Is Fan Fiction Lowering Our Standards for Romance?

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Trigger Warning: This article discusses sensitive topics such as emotional and physical abuse, incest, and stalking

As a child, I was obsessed with Marvel Comics and Star Wars. When I received my first iPod Touch, I joined every social media site I could, including Wattpad, a site for writers to post original stories, the majority of which are fan fiction. According to Oxford definitions, “fiction written by a fan of, and featuring characters from, a particular TV series, movie, etc.” 

After I joined, I became more engrossed with Marvel and Star Wars, I even started to watch more things that were popular on Wattpad – such as the BBC version of “Sherlock”, “Doctor Who”, “Supernatural”, and much more. By the time I was finishing 8th grade and entering high school I had written my fair share of fan fiction, I even managed to rank up 25k reads on one of my stories.

After spending so much time on a site made for fan fiction, I began to notice behavior that should not be normalized as well as other things that concerned me. Over the years, I observed fan fiction normalizing emotional or physically abuse, alcohol and drug addiction, as well as weird power dynamics, or just being a horrible person. Yes, these are real-world problems that should be openly discussed, and people who experience these things deserve help and support, but in some of these stories, these behaviors are shown as a sign of affection or a plot device. 

In popular published fan fiction like “50 shades of Grey” (which was inspired by the “Twilight” series) and Shadowhunters (a spin off of “Harry Potter”), the authors appear to homogenize these problematic tropes. In “50 Shades of Grey”, there is an odd power dynamic between the lead characters and their on and off-again relationship. The lead male character, Christian Grey, has an obsession with the female lead, Anastasia Steele, and he admits to stalking her and doesn’t stop until they start going out. 

In the original Shadowhunters fan fiction, one of the main storylines included is an incest plot between Ginny and Ron Weasley, but this ultimately was changed. The series is now a critically acclaimed young adult book series and a very successful TV show on Freeform.

Another fan fiction that made it big and originated on Wattpad is AFTER, now a four book series with two movies out and two more in production. AFTER is basically an “AU” – fanfic lingo for the alternate universe – that depicts a college freshman going to Washington State University in Washington, and meets bad boy – Harry Styles. It’s a fan fiction on the band, One Direction. Each member is a different character with Harry Styles being the “bad boy” who meets an innocent girl and basically ruins her life under the guise that it’s true love.

In the first book, the only reason why Harry Styles hooks-up with the main character is because of a bet which is never a good way to start a relationship. This series capitalizes on Styles constantly lying, having a horrible temper, continually drinking even though both he and the main character are under age for most of the series. Harry Styles is a horrible person to everyone except the main character who “magically” turns him into a better and kinder person. 

Besides the plot being somewhat littered with problematic ideas, fans of the pop singer have pointed out that in real life Harry Styles is not a person with a bad attitude and drinking problem. The Harvard Crimson commented on the story saying, “[AFTER] has been categorized by many as verbally abusive. Some have even argued that the actions of the character perpetuate rape culture, and feature a story which promotes toxic and damaging relationships.”

The Independent UK stated an important detail from the original fan fiction, they noted that “ [the] male love interest is described as grabbing Tessa’s arm during an argument, and saying things such as “I want you and I should be able to have you whenever I want to.” If that isn’t a red flag then I don’t know what is. AFTER is not the only fan fiction series to present acts of emotional abuse as an act of “love”. 

I think people are going to have different ideas of their own self-worth and what behavior is acceptable after reading so much fan fiction. I’ve even noticed this in my own life after consuming fan fiction throughout middle school and high school. Perpetuating these negative behaviors as acts of romance and love is extremely unhealthy for all readers, but specifically the younger generation. Let’s start creating more healthy and kind standards of self-worth and love.

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