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The Dubious Ethics of “Real-Person Fiction”

When fanfic writers start putting real celebrities in steamy situations, what’s the law to do?

Credit: Tiffany Nevin / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Click around a bit on the fanfiction site Archive of Our Own, and you’ll notice that the name “Jonathan” pops up a lot. He’s always finding himself in steamy, compromising situations. For instance:

AJ stares at him, that look of awe and love in his eyes as he touches Jonathan like he’s something delicate, something to be treasured. So different from how anyone else touches him. He doesn’t dwell on that thought. He gets so little time with AJ to begin with, there was no need to ruin it with thoughts of other people. He watches AJ undress, admiring his strong and lean form as it’s revealed to him.

This passage might seem like a typical selection of steamy erotica (and trust me, it gets steamier) except for one thing: Jonathan and AJ are real people. This story is about an encounter between Jonathan Scott, co-host of HGTV’s real estate show Property Brothers, and AJ Styles, the WWE wrestler. The author is Chloe, a 19-year-old from Houston, and her piece is just one of hundreds on the site that puts Jonathan Scott — or his brother Drew, or sometimes both of them, together — in sexual, bizarre, or very clearly unrealistic situations.

“A lot of people like how hot my writing is,” Chloe tells me. But would she want Drew and Jonathan Scott to read her work? “Absolutely not,” she says. “Not even the tame stuff.”

Thanks to sites like Tumblr and books like 50 Shades of Grey, fanfiction is now a mainstream phenomenon that is tolerated, if not embraced, by many creators. But while pairing Pikachu with Lord Voldemort is one thing, the genre gets more dubious when you start “shipping” (a convention where fans pair characters that are not canonically dating or sometimes even in the same universe) real-life people. So what does it mean that stories like Chloe’s, a genre called real-person fiction (RPF), can take someone like Jonathan and put him in situations he’s never even imagined consenting to? The murky questions of consent and ownership of public identity raised by RPF have made it both a scourge of the fanfiction world and a surprising stand-in for fandom at large in the internet age.

Both fanfiction and RPF have always existed in some form. Nearly all of Shakespeare’s historical dramas could be considered fanfiction; the Brontë sisters were thought to have written an elaborate role-playing game based on living soldiers in the Napoleonic Wars. And even before the first internet chat rooms and listservs, fanfiction existed in notebooks and between friends.

But the role of RPF within fanfiction has always been a complicated one. The site Fanlore.org, a communally sourced history of fanfiction, suggests that RPF has existed since the 1970s but was kept primarily to private listservs for fear of both legal action and retaliation from other fans. In 2002, one of the earliest fanfiction forums, Fanfiction.net, banned all fanfiction involving real people.

That all changed in 2012 with the advent of “Larry Stylinson,” a trend in which writers began romantically paring One Direction band members Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson. “The whole ecosystem of Larry shipping, it kind of opened a floodgate,” says Amanda Brennan, senior content insights manager at Tumblr.

A long time fanfiction writer herself, Brennan is in charge of the platform’s yearly “Fandometrics” report, which provides evidence of RPF’s growing popularity. For instance, between 2016 and 2017, fanfiction about real K-pop stars increased 10 percent on Tumblr; in 2015, Larry Stylinson was the number one “ship” on the site.

Popularity aside, though, plenty of fans and writers can’t stand the genre. “RPF — and by that I mean explicit stories about currently living celebs — is the lowest trash possible to me,” says fanfiction writer Sergey, 30. While he has no issue with historical RPF, he expressed disapproval of writers “who use ‘But they are famous, they have to deal with it!’ as an excuse for being creepy.”

It’s true that there’s no shortage of internet clips where celebrities faced with RPF cringe in response, and most naysayers say writing about living people without their permission is a violation of consent. But a form of RPF about contemporary figures happens all the time in mainstream literature and film. For example, The Social Network, which won dozens of awards, portrayed the inner personal life of Mark Zuckerberg without his permission. For as much as we tend to enshrine the idea of the “rights” to someone’s life, legally there’s not much we can do when they’re violated.

Celebrities’ personas are rarely copyrighted or trademarked, and given that most fanfiction stays unpublished, writers aren’t usually violating laws that prevent using someone’s likeness for promotional materials without their consent. If a publisher or producer does pick up a story — such as in the case of After, Anna Todd’s One Direction fanfiction — getting around those laws can be as simple as changing the characters’ names.

That isn’t to say people haven’t tried to take legal action against RPF. In 2003, FanDomination.net received a cease-and-desist order from baseball player Andy Pettitte’s legal team asking that a story about him be taken down. But once fiction is labeled as such, proving it represents reality is difficult.

Invasion of privacy, the heart of most criticism against RPF, is also hard to prove once something is labeled as fiction. As Stacey Lantagne, law professor at University of Mississippi, asserts, “Online writers do not write stories about Harry Styles in college hoping to trick people into thinking the celebrity Harry Styles is anything like their Harry Styles. Rather, they are engaging in an obvious (and, in fandom circles, familiar) bit of fictional play.”

RPF writers agree. “For me, I tend to have a very clear line in my head,” says Tori, 31, a hockey RPF writer. “I don’t think that [my RPF is] real or that I have some insight into Sidney Crosby or whatever.” Other writers draw the line at writing about regular people — say, a celebrity’s nonfamous girlfriend. “My philosophy is if I wouldn’t stop them on the street for an autograph, then they’re not going in my fic,” says Chloe. “And I never, ever use real-life children in my works, especially if they’re underage.”

This all raises the question: If the law is the same for a writer like Aaron Sorkin and the average Harry Styles RPF writer, why is the latter considered so much worse?

“I mean, frankly, what people think is gross is a lot of it is about sex,” says Anne Jamison, author of Fic: Why Fan Fiction Is Taking Over the World. “If they were just writing about sending Chris Evans to Hogwarts to teach Harry Potter about being a superhero, it wouldn’t cause the same reaction. It raises issues of consent to people.”

And while fanfiction forums are populated with just as much of the innocuous and bizarre as the steamy, mixing fact and fiction can blur lines for some writers. This is especially true for younger fans who grew up with the internet as their primary source of fan interaction. Online shipping has led to real harassment of celebrities who aren’t following their fandom’s script. The idea of RPF fantasies affecting real life is scary — but it’s also commodifiable. In May, Wattpad announced it would partner with YouTube stars to bring fanfiction about them to life. Sony has even commissioned official One Direction fanfiction. “As celebrities become more and more involved in sort of curating their lives on Instagram and understand that people telling stories about them is one of the things they’re selling…it will become a part of a media strategy,” Jamison says.

Literary and legal debates aside, RPF is probably most disturbing in what it says about the rest of us: Often, we’re just as obsessed as the writers. Given our celebrity-driven culture, it’s almost unavoidable not to be guilty of stanning (being a stalker and a fan) too hard for someone or peering a bit too deeply into a private life we haven’t been granted permission to access.

The Property Brothers having hot twincest might not exactly be your fantasy of choice, but who hasn’t fantasized about a celebrity or at least speculated about their personal life in some way? It’s almost inevitable in an age where social media has leapfrogged past tabloids for direct celebrity access and we no longer need the imaginations of gossip columnists because we have enough fodder for our own illusions. The question is no longer whether RPF is okay — it’s whether we’re ready to admit that this is already how we view celebrities.

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