Taking a bite out of Buffy: Carnivalesque play and resistance in fan fiction

Amanda L. Hodges

Newberry College, Newberry, South Carolina, United States

Laurel P. Richmond

The University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia, United States

[0.1] Abstract—Popular culture provides a vital point of entry to examine discourses of hegemony and resistance at work within the growing culture of fandom. Drawing from epistemologies of feminism and poststructuralism, we deconstruct how fans read, co-construct, apply, and reenvision texts as they navigate societal notions of gender in their own constructions of subjectivity. We discuss subversive examples of sexuality and gender found in American popular culture, particularly the portrayal of femininity in the character of Faith, the bad girl from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Such examples are important because they impart crucial hegemonic lessons that may then be played out in everyday life. By focusing on the third season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, we examine the discourses of risk at play within the source text, fan sites, and online fan fiction. Bakhtin's ideas of carnival drive much of fan fiction, and Foucault's analysis of power relations as well as Butler's theories of performativity contribute to play that affords dynamic, critical perspectives with which to interrogate social metanarratives and their impact on the subject.

[0.2] Keywords—Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Carnival; Judith Butler; Mikhail Bakhtin; Popular culture

Hodges, Amanda L., and Laurel P. Richmond. 2011. "Taking a Bite out of Buffy: Carnivalesque Play and Resistance in Fan Fiction." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 7.

1. Introduction

[1.1] From its premiere in the 1990s to its spin-off, Angel (1999–2004), a myriad of books, countless fan sites, and the recent—and hugely popular—release of season 8 in comic book form, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003) has carved out a special niche in fan culture. It's true: there is nothing new about the epic and age-old battle between good and evil, or even our fascination with vampires, and yes, stories have always been used to establish and promote social values such as heroism and courage. But the ways the series and its fans take up discourses of play and resistance piqued the interest of fans and scholars alike more than a decade ago, and that interest has not vanished in a puff of dust like the vampires who appear before the opening credits. In fact, the dynamism of the Buffyverse reflects the ways fandom, or the community of devoted fans, has taken on a new vibrancy. Instead of simply absorbing the banter, sexuality, angst, and play of the series, fans produce their own texts, reenvisionings, and interpretations, and their commitment supports both official and fannish continuations of the story line that have extended long past the television finale. Through online sites, fans can make their pleasure or displeasure known instantaneously, and—through sheer numbers and intensity—they can (and do) demand responses from the entertainment industry. In the medium of fan fiction, fans can play with their favorite characters and stories, create or reenvision scenarios, and take ownership of their favorite texts in a new way.

[1.2] But which texts attract loyal, vocal fans? With their exotic settings, heroic adventures, and magical escapes from mundane life, fantasies like Buffy the Vampire Slayer draw and maintain thriving fandoms (Black 2008; Gwenllian Jones 2002; Thomas 2007). Another reason fans deemed this series a "chosen one" lies in its humorous and playful approach to complex issues like heroism, evil, loyalty, corruption, and romance. The series sparkled with a light, witty language of its own: not only does a witty exchange accompany each fight scene, but the slayer chosen to fight the forces of evil and the misfit group of scholars, witches, and friends around her are dubbed the "Scooby Gang" (Adams 2003; Blasingame 2006). Nothing, not even the apocalypse, should be taken too seriously, after all. Between the approachable heroes and their bouncing dialogue and the sweeping, epic scale of the series, which inevitably leads to gaps in the story line, the series invites fans to explore and create in dynamic, dialogic ways. As fans write and reenvision such stories, they simultaneously recognize and refute the hegemonic notions fixed or examined in texts. Fans write out their thinking about issues the series raises: from the premise that a young girl can save humanity to the notion that family is defined by love and loyalty rather than birth, fans engage with these stories purposefully and deeply. The portrayal of gender and sexuality takes a special precedence for fans; decades after the feminist movement began in earnest, fans continue to wrestle with hegemonic and resistant notions of femininity in complex, often contradictory ways. Characters like Buffy, Faith, Drusilla, Tara, and Willow highlight very different notions and aspects of femininity. Society might define a "good girl" in a hegemonic, traditional way, but the lines between fandoms and mainstream social discourses can blur, and these fan spaces often exhibit features of both defiance and hegemony, and online as elsewhere, there is the constant navigation between self and other.

