Episode 44: Mary Sue
Elizabeth and Flourish discuss Elizabeth’s new article of the same name, about self-inserts and perspective characters in fanfiction and beyond. Topics covered include the history of the term “Mary Sue,” its use in broader popular culture, imagines and second person fic, role-playing, American Girl Dolls, and more. They also welcome fandom stats wizard Destination Toast back onto the podcast to break down her analysis of asexual and aromantic tags on the Archive of Our Own.
[00:00:00] Our intro music, as always, is “Awel” by Stefsax.
[00:02:29] The interstitial music is “I saw you on TV” by Jahzzar.
[00:05:13] Strangelock and DestinationToast work together frequently! But it was Strangelock’s 2013 stats that highlighted the frequency of asexual fics in Sherlock fandom. You can see all of Strangelock’s stats on the AO3.
[00:27:47] The interstitial music is still “I saw you on TV” by Jahzzar.
[00:29:07] You can find the Rec Center issue that Elizabeth’s talking about here.
[00:29:37] GRUNGE SCULLY FOR THE WIN 😍 (by Lisa Sterle, original tweet here).
[00:31:38] The source for this Paula Smith interview is “A conversation with Paula Smith,” by Cynthia W. Walker, from the Journal of Transformative Works and Cultures.
[00:34:10] OK, this Forbes article is against the idea that Rey is a Mary Sue but it also links to the dude who originally called Rey a Mary Sue, in multiple locations, with a YouTube video, and we don’t really want to link his YouTube video because why directly give him the views, so anyway there ya go. We aren’t vouching for the Forbes article beyond that it contains many relevant links, tbh.
[00:35:16] The concept of the “hypercompetent female sidekick,” while longstanding, was recently brought into discussion by the Vox article “Every semi-competent male hero has a more talented female sidekick. Why isn’t she the hero instead?” by Constance Grady and Javier Zarracina.
[00:39:26] “Come From Away” is genuinely charming and also Ivanka and Justin Trudeau saw it together apparently? ¯_(ツ)_/¯
[00:47:47] The article Elizabeth’s talking about is “On Tim Burton, Fanfiction, and Little Sisters,” by Ash Davis.
[00:53:56] Wattpad’s Imagines book.
[00:54:03] Kfan’s novel is called “No More Selfies” and it’s here and it’s faaaaabulous!
[00:56:14] You didn’t think Flourish wouldn’t embrace a chance to include “What Makes You Beautiful” here, did you?
[01:01:58] Flourish’s text adventure Muggle Studies can be played online!
[01:07:17] If you are curious about the lady horse, Rachel Alexandra, this is what she looks like winning a race! What a great lady horse.
Flourish Klink: Hi Elizabeth!
Elizabeth Minkel: Song and dance! Hi Flourish.
FK: And welcome to Fansplaining, the podcast by, for, and about fandom!
ELM: So this is Episode 44, and we’re calling it “Mary Sue.”
FK: OK. So maybe we should say first why we’re calling it “Mary Sue,” and then what a Mary Sue is, in case someone’s not familiar.
ELM: Yeah, that seems like a good plan.
FK: OK. So why we’re calling it “Mary Sue” is that you, Elizabeth, have written an article that is about Mary Sues in fanfiction and also a bunch of other things like imagines, second-person stories, the perspective of fanfic in general, the focalizer, the narrating character of fanfic…I don’t know all these things.
ELM: I’m gonna have you write all the social media copy for it.
FK: Aww, man.
ELM: I think that’s a good summary! The springboard is Mary Sues, and then that leads into the perspective characters of fanfiction and the position of the author, specifically the female author, specifically specifically the young female author, and the gaze. That’s G-A-Z-E.
FK: [laughing] Not G-A-Y-S.
ELM: I lifted that joke from, I was listening to Jill Soloway talking to Remnick on “The New Yorker Radio Hour” and she was like “The male gaze—I mean G-A-Z-E,” and he was like “I know!” And she was like “I don’t know, the listeners might not know!”
FK: Well I mean, we do talk about slash a lot on this podcast, so…y’know, that’s totally expected.
ELM: We’re gonna talk about that and we should also say, just so people know what’s coming up in the hour, we are talking to Destination Toast again!
FK: Yes! We’re going to talk to her because she did some stats after you sort of were like “Hey Toasty, you wanna do some stats?” She was like, “Sure!”
ELM: That’s literally what I was like.
FK: OK, so actually why don't we just talk to Toast now? Why don’t we just do that and then we can talk about what Mary Sues are and talk about the article that you wrote afterwards?
ELM: You wanna do all that after? You don’t wanna give Mary Sues up front?
FK: Let’s hold off, have some mystery in the world.
ELM: All right, get ready, get ready. Countdown to Mary Sues. Yeah. Let’s talk to Toast.
FK: We’re so pleased to be able to have another tiny Toast! A tiny Toast segment. [all laugh] How you doin’ Toast? Feelin’ tiny?
ELM: I don’t, what?! That is not what we called it before.
FK: I like calling it a tiny Toast segment, it makes me think of Cinnamon Toast Crunches or something.
Destination Toast: [through laughter] I was unprepared for that. [ELM laughs] Sorry. We’ll have to go again, irregardless of whether you call it that.
ELM: No no! I think this is a charming introduction.
FK: We’re going for it.
ELM: Toast! Welcome back.
DT: Thank you! It’s so great to be back.
ELM: It’s been awhile! A lot has happened since we last talked to you, in the previous timeline in which we all lived.
ELM: Sorry, I brought it right down.
DT: Alternate universe.
ELM: I brought it right down.
FK: You did bring it right down.
ELM: I’m sorry.
FK: Now it’s your job to bring it back up again, because the reason Toast is here is cause you asked her questions.
ELM: [laughs] That’s a lot of pressure thank you.
FK: Yes! Bring it up!
ELM: So here’s what happened. After our last episode, someone left me an ask in my inbox and they said, “Hi! Sounds like you read a lot of ace fic. Do you have any recs? Or like a Pinboard account?” And I was like “No, I have no recs, ironically, seeing as I have a newsletter called ‘The Rec Center.’” Literally I have no recs. I have 20 bookmarks total on AO3, which is abysmal. And I said a couple things, I talked a little bit about what I rec, but what I was talking about in the last episode was Sherlock, which I haven’t read in years because…
ELM: Because it’s not my space anymore…well, Toast is still in Sherlock!
DT: I still love Sherlock. But it’s a tumultuous experience.
ELM: It’s a thing. So I was saying I can’t even remember what the stories were let alone whether they were good or not, right. That was where I was reading ace fic. Then at the time I remember being, when I saw your stats on Sherlock—I think it was last year, but they were from a few years prior, that Sherlock had a disproportionate amount of the ace fic on AO3.
DT: That was Strangelock.
ELM: It wasn’t you? I’m sorry to misattribute the stats.
DT: That’s OK. We did several presentations together for various cons that included those stats, and so it was definitely confusing, but I just wanna make sure Strangelock gets the appropriate shoutout.
ELM: So this was in 2013 when the stats were and it was 40% asexual specifically, not asexuality spectrum or aromantic or any other specific tags.
DT: Right. Just to be clear, that’s 40% of the ace fic on AO3 was coming from the Sherlock fandom at that time.
ELM: Right, which is a lot, right?
DT: No, it totally is.
ELM: Cause Sherlock isn’t 40, was never 40% of AO3 fic, I’m assuming.
DT: No. It’s been a large fandom, but it was not that large.
ELM: What’s the MCU, proportionally, out of curiosity? Do you know?
DT: The proportion of the MCU to the AO3 overall?
ELM: Yeah. Like, the big fandoms. Do you have a sense of that or is that too hard to do?
DT: I think MCU might be on the order of 200,000, and AO3 might be on the order of 2 million, but I’m really making that up off the top of my head. So MCU could be a tenth of the archive, and it encompasses so many subfandoms.
ELM: But nothing’s bigger than that.
DT: I really wanna double-check that.
ELM: No, that makes sense, I put a statistician on the spot, “GIMME FACTS.” So I was curious to know, 2013, kind of a different space in the broader conversation, and presumably more people in more fandoms are writing more ace fic now. And so I said in a very offhand, casual way that I was putting out the Toast bat-signal.
