Kristina Busse

(If I Wasn’t a) Celebrity: Alternate Times/Bodies/Realities in Celebrity Fiction and the Search for Identity

International Conference for the Fanastic in the Arts (March 2005)

“We are friends. So if we weren’t together as NSYNC, we’d probably be at some college together in some fraternity causing trouble” (JT – Making of NSA)

While one might initially expect Real People Fiction [fictional fan narratives about celebrities and the culture that surrounds them] to remain within the realms of realism, the expanse of stories that contain fantastic elements is astounding. Ranging from traditional sf/f settings and mystical and fairy tale motifs to more particular tropes such as body swaps, time travel, alternate realities, or body transfigurations, these stories use fantasy as a way to address issues of identity construction and its limitations. Again and again, these fantastic narratives foreground the question of how individuals becomes and remains the person they are: to explore this, they may juxtapose two versions of the same character separated by times or realities, alter the character’s body, gender, or species, or place the character in an unfamiliar setting to explore his or her reactions and possible changes. At the same time, the stories do not simply end with the belief that there is a core identity but rather look at the various ways in which identity may or may not shift when external factors are altered. Well aware of how social interactions shape and construct identity, the stories address the difficulties inherent in negotiating one’s various selves; at the same time, however, they indicate a yearning for a more stable and dependable concept of identity. Writers and readers thus can use these fantastic elements to deal metaphorically with identity constructions as they discuss their own identity issues in the process.

I will focus on popslash [shorthand for homoerotic stories about pop stars like the members of *NSYNC] to explore the relationship between fantastic narratives and theories of identity construction. While it is surprising to find such a high amount of fantastic narratives in a field as obsessed with “reality” as RPF, it is that very interplay between fiction and reality that lies at its heart and drives the fan narratives. After all, the act of creating stories about real people relies on the tacit understanding that any fictionalized version is, by default, an alternate universe, a fact that writers clearly emphasize with their disclaimers of fictionality. The stories thus exist in the seeming contradiction of trying to be true to the popslash canon [i.e., the various media information by and about the celebrities] at the same time as they clearly offer alternate versions of these real life people. In a way, then, fantastic narratives simply foreground the fictional and imaginative part while retaining an interest in what drew popslashers to the characters initially. Enacting the nature/nurture question, these stories separate out the very elements that survive different bodies, environments, times, in order to see who the person at the center really is. The effectiveness of such stories, then, is often judged on how recognizable the characters are, that is, whether we still know them in their new shapes or settings.

The principal danger of writing Alternate Universes [AUs] occurs when writers rely too heavily on clichés [Justin has too many tennis shoes] so that their characters often bear little more resemblance than their names and looks. Since the aspects that make the character recognizable to the reader are often the very elements that the media uses to create an easy shorthand, these same characterizations also tend to become overused and clichéd when they are the only thing connecting the fictional character to his “real” counterpart. The most successful approach seems to come about when the writer extrapolates the character’s underlying identity and which aspects would remain the same and how. So Justin’s tennis shoe collection may not translate into a past or future scenario, but the underlying obsessive sorting and collecting tendencies might. The very act of writing RPF requires the writers to attain an understanding of the immutable aspects of someone’s character. Fantastic narratives simply make visible the process all Real People fan writing must perform: the act of teasing out underlying characteristics to make the characters recognizable to the readers while creating a world that is by agreement not the real one is very much the same. As such, fantastic RPF not only illuminates and highlights certain aspects of identity construction within the fictional world, but also ultimately exemplifies the very process and difficulties of maintaining recognizable characters in fan writing.