[1.3] Rather than seeking to concretize the phenomena of fandom or fan fiction, this study explores ways in which the discourses of fan fiction seek to open up spaces to play, to resist conventional notions, and to foster ever-fleeting glimpses of carnival (Bakhtin 1984). Hence, when Buffy fans take up their favorite characters and envision new scenarios and possibilities, they engage in a playful, affectionate creativity. Fan fiction sites are far from intellectual or social utopias, however. Even as some scholars and participants hail virtual communities as free, democratic spaces for exploration (Gwenllian Jones 2002; Isaksson 2010; Jenkins 2006; Thomas 2007), others recognize that these sites can serve hegemonic, domestic purposes as well (Scodari 2003; Bury 2005; Stern 2008). In fact, fan fiction is a complex phenomenon, and, as Hills (2002) pointed out, fans consume, produce, and reinvent texts communally. It is intriguing to consider the motivations, possibilities, tensions, and limitations some fan fiction writers encounter.

2. Fans, texts, and an emerging field

[2.1] Simply put, fan fiction is fiction written about characters or set in a world previously created by somebody else (Kustritz 2003; Blasingame 2006; Busse and Hellekson 2006; Lawrence and Schraefel 2006; Thomas 2007; Black 2008; Cherland 2008). The relationships between fan fictions and their source texts are anything but simple; they converge, overlap, and contradict one another in vibrant, sometimes contentious ways. Busse and Hellekson (2006) explained in considering pieces of fan fictions, or fan fics, it is helpful to separate elements of "canon, the events presented in the media source that provide the universe, setting, and characters, and fanon, the events created by the fan community in a particular fandom and repeated pervasively throughout the fantext" (9). In other words, fan communities develop their own alternate universes, which in turn greatly alter the relationships or events as depicted in the original work. For example, some Web communities are built around the notion of a character crossing over from one story to another; so Gandalf the Grey might help train Buffy the Vampire Slayer. While such obvious examples of fanon might be easily identified, there are often questions of what is canon and what is not. Within the Buffyverse, for example, some fans stalwartly insist that Buffy "should" end up with Angel or Spike—the fans' rivalry stems from the show's complex messages; while such fics do build on canonical relationships, they are extended farther than the series ventured.

[2.2] Within the vibrancy and dynamism of fanon, we find the interplay between fans' connections to source texts and the deployment of both hegemonic and resistant discourses. As Blasingame (2006) acknowledged, fans' perceptions can be insightful: "Even if it is non-canonical, fan fiction could be seen as a way to illuminate the human experience." For example, when fans soften the violent, sexual edges of popular characters such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Faith, this demonstrates the influence of hegemonic notions such as the redemption of the "bad girl" that continues to shape notions of acceptable femininity. Busse (2002) pointed out the complex negotiations at work in fan fics: "Fanfic writers are neither a feminist version of scribbling ladies nor wanton pornographers but women who attempt to negotiate different roles and demands in their lives—both within the fiction and in the process of its production" (216). At the same time, many fans seize upon the escape from mundane domesticity that fantasy source texts and their canon offer, and some of these writers alter the original story line in dramatic ways that challenge authorial intent while others write slash or femslash—romances that delve into male or female homosexual relationships, respectively. Such playful, varied interpretations speak to ways in which fans, especially fan fiction writers, resist and trouble conventional mores and discourses.

3. Power, socialization, and performing the carnivalesque dance

[3.1] Foucault (1986) sought to illustrate that affinity spaces, places where like-minded enthusiasts gather to share ideas and support communities with similar interests, are not simply utopian, egalitarian spaces. Instead, these spaces mirror mainstream society and engage in its practices and discourses. Just as the language of the justice system creates and sustains material effects like laws, jails, careers, and punishments (Foucault 1990), the discourses that circulate within fan fiction shape its communities. In fan fiction, there are hierarchies and power relations that oversee and control the sorts of interactions community members share, and certain ideologies, discourses, and fictions are rewarded while others are disciplined. In some cases, fans set up sites specifically designed to celebrate specific pairings or content. Laudatory reviews, ongoing suggestions, or derogatory "flames" not only shape the publication and development of individual fan fictions, but also shape writing experience and the norms and expectations of any given virtual community. These complex relationships shape fan fiction communities and the subjects who engage with them in a variety of ways.

[3.2] As they take on the roles of producers, consumers, and experts, fans challenge many ideas related to power, submission, gender, and sexuality, but they take up such loaded notions with a playful sense of joie de vivre. Bakhtin's (1986) notions of carnival, like Derrida's of play, hinge on the idea of minute spaces of freedom and resistance existing within larger, often restrictive hierarchies and power relations. Existing social structures such as gender roles or a culture of consumerism serve as a springboard: when fools become kings, revelers freely exchange gender and class, and so fan sites can become spaces for a sort of cybercarnival. Such play is not accidental; instead, it consciously interrogates the normal: Derrida (1978) explained play itself as a sort of borderland between what is accepted and normalized and the elements that challenge it. Put another way, to engage in carnival is not to set up any sort of binary but to interrogate and blur those that already exist. This ability to play, the desire to seek out or create tiny spaces for questioning and resistance, keeps discourses—and people—vital and fluid, always already in motion.

