Episode 102: OOC
In Episode 102, Elizabeth and Flourish talk about characterization: how fans interpret it, get attached to it, and fight about it. How do fans collectively come to an understanding of a fictional character? Does this change with textual vs visual source material? What does “OOC”—“out of character”—mean to people in different fannish spaces? They also respond to a listener letter about the history of fandom, and discuss what can be documented—and what cannot.
Aja Romano covers memes for Vox pretty frequently—most recently, an explainer about Spongebob memes.
[00:32:30] If you must, here’s GRRM’s take on fanfic, straight from the horse’s mouth (c. 2010, we are guessing he has evolved since then after many, many years of Show).
[00:36:27] Game of Thrones spoilers begin here!
[00:45:45] End Game of Thrones spoilers!
[00:47:07] Elizabeth’s excellent article about Mary Sues.
[00:51:34] Elizabeth wrote extensively about Black Sails’ unreliable narrators (and how to incept oneself into Black Sails fandom) on our Tumblr!
FK: Hi, Elizabeth!
ELM: Hi, Flourish!
FK: And welcome to Fansplaining, the podcast by, for, and about fandom!
ELM: This is Episode 102, “OOC.”
ELM: OOC. “102 OOC” sounds like some sort of license plate, but it’s O-O-C which stands for “out of character,” a very common term in all sorts of fandom spaces.
FK: Yeah! So, OOC—specifically the abbreviation comes from fanfic. But this is far from a fanfic-only concern. We see it all the time, and everybody’s arguing about their favorite fandom things. Right? Anytime something happens that people don’t like in their story, they talk about “Is it in character? Were the characters out of character?” And we have some ideas about that.
ELM: Yeah! So do you wanna talk briefly about the impetus for this episode?
FK: Yeah, sure! So Game of Thrones fandom, right? I’ve been following and, um, I have long been invested…
ELM: I’m sorry, “following”?
FK: Following. [laughs]
ELM: It’s the most passive way…I went to, let’s just clarify what happened in the last month, all right? I was on a plane to India while the Game of Thrones finale was airing, and I have seen 2.5 episodes total of Game of Thrones, they are the first 2.5 episodes. And so it’s been very weird the last few months, because basically my Twitter feed was unusable for about two days of every week right?
ELM: And I was delighted to be on a plane with no internet during the finale, because I’m not a part of this, you know? So like…
FK: [laughing] Right. You are definitely not a part of this.
ELM: And, but I have a compulsion to check Twitter at all times, right? And so like, you know. And I’m not gonna sit there and be like “talk about something else!” Like, I understand. And while I was gone, in India, for three weeks, I lost you.
FK: [laughs] Yeah.
ELM: You…every time I caught a glimpse of you I was like “what is going on over there?”
FK: So, OK, so I had read the Game of Thrones books before the TV show came out, and then, like, the TV show I watched at first, and then I didn’t…I stopped watching it, and you know, there had been no books. There hasn’t been a new book since 2011. I was like “OK.” I had fallen down, like, in 2011, a little bit of a Game of Thrones rabbit hole. And then I caught up in order to watch the last few episodes with everybody and it turns out that, um, if you’re into Jaime and Brienne then that last season was just a rollercoaster ride of emotions and I got to the end of it and then for a short period of time I completely lost my mind and could not talk or think about anything else. [laughing]
ELM: It was really interesting to see in bits and pieces on a 10-hour time difference.
FK: I have made multiple new friends, it’s great.
ELM: Oh, that’s nice!
FK: Yeah, it’s wonderful!
ELM: Wait, brief period of time. You’re saying you have now departed from this hole?
FK: Well, I’m, let’s put it this way. I am now capable of thinking about other things in addition to this.
ELM: At one point you, you said something, I can’t remember what it was, and then you were like “this must be what you felt like when you,” I don’t know, “in discovering X-Men fanfiction,” or whatever, and I wrote back to you like “Is this your first fandom?! I’m so confused!” [all laughing] This is, like, normal! This is normal.
FK: The sad part is that this isn’t even my first time down this particular pairing, ship rabbit hole! Like, last time it was 2011 and there was less fanfic that I liked! Anyway. So this is—but this is actually part of it is, is that I realized through this process, through this thing, that one of the things that was going on in Game of Thrones fandom—and in fact one of the reasons why in 2011 there was less fanfic I was into, and now there’s a lot and I had to read all of it constantly for awhile…
FK: …is because of the difference between, like, the affordances of a book that’s very, very close third person—like, very interested in characters’ emotional and mental states and telling you all about them from different perspectives, and a TV show where as good as the acting is…and actually I love the actors, like, my particular couple, like, obviously they’re great. But as good as it is, you never get to see…you don’t get to see, like, what they’re thinking. Right? You can see what they’re thinking on their face, but you can’t, there’s all sorts of different interpretations of that.
FK: So that provides, like, a lot of room for you to have different ideas about what’s really going on in their heads, especially if the show is written so that it’s a little bit elliptical. And I was like, I came to Elizabeth with this and I was like “Oh my God, this is why,” and like, there’s all of these like…and now I’m seeing that there’s these characterization…
ELM: Why did you just say that like you’re not talking to me?
FK: No, I’m just saying, I’m saying it to you, I’m—
ELM: Say “you”!
FK: I’m recording—
ELM: Not, not, that’s so weird!
FK: [laughs] I don’t know. I’m just saying, I’m quoting myself. “Elizabeth,” I said, “this is why…” [ELM laughs] Anyway, so I was like, “this is why. This is it,” right. Now there’s this space, and so the fandom has constructed these characters in a way that’s, like, very…in certain ways tropey, but also in ways that I like, and in some ways that I don’t like, and it’s very fruitful and there’s this, like, group characterization construction happening, and wow! And we talked about some of this before. And so at that point you brought in other examples and then I was like “this is an episode.”
ELM: Right! All right, well it is an episode. OK. So I think that’s a good set up. We wanna read an unrelated letter first and then get into it.
FK: Yes, yes, OK. Right. Should I read it so you can have the first crack at responding?
ELM: Yeah, that’s the way to do it.
FK: All right. OK, so this is from an anonymous listener. “Hi Elizabeth and Flourish, I’m very late to the party when it comes to fandom, having only recently discovered that it exists a little over a year ago. Since then I’ve been reading truly ridiculous amounts of fic and listening to several podcasts about fan culture. Fansplaining is a particular favorite of mine.” Heart! That wasn’t in the letter. “I love it and look forward to each and every new episode, so thank you so much for all of your hard work in producing this podcast.” You’re welcome, anonymous!
All right. “Because my time in fandom is so limited, I’ve noticed that I have a lot of gaps when it comes to what is presumably common knowledge within fandoms. There have been many times when you’ve been discussing a book/TV show/movie/ship/et cetera, and you’ve made a comment that hints at a larger story, but which is not expanded upon as part of your discussion. I want to stress that this is not a complaint or a criticism of your podcast. The purpose of Fansplaining isn’t to provide a detailed history of fandom for newbies like me, I get that. That being said, every time this happens, I wonder to myself about where I can go to learn about that history and to find out the context behind those comments.
“What prompted me to reach out with this question was that I recently listened to your Cursed Child special episode. I read each of the Harry Potter books once as they were released, enjoyed them, but haven’t given them much thought since. From listening to that episode, as well as numerous comments you’ve made in other episodes with regards to Harry Potter, it’s clear to me that the Harry Potter fandom had a drastically different interpretation of those books than I did as a casual reader. I’d love to hear or read more about this, but it seems like most of these discussions happened over a decade ago on platforms that no longer exist. Short of finding someone who’s been in fandom for awhile and peppering them with questions, is there any place where this fandom history has been preserved? I know about Fanlore and have found it to be quite helpful as I attempt to catch up on fandom history, but it doesn’t have the level of detail I’m looking for. If you can suggest any other archives or fandom history resources I could look into, that would be very much appreciated.” And that’s from anonymous.
ELM: A very nice letter!
FK: Yes! Thank you, Nonny!
ELM: Yes! So…so…so there’s a few different things that immediately come to mind. One is that I’m not sure that any wiki, archive, or anything like that is going to be able to capture the sheer volume of back-and-forth that one might have had in, say, the Harry Potter fandom from the year 2000 to the year 2007. [FK laughs] And I don’t actually think it’s, it’s realistic to say that that kind of broad collective…just as like, all right. Say, I’m reading a history of the 1960s right now, right. There’s literally not going to be any…that’s a very, like, overblown. “Harry Potter fandom is like the entire 1960s!” [laughs]
FK: Well! You know.
