Why it doesn't matter what Benedict Cumberbatch thinks of fan fiction

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News Media Commentary
Title: Why it doesn't matter what Benedict Cumberbatch thinks of fan fiction
Commentator: Elizabeth Minkel
Date(s): October 17, 2014
Venue: online
Fandom: Sherlock, fan fiction
External Links: Why it doesn't matter what Benedict Cumberbatch thinks of fan fiction, Archived version
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Why it doesn't matter what Benedict Cumberbatch thinks of fan fiction is a 2014 article by Elizabeth Minkel in NewStatesman.

The article's header: "Fan fiction gives women and other marginalised groups the chance to subvert the mainstream perspective, to fracture a story and recast it in their own way. It’s not for the benefit of middle-aged men with a vast audience and little understanding of the form."

The article recounts some disparaging remarks about fanfiction, specifically slash, made by Benedict Cumberbatch (the actor who portrays Sherlock Holmes in BBC's Sherlock) in recent interviews. It also discusses, among other things, fanfiction's audience and creators, the incident where journalist Caitlin Moran demanded that Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman read some Johnlock fanfic she’d found on the internet at a promotional event, and Orlando Jones' views on fanfiction.

Excerpts from the Article

[Cumberbatch's] comments have, as you might imagine, caused a bit of a firestorm in some corners of fandom, and I think they warrant a response. They raise old questions that have been turned over in fan communities for years but have been largely ignored by the mainstream media: questions of how (mostly) female desires and (mostly) female fan practices are unduly misunderstood and mocked, with fanworks at the heart. Does it matter what Benedict Cumberbatch thinks of Sherlock fanfic? Not particularly. I – and many others – would make the case that it’s not for him. (And someone should gently explain to him that despite the fact that he always refers to himself instead of Sherlock in these exchanges [1] , he is not actually the character that he plays, no matter how hard he wishes it.) But does it matter that two middle-aged men with very large platforms were sitting at a table pathologising teenage girls’ sexuality – and making a whole load of potentially harmful assumptions about a topic they know literally nothing about? Absolutely.

Huge numbers of women write and read erotica, original and fanfic alike. Erotic fan fiction functions similarly to any other type of fan fiction: the pleasures of the medium – the sorts of games the fic author plays with the source material – are all there, plus there’s sex. But it’s the sex bit, the female-authored sex bit, that always seems to rankle, particularly with television or film fandoms, when there are actors’ faces attached to the characters. And people get particularly riled up when it comes to slash (male/male, I mean – two ladies is cool!!), anger at the very suggestion that a character might be gay and engaging in gay sex. If someone objects to these characters being appropriated in fic, you wonder if they’d be as upset to see good guys turned into vicious killers as they often are to see good guys getting it on with other good guys.

And what of slash in particular, of the propensity of many female fans to focus on relationships between two men? On that front, explanations get even more varied. For some, it’s as simple as shooting back, “Well, straight men watch two women, right?” For others, it’s not so cut-and-dried. I’ve seen the idea that women want to explore love and sex without the constrictions of traditional gender roles in heterosexual relationships. Or the idea that there are far more male characters on our screens – and, for that matter, vastly more complex ones: these are often the characters people want to spend time with, to prod at in one fic scenario or another. Or it’s queering those mainstream narratives – in a world laden with queer subtext and not a whole lot of queer text, fic has the power to correct that. Or maybe even the idea that ties into some of what Cumberbatch guesses at “enthusiastically”: for young fans (or older ones), it can be a supportive space to explore sexuality. (As far as “neutralising the threat” of “somebody who could break their heart,” though, a swing and a miss there. Because that’s not the least bit patronising, particularly to his youngest fans.)

I’d put money on the idea that Benedict Cumberbatch and the editors of "Out" are unaware of most, if not all of this. That’s completely fine. As I said – it’s not for them. (Ironically enough, if they’d been aware that so many fans writing fic are queer, a far more nuanced and sensitive discussion of fanfic could be awesome in "Out", one of the US’s pre-eminent LGBT magazines.) But if you don’t know about something, and your interview subject sure as hell doesn’t know about something, why are you asking about it? I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt, but these comments, on their own or taken in the context of the whole article, serve to do little more than gawk at Cumberbatch’s female fans and their funny ways, and, in turn, to belittle them.

