Can we stop trashing teens for making fanworks yet?

Fanworks in general continue to be one of the most despised and sneered at forms of creative expression, despite their huge diversity and depth of creativity. Some mainstream creators hate them and hotly insist that fanart, fanfic, poetry, and other fanworks are ‘ripoffs’ of their work, in some cases pursuing fannish creators in an attempt to censor their work. Commentators and critics express their distaste for fanwork, suggesting that it’s unoriginal and derivative, and that if people really want to write, make art, and create videos, they should use their own material rather than working with an existing source and transforming it. However, the vitriol when it comes to the treatment of fanworks is especially vicious when it comes to teens, and it’s heavily yoked to ageism.

Things that fanworks are: Creative, dynamic, challenging, beautiful, rich, complex. Some works stick very narrowly to canon, exploring characters in more depth, taking off in new directions, creating new plotlines while sticking to established norms and facts within a given landscape (e.g. Ron and Hermione are married, Bella and Edward are together). Others go off book, as it were, exploring alternate universes, playing around with beloved characters but putting them in new landscapes, new settings, entirely new stories — the most familiar example to people outside fannish communities is probably non-canon slash, from Kirk/Spock to Harry/Draco. Some fanworks are tributes, beautiful renderings of characters in artwork, poetry, and writing, explorations of works and themes through vids and songs. Fannish creations are an incredibly diverse world, and it’s not really fair to classify them as a single genre: It would be like saying books are just generally ‘books’ and not distinguishing between the many kinds of books out there, from academic monographs to bodice rippers.

Things that fanworks are not: Cheap, unoriginal ripoffs of the source material. Lazy. Gross. Boring. Titillating.

Yet, outsiders to fannish communities often feel a need to trash it, particularly zeroing in on slash, especially m/m pairings, and make a big production of how gross it is that people would dare produce works in which men who are not together in canon are paired in fanworks, some of which are delightfully smutty and erotic while others are more sweet and tender. Slash is viewed with fear and hatred, but it’s also actively mocked. Instead of simply saying ‘eh, not my dog,’ people feel the need to devalue slash and the people who create it, making it into some sort of horrific illustration of deviance that should be smacked down and punished. Sadly, some mainstream creators join in this, expressing fury at seeing m/m and femslash that draws upon their work.

Sadly, some of the most aggressively targeted are teens, though people of all ages get swept up in the hate. For some teenagers, fanworks allow them to strike out into creative endeavors in exciting and interesting ways, and they’re hardly doing something that shocking or horrific. Artists have been drawing upon existing work and canon for centuries, from painters who copy famous works while in training to authors who very clearly reinterpret and remix each others’ work. While numerous teens can and do create stunning original work, some create stunning original fanworks as well, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

More importantly, perhaps, some teens use fanworks to explore some things in their own lives that they need to work through. Slash can let teens think about their own sexuality in a way that’s safe and controlled — they’re not nervously writing original LGBQT characters, for example, but working with people who are familiar, tweaking them a bit, seeing how they change within the familiarity of a text they already know. When teens share fanworks or participate in exchanges, they’re being given a chance to interact with each other and find teens with similar interests, fears, and worries. It can be very isolating to be an LGBQT teen in a conservative community, a teen of colour in a mostly white area. Fannish communities online can be incredibly grounding and valuable.

After Teen posted an incredibly nasty article deriding fanfiction and suggesting that it was gross and the people who write and read it are yucky, numerous YA authors including Tess Sharpe stepped in to express their concerns about the piece and ask the magazine to reconsider its decision to post an extremely homophobic and derisive piece. For the article didn’t just make fun of fanfic, but specifically that focusing on m/m slash, positioning it and the people who produce it as somehow wrong. Sharpe, who had considerable excellent commentary on the subject on Twitter, rightly noted that because the amount of LGBQT representation in mass media and YA canon is so low, fanfic is really the only way that many youth can find it — making it a valuable resource for people who want to see themselves in the work they read.

People mocked teens when they got into the Twilight books because they felt the books didn’t match their expectations of proper literature. They ignored the fact that the books got many teens interested in reading, and drove many young women in particular on to read other books and get involved in bookish communities. Those same books also got tons of young women involved in fanfic and other creative works, stimulating incredible creativity. Making fun of Twilight and its young readers may have given smug adults a frisson of pleasure, but it further marginalised teens with a reminder that nothing they do will ever be quite good enough. The books they read must pass muster, the art they create can’t be ‘gross.’ What happened with Twilight kind of symbolises and exemplifies overall attitudes about teens, media, and creativity.

Social attitudes about fanworks in general need to change, but the particularly nasty rhetoric surrounding teens must be addressed, and thanks to the structural inequalities between teens and adults, it’s up to us to do that.

Image: Junta Fan Arts 11, wmforo, Flickr