Rewriting TV: Fanfiction as Fair Use – Part II

Previous: Part I – Introduction

II.  The Public Interest: Fans and Fan Fiction

Between 1869 and 1930, some 200 writers imitated, revised or parodied Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Some sent Carroll’s plucky protagonist into other imaginary lands; others sent different protagonists to encounter the Mad Hatter or the Cheshire Cat. Some promoted conservative agendas, others advocated feminism or socialism. Among Carroll’s imitators were literary figures such as Christina Rosetti, Frances Hodgsen Burnett and E. Nesbit. Literary critic Carloyn Sigler argues that Alice parodies contributed considerably to Carroll’s subsequent reputation.1

The ability to transform personal reaction into social interaction, spectacular culture into participatory culture, is one of the central characteristics of fandom. One becomes a fan not by being a regular viewer of a particular program but by translating that viewing into some sort of cultural activity, by sharing feelings and thoughts about the program content with friends, by joining a community of fans who share common interests. For fans, consumption sparks production, reading generates writing, until the terms seem logically inseparable.2

A. The Way Fans “Read”

Human creativity and storytelling has historically borrowed from what came before to tell stories within a common discourse. The common discourse of today’s society, for better or worse, is the media. Media culture is our culture.3 The advent of media culture has brought to the forefront the controversial figure—the media fan. Most of Western society watches television. Most people have a favorite show. However, only a relative few are willing to classify themselves as a fan. This is due, in large part, to media mischaracterization of the very people who keep money in the conglomerates pockets.

The quintessential fans, “Trekkies” have been maligned by more mainstream culture, sidelined, marginalized, made out to be figures of ridicule. However, a deeper understanding of what it means to be a fan and what fan culture is about is required before one can appreciate the depth and intelligence and productivity this subset of our culture is capable of. News media has characterized fans as “kooks” and explained the “Trekkie phenomenon” (and by extension, other fandoms) in terms of “repetition compulsion, infantile regression, commodity fetishism, nostalgic complacency and future shock.”4 However, recent sociological studies of fans have shown a community of great depth, intelligence, creativity, productivity and compassion.5

A great deal of the academic disdain for fans comes from an aesthetic distaste for those who get to close to the texts that they read.6 “Rejecting aesthetic distance, fans passionately embrace favored texts and attempt to integrate media representations within their own social experience.”7 Previous literature about fans tends to stress the discontinuity of modern society and posit that fandom is a refuge for the maladjusted and makes up for what modern culture lacks. However, Joli Jenson proposes that the real reason fans are looked down on is because of cultural snobbery and valuation.8 Obsession is obsession, no matter what it is directed at. But the James Joyce scholar who spends hours analyzing one paragraph of Ulysses is considered a serious, passionate scholar, while the fan who spends hours analyzing the implications of the arc of a storyline on a television show is a maladjusted loner.9 In addition, fans’ perceived lack of control subjects them to derision in a society that values gentility over rowdiness and reason over emotion.10

Jenson argues that a fanzine to a fan is equivalent to a heavily annotated bibliography to a Joyce aficionado.11 People who look down on fans are really looking down on their choice of material rather than the fact that they “love” something. Everyone has deep, personal interests that they devote themselves, their time and their money to. The construct that sees fandom as a type of pathology is seen as offensive and pejorative when applied to “us.”12 Those who dismiss fandom as immature fetishism are missing the point. “What it means to be a fan should be explored in relation to the larger question of what it means to desire, cherish, seek, long, admire, envy, celebrate, protect, ally with others.”13

Unlike the general media image of fans as mindless consumers, most fans are actually active participants with the texts they choose to engage. The pleasure of reading comes from the semiotic meanings we make as we read. Different texts can be read many different ways—Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is one example. Literary theorists and critics have read the novel from a multitude of semiotic perspectives—depending on their academic bent, critics have read the novel as an exploration into the darkness of man’s soul, a denouncement of imperialism, a call for racial equality, or a rape of the feminine represented by the river that flows through the Congo.14 That Conrad had all of these interpretations in mind when he penned the novel is unlikely. Instead, each reader brings his or her own way of making meaning to the text and it gains its significance in the minds of its readers.

In the same way, “all popular audiences engage in varying degrees of semiotic productivity, producing meanings and pleasures that pertain to their social situation out of the products of the culture industries.”15 Fans read the texts of their favorite television shows and movies in the same way that English professors read novels. They create their own “canon” of shows, often rejecting later versions or rewrites.16 Sometimes they even reject a whole season as outside of canon—as some X-Files fans did with Season 8 in which Agent Mulder was missing.17 Fans use the same criteria to judge popular culture that is used to judge “high” culture: complexity, subtlety, consistency of plot and characterization, depth of exploration and social relevancy.18

Taking these cultural products, fans then rework them to emphasize the meanings they make from them. They take the normal reactions of most audience members—the asking “what if”—and they write it down. Because the cultural products of popular culture are industrially produced, they actually lend themselves far more to reworking than the completed art product of the official culture—the texts are more open to interpretation.19 For instance, a story about the continuing adventures of Kirk and Spock is far easier to write because of the open nature of the franchise, than a story about the future adventures of Oliver and the Artful Dodger after Oliver has been permanently removed from the streets.