[3.3] There are numerous ways fan fiction and fan communities channel some of the energy and possibilities inherent in carnivalesque play. The fluid, interactive nature of fan fiction writing exhibits features of Bakhtin's (1986) description of carnival, the festive period when orthodoxy and hierarchy are questioned and inverted. While fan fiction might not initially seem subversive, there are certainly ways in which it challenges authoritarian forces. In this sense, there are ways fan fiction manifests the energy and chaos of Bakhtinian carnival. Through slash pairings, an interweaving of vampirism and sexuality, and innuendo-laden language, fans push against mainstream discourses. For instance, fan fics such as Hayley128's "The Meaning of Dreams" can rewrite key aspects of the original texts and reenvision the characters in provocative ways. This particular fic, based on the third season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, changes the story line by portraying Faith as noble and virtuous rather than as a traitor, and Buffy and Faith are presented as a romantic couple in this sensual passage:

[3.4] Kissing led to hands moving as Faith pulled Buffy more on top of her. She knew she should tell her she needed to get ready and start packing but she was too caught up in the moment. Faith knew her body so well, enough that she knew just how to touch her to keep her from stopping what they were doing.

[3.5] Fan fiction opens a space for play as fans claim ownership and authority over a given fandom. As they simultaneously produce and consume texts, fan fiction writers defy the production/consumption binary; as they (re)envision characters' sexuality or take up societal notions like the "good girl" or "bad girl," fans make it clear that their opinions are of social significance, and when they choose to resist hegemonic ideals surrounding sex or femininity, their play has a serious purpose. Lensmire (2000) explained Bakhtin labeled this "antiofficial current in the Carnival sea" profanation because it finds expression in heresies, parodies, and obscenities that "sound in the Carnival square" (11). These discourses of risk, which challenge the status quo, often center on issues surrounding the body, gender, and power. Fan fiction writers use the medium to overturn hierarchical structures such as publishers, studios, or even "right" ways of writing; they also infuse their fics with sexuality and point to ways physicality, sex, and power affect them so that authority figures—be they professionals or industry moguls—begin to wonder just how "safe" such a "playful" medium can be.

[3.6] As fans perform and write from the relative anonymity of their computers, fan sites can take on the mysterious, evocative air of a masquerade; like dancers behind elegant Venetian masks, fans can assume identities and roles that have little to do with their workaday lives. But as play replaces order, it is not simply a time for relaxation; it is a time for social critique. Nothing is static, and the only stable variable is the unsettling of texts. While traditional carnivals feature elements such as cross-dressing or the use of spoons and pots for scepters and crowns, fan fiction writers build worlds of alterity and fluidity through language itself (Green and Guinery 2004; Thomas 2006). This process of reenvisioning the world around them allows fans to resist and deconstruct elements of their everyday lives.

[3.7] The resistance of carnival is intricately and inevitably linked to the restrictive structures of society itself; in this sense, it functions as a sort of pressure release valve. Even though carnival offers glimpses of anarchy and revolution, the temporary relief its celebrants find can enable—or constrain—them to subscribe to the existing order once the holiday has passed. In other words, the bacchanalia of Mardi Gras would be meaningless and impossible apart from the austerity of Lent; but even as Ash Wednesday dawns and official, sanctioned discourses of state and religion once again seem pervasive, the questions and critiques of carnival echo in significant ways. That is why the voices of authority, be they government or religious agents, have sought to restrain and curb carnival's influence throughout the ages. As McWilliam (2000, 168) puts it, "Carnival in the feudal order of things was a temporal space in which it became possible to indulge the appetites and at the same time parody the practices of officialdom." There is always something subversive, critical, and dangerous about carnival, and the frivolity of carnival can lead to very real consequences. The fear about carnival, about play, is that it might get out of hand, that its participants will refuse to quietly adhere to the hegemonic discourses that provide the impetus—and tightly limited space—for carnival's frivolity.