ELM: Like…you get an overview of the ’60s, maybe it’ll focus on cultural stuff, maybe it’ll focus on various civil rights movements, et cetera, maybe politics, et cetera et cetera…like, obviously there’s a lot of focuses, but there’s no way to capture the nuance of what was happening in that decade in, like, a single book, in a broad overview. Or for that matter, probably like an entire course. You could take a course on the entire 1960s, and you need to pick areas to focus on, right? So I think that’s really hard, and not least because it’s not just the platforms…many of them do still exist! You can read people’s LiveJournals, not everyone deleted their blogs. Right? But like…
ELM: You know, most of my Harry Potter conversations happened IRL, with like, my best friend in high school who read them with me, and then we would just talk about them a lot, you know? Or we would chat about it on AIM.
FK: Right, and you were informed by reading fanfic, but like…
ELM: Yeah! So actually that was another thing that I was gonna say. Like, and…but that’s really really hard now. So I would say, like, if you wanna know how people in, like, the Marauders sphere characterized and felt and thought about those storylines in 2003 versus 2005, there’s very clear differences that I can tell you because I was actively reading hundreds if not thousands of stories at those specific times. But like, it’s actually pretty hard to get at that now, because things that have been…just because of the fragmented nature of, like, how things were posted then and what’s been archived on the AO3, you know?
ELM: And that kind of flattens the…some people put their, like, when they imported it in like 2011 or whatever, and some people put the date they originally published it, and you really don’t get the context for any of that. And so that’s really, really hard to, to work backwards from. And it’s also hard to, especially for this specific example, like, our feelings changed so much with each book! Right? Like, I completely drastically had to retool a lot of the ways that I was thinking and discussing these, every time we got more information. And I think that’s really hard to capture after the fact, you know, without someone sitting down and, like, writing a history. I think that’s a very hard thing to capture in a format like a wiki.
FK: Yeah, I agree. I think also there’s different reasons that people write things down, and different…you know what I mean, like, so, for instance, there’s reasons why people write things in Fanlore, and then there are other areas—like when people used Fandom Wank to record fandom fights, there was a different motivation over there.
FK: Neither of these two motivations relate to the stuff I think Nonny is really talking about, right? There’s not as much interest on Fanlore, I don’t think, in general, about like “oh, this is the way this character was perceived in X year,” versus the way they were perceived later. Because that’s just not…I mean, there might be stuff that relates to that. But it’s more, like, about…it’s just, that’s not the center of it.
ELM: Yeah, Fanlore in particular is, I think, at its strongest is about meta-conversations about fandom. And maybe there are specific fandoms that, like, there’s famous meta written in this fandom that was about like this slash thing in 2001 or whatever, that kind of thing, right?
ELM: But like it’s not…it’s meant to document the history of fandom, not necessarily the history of people’s interpretations of source material in that fandom.
FK: Right, right! So you’re never gonna—right. So like you’re never going to, even though X-Files is very well documented on Fanlore broadly, I would say, there’s lots of people who were in X-Files and there’s lots written about it, you’re never going to see like “Oh yes, prior to X date, there was a lot of, like, Mulder and Scully get together and have a baby stories, and then that faded out as they became…” You know, it’s not… “As, as canon happened and there was actually a baby involved and then people became concerned about how The X-Files dealt with female fertility a lot more after X date,” you know, even though—as an X-Files person I can tell you that that’s true, there was like, for awhile people were going along with the ride and then there was sort of this moment where everyone was like “this is all kinda fucked up, ain’t it?”
But that’s not…even though it’s well-documented, that moment, because I don’t think there was, like, a particular meta or something that denoted it…therefore that moment is hard to track. And I just don’t, like you’re saying, unless somebody writes a history that is particularly engaged with this question of interpretations of the text, I don’t know that you’re gonna be able to see that.
Hey! This has a lot to do with our actual episode topic! It just dawned on me!
ELM: [laughs] Inadvertently! We didn’t even mean that.
ELM: Yeah, it’s true! Well and it’s also like—you know, I, I’m very wary of even suggesting too that people should be writing some sort of like, you know—
ELM: “History of this moment” kind of thing…obviously there’s so much that we’ve discussed on this podcast about what gets left out of, like, long arcs of fandom narratives and what doesn’t, right?
ELM: I don’t know, sometimes I see these posts going around on Tumblr and they’re like, you know, “Fandom in whatever year was wild! We were all doin’ this! We were doin’ this and this!” And I’m just like “I don’t remember any of that!” You know? Like…
ELM: “And I was there, and I—supposedly I was in the same fandom as you…” and that’s, like, completely setting aside any issues of, like, diversity and inclusion in these conversations, or directly addressing various bigotry or whatever, you know. Just, just in a pure, like…my experiences are not your experiences, you know. Just look at you and me, we were ostensibly in the same fandom but we had wildly different experiences.
FK: Yeah, yeah, yeah, and there’s other people who had very different experiences to that as well, right? I mean there’s—especially when a fandom is large there are multiple competing interpretations that are happening at the same time…and obviously, like, any good history would try and cover these things, but I think that it’s so impossible, and it also tends to give so much weight to those, those, like, large conversations… I’m not saying it’s bad to want to know about them, but I also think that, like, Nonny, your interpretation…I understand why you want to know about, like, broader fandom interpretations, but I also wanna be clear that, like, I don’t think that those are more valid than, than the ones you had when you read the books once.
ELM: Absolutely, right.
FK: You know? So it’s, you know, not to say that it’s not valid to want to know about those things. And you know, if you wanna pick our brains, you can. Send another email and ask us! [laughs]
ELM: Specifically for Harry Potter. Yeah, totally, so.
FK: Specifically for Harry Potter! And you’ll at least have two very different perspectives on that fandom. But.
ELM: I, I actually think that one of the most fruitful…for Harry Potter in particular, just because we’re talking about that at length, one of the most fruitful spaces to kind of have these conversations was probably the ones that I encountered at Leviosa a few years ago, which was a Harry Potter-focused con that was very, relatively small and relatively chill compared to—you know. Like, I led a roundtable on Remus/Sirius and, like, you know, 10-15 people around a table, we were having a little seminar and I offered…because I was leading it I was like “here are a lot of my interpretations” and people were like “oh my God, I hadn’t thought of that but that makes sense!” and all this stuff. And they said things to me that I was like, “Oh yeah, absolutely!” You know. And all of that came from fanfiction.
ELM: Right? But that being said, fanfiction is only a fraction of fannish conversations about character, and you know, interpretations and all this, right?
FK: Yeah, and you see this—you see this, you see this even more clearly in, like, something like Star Trek which has both an incredibly active fanfiction and an incredibly active absolutely no fanfiction side, you know what I mean?
ELM: Yeah, for sure! Long canons like that. You know, it’s funny to me, currently in, you know, reading fanfiction in a fandom that has like 800,000 iterations…
FK: [laughs] Right, right! You’ve got this to the max with X-Men.
ELM: Yeah, there’s, there are broad strokes here, but also, you know, the…kinda the context in which it was written matters. And it’s very funny to be reading mostly fanfiction that was written eight years ago. So you can kind of see the way people were talking about stuff, without ever seeing the actual conversations beyond “This was in the kinkmeme! Someone said I want this, and I went in a different direction,” you know.
FK: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah! Well, and it was also funny, so we’re gonna—later today, we’re gonna date this thing, we’re gonna go see Dark Phoenix together. [ELM laughs] And it was funny, we were trying to bring one of our friends up to speed on who Jean Grey was. And we each wrote an explainer…
ELM: Wait wait wait, let’s shout out once again to Nozlee. Friend of the pod.
FK: Nozlee, friend of the pod.
ELM: Poor Nozlee! Including her name over and over again.
FK: So we each wrote an explainer, and my explainer was based on, like, reading X-Men comics in the ’90s and by that point, the Dark Phoenix arc was a long time ago but you sorta learned about it. And, like, this shit kept coming back up. So I was totally comics, “This is why I care about Jean Grey, it’s because of ’90s X-Men comics.” And yours was completely from a movie standpoint, and…
ELM: It was literally only what happened in X3: The Last Stand.
FK: In X3.
ELM: And I was like…it was so funny because we wrote them simultaneously and then they came in and you wrote this, like, 1,000 word long, like, “And then in this comic this happened, and then this!” and I was like “Oh my God, this is like reading the comics wiki for this, I can’t do this. I can’t.”
FK: It was not that bad!
ELM: No, it was fine, it was good, it was well written.
FK: [laughing] It was really not, I like, left out periods, I edited it so badly. Anyway.
ELM: [laughs] But! I stand by the reason, the reason I thought it was relevant is because it’s, literally this movie was written by the same…
FK: Which I didn’t even know! I’m like—
ELM: You didn’t know this?!
FK: I did not know this! I was sitting over here having, like, opinions about Jean Grey, but I’m not really in the X-Men fandom and I haven’t really been tracking this that hard. [laughs]
ELM: Yeah, I thought it was relevant—just even saying this and knowing that when I edit this, we will have seen this film that has already let me down so much.
