Fansplaining: The Fourth Wall

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Podcast Episode
Fansplaining (fandom podcast series)
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Episode Title: Fansplaining: The Fourth Wall
Length: 59:29
Date: June 1, 2016
Focus: The Fourth Wall
External Links: Episode at

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Fansplaining: The Fourth Wall is a podcast by Flourish Klink and Elizabeth Minkel.

For others in the series, see Fansplaining.


"In episode 23, Flourish and Elizabeth take on the fourth wall—not the metaphorical wall between the audience and the actors on a stage, but the one erected BY fans to separate them (and their fanworks) from creators. After a crash course on the history of the fannish fourth wall, they discuss famous fan/creator clashes, from the Phelps twins confronted with Weasleycest to Benedict Cumberbatch writing het fanfic about Sherlock. And they consider whether any creator can cross the fourth wall successfully—and whether, in the age of social media, there’s any way the fourth wall *won’t* get broken."


Some Topics Discussed


FK: Right. Except that in the fan version of breaking the fourth wall, “performer” is much more broadly construed [than the traditional definition]. So like, the performer isn’t just the characters in a TV show or a band when they’re onstage, it’s also the band when they get offstage and like walk around and live their life, or the actors when they’re not in the TV show and you can break the fourth wall by doing something that makes it clear that these people’s lives are a performance.

ELM: Right, so. The way that I encountered the fourth wall in—these are transformative fandoms we’re talking about, fanfiction, fanart, vidding, things where fans create things about source material, right? So the way I had initially encountered it was a kind of fan-erected fourth wall. So if theater is predicated on the idea of this division existing, this was more about fans creating a division unspoken or otherwise to protect themselves and their activities around their objects of fandom. Does that make sense?

FK: Yeah, and I think that that’s true, that while in theater and literature and art the fourth wall is something that is sort of erected or created by the story-world and can only be broken from the story-world side, in fandom it goes both ways. So fans erect the fourth wall in order to prevent them from getting sued for writing fanfiction, although that’s very unlikely these days, but historically people thought it was much more likely. So they just say “we’re never going to come in contact with you guys, we don’t want you to know about our activities.” And in that case a fan can break the fourth wall by showing their fanfiction to the writers of the TV show or whatever.

ELM: Sure. I mean, from my perspective and I don’t know if you disagree, I feel like it's—obviously there’s been some historical element of protecting oneself from legal action. But it’s more like spiritual and emotional. It’s like protecting your, I don’t want the people who are writing the source material I’m writing fanfiction about or doing any fan activity about, to see what I’m doing, because it’s like, they might mock me. Frankly they probably will if the past few years in the media have been an indicator. And also it’s mine, it’s not for them, it’s for me. So the fourth wall is protecting me from their scrutiny.

FK: Right, and I think that’s one of the reasons it gets really complicated, because not everybody has the same feelings about it, right. Some people feel like “why wouldn’t I show my fanart of Kirk and Spock having sex to William Shatner?”

FK: The basic idea of it was that everybody in the Cold War has a lot of nuclear weapons so that if one person launches nuclear weapons then everybody else does too and everybody dies. So no one will ever start a nuclear war because otherwise we’d all die.

ELM: Mutually assured destruction. Yes. So that was the way I had framed the shaky boundaries of the fourth wall as they’re evolving. And she pointed out, which I thought was a good critique, that there is an inherent imbalance of power in these interactions. It’s not like the US and Russia. So I think that’s a pretty important thing that we should talk about as we talk about the fourth wall. The actors and the audience acknowledging each other is one thing; the object of fandom and the fans acknowledging each other can be a very different thing. And frankly can be a very potentially harmful thing to the fans. And possibly to the creators as well, though you probably know I have less sympathy in that realm.

ELM: Well OK how about this then: it’s not necessarily, it’s like Star Trek. It depends on the type of source material. Now every actor, so many things have fandoms, it’s not just—not to say this wasn’t true in the past, but yeah. I’m not surprised Star Trek people, with direct fan interaction all the time, going to cons, very vibrant fanbase for a very long time, but the fact that everyone in the MCU or the X-men actors being shown erotic fanart by Graham Norton every fifteen seconds, that feels new.

FK: Yeah. I think that there’s a good point which is that fandom in general has become more visible and more things have fandoms, so, right. If you’re Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner you can’t help but know the fans, and know what they’re doing a little bit because you go to cons, people keep shoving it in your face, of course—

ELM: I’ve seen GalaxyQuest, so I know how it works.

ELM: I don’t want to oversell fanworks and I think I often do and I think I like to talk a big talk about how transgressive they are and how important their transgression is, as we obviously saw from our last episode they are not nearly as universally transgressive as we like to think they are—specifically referring to our fantastic, I say fantastic because Rukmini was fantastic, not us. Talking about how we push the envelope with queer depictions but don’t do it with race. But I’m thinking about, so we have this list of historical examples that we haven’t really touched on, but I’m thinking about the Weasley twin thing, and it kind of helps me illustrate a broader point. So can we think about this for a second?

ELM: If you tell them about—and they all know about it now, naturally, because Supernatural is the fandom that is the most aware of its fans with its massive con scene every four days, it seems like. Their opinions on Wincest, on brother incest fanfiction, are one thing, they are not brothers. Right?

