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The Age of Fanfiction - Manifesting Our Fantasies

We’re living in an age of Fan Fiction. Today we’re inundated with new stories that expand on and creatively reinvent old narratives. It’s the era of the reboot, the origin story, the cinematic universe, and the spinoff. Period pieces, like Bridgerton, Dickinson, and The Great are remixing history or classic literature to reflect our modern sensibilities. At its core, fan fiction is an exercise in wish-fulfillment—an act of imagining the world as we’d like it to be. Here’s our Take on why Fan Fiction-esque stories rule the moment and how they empower us to remake life in the image of our fantasies.

TRANSCRIPT

We’re living in an age of fan-fiction. Today we’re inundated with new stories that expand on and creatively reinvent old narratives. It’s the era of the reboot, the origin story, the cinematic universe, and the spinoff. Period pieces are remixing history or classic literature to reflect our modern sensibilities. Fan-fictionesque stories are also starting to present a more inclusive picture of society, just as one of the hallmarks of fan-fiction is that it allows fans to put themselves into stories they love.

At its core, fan-fiction is an exercise in wish-fulfillment — an act of imagining the world as we’d like it to be. Here’s our take on why fan-fictionesque stories rule the moment, and how they empower us to remake life in the image of our fantasies.

Remix Culture and Expanding Universes

Arguably, fan-fiction has been around for centuries. Shannon Chamberlain writes that after the publication of Gulliver’s Travels in 1726, “readers started to imagine its hero ... in circumstances that either were only briefly alluded to in the text or they themselves invented; the more shocking the revisions, the better.” And what is Dante’s Divine Comedy, John Milton’s Paradise Lost — or even, some argue,The Book of Mormon — if not Biblical fan-fic? But the explosion of fan-fiction came with the internet, especially tied to the rise of blogging and self-publishing in the post-millennium. Superfans of cultural behemoths like Harry Potter, Twilight, and One Direction could now connect with other superfans to collectively expand beloved story universes. Now, we’re seeing that fan-fiction mentality having spread to big-budget, mainstream stories. Essentially, the essence of fan-fiction is reshaping and reclaiming existing stories to say something new or to illuminate an unexplored part of the story world, while adhering to the original story’s spirit.

The South Side Story Tumblr post outlines that fan-fiction can take an array of different forms — like extension, a different point of view, addition, alteration, or alternate universes. Reboot culture — the blockbuster cinematic version of fan-fiction — often involves combinations of extension, addition, and alteration, as continuity with past source material is disregarded.

The Rise of the Planet of the Apes trilogy takes the extension approach to the original Planet of the Apes films, showing the steps it took for the earth to become the dystopian future shown in the 1968 sci-fi classic while dropping direct references to the first movie. Mad Max’s reboot, Mad Max: Fury Road, alters the original story, changing the protagonist from the titular Max to Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa. Even the Daniel Craig-era James Bond and Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock borrow from fan-fiction’s willingness to change things that felt sacrosanct to the original character.

Spider-Man: Into The Spiderverse shows how different iterations of the one Spider-Man idea can co-exist, and the story acts as a neat metaphor for fan-fiction in general. As Bryan Bishop writes, “In this film, Spider-Man isn’t one particular person; it’s an idea accessible to anyone, no matter where they come from or what they look like.”

Miles Morales: “Can I return it if it doesn’t fit?”

Store clerk (Stan Lee): “It always fits, eventually.” - Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

The very concept of the cinematic universe feels indebted to fan-fic’s ability to have concurrent stories working in tandem, feeding off each other. In a spin on the “alternate universe” category of fan-fiction, there’s also the type of story that translates older, less accessible texts or history into recognizable settings. In the 1990s and early 2000s, teen movies took a fan-fic approach by transposing classic works of literature from the likes of Shakespeare and Jane Austen on to high school. Clueless imagines Jane Austen’s Emma as the spoiled valley girl Cher Horowitz, 10 Things I Hate About You takes Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew from the Italian city of Padua to Padua High School in Seattle, while O made Othello a high school basketball star. Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet turned the Montagues and Capulets into rival gangs and reimagined Mercutio’s speech about “Queen Mab” as referring to a party drug. With these clever acts of translation, and through centering the young generation, classic stories that may have felt stuffy were brought up to date, without losing the themes or feel of the original text.

