Written by Quynhanh Tran.
Graphic by Peyton Cabaniss.
In seventh grade, I discovered the young adult series Maximum Ride. I spent a week devouring each novel, some of them twice through, and I still couldn’t get enough. After realizing there wasn’t any more to the series, I went on the internet and discovered Maximum Ride food fight fics (there was indeed enough of fics of the main characters having food fights to constitute their own trope), and I’ve never been quite able to escape the world of fanfiction since.
Fanfiction is a reimagining of existing media – authors place characters in new situations or tweak storylines to explore different possibilities. There’s fanfiction for everything, from Super Smash Bros to the Bible. You name it, someone’s probably written Alternate Universes, headcanons, crossovers for it. Harry Potter has gone to American high school, Harry Styles has fallen in love with his teenage fans (often the authors themselves). Fic authors are nothing if not imaginative.
In spite of its popularity, most people still don’t get fic. Fanfiction is often dismissed as lazy, derivative, the silly imaginings of teenage girls. Now that fanfiction has entered the mainstream, it’s associated with works like Fifty Shades of Grey or the Wattpad movies that Netflix can’t seem to get enough of. Although it can be argued that these fics have their own merits, I’ve also read fics that have made a greater impact on me than any novel from the white dude-dominated canon.
At its heart, fanfiction is a revolution.
For me, this revolution started with Les Misérables. Although the 2012 movie triggered my Les Mis obsession, it wasn’t long before I had two copies of the book (fans call it the Brick, because it can also double as a blunt weapon), debated the merits of various translations with Internet friends, and suffered through the infamous 50 pages of painful detail about the Parisian sewer system. Although it’s a 150-year-old novel about white people staging a failed rebellion, the Les Mis fandom made it more than that. Fic authors reimagined characters as LGBT (in some cases, there wasn’t too much reimagining to do), as different races, as modern-day activists engaging with contemporary issues I was struggling to understand. I still remember when Asian headcanons of Combeferre (a little-known character that Tumblr nevertheless loved) became popular. This was the first time I realized that if media wasn’t going to represent me, I would just have to force my way in.
For my sixteen-year-old self, who hardly understood what social justice meant, Les Mis fanfiction was my activism. Through fanfiction, I could make characters and stories represent the diversity I saw in my peers. I could make them represent the struggles of marginalized communities. I could make them represent me. I doubt Victor Hugo anticipated that his novel would gain a dedicated following among teenage girls, but high-brow media was not meant for us. We make those spaces for ourselves – whether that’s through rom-coms, chick lit, or fanfiction. These works have for too long been dismissed and ridiculed, and it’s no coincidence that these criticisms are often gendered.
Over the past few years, I’ve met a surprising number of women leaders who’ve read or written fic, which I maybe should have expected. For many of us, fanfiction played a large part in shaping our social justice frameworks, in validating our diverse stories, or simply in letting us reimagine a happier ending to a sad book. No matter how fanfiction has touched us, no matter how long ago, it continues to help us build community. I bonded with one of my best friends on the steps of Blanton dormitory when I recognized the Archive of Our Own – a popular fanfiction website – font on her phone. I know I’ll get along with someone if they’ve suffered through My Immortal. I have engaged in too many conversations with women in campus leadership about our favorite Harry Potter ships and fics. Our fanfic pasts may come back to haunt us when we run for office, but without fic, I doubt I’d be the kind of person who is confident and passionate enough to consider a run in the first place.
Fanfiction is an exercise in reclaiming power, in re-shaping spaces that were not created for women, queer individuals, and other folks who are often shut out of popular media. It is a lesson in self-advocacy, in demanding that the media you consume actually represent you. For me, and for many other young women, it is revolutionary.