FK: Yeah.

ELM: I feel like I’m all over the place trying to say this. Here’s what I see: there’s always this huge backlash amongst male celebrities about slash when people show them erotic fanworks, mostly fanart but also fanfiction, we’ve talked about this before, this is what my angry Cumberbatch article is about, and there’s always this massive no homo where they’re like, ugh! It often comes off that way. And it’s like, why do you care so much if people depict you in a gay relationship with your costar?

FK: Right, it’s not like you haven’t been in sex scenes fake sexing up ladies all the time, so how is this that different.

ELM: Right! And you know, the official moment when Cumberbatch and I broke up was after he had flipped out about the gay fanfiction from Sherlock, he essentially wrote a self-insert het sex scene in that Elle article. Do you remember this?

FK: I do.

ELM: About how he would sex a lady! It was… it was—sorry. How Sherlock would sex a lady.

FK: It was weird and skeevy in a variety of ways.

ELM: It was like oh, you need to read some fic, bro. Honestly.

FK: I mean Sherlock can sex a lady if Sherlock wants to sex a lady, but I don’t think that Benedict Cumberbatch

ELM: He’s not a very good fic writer.

FK: —needs to decide or write that fic that I want to read.

ELM: Right. So this is clearly, it’s not about the idea of this example, and I feel like I talk about this too much, but this is such an illustrative example. It’s not about imagining Cumberbatch’s face and body in a sexual position. It’s about imagining him in a sexual position with Martin Freeman or John Watson. Because he doesn’t mind it when it’s a lady. So that feels like… that feels like a no homo, right?

ELM: But I also don’t think that… I’m one of these people who is going to sit here and say, you can write about whatever you want as long as you tag it. And I know that’s complicated and I know we just had a big episode about whether you can really say that, talking about it with regards to race, and it’s a really complicated topic. But for the most part that’s where I often come down, especially when we have this—there’s always big flareups about underage stuff and noncom and dubcon. And I tend to err on the side of “as long as everything is very well tagged fiction shouldn’t be censored.”

FK: I agree with that, but I also think that to some degree, when you write something and you put it up publicly particularly, you are accepting that some people may not like it. So I think that you can write absolutely anything that you want and people should, and I think there can be very transgressive stories including the twincest generator that I wrote. That hopefully have some artistic merit—I don’t know whether mine does, but somebody’s does, I’m sure. But you have to accept that there are going to be people that think that’s gross and wrong and will think you are gross and wrong for it. Particularly if you put it up in a space where folks can easily find it.

And this is one of the things that I think has been so challenging about social media in particular, and one of the reasons I think our discussion of the fourth wall has changed. In the past, when people had fanfiction archives that were more separate… You know, the Archive of our Own is its own thing. You have, I often talk about the well-organized Pride and Prejudice archive situation. And that’s really locked down. You have to use a password, it’s a whole thing. Those things can’t be easily crawled by, you know, I use a social media listening software—

FK & ELM, together: For [your/my] job.

FK: In my experience, when there are creator-sanctioned spaces, they have always been an attempt to make a buck off of fandom in a way that feels really co-opting to me. I’m not saying this is universally true and there may be times in the future where there’s a better deal for fans, in which case, I’m all about figuring this out and taking it case by case, as you know. No black or white thinking here. But for instance, when we first started seeing fanfiction archives being created on show websites, this started happening I think in the early 2000s, that was because people noticed that fanfiction website got traffic and they wanted traffic to the site in order to get more hits on the site, serve more ads, you know, so forth. On the one hand, OK, they’re allowed to do that. But on the other hand it feels a little bit like “hey, why don’t you take your community over there,” which is doing great, you’re enjoying your freedom of speech, “and come over here into this area where you’re going to know we’re going to be watching everything you do, we can censor you if we want to, and we’re gonna make a buck off you for it.”

ELM: I think this is right in line with where I am at too, actually. This isn’t that much of a disagreement.

FK: Yeah, I just don’t think that—I think there’s a big difference between somebody using social media listening software to hear things that people are already putting on platforms like Tumblr or Twitter or whatever, there’s a big difference between that and creating a website to try and create a walled garden for people to come into.

ELM: But I think what you’re describing is an older web thing that has fallen out of fashion from a broader web perspective of the way that brands are online and engaging with their potential customers now. Generating good feelings about your brand is your mission, it’s not getting people into your space in the same way, you know what I mean?

Fan Comments

[anythingforaquietlife]: Fanfic about books is a somewhat different thing; I don’t think a TV or film based creator has ever compared fic about their characters to ‘white slavery’ or even said, in the last thirty years, that the fic made them feel ill (cf I have heard that the Blake’s Seven producers tried to sue writers of slash fic). Writers, though are still reacting [1] to a suit brought by a fic writer who claimed Marion Zimmer Bradley stole an idea from them and made money off it. But I also remember MZB and Katherine Kurtz supporting fanzines and eventually publishing (real books! No royalties I recall) anthologies of some of the fan fic based on their canon. Some of it was really good. Long ago.[2]


  1. ^ They are. And they are still repeating a lot of heresay. There is no evidence that anyone sued anyone else in that example, so say nothing of many people failing to do a closer reading and see all the nuances of that controversy.
  2. ^ comments at the blog, by anythingforaquietlife