Breaking the Fourth Wall

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Related terms: Fourth Wall, TPTB, metafic
See also: TPTB's Involvement with Fandom
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Breaking the fourth wall has different definitions - one related to the concept in general media, and one that applies the "fourth wall" in fandom. The boundary between fictional characters and audience or fandom and TPTB is called the fourth wall, a concept which originated in theater for an imaginary fourth wall between the audience and the actors that prevents interaction. To break the fourth wall is the breach the divide between audience and subject.

  1. making characters aware of the audience or the fact that they are in a work of fiction, a fanfiction genre called metafic
  2. making TPTB aware of fanworks.

For many fans, directly involving TPTB in fanworks was a fannish taboo. A fan wrote in 2015: "The cardinal rule was “Do not profit from fandom.” The second rule was “Do not put your fic in the way of the talent.”" [1]

Topic Suggestions

  • press and those seeking readers/attention set up situations
  • fans and non-fans create a situation or confrontation to prove a point
  • fans with good intentions create a situation that backfires or is ill-thought out
  • fans with good intentions create a situation that goes well and ends happily


Some Early Boundary Crossings

Early 1980s

A comment by Dovya Blacque which addresses the early 1980s: have over the years done many things that aren't really kosher with fandom. My favorite story of a fan asking an inappropriate question at a convention happened at a one-shot convention in Washington D.C. in the 1980s, Leonard Nimoy was the big guest. The day before his appearance, I sold a bunch of K/S zines to a young man who was stunned and excited to discover K/S. Being gay himself, and a student at Georgetown, he couldn't believe that something celebrating his own sexuality was part of his huge love for Star Trek. *I* was excited to introduce him to K/S. The following day, as I sat in Nimoy's talk with a whole bunch of other K/S editors, writers and artists, Nimoy called on this young man during Q&A. And, of course, this very excited young man asked The Question: "What do you think of the fan writing in which Kirk and Spock are lovers?" You could hear a collective gasp and the sound of dozens of eyes widening in horror. It just wasn't DONE. You didn't ask the actors about slash. NEVER NEVER NEVER. With his usual grace and good will, Nimoy replied (I'm paraphrasing): "What do you think of it?" The young man replied that he thought it was amazing, to which Nimoy said, "Fans have great imaginations. Next question?" I have never heard or heard of an actor responding to a question about a character's sexuality with more sensitivity and understanding. I think actors who are faced with the same question now could learn a lot from Nimoy's reply.

The other first-hand example I have of a fan doing something inappropriate that horrified fans present at the time was in 1983 at Space-Trek 3 [2] in St. Louis. As we stood in line for Nimoy's autograph, a fan artist -- not a very good one so I'm not going to name her! -- was excitedly showing people the drawing of hers she intended to hand Nimoy for his autograph. It was extremely explicit K/S; I believe a sexual act was depicted. En mass, we all worked very hard for about 15 minutes to convince her not to hand the artwork to Nimoy. We prevailed but it was a very difficult thing to explain to her, someone who honestly didn't think she was doing anything wrong or disrespectful or questionable or inappropriate. Her desire to share what she thought was beautiful artwork with him was an honest desire to share her passion for the character Nimoy portrayed. The very thought simply appalled the 10 or so of us standing in line with her. [3]

From a May 15, 1980 radio interview with Mark Hamill, some of his reactions to fan fiction:

unidentified fan caller: "I know you're a longtime science fiction fan. I was wondering if you had read any of the fan fiction that's been published about STAR WARS?"

Hamill: Oh, everything that they send, even if it takes six months, gets to me, and I've read fiction that has been created by people that have been moved enough by the film to... you know. George has created this history, this populated environment... One of my favorite stories is the story where I got to go to bed with the Princess, 'cause it doesn't happen in the movie. It was a real sexy story — I was really excited by that. But there was another story about how Han Solo met Chewie in flight training school. The fans themselves have enriched George's storyline, populated it with their own ideas. But any of those fan magazines they do send, I read 'em. I'm sort of backlogged on sending out the thank you notes. Actually, I'm glad you asked that because it gives me an opportunity to thank everybody for that kind of stuff. We do read all our mail."

unidentified fan caller: "Well, that's great because several of the authors are right here in this building."

