RPeSsay


by Michelle Erica Green


October 2002

"Now, look here, young lady - you stop thinking about those motion picture actors and you go right to sleep! And mind you - no dreaming about them, either!" -- Alice (Sophie Tucker) to Betty (Judy Garland), Broadway Melody of 1938

I fell into sin by accident while looking for a Smallville story. There I was on a web site with fic from multiple fandoms, searching by title to see if anything interesting caught my eye, when I came upon a story with the description, "He's not that much older." Ah, I said without looking too closely at the pairing, surely this is about Clark and Lex. So I clicked on the link and started reading.

Two paragraphs in, I realized that the story I was reading was not, in fact, based on Smallville; the line in which the protagonist thinks about how much he fucking loves his life was a dead giveaway. But the style was intriguing -- second-person narration, interesting metaphors -- and I was curious to learn into whose fictional universe I had stumbled. Another paragraph and I had two sudden epiphanies: "Oh god, this is set in New Zealand, and there's a Lord of the Rings joke. I bet it's Real People Slash about someone in the cast."

Stop reading now, I told myself. But my eyes were faster than my brain -- they had already skimmed down the screen to find out exactly which LoTR cast member was theoretically narrating the story. And the part of my brain that does not listen to reason was reasoning, "You might as well find out who's not that much older than him because otherwise you'll always wonder." When it comes to reading material, the part of my brain that says "go there" is much stronger than the part that houses moral objections. So I took a deep breath and said, fine, I'll go find out who "he" is and squick and squeal and close the file.

Well, by the time I found out who "he" was, and read the handful of paragraphs describing him -- what his energy is like, and how he gazes at people, and how other people see him from his public persona -- I knew I was not going to close the file Until I Had Read The Whole Damn Thing. And to my shock, it amazed me. It was sharp and witty and savvy and honest, not on a plot level obviously but on an emotional one, and in the end it was so moving that it brought tears to my eyes. It was only afterwards that the part of my brain that listens to reason was able to make itself heard again, and that part said, "You have just committed an act that violates the privacy and integrity of the very people upon whom those characters you liked so much are ostensibly based, and that is wrong. Go to Hell, go directly to Hell, do not pass Go, do not collect $200."

I felt terrible, for about ten minutes. Then I remembered that when my erstwhile writing partner discovered Backstreet Boys fandom, she had sent me links to some RPS she had co-written, and out of friendship I went and looked at it, so this was really not my first experience with the genre anyway. It embarrassed the hell out of me, but not because it was real people -- because it was boy bands, who don't appeal to me musically, artistically or erotically. I realize that this is an outrageously unfair double standard, but I guess my thinking at the time was that the members of boy bands are selling their own names and images in a very different way from film and television actors. With boy bands in particular, fans are encouraged to buy their images as much as their music -- the public characters they play who have their real names and faces. It's similar with athletes, though I've never read any of the legendary hockey-player RPS.

Erotic fantasies about celebrities are probably as old as celebrity, and unless they get completely out of hand, they're neither damaging nor insulting -- on the contrary, they make the stars who they are. Judy Garland sang "You Made Me Love You" for Clark Gable at birthday parties for years after she made the number famous playing a fan of his in Broadway Melody of 1938. There are numerous books studying fan fantasies about famous people, two of the more entertaining offerings being I Dream of Madonna (dreams and daydreams about the goddess of pop) and Starlust (the secret fantasies of fans, some very explicit). Can you imagine Madonna asking her fans to please stop imagining her naked or masturbating to those lesbian photos of her in Sex? As if. One doesn't become Madonna, or Justin Timberlake or Nick Carter, without the erotic fantasies of fans propelling interest in the music.

But there are two major differences between books like Starlust and RPS. One is the limitation on access created by publication in print rather than the internet, along with the ephemeral legitimacy of an in-print disclaimer that the fantasies reproduced in the book are entirely fictional. Though most RPS sites have notes on the front page stating that none of the stories really happened, some of them undercut themselves with jokes, like "or at least they didn't tell me exactly what they did do." The other major difference tends to involve the first-person involvement of the writer...or, in fan terminology, the presence of a Mary Sue-type character interacting with the celebrity. Despite the very real threat of stalkers, most of the people I've spoken with in the entertainment industry seem far less troubled about fans circulating their own erotic fantasies about stars than about stories that pair presumably straight celebrities in gay relationships.

Entire books have been written on why fans slash television characters, so I won't make a dent in this essay speculating on why fans slash actors. Some of the reasons are undoubtedly the same: slash lays bare the emotions of the characters, reinvents them as deeply sensitive and emotional people, explores gender roles and expectations, explores the fallibility and insecurities of heroes, humanizes those who are otherwise inaccessible. And for those inclined to be turned on by such things, slash can be really hot. The naked bodies of gorgeous men lovingly described, the uninhibited performance of sexual activities often treated as taboo in the larger culture, the sweat, the groans, the muscles stretched taut as they strain toward...ahem. What's not to love?

Though RPS stories are fiction, their themes are often borrowed from songs, interviews and autobiographies -- the ostensible source material, just as television shows are the source material for fan fiction. Then there's what's called "metafic," in which a writer takes well-known public figures and re-sets them in a different era or storyline -- characters based on two band members, for instance, but with different names, living as young noblemen during the French Revolution, often inspired by a comment by a celebrity that he wishes he'd lived in a certain era or within the plot of a certain novel. To complicate matters further, there's a sub-genre of RPS in which celebrities discover RPS stories, get excited enough to enact the scenes described therein, and write thank-you notes to the authors afterwards.