Sherlock fans are used to it. Its creators, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, are pleasantly supportive of fanworks – they’re creating their own Sherlock Holmes fanfic, after all, so they know the power and the appeal of a good adaptation or reworking. But the biggest offence of all was at the BFI last December, at the premiere of “The Empty Hearse”, when Caitlin Moran demanded that Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman read some Johnlock fanfic she’d found on the internet. I was there that afternoon, so I got to witness that utter train wreck of a misstep first-hand: Moran forced the story on the actors despite their protests and the obvious discomfort of literally everyone in the theatre. There were no diplomatic attempts at discussing the purpose of fan fiction, as Cumberbatch did with "Out." She offered up the story to mock it, and mock the idea of writing it, pure and simple. I’ve argued about the incident since, with people who’ve said that if the author didn’t want the story thrust into scrutiny, she shouldn’t have put it online. That’s all well and good, but it’s shameful to utterly disregard the enormous imbalance of power in this situation: a famous journalist and the famous creators of a popular television show, all on a stage mocking an anonymous woman’s story – one she wrote for fun rather than for money, for a given community rather than the general public – strikes me as incredibly cruel.

Fan fiction, fan art, the way female fans celebrate what they love: this stuff isn’t a secret anymore – and it shouldn’t be a punch line anymore, either. It’s a big messy world full of amateur writing and unedited work, but it’s also got of some of the best fiction I’ve ever read, published or otherwise. You don’t have to participate in it to afford it even a modicum of respect. I’ll be the first to volunteer if you ever want to learn. But if you’re not interested in that, politely decline to answer. It’s easy to blame the celebrity, dragged into answering these questions. But really, the fault lies with the media. Please, please, please journalists: stop asking celebrities about fan fiction. Unless you’re having an in-depth conversation about fictional constructions of the actors’ personae (like the very one you’ll be presenting in your piece?), it serves no purpose. Non-fans likely don’t get it; fans think you look like a bully – because you are.

Why does any of this matter? Why would I like us to celebrate Jones’s words, and denounce the Cumberbatch interview? They’re just actors, after all; people paid to recite someone else’s words. But what they themselves say can matter a great deal: celebrities – and some journalists, for that matter – have the platforms, the cultural capital, the power, that a fan, even a collective fandom, lacks: one side has money and authority, while the other side has shared enthusiasm and a lot of beautiful fan art. Fandom as community, as a deeply supportive space for women and girls, can honestly make a life-changing difference for a person hovering on the margins. Misunderstandings and ignorance like what I saw this week threaten an already delicate balance. When I initially read the Cumberbatch interview I bristled at the suggestion that fanfic is all teenage girls – the stats show that’s not remotely true. But then, I bristled on behalf of teenage girls. Fandom can be so important in your most formative years – and then it can continue to form you, far beyond that. There’s nothing “rabid” about a community built on shared love.

Comments by Elizabeth Minkel (and Flourish Klink)

The author discussed this later that year in the interview Fansplaining: GeekyCon and Meredith Levine:

Elizabeth Minkel: So I was at the premiere at the BFI of the third series of Sherlock, so I watched this happen in real time, and it was traumatizing for me, partly because the audience was uncomfortable, but like it was unclear why. I think a lot of the people in the—I got the feeling that some people in the audience were uncomfortable because they were, like, uncomfortable with the fanfiction, right?

Flourish Klink: Mmm hmmm.

ELM: They weren’t ashamed the way I was ashamed, where I was like, “Noooo don’t do this! Ohhhh…whyyyy?” It was just bad all around. And then I wrote this article that actually got a lot of traction last October, after Benedict Cumberbatch made some disparaging comments about fanfiction writers and fangirls in an interview with Out magazine. And the article was called something like, “Why it doesn’t matter what Benedict Cumberbatch thinks of fanfiction,” but basically—

FK: I certainly don’t care!

ELM. Yep! Nope! Don’t give a damn. But….

FK: But the fact that—we don’t have to care, right? Like I’m not actually worried that anybody is going to ridicule me for it. I’m long past that. But I think that for other people... It’s a huge—

ELM: Oh yeah. So when I wrote this article, and I was just like, “Screw this guy.” He has the right to feel uncomfortable if people write fanfiction about him. That’s within anyone’s right. Just say, “I don’t really want to talk about it.” And mostly I placed the blame on the media, though I learned later that he actually brought it up, which made me feel awkward afterwards because I was like, “Journalists stop asking these guys!” And then the editor, like, tweeted at some people—in a rude way—and said, “He brought it up.” And it’s like clearly it’s bothering him. But! It was very interesting to see the response because I was flooded with responses from fangirls and fanfiction readers who said, just, “Thank you so much. I was feeling so ashamed after he said those things about me.” You know? And it’s just like, well, yeah, if you and I feel like we’re not going to feel ashamed anymore, and I think that’s why we can go on things or write things and be like, “Screw that guy!” And then the more people say it, the more people say it publicly, the better everyone’s going to feel. Hopefully.

FK: Yeah. I think that…I mean I think it’s a complex issue because it’s not just about, like, how people should talk about this in the media, it’s also about sort of the way that stars interact with their fans and what their responsibilities are to their fans? And I think that that’s a complex issue.


  1. ^ Cumberbatch: "There’s a load of fan fiction which has me and John Watson floating in space on a bed handcuffed to one another . . . not just with handcuffs, either."