Election Escapism: Fan Fiction For The 2016 Candidates
Fan fiction used to be reserved for themost diehard devotees of fantasy novels and boy bands – but it's made its way into this election.
Fictional stories written about characters or real people can be found at almost every corner of the internet – subjects range from television shows like Game of Thrones, book series like Harry Potter, and celebrities like Beyonce and Jay-Z. Fan fiction websites are home to millions of stories – Archive of Our Own hosts over 2 million alone, almost a thousand of which feature politicians.
Even publications that aren't normally associated with fan culture are starting to get in on the action – The New York Times Book Review published a work of fiction centered on the presumptive Republican nominee's wife, penned by acclaimed author and MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It plans on publishing another fictional political work later this year.
Peruse any of the more traditional fan fiction host sites and you'll find writings about Sen. Marco Rubio discovering Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer, House Speaker Paul Ryan's inner monologue during the State of the Union, or an alternate universe where Bernie Sanders runs for president of the 8th grade at the fictional USA Middle School and encounters a new student and rival named Donald Trump:
"What could any of that possibly mean ... Who was this strange, wealthy, balding boy? Bernie collapsed to his knees in despair. If Trump made a meaningless yet awe-inspiring speech like that in the election, he wouldn't even need his mountains of cash. The presidency would be his.
Visions of a Trump-controlled class overcame him. Overpriced textbooks, expensive student loans, walls closing their classroom off from the rest of the school ... A tear dropped out of Bernie's eye. Just as the thought that he should give up on his campaign entered his mind, Bernie heard a voice."
"You think 'it can happen anywhere,' never realizing that it can happen anywhere.
A SHOT --
The shard of glass in Jeb's hand shatters by the scrape of a bullet. Jeb drops the ground, rolls through the booze-soaked ground. He jumps up to a squat and whips out the old pistol and holds it to the bullet hole in the doorway. The engraved barrel shimmers: Gov. Jeb Bush.
Florida hasn't been safe since the Sharknados started coming. When I was in my 40s, the kids used to tease about the swamp sharks. Gave me the heebie-jeebies over a plague of mutant sea creatures that roamed the Everglades."
In the 2016 presidential cycle, where everything seems unpredictable, fiction allows voters to determine exactly what happens next – whether it's set in the present day or some kind of alternate universe where sharks rain down in a natural disaster.
"I think to some extent it's an opportunity to act out alternate realities," said Amber Davisson, an assistant professor of communications at Keene State College. "A lot of the fan fiction I've studied seems to be people asking themselves, 'What if we did this conversation a little bit differently?' They're playing with various scenarios to see what works."
Fan fiction has developed a reputation for being sexual in nature, and while that be true for a great deal of what's out there, political authors are using the medium to explore different aspects of the candidates' personalities.
Paige Boulton, a teenage fan fiction writer who will be a first-time voter this election, has written about Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and the current election cycle. She considers her work now satire, including one story where Republican candidates discuss their fears about a woman having the nuclear codes. She's been actively writing online ever she was 11, penning stories about her favorite anime characters. "When I go to explore something, and I'm thinking about something, writing – and especially writing narratively – is one of the first places I go," she said.
For 25-year-old writer C.J. Fisher, fan fiction is "a reflection of how completely insane this election is." Calling the election cycle "not serious," she said, "you click on Politico and you click on 'The Borowitz Report' and you can't tell the two apart."
One of her most popular political works is a one-chapter, 630-word story about Cruz being haunted by the ghost of Alexander Hamilton. Another notable story features Craig Mazin – Cruz's former college roommate and one of the senator's most vocal Twitter critics – as a protagonist. Both of these were written during the height of the "Is Ted Cruz the Zodiac Killer" meme and incorporated that into the plot. She said her material changes based on the news du jour.
"I think most of the political comedy we have now is more interactive," Fisher said, noting that the internet is where a lot of young people are newly discovering the democratic process are. For those just under voting age, it's the easiest way for them to participate.
"John Oliver has all the hashtags; Buzzfeed has all the ridiculous quizzes; Donald Trump is having a Twitter fight with Elizabeth Warren," she said. "If you're 15, 16, 17 and you exist in the digital age as we all do, then most of your political stuff is online. And if you're already into fandom, then it's not such a huge leap to combine the two."
Davisson agrees that there isn't a huge jump between fan culture and political affiliation, whether you can vote legally or not. "We're talking about voters who have a really emotional attachment to candidates. It's the same thing you say when you say you're either a Britney [Spears] or Christina [Aguilera] fan, as ridiculous as that sounds. I understand that these are two very talented artists, but it doesn't matter: I'm on team Christina."
Davisson also says that this mindset is complicated in a political context. "This is a space where we're supposed to make reasoned, logical decisions," she said. "So what we have is people who are making very emotional decisions, and then trying to rationalize them. You can tell people are kind of switching between their rational individual voice, and their 'I am a fan' voice."
Although Boulton and Fisher use their work as social commentary, some political fan media is less snarky and more earnest. Fan art, and in particular fan videos — compilations pieced together using clips from speeches and events — are an example of that. "Birdie Sanders" art popped up Imgur and Deviant Art when a bird landed on the senator's podium during a rally in Portland, Ore.. There's a Hillary Clinton video set to punk rock music entitled "Rebel Girl." And Donald Trump has inspired tribute videos of his own – including a well-produced play on video game trailers.
Davisson notes that fan media – videos included – are nothing new; they've been created since before the advent of YouTube. "Well before the internet, we have Star Trek fans who are sending videos back and forth, at home, the good old-fashioned way. And a lot of those fan videos actually went on YouTube very early on. The technology has made it a lot easier and a lot more mainstream."
And Larsen says that's totally normal that people would be connecting with and writing about this election cycle's candidates. "I think to some extent it's inevitable because they're sort of in our faces for so long and there's that sort of familiarity," she said. "These aren't people who are just passing through. We've gotten to know them in the same way we've gotten to know characters on a television show."
Davisson agrees, and also has some advice for interacting with those who support a different candidate. "I try to remember that we are not always going to be rational and reasonable. That we are talking about things that we love, we are talking about things we feel very deeply about," she says. "We're talking about what we hope tomorrow is going to look like. I oftentimes remind myself to take off my 'talk you out of it' hat, and put on my 'listen to you talk about something you love hat.' and I think that's how — when this is all over — we continue to respect each other."
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