Affective racial politics in How to Get Away with Murder fan fiction

Nicholas-Brie Guarriello

University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States

[0.1] Abstract—This article analyzes fan fiction about Oliver Hampton and Connor Walsh (Coliver), an interracial queer couple in the TV series How to Get Away with Murder (2014–). An analysis of the two most popular fics in this pairing on Archive of Our Own, "It's Called Dating" by grimcognito (2015) and "deCode" by tuanpark (2014), indicate that there is a shift away from gift or sharing economies of fandom to a market-like economy of prompt revision in order to produce and circulate texts meant to provide happiness to fans.

[0.2] Keywords—Affect; Fan economies; Gift culture; Happiness; Interracial; Queer

Guarriello, Nicholas-Brie. 2019. "Affective Racial Politics in How to Get Away with Murder Fan Fiction." In "Fans of Color, Fandoms of Color," edited by Abigail De Kosnik and andré carrington, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 29.

1. Introduction

[1.1] In 2014, the premiere of How to Get Away with Murder (HTGAWM) introduced a white man with scruff, Connor Walsh, portrayed by Jack Falahee, and a well-groomed Asian American man with glasses, Oliver Hampton, portrayed by Conrad Ricamora, in a dimly lit bar in Manhattan. Audiences and fans took to various social media sites to express their joy about seeing a budding interracial gay relationship on network television. Although the protagonist of HTGAWM is the defense lawyer Annalise Keating, played by Emmy, Tony, and Oscar award winner Viola Davis, fans were captivated by Connor and Oliver's romantic and sexual interactions. Connor and Oliver's popularity led to the flourishing of extratextual engagements by audiences, particularly the production of Connor and Oliver fan fiction. Fan fiction writers shipped Connor and Oliver, shortening their names to the portmanteau Coliver.

[1.2] Fan fiction writers and Coliver fans wanted to see more intimate interactions, like dates, that the series neglected in seasons 1 and 2. In some of their work, fan fiction writers wrote in details about Coliver going on dates or staying the night for the first time. For example, in "It's Called Dating" (2015), grimcognito writes:

[1.3] "You didn't have to get me these." Oliver said, utterly failing to hide how happy he was that Connor brought him flowers. Connor just smiled, satisfied at the reaction.

"It's a date, of course you get flowers." He watched Oliver fill a vase with water and fuss over the flowers. Oliver look good. Very good. Dark slacks that hugged everything just right and a pale blue button-down peeking out from under another of those damnably soft sweaters. "You look fantastic, by the way."

[1.4] Likewise, in "deCode" (2014), tuanpark writes:

[1.5] Oliver is in a happy mood when he hears it. Happy because Connor stayed over for the first time.

He wakes up to soft mutters. Oliver feels the other side of the bed to find Connor not there. It's still warm though, so it must have only been minutes since Connor had gotten off the bed. He's about to stand up when he hears movement in the bathroom. And it's not in his nature to eavesdrop, but it's the middle of the night, and the silence is so thick that it's easily broken by Connor's voice.

[1.6] These interactions of bringing flowers or talking about "how happy he was" gesture toward the romance that fans were desiring from the series' first two seasons. Since the series was not fulfilling fans' desires, as the series attempted to focus on their interracial coupling and on a story line about their mixed HIV status, many fans posted prompts on Tumblr of happy fan fiction ideas or story lines that fan fiction writers could use. The above quotes come from the two most popular Connor and Oliver fan fiction stories on Archive of Our Own (AO3), with over 20,000 views each. Indeed, the Coliver pairing is the most popular HTGAWM relationship on AO3. As a fan-powered collective, AO3 houses many stories about romantic pairings (ships) by fans. AO3 serves as the nexus for fan fiction to be shared on social media sites, like Tumblr and Twitter, and thus circulated.

[1.7] Social media has made fan fiction more mainstream and thus more visible outside of fan fiction writing circles or groups that would edit each other's work. Now, fan fiction authors have social media sites, particularly Tumblr, to receive audience feedback, comments, and requests for their own work. A particular feature is the Tumblr ask, which allows readers or audience members to ask the fan fiction author to write about a specific prompt they have in mind. Often these prompts revolve around happy or cute thoughts of going on a date or mixing up sweaters. Indeed, grimcognito says, "Please note that this [Coliver] series in particular is dedicated to happy fics so fluffy prompts tend to get written much faster. When I get around to some of the angsty prompts they'll be a separate series." This is important because this happy fic serves not only the fan fiction author but the audience as well. The audience and writer do not want their specific series to contain angsty or sad fics, which will be reserved for another series. (Grimcognito's work including sad or negative plots about Coliver, such as Oliver dying from HIV complications, only received 2,400 views or hits on AO3.) In this sense, happiness or fluff cannot mix with sadness or angst; moreover, happy fic cannot mention race, sexual orientation, or health if it would detract from the happy queer relationship. Instead of merely requests, these happy fic prompts read more like a gratis fan service for maintaining a happy queer relationship. This gratis service by fan fic authors is nothing new; however, the modes of communication that these authors have with their readers have been amplified through social media platforms like Tumblr. In other words, fan fic authors are providing fluffy fics and gratis fan service to keep their readers happily engaged with their writing and with the fandom. In order to maintain their readers' happiness, angsty and sad fan fics are sidelined. Indeed, these angsty or sad prompts around Coliver are perceived as not having as much value or "sticking" power, to use Ahmed's (2004) term. By sticking, Ahmed refers to the value that emotions accumulate over time and that then is placed onto objects or life events such as attending college, marriage, or having children. Thus, the affective power of angsty or sad fics is less than happy or fluffy fics, which accumulate and resonate with audiences easily.