4. Hegemony and resistance

[4.1] By adding to or changing the story lines of existing texts, fan fiction writers challenge established views of literature permeated in mainstream society. First, they challenge the idea that authors create, own, and control their work exclusively. This notion of authorial omnipotence is a relatively recent phenomenon. Until the 18th century, there were no legal licensures or copyright acknowledgments at all, and the claim an author could, or should, control her intellectual property was simply unheard of (Pugh 2005, 15). Even as authors become increasingly possessive of their work and its use, readers continue to clamor for more of, and more from, the texts they encounter. Instead of allowing authors to control or experts to explain the texts, fan fiction writers join in the conversation directly. They position themselves as writers, not as imitators, and they develop followings and fans of their own (Thomas 2007; Black 2008). In other words, these fans upturn the writer-producer/reader-consumer dichotomy persuasive in much of the current atmosphere surrounding texts.

[4.2] Even as some fans become increasingly critical of the status quo of consumer culture by publicly challenging producers and story lines (Keft-Kennedy 2008), there can be little doubt that fans likewise partake in and support the commercial franchises that spring from popular novels, television series, and movies. This convergence leads to conflict and uneasy relationships between the entertainment industry and its consumer base: while entertained audiences are fine and profitable, many writers and producers are uncomfortable with fans who are too vocal, too demanding, too critical, and too possessive (Jenkins 2006). In other words, the studios, the industrial Powers That Be might encourage the commercial benefits and free publicity associated with fandom, but they worry this enthusiasm, this play and resulting cybercarnival, might go too far. What if enthusiastic fans were to undermine the industry that first inspired them? In fact, fan culture supports an oddly affectionate critical stance in which they critique the producers and executives who seek to control these stories even as they proclaim loyalty and emotional investment to the characters and stories themselves. And, unlike traditional sites of carnival, fan sites are not bound by the dates of a specific festival. At the same time, even though fans express vocal resistance to attempts among producers or authors to control the discourse completely, their allegiance to source texts means they cannot simply tear themselves away from the industry, so there is an inevitable entrenchment within the hegemonic, commercial discourses.

[4.3] The discourses of fan fiction writers and communities function in diverse, multifaceted ways. Drawing from Bakhtin's emphasis on the liberation of carnival and Foucault's focus on normalizing discourses that work to control populations, McWilliam (2000) explains that discourses of risk, which interrogate uncomfortable topics such as power, gender, and sexuality, are ways of resisting or subverting normalizing, unitary forces: "Discourses of risk do not arise from appeals to pluralism of the 'let-all-voices-speak' kind, nor from any other appeal to authenticity—or indeed, to popular fiction. They protrude to unsettle and disorder" (170). In other words, when fan fiction writers take up discourses of risk, they express dissatisfaction with mainstream ideologies and conventions and essentially resist the thinkings found in the original text. In thinking about fan fiction based on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, these discourses of risk take many forms: while some fans might resist conventional notions of text ownership, others might highlight latent sexual elements within the series, and still others work to (re)define characters like Buffy or Faith in accordance with their own—sometimes conflicted—notions of femininity.

[4.4] While such resistance is possible, it is far from inevitable. In fact, many fan fiction sites actively promote hegemonic discourses, which support conventional notions of the primacy of authorial intent and reenforce stereotypical notions of gender and power (Scodari 2003; Currie, Kelly, and Pomerantz 2006). In short, if a fan fiction writer produces a work that offends the sensibilities of the community or its leaders, that piece will not be published, and there will be pressure for the writer to either conform to the community's ideologies or go elsewhere. Since this is the case, one of the most intriguing queries surrounding fan fiction is that of resistance. Even as some fan communities openly challenge widespread societal discourses regarding texts, gender, sexuality, and power, some writers consciously transgress the conventions within more canonical communities. With these issues in mind, it seems that some fans are more willing than others to experiment with ideologically loaded, risky discourses.

5. Embodying discourses of risk

[5.1] In numerous ways, living in virtual worlds carries with it some of the same complexities and dangers as other realities. Foucault (1990) pointed out multiple discourses can converge within the same discursive system, so competing ideas and ideologies are far from rare. Discourses related to class, sexuality, religion, politics, and gender entwine in countless ways. In examining some of the resistance and hegemony at play within fan fiction, bodies, gender, and power contribute to these discourses of vulnerability and risk. As fan fiction writers tease out these issues, they not only craft stories, but also craft and perform themselves in the process (Bakhtin 1986; Butler 1990; Finders 1997; McWilliam 2000; Thomas 2007). While fan fiction draws from and creates numerous discourses, it incorporates and hones several carnivalesque discourses of risk that trouble the status quo. These include discourses of the body, gender, and power.

