Welcome to the house of fun: Buffy fanfiction as a hall of mirrors – Linda Rust

Fanfiction has been regarded in the past by theorists like Henry Jenkins as a scribbling in the margins, a form of textual poaching. Linda Rust argues that Buffy has reversed this process, turning the fans into authors and allowing them to not only play with any aspect of the show, but also to influence the direction of the narrative itself. Joss Whedon has invited the fans to be more than just viewers and interpreters of the text, and so they have become authors in their own right. For the fans, the show is much more than just a television event that occurs once a week; it has expanded to include the writings of thousands of fanfiction authors. Authors write about fanfiction itself, parodying the entire process in a wickedly funny manner. This essay examines the interrelated nature of the fanfiction community, and just what makes Buffy fanfiction and its relationship with the text so different.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer has broken many barriers in its seven-year stint, creating new genres and enabling innovation in a previously barren area of television. The largest leap the show has taken though, has been in the way it has embraced its fandom, creating a symbiotic relationship between Buffy the show and Buffy the fanfiction. Not only does Buffy fanfiction seize upon unexplored areas and inconsistencies inherent in the text, these forays are often paid homage to by the show, and in some cases, even made part of the canon itself. Ideas and fantasies created by the fans can impact upon the show in a way that has never been seen before.

For those who are not familiar with what fanfiction is, it essentially refers to fan-authored texts written around characters, scenarios or elements from pre-existing sources, usually television shows or films, although the list can include such varied sources as bands, cartoon, books, poems or games. It used to be the exclusive preserve of zines or mailing lists, but with the advent of the internet, fanfiction has become easy to find and easy to publish. The internet has essentially brought a show like Buffy to a point that it took Star Trek years to build up to. For example, if you were to type in the words ‘Buffy’ and ‘Fanfiction’ in the Google search engine, you would come up with about 77,000 hits. With the advent of internet access to fan-authored works, it has become much easier for fanfiction authors and readers to conceal their identities. However, it still functions as a community, complete with mailing lists, fanfiction challenges and internet zines. There is no longer a neat divide between the producers and consumers from years ago. Now fans can be both.

Fanfiction has been regarded in the past by theorists like Henry Jenkins as a scribbling in the margins, a form of textual poaching. This often created an antagonistic relationship between the owners of the text and the fans that consumed them. Rather than simply reading the text and producing meanings in the way that the author had intended, fans not only scribble their ideas in the margin, they rewrite large slabs of the original to articulate their own meanings. These practices either resulted in the outrage of Lucasfilm or the tolerance of other shows. Buffy has reversed this process, turning the fans into authors and allowing them to not only play with any aspect of the show, but also to influence the direction of the narrative itself.

From the outset, the producers and writers of Buffy were determined to always make sure that the fans played an active role in the show’s development. To this end, staff members quite often appeared on the official posting board, The Bronze. Rather than lurking around to see what fans were talking about, they made sure that there was a colour-coded system in place so that fans were able to interact with them, asking questions and commenting on show directions. Unlike Lucasfilm, Joss Whedon has been viewed by fanfiction authors as a benevolent God, and is quite often referred to as such in the disclaimers. Lucasfilm, and many other companies have taken a very traditional approach to what meanings fans are and are not authorized to draw form the text itself. Lucasfilm’s vice president explained their policy regarding fandom: “If in fact somebody is using our characters to create a story unto itself, that’s not in the spirit of what we think fandom is about. Fandom is about celebrating the story the way it is.” (Kumbier, 2002)

In such an interactive age, producers of media texts have had to become more responsive to fans. When a show like Buffy does respond to these fan ideas and includes them in the canon, they are to a certain extent authorizing some interpretations and marginalizing others. Buffy manages to prevent this to a certain extent by constantly opening up new possibilities through its subtext, which at times, as Giles notes, rapidly becomes text. Even the death of a character is not the end to a possible meaning, as the show can and does bring back the dead. As Henry Jenkins states, “fans create models for alternative storytelling that have fed back in variety of ways to the commercially available text, which has had to respond to their fantasies in order to stay on the air.” Not only does Joss himself give permission for fans to experiment and create their own readings of the text, the very structure of the show itself allows for this to happen through its structure and themes. The usual structure of a show like Buffy is centred around a threat that arises towards at the beginning of the show, and peaks in the middle. By the show’s finale this threat has been resolved or at the very least subdued, and order can be restored. This closure is never complete, however, particularly with reference to the ever-present forces of darkness that Buffy must fight, forces that can never truly be defeated despite apocalypses that threaten to end the world. This continual weight of suspense results in a constant uncertainty, and lack of closure which outlets like fanfiction can provide relief through. Unless a character dies, there is never any romantic closure on Buffy , and even then, death is not often final.