DT: To which I said, “You mean the Toast STAT signal?”
ELM: Yeah, that’s right!
FK: The Toast stat signal! [wailing] Oh my God and now I’m dead! [all laugh] You killed me with your pun!
ELM: So, the three questions—and you were “Oh, OK, sure, when I have time”—and I was like “Here’s the questions”—and I'll tell you the questions—and then the best part is then, like, literally five minutes later you were like, “Here’s two long posts with many slides and all this,” and it was like “Oh I can’t, I can’t get over it. Incredible.” So thank you.
DT: You’re welcome, and I cannot emphasize strongly enough how hard I was avoiding some work right at that moment and how happy I was to get your request, and I say that in part because I’m always happy to get requests but I don’t promise to always deliver in five minutes.
ELM: That’s right!
FK: Sometimes you’re statscrastinating.
DT: [laughing] Yes!
ELM: So good. So here are my questions, I have three questions. First, I did a really cursory search and it looks like you pulled up a lot more than I did, maybe you’re using broader search terms. Where I pulled up like 65,000 asexual fics tagged “asexual character” and like 15000 tagged “aromantic,” you had larger numbers than that.
DT: That matches what I found, actually, for “asexual character” and “aromantic,” it’s just I also looked for the umbrella tags “asexuality” and “asexuality spectrum,” which contain “asexual character” but also other things.
ELM: Like the tag “asexuality” or the tag “demisexuality” or things like that?
DT: Yes, all of those are within “asexuality spectrum.”
ELM: OK, all right, then I did do it wrong. Good. I literally just clicked on that tag and then I looked at the number and so I was like, how did I get that so wrong. So.
DT: It’s just I know how to click through and find the most meta of meta tags that are applicable and I’m in the habit of doing that for my stats, so.
ELM: OK. So the first question I asked was, you know, obviously there’s a lot more fics tagged “asexual character” as opposed to “aromantic” and one of the points of discourse around Jughead and Riverdale is, and we discuss in the last episode, is if he’s a character who identifies as both, and you have people who are one or the other or both saying “this is right,” “this is wrong,” et cetera. So I wanted to know about that intersection and how many fics incorporated both.
Question two was how often would you tag it, simultaneously tag, like, “asexual character” and “asexual [character’s name],” for example “asexual Jughead Jones,” in addition, and this is also a questions I have about characters of color. You see tags for characters of color now, for newer fics, but it’s a lot harder to find with the older stuff, even if the story stars a character of color.
My last question is about when ace and/or aro characters are paired with people, if it reflects the broader trends slash biases of the Archive Of Our Own. I’ve noticed that it tends to still be male/male pairings, and I guess within that I didn’t ask this, but whether it was more likely that it’d be male characters or female characters or, or nonbinary, or…so those are my questions.
ELM: I just talked for a long time. I’m sorry.
DT: I’m gonna have to ask you to go back and remind me of one of those questions. But. [all laugh] The first question was sort of about how people use the tags “asexuality,” “demisexuality,” and “aromantic,” and things like that. You didn’t bring up “demisexuality” but I was looking at it as well because that’s one of the major sources of asexuality spectrum that isn’t specifically the “asexual” tag, so I wanted to look at all three of those terms and see where they overlapped or whether people were using them mostly individually or what. And I think “aromantic” is probably mostly a more recently-starting-to-appear tag, is my impression, though I don’t have the stats to actually support how it’s been trending over time, when it started showing up more.
But out of all the things that are tagged either “asexuality” or “aromantic” or “demisexuality,” 73% of them are only using the “asexual” tag or “asexuality” tag, and then 10% are “demisexual: and then “aromantic” actually gets used about equally with and without the “asexual” tag, so you get a lot of individually, “aromantic Natasha Romanoff,” or “asexual Natasha Romanoff” and “aromantic Natasha Romanoff” on the same fic, or even “asexual aromantic Natasha Romanoff.” So all of those are things that show up in the tagging, but the total amount of aromantic is somewhat on the order of 15% versus the 73% of ace stuff, just out of all of the things that get tagged with either of those.
Keeping in mind that the total amount of ace fic out of the Archive Of Our Own overall is less than 1% of things on Archive Of Our Own, so it’s not like it’s on 70% of fics on AO3. But it is rising a lot. It’s tripled, “asexuality spectrum” has tripled in use since 2012, and that includes all of the tags under that umbrella.
FK: That’s interesting because I think, that raises for me the question of things like, obviously there’s a lot of stories where you could read somebody as asexual or not, and maybe having it be tagged that way is the main thing that leads, you know. I bet some of these stories that are tagged “asexual” or “aromantic” are not about a character naming themselves as asexual, it’s just like, “Well, this is a story and this character is asexual in the story whether it’s said or not.” I think that’s an interesting question and I’m curious to know.
ELM: You’re saying you don’t think that’s a point in these stories…I mean this is just speaking, a blind hypothesis…
FK: Well, I don’t know! I'm curious if people only tag it as “asexual Natasha Romanoff” if the entire point of the story is that she’s asexual, or whether there’s just, “Well, this is a story, she is asexual in this story but maybe she doesn’t ever say the words ‘I’m asexual, by the way!’” Right? In which case the tag identifies it in a way that you can’t tag, I don’t know, a novel that has a character that you could read as asexual but never says it, right.
DT: I think that’s a really interesting hypothesis. I actually ended up having the opposite hypothesis, in part because of my experience in the Sherlock fandom reading a lot of, like…I mean I did not read a LOT of the asexual Sherlock fic that was out there, but I read a number of fics and a lot of them were, like, negotiations between how do you have either somebody who is sexual and somebody who's not or a poly relationship with complicated dynamics and one of the characters is asexual or something. And it seemed like, mostly in those cases, it was getting tagged because it was an actual plot point, and if you’re just reading a character as possibly ace then that maybe just doesn’t come up and you maybe just don’t tag anything in the story.
DT: But that’s also just my own experience and I don’t know if that’s common across AO3 or just—
ELM: That’s what I've encountered, but also in Sherlock, so we’re a very biased…but I also would say the one thing that I said to the person who left me the ask was like, I almost…I don’t only rec non-explicit fic, but I don’t read explicit fic and if there are explicit elements in a longer story I skip over them. So a lot of the stories I do recommend have…many of them are romantic, or alloromantic, but a lot of them you could easily read the characters as ace, because no one talks about it because…
ELM: There’s no culminating sex scenes, right? So it’s like, you know, there’s thousands and thousands and thousands of stories on AO3 like that. But whether, it’s a question of whether you’re looking for explicit representation or whether you’re looking for, I don’t know, an experience, I would say. A reading experience.
FK: I think that that was really what interested me about the question was thinking about does the paratext, like, of the tags…
ELM: Fancy, Jesus Christ.
FK: I know, so fancy! Gérard Genette, ooh! He even has a French name, he’s so fancy, right? But you know, that was a question for me especially when we were talking about how many characters are like…it’s never made explicit, their identity. Or you could do the same thing with when you have an actor, like in Teen Wolf, right? You have a Latino actor but he’s, if it’s never mentioned that his character is Latino, then…you know. Is that representation?
ELM: It’s complicated.
DT: I did also, reflecting on this somewhat and reflecting on one of your other questions Elizabeth, I looked at the relationship breakdown amongst the asexuality and aromantic tags, and then compared those to AO3 overall, and indeed the breakdowns are very similar of slash being the most—male/male slash being the most prevalent group in all of those tags, and then het and gen being sort of next most popular, and so on.
And so the only interesting differences that I saw that looked like they’re probably significant, asexuality was more likely to be dudeslash and aromantic was more likely to be gen, and both of them had more multi and other than just AO3 overall, though I wonder how much that’s like—if these tags are getting a lot more popular more recently maybe just multi and other are getting used more recently. And so maybe that’s part of why that’s happening. I didn’t really go back and look at how much of that has just to do with the timing of the tags getting used versus older stuff on AO3 probably didn’t use multi and other as much.
Now, Elizabeth, you had another question at least and I've forgotten what it is.
ELM: Restate my third question.
DT: It was number two, question number two.