Hamill: "Really? Which ones do you write for?"

unidentified fan caller: "Primarily for SKYWALKER, and GUARDIAN, and PEGASUS, etc..."

Hamill: "Oh, Pegasus I got, definitely, in fact I took a page out of Pegasus, and it was up on my mirror in my dressing room for the entire filming of the picture. So a little piece of you was over there."

unidentified fan caller: "Well, that's wonderful. I'll be sure to tell the editors." [4]


A 1987 comment by Mark Lenard, the actor who portrayed Sarek and the Romulan Commander:

Did I tell you about … years ago I used to get a lot of fanzines. All kinds of them. And you know about the x-rated fanzines. I never, well, I looked at them sometimes. Sometimes I didn't. Threw them in the back of the car or something. One day I got into the car and my daughter was four years old then. She got into the backseat and there was this fanzine there. She opened it up and there was a centerfold and who should be on the centerfold but Spock. And I'll tell you only that his ears weren't the only thing about him that was pointed. She was four then. She seemed, I won't say unimpressed, but it didn't seem to bother her particularly. She's 21 now. She seems to, you know, have grown up all right. I resolved never again to leave any of that stuff around, any of the fanzines around without looking at them first. [5]


Comments by Aja regarding conflict in early 1999:

To make a long story short, we had wank coming from Kevin Spacey himself, and the mods of both lists were running around freaking out that our lists were being spied on and 'infiltrated' by Spacey's assistants. It was crazy and chaotic, and really scary because as wanky as this is, our list actually was being infiltrated by Spacey's personal assistant--and in the middle of all the pressure, one morning I woke up to discover that the person I had allowed to be owner had deleted my mailing list.

She had done it out of the blue, just because of her own personal issues over the Spacey wank. It was completely my fault for unthinkingly letting her be owner while I was the head Mod, but I never thought that she would actually use the access to just delete it literally on in impulse, without telling or consulting any of the other mods. I mean, wtf WHO DOES THAT? I was hurt and betrayed and all my other mods were thrown into even more confusion, and I've never really forgiven her for it.

So my lovely little list that I was so proud of was gone forever, along with all its archives and member list--and we had no record of who had been on it, and no way to contact anybody on the list to tell them what had happened. We immediately made a new list, of course, and people found their way back, but now instead of being the cool revolutionaries we had been tainted by the wank, and it felt like we'd lost our street cred. Very rapidly after that the entire fandom became wankier and wankier, and I soon handed over the reins of the new list to somebody else and got the hell out of Dodge. The 9 month period I was in that fandom was the wankiest, most ridiculously dramatic, petty, and stupid online experience I've ever had. Nothing I've seen in HP fandom has ever come close to it... [snipped]. [6]

The Internet Brings Higher Visibility

From The Long-Delayed Fourth Wall Meta (2018):

There've always been breaches in the wall. From fans showing slashy fanart to actors at cons to people reccing slash stories on an actor's personal website, there have always been fans who intentionally break the wall. But fandom knows how to respond to that. For all the inevitable wank that comes out of such situations, fandom is actually remarkably good at self-policing, at negotiating and implementing our own rules and standards for behavior. Now though, now the breaks in the wall are coming from the other side, The very real people we write and squee and post about are poking their heads through the wall, sometimes even stepping over it and taking a look around. And the great conundrum of our fannish era is that we can't stop them....It's the culmination of a process of increased visibility that started the moment fandom moved to the internet and accelerated rapidly with the move off of the listservs and onto lj. [7]

Causes and Motivations

Does Higher Visibility Make for an Illusion of Understanding?