Several types of stories address issues of identity by directly or indirectly juxtaposing various versions of the characters; examples of this include time travel narratives, amnesia fics, and Alternative Reality stories where two different timelines collide within a story. All of these texts juxtapose different versions of the same self—separated and shaped by time and/or cultural and social contexts. All of them explore the similarities and differences in the protagonist as well as how much of his identity is immutable and cannot be changed. Alternate Realities are probably the most obvious way to explore the tremendous effects of particular choices. At the very basis of AR stories is the belief in certain immutable identifying characteristics while the stories simultaneously explore how a different choice, a different life, a different context might have altered the characters’ personalities. Again and again, the stories foreground the question of how anyone becomes the person they are, how much inborn identity is pre-given and how much our social environment shapes us. At the same time, the stories do not simply end with the belief that there is a core identity but rather look at the various ways in which identity may or may not remain the same when external factors are altered: they show the protagonist with two different paths and how their self-understanding and behavior changes or does not change depending on context.

Sandy Keene’s “We Have Just the One,” for example, swaps Justin Timberlake, international pop star, with Justin Timberlake, college student. The defining moment that separates their—otherwise fairly similar—universes is the fact that college!Justin never became part of the Mickey Mouse Club, focusing on his studies instead and thus never joined *NSYNC [which in the alternate universe is constituted by an entirely different group of people whereas all the *NSYNC members are connected to college!Justin]. Throughout the story, one of its central themes is the advantages and disadvantages of being a celebrity. As both Justins are trying to acclimate themselves to their new environment, they obviously compare their lives and what is gained and lost by making certain choices or having certain opportunities. Justin clearly chooses not to mourn that other life when he says, “it’s a good thing, but it’s not for me.” The central similarity in both universes, of course, is the main pairing; the switch affords both Justins the opportunity to get together with first the other universe’s Lance and then, their own. When given the different context of the university setting Justin finally acknowledges his love for Lance, or rather, for both Lances: “I loved him and you and it’s the same thing.” This interchangeability, this “love with your immortal soul,” is one of the central features of many AU stories.

A quite similar sentiment is expressed in Jae W.’s “Normal Life,” which takes a slightly different approach by placing the alternate path in a clear fantasy scenario. The story takes place during a photo shoot where Justin and Britney enact their perfect pop love while Justin’s real partner Chris stands on the sidelines. Afterwards, Justin imagines a life in which he had not become a pop star, gone to college, and lived a “normal life.” The story clearly juxtaposes the positive and negative sides of fame, especially in terms of the always central issue in most popslash stories of how to be out yet remain a sex symbol to millions of girls and young women. By imagining a normal life with Chris, this story also shows Justin’s—if not the author’s—belief and desire that love transcends circumstances. At the same time, unlike Sandy’s Justin, this story’s character is a bit more ambiguous about the price of fame, not sounding altogether convinced when he claims, “I have everything I want. Everything.”

While often both universes exist simultaneously within one story, even traditional AUs fulfill that same function: rather than having both worlds within the same story, we simply read the AU against traditional canon and the entirety of other fan stories. In other words, when we are faced with a high school AU in which all the characters are students or teachers, the story is not simply about guys who look like Justin and Lance in high school, but rather about different versions of these characters we all know when placed into a high school setting. For example, the question of how Justin and Lance would act in high school only makes sense when read against the backdrop of knowing how they turned out after graduating from bus school. In a larger sense, then, all AU stories address the particular issue of nature versus nurture, of environmental effects versus fate and pairings that are meant to be. When we create stories in which we put our two favorite guys into romantic relationships, we want these romantic bonds to transcend time and space, we want love to be the central identifying and stable characteristic. The characters may be fighting wars, delivering pizza, fixing cars, or playing baseball, the central and important thing that remains true beyond certain idiosyncrasies or behaviors is their friendship and love.