There are several episodes in particular that highlight the nature of the relationship between fanfiction and Buffy , and the most obvious of these is Superstar. Superstar is essentially a parody of a particular brand of fanfiction generally despised amongst fan communities – the ‘Mary Sue’. This genre originated with Star Trek, and usually featured a gorgeous young ensign who would beam aboard the Enterprise and quickly ingratiate herself amongst the crew. You will never find an ugly Mary Sue, or a stupid one, or one who will fail to save the ship at the last possible second. When she dies, the universe mourns. This is the wish fulfillment fantasy of the author, often to the extent that the character is named after them. It has been said in Star Trek terms that Mary Sue is smarter than Spock, braver than Kirk, more empathetic than Bones, and sleeps with all three.

Jonathon had been a recurring minor character in Buffy up until the opening scene of Superstar, which came as quite a jolt to many fans. In one stroke the canonical world of Buffy had been turned upside down, and the centre had been flung to the side. Jonathon had become uber-Buffy, stronger than the slayer, inventor of the internet and star of The Matrix. Always the loser in school, he simply wanted to belong, to be one of the Scooby gang. To watch the gang, in particular Buffy, actually bowing to Jonathon created an almost uncomfortable viewing experience for some fans, as it seems to be saying that in a way fans wish that they were better than Buffy. Opinion has always been divided on this episode for that reason.

Some fans enjoy recognizing the parody of the Mary Sue, along with the way in which the episode plays on expectations. Other fans may find it a little too close for comfort, because it seems as if the show’s producers are punishing the fans for desiring it. Jonathon’s overwhelming desire for acceptance and acknowledgement by the Scooby gang is embarrassing to view and appears to be almost mocking fans. The producers’ views of the Mary Sue genre of fanfiction is certainly made clear, as Jonathon is unable to control his own text, represented by the monster version of himself in the episode. (Larbelestier, 2002)

Another episode that derives from and to a certain extent parodies a certain type of fanfiction is Something Blue. Even before this episode suggested it, there was a large volume of fanfiction dedicated to the Spike/Buffy or ‘Spuffy’ relationship. The tension between the two characters was always present in the subtext of the show, and was acted upon by many authors. Something Blue was a reaction to the question of what would happen if Spike and Buffy got married? Although in fanfiction this pairing is often played out as a tragedy, the show presented the humorous side, playing it strictly for laughs. It was a kind of nod to the fans, to let them know that almost any pairing was possible, and could even become part of the canon itself. This is also echoed in the pairing of Tara and Willow, and Something Blue’s strange relationship was an echo of what came later in Season 6, although the eventual pairing of Spike and Buffy ended up becoming a lot more angst-filled. This homage to Spuffy shippers has spilled over into the seventh season even more strongly, with the show not only hinting at a Spike-Buffy pairing, but also giving a nod towards Angel-Buffy shippers.

A fan-centric episode that often provokes confusion even amongst the most ardent of fans is the season four finale Restless. This episode deviates from the usual formula of season finales, of which the previous episode Primeval is a prime example. Restless is an exploration of the character development of the main core of the Scooby Gang, and is a mishmash of hints for the future strewn among a large amount of purported red herrings. For anyone who is not a committed Buffy fan, the episode is a tangled mess of incomprehensible subtexts, as it is central to the viewer’s enjoyment to have previously engaged with the text. It encourages active participation in the hunt for clues, and Joss Whedon has gone online on several occasions to leave hints for those eager to decipher them. It is the sort of episode that really encourages fans to consult with one another in order to produce meanings.

