Fan Artistic Endeavors: Challenging The Fandom Perspective
Star Wars fanfiction made a splash last week. A well-known celebrity fan of the franchise discussed the hours of passionate effort put into creating the fanfiction in several prominent fandom venues, and the work was reported well beyond fandom circles, as well. Star Wars fanfiction is finally making the big time!
Wait, you might say, I don’t remember anyone making a big deal made over a Star Wars fanfic? Perhaps not. Probably because it was a fanfilm fiction. Like many other contexts, Star Wars fandom still carries a negative connotation to the label “fanfiction,” and it’s one that’s also heavily gendered. It’s time to address these biases directly – and a celebrity fanboy has given us the perfect opportunity.
Over a week in advance, two prominent fansites were promoting upcoming news they would reveal on Friday, February 28. First, Jedi News hinted that they would have something big to share. Then RebelForce Radio promoted last week’s show as featuring Star Wars-related exclusive news from Topher Grace, best known for his roles as Eric Forman in That 70s Show and Venom in Spider-Man 3. When Friday arrived, they turned out to involve the same thing: Grace joined Jason and Jimmy Mac to discuss his fan-edit of the Prequel Trilogy movies, and Jedi News earned an exclusive to host the short trailer Grace had made for his movie. From the Jedi News announcement (emphasis added):
In 2012, Mr. Grace did a one time only private screening of a Star Wars “remake” edited by himself. “The result is an 85-minute movie titled Star Wars: Episode III.5: The Editor Strikes Back. It should be noted that the Star Wars prequel trilogy is almost 7 hours in total length, and the shortest film (Episode 1) is more than 51 minutes longer than Grace’s fan cut. What this means is a lot of footage ended up on the editing room floor, and a lot of creative choices were made in the editing process. And the result? Topher Grace’s Star Wars film is probably the best possible edit of the Star Wars prequels given the footage released and available.”, quoted from SlashFilm.
Since the screening Topher has received multiple requests including one from the honorable Lucasfilm to show his edited version, although Topher will not be showing the film again, he would like to release the trailer he made for it. This is a never before seen, never released clip and he would like to provide to Jedi News and one other media site only.
It’s interesting to note that Grace’s work is coined a “remake” and “Star Wars film,” clearly avoiding terms like “fan film” or any association with the stigmatizing “fanfiction.” The original 2012 full report by Slashfilm’s Peter Sciretta includes a lengthy description of the story told in Grace’s fan edit by piecing together segments of the existing movies. The report also contains a twenty-minute video blog reaction to the screening from Sciretta and two other prominent film bloggers, joined by Fanboys director Kyle Newman.
Newman himself has used his stature as a celebrity Star Wars fan with connections in the entertainment industry to produce his own fan audio-drama fiction. For the Star Wars Celebration VI convention in Orlando, Newman wrote and produced a live audio drama titled Smuggler’s Gambit, which included several voice actors from The Clone Wars among its performers. From the Star Wars Blog report by Jennifer Landa (emphasis added):
There was a lot of speculation as to what Smuggler’s Gambit would be about. As one fan told me, “all I know is it’s a radio show written by Kyle Newman so you know it’s gonna be awesome.” And indeed it was! Kyle Newman began the evening by telling us a little bit about how Smuggler’s Gambit came about. Newman said that what we were about to see was a, “Han Solo (original trilogy era) radio drama for all ages.” …
Then one young female fan, Alessandra Robinson, stepped to the mic and sweetly asked, “can you have more girls in the next radio drama?” To which Ashley Eckstein replied, “I love you.” Cheers erupted amongst the crowd. Newman told the young fan that if they do another radio drama at Celebration VII in Florida, he will give her a line to perform onstage. I couldn’t see the young girl’s reaction but I’m sure she can’t wait until the next Celebration!
Later, Newman wrote a feature article in Star Wars Insider #139 on “The Making of Smuggler’s Gambit,” and the audio recording of the live performance was hosted on starwars.com. (Interestingly, the recording was made available around the same time as the release of Timothy Zahn’s officially licensed Expanded Universe novel Scoundrels, which features Han Solo leading a heist mission in roughly the same time period in the Star Wars chronology.) Smuggler’s Gambit even has its own page on Wookieepedia.
