Hidden transcripts and public resistance

Kate McManus

University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States

[0.1] Abstract—Fan fiction can be a way to explore emotional fallout after events in canon. It is not a stretch to use fan fiction to process real-life events. This small collection of observations is of some changes I have seen in the few fandoms I belong to in the wake of a few events in the early months of the Trump administration. The work fandom is doing has become a necessary part of how some people process these moments.

[0.2] Keywords—Fan activism; The Handmaid's Tale; Politics; Protest

McManus, Kate. 2020. "Hidden Transcripts and Public Resistance." In "Fandom and Politics," edited by Ashley Hinck and Amber Davisson, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 32.

1. Introduction

[1.1] On August 11 and 12, 2017, Nazis marched in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, and killed a young woman named Heather Heyer. Afterward, I did what had become my practice: I donated to organizations that would need the most help, and I called my representatives in Washington, DC, to express my outrage to lawmakers. Then I put some of my feelings (rage, helplessness, a desire to make things right) into a story, using characters that weren't mine, in a universe where Nazi-punching is a given. It couldn't resolve anything, but it helped me to write a narrative path to fewer Nazis. My fandom gave me a space and a community with whom I could share. It was a necessary part of how I processed that moment. For many writers and readers, fan fiction can be a way to explore the emotional fallout after events in canon. It's not a stretch to use fic to process real-life events. Even now, after I call my representatives, I visit the Archive of Our Own (AO3) website and watch my favorite fictional Nazi-punchers fight evil and fall in love. It can wind me up and cool me down in equal measure. It's self-care. It's aftercare.

[1.2] James C. Scott (1990) has outlined a theory of conflicting social narratives: a dominant culture's "public transcript" and the "hidden transcript" of those who hold less power. For example, official communication and performative events can be the president insisting that there were "very fine people on both sides" (Thrush and Haberman 2017), placing the Nazis with the counterprotesters, while the hidden transcript is the means and ways subordinate groups communicate with themselves and how they stand up to the powerful (Scott 1990). Both are inherently political, neither tell the full story, and the tension between official and unofficial dialogues is only one step of resistance.

[1.3] Scott defines a hidden transcript as having three parts. First, it is specific to a site or a particular set of actors. Second, speech is bound to a set of actions. Finally, the struggle between hidden and official transcripts can lead to conflict. Using real and fictional examples, Scott illustrates how the hidden comes out to challenge the official transcript—in parody, in outburst, and sometimes in violence. This framework has been expanded to the internet. As Paul Mutsaers and Tom van Nuenen wrote in 2016, "enquiring into the hidden transcripts of protest leads us into the digital domain. The notion of the public—a multifarious, stochastic and superdiverse composite of social backgrounds, voices and interactions—is critically compounded by the fact that many public expressions nowadays come to rise in an online environment" (12). They were looking at online protests of police brutality, addressing the methodological aspects of studying online resistance in anti-police protests.

[1.4] In addition to real-life examples, Scott's framework is often adapted to fictional novels such as Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985), and it can absolutely extend to fandom. Fandom is not all things to all people. I can only speak to my experience since the 2016 election and up to the time of writing this piece. Fandom is multifaceted and ever-changing; I seek out means of resistance in the stories I read and write, but to use fandom as an escape from the politics of today is just as valid. Fandom is not neutral, it is not a monolith, and for many it is not always a safe space. But the fic on AO3 that directly responds to the turbulent events of the current political climate displays all the characteristics of digital hidden transcripts.

2. Digital hidden transcripts, and bringing them to the streets

[2.1] Fic responds to all manner of events. On February 7, 2017, US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declared "nevertheless, she persisted" as his justification for silencing Senator Elizabeth Warren (Wang 2017). Since that moment, people have reframed the phrase as a positive and powerful motto, and it has become "a weaponized meme" (Garber 2017). I have seen it in books and on shirts, on protest signs and as tattoos. It was the title for an episode of Supergirl (CW, 2015–). And yes, I've seen it in fic. It brings to mind a key phrase from The Handmaid's Tale, "Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum," which our protagonist Offred finds scratched near the floor of her room (Atwood 1985). It was almost certainly carved by a previous Offred, an anonymous, unnamed woman. It doesn't matter that the phrase is meaningless to the Commander when he translates it as a mock Latin version of “don’t let the bastards get you down”; for Offred, it sparks myriad thoughts.