[5.2] These difficult navigations demonstrate Foucault's (1990) notions of power: these various groups are inextricably linked, and while professional authors and industry producers might struggle as to who controls a story, fans also clamor for ownership and influence. Whedon and his writers promoted, and continue to foster, a sense of dialogue and openness to fan interpretations (Adams 2003; Busse 2002). While some argue that Faith's producers vilify and then subjugate Faith along hegemonic notions of femininity, the nature of Whedon's relationship to the fan base sanctions writers to take up her story in a variety of ways (Keft-Kennedy 2008; Isaksson 2010). In this instance, it is clear to see that power ripples along both official and unofficial channels because "where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power" (Foucault 1990, 95).

[5.3] The textured interplays of power relations are not limited to conflicts between fans and the industry. Fandom is anything but monolithic or unified. In thinking about ways in which online communities encourage dialogue among various kinds of fans, Thomas (2007, 106) pointed out the dynamics of online communities offer "a unique opportunity to reconfigure and transform identities, so much that all the usual markers of identity (age, gender, race class) can be disrupted." Fans can interact with one another without the constraints that manifest themselves in other social environments (Jenkins 2006; Scodari 2003; Gwenllian Jones 2002). Ideally, then, people from diverse socioeconomic groups, races, and ideological affiliations are drawn together because of a common interest, and within this space, "carnival participants take up new relations with the world around them, but also with their world" (Lensmire 2000, 10).

[5.4] Are such relationships so free and idyllic, though? Because fans are seeking to develop themselves as subjects, they consciously choose which aspects of themselves to reveal; gender, class, and social roles are especially fluid online. One question prompting this study was one of subjectivity. Butler's (1990) notion of performativity takes up the idea we perform different aspects of the self, and these performances, these enactments, are based both on the way individual's wish to see themselves and the ways they wish to be perceived by others. Butler also discussed the idea of parody: "In imitating gender, drag implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself—as well as its contingency" (Butler 1990, 187; italics in original). Fans writings about gender can be parodic when they switch gender roles and performances, making the presentation of gender more about performance and politics.

[5.5] In thinking about fans' writing as performance, Coppa (2006) urged theorists to compare fan fiction with theater: both rely on the audience's extratextual knowledge, and "far from being a sacred text, a play's script is more like a blueprint for a production—a thing used to make another thing" (237). No theatrical experience can be replicated from one performance to the next, and each actor can choose how closely to follow the script or when to improvise. Just as audiences can encourage playwrights to change elements of the drama before the next performance, bloggers can either praise or flame pieces since fan fictions are generally posted in installments. Audience, then, is a crucial aspect of this complex process. As fan fiction writers respond to the discourses around them, they choose to accept, reject, or trouble various ideals of femininity and masculinity, attractiveness, romance and sexuality, class and power. Just as carnival revelers critique and mock the social order without the risk of condemnation or punishment, fan fiction writers can twist and reshape characters, themes, and worlds without completely upturning their normal lives (Scodari 2003). Likewise, fan fiction writing can be envisioned as "an actualization of latent textual elements" (Gwenllian Jones 2002, 82), in which case fans find an outlet for their own explorations and creativity. But while fan fiction writing provides discourses that can help participants gain a new, richer perspective on socially constructed worlds, there are underlying expectations and assumptions within these fan communities regarding which subject positions and ideologies are embraced and which are rejected. Thus, the fan spaces themselves serve to regulate subjects and discourses; fan fiction writers, like all performers, play for their specific audiences.

[5.6] In envisioning fan fiction writers as carnivalesque revelers, we find that physicality and sexuality take on numerous dimensions. Chat rooms, Web sites, blogs, and portals have become contested spaces in the long-running Enlightenment notion of the mind/body binary. After all, if any space can be described as purely intellectual, wouldn't it be found online? Bury (2005) pointed out how initially scholars envisioned the Internet as an egalitarian space where gender, class, race, and other markers would be invisible; in other words, it would be a space where thoughts would reign supreme, where people would benefit from a process of "disembodiment" (4). While Descartes would have lauded such a vision as the rational triumph of the intellect, Butler (1990) warned us "the ontological distinction between soul (consciousness, mind) and body invariably supports relations of political and psychic subordination and hierarchy" (12). It can come as no surprise, then, that the lived experience of people online has been far messier, tangled, and complex. Thomas (2007) explained the visual, interactive nature of the Web provides "a site for the cultural production of a new type of body" (3). This "new type of body" encountered in fan fiction, which is largely written and developed by adolescent girls, draws from particular discourses of femininity, "some of which conform to Western ideals of beauty and girlhood; others reflect notions of resistance and rebellion" (Thomas 2007, 3). The fans who gain and wield power online are those who use and manipulate words, images, and technology to create bodies and selves through writing. As fan fiction writers construct themselves and one another, the body is always part of the discourse. While fan fiction allows writers the power to author an identity (Bakhtin 1981) and to examine their own notions of romance, physicality, and sexuality, it does not promise an easy journey; fans might find themselves flamed off a site because of negative reviews, their work might not even be published at all, or they could simply find themselves asking a series of questions with no easy answers.