ELM: Number two. The frequency with which people would tag just separately, like a solo tag, “asexual character,” but also an additional tag of “asexual” and then the specific character we’re talking about, in this case the example I gave was “asexual Jughead Jones.” I think it’s actually “asexual aromantic Jughead Jones” is the tag people are using.
DT: Right. Yes.
ELM: And as I said, that question, I also am curious about this in terms of…maybe not necessarily tagging characters of color? But what about racebending? What about black Hermione, for example? Are people tagging a PoC Harry, a PoC Hermione as a separate tag as, you know, to signal out that this is the way that this character is being read and written.
ELM: As opposed to, like, “Ahoy! There’s this X identity group, is within this story!” Saying “No, if you’re after Jughead interpreted in this way or presented in this way.” So, that’s my question.
DT: [laughs] That’s an excellent question, and I did some looking around to see sort of which characters were most tagged as asexual, like, as in “asexual Sherlock” or “asexual Jughead Jones” and so on, and also looked at how much those characters co-occurred with just “asexuality” tags in general. Distribution’s relatively similar, so I think there are fewer…there are more cases of “Sherlock” and “asexuality” occurring together than there are of “asexual Sherlock,” as a tag occurring together. The proportions between different characters varied a little bit. Tagging habits are a little bit different across the fandoms, but it wasn’t actually drastically different. I didn’t see any big changes.
FK: To me that’s really interesting, because it seems like it sort of…one thing about the Archive Of Our Own is that the tagging system is pretty shipping-focused, largely, I mean, because those are the things you’re forced to do. Like, you’re not forced to, but you’re prompted to do. But, it seems like this is another example of the kind of thing that fanfiction readers would probably be particularly interested in. I’m not just reading for an asexual character, I want to read asexual Jughead. If you’re writing asexual Betty, that might be fine, but it might not really be the thing that I’m longing to read. So just “asexual character” and then the names of all the characters is not gonna be that useful. I think that’s really interesting, cause same with having “black Hermione” tagged as opposed to just “character of color,” and then “Hermione,” “Ron,” “Harry.” I don’t know. Maybe I don’t care if Ron is…you know! I want Hermione!
DT: Totally. And I, now I’m feeling inspired to at some point in the future, I’ll have to look at characters of color more. Which have stymied me a little bit in the past in terms of looking at the tagging. But some of the same methodology may apply there. But anyway. Sorry. Sidetracked with new stats ideas! [all laugh]
ELM: Yeah! If you do that, I’ll take a picture of Orlando, and it’ll be stats for cats! Cats for stats. Cats for stats.
FK: Cats for stats!!!!
ELM: Cats for stats.
DT: I was just gonna say a couple things. One, that yes, I think there are a lot of people reading specifically to find a certain experience, a certain character, and also for that matter just the tags are not always reflective of the ratio of things in the stories, so somebody earlier today—I am so sorry I forget their handle—was talking to me on Twitter about how sometimes their experience is, they read something tagged “asexuality” or “asexual character” and it’s just, like, 30 chapters with one brief mention of someone who’s ace. So I totally think that that can be a frustrating experience for people looking for ace and aro representation as well as looking for rarepairs or femslash or other things that often get backgrounded. So just a general reminder that the stuff we’re talking about here is just tagging behavior, and I didn’t actually go through and hand-classify these fics, sorry.
ELM: Before you go to your next point, can I ask a question about this? Flourish, you know people involved with the AO3 too. This has been, particularly for femslash this has been a long, widely-complained about and widely-acknowledged problem, right? People have often suggested levels of tags, so you can have primary tags saying “This is a story that centers around femslash.” Do you know if anyone’s ever been interested in implementing this?
FK: People have definitely been interested in implementing this. However the AO3 is a hot mess of an open source programming, like…let’s-see-what-we-can-do thing. I can tell you that for sure.
ELM: So you’re saying it’s a technical limitation and not an ideological block?
FK: I would say it’s a combination of technical and volunteer hours and, like, organizational limitation, and it’s definitely not an ideological block.
ELM: OK, double-checking, double-checking, I don’t know.
FK: [laughing] Definitely not. I’m pretty sure that almost nothing the AO3 does or doesn’t do has to do with ideological blocks, that it’s mostly volunteer and technical.
DT: This has been my experience as well, of reporting bugs and making feature requests and stuff and getting very nice answers of the “there’s a priority queue” kind of thing.
ELM: Yeah. Good to know. So. Maybe someday?
DT: Yeah, totally. But yeah, the other thing I was…what was I gonna say. Something else about the asexual character, the “asexual [name]” tag. I think people actually do tag quite a bit “asexual” or “aromantic” and then specific character, and I think that that can be especially helpful…in some fandoms like Riverdale or Sherlock, there’s one character that gets most often headcanoned as and written about as being ace or aro. And then in other fandoms, like MCU, there are several characters or a whole bunch that often get, you know, out of the ace tags that sort of…the ace and aro tags get split between those. So I think it can be particularly helpful to actually have “asexual [specific name]” or “asexual aromantic [specific name].”
ELM: Unless you are, what’s the word. Fandom agnostic? What would be the opposite of that. I mean, there’s definitely people who are up for reading any good femslash. Right? No matter where it is. So…
DT: Right. No no no, I didn’t mean…I’m sure there are a bunch of people who are excited to read ace and aro representation across fandom and across characters and stuff, but just as I suspect there are some people who are really looking for a particular character to be shipped or written about or whatever, there’s also people looking for a particular, you know, asexuality or aromantic…to apply to a particular character.
ELM: Sure, that makes total sense. We’re running out of time, which makes me sad because I’m so excited about these stats and I’m so glad you did them. But I’m wondering if…people should definitely go to, do you send people to DestinationToast or to Toastystats?
DT: It depends on if they want to see Sherlock and cats, in which case they should go to DestinationToast, or if they just want the stats, in which case Toastystats is the right blog.
ELM: All right, listener, you get your pick! So you can see these stats, you can see the full breakdown, but I’m wondering if before we go if you wanna just quickly give the top highlights, like what…where, if you’re looking for ace characters and you’re not attached to a specific ace character, where should you go?
DT: Right. One interesting thing is that original work features really highly on the list of fandoms that have a lot of ace works overall and ace femslash and so that’s, that’s one interesting place to look if you’re game for stories about just ace representation in general. But the top five fandoms with the highest percentage of fics using asexuality spectrum tags are Riverdale, Les Miz, Hamilton, Shadowhunters and Yuri!!! On Ice. and the top ones with the aromantic tag are Riverdale, Voltron: Legendary Defender, Phandom—the YouTube RPF rather—
ELM: Oh, PH.
DT: P-H-A-N-D-O-M, sorry. Dan and Phil. Les Miz, Haikyu!! and Hamilton. So we see a lot of overlap there but some different things, also, and the top characters are mostly corresponding to those fandoms, but interestingly…yeah. Newt Scamander also is high up on the most-proportionally-tagged-as-asexual-characters list, and then James Madison and John Laurens are also really highly up there for the Hamilton fandom, which…I would love to talk to somebody from the Hamilton fandom more about.
ELM: This is literally like…when I saw this I was like, you know what, I just…as listeners know I’m relatively new to Hamilton and I was trying to avoid it for like a thousand years, but this may inspire me to go read Hamilton fic because I think that James Madison gets totally—what’s the word, Flourish? We looked it up. The short shrift?
FK: No, he gets short shrift.
ELM: OK. Shrift is like, like the…OK, I understand. I’m having trouble with the English language.
FK: He gets short shrift in the Hamilton fandom.
ELM: He wrote the freakin’ Bill of Rights—
FK: [singing] Which I wrote!
ELM: —and then he’s like, [laughs] he’s over there like he’s some hype man for Thomas Jefferson! Like he’s not one of the most important Founding Fathers! So if you’re telling me, he needs to be the star of these stories and if he’s ace and he’s the star of the story I’m so there. I’m like, I might join the Hamilton fanfiction fandom—which would be the most extraordinary about-face, anyone who’s heard me speak about Hamilton prior to January.
FK: Well, we’re gonna see what this is like in our next episode. [all laugh]
ELM: JUST YOU WAIT.
FK: We’ll find out, guys, just what’s goin’ on with Elizabeth and the Hamilton fandom! Thank you for bringing us this joy, Toasty. Without your stats we might never have learned what her reaction to Hamilton fanfic would be.
