Fanon Bernie Sanders: Political real person fan fiction and the construction of a candidate

Rachel Winter

University of Central Florida, Orlando, Florida, United States

[0.1] Abstract—Writers of Bernie Sanders fan fiction incorporate elements of both canon and fanon in their characterization. Canon elements largely reflect the mediated reality of the senator and showcase the impact of media-produced narratives on followers. Writers incorporate fanon elements as a manner of altering unsatisfying realities and participating in communities in which they are not typically welcomed, such as politics. Engaging in writing political real person fiction enables fans to envision altered realities and gain a greater understanding of politics, a phenomenon which was especially evident during the unpredictable 2016 election season.

[0.2] Keywords—Archive of Our Own; Candidate branding; Political fandom; US presidential election

Winter, Rachel. 2020. "Fanon Bernie Sanders: Political Real Person Fan Fiction and the Construction of a Candidate." In "Fandom and Politics," edited by Ashley Hinck and Amber Davisson, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 32.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Political real person fiction (RPF) builds on the public identities of politicians, using their media appearances, social media activity, and campaign platforms to provide the source texts, or "canon," of the fiction. Similarly to writers of fan fiction who depict fictional characters, writers of political RPF fill in the typically one-dimensional personas of political figures and, as a community, attribute favored characteristics to different candidates. These characteristics, based not in fact but in community belief, are considered "fanon" versions of real people (although some argue these "real" people are merely personalities cultivated for media consumption) (Hagen 2015; McGee 2005). An examination of Bernie Sanders–tagged fanfiction on Archive of Our Own (AO3) reveals a combination of canon elements, such as physical appearance, and fanon constructions, such as romantic entanglements and a rebellious persona. These fan writings provide insight into fans' perceptions of the senator, including those aspects that have most captured fans' imagination and support. Canon elements serve to create a connection between the altered reality of the fan fiction and Sanders as a candidate, while fanon elements enable fans to accentuate (or fabricate) certain aspects of Sanders's personality or lived experience to create a more satisfying version of the candidate's life. While candidate image building and branding have been managed by paid campaign staffers in the past, in the current post-broadcast era, political fans have begun participating in the branding of candidates alongside more traditionally cultivated official campaign narratives. Investigating fan fiction featuring Bernie Sanders can therefore provide insight into the evolving practices of candidate image management.

2. Literature review

[2.1] RPF involves fans creating stories about real people rather than the fictional characters of traditional fan fiction. In keeping with the practices of fan fiction more generally, RPF builds from an official canon (Hagen 2015, 45), although RPF differs from traditional fan fiction in that there is no unified canon such as a novel or film (Popova 2017). Instead, RPF-related fan fiction communities expect writers to incorporate information about celebrities' "individual personae and cultures," as well as themes from previous fan works (Hagen 2015, 46). Media representations of celebrities, from "concert performances and interviews to articles and personal interaction," serve as the "blueprint of the 'real' star[s]" (Busse 2006a, 259) from which fans can develop complex identities to flesh out celebrities in a process of humanization (Busse 2006b, 214). Furthermore, fans can adapt and interpret the source text in any number of ways, incorporating the elements of celebrities' public personae that best align with the writers' desires (Hagen 2015, 47).

[2.2] Following the commodification of mass media, an increasing overlap between politics and entertainment developed (Wheeler 2013b, 60) that led to the celebritization of contemporary politics. Political figures seeking to appeal to a mass audience appear increasingly frequently on popular media such as television talk shows (Drake and Higgins 2006, 88) and rely on the development of campaign "narratives" that appeal to the public (Wheeler 2013a, 87). These narratives facilitate the formation of fandoms around the mediated identities of specific candidates. Voters typically look for specific qualities such as "honesty, intelligence, friendliness, sincerity, and trustworthiness" (Lalancette and Raynauld 2019, 917), and candidate image building therefore often focuses on promoting politicians as possessing these attributes. Candidates' use of social media such as Twitter also contributes to their celebritization, as politicians can engage directly with their public, "narrow[ing] the boundaries between the public and private life of politicians" (Ekman and Widholm 2014, 519). These social media accounts, along with mainstream media appearances and political platforms, are considered source material, or canon, for RPF centered on specific politicians.

