Fansplaining: Real Person Fiction

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Episode Title: Fansplaining: Real Person Fiction
Length: 1:03:33
Featured: Aja Romano
Date: August 8, 2018
Focus: RPF
External Links: Episode at

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Fansplaining: Real Person Fiction is an episode of the podcast Fansplaining by Flourish Klink and Elizabeth Minkel.

For others in the series, see Fansplaining.


Elizabeth and Flourish are joined by Aja Romano, internet culture writer at Vox, to discuss RPF: writing fiction about celebrities and other real, living people. Topics covered include stigma towards RPF within fandom and in the broader culture; the many ways real people turn up in all sorts of art; and what happens when a celebrity encounters online discourse about themselves. They also discuss a listener message about one of Fansplaining’s favorite topics: fandom, capitalism, and the monetization of fanworks.


Topics Discussed


ELM: Yeah, and so this is a practice within fan communities. And one of the great ironies of people’s disdain for RPF inside fandom and in the mainstream outside fandom, because it is something that people, it’s one of the things within fanfiction that people tend to zero in on and say, “Well, that’s the line I won’t cross,” that kind of thing, is that people fiction about real people, even living people, is very common in TV, in movies and books. So this is a practice within fandom that’s labeled as such, but it’s funny because it’s so common, and not labeled in a special way. You know what I mean?

FK: It’s funny that you say that it’s zeroed in on, because when I think about it, you’re right, but also, a lot of times when I talk to people who have no interaction with fandom at all and are thinking about it for the first time, they’ll say something like, “Oh yeah, I used to write stories about myself and insert-famous-celebrity-here,” you know what I mean? It’s a really, really common thing that I think people who think about fandom quickly get upset about, but a lot of people who are not in the fandom sphere just don’t even think about or think, “Oh yeah, of course, everyone does this. It’s the same thing as fantasizing about a celebrity, you just wrote it down. Who cares?” Right.

ELM: Sure, or, so much of our celebrity journalism culture, entertainment journalism, is about speculation about celebrities’ private lives, you know, attempts to get access, celebrity profiles, that kind of thing. It’s all sorts of things. RPF is a way to engage with some of that, but it’s even a bit more deliberate. You really signpost that what you’re doing is fiction, in a way that entertainment journalism sometimes doesn’t. You know, the magazines you see at the grocery store check out line. I was just in the suburbs, they don’t actually have this in New York, but at the Rite Aid or Walgreens register.

ELM: ... Anyway, and then, to make this ecosystem even muddier, you have real person shipping practices, that turn into, so some people, like the idea of a real couple together, just for fun. Some people believe they’re uncovering the truth, conspiracy theories, tinhatting. Those are practices that get really muddied even within fan spaces, outside of fan spaces. The spaces around real person shipping are pretty muddled, because that intersects with real person fiction too. I could be a, for example, I could love Larry Stylinson fanfiction, just as an example, that’s Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson, but have no strong feelings about whether they’ve ever been together, whether they are together, et cetera. And then on the farther end of the spectrum, I could have strong feelings that they were, or I could believe there’s some conspiracy theory etc. And all these people are existing within the same space and say, “Oh yeah, I like Larry RPF.”

FK: Yeah.

ELM: And that can mean wildly different things.

FK: Absolutely.

ELM: And I think that’s where some of the tensions come too, because you could say, “My lines are, I like to imagine them as a couple, but I would never write stories about them.” Or you could say, “Oh, I only like to write fictional stories about them, but thinking about their real lives? They’re just constructions, they’re just characters.”

FK: Right, “Envisioning them as a real couple or thinking about their real lives, that’s too far. I only write fiction.”

ELM: Yeah, exactly, I think that’s why this gets really messy really fast.

AR: So, I’m not gonna say that I don’t write normal RPF, but I think in general, people are drawn to the celebrities, and they ship them together, or they ship themselves with the celebrity, and they write those fics. Basically I think they write fic tropes and they apply them to real people. I think that’s what most people do.

ELM: Okay. You have a ship.