Many of today’s period pieces are undertaking a similar exercise: throwing out certain aspects of historical accuracy to instead draw parallels to our times and make room for creative, symbolic additions. Bridgerton — a fan-fic spin on regency romance that remixes echoes of Pride and Prejudice —is soundtracked by classical arrangements of contemporary pop, and its costuming — which consciously channels contemporary colors and silhouettes — feels more like cosplay. Most significantly, it erases the racial hierarchy that would have been present at the time. So Bridgerton is focused on giving us an opportunity to imagine what that era could have been like, and by extension, what our era could be like.

Likewise, The Great — which declares itself to be an “occasionally true” story — frames the historical Catherine the Great as a relatable, idealistic young feminist. The Great’s creator, Tony McNamara, also played fast and loose with the historical accuracy in Queen Anne’s court in The Favourite, in order to make us think about gender roles and the dehumanizing effects of power hierarchies.

These fan-fic inspired shows project modern situations and debates onto period backdrops. Dickinson, a loose reimagining of the 1800s life of Emily Dickinson, portrays Emily not as the middle-aged woman she was when she wrote most of her best-known poems, but as a teenage girl in contemporary-feeling situations. Guest stars based on real people also fit modern archetypes: Little Women author Louisa May Alcott is a hustling, laser-focused #girlboss, Springfield Republican editor Sam Bowles is the tech-bro disruptor, and Henry David Thoreau is a fake, privileged hipster-slacker. Plots explore contemporary fads like crystals, seances or wellness, while the lead-up to the civil war becomes a set-up to reflect on today’s polarized political environment.

George Gould: “I have relatives in the South. And they’re not bad people.”

Emily Dickinson: “Talk to them about how their way of life is an abomination.”

George Gould: “Oh, okay. Well, that’ll make for a nice Thanksgiving dinner.” - Dickinson 1x05

The Great similarly finds creative ways to let us see our present in the past — even portraying Catherine taking on anti-vaxxers in court by advocating for “variolation,” a precursor to vaccination. In this looser approach, the past becomes recognizable to us. Maybe the characters aren’t dressed or speaking the way people back then really did but the writing is actively finding analogies between past and present — and who’s to say these things didn’t feel comparable to things we go through today? The exercise might reveal that, however much has changed between then and now, a lot has stayed the same. Conversely, the things that truly were different stand out — like the prevalence of sudden death, and the total power that monarchs or ruling classes had over everyone else, which might make us appreciate that (while there’s still a great ways to go) we have progressed greatly in certain ways.

The Inclusive World of Fan-Fiction

Fan-fiction’s greatest trick is its ability to include new audiences into mainstream universes that previously may have felt inaccessible and exclusive. Writer Rose Dommu summed up her love of fan-fiction on the Las Culturistas podcast, saying it was the first time she realized culture could be for her: “You were allowed to play in their sandbox and remix what they had created and live in that world.” Robin Talley, author of As I Descended, says that the practice of queering the canon is important as it shows readers “that there’s nothing inherently ‘straight’ (and for that matter, nothing inherently male, white, or Christian, etc.) about the stories that we think of as defining our culture.” And we can increasingly see the inclusivity of fan-fic trickling up into the mainstream, like in the choice to gender-swap Ocean’s 11 and Ghostbusters or to center a woman and cast a black man and Asian woman as supporting leads in the Star Wars sequel trilogy.

Fans who imagined Hermione Granger as a person of color or Doctor Who’s Doctor as a woman, were vindicated when Noma Dumezweni was cast as Hermione in the play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Jodie Whittaker became the latest regeneration of the Doctor.

The erotic aspect of much fan-fiction has also been influential, as we can see in the huge success of 50 Shades Of Grey which famously began as Twilight fan-fiction that replaced the original vampire story and its connotations of chastity with fantasies of BDSM. Jaclyn Friedman argues that erotic fan-fiction fills important gaps in the mainstream, saying: “These stories focus on female desire and what’s in it for the woman, and there’s not a lot of that in mainstream culture”

There are concerns that mainstream media is just scratching the surface of the radical inclusivity actual fan-fiction represents. Sherlock fans who wanted to see Sherlock and John as more than friends or Sherlock and Moriarty as more than enemies only got a near-kiss in a fantasy sequence that was more queerbaiting than representation. And heterosexual fan-fiction still often rises to the top, as we see in the romance After, which is inspired by straight Harry Styles fan-fic even though most One Direction fan-fiction involves Larry Shipping — about Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson. The fan-fictionesque approach to inclusivity can also veer into tokenism. Still, we are seeing breakthroughs in making space for queerness in existing narratives — like Billy Porter playing the fairy godmother as non-binary in 2021’s Cinderella remake.

