Fifty Shades of Mary-Sue
This was originally written for a communicative theory subject in May 2013
Everyone has some form of mass media they consider their “guilty pleasure” – whether it be a reality television show, classic rom-com or something more fantastical. Some are happy to gossip about it over coffee with friends, while others take it a few steps further. We label these people “fans” – viewers who do more than passively consume what the producers give them, instead choosing to involve and even insert themselves into the text and participate. “Fandom” unites people, creating a community that shares a common interest – often for those who find they don’t “fit” or who are oppressed in everyday society. A major product of this participatory audience is fan fiction, written by and for the fans. Traditionally shared through zines and newsletters, new media (most notably the internet) now offers fans a relatively inexpensive and simple method of mass distribution (Chander 599). Michel de Certeau described this activity as “poaching”, and Henry Jenkins argued that fans were not, as society called them, ‘cultural dupes’, but instead textual poachers. This essay will examine why it is women who tend to be the most active of participatory audiences, the concept of ‘Mary Sue’ in fan fiction and analyze the theory of textual poaching in regard to the Fifty Shades of Grey “phenomenon”.
Fifty Shades of Grey is a romantic-erotic trilogy written by E.L James. Published in 2012, it’s the fastest selling book ever in the UK in both physical and e-book form. The book centres on two central characters – naïve and virginal literature student Anastasia Steele, and the powerful, wealthy and mysterious Christian Grey. The plot of the novel revolves around the S&M relationship the two initially engage in and the obsession Grey has with Steele. The erotic nature of the novel led to it being dubbed “Mummy Porn”, due to the huge numbers of women who were buying the book. Working in a bookstore, I witnessed first hand the sheer demand for the book – selling hundreds of copies to women of all ages and backgrounds. Fifty Shades of Grey is a great modern example of women closely engaging with the text and becoming participatory audience members, as well as having its foundations in textual poaching, which we will look at later.
A fan is defined as not someone who claims to simply “like” a text, but someone who identifies and claims membership in a particular sub-culture (Jenkins XIV). In this context, fans form a participatory audience that actively engages with a media text, rather than passively consuming it. Hahn Aquila argues that they are active critical participants in meaning production (40). Often socially looked down upon and miscast as cultural dupes, social misfits or mindless consumers, Jenkins instead describes their activities as “textual poaching”. This involves the act of taking preexisting work, such as a television show, and making it ones own by writing fan fiction based on the original text (Hahn Aquila 36). ‘Fan fiction’ is any written work that extends or expands on the storyline of a text (Bonnstetter 348), although there are a number of self-imposed rules that govern the writing of fan fiction. The principle convention is that the stories must remain “true” to the universe and characterizations as depicted in the original texts (Bonstetter 348), primarily because the majority of the initial attraction to the text is the universe it offers.
With the coming of the digital age, fan fiction has exploded, expanding the reach of fans to a global scale and as Pearson argues, blurred the lines between producers and consumers and creating “symbiotic relationships” between corporations and individual fans, as a result of textual poaching (84). Fandom and marginalized communities were among the first to take advantage of the new technologies, using them to extend the reach and connectivity of their activities (Whiteman 391). As a result, there are a large number of fan fiction websites that allow fans to write, upload, review and engage with other uses and texts.