6. Taking a bite out of Buffy

[6.1] After examining some of the ways in which fan fiction writers engage in discourses of gender and the body in a general way, examining a particular instance of hegemony and risk at work can be especially useful. From its debut in 1997, Buffy the Vampire Slayer enjoyed enormous fan support and continues to spark discussion and writing online and, increasingly, in the academy (Scholzman 2000; Buttsworth 2002; Isaksson 2010; Tomlinson 2004). While the notion of an adolescent female who is hailed as "the Chosen One" and destined to slay vampires, demons, and other dark, supernatural creatures seems to disrupt many of our society's notions of docile femininity, the show's protagonist, Buffy Summers, exhibits discipline, restraint, obedience, and selfless devotion to others—even though such dedication actually forces her to make the ultimate sacrifice (Tomlinson 2004). But while Buffy remains a contradiction of sorts, the character of Faith, a fellow slayer who debuts in the third season of the series, is clearly portrayed as the bad girl, as the rough-and-tumble figure who actually enjoys fighting, flaunts her physical strength, and openly places herself outside of society's conventions. While numerous scholars, such as Tjardes (2003), argue that Faith's sensuality adds to the resistant discourses of the series, there are also hegemonic elements that appear as fans juxtapose the two slayers. Buffy, the blonde, middle-class girl who makes her home in Sunnydale, California, is surrounded by friends and allies who encourage her altruistic, heroic nature. But Faith, the working-class, dark-haired daughter of an abusive alcoholic, embodies the swagger, independence, and isolation of a runaway from the cold streets of Boston. As the series unfolds, viewers watch as the rebellious Faith becomes a murderer, betrays Buffy and their shared altruistic calling, and spirals toward decadence and violence. Faith's resentment of Buffy's caring mother, devoted watcher, loyal friends, and loving boyfriend comes to a head when she attempts to torture and kill her; Faith's taunting seethes with bitterness: "You know, I come to Sunnydale. I'm the Slayer. I do my job kicking ass better than anyone. What do I hear about everywhere I go? Buffy. So I slay, I behave, I do the good little girl routine. And who's everybody thank? Buffy" (3.51 "Enemies"). Later, the show's writers bring the fallen slayer back into the fold: through a series of painful, epic events including a coma, exchanging bodies with the idealized Buffy, and serving jail time for her crimes, Faith becomes a redemptive, nuanced figure whose complicated, contradictory nature fascinates fans.

[6.2] Among the ways fans engage in carnivalesque play is their fascination with overt, explicit sexuality. For all sorts of reasons, Faith, the "bad girl," becomes a site of contestation and fascination. Hero and traitor, savior and seductress, Faith blurs the lines and seems to walk a borderland between darkness and light. The series highlighted her nonnormative, aggressive sensuality; fans are drawn to her rebellious, openly sexual nature. In one particularly memorable episode, as she seduced Xander, a member of Buffy's inner circle, she asked if he wanted "vanilla or kinks" as she pushed him onto the bed (3.15 "Consequences"). She has experienced both worlds, sexually and otherwise, and can navigate them easily, but on the series, her audacious behavior is censured and eventually domesticated. Still, fans are drawn to the ways Faith challenges traditional notions of femininity. Isaksson (2010, 8) explained, "On superficial levels kinky and violent sex is marked as unhealthy in the canon. At the same time, there is an insistence on portraying attire and scenes associated with kinks in visually pleasurable, or at least ambiguous, ways." Within the original series, Faith is a dark antiheroine, both saint and sinner. Fans seize upon this ambiguity, and the ways they portray and interpret Faith's complexities speak to the tension between hegemonic and resistant discourses of femininity that collide and conflate online.

[6.3] Upon perusing Faith-centered fan fictions on sites including,,, and (Twisting the Hellmouth), it becomes apparent that fans are fascinated by Faith's unhappy childhood and her repentant, restrained manifestation in the show's final season. The specific examples that follow illustrate fans wrestling with discourses of class, sexuality, and femininity as they accept, resist, and produce alternate versions of season 3. While a number of stories on mainstream sites like feature romantic pairings with Xander, Wesley, Giles, and Buffy, they feature a softer, gentler Faith, and very few stories focus on Faith's wilder, more rebellious phases.