Make no mistake: Topher Grace’s fan edit and Kyle Newman’s Smuggler’s Gambit are fanfiction. Their fame gives them a platform to promote it that most fans lack, but the nature of their projects is clearly fanwork.
Both stories are fictional tales told in the Star Wars universe. Although the creators are entertainment industry celebrities, neither story is officially licensed by Lucasfilm as part of canon or the Expanded Universe continuity. Grace’s project is a classic Alternate Universe fanfic, a highly transformative retelling of the events from a canon story in a new way. Newman’s tale is a classic canon-compliant fanfic, offering a new story with favorite characters while trying to maintain consistency of characterization with the canon and adding a few original characters to the mix. Grace made a fan film and Newman a fan audio drama, but both are fiction created by fans – fanfiction.
For some, it maybe jarring to the ears to hear these two projects described that way. When I participated last year in a project hosted by Hollywood.com, which asked prominent fans to creating four frames of the opening shot of Episode VII, one of the participants hadn’t really considered that he had written fanfiction until I pointed it out. Many people have internalized “fanfiction” as a derogatory label, but truly how is prose fiction qualitatively different than other forms of fan participation like fan films, fan art, and cosplay?
The Star Wars fandom as a whole often has gendered reactions to different types of fan participation in expressing love for the franchise. Here are a few examples:
Roleplaying Games: When fans play the Star Wars tabletop RPGs, they are telling their own fan-created stories in Star Wars: sometimes canon-compliant tales, sometimes alternate-universe adventures, usually featuring original characters but occasionally involving canon characters. The stories are created and shared among a group of friends for fun, not for any profit, and the end results are not part of the official continuity. In other words, the RPGs endeavor to engage fans in exactly the same experiences as what fanficcers do. Yet while fanficcers are shunned and told to stay out of the spotlight lest they draw too much attention from the Powers That Be, over the decades Lucasfilm has licensed three different RPG companies to produce and sell game products specifically designed to facilitate fans in creating their RPG stories. Members of the RPG community have been praised for their contributions to the fandom, and former RPG players and writers have been hired for official work not just by the RPG companies but also by other licensees and even Lucasfilm. Recently, news of a celebrity game of the Fantasy Flight Games edition of the Star Wars RPG made the rounds on Twitter – but most Star Wars professionals still hide from their background in prose fanfiction, as readers or writers or both, even though many of them have one. It’s no secret, of course, that the RPG community is male-dominated by a significant margin, while prose fanfiction fandom skews heavily female.
Fan Art: In many areas, fan art has long been considered a legitimate pathway to breaking from amateur to professional. As openly discussed on panels at New York Comic Con, The Legend of Korra hired fan artists to work on the show and the creators of Once Upon a Time post fan art in the writer’s room as inspiration. Comics companies will review fan art portfolios to see if the artist has the talent to draw the canon characters professionally.
The same has been true in Star Wars: many of the artists who now work professionally for Lucasfilm or its licensees got noticed for the high quality of their Star Wars fan art, then were pulled in to do it for pay. Smaller projects like Topps sketch card and WeLoveFine t-shirt contents can lead to bigger and more visible work. Even though there are a multitude of talented female artists, most of the breakouts have been men. I love the work of Chris Trevas, Jeff Carlisle, Joe Corroney, and more – but why aren’t there more Magali Villeneuves and Katie Cooks in the official bullpen? Finally, it’s worth remembering that a picture is worth a thousand words, and many works of fan art are also works of fanfiction. The art can tell a story just as much as prose does; here is one of my favorites, which tells a heartwarming Anakin/Padmé alternate universe tale in one simple fan art picture.