[2.3] Canon materials are not, however, always factual and objective. As Raymond Boyle and Lisa Kelly (2010) contend, analyses in television studies are often complicated when attempting to create a distinction between "personality," or those who appear in factual media, and "actor," or those who appear in fiction. In some sense, even personalities are always acting, as they are intentionally cultivating a specific image. Writers of RPF often consider a celebrity's identity to be "in some sense fabricated" (Hagen 2015, 48) as it is "created for the consumption of the public" for the purposes of profit (McGee 2005, 174). Kristina Busse (2017) argues that celebrity RPF incorporates "available material while inventing what is not and cannot be known," revealing a complex relationship with media representations, which these fans "simultaneously believe and disavow" when characterizing the object(s) of their celebrity fandom (44).

[2.4] In RPF, frequently ficced (fan fictionalized) celebrities develop a "fanon," that is, "a collection of generally accepted character traits that accrete from…fan productions" (Hagen 2015, 46). These characteristics build on canon but have more basis in community/author desires than in fact (Hagen 2015, 46). Through incorporating both fanon and canon, communities build a network of texts that ultimately conveys the community's assumptions and beliefs about featured celebrities (Piper 2015). While RPF writers combine fact and fiction in their stories, the fanon identities of their characters are understood to be more reflective of a "fandomwide conceit" than any reflection of "real" celebrity identities (Busse 2006b, 209).

[2.5] Political RPF is likewise a mixture of canon and fanon. As Amber Davisson (2016) argues, political discourse tends to "push aside emotional language in favor of rational argument" (¶ 2.1). Such rationality often fails to inspire traditional political action, like voting, leading political advertising firms to prioritize the development of emotional connections with candidates. They often do so by casting issues in "starkly moral terms," giving citizens both a "hero" to support and a "villain" to fight against (Serazio 2017, 235). Fans draw on these narratives in the development of their fictions, both extending and modifying characterizations of specific politicians. Given the highly crafted media representations of politicians, it is not surprising that political fans engage in cultural production similarly to fans of other media.

[2.6] As can be expected, then, fans of Sanders draw on campaign materials to extend and modify the senator's brand. As Pekka Kolehmainen (2017) argues, "Much of Sanders's heroic narrative was…performed…by people participating in the numerous online initiatives around him" (7). Fans actively participate in the construction of Sanders's brand via social media. Some fans even create accounts, such as the Twitter @SassySenSanders, which tweets "snappy comebacks and pointed responses" to issues in the manner in which supporters wish Sanders would respond (Kolehmainen 2017, 8). These fan-produced narratives distill Sanders's core values, resulting in the "larger-than-life" version of the Senator (Kolehmainen 2017, 12–13) that appears in much of the fan fiction on AO3. Sanders fan fiction writers use canon elements to ground their fictions in reality and develop fanon elements to highlight (or fabricate) aspects of the candidate's persona that have been insufficiently covered in the press. An investigation of Bernie Sanders fan fiction can therefore provide valuable insight regarding fan engagement with, and adaptation of, mediatized politics.

3. Methods

[3.1] Online fan fiction is frequently housed in searchable, fan-run archives. This study focuses on AO3, on which an August 2018 search for "Bernie Sanders" produced eighty-two political RPFs featuring the senator, who ran for the democratic nomination for president in 2016. An analysis of these narratives reveals the canon facts incorporated from source texts as well as the fanon characteristics attributed to the senator by fan authors. The fanon components of these fictions reveal fan beliefs regarding aspects of the senator's life and personality that are not sufficiently covered in popular media. Fan beliefs regarding Sanders are demonstrated as fans seek to complete the characterization of Sanders begun through media appearances, debates, and interviews.