[6.4] By examining Faith's issue-laden childhood where she grew up in a poor Boston neighborhood with an alcoholic single mother, these fans seem eager to explain or justify Faith's misbehavior as a product of her class and background. After all, a girl who is "raised right" would never use sexuality or violence, and she certainly would not exploit others in order to revel in her own sense of power. When her past is mentioned, it is with regret and grief. In Jinxgirl's fic "Anymore" (2010a), for example, not only are we reminded of Faith's abusive childhood, but we see her reaction to her mother's death:

[6.5] In that moment as Faith stared without seeing at her mother's dead form, she could not see her drunken, her lips twisted into a sneer, her eyes glittering with malice. She could not see her upraised fist, swinging in an arch into her face, could not hear her voice raising as she told her that she was worthless, that she wished that she had never been born. What came to her mind was her mother's smile as she reached to gently tuck her hair behind her ear, the genuine tenderness in her voice as she called Faith her Firecracker.

[6.6] Such poignant speculations about Faith's childhood, including allegations of physical and sexual abuse, abject poverty, and shattering grief, serve a number of purposes. On the one hand, they celebrate Faith's strength and experience and establish her as a survivor. On the other, they seek to justify or excuse her "bad girl" persona: with such a dark history, how could she be the radiant, pure hero that Buffy is? Even amid grief, though, we can see traces of a carnivalesque buoyancy, of hope and of play. Whether as ally or enemy, heroine or antiheroine, Faith proves herself to be anything but worthless; she is always a force to be reckoned with. And anyone with a passing knowledge of the series, much less a die-hard fan, can't help but smile at her mother's endearment—even as a child, Faith was a firecracker. Few monikers could be as apt.

[6.7] There are also sites like that focus on the wilder, more sexual side of Faith. Many of these fall into the realm of femslash, stories that revolve around a female romantic couple (Gwenllian Jones 2002; Isaksson 2010). Not only do fan fiction writers revel in sexuality through these fics, but they also overturn hegemonic discourses of femininity by pairing two powerful, desirable women. On these sites, we often see Faith take a dominant role as she and Buffy pursue romance; many of these fics depict Buffy as reluctant to engage in a lesbian relationship, while Faith—often aggressively—takes the lead. "The Reckoning," for example, is a fic that opens with Faith throwing out brazen entendres that eventually lead to a sexual relationship:

[6.8] "Disappointed that a non-fat yogurt ain't gonna sate those cravings ya got?" Faith winked as she ran a little to get away from Buffy before the punch to her shoulder came. "Just sayin' how it is, B! And you should know by now there's plenty of other ways to get rid of that…" She trailed off and paused for a moment as Buffy glared at her. "Frustration," she finished with a laugh and took off running as Buffy came after her. (Invalid-reality 2011)

[6.9] Faith, who cares far less what others think than Buffy, the "good girl," has no hesitation in satisfying those cravings that "a non-fat yogurt ain't gonna sate." When Faith crosses into kink, she owns her desires in bold ways, and some fans seem to admire such openness. In a society where slash itself disrupts conventional views of femininity, Faith's frank sexuality invites fans to take part in a kind of carnival where pleasure is anything but taboo.

[6.10] Even within the racy discourses of slash, which offer an alternative to mainstream notions of domesticity and seem to embrace the fantasy and unconventional content of stories built on magic and myth (Gwenllian Jones 2002), fans seem conflicted about the Faith/Buffy relationship. While these fics seize on latent tension within the original series and celebrate the coming together of two powerful women, there seems to be a need to explain away the relationship and to justify its existence. In Dylan's "The Into Series" (2010), which focuses on the evolution of a romance between Faith and Buffy, we see that the undeniable, even tangible bond between slayers virtually compels the relationship, and Buffy feels the need to rely on such justification: "'I can feel what you're feeling, Faith,' Buffy says, making sure her voice is low and quiet. 'I don't know what I think of it, or exactly what it means, but I feel it.'" This connection, this empathy, provides a kind of safety net to fans who would explore and examine such relationships even as they find themselves uncomfortable or fear others' reactions. In other words, even fans who would resist hegemonic notions of femininity or sexuality can find themselves compelled to defend or soften such a choice.