Many fans believe that the continued insistence by some of maintaining the illusion of the Fourth Wall in the face of increased interactions between content creators and fans only harms both groups and fosters ongoing misunderstandings. From the 2015 article titled: "Tyler Hoechlin, Sterek, Conventions and The Fourth Wall":

"Due to the growing ease of communication between fans and producers there seems to be an assumption within some groups that actors and creators and even official social media have a more comprehensive understanding of fandom than is likely considering their relatively limited exposure.......this attitude also creates the illusion of understanding between fans and producers. Some fans assume that because they know the definition of the word “slash” that they understand the practice on a fandom level, which is just not realistic. They really only have limited access to fan practices and the majority of their knowledge still comes from non-fandom sources that are not known for being particularly flattering. This is where fandom’s insistence on maintaining the illusion of the fourth wall becomes particularly problematic. Fandom’s blanket self-censorship doesn’t work because there are always those willing to talk about shipping anyway. Besides, it’s not like it’s actually hidden. Most fan practices take place in public forums that are accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. Those involved in production, including actors, are often only exposed to the stuff their friends send as a joke or the things journalists use to make them uncomfortable and of course their interactions with the few shameless people that are willing to face the wrath of the fandom (usually because they don’t care what fandom thinks)."[8]

Not a Fan Choice

From The Long-Delayed Fourth Wall Meta (2018):

Where the fourth wall falls, how well defended it should be, when and how it is appropriate to breach it, these decisions aren't only fandom's to make. We can and should create our own expectations and norms for appropriate fan behavior, but there are no guidelines for how are fan objects should interact with fandom. And even if there were, they're not ours to decide. We say it over and over again, the people we write fic about are not part of our community, this is not about or for them. And that's good, that's right. But we can't go around constantly reiterating their status as outside our community, as objects instead of participants, and then of and then demand that they conform to our community-specific standards and rules. The prevailing (although not unanimous) opinion within fandom is that everyone's better off sticking to their own side of the wall. But we cannot apply that standard outside of fandom. And outside of fandom is where are fan objects reside. More and more of the objects of our fannish attention are poking their heads over the wall and saying, "hmm, that looks kind of interesting over there." Most of them will probably be confused and bemused by what they find here. A few of them may be traumatized and offended. But some of them will, to a greater or lesser extent, come to understand and "get" fandom better through their interactions with us. And that, I sincerely think, is only of the good. [9]

A Focus on the Fans, Not Idolatry

A fan in 2016 comments on a 2009 quote by David Duchovny:

[Fandom] takes the place of some of the functions of a church in a small town: A place where people come together, ostensibly to worship something. But really what’s happening is you’re forming a community. It’s less about what you’re worshiping and more about, “We have these interests in common.” Someone has a sick aunt and suddenly it’s about that, raising money to help her or sharing resources to make her life easier. That’s what it was about with The X-Files on the Internet.

I’ve never really seen any celebrity “get” fandom the way Duchovny did. A lot of people read that quote and, at the time, mistakenly read it as David saying he was like a god. But what he meant was that (as I believe he clarified elsewhere) fans didn’t need him to make an appearance. Fandom wasn’t about him. It was about us–the fans.

I want us to not forget that. When the fandom’s centre stops being the community of fans and becomes, instead, focused on–even blinded by–the glittering idol, then fandom itself becomes nothing more than idolatry–with all of us, as individuals, jockeying for a touch or a piece of that idol and stomping over each other to get it.

I’ve seen fandoms fall apart when that happens. I’ve seen fandoms become places where fans know and care more about the celebrities than we do about each other.

I know there are good reasons for fans to create personas and screen names. But this might be a good time to re-introduce ourselves to each other. And to think about how much more important that is than is meeting a famous person at the stage door. [10]

Response from TPTB

The Fine Line TPTB Walk

A 2016 comment by Dovya Blacque:

Some actors have made their pov very clear to their fans and, for the most part, fans respect their desire not to acknowledge the slash aspects of fandom. However, for me, it's not really whether an actor does or doesn't find slash appropriate. It's the way the actor relays his/her pov that can make or break that actor's (or the show's) relationship with their fans who are part of the gay community. I adore Jensen Ackles but find the way he chose to respond to the situation [at a recent con] unrefined and would love to see him find the words that would both explain his pov on the subject and not alienate his fans at the same time. [11]

The Cooling Effect of TPTB in Fan Spaces

INTERNET AND FANDOM - Discussion exists about whether shows have backed off slash friendly elements after show-connected lurkers on lists have seen slash fans speculating about certain partnerships, i.e. Garak/Bashir, and taken the information back to the powers that be for the show. Are They that paranoid? Are there enough slash comments that they could care? There is very little possibility anyone will ever admit to making changes in a show based on fan comment (expect possibly JMS!) [12]

Example: Garak/Bashir

See the Garak/Bashir relationship on Deep Space Nine.