FK: And yet, fandom! You’re still gonna come see it!
ELM: Oh absolutely. There’d be no way I wouldn’t watch it. I have a lot of, a lot of weird emotions right now, it’s been very interesting actually. Just let me have my little aside here. Watching the kind of different reactions to Game of Thrones while having literally no stakes, and I—at one point, there was one episode, I think it was the penultimate one where, like, people had, like, wildly different interpretations of whether the writing was good or not.
ELM: And I tweeted something like, “What I love about this, I have no idea what any of you are talking about so to me all of you are correct.” [FK laughs] And I’ve seen people write completely contradictory things about what good writing is, and I was just like, “OK!” And it was actually kind of refreshing, because often I feel like I have some…like I’ve seen the thing that people are talking about and so I have some horse in the race and this time I was like…
FK: I have none!
ELM: Literally zero. And it is, so, it’s very…but it’s been very interesting watching, like, all the press for the, you know, re-do this season petition and all this stuff. [FK gags] And this kind of idea, these broad sweeping articles like “Fandom—” the kind of “Fandom Is Broken” shit, where they’re like “This is what fans are!” And I’m over here, about to watch the unnecessary fourth movie of a trilogy that is getting by far the worst ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, and feeling…
FK: I think it was at 22% yesterday. Womp-womp.
ELM: Wildly ambivalent feelings about it, thinking about that massive swirl of wildly ambivalent feelings and how completely disconnected that is from any of the conversations about this, like, “Fans want things to be their way and they get mad when they don’t go their way!” And I’m like, “Do you understand this position that I am in where I’m like, ‘I want gifs from X-Men: First Class, and I’m gonna go pay $20 to see this movie that’s terrible, and I actually feel kind of good and bad about it simultaneously’?”
ELM: It’s so complicated! And I don’t understand why it’s so hard for people to wrap their heads around the fact that…you know what I mean?
FK: Right! Well, right, and even in seeing, like, like being part of one of the fan groups that is most angry about some of the things that happened, like, yelling about character assassination and stuff—
ELM: Oh, in Game of Thrones you mean?
FK: In Game of Thrones, like—but even within that, the reaction is actually much more ambivalent than any of those. I mean not to say that there aren’t people who aren’t going, like, whatever. “Re-do it. Here’s a petition. This is all bullshit.” But like, the reaction is a lot more ambivalent than that. Of course people are yelling on Twitter, and like, you know, their fave didn’t do the thing they thought their fave should do! Yell! You know? But like it’s not…that’s not, there’s also not necessarily actually representative of the complexity of feelings that it’s clear a lot of people have when you actually dig into it and talk to people and, like…you know, read fanfic, and like, interact. You know what I mean? And interact in a broader way. Even further on this step of, like, “Yes, these are the people yelling,” but even they are more ambivalent and ambiguous than…you know, than the yelling would suggest.
ELM: Yeah, and even acknowledging that while they might be like yelling while livetweeting, “This is not what I wanted,” you know, they might write a, a wildly different, nuanced, ambivalent, long posts on their Tumblr two hours later that’s like, here, and try to…the complicated and, obviously I think some people are…a lot of people are very bad at separating this out, I think it’s very hard for people, but the kind of like “this is bad writing” vs “I’m not happy with this” kind of thing that people have such a hard time separating.
FK: Yeah, yeah. And also both things can co-exist, and there can be, like, bad writing for different reasons in different ways, you know what I mean. In the different ways that writing can be bad.
ELM: Absolutely! Or it can be like, it can be bad for you and your goals for the story or whatever, but like, yeah. I think that—I just, I just, I really wish that, I mean, I don’t wanna blame journalists and the media entirely on this, but I do think the media has failed to capture the complexity of what fannish conversations are. And that’s very disappointing. And—I even saw people on my own feed with the Game of Thrones stuff making some of the same big broad bad generalizations, like, kind of—I, I kind of got a bit frustrated and sent over the edge a little bit by the kind of, you know, “of course entitled straight white man fans are demanding a petition, but no woman would ever do that, no queer woman would ever do that! She would…”
FK: That’s a lie!
ELM: “She would write some fanfiction!”
FK: There are plenty of queer women who are writing fanfic and also starting lots of petitions, I can tell you this from over here!
ELM: I can’t, you know? And I was—actually I went and looked it up because one of the Voltron petitions that we had discussed in our petition episode…
FK: Oh my God, yes!
ELM: Had more signatures, after, you know, a short period of time than that Game of Thrones one did before it got picked up by all these…and of course once it was picked up then it got, like, millions. But that’s just because it became a story on every garbagey pop culture website on the internet, you know.
FK: Right, and anybody who would never…people who would never interact with Game of Thrones fandom but didn’t like the last episode would be like “OK.”
ELM: They’d be like “this sux,” with an X. Yeah. It, it was just…it’s been very interesting to watch. I think that, but I am very disappointed in the media after, and the way that they covered a lot of it. And, you know, we already discussed conversations about a monoculture or whatever I just think are, are very bad readings on the culture right now. Again this kind of links back to our episode topic of OOC, you know? Like, this kind of idea that everyone felt a certain way about what was happening, you know? That’s…
FK: It also links back to our conversation with Keidra about, like, stan culture…not that this is stan culture, I’m gettin’ there. But about—
ELM: I’m ready!
FK: So how people, sometimes it’s like, in order to participate in this corner of the fandom, here are the things that you’re doing. And when everyone in fandom is mad about a certain thing, part of the way that you participate is by voicing that you’re mad about it too…
FK: On Twitter, even if it’s hyperbole, right? Even if it’s—I, you know.
ELM: Absolutely, yeah.
FK: Everyone around you is mad about this thing, and you’re kinda mad about it too, so you’re like “I’m gonna bond with you guys and we’re all gonna yell about how much this sucks.”
ELM: Right, right. That’s hard though! Right, right, absolutely. I think the context…I encountered this a lot with Sherlock, especially the third season that came out five years ago, you know. And… [FK sighs in solidarity] You know, it was kind of a sport to livetweet it in Britain while it was on and be like, “This is garbage.” No, they wouldn’t say “garbage.” “This is rubbish.” [FK laughs] “Put it in the bin.” Can you tell I’ve lived in the United Kingdom for many years? Yes. Rubbish and bins.
You know. And then I would see people I was friends with being like, “This is shit!” And then afterwards, like, we’d talk about it and they’d be like “Well, I don’t know. I have mixed feelings.” And I’d be like, “Oh! You just wanted to be part of the in-crowd, being like ‘what a piece of crap this is.’” You know?
FK: Or your first reaction was that this sucks and then you were like “Well, thinking about it…” you know. Like…
ELM: And obviously you can go in all directions and being influenced by what other people are doing can change your reactions so.
FK: Absolutely. OK, well, I think we should take a break and then we should talk about our episode topic, because I think we’re getting there.
ELM: Yeah, we keep kinda skirting towards it.
FK: We’re skirting toward it! Like crabs.
ELM: Wrap-up for anonymous though, maybe not the most satisfying set of answers here being like “Nope! We don’t have that kind of information.” I, I think that one thing I would say about, like, oh, a casual reader of Harry Potter has a very different interpretation from people who are in the fandom? I think that’s gonna happen. You know? I have a very different interpretation of Star Wars than you do, because I haven’t—I haven’t thought about it much beyond, I think about it a little, after I watch it, you know?
ELM: For like, a couple hours, maybe.
ELM: If you wanted to engage in conversation with me I could carry one on, but like, I’m sure that you’ve thought about it in much more depth than I have.
FK: And I definitely, as we’ve seen, my X-Men ideas are very different…not that I’m not aware of some of the things you’re talking about, but like, no. I don’t begin to enter into the depth of your X-Men feelings.
ELM: Do you mean that when you, when we come up with, like, a weird scenario for an AU and you’re like “That’s an X-Men AU!” and then I can immediately explain to you why it wouldn’t work?
FK: Yeah, exactly! Cause I’m like “Oh!” and you’re like “Nope nope nope nope nope, I’ve already thought about all these things,” and I’m like “Oh wow, I hadn’t thought about those things! Like, every once in a while I read an X-Men fanfic, and OK!”
ELM: Yep, this is what happens when you read all the fanfiction in the fandom.
FK: Oh my God, it’s so true though. I cannot express to you how quickly this happened to me with Game of Thrones. By the time I got to like, page 20, I was like, “hmm.”
ELM: How many, how many fics are there on AO3 for this ship?
FK: I mean, there’s like 4,000+ fics? And I’ve probably read a few hundred of them. But already I’ve begun to see the patterns emerge.
ELM: Oh yeah. I mean, the only experience I’ve ever had of fandom with that few fics, or a ship with that few fics, was Black Sails. It was fewer than that. And that wasn’t necessarily the patterns, that was just like I ran out of material. So.