[2.2] In her article, "Selves, Survival, and Resistance in The Handmaid's Tale," Elisabeth Hansot (1994) walks us through Offred's journey using Scott's framework. She points to the shared unspoken languages between the Handmaidens, the stories Offred tells herself about her loved ones, and her acts of resistance. Though Hansot does not discuss Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum, the phrase is doing the same work as Nevertheless, She Persisted, and it meets Scott's requirements. It's written by another person in the same position, where allies might see it. (Offred's bedroom does not belong to her, and the Commander and his wife could find the phrase if they were to look down.) It becomes a catalyst for Offred's thinking. Her growing awareness and reclamation of herself lead to the final conflicts of the book. Offred should never have been locked in her room waiting to become pregnant, with only Faith stitched on a pillow, and Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum scratched on the wall. She skips the official narrative for the hidden phrase.

[2.3] I've seen “Nevertheless, she persisted” in many places, where someone looking in the right place might see it. It can inspire further action in those who read it: much ink has been spilled on the rise of women and people of other genders running for office, becoming part of the story we're telling ourselves. The act of scratching Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum near the floor where it is essentially ignored is itself an act of resistance. It's a voice of solidarity. It says, "I see you—you who are ground down by forces beyond your control. Don't let them take what is essential." And what is essential is our own sense of self, and our own stories.

[2.4] The first part of Scott's framework is that it is specific to a certain site or particular subset of people. Scott was referring to a geographical region, but "site" on the internet means something different. Fic is more than the AO3, of course, but even isolating AO3, which boasts over 4,666,000 works and is growing all the time, can illuminate some trends. Users on AO3 and sites like it rely on anonymity. Traditionally most write under a pen name that generally does not cross over with their real name, which shields writers (and their criticisms) from rebuke in their personal lives; the site has the functionality to orphan works to make them even more anonymous. In addition, AO3 offers the capability of locking fic so that it can be read by registered users only.

[2.5] As far as I can tell, there has been no single AO3 tag that users have applied to denote any indication of where a fic falls on a scale of resistance. The word "Charlottesville" got eleven results by eleven different authors, dated August 2017. Ten of the stories were explicitly commenting on what the writers had seen, and one was written as an "escape" from the horror. Revisiting the fandoms of Captain America and Band of Brothers was a natural extension for some writers. Others explored fandoms with no obvious link. All were in response to what they had seen on the news. While the president insisted that there were "very fine people on both sides" (Thrush and Haberman 2017), fans retreated to worlds where they could call a spade a spade, and a Nazi a Nazi.

[2.6] Fandoms with built-in language about resistance are a little easier to find. At time of this writing, searching for "Join the Resistance" returned fifty-four fics, mostly from the Star Wars fandom(s). But then, a phrase as simple as "fuck Trump" yielded thirty-four results, many of which were Hockey RPFs (Real Person Fics). Nevertheless, She Persisted returned a set of another twenty-eight stories. These numbers may seem small in context, but the fact that they exist at all is telling. There's no consistent tag or phrase for political stories, making such themes difficult to identify in such a broad sea of stories. In this space, "political" is a sliding scale—stories may not be about specific political policies or structures, but world-building in universes can reframe our society in a detached way. Exploring how power structures play out with characters we love can also be political. Inconsistent tagging may or may not be intentional, but having unpredictable metadata, especially across fandoms and platforms, makes stories and writers harder to track.

[2.7] The second part of Scott's framework is to move into a range of practices. Certainly, my activism is much more than fic. In various areas of many fandoms, people are harnessing the power of fandom to encourage people into the next steps. One of the first such projects was the "Fandom Trumps Hate" auction. After the inauguration of Donald Trump in 2017, Tumblr user Winter (@bamfinacuddlyjumper) and a few friends decided to organize a fandom charity auction in response. Even with no experience in this kind of work, they ultimately raised over $31,000 across 680 auctions for a dozen charities supporting groups that would be negatively affected by the Trump administration ("Fandom Trumps Hate" 2018). They repeated the auction in 2018 to smaller success, raising over $18,500 for nineteen charities across 405 auctions. When they returned in 2019, they raised $23,435 for over twelve charities across 459 auctions (FTH Mods 2019).

[2.8] In a 2017 interview with the podcast Fansplaining, Winter and fellow organizer Porcupine Girl talked about the Fandom Trumps Hate auction exceeding their expectations, the challenges they faced, and how positive the whole experience felt (Klink and Minkel 2017). As Winter justified the endeavor, "we already use the stories that we love to understand our lives—to understand ourselves." Fandom Trumps Hate was a space for fandom to write necessary words and to create "an environment where protest can take place."

