Monday, 10 December 2012

Narrative, Imperative

Stories have power.

The stories we tell about ourselves ("I was born a girl, but I've always felt like a boy"). The stories we tell to ourselves ("I used to live as a girl, but that doesn't make me any less of a man, because I wasn't doing it right"). The stories others tell about us ("she's some weirdo who thinks she's a boy"). The stories society tells us ("transitioning is difficult and shameful and a Big Deal"). The stories society tells others about us ("trannies are freaks").

And then, there are the stories we tell each other, about ourselves.

When I was growing up, it was TV that told me stories; more specifically, it was sitcoms that told me stories, about people in general, and men and women in particular. They were glib, lazy, stereotyped stories. With every poorly written female character, they told me "Girls aren't funny". With every cheap smutty joke, they told me "Men only think about sex". With every hetero-domestic scene of a nagging girlfriend and henpecked boyfriend, they told me "All relationships are like this". And with everything they missed out, every character, every characteristic, every mode of being or doing or relating, they told me "The world is narrow, and there's no place for you in it".

The world I saw in stories was so much narrower than the world I've grown up to live in.

We all absorb stories like this, stories about a world that isn't quite our own. (If this didn't happen to you when you were growing up, please, tell me how you managed it.) Mainstream media, popular culture, is hard to ignore - even if you don't have a TV - and it shapes the way we see the world, the way we see ourselves. Stories are what give us the power to imagine what paths our lives might take. If you're an outsider of any stripe, if you don't see yourself in any character in any story, you can feel horribly alone. As a girl, I could only imagine myself growing up to be a poorly written, humourless, nagging stereotype. As a trans* boy, the only story I saw reflecting me was that of Brandon Teena.

But this is changing. There's a whole world of new worlds out there being storified, making their modest way into the undercurrents of popular culture, a broad world of broad stories composited together from the worlds of all the minorities who are seldom given a voice by the mainstream media. When I was growing up, it was TV that told me stories. But now that I'm grown, it's the Internet. (Who else?)

The more I discover about fan-fiction, the more I fall in love with what it can do. Fanfic, or "transformative works" - taking an existing plot, character, framework, and transforming it into a completely new story. Sometimes it's faithful to the original creator's intent, but sometimes it utterly turns it on its head - and when the intent was dubious, that can work magic. A good work of fanfic can make you realise that there were more sides to a story than the creator ever explored, or even thought of. It can elegantly point up the utter failures of imagination or empathy or tact that a mainstream writer can perpetrate. What's more, the body of fanfic taken as a whole contains absolute shitloads of porn, and THIS IS AMAZING, because there is space for every predilection, every orientation, every fetish, every harmless little fantasy or desire for a consensual act that any lost, lonely, "freakish" pubescent has ever spent needless hours shamefully anguishing over.

Even within a fandom like Red Dwarf (a show where - much as I love it - the girls aren't funny, the men only think about sex, and the writers once had a thankfully-never-used plot idea for a "gay ray"), you will find queer gems, and plenty of them. In the Red Dwarf universe, the charismatic space hero Ace Rimmer roves the dimensions rescuing and then bedding swooning damsels-in-distress. In the fanfic universe, his character is the jumping-off point for a humorous parable about asexuality. In the Red Dwarf universe, a male-identified mechanoid with no (count 'em: no) genitalia is classified as female (wahey, definition-by-absence!) for bunk allocation purposes, and, um, hilariously decides to make himself an animatronic penis in order to get reclassified as male. In the fanfic universe, this plot arc (minus the animatronic penis part) becomes an apt metaphor for gender dysphoria. (And as for the absolute shitloads of kinky multi-orientation porn, well, someone's currently writing a multi-chapter male-on-male epic called Fifty Shades of Smeg. I'll just put that out there...)

Even more important than the stories which rewrite a narrow universe to give a place to the overlooked outsiders, though, are the ones which turn on their head a negative portrayal of these outsiders. (My own modest contribution to Red Dwarf fanfic came about from a burning desire to do just that, and I must say that writing it really helped me work through the simmering resentment.) Take Natalie Reed's mind-blowing transformative essay about the vile Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. As the reader comments testify, this film was many trans* girls' first exposure to anything resembling a story "about them"; unsurprisingly, for a lot of them it contributed greatly to a sense of internalised transphobia, set them several steps back in their decisions to transition, and/or was a horrendously triggering experience requiring extensive repression. Reed retells the story from the point of view of the transsexual "villain", and the perspective shift creates a masterwork, helping trans* and cis* readers alike to fully work through and be justifiably outraged at the film's assault on their childhood consciousnesses, and showing up exactly how much of a hideous affront to decency we can be persuaded to swallow when we're fed it as a "story" by the mainstream media.

We instinctively hold up those whose work makes it into the mainstream as "special", talented, obviously superior by virtue of the fact that they've "made it". This, of course, ignores a million issues of fluke or zeitgeist or opportunism or systemic oppression or just plain stubborn determination that might have started them higher up on the playing field. It can take decades before we learn that the story-world is narrow because it only reflects the worlds of a very narrow set of people: the largely Straight White Able Cis Guys TM who "make it". At last, with growing Internet communities, we have the tools to learn this before the narrowness does us too much damage - not just fanfic, giving a voice to people from broader worlds who might be just as talented, but also fora where we can discuss and deconstruct problematic story elements the moment they're broadcast. Fanfic and other transformative works help to reinforce the lesson that not everything is black and white, that every story can be seen from another perspective (a perspective that's just as valid), and that we don't simply have to accept the boundaries Straight White Able Cis Guys TM impose on the world.

Mainstream writers have immense power: they are the only ones who are allowed to tell our stories (if they choose to tell them at all) where they will be heard. But engaging with fanfic, taking the products of these writers' cultural power and twisting them, is empowering. A cheap joke targeting a minority group has the power to reach maybe a million viewers, make a subset of them chuckle for a few seconds, and infinitesimally reinforce their already-sturdy prejudices before being forever forgotten. But a transformative work overturning that joke has the power to stay with its hundred or so readers for a long, long time, fondly remembered as their comforter in a time of need, the one friend who stuck up for them when nobody else would, who reassured them "hey, you're not the only one who thought that wasn't cool".

Once a story's told, once it's out there in the public domain, we can do anything we like to it, original authorial intent be damned. (I believe that's called "the death of the author", and it would certainly be rather enjoyable to imagine you were killing whatever moron wrote Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.) Lots of mainstream writers aren't happy with that, of course; George R. R. Martin is quoted in Time magazine as saying "My characters are my children ... I don't want people making off with them, thank you. Even people who say they love my children." But, as the (highly readable) article concludes, that's what happens to children - they grow up and move on. They fall in love with people you wouldn't approve of. They follow career paths that aren't what you hoped for for them. Above all, they grow up in a different generation, a different era from yours, subject to different influences, in - perhaps - a more enlightened time.

Children are our future, as the cliché goes. And transformative works certainly give me hope for the future.

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