Fan writing is an almost exclusive feminine response to mass media texts (Jenkins 89). Bonnstetter notes hat historically, popular culture was equated with the feminine (352) and thus viewed as lowly, friviolous and passive. The view that what is feminine is trivial still prevails of fan fiction. The activity is frequently feminised and disparaged as playful and unimportant, yet ironically this attitude has actually allowed it to flourish because it is not seen as a serious threat. Fan fiction allows marginalized groups, particularly female fans, to construct a discursive space within hegemonic culture to express themselves in meaningful and personally fulfilling ways (Bonstetter 352) For women who find themselves in low paying jobs or socially isolated at home, the fan fiction community often allows them a degree of respect and dignity otherwise lacking (Jenkins 89). Participating in the international fan community also provides them with an avenue to explore their desires and ideas that are ignored by society. Research such as that conducted by David Bleich (1986) also suggests that men and women have been socialized to read in different ways and for different purposes. Bleich found that women were more willing to enjoy free play with the story content (Jenkins 91) and more likely to actively engage with characters. Media texts that have been studied, particularly science fiction such as Star Trek, often have few lead female characters, which could go some way to explaining why it is frequently women who play and “poach”. To identify with the male characters, female readers are forced to undergo a kind of “literary transvestitation” (Jenkins 89) but in fan fiction have the power to insert female characters/themselves into the text.
This kind of textual poaching in fan fiction has been given the name “Mary Sue” fan fiction. In this subgenre, the author typically inserts an idealized version of themself into the text and whilst interacting with pre-existing original characters they often becomes the central character. ‘Mary Sue’ is a general name given to a fictional character who is portrayed in an idealized way and lacks noteworthy flaws (Chandler 599). Mary Sue characters share one overriding feature – they are either ‘outrageously beautiful’ or ‘amazingly intelligent’ but her value is always appreciated by those she admires (Bonnstetter 352). As well as an example of actively engaging with the text, fan writer Pamela Rose argues that Mary Sue fan fiction allows fans to address the absence of women in the text. Using Star Trek as an example, Rose notes that when female characters have been granted positions of power, they serve only to demonstrate through their erratic emotion-driven conduct that women are unfit to fill such roles (Jenkins 93). Thus, ‘Mary Sue’ is a means to allow female fans to correct this and express their own desires through play. It challenges the patriarchal economy of writing by allowing women to write their own desires (Bonnstetter 342.) According to Jenkins, this is the ultimate aim of textual poaching – fans acknowledging that the text can and must be rewritten in order to make it responsive to their personal needs and pleasures (87). ‘Mary Sue’ provides an escape and a means of stimulation – allowing its authors to explore the sexual and romantic desires that are lacking in mainstream media. This active interaction and participation with the text in relation to desire is particularly relevant to Fifty Shades of Grey. What surprised many media commentators and society in general was the fact that women were so openly taking to a novel that was of such a “private” and explicit nature. Wasn’t a women reading it on the train exactly the same as a man reading/watching porn? For the first significant time, women were engaging with previously suppressed desires (i.e sex and BDSM), openly discussing and sharing it with each other.
Mary Sue fan fiction also gives its creators the power to change and explore issues they face in reality in a false universe that they feel more comfortable with. One writer admitted that she used her fan fictions to represent many themes and issues that she faced in her local context and daily life including love, friendship and family relationships and academic pressures (Black 418). The subgenre aids women in dealing with various social stigmas by allowing them to literally rewrite the social norms of the original universe and by extension their own lives (Bonnstetter 355). In such a male dominated space, women will choose to interpret and read the text as a type of women’s fiction. This, Jenkins argues, is why much fan fiction (specifically Mary Sue) tends to be akin to the familiar and comfortable formulas of the soap, romance and the feminist coming-of-age novels (96).
Yet although there are many Mary Sue fan fictions, the genre is typically derided within fan subcultures because of their perfection (Chander 608) insofar that many websites offer tutorials on how to avoid the pitfalls of writing ‘a Mary Sue’. Many fans dismiss it as little more than “groupies fantasies”, “self indulgent sexual fantasies and adolescent musings” (Bonnstetter 350). Some argue that Mary Sue fan fiction also goes against the fundamental rule: respect for the original. Mary Sues comment on or criticise the original while simultaneously creating something new – highlighting the absence of society’s marginalized voices in the original works (Chander 613). Fans still maintain a great deal of respect for the writers of their favourite shows and highly disapprove of any action that defiles their work. In textual poaching terms, the fans cast themselves as “loyalists” rather than poachers (Jenkins 87). Thus the most popular stories are the ones that successfully work within the original series. Mary Sues can be acceptable – if they keep the focus on the main characters rather than their self-insertion.
