Curatorial Fans, Transformative Fans, & How Both Can Be Obnoxious

In 2015, Redditor LordByronic observed that there seemed to be two types of fans. One type was described as curative (IE, curatorial, as in curating for preservation) and was commonly found on Reddit. The other type was described as transformational, and was commonly found on Tumblr. This article explores what both types are like, and how they can both be irritating and unhelpful if they don't learn where to step back.

Curatorial fans take a preservationist attitude toward canon (or perceived canon). If they write fanfic, they usually aim to keep it well in line with what they believe to be canon. If they play a tabletop RPG, they aim toward playing it the way they believe the creators intended it to be played. They tend to like to know exactly how things work so they have an "accurate" an understanding of the universe as possible.

Transformative fans tend to see works of fiction as something to potentially customize to better suit their purposes. They might disregard parts of canon they find distasteful, write AUs where they get the happy endings they want, and create no end of headcanons.

I'd say it's not so much that there are two types of fans, as it is that there are two ways that fans relate to content they like. Most people seem to have both curatorial and transformative tendencies, even if they do tend to lean more toward one than the other. Additionally, someone can relate to one work in a curatorial fashion, but relate to another in a transformative way. How one relates to a particular work tends to depend on how much one likes or can relate to it as-is. If you strongly like everything about it and can easily relate to it, you're more likely to take a curatorial approach. If there are some aspects you like but others that bother you in some way, or if you find it difficult to relate to in some way, you're more likely to take a transformative approach.

Neither approach is intrinsically good or bad, despite what people who lean extremely far one way or the other would have you think. In fact, it's good to use both approaches. When fanfic writers have no respect for canon, their works often bear so little resemblance to the source material that they can barely be called fanfics at all. When they stick to canon so rigidly that they refuse to take even the smallest creative liberty, their fanfictions become little more than rehashes of canon.

Problems arise when a fan with strong leanings toward either mindset decides to get up in other people's business and tell them what they should or shouldn't do. First, let's look at hardline curatorial types. They tend to argue that works are perfect-as is and claim that there are reasons for things to be this way, and thus, they ought to be left alone. These reasons usually boil down to:

And they're all typically irrelevant.

The "creator's intent" argument assumes that no one should do anything that the creator never intended with or for some aspect of the work. Of course, this presupposes that doing anything that runs contrary to the creator's intention is somehow a bad thing in and of itself. Yet kitbashing, homebrewing, and modding remain time-honored hobbies. Shrek draws from many well-known fairytales (especially Disney's adaptations) and respects few (if any) of the original intentions behind them. House, M.D. wouldn't exist if David Shore had decided to respect the fact that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle never intended Sherlock Holmes to be a medical doctor. Thus it's hard to see why anyone should consider disregarding creator intent to be intrinsically negative.

The environmental argument states that derivative works should not aim to make any big changes from the original because the original simply reflects the environment it came from. For example, someone might argue that no one should try to write stories inspired by the Brothers Grimm and set them in modern day America with appropriate demographics represented because Brothers Grimm stories came from olden-times Europe, and should therefore reflect that environment forever and always. But according to this logic, Star Wars should not exist because that sort of story should only ever be set in Medieval Europe, and certainly never off in a galaxy far, far away. I don't think anyone would argue that Star Wars shouldn't exist on these grounds.

For another example, a company decides to update or reboot an old piece of media. Many aspects of the media are updated for modern tastes, but a few things that don't sit well with modern audiences are left untouched. The hardline curatorial fan argues that the updated version was perfectly justified in leaving those aspects alone, because the original version was created way back when. So, they're essentially arguing that a product that was updated for the purpose of better resonating with a contemporary audience should not actually try to resonate with a modern audience.

The in-universe conditions/circumstances argument treats characteristics of the universe as immutable and fixed qualities, rather than as something that can easily be tweaked or removed entirely if someone so desires. For example, if someone says something along the lines of, "I don't like the way these people have to die by their twenty-third birthdays," the hardline curatorial will respond, "Yeah, but that's what their ancestors got for pissing off that sorcerer years ago. They were cursed as punishment." This "counterargument" completely misses the point. The canonical lore might explain why the curse is there, but the fact remains that the lore doesn't have to exist at all. The lore can simply be rewritten to exclude the curse or to change its nature, whichever the writer prefers.