[3.2] Similarly to Busse's (2017) research in Framing Fan Fiction, my work sought to find a balance between "the particular and the universal" (2). Like Busse, I aimed to recognize the specific context of the stories I chose for my case studies; while these stories do offer insight into Bernie Sanders fan fiction as a genre, my results are not wholly generalizable. In order to determine which characteristics are attributed to fanon Bernie by the AO3 community, I investigated the eighty-two fics tagged with "Bernie Sanders" on AO3. Of the eighty-two stories, thirteen had tagged Sanders but did not feature him in the body of the text. As a result, these were not included in the analysis. I have based my conclusions on the remaining sixty-nine fan fictions that contained descriptions of Sanders. Thirty-seven of these fictions featured Sanders as a main character, while the remaining thirty-two merely mentioned the senator in passing.

[3.3] When reading, I particularly investigated three areas of content related to Sanders's depiction in the texts: description, actions, and dialogue. These categories were developed a priori to aid in the organization of my data, with the above categories relating to expository data about Sanders's character, Sanders's activities in the text, and dialogue either originating from, or pertaining to, Sanders, respectively. I then developed connections between fan fiction content and known features of Sanders, his platform, and journalistic coverage to determine which characteristics were based in source texts, such as campaign materials, photographs, and interviews. From these comparisons I determined the main themes evident in both source materials and fan fiction. Sanders's personal appearance, his political leanings, and the particulars of his platform were the predominant features of source texts that were incorporated by fans. Depictions of Sanders that did not originate in source texts I attributed to fanon; trends across fan fiction on AO3 thus provide insight into characteristics that fans attribute to Sanders despite little or no evidence to support these beliefs outside of the fan community.

[3.4] Researching fan fiction, similarly to researching any materials produced and disseminated via social media, requires careful consideration of the ethics of analyzing and incorporating such texts. Fan studies is an emerging discipline and as such is still developing its own ethical standards (Nielsen 2016, 235). Although literary scholars do not typically interact with the authors of the published works they study, the practices of fan writers, as well as fan fiction communities, vary drastically from more traditionally published works, and thus require different standards of conduct (Nielsen 2016, 234). Likewise, the assumption that all works published via the internet are available for researchers' use fails to account for fan writers' understanding that their primary audience is their fan community rather than academics or others not involved in the community (Reid 2016, 278).

[3.5] In addition, the marginalized identities of many fan fiction writers call for researchers to take steps to minimize potential risk to these communities. As a 2013 census of AO3 determined, 54 percent of users identified as members of minority groups (centrumlumina 2013). In many fan fiction communities, audiences can access a writer's personal weblog by following the hyperlink attached to the writer's name (Reid 2016, 278); fans might also fear being "outed" through the discovery of their legal name and the association of their offline identity with the writing of fan fiction, which is a practice that is stigmatized in mainstream media as the province of "desperate/lonely/very young" women (Nielsen 2016, 245).

[3.6] In this publication I have worked to treat the fan writers in question with respect. While the majority of fan fiction community members are women, there is also a significant proportion of nonbinary people in these spaces (Nielson 2016, 243). I worked to respect these identities by making no assumptions about writers' pronouns. In addition, I realize that pseudonymity does not guarantee privacy (Reid 2016, 276), so I have refrained from quoting extensively from specific fics in order to avoid needing to provide identifiable information.

4. Results

[4.1] Several characteristics evident in Sanders fan fiction were derived from canon, that is, they are directly related to information included in source texts such as journalistic coverage of the senator. While the descriptions of Sanders in the popular press are themselves not objectively truthful and, in fact, participate in branding practices similar to those used by both campaign officials and fans, fans treat coverage of the senator in much the same manner as other fandoms treat their source texts. As Busse (2017) emphasizes, if fans collectively choose to include information in their canon, "it has become truth within the fannish universe" (167). One "truth" in the Sanders fan fiction universe is Sanders's physical appearance (see figure 1; Roeder 2016), to which fan representations of the senator generally conform. For instance, six of the fan fictions here analyzed describe Sanders's white hair with varying descriptors, such as "fluffy," "frizzy," "wispy," and "frail." The connotations of each of these word choices can also provide insight into both press portrayal of Sanders and fan reception. While "fluffy" pleasantly connotes a soft texture, "frizzy" is generally associated with an unkempt appearance. In addition, both "wispy" and "frail" can be related to old age; fans using these terms may be building on popular debates about whether Sanders's age should be considered prohibitive in his bid for the presidency. As noted in the Time headline in 2015, "Bernie Sanders Would Be the Oldest President in US History" (Wilson).

