Fanfiction is political, subversive, radical. Writing Harry Potter as a girl, Hermione as black, or Ron as transgender exposes people to narratives written from the perspective of marginalized communities. But is writing fanfiction a type of activism?
Fan activism refers to how participation in fandom develops into involvement in fan-led political activities. In a 2012 article entitled “‘Cultural Acupuncture:’ Fan Activism and the Harry Potter Alliance,” scholar Henry Jenkins defines fan activism as:
forms of civic engagement and political participation that emerge from within fan culture itself, often in response to the shared interests of fans, often conducted through the infrastructure of existing fan practices and relationships, and often framed through metaphors drawn from popular and participatory culture.
Jenkins, the godfather of Fan Studies, has always maintained that fandom is “a site of ideological and cultural resistance” to mainstream media. However, his more recent work privileges “in the streets” models of fan activism (such as political campaigns by the Harry Potter Alliance) over “abstract” acts of fan resistance (like “genderfucking” or “queering” mainstream texts through fan writing). My concept of fan activism includes all manifestations of resistance, including actions that intervene in fandom itself.
The transfic genre is such an intervention. If we look at the history of transfic, we can see how the genre arose out of rampant fan frustration at genderswap’s failure to address transgender experiences. Unlike genderswap fics, transfics strive to depict positive representations of sex and gender transitions as not something dealt with after the fact (for instance, learning how to pee while seated or walk in high heels), but as a process that is planned, ongoing, and material. Transfics do not ignore, negate, or push these transgender materialities to the margins: they foreground them as narratives and highlight the complexities of living in a cissexist world.
To me, these sorts of fan activities push beyond “ideological” or “abstract” forms of resistance and qualify as the more measurable tactics of “civic engagement and political participation” that Henry Jenkins upholds as key tenets of fan activism. Transfic is not only an intervention in the troublesome genderswap genre, but also opens up space for transgender voices and experiences to flourish in fan communities.
A lot of fan political activities take place during meta discussions in online writing spaces like forums and comment sections. These discussions range from specific inquiries about the psychological motivations behind a character’s actions to larger rants at the lack of representation of queer women of color in popular texts. In these online spaces, fans express their concerns and offer possible solutions to problems of (mis)representation facing their online communities. In a meta post called “Five+ Ways Being Transgender in Fandom Really Sucks, and Why I Stick With It Anyway,” fan Iambic Kilometre describes turning to fandom because of the lack of trans characters in popular texts, only to be faced with problematic “genderswapped” ones:
I turn to fandom to look for transgendered characters. And there are fic out there in which characters are written as another gender, or as another sex. But far more common are fic with the misnomer “genderswap.” Generally I see two kinds of “genderswap:” the sort in which a character is written as always having been a cisgendered member of the “opposite” sex, or the sort in which a character magically has their sex swapped. […] Long story short, most “genderswap” […] offends me hugely, and manages to avoid all the opportunities to bring trans issues into the mix.
And Iambic Kilometre is not alone in condemning this missed opportunity to “bring trans issues into the mix.” A meta post by dissatisfied fan The Purple Switch also criticizes genderswap:
The thing is that “genderswap” as a genre is living the unexamined life right now. If I got the feeling that an author was writing with some mindfulness of what sex and gender actually are and mean (even if the author’s beliefs about those things are different from mine), I would be much less likely to stop reading their fic in disgust. It is the assumption of gender and sex binaries and that crazy gender = sex thing which drive me batshit insane.
Shortly after these posts were published, a fan named Kyuuketsukirui used forums and comment sections on LiveJournal to gather fics that explicitly featured transgender experiences. This marked the birth of the transfic genre, which has become an important site for transgender representation in fandom.
Thinking about the ways in which fans have responded to the inadequate representation of transgender characters in genderswap fics can help us conceive of how fan writing can effect change in other areas of fandom and beyond. As fan scholar Anna Zola Miller pointed out on her (now defunct) Aca(fan)demic blog:
Everything I know about gender I know because I participate in fandom. Fandom did not necessarily teach me these things directly – university classes and my own research and reading have often done that – but I would have never taken some of those classes, or done that reading, or gotten as much out of them as I did, had fandom not sparked my interest or given me experiences to relate to. Fandom was also responsible for teaching me basic, important, and non-academic things about gender – how to ask for preferred pronouns [and] the deal with gender-neutral bathrooms.
That these experiences are taking place in fandom is the most compelling reason for asserting that fan writing is a powerful form of activism. I certainly do not suggest that all fans view their writing as a political act, nor can I turn a blind eye to the overwhelming number of fics that present troublesome representations of gender and sexuality. However, there are incredible fics out there that take on complex issues of representation without compromising the fictional nature of their stories. We need to find and celebrate these authors because, like Anna Zola Miller alludes to, the positive effects of writing and reading fanfiction can extend well beyond fandom. It is our job to assert and reclaim our marginalized voices in fan communities because, like Dumbledore says, “Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.”