Subverting the canon in feminist fan fiction

Hui Min Annabeth Leow

National University of Singapore High School of Mathematics and Science, Singapore

[0.1] Abstract—A close reading of feminism and patriarchy within obsession_inc's Concession (2010).

[0.2] Keywords—Body politics; Canon; Gender; Heterosexuality; Power dynamics; Transformative fiction

Leow, Hui Min Annabeth. 2011. "Subverting the Canon in Feminist Fan Fiction." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 7.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Transformative work, a genre that has been accepted as inclusive of fan fiction, offers a form of commentary on the canon (source material) by introducing new perspectives and interpretations that subvert the original intention of the canon (note 1). One fan and writer, obsession_inc, draws a clear distinction between different relationships that fan works may have with the source:

[1.2] In "affirmational" fandom, the source material is restated, the author's purpose divined to the community's satisfaction, rules established on how the characters are and how the universe works, and cosplay etc. occur…"Transformational" fandom, on the other hand, is all about laying hands upon the source and twisting it to the fans' own purposes. (obsession_inc 2009)

[1.3] Hence, transformative work is important in challenging the assumptions of the canon, and by means of this assumption, it brings to light new concerns on the part of the fan creator. Historically, women have participated strongly in fandom—both as consumers (Larbalestier 2002, 159) and as producers (Coppa 2008) of fan work—and there is a distinguished history of their use of fan works to accomplish feminist counterreadings of source material (Busse 2009; Stein and Busse 2009; Coppa 2006; Jenkins [1988] 2000; Merrick 2000).

[1.4] Although there is enormous merit to the long-standing scholarship on the feminist implications of woman-oriented participation of fan culture, analyses of specific fan works also remain crucial in aiding understanding of individual fan responses to the interaction of popular fandom with kyriarchal assumptions and reactionary thought. This study will examine the fan novel Concession (obsession_inc 2010a), based on the 2007 film Iron Man. I will investigate the idea that feminist fan fiction capably explores feminist concerns by drawing attention to the presentation of patriarchy in the source text and by re-presenting the canon based on a more explicitly woman-oriented worldview. I will consider the following two elements: first, the expression of male privilege at the cost of female alienation; and second, the unequal power dynamics of male-female interaction and the control of the female body as an outcome of normative heterosexuality.

2. Context: Fan fiction exploring the gaps

[2.1] Among the many roles fulfilled by fan fiction is the exploration of perceived gaps in the canon (Watt 2004, 49; Lamerichs 2009, 23), which includes, but is not limited to, creating stories for characters, places, and events that are alluded to, only incidentally featured in, or even wholly absent in the canon. Transformative fan fiction, in response to these gaps and to perceived failings of the canon, often engages them directly by addressing them in the fan work.

[2.2] In Concession, the viewpoint character is Vanity Fair journalist Christine Everhart, a minor character from the canon. During the first film, on which this story is based, Christine is introduced and then quickly discarded as an attention-seeking society reporter who opens the movie having a one-night stand with Tony Stark. In a scene that ensures the film will be unable to pass the Bechdel test, Stark's aide, Pepper Potts, ushers Christine out the next morning while referring to her job as "taking out the trash." Christine reappears briefly in the sequel, where, after Pepper comments that she "did quite a spread on Tony last year," he retorts that she "wrote a story as well." Despite being depicted visually as a woman of considerable intelligence and career success, Christine is nonetheless deprecated in the script proper as a subject of sexual humor, which reveals a blatant misogynistic streak in the supposed hero, Stark.

[2.3] If Stark embodies the privilege of white male wealth, whether he is meant to go against typically heroic qualities or not, his behavior still remains acceptable—even, ultimately, affirmed—by the source material. The author's choice of protagonist thus becomes a challenge to the attitude that canon adopts as well as a shift from the male-centric military-industrial complex of the films to a socially aware snapshot of women's experiences. This is in keeping with the use of fan work to address aspects of the source material problematic to fans; in a story from the Iron Man fandom, one main point of contention would be the prevalence of the dominant male gaze of the canon.

[2.4] Beyond merely filling in gaps, then, feminist fan work works toward its intention of correcting the cultural hegemonies established in canon by filling in those gaps with work that is expressly woman-centric. As the author of Concession, obsession_inc, observes in a commentary that alludes to her body of work:

[2.5] And hey, amazing thing, female characters can be improved and made sympathetic and awesome! Male characters can be genderflipped, Starbuck-style! Female characters that are only mentioned by name and never shown can be introduced and used! Entirely new female characters can be created! (obsession_inc 2010b) (note 2)

[2.6] The malleability of the source works within fan culture thus becomes a means of simultaneously critiquing and fixing their perceived flaws. To choose Iron Man as a fandom for remix is especially fascinating because of both the longevity of superhero comics as a fandom and that fandom's expressly kyriarchal culture. Unlike Star Trek, for example—another long-lived fandom that has produced extensive cultural critique and commentary—superhero comics are grounded in the modern world, and as such, they are more open to influences from contemporary social mores without the liberty of projection into the future as in several other speculative genres. Hence, the assumptions that are to be addressed in the Iron Man fandom are far more reflective of real-world assumptions in the society upon which the source material is based.

