by Tereza Walsbergerová
Watching a film or a TV show, listening to a podcast, or reading a book, every once in awhile there comes a
point when one thinks, “dang, I wonder if any character in this will ever look, feel or act like me.”. At that point, many turn to fanfiction – a great source of elaborate studies of minor and supporting characters as well as alternative scenarios or additional narratives that never “made it” into the original work. Often in tandem with fanfiction, one may also encounter fanart – certainly a more conspicuous kind of online fan participation. Not only is fanart more accessible to those who do not want to spend their evenings reading pages of text, but due to its visual character it has much bigger potential of becoming a special kind of sociopolitical activist tool by raising awareness about representation and diversity amongst fans of all ages from all over the world. This article focuses on this specific role of fanart by introducing three different artists and their works within three different American fandoms.
Active or activist fan(art) participation
According to Fanlore, a multi-author website containing the history and terminology of all things fandom, “the word ‘fanart’ means any amateur art for a specific TV show, movie, book, or other media event not owned or created by the artist.” This may include not only the most common art forms, like drawings and paintings (both with the use of traditional and digital media), but also graphic design and edits, photo-manipulations, gifs and gif sets, or even knitting, crocheting, and cosplay. Some may falsely assume that fans of a particular work are creating “mere” illustrations – especially when it comes to predominantly book-based fandoms such as Harry Potter. That is often not the case. Rather (and similarly to fanfiction), fanartists create their art in order to “fill in gaps” in the canon (i.e. the original work), fix those pieces of the canon that they may dislike, or even create alternative looks for certain characters.
Some may falsely assume that fans of a particular work are creating “mere” illustrations – especially when it comes to predominantly book-based fandoms such as Harry Potter.
When then, does an artist cease to be simply an active participant in a fandom and become an activist? According to Melissa M. Brough and Sangita Shresthova’s article “Fandom Meets Activism: Rethinking Civic and Political Participation”, the term fan activism is “used broadly to incorporate the range of intentional actions by fans, or the use of fanlike strategies, to provoke change”. Of course, not all fandoms are inherently political and some may never become political, which is why not all fan(art) activity can necessarily be considered activist. Many fandoms, however, do have that kind of potential as “fan communities often form around content worlds that may not be explicitly political in nature, but that can offer resources or spaces for political engagement.”
Going back to Brough and Shresthova’s definition of fan activism, it is necessary to address the word “intentional”. While the consumers of fanart (i.e. other members of a particular fandom) might feel mobilised or empowered by a piece, its author may have not necessarily intended to create a work that is sociopolitical. The question then is, should this kind of activity be still considered activist? According to Brough and Shresthova, “the political significance [of fan participation] lies in part in the changes in relations of power that may occur through [it]”, so it can be said that as long as there is a shift of power there (no matter whether it finally ends up in the hands of the artist or the recipient of the art), the work is in fact activist.
Of course, not all fandoms are inherently political and some may never become political, which is why not all fan(art) activity can necessarily be considered activist.
All in all, fanart definitely occupies a special place within fan activism as it is capable of gently provoking change or at least raising important points about representation and diversity by directly appealing to the audience’s fondness for certain characters as well as its aesthetic sensibilities.
POC beauty, genderless fashion, and queer love
Jay “Tacogrande” is an artist from New Jersey who describes herself as a lover of (amongst other things) dogs, gore, 80s aesthetic, Donna Summer, and musicals. She has created fanart for many different fandoms, including Steven Universe, Supernatural, and the Jonas Brothers. Besides being an avid fanartist, Jay frequently posts sketches of her original work and also offers the option of commissioned art on her blog. Some of the most prominent features of Jay’s art are her colour palettes, which often feature daring shades from the 80s and 90s as well as bold lines and almost mystical lighting in some cases which adds yet another dimension to the already stimulating nature of her works.
Jay’s pieces can also be seen as tiny yet thought-provoking acts of activism. In recent years, she has created the most art in the Glee fandom (centered around the 2009–2015 musical TV series Glee), where she has predominantly focused on Mercedes Jones, Kurt Hummel, Blaine Anderson, and Santana Lopez – all characters that belong to one or more minorities that have been historically underrepresented in mainstream media.
Kurt Hummel and Blaine Anderson, an audience-favourite couple in the series, also belong to Jay’s favourite subjects – both as separate characters and as a duo. Kurt (Chris Colfer), often depicted on Glee as borderline gender-fluid, has debatably lost most of the more flamboyant fashion choices which reflected this in the last two seasons of the show, which may be why Jay has chosen to underline all of this in her works. With Blaine (Darren Criss), who has been “whitewashed” for the majority of the show, she has opted to celebrate his Filipino heritage as well as depict his body as one that does not conform to the mainstream ideal of “maleness” by stressing the beauty of his “pudge”. Most importantly, she has highlighted the joy connected to being queer and experiencing queer love in her art – a concept that is often lacking in shows featuring such characters.
While Kurt and Blaine at least rank among the most often featured characters of the series, Mercedes Jones (Amber Riley) and Santana Lopez (Naya Rivera) – both female characters of colour – have been given considerably less screentime and musical numbers, which has visibly served as motivation for Jay to create more art with them. In the case of Mercedes Jones, her art has mainly focused on highlighting the beauty of black women, natural hair, and curvy bodies. The further exploration of Santana’s character through Jay’s art has then been concerned with her homosexuality, her Latina ethnicity, and her “snarky” nature – all, more often than not, portrayed as negative or stereotypical on the show, which can be certainly seen as problematic.