FK: Yeah, well, in this case I’m definitely going to run out of material, because I’m already to the point where I’m like, “Ugh. Not this one.”
ELM: Yeah. I do feel #blessed to be in a, a fandom with…like, I’m not done.
FK: Anyway. Where were we, we were trying to answer anonymous’s question here and I think we got off track again.
ELM: Oh, because I just wanna talk about fanfiction some more. OK. All right. Yes. So, anonymous, we really value your letter and I will say as a final note: I am very aware that sometimes we drop references and a lot of pop culture, we are both—probably me more than you—extremely online, which is in itself an extremely online meme…
ELM: So there are also possibly things that we’re mentioning in passing that are just, like, “I spend too much time on Twitter.” [FK laughs] Not necessarily some fandom thing. And I apologize to everyone who doesn’t know what I’m talking about, because probably…
FK: But also, like, ask us? We’ll totally add it to the show notes if, if you ask.
ELM: Yeah, absolutely. Or especially if it’s like a phrase or a reference and you google it and there’s no, like, obvious answer.
FK: Yeah, exactly.
ELM: I would suggest googling first. [FK laughs] For some of these things.
FK: Please, for our own sanity.
ELM: Yeah, especially since our friend Aja writes up all the cool memes for vox.com.
ELM: So there are, there are explainers.
FK: All the—all the cool memes. [both laughing]
ELM: How do you do, fellow memes?
FK: All right, all right. I think we’re, I think we’re, I think that we’re done. We’re gonna take a little break and then we’re gonna come back and get fully onto the topic of this episode.
ELM: All right.
FK: All right, we’re back.
ELM: We are back.
FK: And it’s time to talk about characterization.
ELM: Even though we already talked about it.
FK: Yeah, but we’re gonna talk about it, like, more. So I, at the beginning of this episode I explained how I fell into Game of Thrones and how characterization was a big thing within Game of Thrones and how I felt like this had to do with, like, the way that a book can show characterization with a lot of interiority versus the way that, like, a TV show can show characterization.
FK: I want you, now, to tell me about your first reaction to that, cause I thought it was really interesting the first time you told me, and now you’re gonna say it on air!
ELM: So…all right. If memory serves, I was high up in the mountains, amongst the tea fields.
FK: Were there monkeys?
ELM: No. The monkeys were not in the tea fields. Those are two different regions.
FK: All right, context: Elizabeth just came back from several weeks in India.
ELM: Kerala, India, best state in India because I’ve only been to that one.
FK: [laughs] And my, and my interpretation of her trip is entirely based on the photos she sent, which involved tea fields and monkeys and…leech socks?
ELM: Uh, I got leeches between my toes in the tea fields. That was gross. And then I went through the Periyar Tiger Sanctuary, which is like this massive national park that there’s like nine tigers or something, so no I did not see a tiger. There’s more than that, but there’s not that many tigers. And everyone, including the ranger, wore these like big booties that you put over your feet and under your shoes. They’re like…
FK: Leech socks.
ELM: Yeah! Leech socks! Is this, like, a thing elsewhere? Leech socks?
FK: I have never heard of it, but I love it.
ELM: And, and they were like, “Put these on.” And I was like “Oh, ha ha, so I won’t get leeches!” And they were like “Yes, that’s what they’re for.” OK! And then, side note, can I tell you one of my favorite idiomatic moments of my entire life?
ELM: So I was talking to the ranger after, and I was telling him how I got these leeches, and I said, “Who knew there were so many leeches in the tea fields?” And he said, perfectly straight-faced: “Many.” I love it.
FK: Many. Many people knew. Not you, but many.
ELM: Yeah. He just, he didn’t interpret it idiomatically. Who knew? And he said, like, “All. All people knew. Not you.” [FK laughs] I just, it made me love idioms and love the English language. That was his very honest answer: many knew.
FK: Many people knew.
ELM: Yes. Not me.
FK: He was not in any way wrong.
ELM: Nope! We were all correct. So. That’s fine. Anyway, I didn’t get any more leeches, that was great. There were monkeys, there was tea, but I called you and we were in Munnar, high up in the mountains, and we discussed this.
ELM: So, I was saying that while I agree with you broadly, that I do think that television and film, visual mediums, specifically those two, are like—overall I think there’s a reason why those tend to be more fertile space for transformative fandom. Because I 100% agree with you, I think that there’s so much more space that you kind of want to fill in. Especially fanfiction-wise, you wanna give, grant that interiority that the camera never truly will be able to do, unless there’s like some cheesy voiceover throughout. But even then, that wouldn’t, that still will not give you the same thing as, like, the sort of rich internal narration that you can get with narrative prose, right?
ELM: With fiction. That being said, I think Harry Potter is an exception to the rule here, cause you were talking a lot about how the Game of Thrones books—or the Song of Ice and Fire, is that, to be…?
FK: Yeah, if you wanna be…
ELM: Hip with it, yeah? Hip with it. [laughs] With all the memes.
FK: Very hip to be in with this ’90s fantasy series!
ELM: [laughing] Written by a man who wears a flat cap and suspenders!
FK: Extremely hip. And yells about fanfiction on his LiveJournal, which he has not abandoned.
ELM: Yes. That’s great. That was my knowledge of him prior to Game of Thrones beginning as a television show. You know, like, it’s my understanding from you that he is—there’s a lot of very close third person narration, and he gets really really deep into characters’ heads, and I said, “You know what, the Harry Potter books are quite close third person narration,” to the point that it’s a meme that it’s so inside Harry’s head and he’s so unobservant that you don’t know what’s going on anywhere, cause he’s just like “What? I didn’t realize!” And you’re like “Pay attention, son!”
FK: But part of it is because he’s so unobservant with his own feelings. He doesn’t know what he himself feels, and that’s very obvious.
ELM: And then all of a sudden his mouth opens and he’s shouting and you’re like “Is this…are you a teenager, or… this is badly written, JK Rowling!” And I think it’s both, actually, sometimes, but I love Harry Potter! What a paradox! That’s fine. But you know, especially since my first ship in Harry Potter was Harry/Draco and since I came back to it within the last two years a little bit too, half of that is the POV character, and still there’s massive room for interpretation. And there are very very strong canonical—or fanonical interpretations, rather—that possibly don’t align in any way with what’s in the books.
FK: Yeah, it’s true.
ELM: And sometimes that’s like in a cringey way, like, I think the Draco in leather pants trope is probably one of the most famous in all of transformative fandom, which is like—
FK: Yeah, as far as cringey tropes go.
ELM: In the early 2000s, sexy bad boy Draco in leather pants, and he’s like…
FK: Drinking a mai tai, for whatever reason.
ELM: Oh yeah! So he’s really sassy, kind of femme, femme queer guy, and just way sassier than he ever—and it’s like, cleverer than he is in the books.
ELM: And suddenly really attractive and not pointy-faced in any way—not to say that pointy-faced people aren’t attractive.
FK: Right, or if he’s pointy-faced it’s in a very interesting and like…
ELM: Super sexy pointy! And he wears these sexy leather pants and he often smokes and drinks—this is in the early 2000s, so there’s probably less of that now. And he is just, like, a snark factory, and this definitely was just a collective agreement that this was happening.
So there’s that, that’s one side of the spectrum, but stuff I saw when I was in this fandom more recently was, you know, not necessarily like fans creating some sort of new character essentially—which is how I felt about Draco in leather pants—but fans doing the work that I don’t think that the books do. And obviously that’s in the eye of the beholder, because one, one man’s Draco in leather pants is another man’s, like, “Oh, you’re doing the complicated emotional work of processing these character’s trauma and treating them like adults and not like cartoon characters.”
FK: And letting them grow up, and turn into, you now, people, who like, snarky people often have a lot of trauma in the back of their life.
ELM: And seek absolution, and can that be granted, and what does it mean to truly feel remorse, et cetera. Should there be war crimes trials that are not as conceived of by a child, and. Yes. So, so like, but I think—like I said, I think that is all, I think that one person could say that, could interpret one version of Draco in either of those camps.
ELM: And also lots of people don’t see any problem with a Draco in leather pants type construction! They’ll say that’s fun and sexy and I like him that way, and we all decided we wanted that, and that’s cool. And you’re like, all right, whatever. Do what you want, you know?
FK: But what’s interesting is that this is, like…we’re talking about this from this very fanfictional point of view, but it’s not like it’s solely a fanfictional concern. And we see this really clearly. Like, within Game of Thrones, right? One of the biggest, all right. OK. It’s been a long time, but we’re about to embark on some spoilers here. So like…
ELM: It hasn’t been that long, but also…
FK: Everybody in the world’s been talking about this. There are gonna be spoilers, turn this off for a little bit, search in the transcript for “spoilers end here.”