3. Male privilege, female alienation

[3.1] Male privilege is the invisible assumption that maleness is normative or a societal default. In this fan text, male privilege is expressed through the imbalance of power and authority between men and women. The result is the sense of alienation experienced on the part of the female characters. In Concession, for example, the theme of male privilege is laid out clearly from the introduction, where Christine Everhart notes that, for her article,

[3.2] ostensibly, it's about him, but the story she's hearing underneath it, from one person after another, is the story of the woman with the cool smile and sharp eyes, whose job it was to deftly arrange matters behind the scenes and then to fade into watchful obscurity as Stark took the stage.

[3.3] The use of "underneath," "behind the scenes," and "obscurity" serve to underline Pepper's subordinate position in an environment where the focus is always on Stark. However, it is only Christine, a woman, who notices this. The text makes it explicit that the male characters are in a position where—as Jim Rhodes puts it—"I didn't really think about it," and where they can afford not to think about it.

[3.4] Pepper, who "arrange[s] matters behind the scenes," also experiences the constant and systemic erasure of her identity, not just through daily interaction with menfolk but also through the manner in which Stark replaces her birth name, Virginia, with a nickname for his own amusement. The author draws out this erasure even further by comparing Pepper to Happy Hogan, who, despite being oppressed in terms of class, still has the ability, as a man, to confront Stark's erasure of his name by denying it as "just a dumb joke. I prefer Harry." Pepper, as a woman, has no such agency to protest, especially since vocal women are often perceived to be transgressive in a negative sense.

[3.5] Privilege is further enabled by the structure of power and authority—that is, as institutions dominated by men, especially by means of physical force. In Concession, the primary manifestations of this violently legitimized hegemony remain subdued and do not appear directly in the text. Still, enough reference is made to the tyranny of Tony Stark for his absences to become threatening and sinister lacunae, rather than impotent. However, the primacy of male strength is also recalled more directly when Christine is interrogated by Agent Coulson. Despite her erstwhile confidence in her work, Christine is aware of her powerlessness, "helplessly furious in the face of authority in a way she hasn't experienced since she'd first been armed with a press pass, back in high school." By virtue of her professional success in a career track rigged against her, Christine has been lulled into a false sense of security, but incidents like these serve as reminders that public activity is a privilege that the patriarchy can revoke at whim.

[3.6] The Iron Man canon is permissive, even sympathetic, in its celebration of white male wealth; as Ronald C. Thomas Jr. observes, the canon is set in a mythos that revolves about Stark's existence "rooted in his place in the American military-industrial complex" (2009, 155). Concession thus challenges this perspective by recasting the virile male heroes as victimizers and co-opting secondary female characters as protagonists.

[3.7] Consequently, the female characters are excluded and act as outsiders in the context of male hegemony. Christine is hindered and frustrated in her investigation by male characters such as Rhodes, Hogan, and Coulson, and in her frustration she perceives the gap between men and women as more than social—even as governed by biological differences—when she remarks that the world around her is composed of "those testosterone-packed acronyms invented by the people who came up with the PATRIOT Act, just what the world needed." Her frustrated declaration, reminiscent of second wave feminism, resorts to a cissexism that glibly reveals the limitations of mainstream Western feminism, even as it captures Christine's reaction to the misogyny of the old boys' club system.

[3.8] Pepper suffers isolation the most; for her, it is quite literal, when she is imprisoned by Stark. Even before her incarceration, though, she is surrounded by male privilege and has little access to any form of support. Other women, who are likely to share in her experience of oppression, are shown to be helpless against patriarchy as well. For example, Nikki Pakrashi, who is described as stylish and competent, can still only advise Pepper to take "the path of least resistance" in accepting Stark's increasingly controlling behavior, because Stark occupies a superior status in the military-industrial complex. Neither can Julie Lo, who has "known her since college," offer any real help, having lost contact with Pepper in part as a result of Stark's control over her work life. Women being powerless, Pepper is dependent on the aid of men; but even those in positions to help her, like Hogan, see their apathy as justifiable:

[3.9] Christine doesn't like to accuse people who're kind enough to talk on the record, so she doesn't voice the second part of that statement: You went along with this?