[1.8] Although fan fiction has the potential to be a space of agency, pleasure, and play, these stories are produced by individuals who embody multiple social locations and privileges. For instance, race, gender, sexual orientation, abilities, and class status all interact when authors craft stories in a nonprofessionalized writing space (Coppa 2017). In HTGAWM, it is extraordinary that there is an interracial, gay, mixed-HIV-status relationship on prime-time television; however, fan fiction writers might perceive HIV as an angsty or sad plot that would not connect well with their audience. This is not to say that sad fan fiction stories cannot resonate with audiences, but the nature of Coliver fan fiction on AO3 is to focus on happy fics and happy prompts, gesturing toward a shift away from stories that confront life events and political topics, such as dealing with HIV, racism, or homophobia in public. Here I align with fan studies scholar Henry Jenkins to the extent that fan production can be a form of play that expands the pop culture narrative in ways that make the fans feel involved. However, I strongly disagree that fans are solely forces of social change that allow for a "momentary escape from the control of regulatory structures" (Jenkins et al. 2016, 39). Indeed, fan fiction authors mediate and produce happiness for their readers as part of an exchange for writing prompts and gaining more followers on their social media sites. In this vein, I agree with fan studies scholars who have critiqued Jenkins's paradigm of fandom and who have thought about the effects and affects of racialized and gendered aspects of fandoms (Pande 2018; Stein 2015) as well as through neoliberal logics of entrepreneurship, affect, and immaterial labor (Booth 2015; Gregg and Seigworth 2010; Ouellette and Wilson 2011). Thinking through race and sexual orientation as well as about how emotions and labor are being produced and circulated is a more useful mode of analysis for the shifting nature of fan fiction that depends on wide and prompt circulation in order to produce fan happiness.

[1.9] This research examines the ways fan fiction writers and their writing, as well as their interactions with their readers, have shifted from a gift economy to a gift economy marked by market-economy forces that reward prompt revision and the production of fan happiness. Although there is a plethora of research that has examined the significance of emotional, unpaid labor and gift fandom economies (Jenkins 1992; Jenkins, Ford, and Green 2013; Turk 2014; Stein 2015), research is needed to focus on the shifting dynamics of fandom economies within blogging and social media sites. Using HTGAWM and the Coliver fandom as a case study, I assess how writers of fan fiction, creative workers, and creative fans are now part of a market-like economy where fan fiction writers produce happy fics so that they "stick" with their audience. It is not only writers' content that must stick but also their interactions and reliability of producing happy or feel-good content that must stick with their readers. Fan fiction authors are compelled to publish fan fiction that incorporates happy prompts that they receive from their audience or followers on other social media sites.

[1.10] I analyze Coliver fan fiction to theorize and ask how fan fiction has shifted from a gift economy of writing and betaing (editing) works to a market-like economy that is dependent on producing fan happiness. I first provide a brief literature review about the history of fan fiction as an active, productive realm. Second, I bring critical audience and fan studies scholars into conversation with critical left scholarship about cultural neoliberalism to attend to the racial and affective politics of fan fiction writers and readers. Third, I bring together conversations about affective and digital labor to take fan desires seriously, but also to contextualize previous and contemporary labor practices of fan fiction writers. Finally, I provide contextual information about Connor and Oliver on HTGAWM and then analyze textual data from the two most popular Coliver fan fictions, cited above and available on AO3: "It's Called Dating" by grimcognito and "deCode" by tuanpark. These popular fics serve as popular cultural artifacts supported by Coliver fans. As such, they are crucial in both understanding fans' critiques of the television industry and investigating the neoliberal logics of happiness that have shifted fan fiction production to a market-like economy that circulates emotions.

2. Situating fan fiction, cultural neoliberalism, and affective labor

[2.1] Fan fiction is a genre of fiction written by fans of a popular cultural text, like a television series or game, to rewrite or reimagine certain scenes or relationships. Legal scholar Rebecca Tushnet defines fan fiction as "any kind of written creativity that is based on an identifiable segment of popular culture, such as a television show, and is not produced as 'professional' writing" (1997, 655). Fan fiction authors borrow elements from their favorite popular culture text to invent the narrative of a romantic pairing that might or might not exist. Jenkins's (1992) groundbreaking work has made him the authoritative scholar on fandom. He conceptualizes fans as active producers, arguing that fans play with loose ends or details of the media text to construct their own world and speculations about characters. For instance, Coliver fan fiction authors borrow character personalities and key romantic scenes from HTGAWM to incorporate in their figured worlds, as when Connor tells Oliver, "Just say the word and we can start making out" or "You want to have my babies." Fan fiction authors retain a certain truth in their writing regarding Connor's and Oliver's personalities as seen in the series. Although the series incorporates an interracial gay relationship, these scenes privilege Connor's sexual desires over Oliver's, and fans are well aware of this. Fans provide comments or prompts to fan fiction authors in order to give voice to those who are silenced or marginalized in the canonical series.

[2.2] However, Jenkins has a limited, productive understanding of fan production as devoid of power dynamics. Many scholars have pointed out that Jenkins's works often neglect the experiences of working-class women, people of color, and LGBTQ folks. For instance, Rebecca W. Black (2008) analyzes online fan fiction and provides a canon-specific investigation of shipper (relationship-based) fictions. Her work explores how women use these already canonical characters to take a counterhegemonic and counterheteronormative stance against the network's commercialized romance goals and slash the confirmed romantic pairing in new ways. Scholars like Kylie Lee (2003), Michaela D. E. Meyer and Linda Baughman (2007), and Kristina Busse (2005) identify writing fan fiction as a source of feelings of pleasure and agency for women and other marginalized groups; however, according to these scholars, this pleasure does not necessarily subvert institutions of power. Instead, they frame fan fiction as potentially reproducing dominant ideologies such as whiteness, patriarchy, and heteronormativity as standards. Abigail De Kosnik (2016) argues that even if women and other marginalized groups participate in the production of fan fiction, the economic and managerial structures of media corporations or the majority of online spaces are not balanced by gender or race and are not friendly to fans. These scholars are in conversation with critical left scholarship about neoliberalism. Indeed, cultural neoliberalism seeps into the realm of everyday life—physically, emotionally, and digitally. Thus, a quick review of the cultural politics of neoliberalism is in order.