Example: Babylon 5 and JMS

See Babylon 5.


Confronting the Subject of Fanworks with a Fanwork About Them

Asking Actors and Other Canon-Creators in Public What They Think About Controversial Themes

  • During the break between season 2 and 3 Teen Wolf cast has been asked a lot about Sterek during mainstream interviews as well as in interactions with fans. It was one of the most discussed aspects during the time, to a point when in 2014 Tyler Posey's frustrated response to a Sterek question caused Poseygate

Public Reveal of Fanworks for Wank/Attention

Actors/Producers/Writers... Purposely Involving Themselves

Kandy Fong: — Walter's coming around through, and he goes, "Oh, you've got slash. You got any, listen — Kandy, why is it can I never find any slash that has Koenig it in?" I mean, Walter in it. I mean — (laughter)... He wanted to know why his character wasn't being slashed. I'm kinda going —
Marnie S: He was not... deterred by it. In fact, he used to tease George about it.
KF: Yes. (laughter) So, anyhow, he goes up and he sees this story, and I said, "And these stories are terrible." And he rolls it up and he decides to give a dramatic reading... About how the two guys had to go down to a planet and seduce the court of the queen, so they'd give them dilithium crystals, for the ship is trapped in orbit and can't get out. And so these two young men had to go down there and please the ladies of the — So, he's reading this thing out loud, very dramatically, and just enjoying the heck out of it. So—
MS: He got a huge kick out of things like that. [17]

  • the Lemming Comment: in 2007, Joseph Mallozzi (writer and producer for Stargate) mentioned the idea of anonymously posting on a forum regarding Boston Legal:
    Fondy and I are working our way through the second season of Boston Legal and are really enjoying the series. But one thing I found quite bizarre was the disappearance of one of the cast members. She’s in the show’s opening credits but only appeared in a handful of episodes before vanishing completely. Strange. She was a likable enough character. I wondered who was to blame for her disappearance. Was it the producers? The network? The studio? The actress herself? Was it a variety of factors? Some of the above? All of the above? Or maybe none of the above? Well, there was one thing I knew for sure, and that was that I knew nothing for sure. I considered joining some online fan forum and joining the chorus blaming the producers for her sudden disappearance, that episode with the singing, and my dog’s eye condition - but ultimately decided against it because I realized it would only make me sound like a shrill and ill-informed lemming. Still, it was tempting. There’s something strangely comforting and delusively empowering about chiming in with an anonymous mob, albeit one that lacks any true insight into the reality of a situation. [18]

Discussing Fanworks in Non-Fannish Spaces

Some Fiction Examples

  • As Lucid as Hell[19], a popslash story by Sandy the Older, set in "The Popslash Works In Progress Dorm" where the characters talk about the stories they're characters in, and complain about how slow their authors are.
  • In Wendi Jeff and Saundra Mitchell's H:LOTS story Permanently Offline, the actual show's characters were the "real characters" working for the Baltimore PD, having to deal with the actors, and the fans, of a popular show based on their activities.
  • Gus Goes For The Gold Star[20], a slash Psych story by Liviapenn, is a Yuletide story about Gus writing a Yuletide story -- meta and recursive, both!
  • JRM, one of the writers for the Professional Wrestling series WCFL, indulged in a bit of this at the start of the August 7, 1984 episode of WCFL World Class Wrestling.. Commentator Steve Stacks announced that Nick Bockwinkel had defeated Ric Flair for the WCFL World Heavyweight Title at SECW (Southeastern Championship Wrestling)'s WCFL The Great American Bash event. Bill Mercer said, "What an exciting event at the University of Alabama. GOD do I HATE the Alabama Crimson Tide! They suck!"
    "Mercer stares blankly at the floor, ashamed at the fact that JRM can make him say such awful things. [Big Grin]"[21]

