Dr Parinita Shetty

Restorying Imaginations with Multimodal SFF and Fan Counternarratives

An academic response to the third Future Voices of Scottish SF and Fantasy Network event, titled “Representations of Social Issues in SFF Worlds and Narratives”, and held online on 14 March 2023. Participants: Luci Holland, Gordon Johnstone, and Ellen Kushner, chaired by Ken MacLeod. More information about the event (including a link to the recording) can be found here.

Introduction

As writer Ellen Kushner points out in the Social Issues in SFF Worlds and Narratives panel, SFF media offers a shared and accessible language to “come at things sideways” by using a fictional framework to discuss real-world social, cultural and political issues. People’s backgrounds and political opinions not only play a role in the kinds of texts they write (like musician Gordon Johnstone’s sci-fi opera about the Scottish independence referendum) but also the ways in which they interpret the texts they love (like the hosts of fan podcast Woke Doctor Who proposing that the Doctor’s space-time adventures exemplify British imperialism).[1] Kushner’s own experiences result in her queernormative fictional worlds; something that’s done without much forethought, but that nevertheless brings forth a range of fascinating responses from the readers who fall in love with her work. The different ways in which audiences respond to texts highlight what issues most matter to them.

Counter-storytelling features the perspectives of groups which are underrepresented and/or marginalised in mainstream culture.[2][3] Below, I explore how fan responses to SFF media present multimodal counternarratives and an alternative source of knowledge to dominant narratives. Both SFF creators and fans find creative ways to tell and retell stories from different perspectives in order to highlight diverse cultures. Creative explorations of race, gender, sexuality and disability in media and fandom can help people look at stories and the world they reflect with fresh eyes. This can go on to influence their interactions with media, culture and society at large.

Alternative ways of seeing and being in the world

Media representations play an important role in building the canon of our imagination. Such representations can shape as well as restrict possibilities. As reflected in Ellen Kushner’s interactions with her readers, including underrepresented groups in SFF media can have a powerful impact on people from both marginalised and dominant cultures. Some audiences turn to online communities to extend the conversations beyond canon. By sharing these ideas across different media platforms, people create alternative public discourses that reflect diverse priorities and interests.[4][5]

Robert Shepherd, a Doctor Who fan, used the framework of the show’s characters and storylines to describe his own experiences with disability and ableism. Initially, he was extremely excited about the introduction of Ryan Sinclair, a then-recent companion on the TV show. Ryan shared Robert’s dyspraxia – a representation of his disability which Robert hadn’t encountered before. In response, he published an online essay that highlighted the powerful impact such representations can have. Robert used a fictional character from a popular TV show to emphasise to others – both those who share his dyspraxia and those who don’t – how revolutionary such representations could be:[1]

The everyday world can be a terrifying place for us anyway, but lord knows what the Whoniverse would be like: when dimensions can be even weirder than they are almost all the time, where the Daleks can handle the stairs and you’re afraid you’re about to fall down them […] It can feel an achievement and an adventure just getting through the day, but I want to know that we can have adventures, too: that the skills we have and the things we can achieve are more important than the things we’re always reminded are beyond us […] There are unspoken and unknown things that so many of us are going through. I want to see that this one can be overcome.[6]

Fan spaces provide a shared interest for people to gather around and expand the range of lives and experiences they encounter. Here, people’s different backgrounds, personal histories and frustrations offer fresh insights into diverse real-world identities. Exposure to a range of hitherto unfamiliar perspectives in such spaces can show people alternative perspectives of seeing and being in the world.

In the essay “The Future Is (Not) Disabled”, writer Marieke Nijkamp criticises the tendency of many futuristic worlds to erase disabilities out of the narrative altogether. Instead of imagining creative ways to improve accessibility for disabled bodies and brains, such stories use advanced technology to remove disabled people from visions of the future. Nijkamp explores some ways in which technology could be used to include rather than exclude. They invite SFF writers and audiences to consider disability as a different rather than deficient way of being that deserves to be included in future visions of society.[7]

Such counternarratives use the fictional framework to not only question the established norms of the fictional world but also use it as a gateway to discuss real-world structures. When people identify and question the default frameworks in their favourite media, their points draw attention to how these taken-for-granted ideas undergird social, cultural and political structures in the real world. People from both dominant and marginalised groups can learn from these new encounters and different viewpoints.[8][9][10]