FK: And come back then. OK great. So like, one of the biggest arguments people were having was about Daenerys, who, like, at a certain point, like…loses her mind from grief and anger and, like, murders an entire city with her dragon. So in the show some of her ancestors have been literally insane sadists, in a very clinical definition, and so then, like, the question within fandom is like, “Is this a case where, like, she is, like, showing what she’s really made of? Or is it like, an anger management issue? Or is it like a totally out of character thing that she did that the writers just, like, forced her to do that doesn’t have any justification in the text?” And this is one of the central fandom arguments outside of fanfiction, too. Right?
FK: So it’s fascinating to see the different ways, because again, in the books…the books that we have up to this point…you have this deep interior understanding of everything that Daenerys is thinking. Like, way more than I want. I don’t need all that detail sometimes, like, she can, when she’s sitting in Meereen and ruling a city for thousands of pages, nobody needed that.
ELM: You are sellin’ these books to you. Wow.
FK: Oh no. I don’t need to sell them to you. You don’t need the pain. But. You know, you really get a deep understanding. And then we get to this point and there’s no more books, there’s just television, which runs very quickly.
FK: And, you know? Like, the actress is doin’ her best! Actin’ her heart out!
FK: But there’s only so much that she can do, because there’s, like, three episodes left, you know?
ELM: Right, right. Yeah, exactly.
FK: And then you can choose to read into that whatever you want, right? You can say “Oh, we skipped these time periods and during this time she was obviously fuming and becoming angrier and angrier and like…” or you can be like “No, that doesn’t make any sense.”
ELM: Right, right.
FK: And that’s not a fanfiction question. That’s truly a, like, how do we emotionally attach to these characters and how do we construct them in our heads regardless of whether we’re writing fanfic or not?
ELM: I mean, one thing that I, you know, and obviously we’ve been critiqued for being too pro-fanfiction or whatever—not pro-fanfiction, but too, centering fanfiction too much.
ELM: Yeah, focused. Which, like, all right, yeah. OK. [laughs] That’s my way! You know. This is one of the reasons why, and I’ve said this before on the podcast, that’s why that’s my preferred method of fannish engagement, is because it—I find the, writing fiction that interrogates the questions you were just talking about is by far the most compelling way to talk about it and to kind of prove your interpretation. Right? You know? And whether you feel that the show didn’t do the work, or you feel like you’re just expanding on the work the show did, like, you know, the—you were still doing the additional work of that interpretation, right?
Whereas like, if you’re just talking about it on Twitter, it’s really really hard even if you write a long thread to kind of explain why, you know. You can say “Oh, well, I’ve read the books and here’s where I think the show isn’t,” and obviously people write blog posts or long comments on Reddit, or like, you know, meta on Tumblr or whatever, where we can go into it a bit more. But like, so much of the conversation around these characters for this show in particular has been on Twitter. I think there’s a real limitation, and basically it kinda brings me back to our Stephanie Burt conversations about, you know, situating your criticism too, right?
ELM: There’s not really a lot of space for you to do that on Twitter, to say, like, “Well, here are—here’s where I’m coming from, here’s why I write it this way, here’s me personally, here’s the context I’m bringing, here’s why I think this writing is good or bad or made sense or didn’t.” There’s really no space for that. So then it just gets so flat and you’re just like, “Good! Bad! Thumbs up! Thumbs down!” You know? And that’s, that’s really hard. That’s a really hard way to engage with big fictional texts like this.
FK: Yeah, yeah. I think there’s also something to be said about things that Twitter lets you talk about that fanfiction doesn’t always give you as much space to talk about, which is, I mean, on this good versus bad thing, one of the things that fanfiction often it’s hard to talk about within is—a lot of critique of Game of Thrones has to do with, for instance, the way that the show deals with characters of color.
FK: Or doesn’t, you know. “Oops! We just didn’t have any. Ha ha! Well, we had two, and we killed them.” Killed one of them. Any way.
FK: Yeah. “Ha, ha, ha.” Point being, in fanfiction it’s kind of hard to deal with that because of how white focused—white-gazey fanfic already is.
FK: We can talk about this broadly, but like, people read fanfic about the characters that they are invested in, and there’s a lot of white people in fandom and—all I’m saying is that the heat, the energy goes to those characters, you know? And centers them, and so not to say that you can’t make arguments like this within that, but just to say that, like, the heat is all in this different space. And on Twitter, by comparison, I think that there’s a lot more opportunity to talk about… “Here are these other issues that are coming in here!” You know? Just because of the tone of the space.
ELM: That’s not necessarily about a medium at all, that’s about the kind of communities and the norms of communities, right.
FK: I agree.
ELM: So, like, yeah. I think that’s a, obviously I think that’s a problem in the fanfiction spaces and I think that’s a strength, but you know, I’m still gonna argue that you could have a more complicated, nuanced conversation through, like, long detailed fanfiction, than you can on Twitter! Like, about any topic! But, like, you know, obviously if you have very dominant groups of—especially black Twitter, you know.
ELM: And I don’t, I’m not trying—I think Twitter is really valuable for certain kinds of conversations, but I think that there is, there’s just—there’s literally a limit because there’s literally a character limit to how deep you can go into it. [FK makes agreement noises] And especially if, it’s good for broadcasting. I think that there are people with big platforms who can go into it.
ELM: But I think to have smaller, smaller-scale individuals having longer conversations, I think that’s really really hard on Twitter. No matter what community you’re in, what the show is you’re talking about. You know. What the characters you’re trying to discuss. I think that’s just a limitation of the platform. But that’s not to say it’s, it’s not valid. I just think when it comes to character in particular…
ELM: We’re not talking about, that’s one specific thing about the show. I think talking about plot, Twitter’s much—Twitter is a lot better on plot than character. But I think character is really, really hard because, you know. I don’t know, I say this but I also think that our conversations about plot have gotten so stupid that I don’t know that I can go to bat for that either, right.
ELM: Well, I mean, just…the TV Tropes crap, you know, like, I just have a very low opinion of TV Tropes, can I just say off the bat. I don’t know how you feel about it.
ELM: And the kind of way that TV Tropes and people who put a lot of stock in those framings, now kind of overlay them onto things like plot—and character too, right? And they’ll be like “Well this is obviously this thing that’s happening!” And I got a lot of this when I, you know, indoctrinated 100,000 people into watching Black Sails. And they’d be like “I bet this will happen!” And I was like “NO! Watch what’s happening on the show, it’s not just gonna follow some formula just because, you know, it’s a pattern that we’re used to! And like, hold on a second!” You know? Don’t try to overlay a pattern in advance, right. So that kind of thing.
FK: Yeah, this was—this was happening a lot with Game of Thrones as well. I think that it was very clear, even if you didn’t, you know. Even not as a viewer of it, I think that you could probably see that this was happening.
ELM: Right, right. Where people were, people were saying “I bet this will happen,” because the expectations.
ELM: And it’s also, I’m not asking every single person who watches a television show to have a freaking PhD in literary analysis or whatever, like, it doesn’t have to be that complicated. But I also think there’s a difference between watching a, you know, serial television drama and if the writing’s good then they should be setting up the pieces and delivering on them. As opposed to watching it being like “Oh I think, I know this is the way that this kind of story goes so I have that expectation,” right. So I think we get a lot of clashes because people have expectations based on things that were never happening in the first place.
FK: Right, or based on their ship and based on the…the way that those ship conversations have gone and the way that people have interpreted those characters for themselves as communities. Right? I mean, this is, this is part of the—this is part of the issue too, right? One of the things that’s fun is getting into a community and, like, reading an actor’s performance and being like “Oh, we think that this was what was going on in their head.”
FK: But you don’t necessarily have it right. You aren’t necessarily—there is a, there is a gap there that you’re filling in. And you may be filling it in quite differently than the actor thinks they’re filling it in.
ELM: Sure, but like, what’s “right”?
FK: And neither of you are wrong—
ELM: Yeah yeah yeah, there’s no right or wrong here.
FK: There’s no right or wrong, but the problem comes, then, later, when—
ELM: When your expectations mean you think there is a right and a wrong answer.
FK: Exactly. When it feels like, “Oh, this has obviously been leading us to this place,” and the actor’s like, “That was never what was going on here.”
ELM: Yeah, yeah.
FK: And you can question, like, whatever. In the current discourse around Killing Eve, you can question whether that’s like—
ELM: Wait, no spoilers. I’m actually gonna watch this one.
FK: No spoilers for this, but there’s current discourse around Killing Eve around expectation versus what happens, and there like…there can be questions around whether it, what should have happened. Not saying that that can’t be a thing. But the fact remains that that expectation versus reality gap is real.
ELM: OK, wait. Side note: end spoilers, because we said we were gonna tell people. You’re not gonna do any more Game of Thrones spoilers, right?
FK: No more Game of Thrones spoilers after this point.
