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Fan Fiction, Fantasies, & Francesca Lia Block
July 23, 2006, 10:53 am
Filed under: Feminism, Online Community

Note: I wrote this piece in February, posted on a different space. I thought it might be relevant to what I want to write about in the coming weeks.

Meditate on this: last year, my senior year of college, I held a pancake breakfast on the first weekend everyone was back in town. My apartment was crowded—it was a single after all—and we all spent the morning catching up, eating breakfast foods, and glowing in pre-semester optimism. After awhile, the crowd cleared out and a few of my closest friends remained. Somehow, a copy of an old short story I wrote surfaced. It was written in 1994, when I was eleven; it is the only copy of said story known to exist.

My friend Stephen, perhaps because of his reputation for biting sarcasm, was chosen to read aloud “Love at Sea,” the multi-chaptered debut of a young authoress named Whitney. The plot goes like this: two best girlfriends, who are in love with the teen superstar J.R. (quite obviously modeled on Jonathan Taylor Thomas), conspire to find a spot aboard the first ever teen celebrity cruise line. Along the way, they successfully meet–and win over–J.R. and another teen celeb (quite obviously modeled on Andrew Keegan, hello hotness), get their single parents to fall in love (now they’re sisters!), and confirm that their friendship is the stuff of which dreams are made.

The main character, whose name is Amy, looks like me except she’s prettier, thinner, and richer. Her best friend is also pretty and thin but not so much so that she competes with Amy’s features. Amy is bossy and through just a few exchanges of dialogue with her single father and her best friend, it becomes quite clear that Amy is a huge bitch. She is a beautiful and blessed bitch though, who dreams of becoming a marine biologist (like me at that age) and wins the heart of the most popular teen celebrity J.R. At the end of the story, he gives her his home address and Amy, ever the expert on celebrity phenomenon, knows the value of this gift is priceless. I think they kiss at the end too. It goes without saying that I probably creamed my pants all the way through the last page: it was the life I would have created for myself if someone told me I could have everything I wanted.

There are many points of embarrassment for me and as Stephen read, I cringed. The plot is totally unrealistic, on various accounts, including the fact that the characters find flights to Florida and room and board on a cruise ship for $400 each. I can let this slide though; it’s kind of cute that my understanding of expense was so out-of-touch. I can even snort at the line that went something like this: “J.R. danced with the handicapped cruise guests, to be nice.” What really gets me though, and makes me want to toss myself over the rail of my make-believe ship of dreams, are the masturbatory qualities of “Love at Sea.” I was totally obsessed with Jonathan Taylor Thomas; I had a “clip-out love letter” to him published in Teen Beat and his face covered the walls of my bedroom. I had seen an advertisement in Teen Beat, or Tiger Beat or whatever-beat for a cruise on which teen celebrities like JTT would sail. I couldn’t go though, and not because it cost more than $400: it was reserved for handicapped children and/or folks with cancer. I wished that I had cancer at that point or at least enough tragedy in my life to garner a spot aboard the cruise. Instead, I wrote, “Love at Sea.”

It was “Love at Sea” that I thought of this morning when reading an essay in the most recent issue of Bitch: “Me, Myself & I: Fan Fiction and the Art of Self-Insertion” by Keidra Chaney and Raizel Liebler. The first few lines grabbed me right away and my tradition of reading the magazine cover to cover in order was thrown out the window: “It’s a secret rite of passage for many girls, particularly those who are aspiring authors: penning imaginative, often unspeakably bad fiction starring unrealistically perfect heroines…She tends to bear uncanny resemblance to her creator.” They were talking about Amy; they were talking about me.

Chaney and Liebler go on to describe a fan fiction phenomenon called “Mary Sue:” a female character that basically fulfills the author’s fantasy version of herself and/or her idea of the ultimate woman. She is always beautiful, often intelligent, frequently ass kicking, and without fail, the center of whatever scene through which she breezes. They demonstrate how Mary Sue, who gets her name from a landmark Star Trek fan fiction piece written in 1974, has not only popped up in contemporary media fan fiction—including television, film, and literary media—but fiction throughout the past few centuries. “Proto-Mary Sues” have been traipsing throughout literature as long as women have needed an escape from the contradictory, confusing and “unrealistic standards…women and girls” have been forced to follow. She cannot be passed off as another vain undertaking from the hopelessly self-absorbed world of adolescence—there’s something to this Mary Sue chick.

