Whither the Squick

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Title: Whither the Squick
Creator: yourlibrarian
Date(s): February 26, 2011
Medium: Online
Fandom: Supernatural
Topic: Fannish practices, RPF
External Links: Whither the Squick, Archived version[1] at AO3
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Whither the Squick is a 2011 essay by yourlibrarian. It was originally posted on LiveJournal and later reposted to the AO3.

Its focus is RPF and the Supernatural episode "The French Mistake."


While responding to a question of "Should more RPF 'cross the line' and be turned into publishable original fiction?" this was also the week that SPN decided to turn in a mind-bender of an episode with an RP AU.

To me there's automatically a difference between a story that purports to be about a living or deceased person and attempts to use as much evidence as possible to recreate them as they are/were, and stories that merely use the archetype of a person as a framework on which to develop a character. Because if it's the latter, I suspect just about every piece of "original" fiction out there contains characters that are based on people the author knows, or knows of. Writers are like magpies, constantly gathering bits and pieces from their lives to use in their writing, and other people are certainly part of that collection. Given what I've seen, most RPF/RPS does the same thing as original fiction in that the framework of particular people are used to create characters for a story of the author's choosing. The main difference is that fan authors don't bother to erase the serial numbers but instead deliberately use various bits and clues because this is part of the fun of reading such stories. It makes the readers complicit in the creation of the character by referencing commonly understood details.

...when I see discussions of fanfic in non-fandom forums, there are often references to how commercial fanfic exists everywhere. Someone is always bringing up Wicked, or Sherlock Holmes, or Wide Sargasso Sea, or the multi-author contributions to things like TV shows and comics series as examples of how much derivative writing goes on in various mediums and at various levels of quality. In other words, FP fanfic is constantly being shown as part of this continuum that exists in both amateur and professional writing, and as a common human impulse that has existed as long as storytelling.

I do not see this same conversation happening concerning RP fic. (I'm not saying it doesn't -- surely it must somewhere. I am saying it does not seem to be nearly as common). And yet we tell stories about real people all the time: it is an equally longstanding human impulse. Sometimes it's called gossip, sometimes it's called fanfic, sometimes it's called published fiction (or art), and sometimes it's called a fictional biography.

And as SPN demonstrated this week, sometimes it's also called television. SPN is hardly the first show to feature real people as fictional characters. We can go back to the Monkees (who were themselves based on the Beatles' RP films), more recently when Jennifer Grey co-starred in a sitcom where she played herself, or even to the world of pseudosports when the Harlem Globetrotters had a Saturday morning cartoon based on themselves. And that's just to mention entire properties based on real people, much less the numerous actors and other celebrities who are forever appearing in movies, TV shows, cartoons, and comic strips as themselves.

What's so special about fanfic then? I thought the SPN episode "The French Mistake" was interesting to look at because of how it could be contrasted with what the fandom does (and because I happen to know both the show and fandom). I think three questions need to be asked:

1) Who appears in the stories?

2) Where are the silences?

3) What kind of person gets depicted?

The Edlund episode did just the opposite of fanfic, not only including Serge, Jim Michaels, Kripke, and Sera (in her actual presence, by speakerphone) but various other people who appear on set from interviewers to stunt coordinators. The episode focused largely on what happens on the set, even though it was a version of "work" that is common on television, which is to say more discussed than seen. In fact, in Edlund's trial run for this episode, Hollywood Babylon, he worked actual people into the script when there was no textual connection to the SPN set at all. (Subtext though, yeah, that was totally an in-script for everyone on the production). Why does RP fic, by comparison, focus so little on what is such a huge part of the actors' lives?

Missing from Edlund's current episode was any whisper of JA and JP's families, with the exception of Genevieve who was a crossover figure from the FP world to the RP one and thus an in-joke by her mere presence. He went so far as to not include JP's dogs, who must be among the most fictionalized pair of animals ever seen in fanfic, nor JA's. By comparison, JA and JP's families sometime make an appearance in set fic but often make an appearance in AUs where they, again, do not need to be present.

What Edlund does give us in The French Mistake is an alpaca, reference to otters, and fish in JA's trailer. Why? Well it goes to point #3: what kind of people are being depicted? In short, jerks. Unlike the famously friendly co-stars, whose very closeness prompted more RP fic than would ever have happened otherwise, these two actors supposedly disliked one another. They also, given Misha's tweeting, were apparently no friendlier to him. What's more they were shown to be much wealthier than they actually are. Undoubtedly JA and JP are quite well off, especially compared to the average American. But unless their trailers have been seriously upgraded since the early seasons (where they were seen in both photos and the S1 on-set documentary), their actual surroundings were exaggerated for effect. JP also does not live in such palatial surroundings, and certainly not in Vancouver. So a much more down-to-earth accessory such as shelter-rescued dogs would have a rather different effect than an alpaca (Fun fact: "As of early 2004, the total population of registered alpacas in North America accounts for about 50,000 alpacas in the United States and about 15,000 in Canada").

Yet where is the actual harm being caused? Certainly the average celebrity gets much more hurtful, damaging things said about them, sometimes directly to their face, than ever appears in fanfic which, on the whole, tends to depict them as much more likable, and possibly interesting, people than they actually are (and certainly far better endowed). As an example, I think JA and JPs wives tend to fare far better in fic than they do in a lot of fandom conversations. The fact is that these people work in an unpleasant and competitive business with a lot of unstable or unreasonable people, and I'm fairly sure what they face in any given day is much worse than any reaction fanfic could create. The joke Edlund inserts, about Misha's death having a silver lining, is only one of several pieces of humor in the episode that speaks to this reality.

In short, I think the fans' perception of a celebrity needing protection from his/her fans' imagination seems a projection of fans' own deep discomfort in seeing their desires out in the open for public consumption. The desire for connection exists in every fic. It also forms the basis of the fan communities in which the stories are produced and where those connections often do find realization in the form of connection to fellow fans. This may be more easily deniable in the case of FP fic, where such connections to the characters are clearly impossible and can be considered entirely harmless and in no way a sign of unrealistic expectations.