In a world where the pop culture that surrounds us is painfully heteronormative—meaning that the default for every fictional character is just assumed to straight and white (until explicitly proven otherwise)—how does someone find diverse representation?
The answer lies with the fans. Fans—or in other words, those who actively consume popular culture and dedicate themselves to a particular book, film, show and so on—are the ones who create an alternate narrative where the one in charge, and the one upon whom the spotlight lies is no longer the straight, white, cisgendered male; and in doing so, they provide us with the representation which is sorely missing in mainstream pop culture.
But let’s first understand what representation, and why exactly it’s important, especially in popular culture.
Representation is when you see yourself reflected in the media you consume—both in terms of identity and expression. For people belonging to marginalized identities—say, someone of a race other than Caucasian, someone of a gender other than cis male, or someone of a sexuality other than heterosexual—seeing themselves, or any aspect of their identity or social milieu reflected, and represented in popular media is huge, because not only does it gives their identities exposure, but also legitimizes them. In a society where the power balance is clearly tipped in the favour of the straight cis white man, it’s important that any other marginalized or previously ignored identity is given equal importance—especially in popular culture, which is accessible to and influences a large body of people. Hence, when you see a largely straight-white-male franchise like Star Wars get rebooted with a (non-sexualized, stereotype-free) woman and a black and Hispanic man in the lead, it’s more than just diversity—it’s the generations of Star Wars fans who are NOT white or male seeing their dreams be realized on the big screen.
There’s a reason why I specifically reference the Star Wars reboots here, and that’s because the reactions to them are symptomatic of why exactly representation is important. When the trailer for ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ dropped in October last year, and in the very first frame, introduced it’s black lead (played by John Boyega), straight white dudebros collectively lost their shit—calling the film things like “white genocide” and an attempt “to demoralize and destroy Whites”. They even made the hashtag ‘BoycottStarWarsVII’ trend on twitter. A similar kind of backlash occurred when the trailer for ‘Star Wars: Rogue One‘ dropped last week, and it was revealed that it too had a kickass female character (played by Felicity Jones) in the lead. But Star Wars isn’t the only big franchise to receive hate for trying to diversify representation—Harry Potter too became a target when in December, it was announced that ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ (a play which is supposed to be an extended epilogue of sorts) had cast a Hermione who was black. People justified the backlash by saying that this was going against the canon, and that it was just “unrealistic”.
The emerging pattern that we see here is not just straight white dudes losing their cool over diverse casting but a larger refusal to even fathom the fact that leads of a successful pop culture franchise can be anything other than cisgendered, male, heterosexual and, white. This is because heteronormative whiteness has become so normalized in media, that to even imagine something other than that has become difficult not just for them—but even for us who belong to marginalized identities. Even thinking about diversity in mainstream media seems like something far-fetched, something ‘unrealistic’. And that’s where the problem lies, and that’s why we need representation.
So, going back to my initial question—how do we find the representation we deserve?
A fan is not just a passive consumer or lover of a form of media, but an active participant in it. They don’t just enjoy reading the particular book, or watching the particular show/movie they are fans of, but engage with them in dynamic ways, and often even create an academic discourse surrounding them. The ways in which fans engage with their ‘fandoms’ (ie, the thing they are fans of) are numerous—it can be through writing fanfiction, drawing fanart, writing in-depth analytical pieces about their fandom (known as ‘meta’), or even making GIFs on Tumblr. This is the alternate narrative they create for themselves—and it’s not just a way in which fans express their dedication and love for their particular fandom, but also make it a medium to challenge and critique the straight-white supremacy of the very popular culture they are eagerly consuming.
Fanfiction—which is the writing of stories (belonging to a plethora of genres—from adventure to angst to plot-heavy novel-length pieces to ‘porn without plot’) about the characters or situations within a certain book/show/film and fanart, which is fan-drawn artwork doing pretty much the same thing, are the most effective ways in which this challenging of heteronormativity and whiteness occurs. These fanworks reimagine the original form of media (what is known as the ‘canon’)—with queer relationships, characters of colour, and characters of diverse gender identities and ultimately, fan culture becomes that liberating space where representation, diversity and inclusivity can be found.
