Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Everyone's a Captain Kirk

Anupam Chander & Madhavi Sunder, Everyone's a Superhero: A Cultural Theory of 'Mary Sue' Fan Fiction as Fair Use, 95 Cal. L. Rev. 597 (2007). Chander and Sunder argue for the value of fan fiction, even the much mocked Mary Sue genre in which an author adds a new female character who immediately gains the respect and love of the existing characters, as a practice of resistance to dominant culture. Mary Sues are generally understood to be instances of fairly naked authorial self-insertion. I had mixed reactions to this piece. On the one hand, it appears almost indifferent to the serious debates in fandom studies about whether fan fiction is in fact resistant to dominant values, and what resistance might mean. The issues are especially complicated with respect to race, since American online media fandom remains heavily white; for a recent debate over whether fan fiction actually does worse on racial issues than its (not particularly progressive) source text, see this discussion about Stargate: Atlantis fan fiction.

Relatedly, by treating Mary Sue as a metonym for fan creations more generally, Chander and Sunder’s piece discounts the complexities of identification. Thus, their definition of Mary Sue turns out to include slash fan fiction as well, because slash generally presents homosexual relationships in contexts where the mainstream forbids them. But women reading and writing slash, if they are identifying with the male characters, are, as Francesca Coppa says, identifying “up,” identifying with more socially valued bodies. (It’s no accident that the next line of the song that gives Chander and Sunder’s article its title is “Everyone’s a Captain Kirk.”) Even if focusing on male characters encourages slash fans to be progressive on gay rights – and it’s not clear that it does – they are not doing the same kind of rewriting as Mary Sue authors, who are putting bodies like their own at the center of their favored texts.

On the other hand, the piece made the useful point that the “aesthetic” arguments often deployed against fan fiction (why don’t you just write your own original work? etc.) are also legal arguments, and their legal flaws have something to say about the merits of the aesthetic objections as well. Moreover, and following up on something that came up often in my discussions of gender and fair use cases, I don’t believe that an unauthorized use has to be “resistant” to be fair. Fan fiction has liberating possibilities, but those don’t have to be realized for any particular work of fan fiction to be fair use.

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