Bernie Sanders wearing a wrinkled suit and tie in front of clapping high school students.

Figure 1. Bernie Sanders in an appearance at Roosevelt High School on January 28, 2016, wearing his usual campaign attire of wrinkled suit and tie, which was consistently represented by fans in their fics (photo credit: Phil Roeder).

[4.2] Authors also make note of Sanders's apparel. One depicts Sanders "in a suit and tie," which is consistent with Sanders's public appearances, while others focus on the worn appearance of Sanders's clothes, which Paul Fahri (2015) asserts look "as if he pressed them under a mattress" or "borrowed them from another man's closet" in the Washington Post. This bedraggled appearance is in keeping with the above example of the depiction of Sanders's hair as "frizzy." Sanders is described as wearing a "ratty" pullover in one fic, while in another he sports a shirt with sleeves not quite long enough to cover his arms. One writer in particular describes Sanders's appearance as "a little worn," and Sanders's "baggy jacket" even saves him from an assassination attempt by the Zodiac Killer. These descriptions depict Sanders in a fashion consistent with press coverage, such as Fahri's contention that Sanders's attire is an "anti-fashion statement" compared to politicians with image handlers. Part of Sanders's brand is that he is different from establishment candidates like Clinton, and his appearance may have been calculated to emphasize this difference during his 2016 campaign for the Democratic candidature. By incorporating coverage of Sanders's personal appearance from source materials, fan writers participate in upholding and extending this brand.

[4.3] Unlike fandoms with a unified source text, political fandom incorporates a diverse range of sources that can be considered canon, even when these sources may contradict one another. For instance, a Politico article published in early 2016 warns Democrats to "Beware [of] Sanders' Socialism" (Starr 2016), while the Atlantic argues, "Bernie is Not a Socialist" (Tupy 2016). As stated above, Busse's (2006b) research on celebrity fandom concludes that fans must both believe and contest realities constructed by popular journalistic sources. The choices fans make when determining which constructions to embrace and which to reject reflect the narrative they choose to believe or tell about the candidate. In this case, fans (and potentially anti-fans developing negative portrayals of Sanders) were divided in the elements of Sanders's brand/canon that they chose to include in their fictions. Sanders's position as a democratic socialist appears in many of the fictions, although some writers label him purely a socialist, or even a communist. In several stories, Sanders only makes a brief appearance to plug socialist propaganda; in one, Sanders's fictional Instagram is likewise filled with socialist content. The varying classifications of Sanders's politics are emblematic of the differences in image building practiced by the official campaign and journalistic sources and their respective competing narratives about the candidate.

[4.4] The particulars of Sanders's platform, however, remain consistent across fictions. Opposition to wealth inequality is evident in fans' depictions of Sanders. Part of Sanders's platform focused on raising taxes on wealthy Americans in order to provide free higher education and a $15 minimum wage (Egan 2015). Sanders's campaign to raise the minimum wage is explicitly mentioned in one story, while another remarks on Sanders's desire for wealthier citizens to pay increased taxes. However, although these key aspects of Sanders's 2016 platform are incorporated into fan characterizations of Sanders, they typically have little bearing on the plot development of the fictions.