[2.9] The reliance on community was echoed at the 2018 San Diego Comic Con (SDCC). In the panel "What Rebellions Are Built On: Popular Culture, Radical Hope, and the Politically Engaged Geek," the panelists outlined the work they do to make the world, not just fandom, a better place (Stuller et al. 2018). They offered the tools that they use: communities, digital literacy, cosplay, social media, Photoshop, and crowdfunding. The panelists discussed engagement, and they lifted each other's projects up. They pointed at fandom, at the words of Leia Organa and Hermione Granger being used at the Women's March, and at folks cosplaying as Atwood's Handmaidens showing up for reproductive justice.

[2.10] "We survive by actively nurturing our community as a form of rebel alliances," the panel's moderator, Jennifer K. Stuller, offered. Panelist Sara Mortensen has been doing this work for years as the campaigns manager for the Harry Potter Alliance. Tracy Deonn Walker talked about the space fans take up, both online and in person. Annalise Ophelian discussed the need for joy in this moment. Chase Masterson shared her fight to end bullying on every level, even bringing United Nations delegates to SDCC. At the end of the panel, Stuller had them quote their favorite hopeful lines from fandoms, and these were more than necessary words: Ophelian had tattooed hers on her arm. All of this Stuller defined as geektivism, "a radical and unapologetically enthusiastic merging of geek culture with activist endeavors" (Stuller et al. 2018).

[2.11] Pop culture is a shared, often visual, language that can become a shorthand in protest signs and an invitation for deeper engagement. The tools and communities that fandom offers can provide a space for fans to become activists. To have these women in one room at the SDCC, talking about their communities and about harnessing digital hidden transcripts into a political force, was exhilarating. To have the conversation in a physical space blurred the line between the hidden and public. Sharing the recording of the panel on the Vimeo platform has extended its reach even farther. This too fits with Scott's model: the third phase is the struggle over the boundary between hidden and public transcripts.

3. Conclusion

[3.1] Fandom is not a monolith, so I am sure there are Trump supporters in their spaces on AO3. But fandom taking to the streets and using stories to reclaim a narrative of what our country should be is a shorthand for what we think of this administration. Marching next to Leia Organa at the Women's March says a lot about what we think of the administration. Handmaidens showing up for reproductive justice can illustrate a candidate's restrictive reproductive policies. We take our characters and our words, give them meaning, and bring them out into the street. Protest holds space, gives us a chance to tell our story in public, and creates a sense of unity among our communities. The internet is part of our public sphere, so we can think of it as a new iteration of Scott's framework: a digital hidden transcript. I don't know if the dominant culture or official transcript is looking at fandom spaces for resistance, but I see an organic resistance happening there regardless. You have to know where to look, know the right language and the right metadata, to unlock the deeper dialogue that's happening in fandom spaces.

[3.2] I am well aware that real life cannot offer narrative structure, but this expression through fan fiction is an act of self-care and part of a continuum. It's online in the communities that I consider safer spaces. It's a place where I hope others will see it, people who will also draw strength from the story and be inspired to further action. These acts of resistance, though they can feel like scratching phrases where no one is looking, have become necessary to me. When coupled with action, the words remind me that the narratives we value as a community and a culture can help us get to a place where we can live our values, with fewer Nazis.

4. References

Atwood, Margaret. 1985. The Handmaid's Tale. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.

"Fandom Trumps Hate." 2018., July 28, 2018.

FTH Mods. "FTH 2019 Totals." 2019. Fandom Trumps Hate [blog], March 13, 2019.

Garber, Megan. 2017. "'Nevertheless, She Persisted' and the Age of the Weaponized Meme." Atlantic. February 8, 2017.

Hansot, Elisabeth. 1994. "Selves, Survival, and Resistance in The Handmaid's Tale." Utopian Studies 5 (2): 56–69.

Klink, Flourish, and Elizabeth Minkel. 2017. "Transcript: Episode 41: Fandom Trumps Hate." Fansplaining, February 8, 2017.

Mustaers, Paul, and Tom van Nuenen. 2016. "Police Punishment and the Infrapolitics of (Online) Anti-Police Protest." Tilburg Papers in Online Studies 164:1–20.

Scott, James C. 1990. Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Stuller, Jennifer K., Sara Mortensen, Nicole Gitau, Tracy Deonn Walker, Annalise Ophelian, and Chase Mastersons. 2018. What Rebellions are Built On—SDCC 2018. San Francisco: What Do We Want Films.

Thrush, Glenn, and Maggie Haberman. 2017. "Trump Gives White Supremacists an Unequivocal Boost." New York Times, August 15, 2017.

Wang, Amy B. 2017. "'Nevertheless, She Persisted' Becomes New Battle Cry after McConnell Silences Elizabeth Warren." Washington Post, February 8, 2017.