DT: [laughing] You bet! And as somebody who has just recently started writing Hamilton fanfic, I’m all for sucking other people into the fandom.
ELM: Wait, you have? Are you writing ace James Madison?
DT: No. Sorry. I’m writing—
ELM: TIME TO START.
DT: I’m writing an AU in which Hamilton actually does go upstate at the end of “Take a Break” and Angelica helps write a bunch of things and everything changes.
ELM: Do you need me to upstatepick?
ELM: Because I’m from where that is. UPSTATEPICK. That's right.
ELM: [laughing] Upstatepick!
FK: All right guys, I think that we actually do have to go on that amazing upstatepick note. So, we’ll find out more about the drama of Hamilton fanfic next episode. Thank you so much for coming on, Toasty!
ELM: Thank you Toast, thank you for the stats!
DT: It was a delight!
FK: Toast is always a complete delight.
ELM: Yeah. 1000%.
FK: Oh, Toasty.
ELM: So after we talked to Toast, I talked to Gav, my newsletter partner, and we decided to do our ace and aro list for “The Rec Center” sooner rather than later. So if you are not a subscriber, you can go to—should I read the whole URL, I’m trying to remember what it is. It’s like tinyletter.com/elizabethandgav and then you click on the archive and it’s the most recent one. It’s #63. We can put a link in the show notes.
FK: We’ll put a link in the show notes. That’s the best plan.
ELM: We had a few in our submissions box that we had run and then we each included two of our own, so if you are interested in some recs that are not Sherlock, I put in Harry Potter ones cause I only put in Harry Potter recs. So. OK. So yeah, if you want some recs, click on that link! That I’m not going to say out loud completely again!
ELM: The URL of.
FK: I can confirm that the recs are delightful.
ELM: Great! I’m glad you think so.
FK: OK OK.
ELM: Also, we put in some art that was just for you.
FK: Oh my God, every time…I had seen the fanart before, but every time I see it it makes my heart sing. It’s of grunge Scully.
ELM: Yeah. It’s like a great Flourish aesthetic.
FK: It’s even better because Gillian Anderson was kind of a punk when she was a teenager and had a nose ring and stuff and so I really could envision that.
ELM: There seems to be a lot of 90s aesthetic fanart going on for Harry Potter right now which I’m really loving, especially since I bet some people drawing it were born in like 1999.
FK: I know, right? I love the 90s aesthetic being a thing because I just spent all of my time thinking about how, like, man. This is the first time something from my youth has become an in-vogue thing.
ELM: Look, I love 90s aesthetic.
FK: I do too!
ELM: Is that your…OH WOW, that’s a 90s aesthetic that no one else can see!
FK: On the back of my phone I have a three eyed smiley face tiny little sticker. It’s delightful.
ELM: It’s so good.
FK: OK. So, 90s aesthetic Scully, who is the best piece of fanart ever, aside, I think that now the countdown to Mary Sues is over. [ELM laughs] I am so excited about this, Mary Sues are like my favorite thing.
FK: I mean, this topic! I’m really interested in this whole topic broadly! Also I wrote a lot of, like, I don’t know. The last novel-length fic I wrote featured an original female protagonist.
ELM: But is she a Mary Sue?
FK: She’s kinda supposed to be playing with those tropes, yeah.
ELM: All right. Well, so, it’s kind of ironic that I’m the one that wrote this essay and not you.
FK: Ah ha ha. First though, OK. It is a little bit ironic, but before we go any further, we should explain what a Mary Sue is for those of our listeners who are not familiar.
ELM: Right. OK. So you can read the essay, which gives you some of the background, but we should just summarize it here. OK. So here’s how it happened in the backstory, cause I got the whole backstory. In the 70s, in Star Trek fandom, in a time of zines…
FK: Paper zines!
ELM: So people would, like, send in their stories, right?
ELM: And not every story could go in, cause there’s limited space and resources to make the zines. A woman named Paula Smith who was a fan writer noticed some trends. There were stories where, written by mostly women, young women, where original characters would show up in the Star Trek universe and they would be, like, kinda perfect? And you know, really talented, all the dudes would be in love with them, and they might die tragically and everyone would be very sad.
FK: So weepy.
ELM: Right. So, she banged out a very short parody of Lieutenant Mary Sue, the youngest officer in the fleet.
FK: Just the same age as Wesley Crusher by the way, thanks for taking notes, Next Generation!
ELM: So [laughing] the label “Mary Sue” was born for this kind of character and she says that people would write in and be like, “I’m just writing a story that I enjoy!” And she’d be like, “Yeah but we don’t enjoy it, and here are the reasons why this is not good fiction,” basically. “You can create an original character, but when all the other characters that we all already know start to act completely out of character or, you know, it seems like your star, the star of the show and nothing else matters around the other people, we don’t wanna read that,” right. So.
One thing I will say about the origin story of this is, I understand it was a different time, and if there is limited space—I wrote a ton of fanfiction when I was a very young person and no one read it because I didn’t give it to anyone.
ELM: No one should ever stop you from writing what you want. When there was limited space, people did get to decide what they wanted to include or not. That being said, it started a label that has spun completely out of control and is fueled by the monster of misogyny and it’s everything that’s wrong with fan—no, go ahead. [laughing]
FK: For instance this has gone from, OK, “Mary Sue” is a very defined thing, it’s the new lieutenant or the American exchange student at Hogwarts who is purely a self-insert and is also super idealized, all of that. But then you begin getting people accusing folks of writing—which has its own problems, right? But it’s actually grown past those problems even and now it’s like, now if you write a canon character and she seems to be too idealized to somebody, or too centered in the story, you can be accused of writing her as a Mary Sue. So you’ve made Hermione too special, she’s a Hermione Sue. Or a Ginny Sue, now. Right, in Harry Potter.
ELM: Right, which is absurd if you actually have read the books because Hermione is pretty fuckin’ special.
FK: Right? She’s pretty great. And then beyond that even past that, people who are genuinely 100% original characters or canon characters can get accused of being Mary Sues, as well. So Rey in Star Wars, a lot of people were like, “she’s such a Mary Sue!” She learns the Force instantly, she learns to become a pilot, she can fix anything…and that’s, I mean, you may or may not like the character but that seems very different than what the problem with Mary Sue was, right?
ELM: Right. And when it gets into the realm of that, when we’re talking about blockbuster movies or…any professional fiction, too, you go into these conversations of the way that male and female characters are written, right? So if you say…there’s one element of it where you can be like, the common response to saying Rey from Star Wars is a Mary Sue is “what about Luke?” But then the other part of it too is I think that you often find, and this is a noted thing, that female leads or the female sidekick—Hermione being a very good example—generally tend to be extremely competent in the face of the hapless male protagonist, who’s just like, very lucky and means well. Right? That’s Harry Potter.
FK: Yeah, but the protagonist nonetheless gets to save the world and get the glory.
ELM: Right. Then you have this double bind where you’re like “Wow, she’s too perfect!” And it’s like, “Wow, really? Because you wouldn’t allow her to be anything else also, you’d be like ‘Why is this dumb woman in the story being dumb.’”
FK: Right. But your essay, going beyond Mary Sues and being also about imagines and female protagonists and point of view characters, right?
ELM: Right. So I mean, the rough working theory, which I think is a little reductive, and so I hesitate to say this is exactly what’s happening, but I think that there’s definitely a link between women being directly shamed or observing people being shamed for writing stand-ins for themselves, idealized versions of themselves, when they’re very young and entering fandom, and women disengaging from female characters altogether. And I have to wonder—I do think that’s very reductive, to say it’s as simple as that.
But it is interesting to think that, to take Harry Potter for an example, it speaks to the further…the idea that there’s a certain kind of character that is a default perspective. So, and that in particular usually being a white man, right. So it’s a lot easier to inhabit that space, and it’s something that you’re trained by media to do, by media at large to do, obviously. But to add this layer on top of it, to the point where it’s shameful to try to engage with the perspective…I don’t know.
FK: No no, I hear you totally! Because if you’re going to engage with any perspective other than that, then you run the risk of being shamed for writing a Mary Sue. In fanfiction spaces, especially.