Detractors point to such stories as evidence that the RPS writers have no sense of reality, not to mention a lack of respect for the privacy of the people being slashed. Itís hard to know how to address either charge. RPS writers state that they have the utmost respect for their subjects, that they write their stories out of love for them, and that since there's no direct interaction, privacy really isn't an issue. As for a sense of reality, they ask, why is it any stranger to write stories about singers or actors they'll likely never meet than to write stories about television characters who don't even exist?

I discovered running Kate Mulgrew's fan club that everyone (including me) constructs their own identities for celebrities about whom really we know very little. We borrow from what we read in biographies and interviews, from conventions, from chance meetings in restaurants and hotel lobbies, from gossip from those "in the know." My answer to those who say RPS fans rewrite reality is that all fans rewrite reality to some extent, with the full complicity of actors and musicians and their managers and publicists. It's the basis of celebrity fandom -- the ability to manufacture an image of a star into exactly what any given fan wants and needs that image to be.

Take William Shatner, who was the subject of embarrassed secret slashy speculation way before RPS existed as such, and who played one of the characters for whom "slash" (originally K/S) is named. It's easy to forget that the person we think of as "William Shatner" is just as manufactured as Captain Kirk, though considerably more complex. Shatner has written several books detailing what he wants fans to know about his life, his career, his interests; he has attended dozens of Star Trek conventions where he has answered questions, reinterpreted scenes, mocked himself and his fellow actors; he has played himself on Saturday Night Live and in the film Free Enterprise (as a drunken, womanizing buffoon); he has caricatured his image on everything from documentaries to The Iron Chef. He also underwent a couple of very public personal crises, including the tragic death of his wife. Most of us have a perception of who William Shatner is that may have absolutely nothing to do with who William Shatner thinks he is. That's probably one of the reasons he's been so popular for so long.

Studios have known of this phenomenon for decades, hiring publicity departments to create stars with the images they believe to be most desirable and thus must marketable. I don't think it's accidental that the demographic most often overlooked by studio executives -- middle-aged women -- have been the driving force in rewriting popular entertainment via fan fiction and RPS. Fans can be astonishingly possessive of "their" celebrities, refusing to pay attention to any facts that might interfere with their own fantasies and reacting with hostility to other fans who have a different image of the star. For that reason, RPS can create a point of bonding that celebrity-worship alone cannot, for fans writing RPS often adapt the conventions of a shared universe ("fanon," or the conventions that become so widespread in a fan community that no one can remember where they came from in the first place).

The most disturbing argument against RPS comes from those who believe its shared reality puts others in danger -- not just the subjects of the stories, but the readers. While there's a lot of homophobia and prejudice involved in repudiating RPS, I can't help thinking about evidence that the internet has made life easier for pedophiles -- not just because it's so much easier to access kiddie porn, but because there's a sense of safety in numbers, and the internet has created a community of sorts for sociopaths by creating an ironic sense of normalcy about their behavior. Until very recently I certainly thought of RPS as taboo; has the sheer volume of it overwhelmed my sense of judgment about what's ethical?

Really the major difference between celebrity-worship now and celebrity-worship of yesteryear concerns the explicitness of the fantasies, nothing more. Movie magazines spent decades encouraging fans to idolize and fantasize about "perfect couples" like Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, before the bitter endings to their storybook romances required a lot of revision and rumor-control after their own exaggerations. Fascination with the love lives of celebrities is a big component of celebrity adoration, and celebrity adoration is not only acceptable but essential for the entertainment industry. The major difference between "You Made Me Love You" and "Chris Does Lance" is that the eroticism of celebrity no longer disguises itself as cornball romance so as to be unthreatening to the stars.

The publicity of RPS is what shocks me the most, not the fantasies themselves. I understand wanting to share among a small group of friends, but for me the public posting is where the public/private line gets crossed -- not just for the subjects but for the writers. I grew up in an era before LiveJournals, so maybe this is my own personal hangup. Or maybe it bears study, but not until RPS has been around awhile longer, and we can actually quantify whether and how it affects the careers of celebrities and the people who write it.

I've read and written fan fiction happily for years, and always felt like it was completely legitimate, even before I had any sense of the social and political ramifications of rewriting popular myth. I first heard of fanfic in the official Bantam fan bible Star Trek Lives!, and first realized that other people had slashy thoughts about Kirk and Spock when I read the romantic sonnet at the end of Star Trek: The New Voyages 2, also an official Bantam publication. By the time Paramount came around grumbling about unauthorized use, after more than two decades of ignoring and benefiting from fan culture, it was a bit late to feel guilty.

Which is weirder really -- having sexual fantasies about a (projection of a) live flesh-and-blood man whom there's some remote chance I could meet one day, or having sexual fantasies about a television character who doesn't really exist? I'm sure some people think that they're both equally weird, but it never before occurred to me to do so. But I'm still blushing about that Lord of the Rings story -- because I enjoyed it so much, and I know that sooner or later I'm going to head over to Google, type in the names of my two favorite Fellowship actors and the letters "RPS," and see what comes up. I'm still not sure whether that's a good thing or a sign of hypocrisy.


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