The Wish provided a rich alternate universe for fans to poach from, which is often referred to as ‘The Wishverse’. Fans had already written speculative fanfiction on the topics like what would happen if vampires ruled Sunnydale, and the Slayer had never left LA? The Wish gave them the official Buffyverse answer to this question, subverting expectations by killing off almost all of the major characters. At first the episode seems lighthearted, and it is enjoyable to see vampire Willow and Xander as such polar opposites. Despite this, all enjoyment is lost when we realize that they are indeed killers, and even enjoy it, as Willow does when she tortures her Puppy Angel. This episode also answers the question fans often speculate about – what would happen if the Slayer had no friends? The show reinforces something that soon becomes part of the canon – that a Slayer without friends is Faith.

Vampire Willow did, however, prove so incredibly popular amongst fans that she was brought back for a second episode, Doppelgangland, which explored not only the realm of same sex slash pairings, but same person pairings. There had been a few slash fanfics written positing Willow as a lesbian, and the pairing was hinted at in the episode by the behaviour of Vampire Willow, who Willow labels as ‘skanky and kind of gay’. Of course this is actually made part of the canon in season four. The relationship was also hinted at by Joss Whedon in one of his posts at The Bronze posting board in which he also wrote “I just know there’s a sweet story there, that would become very complicated if Oz were to show up again.” Which is of course exactly what happened.

Slash pairings play a large part in the world of fan-authored texts, which is not unusual in fanfic communities. What is unusual in Buffy slash is the large number of female/female pairings, as slash is usually homoerotic fanfiction authored by women. The reason for this is the large number of potential female pairings hinted at by the canon, and the abundance of strong female characters for fans to play with. There is also a quite obvious sexual undercurrent of kink that runs through the show, particularly with regards to vampire characters, which spills over into slash fanfiction.

There has always been debate amongst the fan community about the role of NC17 fanfiction with regards to the show, with the popular site www.fanfiction.net making the decision this year to remove all NC17 rated material from their site. This type of fanfiction is often dismissed by its critics as being simple pornography, when in reality it could not be farther from the truth. Even though it is usually labeled as PWP (or Plot? What Plot?), such fanfiction usually does have a basic plot, and much attention is also paid to characterization. Buffy has never, as a show, shied away from the topic of sex, but must as a PG rated show stay within certain guidelines. Fanfiction allows its authors and readers to play with pairings and explore fantasies that the show hints at. This sort of speculation has been given Joss Whedon’s blessing, with the comment “I think that it’s part of the attraction of the Buffyverse. It lends itself to polymorphously perverse subtext.

It encourages it. I personally find romance in every relationship (with exceptions), I love all the characters, so I say BYO subtext!” For fanfic authors, their relationship with the text is not just a two-way flow between text and viewer. Fanfic is influenced by fanfic, until the process resembles a funhouse hall of mirrors, each image reflecting another and distorting or changing some part of it, while still remaining a reflection of the original text. Authors write about fanfiction itself, parodying the entire process in a wickedly funny manner. Not only are there sites devoted to pulling apart so-called ‘god-awful’ fic, there are also Buffy sites devoted to parody fiction. These self-reflexive works send up particular categories of fiction, such as the round-robin and baby-fic, with often hilarious results. So it becomes a text from which fans poach, which also poaches itself, with fans that poach from each other, in just the same way that the funhouse mirrors not only reflect the individual back to itself, but they also reflect each others’ reflections.

Bibliography

Busse, Kristina. ‘Crossing The Final Taboo: Family Sexuality, and Incest in Buffyverse Fan Fiction’ in Fighting The Forces – What’s at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (eds) Rhonda V. Wilcox and David Lavery. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2002: Maryland, p207-217.

Jenkins, Henry. Intensities interview. University of Bristol, July 7:2001. http://www.cult-media.com/issue2/CMRjenk.html

Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers. Routledge, 1992: London. Kumbier, Alana. (2002) PopPolitics.com ‘Consumers and Creators’. AlterNet.org http://www.alternet.org/story.html?StoryID=13467

Larbalestier, Justine. ‘Buffy’s Mary Sue is Jonathon: Buffy Acknowledges the Fans’ in Fighting The Forces – What’s at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (eds) Rhonda V. Wilcox and David Lavery. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2002: Maryland, p227-238.

Saxey, Esther. ‘Staking a Claim: The Series and its Slash Fan-fiction’ in Reading The Vampire Slayer (ed) Roz Kaveney. Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 2001: London, p187-210.