Fanfic lets teens in particular imagine a world in which their parents are loving…and famous.
The fanfiction genre is a tangled wreckage of bleeding hearts, ludicrous sexual encounters, and tear-jerking tales of abuse. Though people of all ages write fanfic, it definitely began as a teenage endeavor, and is still mostly seen as a youthful hobby. Teenagers write their favorite celebrities into strange and sordid narratives: One Direction’s Harry Styles is heavily pregnant with band mate Louis Tomlinson’s baby. The Jonas Brothers have incestuous sex on a beach under a shimmering red sunset. Harry Potter snorts cocaine to deal with the suffocating pressure of professional wizardry. But no stories are quite as extreme as #adoption fantasies.
This sub-genre produces narratives of celebrities taking fans in as their own children. The chosen star could be anyone from Simon Cowell to Camila Cabello. But each time the stories follow a similar formula: A kid endures a troubled upbringing — unloved by vodka-swigging parents, pushed around by schoolyard bullies, starving hungry and weak with loneliness. Then one day a celebrity whisks them off their feet, adopts them, and they live happily ever after. For the protagonists, this usually means indulging in everything fame and wealth has to offer: riding around in slick red Ferraris, eating pizza for breakfast, and falling asleep in soft, silky bedsheets. Now their only problem is how heavy the shopping bags get.
There are thousands of these adoption fantasies swarming the internet. But why are so many teenagers dreaming about an evening with their mom Cardi B? Or getting tucked asleep each night by Chris Evans?
For many of these teenagers, yet to have kissed anyone, adoption fantasies are a pre-sexual way to physically relate to celebrities, and to explore intimacy. We don’t just want to be around celebrities, we want to have the devoted love of a parent, cooking you breakfast in the mornings and bringing you Lemsip when you are ill.
Constance Penely, professor of Film & Media Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara, and fan of slash fiction, attributes adoption fantasies to Freud’s theory of Family Romance. “The child believes that their parents are not their real parents but people far superior, even aristocratic,” she says. “You can get rid of one or both parents and substitute them for better ones.” And in a society that worships celebrity, famous people are often the best people we can think of. We don’t just love them, we want them to love us back.
We look to celebrities for moral guidance. We see this in the spiritual voyages people go on to dead celebrities’ graves, trekking to the site of Michael Jackson or Elvis’ burial much like a religious pilgrimage. It is unsurprising then that fan fictionists write stars into surrogate parents. We feed off the way celebrities lavish themselves in highlighter like glazed crispy crèmes, their jokes that make chat show hosts shake with laughter, their charitable endeavours and gleaming smiles. We try to copy them, much like a child does when they see their Mom and Dad navigating through the world.
This social aspiration for a higher class of parent suggests itself in the way adoption fantasies often focus on material wealth. In ERICA03GON’s “Adopted by Lauren Jauregui,” a character called Jacob is taken from his cramped orphanage bedroom to a lush palace, complete with a swimming pool, hot tub, and plasma screen TV:
“It was hugeeee.i. thinky jaw droped because some one whispered ‘close ur mouth or ya’ll catch flies’in my ear.” The first thing Fifth Harmony does is take Jacob to the mall where they buy him an “iphone,ipad,air,mac,computer,6paires of jeans,10 shirts 5 beanies,2leather jackets,and 7 pairs of jordans.”
No matter how you were raised, capitalist society teaches us that more is better. Even if your parents are rich, you can always imagine being richer. These Fan Fictioners’ dream of superior Mums and Dads, ones who drape them in flashy snapbacks and PS4s.