Actively participating in such conversations isn’t the only way in which texts inform and expand people’s imaginations. Writers Ellen Kushner and Ken MacLeod both shared how the representations and ideas in their books had a concrete impact on some of their readers’ thinking. Researchers have found that some audiences appreciate revisiting their favourite media through other people’s interpretations and critiques. The collective and public discussions in different online spaces influence – and sometimes change – their opinions and help them develop new understandings in light of new information.[11][12]

Fan-created digital archives challenge existing cultural systems as groups on the margins of mainstream society rewrite dominant culture stories.[13] Stornaiuolo and Thomas term this fannish practice “restorying” i.e. fan responses to favourite texts which highlight marginalised perspectives in mainstream media and culture. They found that when fans restory existing narratives by inserting their own priorities and perspectives into their favourite media, such counternarratives can inspire people to imagine alternatives in the real world. They propose that restorying not only challenges inequalities of representation and exclusion of certain groups of people, but it also offers a way of promoting empathy, respect and understanding for diverse lived experiences.[14]

In her essay “How Change Happens”, writer Rebecca Solnit describes how the collaborative generation of ideas in different spaces and contexts can change people’s perceptions of whose lives matter and whose perspectives are privileged.[15] Florini studied the prolific podcasting habits of black Game of Thrones fans. Here, fans used the prism of black culture and language to engage with their favourite texts. This was a deliberate response to the erasure of black people and cultures in the Game of Thrones TV showas well as most mainstream SFF media in general. In the alternate fan spaces they created, blackness was normative.[16] Discovering such creative and critical discussions in the context of fandom can help unveil imbalanced power relationships and inform ideas about the politics of representation in both the fictional and real worlds.[17]

The internet offers these counternarratives a more widespread audience, which in turn can encourage others to imagine alternatives. The term racebending originated in the Avatar: The Last Airbender fandom. The term draws from the TV show’s magic system where characters can control different elements like fire, water, earth and air – a process known as bending. Many fans criticised the live-action remake of the original animated series for only casting one actor of colour, despite the fact that the show was steeped in Asian influences. They argued the remake should have featured more Asian actors and termed the practice of whitewashing as racebending.[18] Moreover, an increasing number of fans subverted this practice to transform canon. They started racebending canonically white characters by reimagining them as characters of colour in online fandoms. This kind of racebending is now a widespread fandom practice. Racebending is used to expand the diversity of the source text and to push back against the assumption that whiteness is default in Western media.[19][20]

A popular example of this can be witnessed in the Harry Potter fandom, where a significant number of fans interpret Hermione Granger as black.[21]As Fowler points out, in the series, the few characters of colour that do exist are explicitly identified whereas the race and ethnicity of others isn’t mentioned, thereby suggesting whiteness as default in the British magical world.[22] Through their restorying practices, fans offer alternate interpretations within a popular media landscape that frequently excludes them.[23] Gilliland suggests that the prevalence of this discourse within online fan spaces shows that a demand for more diverse representations within canon exists.[24]

In her essay “What A ‘Racebent’ Hermione Granger Really Represents”, Alanna Bennet, a biracial Harry Potter fan in the US, writes about how she deeply identified with Hermione’s character and the politics of her non-magical Muggle cultural background.[25] However, Alanna never read Hermione as black. She had grown used to assuming whiteness as default for all the fictional characters she encountered, unless explicitly mentioned otherwise. This was an experience, Bayana Davis, a black Harry Potter fan in the US also shared.[26] Neither of them could recognise or imagine themselves in the stories they read. When they encountered racebent Hermione in online fandom, a new possibility was unlocked. Both of them loved the theory and were able to draw better parallels to Hermione’s Muggle-born experiences and activism in the magical world and a black/biracial woman’s experiences in a white supremacist society.

Similarly, the overall absence of sexual diversity and gender nonconforming characters in SFF prompted some fans to read their identities into their favourite fictional worlds, resulting in gay, bisexual, asexual, trans and nonbinary characters in fanon i.e. fan-authored canon.[27][28][29][30][31][32][33] Religious fans have addressed their underrepresentation in canon by reading their religious beliefs into different SFF texts and characters.[34][35][36] Disabled fans also read themselves into SFF worlds and envisioned how magic or advanced technology could represent their disabilities that were otherwise missing in these narratives.[37][38][39]

In the panel, Macleod proposed that fantasy allows people to explore issues and think about real-world implications in a different way. The fictional framework of SFF media offers opportunities to discuss a range of experiences. Fictional characters, themes and events become a cultural shorthand to articulate arguments about diverse social issues. By drawing real-world social, cultural and political parallels to fictional characters and narratives, SFF media and fan texts make these issues more accessible to those who may not have previously considered them.