ELM: Right. So this is all interesting to me and that’s why I wrote about it. It doesn’t actually have any bearing on my experience, right? And one might argue that maybe inadvertently we are all affected by it, but this is not…I didn’t ever write an idealized version of myself and then get shamed, or anything like that, you know. But I definitely know people who have. I know you have a complicated relationship with the characters you write.
FK: Yeah, totally. Because mostly…I really do almost entirely write female protagonists, and in fanfiction a lot of times I’ve written stories that are engaging with the trope of the Mary Sue in different ways, right. So, at one time I told you that I didn’t ever sympathize with male characters, which was a total lie, by the way, but I definitely do generally write female characters, largely. You know?
ELM: Right. I’m still blown away by this, that it was all a lie.
FK: Well, it just wasn’t…I mean…
ELM: Well I think also, specifically what you said—and I know you disavowed this so I hate to bring it up again, but you specifically said that you couldn’t imagine, that it was important to you to have a character who also, gender- and sexuality-wise lined up with you. Was the way you phrased it. Which is more extreme than some sort of…
FK: And I think that what I really probably meant was that in terms of writing, I need that? More? Maybe? Or that I tend to write that more? The characters that I write tend to be, I mean, I’m bisexual so that doesn’t limit it, but they definitely tend to be people who are at least viewed by the world as being female, right? And they’re engaged with femininity. So context, I recently have been struggling with…maybe not struggling, that's not the right word, but trying to figure out my own gender identity, and…
ELM: Are we gonna tell them that you called me at one in the morning to talk about this?
FK: Oh my God, I totally called you at one in the morning to talk about this!
ELM: It seemed like a struggle, but that’s fine.
FK: Well, it was a little bit of a struggle but mostly because I was like, “I don’t think I’ve ever said this out loud to anybody before, I’ve only hinted at it, blah blah blah.”
ELM: The best part of it was I got back at one in the morning and you had gchatted me at like 1 p.m.
FK: [laughing] I had spent 12 hours freaking out about it!
ELM: It was like a novel!
ELM: “See, Elizabeth, the thing is, this is how I've been feeling, and I’ve been thinking about the thing you said a year ago and this and this and this,” and I was just like, “Oh my God, were you sitting here for 12 hours wondering while I was seeing ‘Come from Away,’ a charming musical about Canada that made me cry 50 times?!”
FK: And I was sitting here like, you know, stewing about my gender identity.
ELM: Oh my God. All right. Good. I’m glad that we had that chat in the middle of the night.
FK: OK. Point being though that, yes, I do generally write protagonists who either are female or who the world views as female or, more than that, protagonists…I don’t think what I write is generally very engaged with their self-perception of gender. The world’s perception of their gender, yes. Their self-perception of gender, no. So.
ELM: I mean, I don’t think that…we both read a lot of fanfiction, I wouldn’t say that the vast majority of fanfiction engages with that either.
FK: I agree totally. And I think that’s actually one of the things that I started thinking about more as we, like, after I said this, was that a lot of times slash fanfic, for instance, actually has almost no…maybe this isn’t true, but in a lot of the slash that I’ve read, other than someone might be homophobic in it, there’s not a lot of reference to the genders of the characters internally. Right?
ELM: Gender, not sexuality.
FK: Not sexuality.
ELM: And I think I would observe, and I wonder if other slash fans would feel the same way, over time, over the last 15 years, a decrease in the amount of engagement around sexuality within male/male stories. I think part of that reflects destig…I mean, if you were writing a slash story in 2001, you were writing in a different climate, I would say.
ELM: But it’s also sort of, when there are millions and millions of stories around and you’re just clicking from one Harry/Louis story to the next—to give you your example [FK laughs]—if you’re in that vast world where this is just a given fact, how often do characters struggle with that? And I think that I’ve seen people discuss this, there’s some blowback actually when you have characters struggling with it. Which is frustrating because not everyone just, you know, shows up at age 14 and is like “Here’s my labels and I’m good!” That’s not how the world works.
FK: Right. Right. And even, by the way, even those of us who felt like we knew our labels at age 14 are not always right! For the entirety of your life!
ELM: For sure. Exactly. And it's not necessarily a matter of “right,” too. People change and people’s self-perceptions change, people’s references change. So.
FK: Right. And I think that one thing that really came up with me when you started writing this, when we started talking about this, was how much writing characters can bring up some of those questions or issues or hide them. Right? So one thing that I realized was that I had been writing a lot of stories that were from the perspective of female characters, but actually the fact that I was doing that had nothing…I mean, I don’t think it had so much to do with my personal gender identity, right. It had to do more with a, my irritation at Mary Sue, because I’m like, perversely like “Well, fuck you, you say it’s a Mary Sue, I’m gonna write all the female characters! I don’t care!” You know?
ELM: You should see the body language going on right now.
FK: I’m really trying to channel, like, an angry Boston driver, and I’m doing it incredibly badly.
ELM: Yeah. I would have never guessed that was an imitation of a Bostonian so thank you. Thank you for that.
FK: It was a bad imitation! But right, anyway, it’s interesting because I think that’s also a possible reaction to the Mary Sue question, is the “fuck you I’m just gonna write women now.”
ELM: Sure. I think that’s relatively rare. I think there’s definitely people who do it.
ELM: I’d be curious to know. I’d love to hear from listeners, especially ones who only write women or predominantly write women. Obviously, on the flip side of all that, there’s the eternal complicated question of slash, women writing slash, that can get reductive and it’s easy for people to say “well, it’s this, obviously.” You know. And we could enumerate the thousand reasons people have come up with for why it appeals, or maybe it doesn’t even matter why it appeals. It was interesting for me to write this essay because literally everything in it is like nothing I have experience with, and I’m just kind of listening to the way people talk about things, so.
FK: The thing that really killed me was when you started researching imagines for this. For anybody who doesn’t know, imagines are these little statements, like “Imagine that you are Zayn of One Direction, formerly of One Direction’s cousin, and you go to a concert and Harry is there.”
ELM: That’s a really good example. That’s a really well crafted imagine.
FK: Yeah, right? Thank you!
ELM: That’s it! You’re usually, cousins seem to be very popular, right? So basically what they are, you’ll see a variety of them, they’re also very popular on Wattpad, they’re…depends on how you wanna define “fiction.” But there’s not really a narrative there. It’s more like a prompt.
FK: A thing to prompt you to have a daydream.
ELM: And some of them are very…I sent one to Flourish the other day [through laughter] I was like “This is the purest imagine.” It was really funny. And I was kinda like, “This is pure and silly and I’m never gonna get into imagines,” and I remember it was “Imagine you are Draco Malfoy’s friend and then you’re sorted into Hufflepuff.” That was it. And it was on a picture of Draco. And I was like, “That’s so pure, and also like, how…?” And then all of a sudden, I wrote you like a whole paragraph!
FK: I said “Do you like imagines now?” and you said “No, I still hate them,” and then you wrote me an entire paragraph about what it would be like to be Draco Malfoy’s Hufflepuff friend! [chortling]
ELM: WELL, what’s the backstory there? I imagine that you’d have to be relatively, you’d have to be upper class, and within this social standing prior to school, blah blah blah, and then like…what would happen during the…and yeah! Obviously I can understand how people get into them. The majority of them as far as I can tell are romantic, and so that also lends a different element to it I think. So it’s really interesting to look at this stuff and to think about the distance between the author and the point-of-view character in the fanfiction worlds that both you and I spend the most time in, and to think about the vast gulf between that and what is happening on Wattpad, not just with imagines, but with second-person fic…
FK: Oh, yeah!
ELM: I’ve been looking a lot at reader x. One of my favorites, I’ve been really into reading these ones that are reader x the various Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
ELM: [laughing] I cannot get over these so it was like, it was like, cannot stop clicking! But I've seen some, maybe it was even in these Ninja Turtle ones, where they’ll say, like…so basically, for context, they’re always in second-person, and there are as few identifying details as possible, which in a way kind of makes it feel like it’s flipping the script on the Mary Sue thing by saying “if you wanna be the self-insert here, the text doesn’t do any of that work for you.” And in fact I’ve seen them where they’re like, “You get home from school, you’re really tired, you pick up a copy of BLANK (insert your favorite book here),” right. They’re not even gonna tell you…this “you” character, this point-of-view character, doesn’t even have…it’s the most customizable, the most…I don’t know, it’s really complicated to think about from the perspective of narrative and from the perspective of reading.