But for other users struggling with violently fractured parent/child relations, adoption fantasies are a lifeline to a different world. Writing stories where glistening, white-toothed celebrities care for you fulfills an almost necessary function of mental escape. This was the case for Wattpad user Mikey_fucking_way_ (he chose to remain anonymous so I will call him Will), who has written two adoption fantasies, one in which a teenager is adopted by Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance, and another featuring Pete Wentz of Fall Out Boy. “My parents divorced when I was young, right around my birthday. Both of them are severe alcoholics,” he says. “They never looked after me and I grew up by myself for a long time. It was fun to imagine a nicer life somewhere else. Belonging to a different family was a fantasy of mine, but I knew I couldn’t have it. So I made up a kid who got to live out my own dream for me.”
‘Belonging to a different family was a fantasy of mine, but I knew I couldn’t have it. So I made up a kid who got to live out my own dream for me.’ Click To Tweet
Will’s story “Adopted by Gerard Way” reflects these aspects of his troubled upbringing. His protagonist, Charlie, was abused from a young age. Staff members at the orphanage forced her to smoke and drink alcohol, and they physically attacked her. “I had about 20 little scars from having lit cigarettes pushed against my skin,” says Charlie. But new parents Gerard Way and Lin-Z lavish Charlie with love and support. When she sobs in her bedroom, her new Dad comes to console her:
“‘I know this is a lot for you right now but I hope you don’t feel too uncomfortable here’ he smiled at me. This inclined me to do something I didn’t think I’d do. I walked up and hugged him and he hugged me back.”
Taking one’s negative circumstances and morphing them into happy scenarios leaves writers with a cathartic feeling of release. “For one moment I am not in this house,” says Will. “I become Charlie on a bed being cuddled by Gerard.”
This transformative moment in adoption fantasies, where circumstances change from painful to positive, is referred to in the fanfiction community as the “hurt/comfort” affect. A FanLore entry explains the hurt/comfort mechanism as “the physical pain or emotional distress of one character, who is cared for by another character. The injury, sickness or other kind of hurt allows an exploration of the characters and their relationship.”
The release of psychological wound and emotional tension leaves characters feeling healed. Wattpad user Jenkins300, who has written multiple fanfiction stories on Ant & Dec and Simon Cowell, explains, “I like reading and writing about somebody innocent being harmed or wounded, then finally getting the loving childhood they dreamed of. It is immensely satisfying.”
There is a sensual element dormant in hurt/comfort stories. In Queering Popular Culture, author Mirna Cicioni characterizes hurt/comfort as an “eroticization of nurturance,” with one partner satisfying a basic need of the other — warmth, food, or emotional reassurance. “Although not specifically sexual in themselves. . . [stories] are eroticised because they give a physical dimension to the closeness of the bond between the partners and lead to, or become a part of, an intimacy that also has a sexual component,” they write. Though adoption fantasies are about familial bonds and thus are not explicitly sexual, their place in the hurt/comfort genre means they involve physically intimate moments.
Whether the stories are a pure fantasy of being rich, or serve as an emotional outlet for the author’s complicated familial relationships, there is a physical aspect to these stories. For many of these teenagers, yet to have kissed anyone, adoption fantasies are a pre-sexual way to physically relate to celebrities, and to explore intimacy.
Stories draw attention to the tactile nature of their bond: teasing hands through hair, play fighting, pushing each other around. Zoning in on alluring aspects of the body: the long curvature of the back, big oceanic blue eyes, and thick arms. I spoke to Martha Ahrens, who used to write adoption fantasies as a child. “I was totally in love with Orlando Bloom, but I was 13 at the time and I had no idea about sex or anything,” she says. “I used to write stories about him looking after me; it was paternal but only because I was working out my feelings. In a few years I wasn’t thinking about him making me sausages and beans for tea, let’s just put it that way.”
Deep within these celebrities, fans can find home. A warm womb-like enclosure far removed from the niggling, “don’t bring your muddy shoes in here,” “you take all my money” moms and dads. Bringing its fans into a gleaming, no-rules fantasy land where you can turn up the TV loud and leave your clothes all over the floor.
But most importantly, they let fans, and authors, understand the importance of that sort of warmth, wherever it comes from.