[4.5] Sanders's position on healthcare is likewise included in fan depictions of the senator. Even following his defeat in the 2016 Democratic primary, Sanders continued to fight for affordable healthcare. In 2017, Sanders revealed his "Medicare for All" bill, which would result in single-payer healthcare for American citizens (Gambino 2017). The Sanders fictions reflect the senator's continued fight for healthcare; one describes Sanders as looking as satisfied as he would if he succeeded in providing healthcare to all American citizens. There is no further discussion of the healthcare bill in the story, signaling that the writer assumes readers will have prior understanding of Sanders's proposed policies from source texts before they encounter the fiction. A slightly less coherent Sanders featured in another fic yells, "Single payer healthcare!" His brief appearance in this story condenses the complexity of Sanders's platform to a single talking point; again, the writer assumes readers share common knowledge about Sanders derived from official media representation. In contrast to the above debate regarding Sanders's general political values, the consistency of fans' depictions of Sanders's positions on income inequality and healthcare indicate a coverage of these issues that is unified within the Sanders canon. The diversity in fans' labeling of these policies is similar to the variety of framing techniques employed in journalism. While the details of Sanders's platform remain consistent, both mass media sources and fans can choose how to present all or part of this information, which can impact "learning, interpretation and evaluation of issues and events" (de Vreese 2014, 141) and result in differing labels. Although it is impossible to tell where exactly fans acquire source material, looking at news framing can provide a helpful analogue for understanding the choices fans make when incorporating these materials in their creative works.

[4.6] Fans' use of canon material in their fan fiction represents their impressions of Sanders from media portrayals. His physical appearance and the core values of his campaign were well-documented in mainstream media during his 2016 campaign, and these impressions carried over into fan portrayals of Sanders. However, there are several characteristics associated with Sanders that have little or no direct connection to source texts. For instance, although Bernie is married to Jane Sanders, many of the Sanders fictions involve Sanders in relationships with other politicians. In six of the fictions, Sanders is involved sexually with Trump. The sex scenes are often graphically depicted, with one partner sexually dominating the other. The second most common pairing is Sanders and Hillary Clinton, in which the relationship tends to be romantic rather than purely physical. In the three fictions featuring the Sanders/Hillary Clinton pairing, Sanders provides emotional support to Clinton, who is depicted as the much-abused partner in her relationship with her real-life husband, Bill Clinton.

[4.7] Both "slash" (so named for the slash mark used in denoting a same-sex erotic fiction as male/male, female/female, etc.) and "shipping," or "the pairing of two fictional characters into a romantic relationship" (Gonzalez 2016, ¶ 1.1), are common in fan fiction communities. Slash featuring politicians continues a trend of sexualizing political candidates that has extended from the 1990s onward (Rowley 2017, 2). The sexual remarks Trump made during his 2016 candidacy further contributed to the "pornographication of the election" (Rowley 2017, 10); thus, it is not surprising that Trump features in slash fictions on AO3. Although motivations for writing slash vary, slash featuring politicians can serve as a forum for political satire and commentary. For instance, in Trump/Putin slash, Trump is "infantilized…and feminized by his submission, sexual or otherwise" (Rowley 2017, 21). Sanders/Trump slash on AO3 likewise positions Trump as sexually submissive to Sanders. The juxtaposition of Sanders and a submissive Trump serves to critique Trump's masculinity and ability to lead while attributing strength and dominance to Sanders.

[4.8] The shipping of Sanders and Hillary Clinton can provide a variety of insights regarding fan adoption of journalistic perspectives and coverage. In these fictions, Sanders is positioned as the "hero," providing care and support to his rival despite their political differences. These narratives build on the branding of Sanders as a political "hero" to the middle class that was prevalent throughout his 2016 campaign. As Sanders and Clinton were the only two candidates who remained in the race for the duration of the Democratic primary, popular media coverage of later debates and political events offered source material showcasing interactions between the two. Just as slashers of pop stars "find cracks in the 'façade' of the official star text" (Busse 2006a, 259), writers of Sanders and Clinton shipping stories elaborate on an imagined relationship between the two built on their frequent proximity and interactions during media events. In these stories, Clinton is depicted as a victim of her husband, Bill, and Sanders provides comfort and support. The abusive relationship between Hillary and Bill Clinton also builds on narratives prevalent in popular journalistic coverage, which often speculated on "the legitimacy of their marriage and the inner workings of their political partnership" (Davisson 2016, ¶ 2.5). While Clinton is arguably sympathetic, especially in comparison to fan fiction featuring Trump and Sanders, she is often depicted as a helpless and emotional character. Media coverage of women often frames them as ruled by emotion, and therefore incapable of logical thought (Davisson 2016, ¶ 2.6), and characterizations of Clinton in these stories are consistent with this framing. Sanders is, in comparison, portrayed as a competent and collected caregiver.