[2.3] Critical left scholarship has focused on neoliberalism as both an economic and cultural project that depends on states of precarity and inequality. Drawing from Foucault's ([1976] 1988) concept of power as capillaries that flow in myriad directions, Duggan argues that the "neo" in neoliberal discourse is an emphasis on a type of nonpolitics or neutrality (2004, 10). This type of nonpolitics is meant to disavow social and economic inequalities as merely individual shortcomings of people being lazy or undeserving, and it conceals the state's effort of supporting corporate profit making by decentralizing and deregulating labor (Duggan 2004; Hong 2015; Joseph 2014). Critical race scholar Jodi Melamed (2011) argues that neoliberalism demands multiculturalism in the form of diversity—multiple races, genders, (dis)abilities, sexual orientations—to be visualized and tolerated for capital extraction and accumulation:

[2.4] As a unifying discourse, neoliberal multiculturalism has disguised the reality that neoliberalism remains a form of racial capitalism. Even as diversity has been cast as the essence of neoliberal exchange (e.g. Wal-Mart calls itself "the world's most multicultural employer"), updated forms of conventional racial domination have continued…Race has continued to permeate capitalism's economic and social processes, organizing the hyper-extraction of surplus value from racialized bodies and naturalizing a system of capital accumulation that grossly favors the global North over the global South. (41–42)

[2.5] Melamed's (2011) incisive claim is that diversity has become part of a racialized capital system and feel-good environment. Under the guise of whiteness and heteronormativity, any recognition of past violence engenders confrontation and melancholia, which is not desired in the neoliberal multicultural project. Cultural neoliberalism recognizes difference via multiculturalism and embracing Others so long as it remains in the grammar of happiness and political progress—a practice that seemingly mirrors the shifting production of fan fiction.

[2.6] When it's written by women or LGBTQ folks, fan fiction can be a pleasurable experience and can offer critique of power dynamics such as patriarchy and heteronormativity (Madsen 2002). Yet fan fiction can still replicate neoliberal cultural logics of self-responsibility and maintaining happiness. Neoliberalism becomes pervasive in everyday life and infiltrates even so-called areas of play or fun (Abbott and Brown 2007; Scharff 2016). Understanding neoliberalism in this way helps situate the popularity of Coliver fan fiction through collective authorship, affective labor, and happy discourses. Although the goal of most romantic relationships is happiness, the labor that fans are producing must consistently reduce or completely remove racial or homophobic conflict from the plot. I rely on these scholars of neoliberalism in this analysis, as race, emotions, and everyday life have been largely neglected in traditional fan studies research.

[2.7] Recent fan studies scholars note the neoliberal logics of self-responsibility and collectivity in fan fiction production as a circulation of emotions in online publishing culture (Booth 2010; Stein 2015). Fan studies scholar Paul Booth contextualizes this digital shift and public accessibility of fan fiction in this way: "The blog is not just a post, but rather the combination of the post plus the comments…The writer of a blog is ultimately a group, not an individual" (2015, 43). Acafan Louisa Ellen Stein (2015) discusses digital blogging aspects of queer fan fiction about Kurt and Blaine (Klaine) from Glee (2009–15). Rather than focusing on homoerotic relations, queer cues, or fantasy fan fiction, Stein analyzes an already explicitly queer relationship in Glee, signaling a shift that fans use televised images or words to imagine and expand the romantic narrative they have just watched. Stein argues, "Emotions remain intimate but are no longer necessarily private; rather, they build a sense of an intimate collective, one that is bound together precisely by the processes of shared emotional authorship" (156). She asserts that these fan fictions often expand the plotline through collective authorship by GIFs or prompts via digital blogging sites like Tumblr. Expanding on this scholarship, I theorize how Coliver fan fiction authors on AO3 engage in constant affective labor and relationship building to produce and circulate fan happiness.

[2.8] The advent of social media and popular blogging sites has made it relatively easy for fan-produced works to be shared with larger audiences and to produce works that result in certain emotional responses by said audience. The type of labor that fan fiction authors are engaging in follows what philosopher Michael Hardt defines as affective labor. For Hardt, affective labor is "the creation and manipulation of affects," which can include and is one of many parts to immaterial labor (1999, 96). As Hardt argues, immaterial labor encapsulates the production of nonpaid or abstract work such as emotions, care work, or knowledge production. Affective labor has never been entirely outside of the economic process and is a product of capital; it is the dominant form of labor in the current economy. Here affective labor and immaterial labor are both used to understand forms of work that consume time and emotions yet do not result in any direct forms of monetary compensation, much like fan fiction authors in the early days of the internet. The intention of thinking about affective labor in analyzing current fan fiction practices is to emphasize the changing nature of fandom economies that demand prompt revision, incorporation of certain prompts, and listening to comments in order for one's work to circulate.

3. Methods

[3.1] This study incorporates textual analysis with fans' extratextual production to think through fans' labor practices and the need to circulate happiness within fan fiction spaces (Watts and Orbe 2002). This study also uses theoretical sampling from a grounded theory approach, which involves theories being generated and refined from the data collection and coding process (Glaser and Strauss 1967). To accomplish this grounded approach, I focus on the Coliver fan fictions posted on AO3. Because when I sampled my data I found that the twenty most read HTGAWM fan fictions focused on Coliver and there were over 1,100 Coliver works, I decided to narrow my focus by readership by choosing the two most read Coliver fan fictions. As of September 2016, "It's Called Dating" by grimcognito and "deCode" by tuanpark had 21,000 and 19,000 hits, respectively. I began open coding HTGAWM episodes by reading the fics and fan comments to label and organize emerging themes. I then focused my coding to analyze themes and refine my initial findings. After the coding process, two central themes emerged: slashing already canonical scenes and happiness.