FK: Did you ever have one of those books that was like a book about “you” that your parents sent away for? And customized it to you?
ELM: Wow, Flourish. Tell me about your childhood.
FK: No no no, I never had one of these. But people I knew did, and yeah, you would…your parents would fill out a form that said things all about you, or you could do it with them, whatever, right, and then you would get back a children’s book.
ELM: And they’d put you in the story.
FK: And the children’s book would have your name as the protagonist and all these details. It was exactly like one of these except about, I don’t know, bunnies going to school instead of being about [sighs] Harry Styles having sex with you.
ELM: Oh my God. [laughs] You know my parents, can you imagine them doing this?
FK: I don’t know! Maybe! I don’t know your life!
ELM: All right, well, my mom can weigh in on whether she thinks that’s a realistic imagine for her.
FK: Your mom is obviously really good at filling out forms, because she’s good at helping us at our taxes, so I bet she would fill out that form.
ELM: Yeah, thank you…yeah. But she also, I don’t know. Maybe if…I feel like a jerk because I’m like “That’s so narcissistic and ridiculous!” Right? But on the flip side—I keep saying “on the flip side,” there’s so much flipping going on here—that being said, I read some great pieces and referenced them in the essay about, say for example there was one, and I included it in “The Rec Center” a few months ago, I believe she was a black woman and she said she loved Lord of the Rings, who’s a bunch of white dudes. She was like, “Fuck it! I’m gonna write some black women into this story!” Right? And that was her way of getting into the story.
So it’s like, nothing against this company that was making personalized books for people, but it’s something that I’ve always been of two minds about. Or here’s a good example: American Girl dolls.
FK: Oh my God, I was just about to say that!
ELM: Were you?
FK: I totally was! Did you have an American Girl doll? Did you have an American Girl of Today that looked like you?
ELM: Flourish, I'm not sure if you’re aware that once I played Samantha in an American Girl doll fashion show.
FK: [gasps] I did not know that and you would be a great Samantha!
ELM: I'll send you the pictures, we’ll put them in the show notes.
FK: Was that your…?
ELM: Yes. So when I was 7 or 8 I was like “Can I please have one?” and my parents got me one for Christmas or my birthday or maybe it was both and I got Samantha obviously, but it was at the time when there was only…Addy hadn't been introduced yet and Felicity was only a half.
FK: Yeah! I was a Molly, by the way, in case you were curious.
ELM: Yeah you were definitely a Molly. I know a lot of Mollies. I mean no offense to any of you, but I know so many Mollies.
FK: I owned Samantha’s bed, though, because it was prettier.
ELM: It was a really good bed.
FK: I wanted that bed so much.
ELM: So I, yeah. I looked like Samantha, and of the choices, Felicity, Kirsten, Samantha and Molly, obviously I’m picking Samantha, right? Not just cause I look like her. And then I…have I told you this story?
FK: You have not, but you’re SUCH a Samantha now.
ELM: You know Samantha was discontinued, right?
FK: I KNOW.
ELM: Even though she's the original! It's horrifying to me. Anyway, so then for the next three years I saved...I got, you know, $5 for my birthday or whatever from my aunt and then I saved it all up to earn $84 plus $8 shipping and handling. I also collected nails, my parents collected a penny for every nail I dug up out of our yard…I think this is the most, like, Victorian task you gave a child. Walk through the yard and dig up nails for me? Incredible. But also, a penny a nail, great deal! Right? I must have made three, four dollars! [laughs] So I saved up that $92 to get Addy, right? Who, for anyone who doesn’t know, was a black doll from 1864 who escaped slavery and then went to live as a free girl in Philadelphia.
FK: And you can get the quilt and so forth that has—anyway, yeah.
ELM: I love that you just only care about the accessories. This is exactly like when you only wanna build the Sims house and I only care about the characters.
FK: I love all the accessories.
ELM: Yeah, you would. So anyway, you know, Addy arguably was the one with the experience farthest from mine! [laughing] On all levels! But I was very very engaged with both of them and both of their stories. Samantha also was not, like, I mean…my parents, knock on wood, didn't die in a tragic boating accident when they were on a picnic. So I remember when they introduced the American Girl of Today it was because we were doing these fashion shows, it was a fundraiser for the Children’s Museum where my mother worked, and I was playing Samantha and then the next year they had these dolls which were basically…they weren't customizable. They had like 30 dolls, right?
FK: Yeah. They've gotten a lot more customizable since. But the first time.
ELM: At this time, it was like “pick the one that looks the most like you.” Right? And I remember being even a little annoyed because there wasn’t one, there were ones with straight dark hair but they didn’t have enough hair textures, obviously. And I was like, “I don’t even want one of these! I’m mad about this!” Because there was something about the fundamental shift going on at American Girl between this idea of finding yourself in a historical text, finding yourself and something you can relate to in a situation that's utterly and completely 1000% removed from your own, and getting a doll that looks exactly like you.
And I don’t know if necessarily that's bad, but I think that it illustrates the sort of...I don't know. I have really, I’m really ambivalent about it. I love how I just went on a giant, giant American Girl doll rant.
FK: That’s OK, American Girl dolls are a legit fandom that people have, and I was deeply devoted to American Girl dolls as a child.
ELM: Me too! But only my two.
FK: I had Molly and I had an American Girl of Today, and I liked all of the stories.
ELM: But the ones Of Today were like “write your own story”!
FK: I know, but I liked all the other stories!
ELM: Oh, you’re saying you liked the historical ones.
FK: I liked all the historical stories broadly and I had different accessories for Molly that were from different eras and I didn’t see any problem with that. I wanted to mix and match them.
ELM: That is terrible.
FK: Don’t know what to say! But I think it is really interesting to think, I think that stepping back, I think that it’s a great point that there's a big difference between the Wattpad “you” where the you in question is…yeah, basically an empty vessel for you personally to identify with and to fill up with whatever you want, versus writing a character who is a fully-formed character who is maybe not exactly you. Or not exactly anyone. Versus I think the problem with a Mary Sue that people have is the idea that it somehow…it’s not just that it's self indulgent, it’s that when you write one, people are like, “Don’t you have a high opinion of yourself?” Right? [ELM laughs] No really! That’s the core problem.
ELM: That’s the way it feels misogynistic. Cause it’s like, “Sure, great, yeah, I’m glad you are so confident.” Right? Whereas if you are writing an imagine, is anyone gonna say you, blank person…is anyone gonna say “Oh, you think Harry Styles is gonna fall in love with YOU?”
FK: No! I mean, they might make fun of you on a different realm, they might be like “Oh isn’t that pathetic.”
ELM: It doesn’t give that space for them.
FK: “Pathetic that you would imagine that about Harry Styles, daydreaming about this.” But they’re not going to say, “Oh, you think you’re so good.”
ELM: I don’t think within that space anyone is saying that, because that’s the entire point of this thing.
FK: I meant outside of that space.
ELM: People definitely make fun of that. And then to take it a step further, then you get to the Wattpad Imagines book, which I talk about a little bit. Which you read some of, right?
FK: I did!
ELM: And also maybe puts me in mind of your story a little bit in the sense that the Wattpad Imagines book, which was tied into imagines as a practice, actually isn’t like imagines at all. All of the protagonists…so for context Wattpad put out an anthology of quote-unquote “imagines” last year. Our friend Kfan has the opening story and it’s literally one of the best things I read last year, you should check that out.
FK: It’s really good. And he’s writing, he has a longer novel-length thing that he’s working on right now!
ELM: Yeah you should check this out! If you’re interested in Kfan's work, this was about front-facing cameras and selfies are outlawed and Kim Kardashian and other female selfie celebrities…she’s not a selfie celebrity. But celebrities known for selfies are freedom fighters leading an underground resistance.
FK: Which, by the way, is totally relevant to this conversation!
ELM: About selfies.
