“Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, the most inexhaustible form of magic we have, capable both of inflicting injury and remedying it.” ~ Albus Dumbledore
Fans are no doubt aware that online fanfics and the communities in which they circulate house rich critiques about gender, sexuality, race and identity. In fact, many fan writers deliberately insert feminist discourse, gender theory, and class commentary into their stories to make complex academic theories accessible for all readers. Fan works, with their remixing, genderfucking, and racebending, have become the literature of contemporary social movements. (After all, art imitates life.)
But, in addition to the words themselves, fan communities have always served a potent political function: a subversive resistance to the status quo, a system of production in which writing, art, and music are capital. “Accidental” or otherwise, fans have become activists. Passionate, resourceful, and no strangers to standing outside in long lines, these fans have taken to the streets to rally, educate, and resist oppressive policies by governments and corporations.
In the 2012 article, “‘Cultural Acupuncture:’ Fan Activism and the Harry Potter Alliance,” Fan Studies expert 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.
According to Jenkins, the behaviours involved in participating in fandom can easily translate into real-world activism. Many fan activists who take part in larger social movements once found their footing through fandom-based grassroots campaigns and the solidarity that emerges within fan communities.
Perhaps the most obvious example of these “translatable” political behaviours is fan-led campaigns to save television shows from cancellation. Letter-writing campaigns and mobilization across social media networks have proven highly successful in keeping shows like Star Trek, Stargate SG-1, Chuck, and Supernatural on the air.
In fact, Star Trek’s longevity can be attributed to the solidarity of its original female fanbase. In the late 1960s, Star Trek fan Betty Joe (Bjo) Trimble organized the first, and most effective, fan-led letter writing campaign in history. This campaign inundated NBC studios with more than 110,000 letters protesting the cancellation of Star Trek: The Original Series. Bjo Trimble became affectionately known in the fandom as “The Woman Who Saved Star Trek.”
Later that decade, a group of young fans gathered outside of NBC studios in New York City holding picket signs to protest the show’s impending cancellation. What we saw was fans taking their ardent passion for “their” favourite show and translating it into a collective grassroots movement. The legacy of fans as active consumers has continued with future generations of fans and has become even more vociferous with the advent of the Internet. Revelist reporter Victoria McNally goes as far as to claim that “women who love ‘Star Trek’ are the reason that modern fandom exists.”
Taking part in fan-led campaigns to pressure network executives to keep television shows on the air or to demand more inclusivity can lead to participation in (and, in some cases, creation of) larger activist networks. Fandom has paved the way for the emergence of activist organizations like the Harry Potter Alliance, Fans4Writers, Nerdfighteria, and the Organization for Transformative Works (which houses the most extensive open-source, non-profit, multi-fandom fanfiction archive, Archive of Our Own). The language of fan communities (“shipping,” “cosplaying,” “canon,” “crossover,” “slashfic,” “Mary Sue,” “OTP”) has become part of the popular lexicon and even used during protests (“Cosplay is not consent.”). Like Dumbledore says, words are our “most inexhaustible form of magic,” so keep calm and write on until our fictional utopias lift off the page.
After all, the pen is mightier than the wand.