I’m in the middle of reading “Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet,” a collection of essays on (obviously) fan fiction edited by Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse. The essays range a bit in the specific aspects of fandom writings they cover, from examinations of the authors to the editors (i.e. readers) to the literary techniques that are frequently employed. I don’t claim to know everything about fandom, so I’m always looking to learn more and books like these are fantastic.
But in reading this one, I realized that I’ve actually read more books and essays about fan fiction than actual fan fiction. I’ve read more than a bit of fan fiction over the years, but I have to confess that I grew tired of sorting through the piles of mediocre work to find the handful of gems. I don’t mean to suggest that fan fiction is more poorly written than “proper” literature. I’ll just cite Sturgeon’s Law: 90% of everything is crap. That applies to mainstream publications just as readily as fan fiction. I’ve just found fewer reliable methods of finding good fan fiction and, thus, haven’t read a wide enough selection to have really noticed this…
Though a specific example, it’s easy to find others of the same thing. LeVar Burton noted in an interview not too long ago how, in Star Trek fan fiction, even the android got more sex than his character, Geordi LaForge. And I’ve seen others comment on how Tony Stark is written as having a sexual relationship with Jarvis, his AI computer program without a physical body at all, than with his friend and partner James Rhodes. Or how about Shawn and Gus from “Psyche”? They’ve even made jokes alluding to a sexual relationship in the show itself, yet fan fiction writers seem to be ignoring this in favor of pairing Shawn with Detective Lassiter.
The recurring theme is that Moneypenny, Geordi, Rhodey and Gus are all black characters, and are not given the same level of attention in fan fiction as their white counterparts.
Part of the problem stems from the original fictions themselves. Minority races tend to be largely absent in popular culture in the first place, so there are simply more white characters to work with. But one would think that those few black (and Hispanic and Asian and…) characters that do show up would be latched on to and utilized with relatively more frequency than they see in the original texts. With so few role models in pop culture, why wouldn’t fan fiction writers take advantage of them when they do show up?
There’s two parts to unpack here. First is that the majority of fan fiction writers are white women. Various studies have pointed to them constituting something north of 75% of the fan fiction authors out there. So they’re almost autonomically writing what their “default” protagonist is — white men. (That white men are the “default” is a rabbit hole of issues that I don’t have time to go into here!) So within a culture that puts a lesser value on black men, that makes them less desirable, it stands to reason that’s what is being written.
Now, the other part to look at here is why aren’t more black people writing fan fiction. One of the few areas in American culture where blacks are encouraged to excel is in the arts (particularly in music) so where is their fan fiction? The issue at hand here is a socio-technological one. Blacks disproportionally access the internet through cell phones compared to desktop and laptop units by whites. And while cell phones are great devices, they’re not very conducive to producing long-form textual works. By largely skipping the desktop computer (again, unpacking why that happened is a rabbit hole I don’t have enough time for!) and starting with their internet access with cell phones, they’re largely bypassing a prime tool for creating and sharing fan fiction — a full-size keyboard! It’s certainly possible to compose lengthy essays on smaller devices, but I can say from first-hand experience (I once wrote an extended essay about Jack Kirby on a PDA) that it’s not nearly as easy to craft, revise or edit on such a device even if it has built-in software for doing exactly that.
Of course, that doesn’t even begin to get into the notions of racial expectations and the social mores ascribed to minorities in pop culture!
Now, clearly, you can go out and find fan fiction that focuses on minority characters. The essay I just finished in “Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet” highlights a “Star Trek: Voyager” piece written from Chakotay’s point of view, and making explicit use of his Native American heritage. But not only are those in the types of stories a very small part of fan fiction on the whole, they’re in a disproportionately small part of fan fiction relative to the number of minority characters that are available.
That’s not an issue with an easy answer. No race-related issue has one, I think. But it’s something to think about the next time you’re wondering what happened to Rhodey in all that Iron Man fanfic you’ve been reading since the latest movie came out.