Cosplay: The existence of gendered controversies in the segment of fandom engaged in creating fan versions of characters’ clothing is clear enough in the fact that there are two labels for it: many of the fans who consider themselves as involved in fan “costuming” do so because they reject the label “cosplay” for what they do. The reasons are numerous and complicated, but undoubtedly part of the dynamic in play is that “cosplay” is viewed by many people as something that female fans do. The 501st Legion and the Rebel Legion are prominently and rightfully praised for the high quality of their screen-accurate cosplay; you also see a lot more male stormtroopers than female ones at every Star Wars Celebration. When fans express their own creativity in their cosplay, however, the reaction is often far less favorable. Genderswapped cosplay can receive a strong negative reaction, and the “fake geek girl” narrative routinely pops up in conjunction with female cosplayers. Even prominent cosplayers known for screen-accurate attire, from the X-wing pilot to Slave Leia and more, can be ignorantly tarnished with that label by the uninformed.
Fan Films: For years, Lucasfilm has sponsored a Star Wars fan films contest, often with a top prize selected by George Lucas personally. Initially only parodies, humor, and similar types of entries were allowed, but more recent contests permitted overtly fanfiction stories to be submitted. Typically most of the entries and most of the winners were produced by men. Even beyond the official contest, the fan film fandom is male-dominated, with projects like Clare Grant’s and Rileah Vanderbilt’s “Saber” as the exception. Star Wars is a film franchise, of course, so it’s natural that fanwork inspired by the original medium is given more attention by Lucasfilm, but there’s little difference between some of the most well-known fan films (satirical or serious) and some of the best-known written fanfictions in the prose fandom.
Prose Fanfic: The writing of prose stories by fans goes back as far as the Star Wars movies themselves. The earliest Star Wars fanzines included written fanfic; the rise of the internet made the sharing of text stories immeasurably easier. The written fanfiction segment of fandom often has been one of the most active parts of the fanbase, although its importance and insights often have been overlooked by the Powers That Be. Despite the myth that fanworks are competing with the official works for market share, the reality – as proven by franchises like Twilight, Harry Potter and The Hunger Games – is the opposite: fanficcers go to the movies, buy the novels and comics, and often t-shirts, action figures, and collectibles too. Personally I own nearly all of the published Star Wars sourcebooks and resources guides, but I didn’t buy them because I’m interested in the factoids or the “non-fiction” continuity – I bought them to help me write better, stronger fanfics. Lately written fanfiction in other fandoms is starting to come out from the shadows; Orlando Jones from Sleepy Hollow drops fanfic story prompts on Twitter. Supernatural was one of the first television shows to embrace its fanfiction writing audience, even tell stories that include them, and has been renewed for a remarkable tenth season.
Yet in the Star Wars fandom, as with many others, fanfiction is often dismissed, disregarded, and insulted as unworthy. When TFN was the only game in town for fandom discussion, fanfiction writers were labeled as “outsiders” by the all-male Literature forum moderators – and it’s well known that most prose fanfic is written by women.
Expanded Universe author Martha Wells is one of the few Star Wars professionals to openly discuss her fanfiction roots, including acknowledging them in the opening of Razor’s Edge. She isn’t the first Star Wars author or creator to have participated in fanfiction, although others aren’t as keen to acknowledge their roots. By my count Star Wars professionals include five authors, one editor and one acknowledged member of the Story Group. Recently on Wells’ blog she linked to a Tumblr post by author Sarah Rees Brennan, who also speaks openly of her fanfiction experience as the building blocks to her published career. In her post Brennan discusses some of the gendered biases against fanfiction:
a) I am a girl. Dudes get to write perceived-as-derivative/actually-derivative fiction all the time and it’s a HOMAGE, but girls can’t do either. People decide girls’ stuff is derivative and lousy all the time, whereas boys’ stuff is part of a literary tradition and an important conversation. This is sexist and terrible. … I am very tired of seeing women insulted for things every dude in the world is allowed to do. It is not literary critique. It is violent misogyny.
b) I used to write fanfiction. (These two issues—sexism and fanfiction—are actually very closely intertwined, because writing fanfiction is something that mostly girls do, and thus like all things Associated With Ladies, such as sewing and pink, is treated as dumb and worthless. And fanfiction, as I’m going to discuss, provides people with a narrative that go ‘why this lady actually sucks’ and people love narratives which say that.)