Billy Porter: “This is a classic fairytale for a new generation.” - Interview with CBS News

The Limitations of Fan-fiction

Not everyone is happy about the ascendancy of the fan-fic mindset. One of the problems with fan-fictionesque narratives is they can lead to pandering. The Guardian’s Mark Lawson writes that it can make shows feel like “a chatroom for aficionados rather than a program for a general audience.” The Mandalorian was criticized in its second season for writing a young Luke Skywalker into the show to please fans without, as Max Evry writes, “really adding anything to him.” Fan service in the form of excessive easter eggs can sometimes offer little creative value to a story beyond making superfans feel in the know.

In the remixed-period piece approach, there can also be tonal challenges that result from throwing certain aspects of the past out while preserving others. In Bridgerton we’re given an alternate history where black people can be queens and dukes, but in this fantasy, it can be jarring that sexism and heteronormativity are still rampant. Dickinson, on the other hand, isn’t color-blind and takes a more historically accurate approach to pre-Civil War northern racial dynamics (and it at least pays lip service to the sexism and homophobia of the times) but the seriousness of these topics risk feeling undermined by the lightness of the other plots and overall playfulness of the show.

There’s also an argument that some fan-fictionesque narratives — like origin stories that humanize a purposely cardboard villain — don’t need to exist. Ryan Murphy’s Ratched about One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest villain Nurse Ratched ignores the fact that the original Nurse Ratched was meant to be one-dimensional because she was a metaphor for the cruelty of society as a whole — a critique that’s undercut by fleshing her out and making us feel for her.

Perhaps the deepest problem with a wish-fulfillment approach to storytelling is that it risks losing the values of realism. Presenting our society — or a past one — as some kind of fun, rap-soundtracked, colorblind social utopia may be fun, but does it risk being a little frivolous? Some argue that stories should show the world as it really is, not as we would like it to be. Still, when the fan-fiction narrative is done well, any sacrifice of surface truth or naturalism can be in service of a deeper emotional truth and timely insight.

Conclusion

We can read a hopefulness in today’s impulse to realize creative utopias onscreen. The world is more in flux than ever, with issues like climate change and rapidly shifting social mores forcing audiences to consider what the future of the world could — and should — look like. Life imitates art and since fan-fiction empowers audiences to make stories over as we wish them to be, it just may help us manifest a reality that doesn’t make these utopias feel like such a fantasy.

Lady Danbury: “Those very things are precisely what have allowed a new day to begin to dawn in this society.” - Bridgerton 1x04

SOURCES

Chamberlain, Shannon. “Fan Fiction Was Just as Sexual in the 1700s as It Is Today.” The Atlantic, 14 Feb. 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2020/02/surprising-18th-century-origins-fan-fiction/606532/

Bishop, Bryan. “Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse is Dazzling, Hilarious and Unique.” The Verge, 14 Dec. 2018, https://www.theverge.com/2018/11/28/18115201/spider-man-into-the-verse-movie-review-miles-morales

Seth, Radhika. “7,500 Pieces and 5 Months of Prep: What It Took to Create Bridgerton’s Costumes.” Vogue, 24 Dec. 2020, https://www.vogue.com/article/bridgerton-costumes

Grinberg, Emanuella. “Explaining ‘Fifty Shades’ Wild Success.” CNN, 7 Feb. 2017, https://edition.cnn.com/2012/07/13/living/fifty-shades-buzz-50-shades-success/index.htm

Kirkland, Justin. “The Gay Avengers: Endgame Character is a Half-baked Attempt at Diversity.” Esquire, 1 May 2019, https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/movies/a27334096/avengers-endgame-gay-representation

Lawson, Mark. “Sherlock and Doctor Who: Beware of Fans Influencing the TV They Love.” The Guardian, 3 Jan. 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/tvandradioblog/2014/jan/03/sherlock-doctor-who-fans-influencing-tv

King-Miller, Lindsay. “Why Queer Retellings of Classic Stories are So Necessary.” VICE, 31 Oct. 2016, https://www.vice.com/en/article/xdmgw3/why-queer-retellings-of-classic-stories-are-so-necessary

Reese, Hope. “Why is the Golden Age of TV So Dark?” The Atlantic, 11 July 2013, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/07/why-is-the-golden-age-of-tv-so-dark/277696/