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Content warning: This installment of Fan Service will deal with dark content in fiction including brief mentions of incest, sexual assault, non sexual violence, and age differences in fictional relationships.
The Dollanger siblings in Flowers in the Attic, the gore of the SAW franchise, the nature of “rape and revenge” films like I Spit on Your Grave, and age differences and power imbalances in erotic novels like Jenny Trout’s The Boss. Across the decades, popular culture has been a site exploring or imagining tons of complicated and controversial topics. Fandom — born from our fascination with these pieces of media and a desire to put ourselves, our interests, our desires, and our fears into the work — is no different. When fandom approaches topics similar to the ones we see in horror movies or edgy erotica, they often do so while tagging the work or otherwise labeling it under the term “dark fic.”
Dark fic is incredibly difficult to define because it is a massive umbrella term. Dr. Milena Popova is an independent cultural studies scholar who studied digital cultures at UWE Bristol and authored the book Dubcon: Fanfiction, Power, and Sexual Consent. Popova has thoughts on the term itself, and on the communities that form around dark fic.
“I think it's a term that has the potential for endless scope creep — encompassing anything that isn't the purest of fluff — which doesn't make it very useful,” they tell Teen Vogue. “The different types of fic that tend to get lumped into that category have different generic conventions and are created and enjoyed by different communities, for different reasons.”
As Popova points out, what “dark fic” is ultimately depends on individual reader and creator interpretations of the trope or pairing. This, along with the intensity of the dark content and what it’s used for in the story, leads to people forming personal catalogs of dark content on main, works they enjoy and ones they very much don’t. Across fandoms and age groups within fandoms, two people may have vastly different understandings of what dark fic looks like and what kind of dark fic they’re okay with consuming and creating.
One person might view Real Person Fiction itself as “dark fic,” because it crosses established personal boundaries for the relationships we have with celebrities and ones they have with each other. Another one might only count RPF that uses extreme elements: for example, an alternate universe that places characters from an idol group in the universe of The Purge and has them enact horrific violence against each other. Even Omegaverse, my favorite trope/genre in fandom ever, can be considered dark fic by some people, because it often serves up gender/bio essentialist worldbuilding wrapped around some werewolf-y characters getting intimate.
“For me ‘dark’ means ‘when I get out of this fic, I feel sad/upset/down,’ and for that to be the case, the fic needs to end on a bad note,” long time multi-fandom participant Arsenic Jade explains, noting that she's not talking about accidentally being triggered or traumatized by the story itself. Rather, the goal of the story is to leave the reader feeling sadness.
Arsenic recognizes that this isn’t the common definition of dark fic: “The common definition, in my observance, is ‘fic in which terrible things happen to one or both of the protagonists throughout the fic but may or may not be resolved.’” Common tropes that fandom at large deems “dark fic” are stories where characters are active serial killers, in the mafia or other organized crime, or are enslaved in some way (either fantasy/science-fiction inspired or… not that). A big thing, for many people, is also the element of “hurt/comfort” where one character is hurt awfully — after an assault, witnessing a crime, etc — and another character has to help stick their pieces back together.
Arsenic goes on to point out her issues with the term “dark fic” itself. “I actually really don't like the term dark,” she shares. “Not just because it's broad AF and means pretty much nothing, but because it's what I consider a binary term, that is, it has an understood opposite: light. And as with most binary things, there are implied judgements in both of those terms, which, nope.”
One of the biggest ways that judgement shows up is in how people across multiple fandoms talk about the people who have positive engagement with any kind of “dark” content. It’s not a subtle judgement, and even well meaning people can get caught up in making nasty assumptions of people based only on their fandom output.
Popova’s expertise is in fan fiction that deals with issues of sexual consent, and they say that even within that subset, there are many individuals, opinions, and experiences. They argue that making moral judgements about people based only on the fic they read or write doesn’t really make sense. “There are people who genuinely want to explore and understand what consent truly means and how it might be constrained,” Popova says. “[Then] there are people who just want to have a wank.”
It’s a constant circular discourse, where some fans assume that liking dark content at any level implies that you’re a bad person actively into bad things; others insist there’s no connection between fiction and reality. Binaries like this erase the complex reasons behind why fans like and complain about different forms of dark content. They also perpetuate the idea that you can assume what a person is “really” like based on the content they like or create, something that Popova has already pointed out is an unhelpful stance to take.