At the point in my life when I wrote, “Love at Sea,”—and as it turns out, other equally ridiculous stories—I was devouring young adult romance series on almost a daily basis. I read the Sunset Island series by Cherie Bennett—a collection that stretches into over thirty books—at least three times, and I found myself so infatuated with a sensitive, blind character named Ben from Katherine Applegate’s Boyfriend/Girlfriend series that I was moved to read all of her books at least as many times as I read Sunset Island. There were other books and series as well but the important point is that they provided me with a world devoid of the not-so-pleasant realities of class, race, or gender. If a problem ever arose for the heroines from Sunset Island, Maine—like when the parents of the children they nannied were pressuring them to spend an entire week on a yacht with Billy Joel and his wife Christy Brinkley (I kid you not) or when their band mate (yes, they were all in a band) died of AIDS—it was quickly fixed with an intimate campfire or girls-night-out where they could cry, profess their love for each other, and move on. But before I knock these books into next week, I want to also credit their authors with helping me become a better reader; it was precisely the escape that they provided which allowed me to read two 150-page books a day. Furthermore, they can also be credited with helping me become a better writer since I was clearly, when I wrote, “Love at Sea,” imitating them.

It has been my experience, mostly an experience that exists online, that the creation of Mary Sues extends beyond the written word for women of fan fiction. In 1999/2000, I was deeply involved with the Francesca Lia Block fan community. It functioned mostly as an email listserv and through my relationships with other men and women in the fan community, I was better able to deal with some tough shit in my life (notably, an eating disorder). Part of what held all of us together was our love for Weetzie—the main character in FLB’s most popular series, Dangerous Angels. I was not alone in wanting to be Weetzie: she was beautiful, funky, and successful and she literally lived in a magical cottage. Weetzie influenced how the women (and few men) on the listserv talked, wrote, dressed, and acted. We discussed making replicas of Weetzie’s outfits; we wore fairy wings in public like Weetzie’s daughter Witchbaby; we made food that fit the description of Weetzie’s picnics. FLB has said, in interviews, that Weetzie was a character that borrowed heavily from her own experiences; I’m sure there are aspects of Weetzie’s life that Block herself dreams of realizing. Weetzie is Block’s Mary Sue. If you need further convincing, read Block’s highly-anticipated return to the Weetzie Bat series, Necklace of Kisses, published last year. Weetzie feels estranged from her family and the life they have created together. The stress and reality of motherhood and long-term partnership have taken their toll on her fantasy world: Weetzie has a mid-life crisis. However, instead of separating from her partner—like Block did recently from her husband—Weetzie meets a magic mermaid and a whole slew of fantastical characters, who help lead her to the final scene of redemption: a wedding with her long-time partner in which she wears vintage Chanel and her necklace of kisses. (Okay, take some time to puke—I did when I read it firsthand.) Perhaps the only way Block could experience the fairytale end she has long wished for—supported by those pesky “unrealistic standards” of perfection and power, as described by Chaney and Liebler—is to create it for Weetzie.

I could go on here for much longer: my relationships with a number of female writers and media-holics (I’m looking at you Kim, Courtney, & Corrie), most of whom I know exclusively online, could support further discussion on the matter. Will support further discussion on the matter. What I want to keep in mind now though, as I close, is that something is going on with this art of self-insertion. It’s easy to think, as we make a Gilmore Girls mix CD or write scenes for Hermione-themed Harry Potter fan fiction, that we are wasting time with a stupid obsession. As Chaney and Liebler point out, fan fiction seems to be a female-dominated scene. We know from history that dismissing female-dominated scenes as a “waste of time” is at its worst a function of a sexist culture that consistently denies women equal access to the halls of legitimacy (among other things, like equal pay) and at its simplest a lazy excuse. We can debate the literary value of fan fiction if you like but first, go out and buy yourself a copy of Bitch and read the essay that begins on page 52. If you can’t find Bitch, look in the back row behind Vogue and Lucky, and if you have some extra time, clear some space for it at the front of the rack.