[6.11] Just as some fans seek to tone down or explain away Faith's openly sexual nature, many of the angst-ridden and romantic fan fictions that center around Faith tend to portray her as vulnerable, fragile, and desperate for acceptance. Many fans portray her as the outcast who desperately yearns for a father figure, the antiheroine who craves her own destruction, or the girl who desperately wants someone to see beneath the tough facade. The fic "Human Weakness" (Jinxgirl 2010b), for example, traces her descent into murder and betrayal: "She wanted Buffy to hurt, to suffer, to feel the pain and loss that Faith always had harbored in her own heart. She wanted her to finally have to acknowledge her, to have to acknowledge that Faith meant something to her, if only as an object of hatred." This desire to matter, to connect—at any cost—is a character trait that fans seize upon in their writing. But while this is certainly one facet of her story's arc (Tomlinson 2004), pieces that explore possible romantic relationships for this former rebel tend to emphasize her need for love and downplay her strength and courage.

[6.12] Faith's effort to attain redemption and wholeness resonate with fans, but few of them envision her settling down to life in suburbia. In Apckrfan's 2007 fic "I Need a Minute of Play," we see a pairing between Faith and the antihero Spike, and we see their growing emotional closeness. Spike reflects on her evolution: "No one gave her credit for working as hard as she did. Doing penance was a terrible thing. Or wonderful, depending on how you looked at it." Even as the writer explores Faith's angst over her past, the interplay with sex, violence, and intimacy are omnipresent: after returning from a drag show, Faith suggests that Spike feed as they have sex. After all, if blood and sex are both turn-ons, "put the two together and I bet we'd be in for a wicked good time." This fleshy, steamy, playful writing opens up spaces to fantasize, explore, and disrupt mainstream notions.

[6.13] Even though fans often focus on Faith's overt sexuality, rebellious attitude, and defiant femininity, they seem to be more comfortable exploring issues that might have contributed to Faith's fall or celebrating her redemption—the notion of a dark slayer who relishes the raw physicality of the fight often proves too murky. As Foucault said, "What I wanted to try to show was how the subject constituted itself, in one specific form or another, as a mad or a healthy subject, as a delinquent subject, through certain practices that were also games of truth, practices of power, and so on" (1997, 290). In this case, the producers originally constituted Faith; then the viewers, in the form of fan fiction writers, took over and reconstituted her in their own stories. As fans engage in the play of carnival, they probe societal notions of femininity and virtue; they even work to push and reshape those boundaries. Yet they refrain from outright rebellion; their irreverence is confined to a particular space. Still, the potential of carnival should not be dismissed: fans exerted their power over the stories they viewed on television and rewrote them to fit into their own truths. In other words, when Faith is categorized as a psychotic bitch or as a tormented victim of abuse, various strategies of dismissal and of power are deployed.

[6.14] Just as the show's producers introduce Faith as a complex, tortured figure who revels in bitchiness and transform her into a more docile, responsible caregiver in later seasons, fan fiction writers also reinvent and reenvision her character with each click of the mouse. The agency of the fan fiction writers is demonstrated as they recreate Faith over and over. "That the subject is that which must be constituted again and again implies that it is open to formations that are not fully constrained in advance" (Butler 1995, 135). The producers created Faith as a binary to Buffy, and then the fan fiction writers took over her character in their writings and reconstructed her into their idea of an aggressive, sexualized, predatory, and practically vampirelike femininity.

7. Conclusion

[7.1] The entertainment garnered by the writing and telling of these new stories reflects Bahktin's thoughts: "Our speech, that is, all our utterances (including creative works), is filled with others' words, varying degrees of otherness or varying degrees of 'our-own-ness,' varying degrees of awareness and detachment. These words of others carry with them their own expression, their own evaluative tone, which we assimilate, rework, and re-accentuate" (1986, 89). Fans respond to original texts, to one another, and to the discourses that normalize and resist social issues such as power, gender, and sexuality. To put it another way, the creative responses fan fiction writers produce to characters like Faith not only reflect an awareness of the show or the official characterization, but also reflect ways in which the discourses of gender identity shape entertainment and culture and thus contribute to the construction of the subject.

[7.2] Carnival, with its profanation and resistance, simultaneously recognizes and responds to the expectations of The Powers That Be. There is nothing simple about such irreverence, and we have seen ways in which fans perform as both "good" and "bad" girls as they explore, revel, and censure defiant female characters such as Faith. The delicate, complex interplay of hegemonic discourses of power and the discourses that would resist overly simplified notions of consumerism and textual ownership or contested constructs like sexuality and femininity will continue to garner the interest of scholars. After all, there is much to be gleaned about both hegemonic and resistant forces when we examine spaces—like fan fiction sites—where these forces collide and conflate.

8. Acknowledgments

[8.1] Many thanks to the fans who generously allowed us to share and discuss their work. Their enthusiasm, creativity, and artistry allow all of us moments of carnival.

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