ELM: Great. All right. Let’s refocus a little bit back on character, though, in particular. So one of the things that I think is really interesting is I don’t think that people actually agree on what “characterization” means.
FK: Mmm. OK, tell me what you mean by “characterization.”
ELM: So I think that characterization is the way a character is written. It’s separate from plot.
ELM: One of the reasons that I really like fanfiction is that for me, a real way to get a characterization is to say, “Well, this is like a—this is a fully formed human being,” or creature, doesn’t have to be a—I don’t wanna be speciesist. But this is a fully formed person, and one thing that fanfiction can do is you can say, like, “Well, if I put this pressure on them, this specific plot point, this specific conversation, you know, this scenario, how would they respond?”
ELM: Right? And that, to me, is a sort of…a very fanfictiony way of looking at characterization that also, you know, when you’re writing original fiction obviously you’re doing that with your own characters.
ELM: Right? But it’s not necessarily so easy to talk about or so present in conversations when you’re not actually, like, creating and reading fiction about it, you know. Because, like, people really, I think, really abuse the “out of character” designation, or like, “Mary Sue” designation or whatever. You know, as like a, one of the worst offenders here, right. Just cause you didn’t like the way something went, like, or cause you thought that character was like, you know, Luke Skywalker was me as a little boy, like—what does that? You watched it when you were seven and you got a really deep sense of what his character was, like…?
FK: Yeah I think that’s actually a perfect example of it, too, because there’s so much time that has passed.
FK: Between the original Star Wars movies and the current Star Wars movies, that it’s very hard to me to say, “Oh, he’s out of character in the new movies.” You can say, “This isn’t working for me.”
ELM: Yeah, right.
FK: You can say “I don’t like where they went with him.” But I think it’s very hard to make an argument from “Oh, this person, after 30 years of life of which we know nothing,” you know. I don’t think there’s any way.
ELM: He had an altercation with his nephew.
FK: Well, we know that now, but—
ELM: He went to live on a little island.
FK: But when the second movie came out or whatever and people were like “This isn’t my Luke!” It’s like, “Well, how do you know it’s not? It’s not your Luke, that’s true, it’s not the Luke that you built up in your head. But in the story world, it’s been 30 years and the story is telling you who this Luke is.” And you can choose to reject that, but you don’t, don’t blame bad writing for that.
ELM: Right, right. Exactly.
FK: Say it didn’t go the way you wanted it to go.
ELM: And you could, I think that within a text it’s easier to make arguments about, like, within a contained text it’s easier to make arguments about what’s in and out of character. If in the beginning of a story you establish, like, he’s that kinda guy, this is his way, like, these are his traits…
ELM: And then he does something that seems completely out of left field an hour and a half later.
ELM: You can be like “That didn’t seem in character at all,” because they set you up and then they…
ELM: They did something completely different, you know. And obviously it could work for some people and not others, right.
FK: Right, and you can say, like, “Oh, they were trying to convince me that this character who seemed one way was really another, but it didn’t work for me.”
ELM: Right, right.
FK: “The writing was poor, it didn’t convince me that this was true. I think that this person becomes out of character at X point.” You can say that, sure.
ELM: I think the word “truth” is really interesting. And what feels true. I feel like that’s, that’s a bigger part of the character conversation than the plot conversation. Plot is like “Is this good or bad?” Right? And people have different opinions about what good and bad plot is, you know. Like, I think all third acts of superhero movies are a sign of bad plot. [FK laughs] I’m sorry. Like, how is—how did this become a thing?! This cannot be the only way to resolve a narrative.
FK: And the problem is that, like, when you get people who are saying “here is a plot, and the plot has these needs, and so you’ve sacrificed character to plot,” right?
FK: That’s the conversation that’s been happening. This is not a spoiler to say that that’s the conversation that’s been happening around this most recent season of Game of Thrones and that’s a real—
ELM: They just need to move them through to, yeah. Exactly.
FK: Right, in order to get to the end of the plot. And the plotting may be good in the sense of, like, doing all the things that were set up, right. Knocking down all the dominoes that were set up. But that doesn’t mean that it’s satisfying with regard to the characterization.
ELM: Right, but I think it’s rare that people would say, like, “This plot doesn’t feel true to me.” Because the plot, like, happened. Is it good or bad? OK.
ELM: OK, sure. Was this a good series of events that made sense and were enjoyable to watch or thought provoking or whatever? But I think the idea of a character feeling true is a really interesting distinction and I think—
FK: And that can result in you not liking a plot point because you think that the character wouldn’t have done it.
ELM: Yeah, but remove plot from this entirely—
FK: But that’s a separate issue, right.
ELM: Because I think this is one thing that purity culture kind of steamrolls over, right? Like, the idea that this character can feel very true and be a piece of shit. Right? You know? [FK laughs] And so there’s a weird conflation with, like, the truth of a character and the moral goodness of a character or the unproblematic behavior of a character, right. It’s just a jumbled mess, right. But this kind of idea, it feels right, it feels correct. It, that is something that I think is really unique to conversations about character and by extension conversations about ships, which are essentially arguments about two or more characters in a character unit, you know.
FK: Yeah yeah yeah.
ELM: I’ll start calling ships “character units.”
FK: [robot voice] Character unit.
ELM: That makes it sound like, slotting them together.
FK: [robot voice] I wish to embrace this character unit. [ELM laughs] Yeah.
ELM: So that’s really interesting to me and it’s kind of like…it sort of makes me wanna, like, free up these kinda constructions a little bit. I’m just thinking about this really moving—this is not much of a spoiler, but this is a really moving speech at the end of Black Sails, the final episode, where—cause the entire point of Black Sails is about well, what is actually true. And that’s about plot. And that’s really interesting and that’s really rare. And actually, as you probably know from me talking about this a little bit and with people questioning this about it, some people were really agitated by the ambiguity of the end.
ELM: But the ambiguity was part and parcel of what the entire story was doing, which was—and it’s very…within the world of fanfiction and meta-commentary of being like, “Stories are true, stories are untrue, what does it matter, what actually endures?” Like, if we tell a story enough, is it actually happening? Did it happen if we just tell it enough? And isn’t that what history is anyway? Et cetera, et cetera. You know? And that’s, that’s really interesting that that I feel like is quite rare and quite hard to pull off. You know. In films and books and television. And I think that people often feel like, when people try to do stuff like that it turns into—the word “cheap” gets used a lot, right? Whereas like, it’s interesting that still it’s kind of the foundational construction of character. Which is a little more amorphous, because it’s kind of in the eye of the beholder again.
FK: Yeah, yeah! I was gonna say, subjectivity is so central to this, right? So like, one of the interesting things that I’ve been experiencing with this round of Game of Thrones fandom—no spoilers, don’t worry—is that, discovering that, like, my interpretation of this particular character, a bunch of trans men and nonbinary people share this, this particular construction of the character that I have with me. And I’m like “Oh, duh! That’s because we all share something about our understandings about what feels true!”
ELM: Yeah, yeah.
FK: There’s something about us. It’s not saying something about the character, it’s saying that we have certain understandings about gender and the way that people think about it that aren’t necessarily shared by all people in this world, right? You know?
ELM: But that stuff gets so messy! Because I feel like so many people are then like, “It’s true! About the character! And it’s not about me, it’s about the character, my reading is correct!” And that’s a really hard thing to unpack.
FK: Yeah, yeah yeah. And what does that even mean, right? Does it mean that you think that the author also intended it? Does it mean that like [laughs] you think that your, that your interpretation should “win”?
FK: What does winning mean in this context? Is it just that you just wanna persuade—I mean I certainly wanna persuade other people to agree with me about this, cause I want more fanfic and more discussion of my interpretation, but does that make it right? I don’t know. Yeah, it’s really hard. But that subjectivity, I agree, I think is like the center of this characterization conversation. Because you can’t feel that something is true unless you can feel it, right?
ELM: Right, right. But that doesn’t necessarily—I think that that example is interesting because that’s about your personal identity…obviously all of your facets of identity inform whether you, like, whether a character feels true to you or not. But I don’t necessarily think…I mean obviously some people can’t relate to characters that do not share their, and in all directions, you know? Which is fine, people can have their own perspectives, though I do think it’s shitty when people in dominant groups can’t [laughs] relate to people in—in the marginalized component of that dominant group. But. It’s not necessarily, like, a one-to-one, like, “the only characters that are gonna—”
ELM: “Are the ones that are—just like you,” right?
FK: Of course not!
ELM: But I think sometimes those gaps are interesting too, like, what makes a character who doesn’t share my race or gender or other, like, fundamental ways that I experience the world—what makes them feel true to me? Obviously part of that is gonna be about other constructions of other people in the—
FK: Yes, absolutely!
ELM: My perception of cis white men in the world is obviously shaped by all of the media ever, you know?