  1. The Way Fans Write

i. Fan Fiction in General

Thus, fandom is a mode of reception: conscious selection to watch (“read”) a show (text) faithfully from week to week; rereading through reruns, video archiving, or buying the DVDs; absorbing the text and then translating it into other types of cultural and social activity—making meaning from it, not just transient comprehension. Minimally, fans feel the need to talk about it with other fans (go to conventions, join fan clubs, go on fan chat sites) and many go on to produce new texts.20 Fan fiction is a particular form of fan activity through which fans inject their own semiotic readings onto texts that are seen by others as commercially produced commodities. “For its practitioners, a TV show and its characters are but the starting point for new flights of literary invention — conflicts, romances, whole storylines that the series’ actual creative team never dreamed of.”21

While there are a lot of male fans out there, fan fiction is written primarily by female fans. In fact, fan writing falls within a long tradition of women’s literary culture. Throughout history, women have struggled to “find ways to express themselves outside the dominant modes of expression used by men.”22 In the 19th century, this often took the form of letters and diaries and collective writing projects. The women used these mediums to share their thoughts about “religion, gender roles, their sexuality and men’s, about prostitution, seduction, and intemperance, about unwanted pregnancies and desired education, about their relation to the family and the family’s to the world.”23

In many ways, fan fiction falls within this tradition and fulfills some of the same functions. Women use the ready-made characters of popular culture as a set of common references to share their experiences with other writers and readers they may never meet face-to-face. They use these characters and their stories to focus on the same issues that 19th century women wrote about: religion, sexuality, gender roles, family and professional ambition.24 The most prolific fandoms are those that fall within the action/adventure and science fiction genres—those genres typically dominated by men and whose shows address masculine concerns. To accommodate the social experiences and meet the needs of women, these texts need to be reworked.25 Women are socialized to accept male texts—to go see the horror flick because their boyfriends want to see it; to watch the cop show because that is what their husbands want to see. Therefore they find meaning on the periphery—they imagine the characters’ lives outside of the textual narrative.26

For instance, a Star Trek fanfic (what fan fiction stories are often called) might retell a particular episode from Lt. Uhura’s point of view. Or it might take the character of Nurse Chapel and redeem her—taking her from always mooning over Spock to being a competent nurse working towards her medical degree. One fan novel, Kista, written by Jane Land, has Chapel and Spock married, but deals with the problems they face in marriage and the balancing of a two career family and the needs of Chapel as a woman, a wife and a mother.27 These are not concerns that Paramount would interject into Star Trek, but they are the concerns of the women who watch the show and are struggling to balance their own careers, marriages and families. “As fans attempt to reconstruct the feminine countertexts that exist on the margins of the original series episodes, they, in the process, refocus the series around traditional feminine and contemporary feminist concerns, around sexuality and gender politics, around religion, family, marriage, and romance.”28

Not all fan fiction has this blatant of a feminist contextualization. But most of it does take the textual material of the television show and inserts it into an on-going communal discourse. It shifts the focus from the events of the story as given to the interpersonal relationships of the characters. It can be centered on questions raised by the show—sticking to the Star Trek fandom—how was Amanda (Spock’s human mother) able to communicate her affection to Sarek (his Vulcan father)? Or it may ask questions beyond the barriers of the series that producers might wish to suppress—like why was Uhura never promoted, but Sulu and Chekov both have their own ships?29 Fan fiction works to raise issues of real-world concern to viewers—a story about a breaking of the “prime directive” (Star Trek policy of not interfering with developing cultures) can lead to a discussion about America’s intervention in third world countries.30 For some people, it is easier to start to explore controversial ideas in fiction before moving to discuss them openly—for instance, a woman may write a story about Uhura’s marginalization as a character to open up a discussion about how she feels that women are still marginalized in the workplace.31 Jenkins posits that, “organized fandom is, perhaps first and foremost, an institution of theory and criticism, a semi-structured space where competing interpretations and evaluations of common tests are proposed, debated, and negotiated and where readers speculate about the nature of the mass media and their own relationship to it.”32 Fan critics “pull characters and narrative issues from the margins; they focus on details that are excessive or peripheral to the primary plots but gain significance within the fan’s own conception of the series.”33