[4.9] Fanon characteristics of Sanders also include the depiction of Sanders as "cool" and rebellious. In several of the fictions, characters note that there is "something cool about Bernie." The depiction of Sanders as "cool" in fan fiction is consistent with other fan portrayals of Sanders, such as in the "Bernie or Hillary" meme that riffs on a traditional campaign poster and positions Sanders as culturally savvy. Figure 2 (Hugpocalypse 2017) is an example of this meme, depicting Sanders as well-versed not only in the entire corpus of the band Radiohead's works but also its impact on the rock genre. In contrast, Clinton knows only the band's single, "Creep." The consistency with which fans characterize Sanders as "cool" and culturally informed both in memes and fics demonstrates how fan writings, when accepted by the fan community, become "truth" (Busse 2017, 167). Fans can then continue building upon such "truths" in much the same way that they incorporate materials from source texts.

A remix of a traditional campaign poster comparing the views of Sanders and Clinton on the band Radiohead, with Sanders stating, "OK Computer is one of the defining albums of the '90s, and the decision to release Kid A immediately after will go down as one of the most important moments in rock history." In contrast, Clinton’s response is: "I love Creep."

Figure 2. An example of the popular "Bernie or Hillary" meme that focuses on the band Radiohead; Sanders is depicted as familiar with the band's entire repertoire and their influence on the rock genre, while Clinton can only name one song.

[4.10] In addition, many of the fics studied characterize Sanders as rebellious. In one story, Sanders is primarily referenced by his nickname, "Antiestablishment," which he supposedly earned by "shaking up the status quo." In others he is variously described as a "gonzo politician" and as "notdonefighting" against the establishment. Interestingly, two fan fictions depict Sanders as a musician in a traveling band, one who was likewise ready to fight, although in these stories, he engages in physical violence. Even in the two fictions in which Sanders appears as a white Persian cat, his grumpiness and combativeness are noted as key characteristics. Regardless of whether characterizations of Sanders are rooted in reality or transplant Sanders in an unfamiliar context, Sanders is a character who is prepared to fight to change existing circumstances.

[4.11] Although the actual Sanders does not appear to be particularly savvy regarding pop cultural knowledge or general "coolness," depictions of Sanders as rebellious may still be rooted in mainstream media coverage. In 2016, the Chicago Tribune published a photo from their archives of a young Sanders being arrested after protesting segregation in 1963 (Skiba). The photo's circulation online potentially served to inspire representations of Sanders as rebellious. Sanders's own books, such as Our Revolution (2016) and Bernie Sanders' Guide to Political Revolution (2017), position Sanders as radically opposed to the current state of the American government. In addition, media did refer to Sanders's movement as a "rebellion" (Frizell 2016), although Sanders did not use the term himself. While depictions of Sanders toting spray paint and engaging in brawls diverge from source materials about Sanders, mainstream media coverage may have provided these writers with the inspiration to characterize Sanders as a rebel. Fans' willingness to define Sanders according to these characteristics is driven by the impression management practiced by both official campaign staffers and journalistic sources; Gian Vittorio Caprara, Claudio Barbaranelli, and Philip Zimbardo (2002) assert that voters "develop uniquely simplified perceptions of political candidates' personalities" that privilege traits voters believe to be "central and relevant" (77–78). The characteristics ascribed to Sanders by fan writers therefore provide insight regarding the aspects of Sanders's personality (according to the brand established in source texts) that fans found the most appealing.

5. Discussion

[5.1] When candidates run for office, they develop narratives that appeal to their constituents. Rather than an absolute reality, voters are offered a mediated reality, which results in politicians' seeming little different from fictional characters; voters can fabricate additional narrative scenarios involving these individuals in the same manner in which fan fiction writers elaborate on the hidden lives of characters from books and movies (Waysdorf 2015). Fan writers are not alone in contributing to the construction of a politician's persona, as typical users of social media also use materials taken from source texts and incorporate them into their own unique narratives (Kolehmainen 2017, 2–3). These stories enable individuals to imagine alternative realities based on the viewpoints presented by the candidates; however, these realities must incorporate some material based in the source texts in order for the realities to remain recognizable (Kolehmainen 2017, 4).

