and who continue to do it anyway, for the benefit of only yourself and your fellow freaks: thank you.
I read your work on the bus, in-between classes, during lunch breaks, before bed. Your writing got me through boring lectures, eternities spent in waiting rooms, long car rides, and just plain bad days when all I wanted to do was curl up in bed and forget how absolutely terrible the world can be. It was your words that I first discovered before many of the WOC-authored published works I’d come to love. It was you who first helped me learn that genre fiction didn’t have to represent yet another place where Black people didn’t belong, that there could be a place on any planet, any world, any reality, for girls like me.
I hope that you keep writing. I hope that you keep creating. Your writing is valued, whether you want to go pro one day or not. It matters more than you know.
What's Your Reaction?
Sharon can be found writing about things like intersectional identities and Harry Potter fanfiction on her blog, The Black Feminist Geek (theblackfeministgeek.wordpress.com), or on Twitter at @SLPruitt trying to make her long-winded rants fit into 140 characters.
Tell ’em again, Sharon! I found that I had devalued something that took me through a lot of my adolescence
Hear hear! Like you I’ve been writing fanfic since before I knew it had a name, mostly “RPF” romance stories about bandmembers in my favorite band, with my girlfriends when we were very young teens. That progressed into X-Files and onward into other TV and movie fandoms. Most of them are love stories, but I’m a dreamy romantic at heart and I don’t apologize for it! I’m glad its coming into its own and being taken seriously — and serious discussions around the hows and whys of it, the audiences for it and how they navigate the world they live in.
Yes, yes, YES! While I don’t write fan fiction, I have a deep appreciate those that do use their creativity in that way. I like to think that someday the diverse representation found in fan fiction will be depicted on screen…it’s a nice dream anyway
I agree, but honestly fanfiction can be just as bad if not worse sometimes. Out of the dozens of fanfics I’ve read (in my fandom at least), I’ve probably seen about a hand full of fanfictions with OCs of color. I barely found any OCs that were black. At most I found three, one of which was my own. I think everyone can learn a lesson or two about diversity.
I have a Hello Kitty journal full of fan fiction I wrote when I was in high school. I liked writing fan fiction because it allowed me to imagine alternate universes for my favorite cartoons and video games and find my own writing voice. It is fan fiction that made me start to realize that I enjoyed writing stories with teen protagonists. I stopped writing fan fiction before I graduated high school, but I continued reading it and still read it today. Today fan fiction is great for when I really want two characters to get together or when something I watch is on hiatus.
Let me tell you a little secret. I did a twitterview with a well known author here in South Africa who specifically said that most aspiring writers of this younger generation would’ve started their writing career from starting off with fanfics. Fanfiction is almost like planting the seed of wanting to be come an aspiring writer and it’s good practice to get into the habit of writing. When I write fanfics, I make sure to include my own developed and integrated character of colour. Long Live Fanfiction.
Totally know what you mean. What’s worse is seeing great characters who are POC get totally ignored by fans (I’m looking at you, Psych fandom).
I’ve done the same in the past. I used to be harsh on OCs but those characters can serve a really important purpose.
That’s a shame. :/ I’m not sure if that’s the case in my fandom because I never know who’s behind the screen, but I can definitely tell you that your chances of finding a fanfic with a black, female OC is about 1 in 10 if you’re lucky.
I agree Fanfiction is and has always been an outlet for me to express a part of myself. It’s not just about certain shippings that I can put together . It to me has been about simply expressing myself to the fullest . Also, creating something away from day to day life .
This! This was and is me! I am still writing fanfiction and have been since the age of 13. But that is where I really began to flex my writing muscles and try new things with my writing. Basically just learning how to write! I love fanfiction for that reason and from the nice theory building and questions that can come from it too!
Thank you for what you said about girl/women’s interests being denigrated. While I think Twilight is silly and am not into One Direction, they’re given so much more abuse than silly franchises targeted towards men, like Transformers. I’m white, but I was getting really sick of the lack of POC and female characters in one of my favorite shows (Metalocalypse), so fanfiction allowed me to write a WOC lead for the first time and not be so nervous that I would bungle it, as the rest of the universe was in place. I think I made some mistakes, but I can work on them in the future, and include more POC in my original work.
Hi! I know I’m coming to this party eight years later but I relate so hard to this article! WHERE THE WOC AT? While I’ve mostly ached for fics with WoC in them, I’ve barely found a handful. I’ve recently created a community on ffnet focused on collecting stories centred on women of colour, whether they be already existing characters or OC’s, and I’m looking for staff! Hopefully this will be the little catchment area for WoC fics, and serve as a place where we can appreciate them too, and encourage each other! I’ve recently got a crazing for OC stories and I’ve read so many good quality fics, it’s just so sad that I couldn’t find much with WoC in them? SO PLEASE CHECK IT OUT! https://www.fanfiction.net/community/boys-out-here-chasing-jars-of-mayonnaise-meanwhile-i-a-princess-of-gold-and-spices/122297/
I love your blog and it is so awesome where I can actually read about being a black girl and reading fanfic and watching anime, and not be called a freak by my own race.❤????
I totally feel all of this! The Facts of Life fanfiction are filled with Jo/Blair fics but very little of the beautiful black character Tootie. There needs to be some diversity in The Facts of Life fanfiction. I wish I was a talented writer otherwise i would be writing for her. And some of the writers are woc themselves but for some reason they don’t see themselves in the Tootie character. But they relate to the white privileged Blair Warner character? Jo is my second favorite character (the coolest) and she doesn’t deserve to be lumped in with Blair in most of these fanfics? Why not Jo/Natalie, Jo/Tootie? Anything is better than Blair. Tootie/Jo is my favorite pairing.