There are various other genres that raise quite similar issues as they explore how environment can effect character variations. One of them are time travel stories, where suddenly two versions of the same person exist, side by side. Often, the temporal intruder is the one to force a relationship by creating a love triangle in which he, ultimately, functions only as a conduit to bring the true lovers together. Often more innocent and less jaded, the younger self reminds the protagonist and everyone else of the person he once was, he may still be inside. Commenting on the external stress of fame and how it has negatively affected the guys, he reminds everyone of what they really truly are at the center, and thus advances a relationship that was meant to be, encourages a love that was there all along. Using a different premise but achieving the same new outlook on a given life are amnesia stories. Sandy Keene’s “Many-roomed Houses Of Wood” series, for example, explores the differences between inborn characteristics and environmental effects when Justin gets kidnapped and loses his memory. Months later he is accidentally reunited with his band mates but does not remember them or his former life at all. The story revolves around his fears of not living up to his previous self. Similarly, his friends suddenly have to deal with this different personality and the loss of the person they knew. By the end, Justin has shaped a new identity from pieces of the past and present and this changed Justin is finally accepted by the others. In effect, then, the story raises the central question of who we are without our memory at the same time as it offers a meditation on how we all are never static, how our personality is always a merging of various influences.

Similarly, transfiguration stories address the relationship between mind and body by altering the protagonist’s body in such a way as to make him (and everyone around him) much more aware of it. The underlying message that gets repeated again and again is that the character remains the same regardless of whether he is growing wings or changed into a dog overnight. In fact, the changed outside foregrounds that the true love felt by the romantic pairing goes beyond exterior complications. As such, these stories follow one of the more pronounced slash modes of the traditional romance model and emphasize love as an emotion that deeply connects two human beings, often transcending time, space, and other impediments.

Nopseud’s story “And Every Dog His Day” is an excellent example of transfiguration stories. In it, Chris suddenly wakes up a dog. In his new form, he needs to reconsider all of his relationships as must his band mates. On the surface, this is a love story that allows friends Chris and JC to finally address their emotional issues, to realize that they are in love and to manifest their relationship. On another level, however, the story is as much about both protagonists realizing themselves as it is about changing their dynamic. In light of JC’s changed relationship with Chris [as dog], he has to rethink all his previous affairs and behavior as well: “Maybe JC had let this happen to himself, let himself lose the distance he'd always had with other lovers, because Chris had been so literally his dog.” As such, becoming a dog affords both Chris and JC the opportunity to re-evaluate their relationship and their own particular roles in it. Just like hurt/comfort, which forces both characters to confront themselves and one another, transfiguration stories use the inability to have sex (or at least the difficulties surrounding it) to discuss issues of intimacy.

Even more demonstrative in terms of addressing the everyday issues of female fans are a particularly popular subset of transfiguration stories in which the protagonist wakes up the wrong gender. Even though gender switching stories deal with sexual identity and sexual orientation, their primary concern is with gender rather than sexual difference. The realities of gender dysphoria are rarely dealt with; in fact, the protagonist himself often is less affected by the change than those around him. On a most superficial level, then, gender switching stories are any woman’s fantasy of forcing men to actually experience the awkwardness and humiliation and real danger that often go along with being female. In so doing, however, gender swapping fics discuss the reality of being a woman, the focus of sex and gender for any sexual and romantic relationship, and the issue of sexual identity itself. Moreover, many of the stories address deeper concerns about how sexual desire is configured in our culture as the temporary external change forces the stories’ protagonists to question how much of their feelings are related to the person and how much to their gender.

Wax Jism’s “Orlando,” which turns Justin into a female, foregrounds the fact that he remains Justin, albeit in a woman’s body. Early on, Britney realizes that “[s]he can see the man in [Justin] now; he’s hiding behind every soft line of the female body.” The story explores the similarities and differences in this newly-bodied Justin yet ultimately concludes with a firm belief that the external does not matter. Not surprisingly, the story’s finale brings together the central pair in an epiphany of realization that their love in not dependent on gender. Chris explains, “I didn’t suddenly start thinking you were hot because you turned into a girl, kid” and the final lines read “‘It was you all along,’ he says, and Justin smiles, slowly, and it is the same smile it always was.” This emphasis on sameness is also at the center of Helen’s “The Same Inside,” in which Chris changes into a woman and he and Joey fall in love. Upon changing back, however, Joey cannot handle the situation that “[his] girlfriend has a fucking cock” and leaves Chris, only to realize that Chris’s maleness is less important than the person he is inside, the person Joey fell in love with. The central dilemma comes down to differentiating a person from his or her gender. Chris tells Joey “You like girls” to which Joey responds: “I like you,” thus short-circuiting the traditional gender binaries and suggesting that the person underneath may be more important than the gender they inhabit.