“Genderswapping” a man’s world
Kiki “Kikistiel” is an artist notoriously known on Tumblr for her Supernatural fanart (art centered around the ongoing action/adventure TV series Supernatural). Although she does not participate in SPN fandom quite as much these days, other fans are not likely to ever forget her “genderswap AU” project where “genderswap” stands for the switching of both gender and biological sex of canonically male characters to female (or the other way around) and “AU” stands for an “alternative universe” version of the show.
Although the power of genderswap as a form of activism is perhaps not as obvious as it may be with other kinds of activist fanart, it does hold a great potential when it comes to raising awareness about female representation in the media.
“Genderswapping” is certainly not a new kind of activity; Fanlore, for instance, lists fanfiction using genderswap as a trope written in 1995. While both the term and the activity can be seen as controversial and problematic due to its assumption that gender is binary and its complicated implications for trans stories when it is not specified that it is both gender and biological sex that change, it still holds its place in the fandom and recently found its way even into mainstream television (e.g. the TV series Elementary based on A. C. Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes which features a female Watson portrayed by Lucy Liu).
Although the power of genderswap as a form of activism is perhaps not as obvious as it may be with other kinds of activist fanart, it does hold a great potential when it comes to raising awareness about female representation in the media. With a show like Supernatural, where an overwhelming majority of the characters (including the three leads: Sam and Dean Winchesters and the angel Castiel) are male, changing their gender and sex without changing any of their core characteristics or the seemingly masculine universe of the show – full of blood, guns, muscle cars, and scary monsters – can make one think about gender stereotypes and gender-related expectations.
Depicting these characters as female in such a male-dominated genre may certainly feel empowering to not only female fans of the show, but to anyone who does not necessarily identify as a straight male. This is
because Kiki has also created fanart within her project that celebrates the fan-fabricated “ships” (relationships) of the show, especially “Destiel” (Dean + Castiel, or in this case Deanna + Castiel in a female vessel) by which she has filled the gap of female queer representation in the Supernatural fandom following the demise of fan-favourite lesbian character Charlie Bradbury (Felicia Day). Kiki’s own activity in the Supernatural fandom also partly inspired her online webcomic Idolon, which also features lesbian characters.
The curious case of Cecil Palmer’s ethnicity
Even though the popular ongoing American horror podcast Welcome to Night Vale is perhaps one of the most diverse projects out there (the main character is queer, his husband is Latino, and many of the important characters are non-male and non-straight), there is certainly still space for even more
representation, which is where fandom comes in.
The character of Cecil Palmer (in the podcast voiced by Cecil Baldwin, who is white) is then perhaps the most interesting in this regard, as it is never explicitly stated in the show what he looks like. The question of his appearance has thus been the subject of many discussions and even disputes online.
One of the WtNV voice actors, Kevin R. Free, who portrays the character of Kevin (who is Cecil’s double and thus looks exactly the same), has even made a post on Tumblr, in which he comments on this controversy in relation to the fact that many fanartists choose to portray Cecil and Kevin as white simply because we live in a world “that makes characters white just because that’s what is the first thing that comes to mind when characters aren’t identified racially.” While he is certainly not trying to convey that depicting these characters as white is inherently wrong, it does raise an important point about the “white default” just as Kiki’s art raises points about male-centredness and heteronormativity and Jay’s art raises points about whitewashing and body-negativity.
Disputes and problematic or racist depictions aside, the vague description of Cecil in the podcast has lead to a myriad of different portrayals of the character in fanart, often connected to the artists’ own ethnicity and identity, which has arguably lead to even bigger volume of diversity than there could ever be had
Cecil’s ethnicity been disclosed. Therefore, one may encounter Cecil portrayed as Native American, African American, East Asian, South Asian, a person with albinism, and many different combinations and variations of skin-tones and ethnicities (or even species, as some believe he may not even be actually human).
Japh “Japhers” is a Filipino artist who has decided to specifically draw Cecil as Filipino. Thanks to that, there is now a version of Cecil in the fandom wearing a barong tagalog, sporting tattoos in Christianized Baybayin Script, speaking in the Cebuano language, or watching Filipino telenovelas. His art has even inspired others to create fanfiction working with a Filipino version of Night Vale, such as “Welcome to Tapiksilim” that has been sent to Japh by an anonymous fan. Besides his fanart and doodles, which he puts on Tumblr, Japh also has a blog where he publishes his more “serious art” and illustrations and which also features many Filipino elements.
Essentially, Japh’s Filipino Cecil fanart can be described as a celebration of pieces of Filipino culture that many fans of the show would not even know about or recognise. Additionally, it can also serve as a way of representation for other Filipino fans of the podcast who so seldom see themselves in American mainstream media.
What is the next step?
The conspicuous and eye-catching nature of fanart definitely makes it more accessible within fandoms, perhaps also because it is not as blunt as activist texts on Tumblr (often referred to as “social justice warrior posts”) or manifestos, but rather subtly helps shape people’s opinions by offering viable thought-provoking alternatives. The question of whether that will lead to any actual changes in the society outside of fandoms still stands, however.
One possible way that this might be achieved in the future is through social media, such as Facebook or Twitter, where the celebrities who portray some of these characters have the opportunity to share fanart or post hyperlinks to blogs of various fanartists not only with those who are in the fandom but also with casual (or general) audience that does not usually come into contact with it.
Fanart activism is a valid way of spreading awareness about representation and diversity, which are both still objectively lacking in mainstream literature, film, and television. Only time will tell whether it will have any lasting influence.
Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans & Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992. Print.
Jenkins, Henry, and Sangita Shresthova, editors. Transformative Works and Fan Activism. Transformative Works and Cultures, vol. 10, 2012. Web.