Christine Scodari argues that far from empowering women, Mary Sues actually reassert male dominance, (Bonnstetter 350) as they are defined in relation to the male protagonist. On the other hand, one can argue that Mary Sue fan fiction creates space for women’s voices by allowing them to write their own body and desires, becoming co-producers of the text. Chander raises the question of why women and the minorities finding themselves misrepresented do not instead choose to create entirely new content (620). Part of the attraction for fans is the sense of community, united by a common interest. Playing with existing and beloved texts rather than producing new ones are where these relationships and bonds are built.
Fifty Shades of Grey is an interesting example to look at regarding textual poaching and fan fiction for a number of reasons. Despite now being a bestselling book, E. L James’ work originated as fan fiction, uploaded on a well-trafficked fan fiction forum devoted to the popular Twilight series (Eakins 2). The work was uploaded in several installments as a series, which is a common for fan fiction. This method allows readers to comment and review the story as it progresses, with writers generally incorporating this feedback into their work as they go. As a result of her presence on fan fiction forums, James had already established a captive audience of thousands of readers (Eakins 2), finding herself a market for her books before they even hit the commercial shelves. Some of those early loyal readers criticise James, however, for the steps she took to achieve commercial success, including expunging all traces of its connection to Twilight (changing names etc). They argued that sanitizing a fan fiction for publication constituted a betrayal of the genre’s noncommercial ethos (Eakins 3). Nevertheless, the early success of the trilogy was due to word of mouth – in line with the underground status of fan fiction. Despite being a product of textual poaching (and many critics calling it poorly written), Fifty Shades of Grey managed to completely conquer the mass market. In an interesting cycle, the vast majority of its readers were women, just as women (like E.L James herself) were the main producers of fan fiction.
The sheer popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey highlights the power shift from producer to consumer that Jenkins identified. Like Mary Sue fan fiction, the novels allowed women an avenue to explore and address desires and ideas that had been previously suppressed by society. Both texts also demonstrate the product of participatory audiences that De Certau and Jenkins called “textual poaching” – the act of “poaching” material such as plot, setting or characters from a favourite text and rewriting them for the author’s own pleasure. In doing so, fans were able to challenge popular media stereotypes of certain groups such as women, gays and racial minorities and engage in a text beyond passive consumption. While often disapproved by academics, fan fiction is an ever-growing reaction from an active audience to the media that is produced. The recent success of Fifty Shades of Grey, a text that started its roots as a product of textual poaching, is a clear example of just what a lucrative market it is.
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Black, W Rebecca. “Online Fan Fiction, Global Identities and Imagination” Research in the Teaching of English 43:4 (2009) 397-425
Chander, Anupam & Sunder, Madhavi “Everyone’s a Superhero: A Cultural Theory of Mary Sue Fan Fiction as Fair Use” California Law Review 95:2 (2007) 597-626
Eakin, Emily “Grey Area: How ‘Fifty Shades’ Dominated the Market, http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2012/jul/27/seduction-and-betrayal-twilight-fifty-shades/, accessed 20th May 2013
Hahn Aquila, Meredith “Ranma ½ Fan Fiction Writers: New Narrative Theme or the Same Old Story?” Mechademia, Vol 2, (2007) 33-47
Jenkins III, Henry. “Star Trek Rerun, Reread, Rewritten: Fan writing as Textual Poaching”. Critical Studies in Mass Communication 5:2 (1988) 85-108
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Pearson, Roberta “Fandom in The Digital Era” Popular Communication: The International Journal of Media and Culture 8: 1 (2010) 84-95
Whiteman, Natasha “The De/Stabilization of Identity in Online Fan Communities. Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies Vol 15 (2009) 351-408