The first anime that I had ever seen was “Naruto,” probably the most popular and entry-level anime that you could watch. At the time, 8-year-old me obviously did not know this, and was completely enraptured by what I was seeing.
Characters were flying across the screen, hurling knives and throwing stars at each other before prepping to pelt their opponents with a fireball. These attempts would, of course, be blocked by a huge wall of sand that was being manipulated by one of the ninjas. I was put into a trance watching the fighting unfold; it was the first time I had ever been immediately engaged in a television series. This first encounter with anime was the beginning of a long rabbit hole, ending with a diehard adolescent obsession. After “Naruto,” I then started watching more lighthearted shows like “Fruits Basket” and darker shows that would scare the hell out of me like “Higurashi no Naku Koro ni.”
Soon enough, all of my favorite shows were finished with no plans for further seasons — but I wanted more. The search for more fulfilling anime content commenced, and surprisingly, I did not have to look far. I stumbled across a website called Fanfiction.net that was full of stories to be read, some of them acting as prequels to these TV series, some of them epilogues and some of them different stories entirely.
It was on this website that I was introduced to an entirely new world of nerdy, oftentimes underrepresented people, writing stories in the worlds of some of my favorite books and shows. You had countless “Harry Potter” stories (633k of them), even stories about “Spongebob Squarepants” (2.1k). But, the one that really stuck with me was a story called “The Next Type Of Motion” which was a prequel to the “Naruto” series. I read it when I was about 12 years old and still trying on identities, seeing which fit best.
There are 80,679 words in that story, and I read every single one in a single night. It was 4 a.m. by the time I had stopped reading, exhausted but enthralled. The story was discontinued at Chapter 16, right when the two primary characters were sharing one of their first kisses. I couldn’t help but cry not because it was over, but because it felt like I was reading about myself on the page. Never before had I read a story featuring such a wholesome and passionate queer friendship-turned-romance — it filled my young heart with hope that who I currently was, and who I was becoming, was okay.
It wasn’t until I brought my fanfiction devotion up at my elementary school that I realized my classmates did not feel the same. Furrowed brows were pointed in my direction at the mention of reading a fanfiction about an anime. My classmates would say things like, “That’s gross! Fanfiction is filled with porn and tentacles and pedos, I can’t believe you would read something like that.”
And, upon some personal research, I learned that my peers were not alone in these very harsh judgments against the medium.
In 2016, Vox journalist Constance Grady wrote an article called “Why We’re Terrified of Fanfiction”, speaking on some people’s distaste for fandom — an umbrella term encompassing all “cults” of people with self-proclaimed obsessions over TV shows, video games, etc. The article details fears of mob mentality and cults being formed around such niche topics as “Heaven’s Gate”. But there are other, more misogynistic reasons for fandom being so stigmatized.
Research suggests that shame surrounding fandom culture is gendered, with male-dominated fandoms like sports being widely accepted and female-dominated fandoms — think: boy band obsessions — facing more societal ridicule. While there have been efforts to create more equitable space in fandom for women, there is still resistance to it. Therefore, female-driven fandom is labeled as lesser, gross, futile.
For a while, I was convinced by my classmates’ disgust for fandom and turned away from fandom for fear of being bullied or perceived as “weird.” My interests throughout high school and the beginning of college were still weird, but less culturally ridiculed than fanfiction. I would watch “Adventure Time” with my friends, but I would not bring up the very niche anime that it reminded me of.
It wasn’t until I got on TikTok in 2020 that I was thrown back into the fantastical world of fandom — and it happened by chance. I was creating a series of TikToks that asked people to “make the comment section look like ___”. For example, I made one that was: “Make the comment section look like middle schoolers pretending to be drunk to their friends over text.” From what I could gauge, people really seemed to enjoy it. The video currently has 471,100 views and 67,800 likes.
It was such a nice feeling to have a sense of community, even if it was for a brief, virtual moment. I kept making more of these videos, and decided to dive in and embrace my interest in fanfiction. If it flopped, it flopped, right? I made another Tik Tok that challenged my viewers to: “Make the comment section look like a Wattpad fanfiction.”
I thought the video was funny but I didn’t expect it to go viral. My phone started blowing up in my pocket and I couldn’t help but watch in awe as my followers went from one thousand, to four thousand, to ten thousand. It felt like every moment I wasn’t looking at my phone, I was missing out on hundreds of people reaching out to me via my comment section with funny quips and phrases. The feeling of being watched by thousands, sometimes even millions, of individuals is euphoric and thrilling. Swarms of comments mused at how resilient fanfiction authors were, and oftentimes how it inspired them to get back into writing.
In an instant, I felt like I was a child again, taking part in something bigger than myself. Something only fanfiction devotees could dream up.
Once I realized that a lot of people could relate to my fandom interests, my fanfiction videos exploded. I started making content about crazy author’s notes that writers would add into their stories, or strange stories written about Ben Shapiro. I was having a fun time, but more importantly, I was starting to see how many other people my age had been positively impacted by reading fanfiction.
The little thoughts in my head about representation in the media were suddenly right in front of me, represented by thousands of other individuals on Tik Tok. It felt validating to know that there were so many others like me on the internet. Comments would flow in talking about how fanfiction helped people come out as asexual, transgender, pansexual. The commenters talked about how fanfictions about queer characters in the “Dr Who” universe helped them feel like they could be queer, too. Other accounts spoke about learning English through fanfiction, and feeling the freedom to write in a style that they wanted because of fanfiction. There is a whole thread on Fanfiction.net with people discussing how difficult but gratifying it is to be able to write as non-native English speakers.