Beyond the almost cliché-like belief that “love conquers all,” however, the stories also explore serious gender notions. Early on, Chris exclaims in frustration: “I don’t feel like a girl. . . I feel the same inside,” only to be rebuffed by Lance that “well, girls probably feel the same inside too.” Chris’s frustration and apparent gender dysphoria is immediately turned into a statement on gender equality, thus clearly marking the story as not being concerned with trans issues as much as it is concerned with what it means to be female for women. While Chris constantly emphasizes how he has not changed, the story does actually acknowledge the internal changes the external alterations have yielded: Chris slowly acculturates into the stereotypical female role in terms of clothes, interests, and (straight) sexual object choice. Nevertheless, while the fic does acknowledge how both characters change and grow over the course of the story, how they are affected and influenced by gender stereotypes and the way society expects them to act, their ultimate romantic victory suggests an ideal world in which we can move beyond such notions and limitations, a truly fantastic space where there exists a core identity and we are not constrained by gender expectations. What we are left with, then, is a strange ambiguity between a constructivist approach to gender where one’s biological sex is ultimately secondary to romantic attraction and a quite essentialist understanding of identity that posits a core self that is “the same inside” regardless of environment.

While transformation stories use the altered body as a plot device to get the romantic pair together, thus foregrounding the romantic notion that the only important thing is the person underneath, the extreme focus on appearances in this fandom is not coincidental. After all, the protagonists are not only constantly observed by the media, they are also constantly reminded of the fact that is it, indeed, their looks that make them who they are. In fact, one of the reasons female slashers may be attracted to the subject of boy banders is the fact that few male characters face the same type of scrutiny most females do. In an almost hostile move, then, transfiguration fics allow the popslasher to force a celebrity known for his particular looks to function without it. Transformation stories may advocate eternal love in spite of appearances, but its writers are faced every day with the emphasis on the external, thus obviously conscious of the fact that looks indeed do matter.

I want to suggest that it may be us, the popslash readers and writers, for whom issues of identity construction and the illusory comfort of a core self are particularly resonant. After all, the concerns about how we create and perform our selves are familiar ones to any postmodern subject, but they may be especially relevant to women who spend much time online in varying degrees of differing personas and who, in large parts, have created strong social ties around these different layers of identity. Moreover, the number of queer women is substantial in fandom in general and popslash in particular. One may even argue that all popslashers can relate to that projected need to hide insofar as they are reading and/or writing slash and are fans of a boyband, all secrets that often are only known to a few if any real life friends and family. As such, the multiple layers of sexual identity which must be addressed on some level in any story in which the publicly heterosexual guys from *NSYNC are having sexual relations with one another often can mirror the readers’ and writers’ personal sense of difference and the ways in which these aspects of one’s identity may have to remain hidden.

At the same time, however, most fantastic and Alternate Universe stories valorize a true core reality even if we may never get to see it. Regardless of popslash’s strong postmodern current and awareness of the constructedness of any identity, many of the stories seem to depend upon a core self that transcends space and time. In fact, while we all tend to acknowledge the postmodern truism of our constructed selves, we yearn for some central core that makes us special and defines who we are. Twice removed, we thus explore ourselves not only in the fictitious bodies of (male) pop stars but in their time-, space-, or body-transcended alternates. Looking at the way the two versions of them retain certain traits and maintain such basic concepts as self and love, we may ultimately comfort ourselves that we too have an underlying core that resists all theoretical postmodern deconstruction, a real center that transcends space and time and body shapes.