FK: That seems pretty normal to my experience of RPF. People have a ship and they’re like, “They’re so cute together, let’s write that.”

AR: Right, and I wanna say that not all but a whole lot of the RPF I’ve written over my lifetime has been about exploring these people’s relationship to the work that they are creating, often with homosexulity or homoeroticism or some type of self-aware meta-knowledge of their relationship to the text and the text’s relationship to a larger conversation with society.

FK: So you’re saying that your RPF is kind of more, at least what you’re writing right now, is that it’s actually about Angels in America—

AR: Yes.

FK: But you’re writing about Andrew Garfield because you wanna write about Angels in America, not because you wanna write about Andrew Garfield.

AR: Yes, exactly. And that’s how I’ve always, I think the most successful fic I’ve ever written was in Merlin fandom, and it was a Merlin RPF fic that was literally all about the queerbaiting in Merlin and how the actors were reacting to that and learning about themselves through that. And that is something that I just keep exploring over and over again. I keep writing about these stories where the actors or entertainers, whoever they are, have to go through some sort of reckoning about the work that they’re producing and its social responsibility, and their social responsibility to their audience, and to themselves, and to the work, and how all that relates to their sexuality, that’s what I love about it

FK: Yeah, but I think that’s really interesting, because one of the ways that people often defend RPF, right—certainly a way that I’ve defended RPF in the past as a certified writer and reader thereof—is to say, “We’re looking at the personas that are shown to us and we’re constructing someone from those personas, and we know that it’s not the same thing as a real person. And we don’t necessarily want it to be the same thing as the real person. We’re not invested in whether that person is real or not.”

I think there’s limits to this, right, because would I be totally thrilled to discover that the Harry Styles in my head is exactly the same as the real Harry Styles? Of course. Are you kidding? That would be so, that would be very validating I think. But I know at the same time that I shouldn’t want to be validated in that way. I shouldn’t somehow be that emotionally compromised that way. So it’s interesting to hear someone come out and just say, “That means a lot to me.”

AR: It does mean a lot to me, absolutely. But I’m not deluded. I’ve actually been in the weird position of having written RPF and then getting to know the people, some of the people I was actually writing the RPF about, and it’s so weird— .

FK: This is making me think a lot about reading biographies of historical figures, which is hardly a new thing for someone to say about RPF.

AR: Sure.

FK: But it really is making me think about, for instance, there was recently an article about—I can’t remember who wrote it and it’s gonna drive me nuts—by a person who writes internet things about history, who was like, “I judge people based on what they think about Anne Boleyn.” You know what I mean? “If you don’t like Anne Boleyn, I don’t like you, bitch.” Basically, that was the summary. And it was really interesting, you know, because on the one hand you can understand a lot about a person, I believe that, based on whether or not they’re initially like, “oh yeah, Anne Boleyn’s awesome,” or if they’re like, “she’s awful,” but at the same time, if we can Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure this thing, she would be nothing like any of this, right?

AR: Right. There’s understanding when we talk about historical RPF that all of these people are social constructs, and that they’re fictional constructs, that doesn’t necessarily always extend to talking about current RPF, and talking about current celebrities, so I always try to be like, “These are exactly the same.” The way that we engage with celebrities, me writing RPF and you shipping Brangelina, this is the same kind of collective construction that we’re doing, the way that we did to the Tudors and the Kennedys and so forth.

FK: But isn’t that one of the reasons that RPF has changed a bit, right? I remember in the ’90s reading Tiger Beat, “I got ice cream with Jonathan Taylor Thomas” as one of the things, literally in an article there.

ELM: Wow, Flourish. That’s adorable. Really getting a sense of you right now.

FK: Well, that was a thing in the teen fan magazines, right. And the reason I think that was OK in those was because there was this sense of a complete gulf between you and the celebrity. You can fantasize about whatever you want, you are literally never gonna meet that person.

ELM: What about the idea that it’s offensive—and this isn’t just about fic, it’s also about RPF shipping—that it’s offensive to write about celebrities in sexual situations.

