I Write Fanfiction For The People Tim Burton Says Are ‘Not Called For’
By Ash Davis
When I look back, I should have realized there was a problem with Tim Burton and his casting choices long before he came out and said what he said:
“Nowadays, people are talking about it more,” he says regarding on-screen diversity. But “things either call for things, or they don’t. I remember back when I was a child watching The Brady Bunch and they started to get all politically correct, like, OK, let’s have an Asian child and a black — I used to get more offended by that than just — I grew up watching blaxploitation movies, right? And I said, that’s great. I didn’t go like, OK, there should be more white people in these movies.”
There’s time and space for someone else to unpack all that’s said here. To argue about what he really meant or to defend his autonomy to make his creative choices however he sees fit.
I’m not here for that.
His words, however he meant them, mean something deeply personal to me.
My family was small growing up. My mom, my baby sister, and me. And because mom was a single, hard-working mom, oft times it was just my sister and me.
And y’all, we didn’t like each other much.
Nothing violent or toxic, just that general benign distaste and apathy that comes from being separated by five years and two magnetic poles of personality. We had very little in common, traveling in different circles of taste as we did. But one of the things we could share:
Our love of Lord of the Rings.
And even then our diametrically opposed personalities arose in the reasons why we liked LotR so much. I loved the elves and wizards and magic. She just loved Orlando Bloom’s smile (as I remember it anyway).
She loved that smile (and everything else about him) so much that when he was to appear on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno to promote Return of the King, she taped the interview and played it again and again and again. This part in particular. (Judging from the quality of this video, this may be actual footage from our VCR tape.)
“The way is shut, it was made by those who are dead, and the dead keep it.”
It’s a badass line, one that I can recall 13 years later with perfect clarity, but I need a mnemonic just to remember my wedding anniversary. LotR was our thing, something where she and I could sit in a room together for four full hours and not tear each other apart.
LotR is special.
LotR is great.
And it’s problematic as fuck.
Thirteen years ago I wasn’t as ‘woke’ as I am now, but even then I knew something was off.
Where are the black elves? The black dwarves? The black hobbits? Why are the people who look the closest to me the elephant riding, bone through the nose, savage looking bad guys? In this world, is that all we are?
Someone said, and Google attributes it to many someones so I can’t nail it exactly down, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” But man does a girl (and her teenage sister) want to be and have the affection of the badasses they see in their favorite things.
Summon a river of horses to thwart your enemies?
Have everyone love you and despair?
You’re speaking my language!
Gain the affection of a valiant cavalry captain? (My sister can keep her elf, I’m an Éomer girl.)
Sign me up!
But according to Peter Jackson (and by extension Tolkien himself), since it’s all we see, we only get to be the elephant-riding, bone-through-the-nose, savage-looking bad guys.
Or, according to Burton, we don’t get to be anything at all.
We aren’t “called for.”
I can’t remember the occasion — birthday or Christmas — but I needed to get my sister a gift. I’m 13, I don’t have a job, but I wanted to do more than just add my name to whatever gift mom buys for her.
So I wrote her a story.
A story about a beautiful black elf (who bore a striking resemblance to a certain someone, go figure) and her dashing, arrow slinging, Oliphaunt slaying (only counts as one!) boyfriend, Legolas.
I didn’t know what fanfiction was at the time, and it would be about three years before I would discover it for myself. All I wanted to do was give my sister something that I knew would make her happy.
And it did. (I think. Story’s lost to time unfortunately.)
I turned my sister into a hero and a love interest, which were two things we just didn’t see in the kind of stuff we liked to watch together. Now remember, this is the early ’00s, black women definitely had representation (rare as it was) in TV and film, but in genre stuff like LotR, like Corpse Bride, Nightmare, Sweeney Todd, Batman, and Batman Returns?
Not so much.
And it sucks to know this “weird” guy who made these beautifully “weird” movies that spoke to my “weird” ass (because let me tell you, liking stuff like this when I was growing up got you labeled with a capital “O” not for “other” but for “oreo.” A story for another time.) thought I was too “weird” to include — uncalled for.
Well fuck that.
“Be the change you wish to see,” Gandhi said (sorta). So I wrote my change. I discovered fanfiction and wrote all the damn change. I went into the painfully white fandoms of the things I loved (Pirates of the Caribbean, Final Fantasy, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Fantastic Four) and wrote black folk into every last one of them. If there were no black people, I made them. If they were tokens, I made them stars. Mary-sued the shit out of everything. It didn’t matter, you were gonna see me!
Because if white boys had dwarves and destinies, and white girls had princesses and prophecies, why couldn’t I?
And I’ve been doing it ever since.
I say all the time that writing fanfiction as an adult is what called me to write. I would (do) sit at my desk at my 9–5 and waste hours writing, so much so that I should just make the switch, make it my vocation. If the Myers and the Jameses of the world could to it, so could I.
Now I understand that yes, it is fanfiction that gave me that push, but it’s also more than that. That my calling came to me years ago, born of the simple desire to give my sister something she didn’t have.
To let her be the hero and the love interest — the smart, the pretty, the flawed, the weird, and the powerful. Because if people like me “aren’t called for” from people like Burton, then where else is she going to get that?
So I write. Once for her and now for you.
You are all my sisters.
This piece originally appeared on Bullshit.ist.
Lead image: flickr/Sawtooth