In 2010, when I first joined Tumblr, Johnlock shipping and Doctor Who fanfiction were at what felt like all-time highs. And I, a heterosexual white female, didn’t get it. Not only did I not watch the shows that everyone seemed so obsessed with, as a writer and future novelist, I hated the idea of people ‘perverting’ canon. Why are they trying so hard? I thought. The creators obviously didn’t intend this. It’s like they’re saying they could have done it better.
My stance softened over the years, mostly due to exposure. But I still didn’t understand the outrage people felt when their ship wasn’t canon, or why people railed so hard against the choices of the creators. If you claim to be a fan of this thing, why can’t you accept its reality?
Then, Peaky Blinders happened to me.
I can’t tell you what it was about the BBC gangster drama that compelled me. Maybe it was that I was at a low point of a years-long struggle with depression, and it comforted me. Maybe it was the craftsmanship put into every single frame. Maybe it was just Cillian Murphy’s murderous cheekbones. Regardless of what it was, three episodes in, I was obsessed.
It was my first foray into the fandom vortex. Suddenly my entire life was Peaky Blinders because I just couldn’t get enough — if I wasn’t watching it, I was talking about it with other fans, researching everything to do with it, or editing screencaps and posting them on my blog. Eventually, I created a separate blog for my obsession, which gained thousands of followers in days. I had found my show, and I had found my people.
I was still resistant to the idea of fanfiction at first. I embraced the Peaky Blinders canon, and beyond doing a bit of imagining about events before the show’s pilot, accepted it as good enough. If you talk about it with me now, I’ll still maintain that the first season is about as near to perfection as a piece of media can get. It was beautifully executed, complex, and exciting. But as with many shows, with popularity it got hubristic, and for me, it began to stumble down the pedestal further and further with each successive season.
By the third season, I had to admit it: my favorite show, that I had devoted hours to watching and discussing and editing screencaps of, was a big misogynist mess. There was still plenty to like, of course; the acting and cinematography remain some of the best I have ever seen, but the predictable and poorly handled death of a major female character in the third season kicked off a swiftly advancing disenchantment that I still haven’t been able to shake.
There were a large number of us who were angry, and it was never just about the death of a character we liked. It was the careless way it was handled. It was the message that it sent. The death of that character and the showrunners’ responses following might as well have been a disclaimer that said, “This show is for and about men, and if you don’t like it you can leave.” A Peaky Blinders Fangirl‘s (spoiler-filled) post about impossible masculinity really hits the nail on the head.
Suddenly, I got it. I understood fanfiction. A show that I had loved and defended and promoted had more or less showed me the middle finger, and so I decided to show it the middle finger back — I wrote my own versions of it. I created the narrative that I wanted, taking the concept that I had loved so well and filling in the voids it left for me, and people who had been similarly disappointed devoured it and validated me and my existence.
It finally clicked for me that this is how millions of people feel — LGBT+ people, people of color, plus-size people, mentally ill people. They fall in love with a concept, an idea, a setting, only to be told that they are not welcome there. They are unrepresented and furthermore, unheard by the creators of the things that they love and told their opinions and desires do not matter. I didn’t realize how privileged I am to have never felt that before. I’m well-represented in media; it doesn’t take long to find a character who looks or behaves the way I do. Peaky is one show that let me down. Imagine feeling that way about almost everything out there.
Fanfiction is an awakening of creativity fueled by discontent. For many people, fanfiction is their first experience with writing. The fanfiction writers of today are the creators of tomorrow, creators who will fill the voids they feel when taking in media that doesn’t care about them. You can still be a fan of something while criticizing and challenging it — in fact, it’s better if you do. Going back to my original derisive thoughts of fanfiction: we could do it better, and we will, and that’s not hubris or entitlement, it’s the nature of art. We put it out in the world for others to consume and digest, so that it is eventually part of something else, something different and bigger and better.
“The whole point of fanfiction is that you get to play inside somebody else’s universe. Rewrite the rules. Or bend them. The story doesn’t have to end. You can stay in this world, this world you love, as long as you want, as long as you keep thinking of new stories.” – Rainbow Rowell, Fangirl
My days of ridiculing fanfiction are behind me. I look forward to seeing what you all create.