[3.2] I discovered these themes by first engaging in open and focused coding of HTGAWM episodes. I watched season 1 and 2 of HTGAWM to look for Coliver scenes that indicated a romance or relationship. Then I looked at fan fiction to find mirroring moments where these canonical or romantic scenes were written about. In my second round of coding, I looked for moments when these canonical scenes were transformed at length. For instance, when Connor in HTGAWM says, "I don't do boyfriends," he signals that he is not interested in a long-term relationship and only wants casual sex. I looked for that exact or similar phrasing and explored what authors wrote about this popular televised scene. After this coding process, I noticed both overt and covert discussions about Oliver's race and Coliver's overall happiness and relationship stability. That is, the fan audience wanted Connor to have boyfriends in order for the Coliver relationship to thrive. Following the suggestion of Strauss and Corbin (1997), I wrote analytical memos to myself to reflect on connections I could make between these two themes and the politics of cultural neoliberalism. For the final focused coding stage, I developed the following codes: Affect, Real/TV Canon, Romance Scenes, Confidence, and Race. I used the qualitative software application NVivo to store the fan fiction, highlight text relating to these codes, and find relationships through NVivo's autoanalyze function (note 1). Below I refer to specific canonical scenes in HTGAWM and how the fan fictions remix those scenes. I then look at specific themes around happiness in fics, and ask why and how this feeling is elevated above other emotions.

[3.3] Because fan fiction in the digital age is shared across multiple online platforms, I took safeguards to protect participants' personal information. AO3 makes sharing fan works on Tumblr user friendly by allowing users to link to their personal Tumblr websites. Users use Tumblr sites to collect their own fan fiction in one place, post links to their AO3 works, and engage in online conversation about fandom through a variety of forms, including posting popular Coliver screen grabs and GIFs as well as other non-Coliver fan-related material. To ensure fan fiction authors' anonymity, at the time of writing, I made sure that these linked personal websites had no identifying information. In addition, AO3 user profiles only contain their AO3 username and pseudonyms, date of joining AO3, a list of their works, bookmarks, and the fandoms they follow. No information about users' gender, race, sexual orientation, or age is collected or made publicly available on AO3, although users can opt to list their date of birth and the site is limited to those older than thirteen. I thus refrain from making assumptions about a fan fiction author's various identities and social locations. These safeguards are used to protect the identities of the fan fiction authors.

4. Race, confidence, and emotions in fluffy fan fiction

[4.1] Although HTGAWM is a seemingly progressive TV series with its diverse cast, same-sex sex-positive scenes, and education on HIV and antiretroviral drugs, there is a critical evasion of character development and representation between Connor and Oliver: seasons 1 and 2 of HTGAWM mostly deploy Connor and Oliver for the purpose of representing gay sex on television as feel-good diversity, a practice common to cultural representation (Ahmed 2012). The series has Connor request information from Oliver that will help him land an internship, and he continues to pursue Oliver throughout the first two seasons. When Oliver is diagnosed as HIV positive at the end of season 1, Connor decides to stay and support Oliver. The story line in season 2 then shifts to an HIV-negative Connor's taking preexposure prophylaxis, with the end goal of Connor being able to have sex again. This is made evident when Connor counts down the thirty days until he and Oliver can have sex again. To be sure, the series does an excellent job of dispelling myths about HIV and mentioning PrEP, which greatly reduces the chance of HIV-negative folks from becoming HIV positive when they have sex with HIV-positive or HIV-unknown-status folks. However, the mainstream televisual narrative about people of color, gay people, and people stigmatized by HIV revolves around whiteness and engaging with, as bell hooks (2006) might say, fucking the Other:

[4.2] Fucking is the Other. Displacing the notion of Otherness from race, ethnicity, skin-color, the body emerges as a site of contestation where sexuality is the metaphoric Other that threatens to take over, consume, transform via the experience of pleasure. Desired and sought after, sexual pleasure alters the consenting subject, deconstructing notions of will, control, coercive domination. (367)

[4.3] For hooks (2006), black and brown bodies become a site of pleasurable, transformative consumption for white folks. With regards to HTGAWM, white cisgender gay folks via Connor are able to experience a body of color and a body with a stigmatized health condition, and then believe they have been transformed by this experience. This transformation becomes a self-righteous and sadistic act of whiteness where white folks feel like they know what it is like to be a person of color or have HIV simply by virtue of being with a person of color with HIV. Ultimately, hooks argues that white folks are able to experience the Other's exotic culture or body that is steeped in commodity culture while not challenging white privilege or the status quo of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. This white supremacist capitalist patriarchy is interlocked with commodity culture that makes diversity for HTGAWM a selling point to attract more viewers, which in turn accumulates positive and happy emotions about an interracial gay couple on prime-time television.

