Sunday, May 9, 2010

Fan Fiction and Sexual Agency

In the last week a so, an internet bun fight has broken out over Diana Gabaldon's comments on fan fiction.

Some took the opportunity to blog about the cut 'n dry legalities of it. Some sighed, and re-iterated their stance on it. Some reminded the world what can REALLY go wrong if you encourage it.

Some took her to task for being "too sensitive" about it. That's a common accusation against creative types, and especially women. "It's all in your head" is a common shut down tactic, and in this case it's to drown out the concern of the one due to the perceived right of the many.

Here's where I get hung up about fan fiction. While most in this writer and fan community conversation touched on the concept of "consent" when it comes to the legal framework, they ignore the concept of the writer's agency towards their character's creation and sexuality when it's hi-jacked for a reader's self satisfaction.

First of all, my caveat about fan fiction - yes, I have written it. The first time, which taught me a lot about legal consents, I was involved in a Dragonrider MUD. Anne McCaffrey withheld or gave her consent to these fan writings depending on their rigour and quality. Ours gained consent, but I did not last long at it, having realized that I really had no right to tinker in a world of someone else's design. Who else is better at creating Pern than Anne (and now her son Todd)?

The second time I turned my hand to it was the time I said never again. I had my share of fans in the time I wrote my "soap opera" (I even won an award within this fan sphere), but once I came out the other side I realized how terribly wrong it was to be writing about a real person without their consent. I don't know if said real life person knew about this fan fiction community, but if they did, I'm sorry, I feel horrible.

And oh yes, you say, what about those fan audio versions of DC comics faves and Doctor Who you've been involved in? Hypocrite much? I did not write the fan audio plays that I was involved in, but as far as I understand, that cannon was available under Fair Use, or the people involved were rigorous in their research and obtainment of legal consent.

The moment I became thoroughly squicked out about fan fiction was when I discovered Harry Potter Slash (Slash is the term for putting the characters into homosexual situations or sexual encounters). I was horrified - these were children characters! I am no fan of Harry Potter, but I felt a huge empathy for JK Rowling's creations being perverted in such a way. This sexualization of youth removed the natural "growing up" process from beloved characters, and removed Rowling's agency towards her creations.

Of course, there's the same old argument - a lot of fan fiction, and slash, is written by women. I'll reiterate what I said in other forums about this - they indulge in this sexualization because of the socialized frustrations of women as sexual beings. Women channel their desires into the small outlets that are available to them. In this case, romanticizing characters or worlds they have fallen in love with, and wishing to mould them to a shape they desire and can control.

Not all fan fiction writers go to these smuttier lengths. The majority of them are treating their beloved works with reverence. With some though, what's missing is the respect they should have towards a writer when the writer asks them to Please Don't. Forget for a moment they're a writer - it's common human courtesy that when you're asked to respect a persons wishes, you do so.

Some of the hundreds of commentators on Gabaldon's stance over fan fiction didn't like how she expressed herself. Ok, so maybe Gabaldon didn't make her request in perfectly annotated legal form, but she did try to make her feelings and concerns known in a way that worked for her, concerns which seemed to be roundly ignored.

Let's put aside some dogpilers concern about her tone, and take a look at what Gabaldon was saying about the sexualization of her characters: "I wouldn’t like people writing sex fantasies for public consumption about me or members of my family—why would I be all right with them doing it to the intimate creations of my imagination and personality?"

Gabaldon is attempting to frame it in terms of sexual agency. Let me put it this way - when a sex partner agrees to performing a particular sexual act, that doesn't mean they consent to EVERY sex act (a slippery slope argument used against rape victims). Gabaldon created how her characters should be used in a sexual nature. That agency belongs to her and her alone. To take those characters and put them into other sexual situations against their - ergo Gabaldons - consent, is removing their - her - agency from the sexual act.

This is where we start getting into the philosophical debate about how much of the artist's personality is invested in their art. Art, and writing, is not created in a vacuum. Yes, art is created for sale and public consumption. The moment people start removing the artist from the art work is the moment people start attempting to justify appropriation of the art to their own ends. Or, counter-intuitively, justifying keeping an artist on a pedestal despite the artist being or having done something that does not gibe with the consumers vision of them BECAUSE of their art. (Polanski is an excellent recent example.)

"Too sensitive", "it's all in your head"? To me it looks like people are too busy playing tall poppies, or playing the victims themselves because they've been called on their bullshit, to cut through the rhetoric and acknowledge Gabaldon's - indeed ANY writers - concerns regarding fan fiction. If any writer expresses concerns that their creations, ergo themselves, are being victimized, it is unfair to dismiss their concerns simply because you believe you "own" the writer because of the dollar value you put on them, the world "owns" the work of literature because it is out there for public consumption, or you have a different view on the situation.

And what about those writers that can't express their concern, the ones dead and long gone, or the ones without a voice as strong as some writers? Respect still works here, they were, or are, human beings too.

Fan fiction is something I've given serious thought to. If I ever become a published author, you have every right to not like my writing because I'm a woman, or I'm a feminist, or I write about topics you don't like, or any number of personality foibles real or imagined. I don't care, that's your prerogative. What I do care about - and I'd imagine every writer cares about - is that you respect my wishes in regards to the legalities surrounding their work. I'd politely ask my readers to refrain from writing fan fiction, respect legalities, and I would especially forbid sexualization of characters outside of what they already are or do.

If you choose to ignore and disrespect these polite - or even legal - requests then we would have nothing more to talk about.

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