One of the biggest, and most powerful ways in which fan culture helps representation is through ‘Slash Shipping’. ‘Slash Shipping’ in fandom is the act of supporting or wishing for a queer romantic relationship between two characters who have same-sex romance potential, but are otherwise made to be heterosexual in canon (often, due to fear of disturbing the status quo). What slash shipping essentially does is challenge the very (homophobic?) inhibitions which ultimately stops a writer or showrunner or director from explicitly making even the most homoerotic of relationships (did anyone else think of Sherlock Holmes and Watson?) explicitly queer in canon. In doing so, it’s enhancing queer representation, and is giving queer fans a means of finally seeing their identities reflected in their favourite characters, and giving them that liberating space. Fanfiction, Fanart, Tumblr GIFs, and pretty much all kinds of fanworks hinge on slash shipping, and portray popular characters with same-sex romantic potential in fulfilling, explicitly queer relationships.
Slash shipping is by no means a contemporary phenomenon—and has been helping queer (and even straight) fans embrace their identities for decades. The earliest forms of fanfiction was written in the nineteenth century, about (no surprises there) Sherlock Holmes and John Watson—fans wrote to each other, discussing plot points, coming up with their own, and, often, imagining these two sleuths in a romantic relationship. In the sixties and seventies, with the cult popularity of Star Trek, it’s lead characters Kirk and Spock were intensely shipped in fan communities, and, extensive fanfiction and fanart was published surrounding this pair. But with the dawn of the internet, the fan community moved online, and grew in size—and it became a medium for more slash shipping, more queer representation, and caused greater interaction between fans from different socio-cultural milieus all across the world. In the 90s, Xena and Gabrielle (from ‘Xena: Warrior Princess’), Buffy and Willow (from ‘Buffy The Vampire Slayer’) and Draco and Harry (from Harry Potter) became the most popular slash ships, with a large body of fanfiction and fanart being produced about them.
Today, slash ships are in abundance, and internet fanfiction and fanart archives are overflowing with them. Whether it be Dean and Castiel from ‘Supernatural‘, John and Sherlock from ‘Sherlock‘ (this is the couple that never loses it’s slash potential, even after so many years), Emma Swan and Regina Mills (together known as ‘Swanqueen’) from ‘Once Upon A Time‘, Clarke and Lexa from ‘The 100‘, or recently, Poe and Finn (known as ‘Stormpilot’) from the new Star Wars—the queer, or ‘slash’ potential of strong same-sex friendships in popular media never end, and hence, the shipping never ends.
Another extremely important way in which fan culture ensures representation is through genderbent and racebent fanworks. This is, essentially, when fans reimagine popular characters (which are either white, cis or male; or all three) as belonging to different gender and racial identities than that of canon. In racebent fanart or fanfiction, Hermione Granger (of Harry Potter) becomes black, Sherlock Holmes becomes a woman, Dean Winchester (of Supernatural) becomes transgender, and so on. There are endless ways in which characters can be reimagined and reinterpreted, and there’s no limit to the racial, cultural, and gender identities in which they can fit into. This is perhaps one of the best ways of challenging the dominant mindset which assumes that straight, white, cis and male are the default characteristics of a successful protagonist—and helps fans of various identities realize that these characters can be theirs too.
Social media spaces like Tumblr have definitely helped fan culture reach out to a larger group of people and make the influence of fan-generated fiction and artwork much more influential and even, a little bit mainstream. There’s still a long way to go until people embrace the kind of spaces and narratives fans create, and to bring about the representation fan culture provides into the realm of mainstream pop culture. But one thing remains constant—the power of fandom as a revolutionary space for positive gender, race and sexuality representation and conversations, something that fans of marginalized identities can find comfort and liberation in.
Featured image sourced from: Deviant art.