While many have lived, died and gone on to be remembered for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, “celebrity” is really only an invention of the past century. More widespread forms of travel and communication created a new group of highly identifiable people, existing somewhere in between well-known locals and the most important people on the planet.
Through radio, television, film and, most recently, social media, we interact — albeit most often one-sidedly — with the same personalities again and again. With this interaction comes interest, and with this interest often comes imagination. As fans, we may imagine what it would be like to meet our idols, and sometimes interest branches further into celebrity crushes and stan culture.
The lines between appreciation, love and obsession have always existed in a gray area, as has the line between fact and fiction when it comes to stories about real celebrities. The love interest opposite Anne Hathaway’s character in the upcoming book-to-film adaptation of “The Idea of You” is rumored to be inspired by musician Harry Styles, despite refutations from the book’s author, Robinne Lee. Likewise, observers draw connections between the romantic interest of “After” — a book and movie series by Anna Todd — and Styles. These connections are far less refutable considering “Hardin Scott,” the series’s romantic interest, originally went by the name “Harry Styles” in the original Wattpad fanfiction.
The “After” series, as well as real-person fiction and fanfiction, has received plenty of backlash, and for good reasons. Like puppets, the likenesses of celebrities such as Styles are used for stories that they don’t consent to. In the case of “After” and other stories like it, an imitation Styles is sexualized through smutty scenes and is, to many, an unsympathetic, toxic character.
At the same time, it’s worth questioning what should be considered “good” and “bad” — or rather “ethical” and “unethical” — real-person fiction. It may be easy to condemn fiction that closely resembles the life of its muse, but what about alternate universe tropes where a face and a name are the only connection between a real public personality and a sexy vampire? How about fanfiction focused on a portrayal of a real person, à la Austin Butler playing Elvis Presley in “Elvis” or Pedro Pascal as Javier Peña in “Narcos?” And what about historical figures? Is writing McLennon fanfiction problematic if John Lennon is dead and Paul McCartney very likely has no clue how to navigate Archive of Our Own or Fanfiction.net? Are alternate histories, such as the one portrayed in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” technically real-person fiction if they alter the life of real people such as Sharon Tate?
When it comes to consuming media created with any public persona in mind, it’s incredibly important to consider the effects the work may have on these real people. Styles has hardly acknowledged the “After” series publicly, but that doesn’t mean “After” and similar works that freely use his likeness haven’t harmed him or don’t cross a line. Though it is true that being a celebrity means becoming an image and giving up privacy in some way, admiration can easily veer into invasiveness. We also must consider that we now live in an age where anyone can quickly go viral against our own wishes.
As works like “After” continue to emerge from the little fanfiction corner of the internet into the larger consciousness of pop culture, legal safeguards should be drawn. While regular fanfiction faces the issue of copyright, real-person fiction brings into question grounds for defamation. Beyond the realm of just fanfiction, we’re now seeing real consequences of deepfake pornography that uses the likeness of real public personas. First with the internet and now with Artificial Intelligence, imagining scenarios featuring our idols will only become easier with time.
Just as artists have the power to license their music to streaming services and just as revenge porn laws give power back to victims, we need a broad set of laws empowering the licensing of our own images and other characteristics that may be used in publicly consumed art. It’s no easy task to draw the line between what is protected speech and what belongs to an individual. As the wild west that is the internet becomes wilder with AI and new forms of sharing creative works, it’s only right that everyone has some ability to license their name, face and persona.
Real-person fanfiction is easy to tease and criticize, especially since this corner of the internet is headed mostly by young women, but criticisms like those against real-person fiction should really be applied to fan culture more broadly. Other problematic behaviors arise surrounding the issue of fanfiction, ranging from shipping real people to waiting outside a celebrity’s home to meet them. Because of the accessibility of celebrities, as well as the one-sided nature of our relationships with them, it’s difficult to conceptualize that they might see what we say and write about them. Even if the celebrities themselves don’t see these depictions, that doesn’t absolve any fan of the problematic nature of invasiveness. With all the online platforms on which to write, with the exponential evolution of technology headed our way and the mountains of creative possibilities at our fingertips, we can certainly be creative enough to leave real people — real strangers — out of it.
Audra Woehle is an Opinion Columnist who writes about gender and sexuality in popular culture. She can be reached at email@example.com.