[4.4] To expand on hooks's concept, looking at the show's dynamics of Connor usually being the top or dominant sexual partner is crucial. During 1.2 "It's All Her Fault," Connor and Oliver argue, and Connor tries to reconcile by bringing Chinese takeout to Oliver's apartment. Oliver says no at first and slams his door in Connor's face. He then reopens the door and says to Connor, "Tonight, I do you." The words "I do you" are meant to mean that Oliver is on top, yet seconds later, we see Connor in control and on top before cutting to the next scene. This resonates with the pervasive view of Asian American men being emasculated in American culture, a view permeated with ideas of bottomhood's being feminized and submissive (Fung quoted in Nguyen 2014). Indeed, images of bottomhood in popular culture usually emphasize a type of vulnerability and powerlessness. According to critical race scholar Tan Hoang Nguyen (2014), gay bottomhood can be celebrated and affirmed instead of simply flipping the roles and reinscribing heteronormative ideas of who penetrates whom. The term "bottom," as Nguyen notes, "designates the receptive partner in anal sex, the person lying on the bottom underneath the top, the insertive partner" (2014, 6). Nguyen argues that bottomhood in dominant gay narratives is saturated with images of Asian American men as being submissive and looking to pleasure instead of being pleasured. To be sure, HTGAWM amplifies this by depicting Oliver as having little self-confidence about his attractiveness. For instance, in season 1, there was a doctor on Humpr (similar to the Grindr gay hookup app) whom both Oliver and Connor considered a 10, or very attractive. Oliver follows up by saying that people might think Connor is a 10, yet he is only a 5. Another instance demonstrating his lack of self-confidence is in season 2 when Oliver creates a Humpr profile using Connor's pictures to attract a potential witness for a murder case. When confronted by Connor, Oliver says that Connor is much more attractive and can easily attract men. Many fans evince the desire to rewrite televised narratives of Oliver, portraying him with more confidence and portraying bottomhood as a powerful act of resistance against heteronormative ideas of sex.

[4.5] Another rewriting opportunity occurs when the series continually depicts Oliver as the emasculated bottom during sex scenes. In gay male culture, top and bottom positions can become racialized: white men are generally imagined as masculinized tops and Asian American men are imagined as emasculated bottoms (Nguyen 2014). In HTGAWM, Connor, the top, is often seen as exuding confidence and masculinity, whereas the bottom, Oliver, is often perceived as lacking confidence and assuming a subordinate, feminized role. Thus, HTGAWM's attempt at diversity and representation of gay, mixed-HIV-status sex is well intended, but the impact ultimately reaffirms a myth of whiteness as caring for the Other and dominating the Other, and that all people who are in romantic relationships must have sex according to traditionally masculinized and feminized roles.

[4.6] This televised narrative presents an unusual opportunity in the genre of slash. The concept of slash fan fiction "refers to stories written by amateur authors that involve pairing two television or film characters of the same sex, usually male, into noncanonical romantic relationships with each other" (Kustritz 2003, 371). These pairings occur because the narrative contains a gesture to homoerotic elements (e.g., Kirk and Spock's intense friendship in Star Trek [1966–69]) or queerbaiting moments (e.g., Dean and Castiel in Supernatural [2005–]), yet a romantic relationship is foreclosed by how television show creators, writers, and producers depict character arcs. Eve Ng defines queerbaiting as "situations where those officially associated with a media text court viewers interested in LGBT narratives—or become aware of such viewers—and encourage their interest in the media text without the text ever definitively confirming the nonheterosexuality of the relevant characters" (2017, ¶ 1.2). Of course, Coliver doesn't quite fit this definition because HTGAWM makes it clear that Oliver and Connor are both gay men, but the text continually baits viewers by withholding representation: fans express annoyance at sex scenes being cut off abruptly compared to that of other characters in the series. Further, Coliver fans produce work that mirrors canon by pairing two characters who are already in a series-confirmed romantic relationship, rather than relying on character-driven subtext. The purpose of slashing is to transform already existing materials and scenes to make it one's own (Stein 2015). As such, fans slash, or in this case are slashing an already confirmed romantic pairing, to fill in intimate gaps of desires that rarely, if ever, materialize in HTGAWM and other same-sex or queer relationships on prime-time television.

[4.7] Seasons 1 and 2 of HTGAWM depict Coliver's relationship mostly through the perspective and white gaze of Connor. An iconic scene takes place in 1.2 "It's All Her Fault": Connor calls Oliver to tell him he will have to skip lunch because he is working on a legal case. As Connor hangs up, a friend asks, "Boyfriend drama?" Connor rolls his eyes and responds, "I don't do boyfriends." Fans perceive this remark as Connor's possessing confidence in his own desirability. Throughout seasons 1 and 2, he is confident of his ability to flirt with and satisfy other men—presumably white men. For once the show depicts Connor as consistently lusting after Oliver, and he also demands no-strings-attached commitments. HTGAWM writes Connor as desiring no-strings sex even when Oliver expresses that he wants to have an exclusive relationship with Connor. In this respect, the Other's emotions and desires are disregarded in favor of white desires. Seasons 1 and 2 do not address Oliver's race or family, whereas the audience gets to hear briefly about Connor's life story. The show is much more centered around Connor, thus highlighting queerness through white embodiment. Kristen Warner (2015) argues that showrunner Shonda Rhimes allowed for diversity in casting but not discussions of race or confrontations of racism on the popular television series Grey's Anatomy (2005–). Indeed, as Warner argues, the inclusion of diversity on prime-time television appeased folks of color who wanted to see more representation yet did not name or politically challenge whiteness. Similar to Warner's charge, queer white embodiment on HTGAWM leads to a type of nonpolitics and a color-blind experience that induces an affective charge of harmony or pleasure that cannot interrogate fraught histories of racism or sexual orientation. Thus, race and sexual orientation are utilized by HTGAWM as whiteness consuming or fucking the Other while not regarding or learning about the Other. Race is ultimately set aside for the sake of depicting gay sex on television as a harmonious event of inclusion and progress. This can be seen as moving beyond the need to discuss race; the belief is that we are also postgay or postqueer and thus inclusive.