[3.10] He spreads his hands helplessly. "Look, I know, I know. The whole thing was kind of crazy, but he's the boss, okay? I'm just the driver…"

[3.11] This exchange illustrates the power Hogan holds as a man—it is his action or inaction that ultimately decides Pepper's fate, more than even Mimi's intervention. The inequality in their power and status distances Pepper from Hogan and Stark, even as her right to the company of her peers is rescinded by her male superiors.

[3.12] Concession relates to canon in that it reflects on the portrayal of women in mainstream superhero comics. Much has been made of the historic antecedents of misogyny in the superhero genre—where "women are cast as threats to male freedom and power, to be escaped and/or controlled" (Best 2005, 96)—and this continues to hold true in a framework where masculinity is cast as power and femininity as weakness, where "the affective pull of female vulnerability…is used as the grounds for the protectors [sic] violence" (Stabile 2009, 87). By throwing into relief the cultural implications of such a system in a more sociorealistic world (as opposed to the superhero universe of the canon), Concession questions the values and principles that the canon and its creators enable. The escapist nature of the superhero genre, as Concession demonstrates, panders explicitly to patriarchal fantasy; obsession_inc utilizes the fan work to extrapolate such circumstances into her own real-world environment.

4. Heterosexuality and disparity, and the body politic

[4.1] As a result of the fundamental inequalities in the gendered politics of their universes, Concession shows heterosexual relationships and heterosexuality as an institution to be oppressive as well. A power disparity exists, one in which the woman's life is strongly dependent on her man's, and the relationships in the text tend to be characterized by such a paradigm.

[4.2] For example, in Concession, Pepper is constantly viewed not as an individual but as someone defined by her relationship with Stark. Where Stark is framed like an icon, as "master of his soul, captain of his fate, titan of industry. The man, the myth, the legend," Pepper is frequently the subject of speculation by the media, to the point of Julie's declaration that "not fucking him was just, you know, normal" becoming an act of resistance by its refusal of the dominant media narrative. Even male allies are guilty of this oppression: Christine, who began her investigation aware of the disparity between "Tony Stark, weapons manufacturing mogul, foreground; Virginia Potts, personal assistant, background," interviews Rhodes only to find that he, too, is guilty of seeing Pepper as Stark's, rather than seeing Pepper as herself:

[4.3] "We're talking about Tony Stark, so yeah, anything's possible. And, okay, he always trampled over everybody's boundaries, but he used to try to be better about it, at least with Pepper. The hostage thing, though—after that, he stopped trying."

[4.4] Christine frowns, noting the shift from Pepper-as-subject to Pepper-as-object [italics mine].

[4.5] In fact—as Concession attempts to demonstrate—the way heterosexuality is set up in society ultimately facilitates patterns of abuse. Civil marriages and partnerships have long been associated with certain extra male privileges, such as the prohibition of a wife testifying in court against her husband and the marital exemption for rape. Concession critiques and mocks the protection that heterosexuality seems to lend men:

[4.6] "Simple? Darling," Arlene says with great patience, "don't be stupid. Every married couple is an inexplicable, impenetrable organism to the outside world, understood only by themselves. We'll never know what happened between them that night, or any other night for that matter, but I can tell you with great certainty that it wasn't simple."

[4.7] In this vein, when Rhodes defends his ignorance of Pepper's plight with the argument that "Tony—Tony loved her, I've known that for a while now," he also privileges Stark's emotions over Pepper's. Stark's attraction to Pepper becomes an excuse for her abduction, and this is made possible by Rhodes's nonchalance. Hence, in a society that privileges the experience and actions of men, it is not merely the heterosexual partner who oppresses, but all other men who also accept the existence of this structure.

[4.8] No wonder then that the institution of heterosexuality ultimately kills women, as embodied in the character of Maria Stark. For Maria, her death is, as Arlene observes, "merely the incidental price" of killing Howard; and Howard's death is "escape," not "revenge." The fact that Maria is perceived to murder Howard as a form of escape suggests that her death alone would not have bestowed any freedom. Rather, working against the expectation of domesticity, she pursues direct conflict with her husband, the embodiment of her oppression, at the cost of her own life—and to no avail, given that the cycle of abuse continues into the next generation in the relationship of her son and Pepper. With her suicide, then, the text reaffirms the comprehensive and pervasive nature of patriarchal heterosexuality.

[4.9] Of the eight mechanisms by which Adrienne Rich believes heterosexual male power is enforced (Rich 1980, 638–70), all but the last two listed involve some kind of control over the female body. In literature, feminist authors, "in dealing with the female body from a feminist perspective…can also read this body as a social construct" (Hite 1988, 123); feminist fan fiction can therefore criticize the patriarchal nature of body politics through exploration and re-presentation of the female body.

