You Big Bully!

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Title: You Big Bully! --or-- The dynamics of fan-created power imbalances
Creator: Rachael Sabotini
Date(s): June 1999
Medium: essay
Fandom: meta
External Links: Essay on Sandy Herrold's site (accessed June 7, 2019) archive link
Essay on the Fanfic Symposium (reposted here 4/26/05); WebCite (accessed June 7, 2019) archive link
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You Big Bully! is an essay by Rachael Sabotini. It has the subtitle: "or The Dynamics of Fan-Created Power Imbalances."

It was posted at Fanfic Symposium/Essays and was cross-posted at Sandy Herrold's site.

Posted June 1999, this essay was an outgrowth of several trends in Highlander and The Sentinel fiction, where the title role character--the story's hero--was metaphorically shunned and punished for something that the hero did in canon that the author felt 'wronged' or hurt their favorite character, who was usually in the sidekick role. Once the hero is sufficiently punished, then they may be allowed to apologize or if they grovel enough, then the writer will allow the characters to get back together.

The essay defined several terms, some of which have stayed in the fannish vernacular:

  • Apology!fic: Stories wherein a writer takes a canonical confrontation and seeks to resolve the tension by having one character take responsibility for an episode-related event and apologize to the other character.
  • Grovel!fic: Stories wherein a writer seeks to resolve a canonical confrontation by having one character take excessive, sometimes erroneous, responsibility for the conflict and seek reconciliation by conveying this complete acceptance to the other character in extremely self-deprecating, i.e. groveling, ways. Basically, they don't just apologize, they are put through hell and must beg for it first.
  • Leaving!fic: Stories wherein a writer seeks to resolve a canonical confrontation by having one character ditch their current life and leave another character. Sometimes these stories are preludes to grovel!fic.
  • Buddy Show: Series wherein two characters share equal billing: Starsky & Hutch, The Professionals.
  • Hero/Sidekick show: Series wherein the power imbalance between the characters is reflected in the series title: The Sentinel, The Highlander, Blake's 7.

The essay also steps through several variations of this story, and discusses the power imbalances that fans create in part to justify taking the hero down a peg or two, to get to the required apology.

An Excerpt fanfic author wants 'her guy' to just accept such betrayal, particularly when 'her guy' is often the 'wife' in the relationship, and so the need to support and protect the passive character jerks into place. A huge new category of fan fiction joins the usual mix of episode-based and generic first-time stories. These new stories center around getting the active character, the hero, to apologize for his betrayal, or to grovel and plead for the relationship on bended knee, thus redressing the power imbalance that the active/passive roles require. This influx of apology!fic and grovel!fic seems to take over the fandom, consuming all the authors' resources in an attempt to rebalance the perceived power imbalance.

But the passive character remains in the passive role; they do not take action in any way. They allow other characters to comfort them (Joe, Simon, Vila), keeping to themselves and out of the main character's sphere of influence. Or the passive one is tortured, put through hell so that the active one can come to their senses and realize just what they've been missing, and how screwed up they are. When resolution comes in these stories, it is because the active character searches out the passive one and presents their apology or grovels for forgiveness. The passive character is allowed to magnanimously bestow their forgiveness upon a now contrite active character and usually cautions the active character to toe the line. No action is required of the passive character, and only the active character undergoes a change -- a type of atonement, if you will -- for having sinned against the passive character, for having had any sort of issue with how the passive character behaved during the broadcast episode.

A variation on this theme of atonement is to punish the active character by making the passive character 'come to his senses,' perhaps fulfilling the writer's own view of the situation. They can't understand why the wife stays with such a bully, so "she" doesn't. The passive character berates the active character for what they did and then leaves, cutting all ties, no matter how attached that passive character was in the aired series to the life they had created.

At no time are the characters allowed to have equal responsibility for the problems of the relationship; even in the leaving scenario, all that really happens is that the traditionally passive character is turned active for an instant, only to run away. At no time is the passive character actually allowed to act like an adult and deal with the issue himself; rather, other characters run interference for him, supporting him and telling the active partner how horrible he is for having been so unfair. The growth shown in the series is never admitted, so that the stereotype of the inequality of the partnership can be maintained.