Fanfic Content Warnings

I take content warnings seriously. Really, I do.

I teach upper-level college classes in women’s fiction, queer fiction, and horror fiction, which collectively contain all manner of gendered violence. I also teach non-Western fiction, which can sometimes contain depictions of politicized issues (such as race) that some Americans might find difficult or offensive. I don’t give my students a written list of content warnings, as such a list can be triggering in and of itself, but I do give them specific warnings in advance of a reading as part of the “housekeeping” announcements I usually make before I start class; and, like all announcements, I repeat content warnings in staggered intervals to make sure the message has a chance to reach everyone who needs it. I also try to be sensitive to the specific needs of individual students, who have disclosed a range of personal triggers from “portrayals of self-harm” to “vivid descriptions of the color red.” Making sure that no one in my classes is exposed to triggering content without reasonable warning is the easiest and least awkward thing in the world, and I genuinely don’t understand why there is or ever was a debate about it.

So, when I say this, I say it as someone who has devoted a great deal of thought to the issue and accumulated several years of relevant experience dealing with it:

I don’t think fanfiction needs to be tagged with appropriate content warnings in order for the author to have the “right” to post it.

I’ve certainly found my way into stories that I had to back-button out of, and I appreciate when fic writers tag the obvious content warnings (which I suspect actually helps readers find these stories, especially when it comes to niche interests). That being said, I don’t think it makes any sense to treat the people who read sexually explicit fanfic on AO3 like innocent children whose hands need to be held at all times. Like, if a story description reads “Bowser pounds Peach with his monster cock in front of an audience,” then the reader should be expected to understand what they’re getting into.

It’s also frustrating that many of the content warnings I’ve started to see in the past two years reflect puritanical American standards regarding the “protected status” of children, who must never be exposed to “bad” things until they’re 21. A good example of this is the recent insistence on tagging things like “underage drinking,” because it’s apparently “abusive” if an anime catboy from a Japanese video game set in a fantasy world so much as mentions having had wine with dinner. This is especially distressing because a “Mature” or “Explicit” rating on a story clearly indicates that it’s adult content that an adult has written for the amusement of other adults. If someone is still too young to be comfortable with adult themes and depictions of the adult world, then they shouldn’t be reading that story in the first place.

According to the same logic, I believe an adult reader should be expected to understand that a fictional depiction of something is not intended to condone or promote it. Fanfic in which two Overwatch characters take turns pegging each other is not a Disney movie intended to teach life lessons to children. If one of the characters has a mental illness or a tragic past that isn’t properly addressed within the narrative according to current standards of political correctness, this is not “erasure” or “bad representation.” Representation is achieved by people from marginalized positions having a platform to give voice to their stories and perspectives, and making these people afraid to use this platform because they’ve watched people like them being violently harassed for not tagging their smutfic with “romanticized depiction of a disability” (or what have you) isn’t conducive to actual representation.

An argument I see with disturbing frequency on fandom discourse blogs is something along the lines of “it’s okay to write fanfic with dark themes if it’s properly tagged, because this helps people understand that what they’re reading is problematic.” If you compare this to a similar statement meant to promote inclusive representation, such as “it’s okay to write fanfic because your voice is important and you deserve a chance to speak,” it becomes clear how stressful and confining moral prescriptivism is. Why does fiction – especially fanfiction, which is subcultural and countercultural – need to have to have some sort of moral in order to be allowed to exist?

It’s obvious to me that this whole mess is caught up in the sexist expectation that adult women should be the keepers of public morality. According to Tumblr-based fandom, which reflects the near-constant messaging present in many societies across the world, a woman stops being her own person and starts being a mother at around the age of 25. Once she’s crossed this threshold, her main purpose in life is to THINK OF THE CHIDLERN!!1! at all times. As a genderqueer nonbinary person, I understand that not everyone who writes and reads fanfic is “a woman,” but this doesn’t change the fact that fandom policing mirrors the purity politics that many women have to deal with in real life, according to which they’re only “allowed” to do something “selfish” if they can justify it as morally wholesome.

In any case, I still stand behind my main principle when it comes to fandom, which is that fictional characters are not real. Actual human beings, on the other hand, deserve not to be harassed for what they do for fun on the internet in their spare time.