FK: About, yeah, the depiction of yourself and whether you have confidence in yourself or…
ELM: Absolutely! So one thing I found really interesting about Kfan’s story, not to give it away, is there’s no reference to the gender of the protagonist until about halfway through the story. And I was legit reading it thinking, I don’t know, I don’t know who this person is. I know they don’t have a lot of self confidence, and actually it turned out to be relevant because the protagonist, not to give too much away, but used to record YouTube videos about fixing electronics and got all these men in her comments who were like “You dumb woman, you don’t know what you’re doing,” right. So it was kind of like the patriarchy crushed her spirit.
But most of the other ones I’ve read foregrounded who “you” was in the story. It’s all second-person, pretty quickly. And you were often a woman who didn’t think you were super attractive, but actually you’re kinda nice lookin’, and things weren’t really goin’ great for you…this is an overgeneralization and probably I shouldn’t lump it all into that. But I read a number of stories that had this pattern.
FK: Well they tended to be more like, almost like the result that you would fill in from an imagine, right?
ELM: I don’t know! These are very, people with relatively low self esteem. “I’m nothing and now I meet…” Anna Todd wrote one and it was, I can’t remember who the celebrity, it was someone I had never heard of cause I’m elderly, apparently, I don’t know. You’re not feelin’ great about yourself, you’re OK, and then she took a painting class and some celebrity who apparently is popular…I literally sound like a grandfather right now.
FK: You do.
ELM: “Some whippersnapper on the Instagrams.” Look, it’s a very gentle romance, right, where he sees you, no one else sees you, he does, that kind of thing.
FK: Yeah yeah yeah. It’s literally the One Direction song “What Makes You Beautiful” in fanfiction form.
ELM: It’s his patriarchal gaze! Like, male gaze.
FK: Yeah, totally!
ELM: So I don’t think that, like…I don’t know if necessarily it’s true that you filling in the blanks of an imagine is necessarily you being like “I suck.” Because look at Mary Sues!
FK: Totally, totally.
ELM: What if you’re filling in the, oh, you’re Harry Styles’ cousin, and you show up and you’re like “Yeah! I’m beautiful and I’m confident!” This is your fantasy. You’re imagining. And Harry takes one look at me and he’s like, “Shit, you’re Zayn’s cousin? Do you wanna get out of here?” Why does it have to be like “Oh, I’m such a sad sack,” and then Harry’s like “Come on, I see you!” Obviously either of those work for people, right? But it’s just…it’s just, I don’t know. It’s interesting to think about.
FK: I think the former one gets beaten out of us a little bit. The idea that that’s even an acceptable fantasy to have. We have to couch that fantasy in the idea that we don’t know we’re beautiful, right.
ELM: I’m wondering how prevalent that is, though. I think that there’s definitely a shift in social media, I think, in particular…who was talking about this recently? Was this something that you heard too? Someone was talking about how 15 years ago, 20 years ago, there was an idea of…no, I think this was a conversation I was having with someone privately [laughs] but he was saying that 15 years ago, one generation ago, it was more important to kind of find who your icon was and try to imitate them. Or find your brand. Right? And now, it’s flipped. And so you are the center of that universe. You’re not reaching out to that icon. Maybe this kind of language gets used in the way people are talking about social media in Hollywood, I don’t know.
FK: Yeah, I think that’s…I think that’s true. That you are your own brand, you are yourself, first and foremost, and that’s centered.
ELM: And an amalgamation of brands, too. You’re not…as opposed to, “I’m gonna be just like,” I don’t know. Who’s a famous person from 20 years ago? Luke Perry! Because… [laughs]
FK: Please don’t be like Luke Perry.
ELM: I know. He’s back. I know he’s back. I don't know, who’s a woman people liked?
FK: Winona Ryder?
ELM: Sarah Michelle Gellar. OK. Winona Ryder. “I’m gonna be just like Winona Ryder, she does this and this and this, I’m gonna be just like her.” Right? And now…and now that’s completely inverted. And that’s interesting, and I think that both of those constructions have their sets of problems, as well as their benefits.
FK: For sure.
ELM: It’s just interesting that it seems like a total 180.
FK: Yeah. And I think that the way that that comes out in fiction is really interesting too, and the way that that collides with…the sort of, this is maybe also related to different eras of internet culture and what’s acceptable at different times. I don’t think the Mary Sue construction, I’m just gonna stick with using it, I don’t think that’s widely acceptable anywhere, really, I think you’re very likely to get kinda mocked for it, anywhere you are. Right? And yet…
ELM: WHY THOUGH. That’s the question. WHY! Who cares?! If you’re not harming anyone, unless your Mary Sue’s a racist, like, I don’t…but then, who gives a fuck?! Then don’t like, don’t read! If you’re like…if the person’s like “I’m very young and I’m just learning how to write and I’m looking for constructive criticism,” you can say “Hey, OK, you really want constructive feedback, there’s this thing called a Mary Sue and part of the reason people don’t like it is it kind of warps the story,” blah blah blah. But if someone’s just sitting there being like “I love my original character,” you know, “and this is the best version of me,” and you’re like “You are the literal worst and I can’t imagine how Kirk, Spock, Bones, and Sulu would ever fall in love with you,” is that all the men? Cause literally all the men.
ELM: I feel like I haven’t gotten enough insight into your perspective as a fanfiction writer.
FK: Okay. I don’t know. I’m just…this whole issue is really sticky, I think, because there’s a lot of questions of, I am a fan of something, do I want to be in that world, whatever that world is? Yeah, I guess so, right? I mean, who didn’t have the fantasy that a Hogwarts owl would come for them, right?
ELM: OK wait wait wait, pause. But this means things for different people, and also I didn’t have that fantasy. I really love to spend time in the Harry Potter world. And I relate very strongly to certain characters that I write, but I don’t feel like I’m, like, standin’ next to them in the action, right? If anything, it’s important to me that there is this simultaneous authorial distance as well as closeness. Simultaneous intimacy and distance. And that’s something that’s actually kind of a hard thing. I think a lot of people take for granted how hard it is and I think a lot of fanfiction writers are very talented at this, and maybe don’t sell themselves…long…sell themselves short…I don’t know what the difference is there. Right? You know what I mean though?
FK: I do know what you mean, and I feel that too. I guess I think that there’s two different things that both happen. One of them is enjoying the thing and enjoying that distance, and also being with the characters, and there’s also the desire to be in the story. And I, for some fandoms, I have the desire to be in the story, and for some I don’t. Some of that has changed. When I was very young I really wanted to be in the story of The X-files, but now when I read X-files fanfic or get involved in X-files stories, I don’t wanna be in that world. I very much want to write about that world, and read fanfic in that world, and read about characters in that world, but I don’t wanna be in it anymore. Whereas I still kind of, I still kind of want to be…I kinda wanna be at Hogwarts! Right? I wrote a video game, it’s not a video game, a text adventure about being—called “Muggle Studies.” Where you play the first ever Muggle Muggle Studies teacher at Hogwarts.
ELM: Right, that’s total self-insert! That’s incredible.
FK: Completely! And that was the point of it, right. The idea was, let’s write about this, and use this as a way to look at what it means to be a Muggle and also to be, take a total self-insert trope and see what that would be like. So I mean I guess I’m really engaged with that trope and that question, of what does it look like to really write a self-insert. What does it look like to write a character who could be a self-insert but is in fact their own character? Right. So in Muggle Studies the character you’re playing is lesbian and her partner—or ex-girlfriend really, at the point that you’re playing—was a witch, is a witch, and she’s dealing with the fact that now she knows that witches are real and exist and her ex-girlfriend had been lying to her for their entire relationship…but also, she’s stranded at Hogwarts and she doesn’t have magic, but everybody is magically gone, so she has to figure out how to get them back without magic.
ELM: But she’s the, as you play it, is that you?
ELM: Right. So that’s interesting! So if you…if that character isn’t you…I mean, that’s a question too, about the reader and the self-insert, the reader who is not the author.