[5.2] The elements of canon in Bernie Sanders fan fiction are indicative of the branding practiced by both campaign officials and journalistic media sources. Fan writers' attention to Sanders's physical appearance reflects the content of press coverage, particularly negative coverage of Sanders's age and dress. Danny Hayes, Jennifer Lawless, and Gail Baitinger (2014) contend that the physical appearance of candidates matters to voters, particularly when their appearance is the subject of critiques in the press (1196). As press coverage of Sanders often highlights his disheveled appearance, this has become an integral component of his brand and one that fan writers often include in their fictions. Fans' faithfulness to certain aspects of Sanders's platform likely stems from his regular use of social media for discussion of key issues. Kolehmainen (2017) argues that when candidates have a high level of social media capital, top-down narratives are more common (5); Sanders's extensive use of social media likely helps to enforce certain aspects of his platform, such as his dedication to income equality and healthcare access.

[5.3] Fans contribute to the branding of Sanders through their development of fanon characteristics, which reflect fans' idealized version of Sanders. During the 2016 presidential election season, fans incorporated information from canon sources and popular culture in their RPFs to ultimately participate in candidate brand building, "easily discard[ing] those elements they found unfavorable in their candidate and focus[ing] on those that supported the story being built" (Kolehmainen 2017, 3). As is outlined above, the branding of candidates, which originated in the practices of professional campaigners, develops links between aspects of policy and emotional attachment to candidates by promoting qualities such as "authenticity, approachability, and attractiveness" (Scammell 2007, 187). Campaigners, and now citizens, can develop and sustain consumer brand loyalty to candidates in the same way that marketing professionals build loyalty to product lines.

[5.4] While slash and shipping can enable the exploration of "issues of sexuality by reading and writing…desires, and by acknowledging and sharing sexual preferences" (Busse 2017, 159), slash featuring Sanders and Trump appears to primarily serve as a venue for criticism. The strength of Sanders and the weakness of Trump are emphasized in these stories as fan writers simultaneously contribute to the branding of both candidates. Likewise, stories featuring ships of Sanders and Clinton position Sanders as a leader and caregiver, more capable of serving the office of the President than the emotional Clinton. Rowley's (2017) finding that Trump/Putin slash fictions offer "a heavy dose of political critique alongside their satirization of Donald Trump's sexuality" (11) is consistent with the practices of political RPS (real person slash) writers on AO3, who use the platform and community to convey their perceptions of candidates.

[5.5] Participation via "informal, noninstitutionalized, nonhierarchical networks" allows greater democratic participation (Brough and Shresthova 2012, ¶ 3.2). Sanders fans on AO3 can express support or disdain for candidates through writing and sharing fan fiction with the community. In so doing, fans not only extend the branding practices of campaign officials and journalistic sources but also help to further develop politicians' brands by creating and incorporating fanon characteristics. Political RPF offers an opportunity for fans to shape the image of their favored candidates and promote qualities that best exemplify those desired by fans.

6. Conclusion

[6.1] Studying the political fan fiction on AO3 provides insight into the simultaneous construction of political brands by campaign officials, journalistic sources, and fans. Fictions centering on Sanders emphasize the elements amplified in media narratives, such as his appearance and the core values of his platform, as well as building elements into Sanders's brand to address aspects of the candidate fans found unsatisfying, namely his failure to be more assertive and "sassy." While further research is necessary to determine the extent of branding practices employed by political fans on other platforms, this study provides insight into the evolving practices of political branding and image management. As user-generated content plays an increasing role in the political landscape of the United States, an understanding of how fans both build and extend political brands will be essential to future political successes.

7. Acknowledgments

The author is grateful for the support of Dr. Mel Stanfill in the development of this article.

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