It’s not just prose fanfiction where the biases will be hard to overcome. Right before the Oscars, TheMarySue discussed the results of a study on the relative screen time of the nominees for lead actor and actress:
The stats come courtesy of The New York Times’ Kevin B. Lee, who used the Cinemetrics website—a database of movie statistics–to determine that this year’s best actress nominees averaged 57 minutes on-screen in their films, compared to the best actors’ 85 minutes. All actors, lead and supporting, averaged 59 minutes, while the ladies got 42. Last year the average for actresses was up to 49 minutes… and the dudes got 100. And this year’s average would have been even lower for women if not for curvebreaker Sandra Bullock, who was on-screen for 87% of Gravity.
The article made me take special note, too, of the young lady who asked for more female parts in Newman’s next fan audio drama. Five years ago, a female fan likely wouldn’t have stood up and asked. But these are different times, and fangirls have empowered themselves to ask the franchise, its licensees and their fellow fans to assess whether it has considered or treated all its fans fairly. With the submission process for Celebration Anaheim in 2015 to open shortly, I hope all types of fans who create fiction, whether it is art, film, cosplay or prose, are welcomed and included in panels by Disney|Lucasfilm.
An important step in breaking gender barriers is to point out exactly what we’re up against. Just like the Oscar-nominee study shows a stark disparity, books like Fic: Why Fanfiction is Taking Over the World help make the case that the longstanding biases against written fanfic exist precisely because it’s written mainly by female fans. And the more published authors like Wells and Brennan who stand proudly on their fanfiction roots rather than running from them, the easier it will be to fight back against the stereotypes that put female fanfiction prose writers in a box that demeans them when that isn’t the same box applied to male fans pursuing fanfiction in film or audio form.
Ultimately, if Topher Grace and Kyle Newman can be praised, even given official support and visibility, for their fan creativity – for their fanfiction – then female fans deserve equal respect for all the ways they produce fanworks, too. Including their prose fanfiction..
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Tricia Barr took her understanding of brand management and marketing, mixed it with a love of genre storytelling, and added a dash of social media flare to create FANgirl Blog, where she discusses Star Wars, fandom, and strong female characters. She also writes about Star Wars for Random House’s science fiction and fantasy blog Suvudu.com and Star Wars Insider magazine and is a contributor for Her Universe’s Year of the Fangirl. Her FANgirl opinions can be heard on the podcasts Assembly of Geeks and RebelForce Radio Presents Fangirls Going Rogue.
Tricia has completed her first novel, Wynde – a military science fiction with a fantastical twist that features heroines Vespa and Gemini. For excerpts and tales of her adventures in creating a fictional universe, hop over to TriciaBarr.com.
For updates on all things FANgirl follow @FANgirlcantina on Twitter or like FANgirl Zone on Facebook. At times she tries the Tumblr.
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2 thoughts on “Fan Artistic Endeavors: Challenging The Fandom Perspective”
ALL OF THAT. RIGHT THERE. Of course, Star Wars is a particularly interesting fandom, because well-written fic gets published as canon all the time, in the Extended Universe (some of it doesn’t even comply that well with canon, which is a whole ‘nother story. Seriously, they need continuity checkers)
Of course, that’s an author base with where men hold a vast majority, working in the EU of a franchise that’s known for sexist directing choices in the films, and that has an active embargo against LGBT* characters. Unlike most franchises, where there might be a minor character or two, or a joke tossed in there, Lucas bans any mention of gay ANYTHING in Star Wars canon. Which is why some of the best Star Wars authors will never get published. And why there are friendships in the EU that get really, really close for a few books before Suddenly Remembering Heterosexuality Because Someone Wants To Keep Their Contract. (and don’t even get me started on race in Star Wars. How they can have more aliens than I can count yet 90% of the Humans are white…*throws up hands*)
So the normal problem of dissing fanfic because girls write it is compounded. Because in the Star Wars universe, if you’re straight cis* male and write books about people who are, too, you can get paid to essentially write fanfic! But you get the respect of being a published author, whereas the ladies on the internet who frame plot arcs better, maintain better characterizations, and actually fact check: oh, no, they’re just fangirls.
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