In the Imaginary Worlds fan podcast episode “Growing Up Avatar American”, Asian-American guests Sam Kaden Lai and Viet propose that Avatar: The Last Airbender offers the perfect Asian-American representation. While the context of the show is American, the culture is Asian; something which reflected their own lives as second- and third-generation Americans – experiences they didn’t see represented elsewhere. Viet also read the protagonist Aang’s story as a refugee/immigrant narrative which resonated with many Asian-American diasporic histories. He described how the genocide against the show’s air nomad community, Aang’s escape on a flying bison, and his loss of home and family reflected many Asian-American family histories for those who had escaped Vietnam, Japan, China and Cambodia to settle down in the US.[40]

Such fictional analogies can shift and adapt to different social contexts and issues. People’s perspectives and priorities are constantly in flux, and therefore able to respond to different contexts across time and space. The framework of the Scottish independence referendum inspired musician Gordon Johnstone to host a vote about potential alien encounters with his audience. Arabic fans of Game of Thrones turned to online forums to interpret the fantasy text in ways which drew connections between the political conflicts in the show and the conflicts in their own geographical region.[41] Such a refashioning of source texts – be it SFF media or political movements – allows people from diverse backgrounds to represent their own interests and priorities. By explicitly making connections between fictional worlds and real-life structures, SFF narratives consider the limitations and possibilities of both.

Imagining otherwise with hopepunk 

For people interested in social justice, the role of hope cannot be understated – the kind of hope that allows them to acknowledge existing dystopias and then act to build better futures. SFF writer Alexandra Rowland coined the term “hopepunk” to problematise the dystopia/utopia binary in media narratives as well as in political activism and discourse.[42] In light of the varied oppressions all over the world, Rowland acknowledged that it could often feel pointless to hold onto hope amidst established structures and people’s complacency within them. But, they argued, fighting against these unjust systems without the promise of a future where everything will be perfect is precisely the point of hopepunk.

Since Rowland first coined the term in 2017, hopepunk has attracted the attention of different writers, readers, fans and academics.[43][44][45][46] Different people have tried to understand and expand the concept by applying it to a range of SFF media, fandom and real-world contexts. While people begin from the same premise, their interpretations and understanding of the concept differs based on their own concerns. One of the hosts of The Fantasy Inn podcast, for example, proposed that hopepunk challenged the idea that monolithic utopias worked for everyone; rather, hopepunk offered room for multiple solutions for different people.[47] For a co-host of Our Opinions Are Correct, hope was different from optimism; while the latter believed that things would get better, a hopepunk worldview didn’t brook with such certainty. Instead, it signified accepting the fact that you may never win, that society would never be fully equal, but you fight towards equality nevertheless. Hope was what made the fight possible.[48]

Romano proposed that according to a hopepunk worldview, people develop better social, cultural and political structures by working together. This process is never-ending – there is no fixed, permanent endpoint to work towards. Instead, people constantly respond to ongoing social, political and cultural injustices in order to create a more equitable future for everyone.[49] Similarly, Ramos described the political possibilities of hopepunk in challenging imbalanced power hierarchies in social and cultural contexts. She placed struggle and solidarity at the heart of hopepunk movements – where different groups of people with differing priorities and interests work collectively to create a better system.[50]

In the panel, Ellen Kushner quoted a line engraved onto a wall of the Scottish Parliament building: “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation”. Writer Rebecca Solnit argues that hope is a political choice which makes resistance possible. She believes that resistance occurs in diverse spheres – art, activism, culture, academia, social media – all of which are important avenues to introduce new ideas, shift conversations, expand imaginations, and remake taken-for-granted aspects of the world.[51] Scholar Sara Ahmed also outlines the political importance of hope in feminist movements which allows people to envision equitable futures and work towards them even in the face of bleak, seemingly desperate, existing realities.[52] This hopeful political imagination is evident in SFF and fan texts exploring diversity and equity in both fictional and real-world contexts. While the impact of these ideas may be unquantifiable, Solnit invites us to sit with this hopeful uncertainty and reminds us that “history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone.”[53]

Fan conversations and media representations can raise people’s consciousness about a wide range of issues. SFF writers and audiences use their art and commentary to create pockets of worlds – both fictional and real – that are more equitable than the ones that currently exist. While Gordon Johnstone acknowledges the bleak realities of capitalism and the politics fuelled by its structures, his music tries to create a more positive view of the future. Such hopeful visions can make it easier to contend with the seemingly never-ending nature of fighting against the way things are. SFF artists offer hope and optimism in different ways – writing queer stories in a queerphobic world like Ellen Kushner; providing a female counter-example in a male-dominated music and videogaming industry like Luci Holland; getting a reader to think deeply about the world and its people like Ken MacLeod; or fanfiction, fan art and online discussions that allow people to become used to the idea of Hermione as black, Frozen’s Elsa as queer or Matt Smith’s Doctor as autistic.[54][55][56]

