Frustrated Fantasies: Misperceptions of Fandom and 'Gone With the Wind'
The value of fandom is often underestimated. Rather than the stereotyped burnt-out housewives or socially inept teenagers that obsessively and indiscriminately consume popular culture, fans are active agents.
“Holding each other by the waist, they slowly made their way upstairs. The house was ghostly quiet, everybody else was sleeping, and each step they took made the wooden old floor creak in a way that sounded like an animal in pain.
Scarlett's mind was a blur. She hated Melanie as much as she had always hated her, but there had been a confusing moment while they were downstairs; the contact of Melanie's lips against her skin, her tight embrace, her hasty words demanding that Scarlett told her that she loved her.”
The above paragraphs form the start of one of the many fan fiction stories published about Gone With The Wind on the website, FanFiction.net. With over two million active users, the website claims to be the “World’s largest fanfiction archive and forum where fanfic writers and readers around the globe gather to share their passion.” This particular story about Scarlett O’Hara and Melanie Hamilton Wilkes was devised by a user named ArtemisMisteriosa, whose profile lists her as a 28-year-old female from Europe. Her four thousand-word story, titled “A Drink and a Secret”, mirrors the original text by selecting a setting—Ms. Pittipat’s house—and characters that are part of the narrative milieu of the source text.
However, the user realigns Melanie and Scarlett’s sexual preferences, hereby significantly altering the otherwise familiar environment. The resulting femslash (an often used nickname for ‘slash’ stories that depict same-sex relationships between women) is furthermore prefaced by a disclaimer that details that all characters spring from Margaret Mitchell’s pen, but that the fanfic author has taken the liberty of adding “romantic feelings and some physical contact between two adult women.” The resulting story is thus a hybrid of the source text and the reader-turned-author’s modifications and additions. To the fanfic writer, the additions naturally flow from a premise already set up by the source text; she expresses surprise at the fact that there haven’t been more Scarlett/Melanie storylines, as the “subtext [between them] is REALLY obvious.”
However, this begs the question, obvious to whom? ArtemisMisteriosa identifies herself as LGTBQ in reader comments, reveals her favorite fanfic pairing to be Xena and Gabrielle, and her stories all fall in the category femslash. They’re also all rated 'M', a letter that refers to the highest possible category in the site’s rating system and is applied to stories that contain mature adult content. The reader’s own framework of reference is thus as important as that of the original text. The author draws upon elements presents in the source text, but realigns and reinterprets them based on her own values and background.
Fandom of Gone With the Wind, of which these fictionalized stories are just one element, demonstrates how practices of meaning-making are not only constantly renewed by individual readers, but also by collective communities of fans. As readers/viewers become emotionally invested in Scarlett’s development, they form an opinion on her behavior. Communities such as FanFiction.Net serve to negotiate between different interpretations, and offer a platform for readers to publicize this opinion and actively stake a claim on the text. That is why stories such as that of ArtemisMisteriosa cannot be dismissed as merely corrupting the epos that Mitchell created, or as the wishful thinking of a loner; communities of fans have the objective of sharing one’s feelings and thoughts on certain cultural texts. As such, they continuously reinscribe the texts with meanings that one the one hand effortlessly match with pre-existing values and interests of the readers, but that on the other hand remain alter the position of the original.
As Henry Jenkins has argued in his seminal work Textual Poachers, “unimpressed by institutional authority and expertise, fans assert their own right to form interpretations, to offer evaluations, and to construct cultural canons” (Jenkins, 1992. Page 18). However, the active approach of fans goes even further than Jenkins’ model of claiming texts and “poaching” them. He always sees a “degree of affinity” between the meanings that fans produce and those of the original texts, as he presupposes that fans select texts that are compatible with their pre-existing “ideological commitments” (34). However, an investigation of fandom surrounding Gone With The Wind shows that this is not always the case.
With the advent of the Internet—which largely occurred after Jenkins wrote his work—fans actively connect, link, and discuss with other fans, and in doing so go beyond “poaching”: what they construct can no longer be seen as a mere reworking of the source text, as the aura attached to the source text has largely disappeared. The original authorized text is no longer at the center of the universe of fandom; storylines, characters and additions created by fans ensure that multiple readings and plots hold value. Linking to other websites is an important tool to spread these diversified interpretations, and through online discussion fans arrive at a multiplicity of interpretations that are in constant competition with each other. As Jenkins rightly observed, this fandom is far from static. Readers are “continuously reevaluating [their] relationship to the fiction and reconstructing its meanings according to more immediate interests” (35). Websites such as FanFiction.Net make this even easier by grouping stories on tone and characters.
The connotations of fandom are not exactly pretty. The most common perception has fandom as a form of occupational therapy, meant to fill the empty lives of housewives, socially inept teenage boys, or boy-crazed teenage girls that scream their lungs out when they catch a glimpse of the latest Disney starlet. Fans, in other words, are tasteless and obsessed, awarding too much attention to cultural texts or celebrities that seem rather mundane and trivial to most. Media coverage of Gone With The Wind fans has continuously confirmed fandom as an “undesirable” way to relate to a popular text (Jenkins, 1992. Page 16). New York Times- reviewer David Finkle’s article on four books published about Gone With The Wind is the most poignant example of this (Finkle, “Tara! Tara! Tara!” 10 December 1989. Page 1). It’s a little old—written in 1989—but a review of later articles shows that views have not changed much.
Finkle has read Mitchell’s novel twice, has seen the film at least ten times, and has visited several memorial sites in Atlanta. Yet the books lead him to sarcastically remark: “I’m a pretender, a piker. I don’t have a patch on being a fan. I’m nothing” (1). The reason for his dismay is that the books have exposed him to a fan experience that is much more intensive than his, which leads him to mock this group and attach negative traits to fans in general: “Genuine fans collect. They collect not just display cards and issues of Time magazine with Vivien Leigh on the cover, not just dolls and postcards. They collect facts, anecdotes, gossip and, in particular, books that contain facts, anecdotes and gossip.” Fandom in his opinion is thus characterized by a blind desire to acquire everything related to a text, an indiscriminate consumption without critical attitude.
Finkle thus ignores that it's possible to engage with a text on many levels, and that fans all have a different way of participating. His fandom is as valid as that of the authors he butchers, but his dismissal of fans as “laughable” and “naïve” demonstrates that there is a perceived divide between what constitutes valid engagement with a text and valueless obsession. Finkle favors a more disinterested attitude, which of course conforms closer to traditional academic approaches. Helen Taylor’s study of female fans of the film/novel (Scarlett’s Women, 1989) is dismissed as “an excuse for being a windy Windie” on the basis that she is a self-identified “fan” (4).
Twenty-five years later, on this year’s 75 anniversary of the book, coverage of fans is still predominantly focused on establishing them as obsessed, tacky, and even as elitist. A New York Times article demonstrates that self-perceived fans actively police who has the right to label him- or herself as such (Kim Severson, “Frankly, My Dear, The Windies Do Live for This.” The New York Times 12 April 2011). Fans that sell memorabilia are not always kindly accepted by the rest: “They are “eBay people,” sniffed Mrs. Sorrow, whose nickname among the Windies is Southern Spice. “A true Windy is not about the autographs,” she said. “It’s about getting to know the cast members as friends.”