[4.8] Similar to creating interracial gay sex as a harmonious event of inclusion, the most popular Coliver fan fictions care about Oliver and thus narrate the story from his perspective by weaving feel-good or cute conversations about race into their stories. For instance, tuanpark's two-chapter, 18,000-word-long fan fiction "deCode" alludes to race throughout the story. Reversing the televised script, tuanpark writes through the voice of Oliver and makes discussions about race and identity visible to his readers. Tuanpark slashes the iconic scene of Connor's claim "I don't do boyfriends" in an alternate universe (AU) fic. AUs are often deployed in fan fiction to show how two characters will always end up happily together, no matter the universe. In this AU, Connor and Oliver are both graduate students: Oliver is an engineering student instead of an IT worker, and Connor is a law student (as in the series). In the "I don't do boyfriends" scene, tuanpark situates Connor and Oliver as meeting for the first time in the library. Whereas in the television show Connor tells his friend that he doesn't do boyfriends, "deCode" resituates the exchange as one between Connor and Oliver:

[4.9] "I don't do boyfriends," Connor says coolly, and okay, that's such a turn off…Oliver and Connor aren't even anything close to being boyfriends, but he already feels crushing defeat as soon as he hears those words come out of Connor's lips.

"Right," Oliver stands up and picks up his book. "I'll see you later, Connor."

And Connor looks around wildly, confused. "Wait," he exclaims before grabbing Oliver's wrist with an alarmingly strong grip. "We should get coffee some time."

[4.10] This passage provides a crucial critique of the racialized nature of desirability operating in Connor and Oliver's on-screen interactions. Although race is not explicitly mentioned, Oliver is portrayed as having more of a voice instead of apparently complying with whatever Connor demands. When race is not mentioned, white is naturalized as the default race. As a result, whiteness can be invisible in the sense it is not named, and its historical legacies of trauma and exploitation not challenged (Rankine 2014). In "deCode," Oliver is depicted as responding to Connor's apparent disinterest in a serious relationship with disinterest himself; he walks away. Tuanpark attempts to provide the Other with agency and plausible emotions in this scene, an event the televised series cannot accomplish. Although tuanpark is rethinking how race is perceived in mainstream narratives through this particular fan fic, where Oliver has confidence to respond with disdain toward a white gay's attitude, there is no mention of Connor's race. As Rankine (2014) has argued, people of color will continue to experience state-sanctioned violence (e.g., police brutality, inaccessibility to institutions like health care, and mass incarceration) while whiteness will still dominate everyday spaces. Indeed, in this AU, the two characters still wind up getting coffee, going on dates, and beginning a relationship. In the case of Coliver, canonical fan fiction has affective limits: it must remain fluffy and true to canon with as little conflict as possible to garner readership, which ultimately entails not challenging the dominance of whiteness.

[4.11] "It's Called Dating" and "deCode" rewrite Oliver's confidence deficit by portraying him as being more demanding, confident, and dominant. Returning to the "I don't do boyfriends" scene, although Oliver slams the door, he reopens the door and says, "Okay, but tonight, I do you." This signals that Oliver will be the top and in control. Yet seconds later, we see Connor on top of Oliver before the episode cuts to another scene. In its rewriting this scene, grimcognito's "It's Called Dating" flips the characters' sexual positions to depict Oliver really topping Connor:

[4.12] Oliver stopped, hips flush against him, and Connor didn't have the leverage to do anything. "Tell me you understand that. That I'm not someone you can just charm and get what you need for your job. Because I won't be."…By the time [Oliver] pulled back, hips moving once more, Connor lay there, gasping and writhing under him, demanding more even as he wondered how the hell he'd so completely lost control.

[4.13] Here grimcognito slashes the canon by portraying Oliver as the demanding and confident partner. The televised scene is transformed in fan fiction to not only show Oliver on top but also to highlight Oliver's frustration with Connor. Oliver makes it clear that he will not be charmed, which forms a larger critique of the underlying racializing aspects of Connor and Oliver's relationship. I am not arguing that Oliver (the Other) must dominate Connor (the white norm). Instead, grimcognito covertly signals that Oliver will not be mesmerized by Connor's whiteness or personal interests. Grimcognito ultimately provides Oliver a form of agency that HTGAWM neglects to address.

[4.14] In "deCode," we see a similar slashing occur that provides Oliver with more agency and confidence. Tuanpark depicts Oliver fawning over Connor, which mirrors the show's fascination with white gay masculinity. In the introduction, Oliver inspects Connor's milky white skin, coiffed hair, cherry-pink lips, and Adonis-like jawline a bit more critically:

[4.15] He remembers that upon closer inspection, Oliver realized that the boy [Connor] wasn't as he seemed. Under the fluorescent light of the library, the boy's milky skin that caught Oliver's attention seemed nearly yellowish from lack of wash. His cherry pink lips were actually red from being bitten a dozen times too many in a span of ten minutes. His piercing eyes were surrounded by dark, heavy bags. His messy hair looked sticky from lack of proper hygiene and the occasional brushing.

[4.16] This passage, like grimcognito's, is a form of fandom knowledge production. Although this scene also occurs in an AU fic, tuanpark provides a moment where whiteness is not the epitome of beauty and grants Oliver the power to be the spectator rather than the object of the gaze. Although neither fan fiction nor author articulates an explicit political platform, writers who create fics in the style of these two stories write new scenes to address a lack of narratives about race and sexuality. Instead of Oliver being lusted after and used for a transformative encounter with the Other, Oliver is given the agency to lust after Connor, then question why he finds him physically attractive, if at all.

[4.17] The purpose of slashing the canon for both authors is to emphasize the Other's (Oliver's) agency. Fans thus mirror and extend the canon instead of slashing noncanonical relationships to provide cultural critique. Grimcognito and tuanpark clearly want Coliver portrayed through both Connor and Oliver's perspectives. Grimcognito achieves this through switching sex positons and power dynamics, whereas tuanpark accomplishes this by telling the narrative through Oliver's voice. These fans are producing texts that give agency, confidence, and voice to Oliver—all of which are all too often denied in the canonical series. Fans thus use a range of representational resources or signs that allow for a reconceptualization of specific socially situated identities in these remixed fan fictions (Black 2008).