The “Can We Survive Capitalism” podcast episode of Our Opinions Are Correct emphasises the value of future visions which are different from present realities. The hosts argue that it’s important to imagine alternatives in our mainstream fiction so that these ideas seep through to mainstream consciousness, allowing people to envision other ways of existing in the world.[57] Afrofuturism and Indigenous futurism provide another way to imagine more equitable futures. Afrofuturism is a movement that emerged as a response to the erasure of black lives in imagined futuristic worlds. Afrofuturist creators actively insert black bodies, black perspectives and black cultures into science fiction worlds which have traditionally imagined them out of existence.[58] Indigenous fans and writers decolonise SFF by telling stories in which indigenous people thrive and their cultures and knowledges flourish – narratives which are missing in current mainstream SFF spaces. Such explorations allow people to go beyond their preconceived notions of indigenous people and reframe them in the present.[59][60]

bell hooks said, “The function of art is to do more than tell it like it is. It’s to imagine what is possible”.  Progressive activists understand the realities of existing systems. While their work responds to these structures, it isn’t beholden to them. Working towards a radically inclusive future motivates activists to fight against something as well as inspires them to fight for something.[61] Johnstone acknowledged that it’s difficult for people struggling in the present to be hopeful and positive about a distant future. However, he uses his music to not only offer people glimpses into a more hopeful future but also explores how to get to that future. Writer, educator and activist Walidah Imarisha believes that people need such imaginative spaces which allow them to question what they have been told about the world they live in and to devise different ways through which the world can work. She proposed that activists working for social change are constantly dreaming new futures of equality and bringing them into being through their cultural and political activities:

Every time we imagine a world without poverty, a world without borders, a world without prisons, a world without capitalism, a world without oppression, that’s science fiction. Because we’ve never seen that world. But we strongly believe that movements for change absolutely vitally need imaginative spaces that allow us to throw out everything we’re told is possible and start with the question “What is the world we want to live in?” rather than “What is a realistic way we can get out of this system?” Because we know that all substantive social change was considered to be utterly unrealistic at the time people were trying to make it happen.[62]

SFF media and fan texts provide imaginative spaces that not only question the way things are but also imagine alternatives to dominant norms about gender, sexuality, race, class and disability. Such expanded imaginations create possibilities for social transformation. They allow people to envision and share their ideas for a more inclusive world. Such narratives can influence mainstream culture which in turn influences mainstream politics. As Rebecca Solnit points out, this kind of critical, consciousness-raising work by different people “seems insignificant or peripheral until very different outcomes emerge from transformed assumptions about who and what matters, who should be heard and believed, who has rights.”[63]

For Ellen Kushner, the despair that hopelessness brings can be countered by SFF creatives remembering: “what we’re doing is making soup behind the lines.” There are different roads to revolution and people contribute in various ways, all of which are important in the journey towards a more equitable world. Exploring diversity and equity in SFF media and fan texts is yet another way to contribute. The ideas and conversations about social issues that people encounter through SFF texts can open up minds to new possibilities and new ways of thinking about the world. This is an open-ended and ambiguous experience, one which is ever-evolving and never entirely finished.

Conclusion

Media narratives and representations shape people’s imaginations – in ways which can both limit and expand them. Ideas which promote radical empathy and social justice don’t just materialise out of thin air. There are millions of people working towards making their vision of an equitable world real. Art can be an important form of activism – to shift ideas, change conversations, and expand imaginations; to create a space for hope – all of which are necessary to imagine and build a world more equal and more just than the one we currently inhabit. SFF creators and fans combine hope and storytelling in order to imagine differently and expand notions of what’s possible.

This kind of collective and public restorying is important because once people begin to view media and real-world structures through a critical gaze, it’s difficult to put this awareness away. Exploring issues in futuristic and fantastical fictional worlds provides opportunities for people to think about alternatives to established social, cultural and political structures in the real world. Radical imagination plays an important role in such contexts since it helps decolonise and shift the public cultural imagination in ways which encourage people to question old ideas, think of new possibilities, and reshape the architecture of their imaginations.


[1] Since then, Robert grew increasingly uncomfortable and upset that the show constantly privileged Graham’s perspective – i.e. Ryan’s non-disabled step-grandfather – over Ryan’s own needs.


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