In that moment, all of the stigmatization I internalized as a child started to melt away because I agreed with the fanfiction community. Fanfiction contains the diversity in themes and characters that often what universities categorize as ‘actual’ literature does not.
I remember in my sophomore year I took my Upper Level Writing Requirement, and initially was very excited to start the class. Writing at that point had been a hobby, and this was an opportunity to get feedback on it in an intensive way. My enthusiasm was quickly extinguished when I received my paper back and discovered I had earned a C-. In office hours, I expressed my worry about this grade, and what I was met with was a critique that my paper was ‘childish.’ While this paper was not fanfiction, apparently the vocabulary and structure were reminiscent of it: According to my professor, I was an “amateur writer” who needed to make drastic changes to my style if I wanted to write “correct” academic papers.
Needless to say, I did not get good grades on future papers in that class thanks to my stubborn nature.
In January of 2022, I became mutuals with a creator named Berklie (@icaruspendragon on TikTok). Posting content from faking her death via fanfiction to being a master of the Omegaverse, Berklie’s content is hysterically awesome and incredibly informative. In her linktree, there is a section called ‘academic articles about fanfiction’ that immediately stuck out to me. There, you could peruse a plethora of articles compiled in one Google Drive, from “Choose Not to Warn: Trigger Warnings and Content Notes from Fan Culture to Feminist Pedagogy” by Alexis Lothian to “A Space Where Queer Is Normalized: The Online World and Fanfictions as Heterotopias for WLW” by Anna Llewellyn.
I wanted to speak to them about why they compiled this list of academic articles, and set up a time to meet with her via Zoom.
The first fanfiction they ever read, they said, was, “‘The Hunger Games,’ … I accidentally stumbled into it. I Googled stories about the ‘Hunger Games,’ and it led me to Fanfiction.net. And I was like … so other people think about this too,” she said. “I just spent literal days consuming fanfic. And I didn’t know how it worked. So I would write the URLs down on a little piece of notebook.”
Her curation of fanfiction-friendly academic articles came about when she tackled her capstone project for her English major.
For the project, they said, “I toyed around with a couple of different ideas for topics and I finally settled on fanfiction as an accessible means of storytelling. And so I had saved a lot of articles when I was writing that paper. I got it all written. I was like, sitting there and staring at the 20 pages that I had just written as a love letter to fanfiction. I’d stayed up for like 17 hours and it was six hours until my deadline, I thought — let’s turn it in!”
Though, before hitting ‘submit,’ Berklie had an epiphany.
“And then I just didn’t (submit the paper) because traditional academia … is such a barrier for so many people. It’s so elitist. And that didn’t sit right with me, and the cogs have been turning prior to me writing this paper, but writing this paper really cemented it for me — I was like, I’m just not gonna turn it in. And I’ll figure out what I’m gonna do with my life later.”
She went on to talk about her TikTok journey, how people had messaged her for sources when it came to fanfiction and fandom and how she decided to compile the Google Drive catalog. It was incredibly inspirational, hearing her story in a university setting. My bright University of Michigan tapestry seemed a little more faded in that moment, and my drive for accessibility seemed a little more fiery in turn. That night I went to bed with more questions than answers on how I fit into the whole picture as a current University student.
I thought back to the few times in my college English classes when a professor would call my writing too loose, too fantastical, too experimental. But Berklie’s words gave me hope as a writer and as an advocate for expression and representation. They continued on to impart their thoughts on academia and fanfiction: what one could learn from the other.
“I think that the really nice thing about fanfiction is that so frequently it is written for the sake of being written with no ulterior motives or anything like that. And it’s written by such a diverse group of people. It really shifts your perspective, because I grew up in, and still live in, a pretty small area in Alabama. And so my thinking prior to discovering fandom and fanfiction was not great,” they explained.
But, by discovering fanfiction, she realized, “My thinking was being challenged. And fortunately that happened for me at a very young age. But some people are still very much a product of their environment. Maybe you should read some fanfic about a trans character or gay boy, you know. There’s so much representation that is in fanfiction that you don’t see in traditional academia or a lot of traditionally published literature.”
Ultimately, Berklie says, fanfiction masters issues of accessibility and clarity that scholarly reading has yet to embrace.
“I feel like academia tries so hard to be so highbrow — you have to muddle through what you’re reading to get any understanding from it. If you want to read something thought-provoking, you know, it exists out there and for free, and it’s written by people who are very frequently left on the outsides of groups, whether that be because they have a marginalized identity, or just because they’re ‘that weird kid.’ … voices that don’t traditionally get heard are elevated, plotted and celebrated in fandom and fanfiction.”
As soon as I got off the call with her I felt a sense of peace wash over me. It was peaceful to revel in a community like this: by writing this piece, I’m telling my adolescent self that it is okay to be who you are. It was through having this conversation and examining fanfiction more closely that I learned more about storytelling than I could have in an English class here at the University.
The other day I was recommended a fanfiction called “All The Young Dudes” by MsKingBean89. It is currently the most popular fanfiction on AO3, a nonprofit, open source for fanfiction. So many people had recommended it to me, so who was I to refuse?
A few chapters a night turned into tens and twenties and thirties of chapters a night. The story, which followed the Marauders era of “Harry Potter” as the four main marauders traverse their way through their school years, flew by in a flash.
As I’m writing this, I had to stop on Chapter 142 out of 188 because I can’t stop crying. That feeling in my stomach was here once again. It felt like I was reading myself on the page, struggling in college, struggling in high school, struggling in life. The tears rolled down my cheeks, and in my heart, I felt a radiating heat. Maybe there is someone else out there crying at this exact part of the story, and maybe we can revel in this moment for a little bit longer, together.
Statement Correspondent Drake George can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.