Fan fiction also works to fill in gaps in the original text. Often shows engender contradictions and a lack of continuity. Fans try to develop explanation or fill in the gaps and address the problems within their own texts.34 For instance, mid-way through Season 3 and through Season 4 of Stargate SG-1, Jack starts to withdraw from and be needlessly cruel to his best friend and teammate Daniel. The writers of the show never address this, never explain it. But the fans noticed. There is an entire body of fan fiction that tries to explain it away—various explanations surface. Some posit that Jack feels guilty because he promised Daniel he would save Daniel’s wife, but he was unable to do so. Those who write slash fiction (see below) attribute it to the fact that Jack started to realize that he had feelings for Daniel and could not deal with it, so pushed him away.35 Fan writers do not just reproduce the text so much “as they rework and rewrite it, repairing or dismissing unsatisfying aspects, developing interests not sufficiently explored.”36

There are ten general ways that fan fiction operates to rewrite a TV show37

  1. Recontextualization—these are vignettes that fill in gaps or provide explanation for character conduct. The stories focus on off-screen action to navigate perplexing on-screen conduct.
  2. Expanding the Series Timeline—these are stories which look at characters’ backgrounds or move forward to continue the series after it has ended.
  3. Refocalization—these are stories which focus on secondary characters—usually women or minorities. The writers work to give the characters their own voices or to redeem characters who are inconsistently characterized.
  4. Moral Realignment—fans invert or question the moral universe of the primary text. For instance, a fan might write a story where Captain Kirk is an evil dictator and the Federation out to conquer the universe. Often these types of stories also take a villain and tell the story from his perspective—why did Darth Vader choose to leave the Jedi and serve the Emperor?
  5. Genre Shifting—most fan faction falls within this category—shifting the focus from an action-adventure story to one about character relationships. Fans might rewrite the series as a romance, a mystery, a spy intrigue, etc.
  6. Cross-overs—in these stories, writers take characters from one series and put them in a story with characters of others. So, what would happen if Captain Kirk and Spock landed on Tatooine and met a young Luke Skywalker or if they had to chase down Han Solo for smuggling?
  7. Character Dislocation—characters are removed from their original situations and given alternate names and identities. There is a Stargate SG-1 story which takes the four main characters and places them on the Oregon Trail in the Old West.
  8. Personalization—in these stories, the series is integrated into the writer’s own experience. These are usually comic stories where characters end up at fan conventions with the actors who play them or fans are transported and find themselves within their favorite show.
  9. Emotional Intensification—these stories are known within the community as “Hurt/Comfort” stories and they center on moments when the characters reach out and truly connect with each other. They may be between characters of the same gender or not; they are sometimes platonic, other times erotic. They ask the question of how normally masterful characters face situations of dependency and vulnerability.
  10. Eroticization—free from network censors, fans explore the characters’ sexuality. Some just realize sexual subplots already within the main text (like pairing Nurse Chapel with Spock). Others create relationships they would like to see (like Kirk and Uhura). Still others take this chance to explore the homoerotic aspects of character friendships. Knows as “slash” fiction, this is the most controversial form of fan fiction because it is seen as truly breaking canon with the original series as it pairs two characters of the same sex (usually male—like Kirk and Spock) in a romantic, often highly sexual situation.38

Many of these forms of rewriting occur in a single fanfic. A “Hurt/Comfort” situation often leads to an erotic encounter, which shifts the genre to more romance and involves recontextualization and refocalization. This, then, is the effect of fan fiction. It reworks the primary text—shifts from action to character relationships. Female characters who were marginalized in the series take focus and the story speculates on the challenges that might face them. Erotic aspects of the text are explored which could not be on network television—sometimes taking homosocial friendships and exploring homoerotic relationships.39

ii. Slash

Slash is a wonderfully subversive voice whispering or shouting around the edges and into the cracks of mainstream culture. It abounds in unconventional thinking. It’s fraught with danger for the status quo, filled with temptingly perilous notions of self-determination and successful defiance of social norms.40

No discussion of fan fiction can be considered complete without considering slash. By far, it is the most controversial form of fan fiction, as it takes normally straight characters and places them in homosexual situations that their creators never envisioned. In fact, often corporate owners have turned a blind eye to fan fiction until they started seeing slash. Lucasfilm saw it as pornography and drove it underground.41 The fan community is also divided on the issue—some feel that it is simply not something the characters would ever do.42 However, those who object to slash within the community often object quietly because the fan community is one that operates on a basis of acceptance of difference. Fans are drawn to the community, in part, because of this freedom from censure and discrimination, so critics of the genre are careful to couch their discomfort in terms of a personal preference, not a censure of the community.43 In the past several years, however, slash has become the most popular form of fan fiction and can be found in most internet archives. Part of critics concerns have been their fear of the reactions of the actors who play the characters. A Blake’s 7 actor who found out about it went on a campaign to have the writers blackballed. However, it backfired as they were all well-known and popular within the community and it ended with several fans dropping the show in protest over his actions.44 Other actors find it amusing. Michael Shanks, who plays Daniel on Stargate SG-1, quipped when asked about Jack/Daniel fiction, “Whatever floats your boat; whatever stirs your coffee.”45

Why slash? What is its appeal? Like other forms of fan fiction, it is often a form of textual commentary. The friendship, the homosocial desire or bond is there in the original text. Society recognizes a continuum between female friendships and lesbian relationships, and society is comfortable with that. However, in a patriarchal society, there are strict boundaries about what is acceptable in male friendships.46 Slash breaks those boundaries by taking male friendships and moving them down the continuum until the characters are lovers.