AR: This overlaps with a lot of other conversations that people have around fanfiction in general.

FK: Sure, and fandom in general, let’s be clear. I mean, not just real person fiction but shipping real people, getting invested in real people’s relationships in general without fiction.

ELM: Yeah, I know a number of people who are super down for fanfiction, super down for shipping fictional characters, and super down for explicit fic, you know, do whatever you want, but when you mention RPF they get really, really uncomfortable. They’re like, “I just don’t think that’s right, those are real people,” and I’ll be like, “They’re a construction, blah blah blah,” and they’ll be like, “No.” And, undeniably—not my friends, thankfully—but this conversation does sometimes have a homophobic tint. Homophobic in the sense that like, it’s sometimes cast as the ultimate insult to ship two male actors together or put them in a sexual situation, and the fact that that’s so grievously insulting to some people, that has kind of a homophobic vibe to me. That said, RPF shipping isn’t one great stride for gay rights either, just FYI.

AR: I think when you’re talking about journalism, you’re talking about something that is, at least to the vast majority of us, something that is perceived as being abstractive and objective. So you can get personal within the genre of journalism as a literary form, but I think it’s seen more about being your personal relationship about a thing you’re still objectively reporting on, whereas you’re talking about fiction, you’re talking about something that’s completely, intensely personal, and it’s personal to most of the people reading it as well as to you writing it. And I think that people approach that differently and have different ideas and expectations about what your thought process is as you’re constructing the work.

I feel like the way that we approach RPF, in general, I think, is that we expect it to be all about emotions that are romantic, that are confined within a very typical expectation of fiction. But I think when you’re dealing with real life, you're dealing with reality, there’s so much more, it’s so much more complex, it’s so much more layered, there are so many meta levels, and there’s so many more feelings you can be working through. Our expectations about what RPF is and how it functions has a lot to do with how we react to it, and I think that’s said because I think RPF is about much more, and often is about much more in terms of what it’s doing textually, and critically.

ELM: OK, really quick, let’s summarize our “Fandom and Capitalism” argument, which is, we had a letter-writer write in, who articulated it really well for us, talking about how transformative fandom—the kind of fandom that all three of us are in—kind of breaks the cycle of feedback within the capitalistic structures we’re engaging with. We can get really mad about the lack of diversity in Harry Potter, or the continuing bad decisions or whatever, but it doesn’t matter in terms of making any change if we fix all that in our fanfiction, diversify it there, but then continue to monetarily support the actual structures. We’re not sending any actual signals back if we continue to engage with the big franchises and do the corrective work ourselves, for ourselves, in transformative fandom. And the important thing to remember in that argument is just like our listener says here, these are the structures in which we currently live. That sucks but we have to be honest about that.

AR: But I think we subvert that all the time, and I think we may continue to support the existing franchises through monetary means, but we are also building other things. And I think it’s really important to me to say that I think we are seeing more and more fannish modes of economy and exchange proliferating into the mainstream in serious ways that may not necessarily be literal fanfiction, but are definitely borne of them, and of fandom and transformative fanfiction.

FK: You know, I am gonna be the person here who says I think fanfiction is making some of us poor.

ELM: Hey, capitalist Flourish, here she comes!

FK: You know, genuinely, here I come, and here’s the thing: I totally respect and support people who want to take themselves out of capitalism. I think that if you decide you want to be part of a gift economy, that’s wonderful. In that case, maybe form a gift economy around things that are not part of the corporate world. Maybe write something that’s not about Captain America. I love fandom, I love fanfiction, I love the gift economy within it, but we can’t escape the fact that it is feeding back into these corporate aspects, and as long as we’re continuing to solely ghettoize ourselves in a solely fanfiction space—

AR: I don’t think we are solely ghettoizing ourselves at all.

FK: I think people are breaking out of that more and more, but I do think that especially for people who want to keep that fourth wall extremely high, why are you going to go pro, why would you consider to be a TV writer, why would you do any of these things—

AR: That’s borne out of shame as much as it is borne out of indifference to capitalism. Not that they don’t bleed into each other.