Fan Comments


(I may not have morals, but I do have ethics, and I like them because I made them up all by myself) is that having obscene fantasies about screwing PeeDee (*not* Avon, but PeeDee --- a completely different thing) through the floor (wrinkles, Reagan, red meat, and all) is one thing, but *telling him about it* is quite another. In general, it's good manners to keep one's dirty mind where it belongs--here among the other dirty minds--and not impose it on the actors. Or athletes, or whomever. Unless, of course, they ask you to. [22]

Further Reading/Meta


  • In 1996, there was controversy in the Highlander fandom when a fan showed the one of the show's actors a fanwork. One response: two fans get a cease and desist: [23] The fan gets a follow-up letter telling her the Cease and Desist was a complete mistake. [24]


  • Stew has shared a story on the Clancy Brown Fanlore page of when he was asked about fanfiction - and specifically about slash fic - and he was absolutely supportive, to the extent of sending a written message to Stew to encourage her to keep writing. Sometimes, surprisingly enough, it goes well!




  • there was much fan discussion regarding James Marsters' comments at the June 2003 con Moonlight Rising about his views on Spike's characterization












Other Topics of Possible Interest


  1. ^ valarltd, Archived version, January 27, 2015, comment at Was Fanfic Any Different in the Olden Days? (2015 Tumblr discussion thread)
  2. ^ This fan may be referring to Space Trek #2 which was in 1983 or Space Trek #3 which was in 1984.
  3. ^ comment by Dovya Blacque, March 2016, posted to Zinelist, quoted with permission
  4. ^ transcript of a May 15, 1980 radio interview from a station (KTR) in Kirkland, Washington for the show "Turn It Up."
  5. ^ from IsisCon Transcript, August 30, 1987, Washington, DC, Archived version, compiled by Lynda King
  6. ^ Back in the day, I was a member of the Kevin Spacey fandom. Yes, Kevin Spacey has a fandom., bnfshavemorefun, June 24, 2004
  7. ^ from The Long-Delayed Fourth Wall Meta (2008)
  8. ^ Tyler Hoechlin, Sterek, Conventions and The Fourth Wall, Archived version
  9. ^ from The Long-Delayed Fourth Wall Meta (2008)
  10. ^ comment by Miriam Heddy: middle-aged goth chick builds table in tree, Archived version (March 3, 2016), responding to a quote by David Duchovny: Actors Who Get Fandom, Archived version (January 10, 2009) }}
  11. ^ comment by Dovya Blacque, March 2016, posted to Zinelist, quoted with permission
  12. ^ from Strange Bedfellows (APA) #13 (May 1996)
  13. ^ Why fans are outraged at Sherlock and Watson reading sexy fanfic, Daily Dot, Aja Romano
  14. ^ You Tube vid
  15. ^ Post to the Virgule-L mailing list dated April 10, 1995, quoted with permission.
  16. ^ from Once Upon a Time... Is Now #29
  17. ^ Media Fandom Oral History Project Interview with Kandy Fong and Marnie S
  18. ^ Thoughts and Tirades, Rants and Ruminations, Archived version, January 15, 2007 (the comments regarding his "lemming comment" below this post are very interesting)
  19. ^ [1] Sandy Keene (Older). As Lucid As Hell. Accessed January, 2009.
  20. ^ [2] Gus Goes For the Gold Star (on Yuletide). Accessed 28 December 2009.
  21. ^ WCFL World Class 8/7/84-Six Man Tag: The Von Erichs vs. the Moscas and Apollo
  22. ^ from Virgule-L, quoted anonymously with permission (3 Nov 1993)
  23. ^ Screw this., Archived version, by Vicki Farmer, Ocotber 29, 1996
  24. ^ Having my say., Archived version, by Vicki Farmer, October 30, 1996