The author is dead. Long live the fandom.
Okay, that’s a bit dramatic. What is fandom anyway?
Fandom, a portmanteau of ‘fan’ and ‘kingdom’, is a community of people who share a common passion. It is most often used in conjunction with entertainment or culture, such as the Marvel fandom, NCIS fandom, musical theatre fandom, and so on. But sometimes it’s a riff on communities centred on specific topics: Christians are sometimes jokingly referred to as the Jesus fandom.
Fandom is predominantly dominated by women, minorities, genderfluid folks. Straight white men easily see themselves represented in mainstream media all the time, from Iron Man to James Bond to King Arthur. So, it is easy for them to indulge in fandom by heading to Reddit or Buzzfeed, to rank their favourite Doctor Who and argue about the best Spider-Man movie. It’s different for the outsiders, the ones who have been silenced, where the default assumption of straight white man as the hero does not cut it. We need to transform the canon for it to fit our needs – where ‘canon’ is the official storyline owned by the original creator.
Transformative fandom is not creating worshipful shrines filled with fans’ ultimate fantasies of Jacob Black and Bella Swan getting together in an alternate universe. Fanworks queer the canon, telling stories in response to all the could haves and should haves. It could be as plotty as ‘what if Harry Potter and Neville Longbottom were both killed in 1981 and there were no Chosen Ones?’ to something as political as ‘what would a modern-day Les Miserables revolt against?’
How do the stories we tell reflect the lives and communities around us?
Here’s where it gets interesting.
J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series have been a defining pillar of fandom for the last two decades. Pretty much everyone has been in the Harry Potter fandom at some point. And with the Cursed Child play and the Fantastic Beasts movie franchise, there has been a resurgence of interest in Potter.
However, fans today have learned from the past. These are people who grew up loving Harry Potter, but these are also people who have witnessed the #MeToo movement, whitewashing in Ghost in the Shell, the discussions on intersectionality, multiculturalism, what good storytelling means. The ridiculous plot of Cursed Child, the outrage around its inaccessibility to fans who are not based in London or New York, the refusal to give Albus Severus and Scorpius Malfoy a queer romantic relationship despite strong subtext suggestions that they were romantically interested in each other, the all-white main cast for Fantastic Beasts – that isn’t enough, not anymore.
These fans still love Harry Potter, but their love is demonstrated through tearing the canon apart and putting it back together – putting it back better.
For some time now, fandom has championed the image of a racebent Hermione Granger – one of Harry’s best friends, the cleverest witch of her age. It instantly captured fandom’s imagination. Hermione’s canonical campaign for house elf freedom, the frequent references to her bushy hair, and the discrimination against her Muggleborn parentage gain so much more depth and significance when she is imagined as a young black woman, a brilliant witch who discovers that magic is no substitute for empathy or acceptance, who fights racism and injustice in both the Muggle and wizarding worlds. Artists began creating art featuring Hermione as black, and this was so wildly popular that Rowling herself took notice. And when Cursed Child’s actors were cast, a black actress was accepted for the role of Hermione (and hence, Rose Weasley-Granger was racebent as well).
Two more roles open to actors of all ethnicities! Without the groundwork laid by fandom, it is highly unlikely that the mainstream Potter franchise would have taken the initiative to cast a black woman as Hermione, not when so many still see her as Emma Watson.
Queering the canon goes far beyond the traditional assumption of fangirls pairing two male characters in same-sex relationships for giggles. How about an asexual Charlie Weasley, who only cares about dragons? How about a half-Japanese half-British Luna Lovegood? How about two LGBTQ characters in a committed relationship, without gayness being an offhand comment made at an event after the series has ended? How about NOT dangling the promise of representation and then snatching it away once fans have taken the bait? Let Sirius and Remus kiss, you cowards!
This is how fandom takes control of the narrative, writing and drawing and exploring the things that authors, filmmakers, playwrights, and producers simply will not or cannot do. When fans do not see themselves represented in the stories they love, when they see writers or producers mangling the characters for commercial profit without care towards character development or story logic, fans muscle their way into the narrative. They rewrite characters whom they think deserve better, remake characters and worlds into the images they want seen, relentlessly questioning, seeking, creating – there is absolutely nothing passive about fandom. It is a hotbed of resistance.
Some may say, BUT THAT’S NOT WHAT THE AUTHOR WANTS! Well, to be honest – screw what the author wants. You don’t get to draw the line, not in this era of oversharing and memes and reproduction. The notion of ‘authenticity’ as following the letter rather than the spirit only constraints those who have been voiceless. It is not a matter of knowing better than the creator, it’s wanting the story you love to be the best possible version of itself. Creators are human too, and the work they make is not perfect or unproblematic.
The moment the story leaves the page, the moment it is read, seen, performed, it’s no longer the sole property of the author. Legally, yes, but imaginatively, no. There is no creator without an audience and there is no audience without a creator.
Fandom does what postcolonial literature has been doing for the past century, talking back to the empire and the canon, making a two-way dialogue, forcing a conversation. After all, didn’t stories like Star Wars teach us that we are all Luke Skywalker, that we can save the galaxy? That we are Leia Organa, brilliant and brave, general of armies? Didn’t Hayao Miyazaki show us that magic hides around every corner, if only we would reach out and accept it? Didn’t Star Trek tell us that anyone could be part of the Enterprise crew, so long as you are courageous and kind and curious?
Entertainment is far, far from an escapist black hole. These stories are oftentimes our first and best love. They shape who we become. It’s important that everyone can connect to these stories and through them, imagine better.
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