The Fanfictionalization of Politics

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Over the weekend, an anonymous writer launched a Tumblr imagining an X-rated tryst between congressional fitness buffs Aaron Schock and Paul Ryan. "Paul Ryan XXX"— subhed: "Things are getting steamy on Ways and Means ..."—is not appropriate work reading, and it's clearly intended as satire of a certain kind of fawning journalism both men have tended to attract (as well as, you know, porn).

"He was obsessive about his personal fitness. He cared deeply about those close to him. He had an outstanding sense of humor, but he never resorted to jokes about others. His laugh could make any room come alive," the author writes of Ryan, in one of the milder passages. "And there was his intellect. His vision. His ability to see how things were possible that no one else could."

Here the writer gently mocks the conventions of the many thumb-sucking profile of Ryan—be sure to mention the vision thing—by using them for different narrative ends.

Still, the piece is clearly not journalism, or even satire per se. It is fanfiction, or fanfic, a type of writing by individuals who riff on someone else's story or characters or very existence as an expression of their own creativity. Fanfic is a big deal in the science-fiction and fantasy-writing worlds. Some new-media journalists also have self-consciously turned to fanfic in the political arena for the fun of it in recent years, mocking themselves even as they unleash their inner E.L. James (Fifty Shades of Grey began as Twilight fanfic).

"Fan fiction is what literature might look like if it were reinvented from scratch after a nuclear apocalypse by a band of brilliant pop-culture junkies trapped in a sealed bunker," Time's Lev Grossman wrote in a terrific 2011 piece on Harry Potter fanfic writers. "They don't do it for money. That's not what it's about. The writers write it and put it up online just for the satisfaction." It was inevitable that the mixture of passionate obsession and Internet attention that accompanies politicians and campaigns would lead to fanfic as well.

This isn't the first time Ryan has inspired fanfic. His turn as vice-presidential nominee gave us what The Wire dubbed "The Strange World of Mitt Romney-Paul Ryan Fan Fiction." Barack Obama and Chris Christie have come in for fanfic treatment as well. "New Jersey’s governor came across as frank, impassioned, and utterly human during the hurricane, like a troubled action movie hero. So obviously, here is a fan fiction interpretation of his tweets," wrote Katie Notopoulos of BuzzFeed after Hurricane Sandy, introducing her imagined scenes of Christie in action during the 2012 storm.

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But writers don't have to be intentionally writing fanfic to present readers with obviously manufactured narratives in which they put a gloss on the real. Andrea Peyser's New York Post column, "Flirty Obama owes us an apology"—a masterwork of tabloid cliches from a more sexist era about Michelle Obama—is political commentary but has the same overwrought style and sexualized imagery as "Paul Ryan XXX":

Thorning-Schmidt placed her hands dangerously close to Obama’s side. The president’s cackling head moved inches from the Danish tart’s and yards away from his wife’s. Obama then proceeded to absorb body heat from the Dane, which he won’t be feeling at home for a long time .... Michelle frowned and looked as if she wanted to spit acid at the man she married, a good-time guy who humiliated her in front of their friends, the world and a blonde bimbo who hadn’t the sense to cover up and keep it clean.

The photographer who was there says this did not happen. At least not like that. As The Wire's Alexander Abad-Santos wrote, "A lot" of the interpretations of what happened that day "is us reading and creating some magic presidential fan-fic, and part of it stems from people finding something fun from the very serious event." Media Matters decried the previous day's N.Y. Post front page on Obama and the Danish prime minister as "sexist fanfiction."

But where fanfic about the Twilight characters is relatively harmless, this sort of political fanfic can sit uncomfortably close to the genre's ugly imaginative cousins: rumors and conspiracy theories. How different is the photo-based narrative of a jealous Michelle Obama whose marriage is at risk from the false allegation, based on blurry photos, that Obama's wedding ring bears secret Arabic inscriptions, except that the latter is more easily disproved? Or from the conspiracy theory that the woman at an Obama Rose Garden event who fainted staged her fall? Images prove the greatest impetus for both opinion journalism's most creative flights of fanfic and for conspiracy theories—just think of the many hours people spent analyzing the image of Obama's short-form birth certificate.

During an earlier era in the political blogosphere, persistent distortions were known as "zombie facts"—memes that were not true but could not be killed, and that continued to live on in blog posts and columns and on cable news despite debunking. Zombie facts hang around because they speak to emotional truths at least some people believe. Fanfiction about politicians operates in the same space of non-factual emotional appeal.

So does viral media—another highly visual medium. A recent piece from BuzzFeed's Benny Johnson, "Why Sunny Obama Is The Most Hopeless Drama Diva In The History Of White House Dogs," illustrates the point. It includes riffs off the doge interior-monologue meme over pictures of the White House dogs and includes such assertions as: "She gives the White House dog walker heartburn ... She distracts all the White House press from doing their JOBS! ... Her older, smarter brother Bo is always rolling his eyes at her drama/diva ways."

None of this is intended to be literally true, but it's not satire either. Satire is Charles Pierce on David Brooks. This is more like a kind of verbal Photoshop job, in a media environment already saturated with creative fictions presented without comment, such as Elan Gale's fake note-passing fight on a plane over the Thanksgiving holiday.

It may not be done with malicious intent. But it's part of what makes the media world such a noisy place today.

Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.


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