[4.18] Although these fan fictions remix televised scenes to provide Oliver (the Other) with confidence and to critique the logics of whiteness, I hesitate to categorize this remixing completely outside of the cultural neoliberal project that reifies whiteness as the norm. In the fan fics, difference is incorporated and celebrated in multiple mediums while not redressing racist subtexts (Ferguson 2012). hooks argues that when whiteness consumes the Other, it is to "get a bit of the Other" for a worldly experience (2006, 372). Ferguson (2012) is helpful here to understand how hegemonic affirmation of diversity is incorporated in which the network is accepting and showcasing diversity—multiple races, sexualities, genders, abilities, and class statuses. Here the network affirms diversity without ignoring fraught histories, and difference is appropriated in order to uphold neoliberal institutionality. That is, difference is included to turn away from critique and to even recenter whiteness. Furthermore, as television studies scholar Rachel Alicia Griffin (2014) argues in her poignant analysis of the 2009 film Precious, even though diversity or multiple identities are showcased, whiteness can still be omnipresent and highlighted as the status quo. Whiteness does not need white people to keep circulating and thriving. This engagement with difference bestows more power on white subjects, as they are the ones who consume the Other's body.

[4.19] This consumption can be linked to affective discourses and explains why even in stories depicting an entirely different universe to that in HTGAWM (and thus free from the larger plot constraints of the show), Connor and Oliver end up happy with each other with as little conflict as possible. But what about other, nonhappy, fan fictions? My research indicates that negative or angsty stories that might critique tropes of race or sexuality tend to attract less of a readership (as evidenced by their having far fewer hits) or are relegated to entirely separate series. This schism of readership is evident, with grimcognito's collection of angsty fictions having far fewer hits—approximately 2,400 hits as of the time of my research. Similarly, tuanpark's hybrid collection of angst and fluff fictions had approximately 4,800 and 5,000 hits (note 2). AO3 provides a space for queer fan fiction that has the potential to critique whiteness and debunk racialized tropes by remixing, queering, and slashing key televised scenes; however, in the case of Coliver, only fics with happy endings or feel-good emotions are rewarded with high readership. The next section will further explore race, collectivity, and happy discourses in fan fiction production.

5. Race, collectivity, and the feels in Coliver fan commentary

[5.1] In HTGAWM, the audience sees Connor's family, friends, and law school life but knows almost nothing about Oliver's family or personal life. Coliver fans have picked up on this and have focused a lot of energy on expanding Oliver's story line. "It's Called Dating" and "deCode" both reconceptualize Oliver as a main character with complex racial and sexual identities—so long as he remains happy with Connor. The authors receive prompts from other members of Coliver fandom via their personal Tumblr accounts. These prompts provide ideas for the author to write about that will extend the televised romance and incorporate conversations about race. As Arlie Hochschild (1983) argues, working with affect can be as physically and mentally exhausting as factory or manual work. Fan fic authors are employed in the task of maintaining a happy audience and fandom. It is not merely enough for fan fiction authors to write on their own accord; they are bound to certain prompts and compensated by likes and shares. Fans' desires might be played out in these prompt-driven fan fictions, but fan fiction authors' success, and their fics' shareability, is dependent on producing fan happiness gratis to their audience. Collectivity congeals through "transmedia extensions" where fans submit an idea on one site (Tumblr) and then have their story told on another site (AO3) (Stein 2015, 86). In this section I explore the collectivity created between fan fiction authors and fans who pitch prompts and write comments on AO3, and the happy results that are rewarded.

[5.2] One of the few times race is explicitly mentioned in Coliver fandom is in a Tumblr prompt request. On October 22, 2014, grimcognito requested help on Tumblr for casual Filipino phrases, family terms, and holidays. In a chapter summary for "It's Called Dating," grimcognito says,

[5.3] Got a prompt from bayaningbituon: just found out that the guy who plays Oliver is filipino…would you consider putting that in a ficlit?:)

Hope this fits the bill for you!


For anyone unfamiliar with it, Maundy Thursday is part of the Holy Week in the Philippines, also including Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday.

[5.4] The author's hope is crucial to understand intersecting discourses of race and happiness. Grimcognito hopes that bayaningbituon and other fans will be happy with the work. Happiness here functions not to focus on Oliver's race or to discuss race but to extract laughter from it. As Sara Ahmed (2004) argues, one orients oneself toward objects (in this case fan fiction stories) that accumulate positive affective value. One way this is accomplished is through humor. For instance,

[5.5] "Yeah, it's Maundy Thursday…" [Oliver] said with a sigh, his hand flopping to the side and he stared sadly down at the space between his sprawled body and where Connor was braced above him. He was close enough to feel waves of gentle heat from Connor's body and he licked his lips as he made himself drag his gaze back up again…"No alcohol, no meat, and no sex."

Connor stared down at him. "Please tell me you're joking."

So close, Connor was right there, but Oliver could already hear the lecture from his mother forming in his head. Even if he was tempted to toss his cares to the wind, that was enough to start killing his mood. "I wish."

[5.6] Following the prompt request, grimcognito decided to write about Holy Week in the Philippines. Although a well-intended effort, the fic revolves around humor and Connor's need to get off, which eerily mirrors HTGAWM's focus on Connor's desires. The expected reaction is for the audience to react with humor and perhaps sympathize with Connor, not to seriously engage with Oliver's family or personal life; race is only talked about when it can be made fun of or will lead to or inhibit sex. As Warner (2015) argues, discussions of race and sexual orientation on television and in popular HTGAWM fan fiction need to discard criticality and political histories in order to maintain a marketplace for happy audiences. I do not think that Coliver fans expect works in their fandom to challenge or reify dominant notions of race, but I do think that for work to be widely disseminated on AO3 and Tumblr, the narrative needs to remain upbeat and happy. Tumblr is a site of amplification of queer voices and identities (Cho 2015); fans use the platform to give prompts to fic writers, and then they collectively reimagine worlds where queer folks or people of color have access to institutional power. Indeed, fan fictions can be complex in their reimagining of fraught histories wrought by whiteness and of interracial and same-sex relationships in the material world—yet fic authors are rewarded with large readership only within the purview of the happy queer relationship.