FK: Oh my God, yeah yeah yeah! Or just your experiences, right. I’m reading Portrait of a Lady now and the husband in it is so terrible and I’m sitting here going like, “Yes. Yes. I have met this man. He is terrible in these particular ways.” And I’m not sure that that actually—I mean, I’m not sure that actually means anything about, like, men in general, I just think it means that I’ve met people who I didn’t like in this particular way!
ELM: That’s really funny. He was true to you, yeah?
FK: Yeah. He feels very true to me. [laughing]
ELM: Very true. Yeah, and obviously sometimes those gaps between you and the characters…like, I, I really value those gaps. I think a lot of people in fanfiction do. Which is interesting, because I feel like you’re coming—it sometimes comes into a bit of a clash with, with the kind of conversations about…
ELM: Representation, you know? Because it’s like, “How about both?” [laughs] But I understand why both doesn’t work for some people. But I, you know. It’s interesting how sometimes it feels like some people think that both won’t work for anyone. You know?
FK: Yeah, and the comment about difference is interesting too, because sometimes the difference is what highlights it, right? So the thing that I share with all these trans men is believing that this character is not a trans man [laughs] you know? It’s like, “Nope! That’s not it, we love her very much, she’s not—” you know. That’s not what’s happening there. Something else. And yet, you know.
ELM: That’s really interesting.
FK: So it can go both ways. Your sharing or not sharing something with that character can be illuminating in the negative as well as in the positive.
ELM: Sure, sure.
FK: I think we’ve gotten really [laughs] we’ve gone really far but it’s been good!
ELM: Let’s circle back, as we wind up this conversation, to the original idea here, talking about visual fandom—visual source material versus written.
ELM: I think it’s true, I think the richest, you know. There are books that I love so much and that are incredibly richly drawn and have so much in them and I’ll be like “I want more of this!” And then there’s nothing. Because maybe, maybe people can’t find a way in. Whereas I feel like, it’s rare that I feel like there’s no way in to something visual. You know? Like, I always—even if it doesn’t catch me, which is the majority of things don’t catch me that way, be like “Oh yeah, I could definitely see.”
FK: I agree, yeah.
ELM: Especially television, because—because that’s what television is doing itself! You know, it’s like, “Here’s the new set of scenarios they’re gonna be doing in the next seven episodes,” you know?
FK: Yeah. Well, I think it’s also interesting to think about it from the other…so, one, the direction we’ve been talking about it is “here is television, here is the gap in television that writing can fill.” And I think this conversation has also led me to think about the gaps in writing that television fills too, or that movies fill. Thinking about, for instance, the way that when Harry Potter came out it had a very different—for me— the way that they, like, the school uniforms, the way the school looked, all of this were very different from the way I had imagined them.
FK: But I was convinced by them, you know? I definitely, like, I liked the way I imagined it before, but I also like the way that it showed up in the movie, you know?
ELM: I can’t even remember—I remember very little of before. It’s just completely taken over my mind, so.
FK: Well, or like, I mean, Game of Thrones is another example. They did this very interesting and cool costume design. Before that I did not have nearly as cool of an idea about this, and then after it, like, those ideas have gotten—you know, rolled back into fanfiction and so on, right? So it’s adding things in a different direction, which I think is very interesting, and I would—the thing is it’s less accessible to the average fan to add things in that direction. If you’re a fanartist you can do it, right?
ELM: Right, right.
FK: You can illustrate a book and you can add some of those things in through fanart. But it’s not like you’re gonna—well, some people shoot fan films, but like, that’s a really hard thing to do.
ELM: I’d be really curious to see. So I think if we were to look at the stats of the fanfiction archives, we’d find that books are disproportionately less represented than film and TV. I would just guess based on the big fandoms. Setting aside our RPF. But I’d be curious to know if books are more likely to show up in fanart.
FK: Mmm. I don’t know!
ELM: I mean obviously there’s a shitload of Harry Potter, but—
FK: There’s also a question of who reads more, how big are book sales versus how many people see a movie. So there’s also a size problem. And then also, like, if you’re a visual artist and you’re very focused on visual things, maybe you want to consume visual media more…I don’t know if that’s, this is just a theory, I’m not saying like “artists don’t read,” artists read all the time, I’m just saying I don’t know. Maybe there’s more…
ELM: But, books give you more space if you want to do—
FK: It’s true!
ELM: A brand new interpretation as opposed to an interpretation of Robert Downey Jr.’s face. [laughs]
FK: Yeah, and there’s definitely, like—there’s also some books that are standard, right? So there’s every person who does movie concept art has got their own concept for Dune, even though there was a very visually distinctive movie of it, doesn’t matter. Everyone reads that book and comes up with their own version of it, like.
ELM: Right, right, that’s interesting.
FK: Every single professional concept artist has done a Dune image.
ELM: Whereas like are they doing that for Star Wars?
FK: Yeah, I don’t know!
ELM: I would be surprised if they were to that degree!
FK: I don’t think so, I haven’t seen it.
ELM: Because there’s a, there’s a very clear visual language going on there, you know?
FK: What Star Wars is, yeah.
ELM: So yeah, you could be making Star Wars art but would you—you know. If it is a visual source material, like, what is that for a concept artist? What are the concepts, you know?
FK: Do you re-envision Leia’s, like, white dress?
ELM: Yeah. Obviously you could try to, try to visualize new planets that have only been mentioned in writing.
FK: Or you could, you could be like “Oh this is Victorian Leia.”
ELM: Sure, sure.
FK: “In white lace.” But it would still be using the same visual touchpoints, because is it even Leia without cinnamon buns and white, you know.
ELM: Right, right. Now this has me just thinking about how present the visual is in the fanfiction that I read. How, you know what I mean?
FK: Yeah, if it is or if it isn’t. I’ve been thinking about that a lot too because as I’ve been reading fanfic I’ve been like, “How much of this is about the atmosphere versus how much of it is about interiority?” And it’s a lot—the stuff I’ve been reading is almost all about interiority. There’s relatively little, like, one of the things about the fanfiction I’ve enjoyed most is that there’s more description of the environment.
ELM: This is, now I’m not talking about the environment, I’m talking about the exteriority of the body. But now I’m thinking about gaze, g-a-z-e.
ELM: Also the other one.
FK: The gaze of the gays. Right.
ELM: You know. And especially reading, in—I’m thinking now, it’s rare in the Harry Potter fanfiction I read that I feel like they’re thinking of the bodies of the actors that played those characters. And to the point where I mean, obviously with Remus and Sirius—anyone who’s in that ship was like “Why did you cast these men in their 50s to play 30 year olds?” Like, obviously.
FK: Yeah. You know what, I have so much to say about this. I think we have to make this an entire separate episode.
ELM: Wait, what do you wanna say? Just about bodies?
ELM: Actors’ bodies? [laughs]
FK: Bodies and the way they’re depicted in—we need to get, like, some fan artists in here, and like, talk about this and talk about in context of fanfic and—I really, let’s talk about this!
ELM: I’m really interested in this in fanfiction in particular because some of the fanfiction I’m reading right now, too, is, sometimes it just feels like…it feels like a way to gaze carefully at either James McAvoy or Michael Fassbender, right? Cause they’re describing the bodies of these actors.
FK: Actors! This is very very true in, like, Reylo fic.
ELM: Yeah, I believe it.
FK: The loving description of moles on Adam Driver’s face that I have written. [ELM laughing] Like…
ELM: Of course you have! Yeah!
FK: There’s some mole placement issues, very important. Literally—but this is also into fanart there, right. Literally there’s a fanartist I know who has drawn a mole placement guide.
ELM: Wow, fandom is really something.
FK: I know!
ELM: It’s so funny! But it’s also, it’s fascinating when you start to think about, you know, the gaze of like the film camera. And the lens, and the traditional male gaze critique, and what—what does it mean to have this kind of visual slow pan over a male body, written by majority, you know, majority AFAB people—assigned female at birth. Right? But it’s written? But it’s so visual in the writing? Like, I just, I find that very very fascinating.
FK: I, yeah. OK. We should do an entire episode on this and we should connect this up between fanfic and—cause there’s also characters like within Game of Thrones fandom, the casting for Brienne in particular, it’s really good but it’s also not anywhere near as far—she’s described in the books as very ugly and extremely large. And they cast a woman who is very large but, like, thin, and not like…movie-star beautiful, but maybe model-beautiful? Like in an interesting face way.
ELM: I think she’s very beautiful. She’s beautiful.
FK: She’s very beautiful, but it’s in a model way not in like a TV-star way. Right? She’s not like a CW show. So people are like, this is a big issue within descriptions of her and also fanart of her, is how much is she Gwendoline—whose acting we all think is great… I can speak for everyone who watches this television show. [ELM laughs] Whose acting I personally think is great. You know. And who I think is, like, the best casting you could possibly have gotten in the current situation for that character, but she’s not the person on the page so how do you depict it. So I think there’s just a lot to get into here about that too. And about…so I think we should do a whole episode on it. Let’s do it.