7 Comments so far
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I’m afraid this is going to come out totally inarticulately (actually I know it will–it’s late!), but I’m starting to think about the Mary Sue thing in connection to the popularity of successful YA books like Gossip Girls, The Clique etc.,–if they can be connected (sorry if I’m repeating myself from the original posting, I’ll have to go back and check out what my thoughts were then). They’re some of the hottest reads/guiltiest pleasures for girls today and Naomi Wolf wrote an article blasting them a while back (which wasn’t that great IMHO and there was an uproar among YA writers over it). Anyway, since then I’ve ran into a lot of counter arguments citing those novels as guilty pleasures and “innocent wish fulfillment”… which sounds like Mary Sueism to me! But because these books are so aggressively marketed that they’re practically telling girls who they want to be, and because the experience you’ve detailed here seems more about discovery than being told, I wonder how this will change the landscape of Mary Sueism/self-insertion. Maybe the links I’m trying to draw here are at best really shaky, but you got me thinking (again) about it anyway. And you totaly right re: the art of self-insertion. Something is definitely going on with it.

Comment by Courtney


No, no, I definitely see what you’re saying. It makes sense. One thing that’s kind of interesting to me in light of this is how packaging has changed. I’ve noticed more and more the use of photography, featuring real girls rather than a drawing of peoepl, use of objects, abstract images, etc. It’s almost as if the connection is being stated in a more obvious way: here is a real person representing this character, this is her face, this is who she is.

Blah, now it’s my turn to apologize for inarticulateness! Get back to me on that though, does that stir anything?

Comment by kitchentables

! That stirs a lot. I remember when the spin-off to The Baby-sitters Club, California Diaries came out and they used photographs instead of paint and I was shocked, but I thought it was the most exciting thing ever. I remember that. And the interesting thing about them was that the photographs of the girls always had their faces obscured. I remember it drove me up the wall because I wanted to see who they were but I never realised the subtler implications of them remaining faceless. And! In terms of Gossip Girls et al, they also follow the same design–always body parts and never faces.

But then, on the flip side of that, when The BSC got a makeover, and more recently, Judy Blume books and the Alice series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, they used photos but they used photos that showed the girl’s face, in that here is a real person way you mentioned–of course these characters/series were also way more established by the time the covers got madeover, so maybe they couldn’t do it any other way. Two different kinds of manipulation!! Oh wow. I definitely am not clever enough to work for any kind of book packager. I didn’t even know just how much I bought in until.. now.


(I think I have to work on my whole, if I’ve never heard of it, it must something no one’s ever heard of before! attitude, hah).

Comment by Courtney

I think the use of photographs, especially with faces, makes the YA-girl market more and more like TV. or something.

I read this series called Boyfriend/Girlfriend by Katherine Applegate when they first came out. Also read the aforementioned Sunset Island by Cherie Bennett. Both of those series–my favorites–featured TONS of pictures. SI even had a PERFUME. bahhhhhhhhhh

Okay, that’s all I got this morning.

Comment by kitchentables

[…] A recent addition to my blogroll is my friend Whitney’s blog, and I think everyone should check it out because it’s off to a seriously awesome start.  She’s touched on a lot of topics that can serve as a springboard for further discussion, among them an entry that I am still thinking about, Fan Fiction, Fantasies & Fransesca Lia Block.  It’s worth looking into so… what are you still reading this for?  Go!  Now! […]

Pingback by adventures in writing » Blog Archive » God, I know cool people

I think that Mary Sues are more than wish fulfilment. They’re an embodiment, so to speak, of our inner ideals and values. They give us an internal role model to look up to – everything that is good, and worthy, and to strive for. Seen from that perspective, Mary Sues are in fact quite a healthy thing to create.
They take the best aspects of ourselves – the parts we value most – and add other traits and patterns of behaviour that we consider positive.

Comment by Purple Dragon

[…] wrote about Witchbaby on a previous blog, check it out. Also, can you spot the inside joke in this […]

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