Aja Romano is a longtime writer of fanfiction, fandom reporter for the Daily Dot, and a "slash expert" for The Backlot's Shipping News. She was also the Submissions Editor for Big Bang Press. She is a member of the Development & Membership committee of the OTW (AO3's parent organization.)
Places you can find me:
Gmail: thesevenlines. Daily Dot email: aja at dailydot.com. If I've messaged you on Tumblr, please email me!
And yet fanfiction is an inherently transformative work which, by its very nature, strives to address or change some flaw that exists in canon, even if that flaw is “why isn’t there more of this thing?!” Fanfiction has addressed the lack of gay men by making straight characters gay; it’s addressed countless cultural misappropriations with wildly varying AUs; it’s addressed canon plot holes and timeline issues with fix-it fics and crossovers. Fanfic is the show your show could be like, if only you dared to dream.
But for all its transformative nature, fanfiction and fandom still suffer from a real dearth of femslash. Beyond the simple fact that very few girls exist in canon materials, the societal emphasis on the male gaze seems to have affected fanficcers’ creativity to such an extent that even in our own fantasies, we cannot give women a fair shake. Just as the answer to “Why is there so much slash?” cannot be boiled down to “ Well, straight girls are horny”, the answer to “Why isn’t there any femslash?” cannot be boiled down to “Well, straight girls don’t care.” The bias against female characters and female pleasure is an ingrained, institutionalized problem which won’t go away on its own.
The thing is that having read Cuckoo’s Calling, I deeply believe that JKR has actually internalized a lot of the criticism she received about the HP series. Cuckoo’s Calling has complex depictions of POC and queer characters, and the main character is a very fat guy. She writes socially conscious rap lyrics. She very clearly is trying to inject this book with a lot of the things she left out of HP and very rightly got called out for.
Cuckoo’s Calling also has a lead female character who’s very self-aware and self-conscious about being trapped in a marriage and a life that limits her. She’s struggling hard to break out of the “little wife” domestic routine, and that’s one of the things that makes this book so compelling.
So it’s extremely easy for me to believe, having read Cuckoo’s Calling, that Jo really has thought a very great deal about Hermione and what marriage to Ron would have done for her, career-wise. I think that a lot of her thoughts on that kind of marriage found their way into Cuckoo’s Calling.
I want to believe JKR is constantly writing new versions of the epilogue and storing them away in her desk, and with each new rewrite Hermione gets more and more single, more and more independent, more and more the confident career woman she should always have been allowed to be, first and foremost.
This is exactly why I have had a lukewarm relationship with Sherlock, and especially how it treats female characters. Moffat has this thing where he creates male characters with motivation and drive and personal qualities… and then his female characters tend to be what he assumes women want to be or see, without real drives or lives of their own outside having some kind of connection to the main male leads.
When Moffat makes women, he does this thing where he looks at the rest of his show and thinks, “If I was a straight woman, what would I wish I could do for the male cast I totally love?” And he makes these strange ‘this could be you!’ immersive characters who have no qualities whatsoever of their own, only a shell for what he assumes women want to do with their white dude tv crushes.
He does not seem to make any male character such as Sherlock or John or even the Doctor in this way, as immersions for a male audience to do what they want to something. They are always the highly-developed curiosity everything is stapled to. You don’t want to be Sherlock or the Doctor, you want to watch them and marvel at how cool they are. But for characters like Molly, and sometimes Amy Pond, and others they get to act like gloves for a female audience to touch various male favs.
And when they are not the ‘glove characters,’ they are the ‘other.’ The ‘bad woman,’ women plainly framed to not be the audience to invoke a visceral reaction. Women should not be defined as ‘safe women/unsafe women.’ That’s not even a thing when he constructs male characters.
And he’s not entirely wrong about it being what some women want. There are a million fanfictions where female characters are inserted into traditionally male-dominated media to do just that, be a sort of immersive interaction submarine, and nothing more. But for the same reason we are critical of those (they are internalized-sexist, they are not empowering for women, they are boring, they are not good storytelling) we should also be critical when the habit appears in highly successful television from professional writers.
Only, it has another degree of creepy: it’s not an actual woman expressing a desire to interact with characters she can never interact with (poorly), it’s a man assuming that that’s all women want to see.