ELM: On the flip side of that now, I love it when they’re describing these incredibly attractive Hollywood A-list actors and they’re like, “He knew he wasn’t the most handsome…” And I was like, “you know that no one thinks that.” I’m sorry. These are not normal people, everyone in this movie or television show is smokin’ hot. Like that’s literally the point.
FK: It’s been funny to see Adam Driver go from like—now he’s, like, the lust object, but when he was first cast, there was a lot about his receding chin or whatever, and it’s been interesting seeing the interpretation of him go from, like, “He’s ugly-hot!” to like, “No, he’s just hot.”
ELM: That’s really funny. Weren’t you saying that half the people are like “he’s the most beautiful angel” and the other half are like—
ELM: “He’s the ugliest person on the face of the earth.”
FK: That’s completely what Reylo fic is like. Half of it is like “this handsome gorgeous amazing person” and the other half are like “well…some chin issues…a kinda awkward large, like, covered in moles…pasty…”
ELM: He’s got a very compelling face.
FK: Oh, he’s super compelling.
ELM: I just wanna put that out there.
FK: It’s very compelling.
ELM: In case you didn’t realize it was compelling.
FK: It’s compelling.
ELM: All right, I’m glad.
FK: I have been compelled. [both laughing] All right, I need to stop right now. Uh…
ELM: Before you start, like, giving a kind of a topographic map of Adam Driver’s moles.
FK: Moles. Yeah. Literally before we embark on the mole tour. [ELM laughs] OK. We should wrap up, I think.
ELM: Yes. Yes. That would be very in character of us.
FK: OK. As always, we are supported by donations from listeners like you. And you can accomplish this through our Patreon, patreon.com/fansplaining, there are a lot of delightful things that you can get for pledging as little as $1 a month. It’s great, special episodes, we should probably record one sometime soon.
ELM: We should do another one soon, probably before Comic-Con. Yeah, special episodes for $3 a month, tiny zines, quarterly tiny zine for $10 a month. A sweater that Flourish has yet to be compelled to make for anyone for $1,000,000 a month.
FK: [laughs] Yeah! So consider that. If you don’t have or don’t want to kick some cash our way, you can also support us by reviewing us on iTunes, telling your friends about us, generally promoting the podcast—that is an incredible help. We don’t advertise. We rely on everyone to get the word out about us. So please consider that if you don’t feel like supporting us in another way.
ELM: And if you have friends who are in fandom but aren’t really podcast fans, we have full transcripts of every episode on fansplaining.com. And I really try to push that when talking about reaching new fans, cause there are a lot of people who just aren’t gonna be podcast listeners.
FK: And you don’t have to be!
ELM: No, no. And they also say too that market research on podcasting says that most people, like, listen—who do listen, listen to like four total. And there isn’t room for a fifth. So basically it’s like people competing for those slots that you have in your week. So we’re totally…
FK: We’re, we’re very grateful to people who…we love you.
ELM: We love people who put—some people listen to way more, that’s an average right there. But like, so, if you have friends who are in fandom you think will be interested in these conversations, definitely send them our transcripts. Fansplaining.com. Or point them towards our Tumblr or Twitter, just so they can see our continuing coverage of the Shipping Survey, other articles that we’re gonna write, stuff that we’re gonna put out in conjunction with our Comic-Con panel…did we mention we have a Comic-Con panel yet?
FK: We have a Comic-Con panel! We can’t say anything other than that we have it, yet, but we’re gonna be at Comic-Con.
ELM: Oh yeah! We learned about that while I was in India, I’m like, trying to remember when this news came through. Yeah, yeah.
FK: We’re gonna have a Comic-Con panel. It’s gonna be great.
ELM: San Diego Comic-Con, to clarify the…
FK: San Diego Comic-Con.
ELM: I think they trademarked Comic-Con, so that’s theirs now.
FK: And, if you’re going to be at SDCC we’re also gonna have a meet-up on Saturday afternoon.
FK: At the Marriott pool bar.
ELM: Early evening.
FK: Early evening. Right.
ELM: Not at four p.m.
FK: No, like at six.
ELM: Yeah, yeah. Just as we did last year. So pencil that in.
FK: We’ll put out information about that, but pencil it in. It was super fun last time. There’s also traditionally a meet-up of, like, YA comics people in the same space at the same time, which is cool. They’re all delightful. And by the end of the night we’ve usually sort of merged and formed one large group. Last time, you know, if you wanted to meet gingerhazing she was there.
ELM: I don’t know where I was cause I missed this.
FK: You missed it. She and her partner are adorable and they were present. So you know. [laughs ] We’re trying to dangle some celebrities who were not at our meet-up, they were at the other meet-up.
ELM: Yeah, yeah. So we’ll give lots of information about San Diego Comic-Con stuff. We’ll obviously put it all on one big post and share it around, especially when we can announce the subject of our panel.
FK: And the panelists, who are cool, I think I can officially say.
ELM: Like all the cool memes.
FK: All the cool memes.
ELM: Yeah, yeah. So that’s fansplaining.com. We’ll have all the information. Fansplaining on Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Facebook will also maintain that information. And those are the channels that you can contact us, or fansplaining at gmail dot com for longer queries, or our voicemail, 1-401-526-FANS. You can leave a message, you can remain anonymous, we will play your voicemail on the air and we will respond to it.
FK: Yep! We love voicemail. And I think that’s it!
ELM: Wait, should we do a shout-out to the voicemail that we got recently?
FK: Yeah, yeah yeah yeah! Shout it out.
ELM: It—all it said was “I don’t know what this is,” it gave the person’s full name and said “I don’t know what this is but I think Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to the United States.” End message. And I can only think that they thought it was a call-in hotline to talk about something you’re a fan of.
FK: That must be—I must assume this.
ELM: Sure. Look, I loved that. If they’d been like “Donald Trump is the greatest thing that happened to the United States” I would be mad.
FK: But I’m into AOC.
ELM: AOC, AOC, great. Great.
ELM: So thank you for that.
FK: We share your fandom.
ELM: Yeah. I’m not in like a fandom, I’m more of a casual fan.
FK: Oh, yeah yeah yeah for sure. I guess maybe that’s really what I mean. But like, I’m happy to tune into her, like, Instagram story of her like putting together an Ikea bookshelf and drinking wine.
ELM: Extremely online.
FK: Extremely online. Also, she loves Captain Janeway as much as I love Captain Janeway.
ELM: That’s great, that’s really good.
FK: She is a big Star Trek person and that made me feel very connected to her, and now I sound like a stereotypical Millennial that some Boomer is gonna yell at for liking AOC for being a Star Trek fan. #sorrynotsorry.
ELM: Do Boomers yell at Millennials…
ELM: For liking Star Trek? That seems silly, that’s a cross-generational fandom that we can all enjoy!
FK: That was how I felt about it.
ELM: And then you got yelled at?
FK: Well, it’s the idea that you should like people for reasons other than that you share, you know, cultural fandom experiences with them. She’s a socialist! I have a lot of comments about that. But we’re going to leave them be. [ELM laughs] It was a bad and dumb interaction and I’m gonna sign off Fansplaining now.
ELM: OK, I will talk to you soon Flourish!
FK: Goodbye Elizabeth.
FK & ELM: Thank you to all of our Patreon subscribers, and especially Amelia Harvey, Anne Jamison, Bluella, boxish, Bradlea Raga-Barone, Bryan Shields, Christine Hoxmeier, Christopher Dwyer, Clare Mulligan, Clare Muston, Cynsa Bonorris, Desiree Longoria, Fabrisse, Diana Williams, Dr. Mary C. Crowell, earlgreytea68, Felar, froggy, Georgie Carroll, Goodwin, heidi tandy, Helena, Javier Grillo-Marxuaach, Jay Bushman, Jennifer Brady, Jennifer Doherty, Jennifer Lackey, Jennifer McKernan—that’s a Jennifer streak—Josh Stenger, Jules Chatelain, Julianna, JungleJelly, Katherine Lynn, Kathleen Parham, Lucas Medeiros, Maria Temming, Megan C., Meghan McCusker, Menlo Steve, Michael Andersen, Molly Kernan, Sara, Secret Fandom Stories, sekrit, Stephanie Burt, StHoltzmann, Tablesaw Tablesawsen, Tara Stuart, veritasera, Willa, and in honor of One Direction and Captain James McGraw Flint-Hamilton. [ELM laughs]
Our intro music is “Awel,” by Stefsax. Our interstitial music is by Lee Rosevere. Both are used under a Creative Commons BY license. Check the show notes for more details.
The opinions expressed in this podcast are not our clients’ or our employers’ or anyone’s except our own.