FK: Yeah! So actually what's funny is in the text adventure format, you type things into the computer screen and it responds. So for instance I type in “look at Dumbledore’s desk,” and the response is, “you walk over to Dumbledore's desk. It’s covered in a bunch of papers, some things you don’t understand, there’s an inkwell and a pen.” And then I might type in, as a way to interact with that, “get pen.” It says, “It’s a quill pen. Looks like it came from a phoenix or something. Definitely not an eagle or any normal bird.” You know, whatever, this isn’t really what it says in it. And then it might say either, “you carry the pen with you, thinking that you might use it later,” or “you don’t think you’re ever going to use this, so you don’t take it with you.” Then, OK. Depending on whether you have it in your inventory or not. So it’s actually a second-person kind of a thing, because it’s saying “you do X, you do Y,” because you’re interacting with a parser in this way. So. Actually now that I think about it, basically all of the fanfiction I’ve written for the past 10 years has been engaged with the question of self-inserts. [laughing]
ELM: You are so into this.
FK: This is something I need to examine about myself.
ELM: So think about this then: I’m writing a, if I write a third person close narration story, say a Harry Potter story, and X reader Joe is—I have no idea why this dude is coming to read our fic but that’s fine—and Joe’s reading it, and the characters, Remus and Sirius or whatever, they have some…not many, there’s not a lot of commonalities between their life. But he’s reading them and then he’s reading your story…this is a ridiculous hypothetical I’m coming up with right now. And your story, your second-person is very specific, and the perspective is, “Here’s my backstory. I’m this Muggle, blah blah blah. And here’s my ex girlfriend and here are all the feelings that I had.” And I’m wondering if there’s a difference, if it depends on who Joe is and what kind of person he is, if one kind of perspective or another makes it easier for him to get into…I personally have never read any second-person where I was just like, “I’m there. I’m in your perspective. I feel you.” You know? I’m always just like, “It just doesn’t do it for me.”
FK: Yeah, there’s also a question of convention, because in text adventures it is very common…
ELM: In this scenario, this is now a narrative fic. I can’t compare apples and…
FK: But there’s also different conventions for second-person fanfics, right?
ELM: Sure, but I’ve read plenty, and…it’s just not a relationship that I wanna have with the characters.
FK: Yeah, that’s interesting. Maybe it’s personal preference also.
ELM: Yeah, I don’t know. I just…I love fiction, and I love [laughs] I love third person close narration like…I don’t know! I just feel like I love written narrative fiction and I feel like any other vantage points in storytelling, you know, I love it more than TV and I love it more than film…
FK: So here’s a question, how do you feel about roleplaying?
ELM: That’s not something I wanna do.
FK: This is totally it! I really like roleplaying, and that’s something that I really enjoy, sometimes playing characters who are close to me and sometimes playing characters that are very different than me. It was easier when I was younger to play characters that were myself, or an idealized version of myself, and it’s easier now to have a broader range. But also, I’m more interested in playing different versions of myself as a way of finding out about me.
ELM: That’s interesting. I mean, it’s not to say that…there’s definitely situations in my life where I feel like it is sometimes like roleplaying, but that’s different from sitting down. You know. Because I can’t say, like, “Oh, I outright reject that.” When I work at the racetrack, I’m literally a different person. Because otherwise life’s too short. [FK laughs] I can’t.
I think I told you about that one time that I joked that a man…did I tell you about that guy who said he wanted to bet on the lady horse? It was the Preakness that Rachel Alexandra, which is a female horse, and for context I work at a racetrack and it’s rare that there’s mixed gender races. And all the big races are almost always male horses. But she was a super good lady and there’s no rules against that so they ran her, and she was in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness and the Belmont, and she was a favorite to win the big race, and this guy came up and you know, you can imagine the men at the racetrack, and he was just like, “Yeah, yeah, I’ll take out $50 on the lady horse!” Then I was like, “Oh, so you’re a feminist?” And he was like, “NO!” And so offended!!
FK: Oh my God.
ELM: I’m like…normally I would not bother cause I know that’s gonna be the reaction, they’re gonna be like “What the fuck are you TALKIN about?!” so I know it’s not worth my time. Very occasionally, if they’re being really stupid, I’ll make sarcastic jokes like that. But it’s literally…it’s much more, everything’s gonna go smoother with them if I’m just like “You got it!” I’m shakin’ my shoulders right now. So anyway, that’s an aside about my experiences at the racetrack. But yeah, so it’s just like, it’s a question of putting on different masks and different hats. I think a lot of people do that, that’s what code-switching is. But that being said, that’s not like, an active situation where I sit down…I mean at this point at the racetrack it does feel like an extended…
ELM: Play of some kind, that we’re all involved in. But you don’t really think about that actively. So. That’s fine. This is my fourteenth year at the racetrack in case you’re curious!
FK: So what this is bringing up to me actually, I think we’re almost out of time but this is opening up a new realm of discussion, so…
ELM: Oh God! A new realm?!
FK: I think we should try and talk to some people who do roleplay very seriously and I know we’re planning on talking to some cosplayers soon, at least one cosplayer soon, so maybe we should be thinking in those terms as well. You know?
ELM: Sure, I’m curious. There’s another: cosplay has no appeal to me.
FK: Interesting. Well, maybe this will continue next time!
ELM: None of this is to say that anything against anyone who enjoys roleplaying and cosplay! Obviously.
FK: You can come be friends with me, I love roleplaying and I mostly am just too lazy to cosplay, so.
ELM: OK. There you go. Yeah. But I mean…I don’t wanna feel like, “OH GROSS,” that’s not what I’m saying at all. It’s just, it’s not for me. “WHO WOULD EVER DO THAT,” no. Yeah, exactly. She’s raising her hand. Imagine.
FK: Imagine. OK. So. [ELM laughs] This conversation could go on literally forever actually.
ELM: Yeah no joke. I feel like it’s gone all over the place.
FK: But I think it’s been good!
ELM: But it’s all around a theme.
FK: We’ve sorta been circling this topic and I think we’ll keep circling it.
ELM: We’re both making circles with our hands.
FK: I think we’ll keep circling it probably for the length of time that we podcast. Because it’s interesting.
ELM: And I…one thing I would love to know if any readers wanted to write in or call in, our number…
FK: Our number is 11-401-526-3267, that’s 1-401-526-FANS.
ELM: So you can call and leave us a voicemail, or write in, I’m curious to know people’s perspectives, especially on the piece once you read it. And one quick note, if you happen to be an incredibly loyal listener [laughing] who listens to the podcast, I don’t know why I’m laughing because this would be incredibly touching if you do this, but you listen to it right when it comes out, for patrons on Tuesdays, the piece is not gonna be out till Wednesday, unfortunately. And I wish I could have gotten it up sooner for you guys. So if you’re listening to this after Wednesday, the day the episode comes out for everyone, the piece is at medium.com/fansplaining. But I would love to know people’s perspectives about either their experiences maybe as a young fan writing a Mary Sue, or the way they connect their own personal identity to the characters that they write, especially if they feel like the characters align or deliberately don’t align with their personal experiences and perspectives.
ELM: So those are some questions, some eternal questions.
FK: Yeah! Write in! Tell us! Give us your opinions! And also, we have a survey that we’re currently running, we don’t need to talk about it too much but if you go to fansplaining.com or to our Twitter or wherever, you’ll find links to it in the show notes, too. And we’ll be talking about that in a couple of episodes. So like in a month.
ELM: Yeah. I think it’ll still be open by the time the next episode comes out, so we can go into it a little bit and maybe if we get questions, we can clear things up. As happened with our last survey, we got lots of questions as we went along, so.
FK: All right!
ELM: Yeah, OK. Why don’t you go off and write some more of your self-indulgent fanfiction?
FK: I will go do that while also taking a bubble bath and eating a Dove chocolate bar or whatever else we ladies are supposed to do to indulge ourselves.
ELM: Whereas I will be writing the most literary important serious fanfiction with only men in it. [FK laughs] I, that’s kind of, I like how I set it up even though I still said it was fanfiction. No, I’ll be writing a novel.
ELM: It’s about a middle aged professor. He’s feeling kind of like, he’s, you know, not really connecting with his wife. But he does have this young grad student.
FK: [laughing] All right, Philip Roth, have a good day.
ELM: I was subtweeting 100,000 writers.
FK: John Updike! I can call you John Updike instead, do you prefer that? I like him better.
ELM: I was thinking of more contemporary people, but yeah, I would be happy to throw them under the bus as well.
FK: All right.
ELM: All right.
FK: Talk to you later Elizabeth.
ELM: K, bye Flourish.
[Outro music, thank-yous, disclaimer, and creative commons disclosures]