“Here’s my opinion on people writing sexually oriented fanfiction about real people. It’s WRONG, CREEPY, VERY EXTREMELY ICKY, and should be ILLEGAL.”
This impassioned statement by Nightrunner author Lynn Flewelling in a 2004 response to fans is a clear indictment of Real Person Fiction or RPF. A lot is made in fan culture about the ethics behind RPF, a branch of fan writing defined by Fanlore as “fanfiction written about actual people, rather than fictional characters.” Both the controversial genre and its ethical debates have a long history in fandom. The first purported RPF, a story named “Visit to a Weird Planet,” was published in a 1968 edition of Spocknalia, a popular Star Trek zine. In the fic, Kirk, Spock and Bones are sent back to the set of the original Star Trek television series where they are swapped with their real-life counterparts and meet the Great Bird of the Galaxy himself, creator Gene Roddenberry. Likewise, an early fan critique of RPF in the Professionals fandom was published in the 7th issue of The Hatstand Express letterzine in 1985. Regarding the depiction of slash relationships between real people, the fan wrote:
It’s not only dangerous, but it’s the height of bad manners and bad taste as well. Consider: how would you feel if you found out that people you thought were friendly were telling stories (true or not) about your sex life? Stories that could get back to your friends and families? We may own the characters we write about, but we do not own the actors who created them. Friends, this is libel!
This reaction creates a false dichotomy that suggests fans can “own” characters but not real life actors. Celebrities make a conscious choice to enter into the public eye. And star personas are as constructed as any fictional character. Hollywood itself is almost otherworldly and foreign to those not inside the system. The glitz and glamour of Tinseltown, with its shimmering stars and their celestial bodies, mirrors even the most bizarre of supernatural worlds. A 2004 meta post by angstslashhope makes a compelling case for viewing celebrities as fictional characters:
It could be argued that celebrity is the contemporary (or postmodern, heh) ‘fictional character.’ Just as boybands are generally (obviously) comprised of a group of created personalities, so too are any celebrity [sic] you see reported in the papers – Jennifer Lopez, Tom & Nicole, Elijah Wood. These celebrities are creating a character – performing a fictional character in a way, to (and via) the media and general public. […] So in a way, celebrities are just as fictional as any fictional character (who may or may not have aspects of their fictional personality influenced by ‘real’ events). The difference with (most) celebrities, however, is that their fiction is often masquerading as ‘truth.’
To return for a moment to the impassioned position taken by author Lynn Flewelling, part of her issue with RPF is its potential to take an emotional toll on celebrities: “If I were an actress or other public figure and found myself the subject of such ‘fanfiction’ I would feel raped.” This hyperbolic statement implies that, in such a situation, fan writers might have some degree of power over their RPF victims. In reality, however, it is the exact opposite: fan writers by nature have little to no agency in textual production.
If we’re honest for a moment, for the most part, fan works are not taken seriously by the general public, let alone high-profile celebrities churned out by Hollywood’s dream factory. With talk show hosts occasionally assaulting their celebrity guests with explicit fanart of themselves and their co-stars in compromising positions, fan works are always the butt of the joke. Other than these brief encounters with fan works that are always played for laughs (or groans), celebrities are unlikely to be affected by fan works. Cultural hegemony, the top-down system of production and consumption that regulates images in mass media, ensures that powerful and wealthy celebs cannot be touched by bottom-up cultural production — the modus operandi of fandom.
That being said, for me personally, the ethics of RPF become more of a grey area when celebrities’ family members, including spouses or children, are brought into the mix. These are people who have not chosen to be in the public eye. During a transitory period of Thorki shipping, I remember reading a Chris Hemsworth/Tom Hiddleston RPF and cringing when Hemsworth’s spouse and daughter were brought into the narrative for dramatic effect. Perhaps a way to combat the non-consensual inclusion of family members would be to change the names of these characters. Then again, whether this actually solves any sort of ethical dilemma is debatable.
In today’s digital world, where the most intimate stories, photographs, or sex tapes are easily leaked to the public, it is understandable and even reasonable to sympathize with public figures who have their privacy stripped away. However, RPFs are not “real” photographs of “real” peoples’ bodies (Daniel Radcliffe’s head photoshopped onto a muscular torso doesn’t count) nor are they “real” stories about “real” sex lives. RPFs are fictional narratives that feature characters (or, perhaps more accurately, caricatures) based on highly constructed, performed, and regulated personalities.
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