Thus, slash “throws conventional notions of masculinity into crisis by removing the barriers blocking the realization of homosocial desire; slash unmasks the erotics of male friendship, confronting the fears keeping men from achieving intimacy.”47 The focus is on a relationship that is mutual and equal—something that still seems unlikely with male/female characters. Slash allows fans to explore what love between equals would be like.48 “Slash is not so much a genre about sex [lots of slash stories do not have any sexual content, but are about the difficulties of a homosexual relationship in a heterosexual world] as it is a genre about the limitation of traditional masculinity and about reconfiguring the male identity.”49 On a socio-political level, slash has opened doors and channels of discussion and debate between straight, lesbian and bi-sexual women and men about the politics of sexuality and it has become a platform for gay rights within the science fiction community.50 Star Trek slash, which Paramount tolerates without much interference, has given the gay community a place to launch their campaign for a gay character on one of the shows. Despite touting itself as socially progressive, the franchise has repeatedly refused to truly explore alternative sexualities for its characters.51

Next – Part III – The Corporate Interest: Copyright Rights and Infringement

References for Part 2:

1 Jenkins, supra note 6.

2 Henry Jenkins, Star Trek Rerun, Reread, Rewritten: Fan Writing as Textual Poaching, 5 Critical Studies in Mass Comm. 85, 88 (1988).

3 Id.

4 Jenkins, Star Trek Rerun, supra note 11, at 85.

5 See generally Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers (1992); Joli Jenson, Fandom as Pathology in The Adoring Audience 9-29 (Lisa A. Lewis ed., 1992); John Fiske, The Cultural Economy of Fandom in The Adoring Audience 30-49 (Lisa A. Lewis ed., 1992); Camille Bacon Smith, Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth (1992).

6 Jenkins, Star Trek Rerun, supra note 12 at 86.

7 Id.

8 Jenson, supra note 14.

9 Id. at 19.

10 Id. at 20.

11 Id. at 22.

12 Id. at 23.

13 Id. at 27.

14 Graduate semiotics class at Virginia Commonwealth University, Fall, 1999.

15 Fiske, supra note 14, at 30.

16 Id. at 36.

17 Nancy Schultz, The E-Files, The Washington Post, April 29, 2001.

18 Fiske, supra note 14, at 36.

19 Id. at 40-47.

20 Henry Jenkins, “Strangers No More, We Sing”: Filking and the Social Construction of the Science Fiction Fan Community, in The Adoring Audience 208-36 (Lisa A. Lewis ed., 1992).

21 Schultz, supra note 26.

22 Jenkins, Star Trek Rerun, supra note 12, at 92.

23 Id.

24 Id.

25 Id.

26 Jenkins, Textual Poachers, supra note 14, at 114.

27 Jenkins, Star Trek Rerun, supra note 12, at 93.

28 Id. at 96.

29 Jenkins, Textual Poachers, supra note 14, at 82.

30 Id. at 83.

31 Id. at 84-85.

32 Id. at 86.

33 Id. at 155.

34 Id. at 103-4.

35 See generally The Alpha Gate Fan Fiction Archive at

36Jenkins, Textual Poachers, supra note 14, at 162.

37 Id. at 162-76. Jenkins divides these stories out into 10 categories, but most of them overlap more than one category, often falling within 3 or 4. The fandom does not matter—examples of these can be found in every “universe” be it Star Trek or Buffy.

38 Id. at 186.

39 Jenkins, “Strangers No More, We Sing,” supra note 29, at 214-15.

40 Jenkins, Textual Poachers, supra note 14, at 202.

41Rosemary Coombe, The Cultural Life of Intellectual Properties: Authorship, Appropriation and The Law 128 (1998)

42 Bacon-Smith, Enterprising Women, supra note 14, at 222.

43 Id.

44 Id. at 208.

45 Michael Shanks interview in SFX April 2002, available at (November 2003).

46 Jenkins, Textual Poachers, supra note 14, at 202-3.

47 Id. at 205.

48 Id. at 193.

49 Id. at 191.

50 Id. at 221.

51 See Gay, Lesbian & Bisexual Characters on Star Trek – a 12-year Saga of Deceit, Lies, Excuses and Broken Promises available at (November 2003).