Leaving aside 99% of the 4th movie and 95% of the 2nd movie, I UNIRONICALLY LOVE these damn movies. I love that they took the gimmick of the first movie and just kept layering over it both narratively AND structurally and that the 5th movie just totally went for it in the end and dragged you all the way back to the first movie because THIS ISN’T A HORROR SERIES, IT’S AN URBAN FANTASY where the WITCHES ALWAYS WIN, and that this series decided to build on itself by building backstory in ways that are circular so it’s both just like every other successful repetitive horror franchise and nothing like every other successful horror franchise
and by the way, before PA, what other horror movie franchise started out by taking its Final Girl (and literally only girl) in the first movie and turning her into the reigning Final Villain for all the movies thereafter, so that she’s LITERALLY the final girl in an ever-expanding COVEN OF GIRLS WHO WANT TO KILL YOU
and can we talk about how Paranormal Activity 3 is GENUINELY SO SMART AND SCARY AND ALMOST AS SCARY AS PA (HONESTLY SCARIER IMO), WITH SCARES THAT IT COMES BY HONESTLY like seriously when was the last time you were that scared for two little kids in a horror film and also did you notice that the real horror underlying PA2 and PA3 isn’t even the demon but the severing of the bond between these two sisters, like FUCK YES and also how PA3 was *LITERALLY* nothing but backstory and totally not at all where anyone expected the series to go after the 2nd movie, but it sold that shit so hard and even threw in a fucking Poltergeist homage for free, and you’re still freaking terrified to go into the bathroom by yourself because of that Bloody Mary scene and also HOW MUCH TOBY DUBCON FANFIC DO YOU WANT oh wait that’s just me oh oh sorry nevermind
and can we talk about how Paranormal Activity 5 is as shitty as PA4 except holy fuck yes when was the last time you saw a movie whose entire main cast was Latino and the gangster is the guy you go to for help and the POC characters are the first characters in this fucking franchise to actually fight back instead of wandering around waiting to die, and how when you go back to that damn house HOLY SHIT IT’S EVEN SCARIER THAN IT WAS THE LAST TIME and OH GOD IT’S THAT STAIRCASE like seriously how is that staircase not rivaling the damn exorcist staircase at this point, like seriously all the staircases in this movie were freaking nightmares waiting to happen to you, and okay maybe nothing else in this damn iteration was scary but THAT HOUSE AND THOSE STAIRS
and can we just talk about how Katie Featherstone gives no fucks and just walks around being demon-possessed and badass and like how amazing is it that the climax of every single film after the first movie is just KATIE FEATHERSTONE SHOWING UP, like literally, THAT’S IT, and in any other series that shit would be totally overdone but since this is a series where the found footage thing is being hammered to death you don’t even care because THANK GOD WE JUST SAT THROUGH 90 MINUTES OF SHAKY CAM AND NOW OUR GODDESS KATIE IS HERE AND SHE’S STILL POSSESSED AND IT’S ALL WE WANT JUST FUCKING TAKE OVER THE WORLD ALREADY KATIE
i fucking love this series i love it so much i will die on this battlefield, probably possessed by a terrible demonic entity
Gav: One of my least favorite things about Sherlock as a Holmes adaptation has always been how unpleasant Sherlock is as a person. TV is already littered with genius antihero dudes, but after a few seasons they usually do have to learn something from their mistakes, or at least be punished in some way when they finally go over the line. Even the pill-popping and needlessly cruel antihero of House, MD (yet another modern Holmes adaptation) got his comeuppance from time to time, but Sherlock never changes or evolves at all.
Aja: To be fair to the show, I think Gatiss (I’m a Gatiss fan if that’s not totes obvious yet) really did try to show Sherlock’s evolution. I think the larger point of the scenes between Sherlock and Mycroft was to demonstrate what Sherlock has learned from John that Mycroft lacks due to his own self-imposed isolation. Sherlock’s scenes with Molly, too, demonstrated an empathy he hasn’t shown us earlier. After all, would Series 2 Sherlock have hesitated to point out to Molly that she’d traded him in for his double? I don’t think so. So, too, the themes of aloneness in this episode, and his awareness of his inability to understand humanity in his conversations with Mary, ironically demonstrated a more pliant understanding of humanity than we’ve yet seen from Sherlock. It’s clear that his time away from London (and presumably civilization) has left him with a greater appreciation of his friends and the community that he built and then destroyed.
But all of this ultimately feels hollow, like a gimmick—in part because it’s growth that feels superimposed on a morally rigid character, and in part because he absolutely undermines it all at the end with his scene in the railway car with John. It leaves you feeling as though Sherlock has faked not just his momentary bout of tears but his entire attempt at being less sociopathic and demonstrating empathy. It’s one of Sherlock’s—and Gatiss’s—cruelest disguises, because we’re left like John, tugging on beards, unsure of what’s real.
[The other day I wrote a long rant about the vanishing form of American musical theatre, using On the Town as a vintage example of what I called “organic” musical theatre, meaning productions in which music/libretto/dance all worked together to convey narrative.]
This is fascinating! I think anyone who reads my journal knows I’m an opera buff, and I’ve always assumed that’s why I hate musical theater—honestly, if you’ve spent long enough training yourself to listen to classical singing, a lot of the techniques that musical theater singers use just sound wrong. (Not that I’m saying they don’t have technique—they do! It’s just not the classical singing I’ve trained my ear to like.)
But maybe it’s not just that I don’t like musical theater, maybe it’s something about the narrative structure that I’ve had a problem with! After all, I do love the early musicals—On the Town, which Aja mentions, is one of my favorites. This is why I love online fandom—that there are people out there smarter than me who can come up with these arguments that make me look at things in a different light.