FK: Sure, I don't think anyone is thinking, “Oh yeah, I want to,” I think these things are mixed with each other.

AR: But I do think there is a whole lot of shame around the idea if you’re doing it for free and it’s not making money then you’re wasting your time, or you’re just not good enough to be profitable, that kind of thing. And I think that it’s very subversive to be like, “I’m a professional writer, I’m absolutely as good as someone making money from this, but I’m doing this for free because I believe that’s an important statement to make and an important exchange to offer the world.”

ELM: But, embedded within that, and I agree with all of that, is an extraordinary amount of privilege to be able to make that choice.

ELM: OK! Maybe. But the point is, you know, it's interesting for me to watch conversations about monetization, because it’s true for me, when I actively choose to write fanfiction with my spare time, it’s time that I could be using to write words that earn money. And this is not fiction words, these are nonfiction words, but it’s true. I am a professional writer, and I’m choosing to use up my words. I have a limited number of words in my life, I can’t write that much, and that’s an extraordinary signal of my privilege. I have a full time job that pays the bills. It allows me, ideally, free weekends and sometimes nights—having a bit of a work–life balance issue right now—to do this in my spare time.

And it’s great, but it’s sometime hard for me to watch people say “I’m entitled to money for my work, I’m entitled to feedback for my work.” That’s a huge conversation right now in my feed. “I can’t keep writing unless you leave me more comments,” and I’m like, “This is really hard for me because I’m not spurred by that at all,” in a way that I feel like I’m the purest of the three of us in that it’s my love for the thing. But also you two are very invested in the community of it in ways that I probably never have been and probably never will be.

AR: It’s strange to hear you say that because I feel like I have conversations all the time with baby fans who are completely dependent upon comments for them to determine whether they should keep writing, and that pains me so much because I’m like, “You should always be doing this for yourself and nobody else, because you will never be able to get that kind of validation.” And I think, I guess that’s why I’m protective of the idea that fanfiction needs to be done for free, if only so that you can maintain your personal autonomy over your relationship to your work, right? So you’re not dependent upon external factors.

FK: Yeah, I think what I mean when I say that fanfiction is making some of us poor, I think that what I mean is that there’s a lot of people who, fanfiction is making us poor—I’m just using this term because—

ELM: Yeah, can we pause and say, the use of the word “poor” in this is something that’s not acceptable in 2018.

FK: It’s not great in 2018.

ELM: It wasn’t acceptable then either. Let’s do that poor/broke distinction here, on systemic poverty.

FK: Right, so if fanfiction is making you broke, fanfiction is making you not earn money from your writing, I do think there’s something in that because I have conversations with people who do have a fantasy vision of themselves as a writer, making money from their writing, who are involved in the fanfiction world, and find it incredibly hard to get out of that validation space, right? Because we pay each other in validation.

I agree, it is hard, too! I find it incredibly hard to write without people telling me that I’m great, and I don't get that many comments for a fanfiction writer compared to some people I know. I get many more than lots of others. But I do think that there’s something that happens when we opt into this gift economy, and I do think a lot of people could opt to do something else, and there’s certain factors that make it very sticky, you know?

AR: ... We’ve been having this conversation for years in terms of filing off serial numbers and pulling to publish, should we be doing it? And I feel like there’s just room for everything, and I think we’re seeing more emergence of ways—and I am completely biased here, because I am a living example of making money from fandom in a way that is not making money from fanfiction.

ELM: All three of us are, it’s undeniable.

FK: Yup.

AR: But I think that’s becoming more common. Even books, like Fangirl and Ship It! All of those things are different ways of taking that forward and profiting from it.

ELM: Well, see, you bring up things like that and I just think of all of the elevated fanboys who are now running multi-billion-dollar franchises.

AR: Right, just go for it.

ELM: I think of all of the anger and fury at the idea that you would ever use your own fannishness to work on fictional property, or to write a book like that.

AR: It’s such a gendered thing.