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In short: “No, we can't make moral judgements about individuals based on their interest in ‘dark fic,’” Popova says. That doesn’t mean we can’t analyze and think critically about the communities we’re part of, and the impact of fan-created art on those communities. “We can point to tropes, fandoms, or communities that carefully, thoughtfully explore consent through fiction about incest, rape, or the Omegaverse,” they say, citing their book Dubcon. “But even within those communities we can see lines of fracture and division. And we can just as well examine the way that fanfiction communities protect some types of fans over others, particularly when it comes to race, as you yourself as well as scholars like Rukmini Pande and Cait Coker have argued. That's the aggregate level at which we can try and make sense of things, while not losing sight of the fact that we'll always be making generalisations, and there will always be more nuance we can dig into.”
So, why do fans find themselves interacting with “dark” content as consumers or creators? For starters, “they just like it” is absolutely a reasonable response. Over the years in fandom, that’s been the main reason why fans talk about enjoying content that other fans find upsetting or “too dark.” They simply enjoy stories with controversial, “darker” themes and the happy ending that most authors give their characters after sending them through some serious suffering.
Sometimes, fans use different types of dark fic to deal with trauma and fear. In fandom, some people share their traumatic experiences to explain their interests, while others keep it more private. (No one, by the way, should ever be expected to reveal past trauma in order to validate their interest in or criticism of specific fandom content.) It’s also normal for people who’ve dealt with trauma like sexual violence or childhood abuse to unpack their pasts in fantasy like roleplaying or fan fiction/erotica. It doesn’t actually mean that they’re condoning sexual violence or abuse, but that they’ve found fantasy as a safe space to engage with something that left a mark on their memory.
There are very few forms of dark fic that have managed to escape criticism. Some criticism comes in good faith, pointing at stories that eroticize the Holocaust (which also happens in mainstream romance publishing) or that use natural disasters as a backdrop for their pairing. Or the pieces of media where the “darkness” involves characters of color being subjected to horrible racism. Other people, meanwhile, deliver criticism in bad faith, layering their trauma onto characters and celebrities in a way that winds up leading to harassment of other fans and creators.
Rather than judging a fandom content creator based solely on the “darkness” or “lightness” of their content, let’s introduce nuance to the situation. How do they handle requests to tag content? How do they treat other fans in and out of their direct fandom circle? How do they treat marginalized characters (eg. disabled characters, characters of color, or trans characters) in their fic? How do they treat those fans in general? We only know so much about the people we come into contact with as a result of the internet and fandom, and the judgements we make on fan content alone usually don’t tell us the entire truth about a person.
I always support critical thinking about what we create and why. The “why” behind what we like — as well as why other people might have issues with it — can help us create and consume content more effectively. (Especially when society’s issues with bigotry and how we’ve internalized those points of view can seep into our fandom content, regardless of the tone.) However, at the end of the day, Hannibal hasn’t made cannibals of any of its massively thirsty (and prolific) fanbase. People who watched Squid Game and made fan art or fic for Ali and Sangwoo aren’t anywhere near as bad as the capitalist elites engineering the deadly games. “Dark” content in fandom is a safe outlet for people, more so than it is a tool to harm other people in fandom.
“Dark fic is a super unspecific umbrella term, it gets thrown around as a moral judgement, and it's just not terribly useful. It obscures messiness and complexity, and its moralising incarnation in particular closes off possibilities. If a specific type of fic makes us uncomfortable, that's fine. We don't have to read it. Or we could examine the source of that discomfort. We can critique it, and look for the good or bad it might do in the world. We can look for and critique the community structures that have produced it,” Popova says at the end of our interview. “Those are much more productive ways of dealing with that discomfort than just labelling it ‘dark fic.’ But I also suspect we're at a point in fannish history where getting to that place requires significant cultural change. And the tools and platforms we currently have aren't conducive to that. But that's a bigger question for another day. In the meantime I think it's worth repeating: There are things we can do in gutters that we can't do in gardens.”
Stitch will continue discussing the many layers of fandom in Fan Service, published every other week on Teen Vogue. You can follow their work on Stitch's Media Mix and on Twitter.
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