[4.10] One kind of male privilege is a sense of entitlement toward women's bodies, on demand. In Concession, this is most striking in the way Stark assumes control of Pepper's body, abetted by other male characters:

[4.11] this is like the GPS chip all over again, but this time there's this kid saying things like the illusion of the possibility of return like it was a dainty, harmless kind of game that the ridiculously wealthy played over tea and crustless cucumber sandwiches. Of course it would be on Stark's account; that way Pepper wouldn't even be bothered to write up the expense reports afterward. Of course a grown woman would give her employer control over the process of moving her possessions. Of course, why not, who wouldn't?

[4.12] Yet it is also seen in less dramatic, less explicitly abusive fashions. John Lowery is comfortable enough intruding upon a stranger's personal space to have "plowed across the lobby with a big friendly grin on his face and a big friendly hand raised," oblivious to the fear with which Pepper responds. Similarly, the security guard, Gregor, casually comments on Christine's appearance—"Your hair, I like it much better this way, now. A good cut, I think"—as though he should have the right to approach a woman and judge her instantly by her appearance. Women are, in this society, presumed to be always on call for the male gaze, determined by the whims of the men around them rather than by their own desires. Healey and Johnson (2006) dissected the superhero comic medium's attempts to fit characters' bodies into a narrow, binarist range, with unrealistically proportioned women served up for heterosexual male consumption. Concession inverts this dynamic by realistically centering it around the experience of having a woman's body in a patriarchal society.

[4.13] Building on feminist critique of body politics, Concession thus subverts a typically male-defined discourse through female-centric stories. Christine challenges the patriarchal notion that "sanitized, deodorized, and idealized images of women's bodies become the only ones we encounter and accept" (Roberts et al. 2002, 138) when she goes on her toiletries run at 2:00 AM, dressed casually and shopping in "the euphemistically named Feminine Care aisle." She recognizes Agent Coulson as out of place because of his presence in a typically female space; this scene reaffirms the validity of the female body, particularly the experience of menstruation, which is critical in the cultural context of white middle-class America, where women are frequently shamed into concealing their menses.

5. Conclusion

[5.1] Stripped of nonnormative characters—Concession mainly follows the stories of two relatively middle-class, white women in North America who face marginalization only in terms of gender—the text offers an interesting critique of sexism in the corporate world and the military-industrial complex, external to other oppressions. This manifests in the analysis of tangible, systemic discrimination, in the feminist movement's concerns over bodily autonomy, reproductive rights, and workplace equality, and also in poststructural theory, such as the concept of male privilege and of heterosexuality as an institution.

[5.2] However, Concession also represents the issues of a mainstream feminist movement that is grounded in a privileged model of femininity. As earlier mentioned, Christine's scorn at 'testosterone-packed acronyms' in patriarchy calls to mind of the binary essentialism of second-wave feminism (Stone 2004, 87). Also glaringly absent from the text is the presence of chromatic characters, another failing of mainstream feminist narratives (Amos and Pamar 1984, 4). While original characters like Pakrashi and Lo meander across the fan text as supporting characters, correcting the absence of chromatic women from the source material, Concession is largely unconcerned with the intersectional misogyny present in this interstitial region. In this respect, then, feminist fan fiction closely reflects and follows the development of mainstream Western feminism in its representation thereof.

[5.3] Feminist fan fiction can be said to operate its feminism on two levels: on one, feminist ideas are explored within the plot, setting, and characterization of the text itself, while on the other, the structure of the canon is dissected and made subject to feminist media analysis too. It is the latter point that distinguishes feminist fan fiction from feminism in original fiction; it is this point that has been of notable interest to fan studies researchers, and that would be worth studying in future work within the discipline.

6. Acknowledgments

[6.1] This essay was originally written under the supervision of Caroline Gordon for a gender studies course in English literature at the National University of Singapore High School of Mathematics and Science. Thanks are due to her for her guidance in the development of this essay and for her feedback on the drafts. I also thank Paige Kimble for inspiration and encouragement in the writing process.

7. Notes

1. Heymann (2008, 449) advocates framing "transformativeness" as existing along a spectrum, rather than as an either-or option: "The relevant question should be the degree of transformativeness—the amount of interpretive distance that the defendant's use of the plaintiff's work creates. If that distance is significant enough to create a distinct and separate discursive community around the second work, the defendant's use is more likely to be transformative (and, perhaps, fair)."

2. In her remark, obsession_inc references the rebooted science fiction television series Battlestar Galactica, which features a character named Starbuck. In the original 1978 series, Starbuck was a man, played by Dirk Benedict; the 2004 series revised the character as a woman, played by Katee Sackhoff.

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