[5.7] According to Stein (2015), remixing the canon to create a positive tone makes the story or relationship more marketable. Even though the authors likely do not receive monetary compensation, writers market their work by crafting it to obtain readership and commentary. They receive more hits, kudos (likes), and comments when they stick to upbeat topics. For example, several comments to "deCode" praise this fluffy fan fiction:

[5.8] This is sooo cuteee!!! I can really see the hard work and love you put into this and I wanna tell you that it hasn't gone unnoticed…you're super great and I hope you have a nice day ^~^. (smoothmovebro, comment on chapter 1)


Omg yes. They are so fucking cute. I really like the progression and how the conflict was just enough to be like ugh feels but resolved soon enough to not lose interest. Loved it. :D. (cuddle_me_carl, comment on chapter 2)

[5.9] These comments are exemplary of what might be termed feels culture. Fans are publicly celebrating emotions collectively instead of cultivating them in the private realm (Stein 2015). With the remark "ugh feels," cuddle_me_carl combines "an aesthetics of intimate emotion…with an aesthetics of high performativity, calling attention to mediation and to the labor of the author" (Stein 2015, 158). This calling attention to the labor of the author is also evident in ravengal's remark, "THEN YOU FIXED IT." Ravengal is referring to the conflict of Coliver's misunderstanding each other and was glad for it to be resolved quickly. I found that fans' feels culture for Coliver seems to revolve around happiness as the only feels. Happiness through cuteness or lack of conflict becomes a way for fans to orient themselves around Coliver fan fiction and find a sense of collectivity. As smoothmovebro asserts, fans do not let tuanpark's work go unnoticed; they appreciate the amount of immaterial or affective labor that is put into bringing a prompt to written life.

[5.10] "It's Called Dating" stages even more intimate moments with Coliver fans. Grimcognito provides a lot more commentary and expressions of gratitude than tuanpark thanks to the provision of provide multiple chapter notes, including the following, where grimcognito appeals to and converses with Coliver readers and fans:

[5.11] I've only seen the pilot episode so far, but I'm hoping I'm not the only one who thought they'd make a cute couple. (chapter 5)

Thanks again for all the super nice comments and to everyone who has read this silly little series, you're all fantastic! I'll try to reply to them soon! (chapter 5)

Thanks to everyone who has stopped by to give me prompts! I love them all and I'll be writing them, so if you're worried I skipped you, I'm just slow, I promise! ;D (chapter 6)

I'm a little off my game, folks, (I'm not super happy with this one, but it wasn't getting any better so I figured I'd be done with it :P) but I've got lots of fantastic prompts that I'll be working on, so thanks for everyone who stopped by to send one! (chapter 8)

[5.12] In addition, there are also similar comments in "It's Called Dating" from fan fiction readers that signal collectivity and appreciation:

[5.13] Perfection! Do you think you'll write a chapter where Connor actually meets Oliver's family, because I would love that!…I absolutely adore your writing and can't wait for more :). (LuminescentLily, comment on chapter 7)

OH MY GOSH…Oliver is so damn cute in real life, man, and this fic is going to give me diabtetes [sic]…I need more cuddling between them this…fic…is too much for me to handle I ca n t e ve n. (pally, comment on chapter 6)

[5.14] LuminescentLily's comment exemplifies this convergence of feelings of happiness and collective authorship. The comment signals appreciation for grimcognito's efforts: it is not only about making the fans happy but also keeping the writer happy. Here happiness functions in a circular exchange, which Stein (2015) argues is positive and makes fandom more marketable.

[5.15] Fan fiction is ultimately a form of interpersonal play; however, it cannot escape the logics of making the fandom and fans happy. As Booth (2010) has argued, the blog is essentially coauthored by a group: the blog is about the original post plus the comments. Similarly, a piece of fan fiction is about the fic plus the comments. The function of commenting transforms fan fiction writing into a form of collective authorship; comments can guide the fiction in a new, fan-oriented direction without redressing messy histories of race and sexuality. It is important to note that much of the Coliver fan fiction I've examined here is intended to give Oliver a voice, yet race is relegated to the role of humor and absent from commentary. Although fan fiction is meant to expand story narratives and play with a character's personalities, Coliver fan fiction authors cannot escape the neoliberal logics of happiness, as this is what makes the fan fiction marketable.

[5.16] Here I have used cultural theories of neoliberalism and affect to analyze Coliver as a case study of fan fiction's affective politics and its shift toward a market-like economy. These fictions extend the romantic narrative and transform the narrative in terms of who has their voice and desires represented. Instead of Connor's being treated as a typical gay slut, as in HTGAWM, "It's Called Dating" and "deCode" highlight Oliver's narrative and character development. With over 20,000 combined views, these fan fictions are highly read and liked on AO3, yet they reaffirm a neoliberal mandate of happiness. Although these fan fictions might subvert the dominant televisual narrative of who has a voice when marginalized identities are represented (the white gay man) throughout seasons 1 and 2 of HTGAWM, fan fics cannot make larger critiques of race and sexuality that would detract from a happy ending because readability and shareability would suffer. Ultimately, this signals a move away from a gift economy of fan works to a market-like economy where fan fiction authors must create texts that produce and affirm fan happiness. They do so by listening to and building relationships with their audience and readers in order to make them happy and to have their content appreciated.

6. Notes

1. NVivo's autoanalyze function can only be used after the coding has been manually done and a word or phrase is chosen to build connections through flowcharts or mind maps.

2. I did not take into account readership for non-Coliver-focused HTGAWM fan fiction for tuanpark or grimcognito.

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