(Aja, I’d be curious for your take on Phantom and Les Mis. Where do they fall on this spectrum of musicals? Are they more of the early type, or more modern? Because—and not to make this all about me, or anything, but then again my own taste is the only subjectivity I have, really—I love those two musicals despite hating most every other modern musical theater performance I’ve seen. Thoughts?)
Ha, I’m the opposite: I grew up being trained in musical theatre (and classically too). I went to school for voice at IU, which didn’t have a musical theatre program at the time, and I found myself frequently on the outs (to put it mildly) with opera. I was supposed to love it and I frankly hated most of it. I walked out of a performance of Don Pasquale once because the heroine was so insipid and the plot was so vapid and I hated, hated, hated it. (I don’t hate all opera, I love some of them quite a lot, and my knowledge of opera is extremely limited for someone who attended one of the best schools for opera in the world).
The thing about musicals is that they simultaneously descended from operetta (serious, through-composed, all sung) and evolved from vaudeville (comedy, no continuous plot, skits interspersed with singing and dancing). They’re a totally 20th-century hybrid. While Victor Herbert was watering European operettas down, Ziegfeld was building vaudeville up, and they met in the middle on Tin Pan Alley.
Around this evolution you have early outliers like Showboat and Porgy and Bess. The former is an operetta, the latter is an opera, both disguising themselves as musicals. And even with the early “musical comedy,” the kind that stuck in songs around a loose plot, you had outliers and subversions, notably Pal Joey, and Of Thee I Sing, which probably counts as one of the first “book musicals,” the integrated kind.
Hey, Tumblr, since i ranted about musical theatre on twitter earlier this morning, i thought i’d share. I got into a discussion with Cimness after indulging one of my favorite rants, which is about how the art form known as the American Musical Theatre, which struggled for over half a century to evolve into the pinnacle it achieved with Stephen Sondheim, now effectively barely exists on Broadway (except in the form of the Disney musical, which is something of a different beast). Instead, the “organic” musical, in which songs and libretto work together to narratively advance the plot, has been replaced by musical revues, variety shows, and adaptations of pre-existing films that have superimposed musical numbers added into them as a throwback to the early vaudevillian roots of the musical.
On the Town is my favorite example of a vintage musical that tells its story on three levels. Music by a young Leonard Bernstein, libretto by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and choreography/direction by Jerome Robbins: this is the ultimate collaborative theatre dream team, so naturally they wrote a giant witty love song to New York. And they also wrote one of the most witty, beautiful, and athletic musicals ever written. On the Town is rarely performed because it contains so much dancing and is largely considered the greatest dance musical of all time. (Ethan Mordden devotes a whole chapter to it in his look at the Broadway musical in the 40’s, which is one of many reasons why Ethan Mordden and I are soulmates).
People always talk about it as a dance musical but it’s also one of the most beautiful scores ever written. If I were making a top 5 list of favorite songs, this song, “Lonely Town,” combined with its full extended dance sequence (which is what you get here in the concert performance following the applause break) would be my #1. When those violins swell so does my heart. Every time.
This is why I can’t let musical theatre go. You can’t produce art like this if you’re only packaging and selling a ready-made ‘insert big dance number here’ formula. You have to let the story tell itself. This is a song about being lost in a big city and feeling so alone but still so alive, and it’s as vivid and real and earnest a portrait of New York and the souls that beat here as you get from the Great Gatsby or any other classic depiction of this city. And it works on three levels: beautiful music, haunting lyrics, and dance (this is the only example i can find on YouTube of a version of the dance sequence, but you get the idea). On the Town is a literal triple-threat, one of the most remarkable creative collaborations the stage has ever seen. All of its moving parts work together to tell you a story.
Of course the bottom line is that we don’t have these kinds of musicals anymore because they continually flop. Neither Assassins nor Floyd Collins managed to make it to Broadway despite now being seen as landmarks of the genre. And, I mean, not to be all hipster about it, but I still do more or less completely agree with John LaChiusa that moden musicals are “faux” musicals—not because they’re bad or unenjoyable, because many of them are fun and well-done, but because structurally they have *de-evolved* the musical from the integrated format that On the Town is an early example of. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have those musicals; it just means that for musical theatre to survive, we need to have more than this. Not all organic musicals are failures. Somewhere out there is this decade’s Rent, this decade’s Spring Awakening, this decade’s Hedwig. And somewhere out there is this decade’s Floyd Collins, this decade’s Marie Christine—the unabashed commercial flops that elevate the genre. I realize that this is a conversation that musical theatre veterans have been having internally for a decade plus, during which commercial adaptations have basically sustained the great white way. But it hasn’t stopped being less true. It hasn’t stopped making me feel less wistful for shows that tell stories, rather than repackage them. It hasn’t stopped making me appreciate shows like On the Town, that for all their flaws still managed to do it all and say so much onstage—so much that seems to currently go unsaid or get lost in the noise of yet another built-in showstopper.