The plausibility/realism argument claims that something should not exist or happen because it's just not plausible or realistic. While plausibility and realism are always concerns to some degree, these fans take it overboard. A hardline curatorial fan might claim that Medieval fantasy shouldn't have female warriors for reasons of historical accuracy. Problem is, this argument assumes that being 100% historically accurate is something that fantasy writers should worry about, which obviously isn't the case. The argument is also usually hypocritical: most of the Medieval fantasy that they like isn't anywhere near "historically accurate," either. The Catholic Church, for example, probably doesn't exist, let alone maintain a powerful influence over the better part of an entire continent. If it's fair to leave out the Church because it would be boring if everyone was Catholic, then it's fair to do away with the strict gender roles the Church helped establish and enforce.

Those who use the plausibility/realism argument are also prone to misunderstanding how percentages work. Someone might claim, for example, that because "only" 5% of a population belonged to a given demographic, then the odds of meeting someone belonging to that demographic are not high. However, they fail to consider that 5% would mean that one in twenty people belong to this demographic, so if you were going by percentages alone then every twentieth person you met would belong to this demographic. It also fails to account for the fact that demographics are rarely evenly distributed; you could have areas and communities that have higher numbers of them than elsewhere. Some are also hypocritical about it, too; they might complain that it's not "realistic" to have so many members of a minority racial demographic around, but have no issue with the story centering on any number of fantastic beings who in-universe are so scarce that they're far outnumbered even by the minority racial group.

The censorship argument claims that any attempt to change something is just trying to censor the original product. The problem with this argument is that for it to be true, the ones doing the adapting would also have to be trying to make the original work unavailable. This is rarely, if ever, the case. If anything, it's the hardline curatorial fans who are attempting censorship by trying to prevent the creation of anything that doesn't suit their own tastes.

The inconsequentiality argument claims that the alterations that transformatives propose don't change anything important, and are therefore pointless. Changing a character from white to non-white, they might argue, is too superficial to have any impact on the plot and is therefore pointless. But these people have once again completely missed the point: while the overall plot might be the same, it has massive implications for where a character might have come from, what shaped this character's perspectives, and how this character feels about things right now. This alone creates rich potential for fanfiction that explores the implications of this. Thus what they do bears little fundamental difference from people who write alternate histories or speculate on what might have happened if Abraham Lincoln had been a vampire hunter. Did making Honest Abe a vampire hunter change what happened at Ford's Theater? No, but we sure had a great time watching him slay vampires, anyway.

They might also snidely ask, "You know you can't change canon, right?" Of course, transformative fans are already aware of this. Thing is, changing actual canon isn't even the point. The point is to explore new possibilities and see where they lead, or to create a personalized version of the work that they like better, or just to amuse themselves for awhile.

What fans who make arguments like these truly are is busybodies and meddlers. The vast majority of what they complain about does not meaningfully affect them in any way. No one is forcing them to play an RPG based on someone's rewritten lore. No one is stealing the original copies of their beloved movies and replacing them with altered versions.

Hardline transformative fans tend to make trouble in other ways. In RPG environments, they might make up their own lore without bothering to consult with anyone else. When called out, they might insist that they're "just trying to have fun" or tell the players that it's just a game and that they should stop trying to take it so seriously. The fact that everyone needs to have a common understanding of the game's setting to play a coherent game either goes over their heads, or they just don't care. When it comes to issues like the fact that they don't have consent from anyone whose characters their creative liberties might affect, or that they're creating massive plotholes, or that what they're proposing makes no sense in context, they often just don't care. They act as if their "creative freedom" comes before game balance and internal consistency, as well as anyone's ability to actually enjoy the game.

Sometimes hardline transformative fans insist that everyone takes their headcanons as seriously as they do. Rather than accept that their own personal interpretations and ideas are just that and recognize that everyone is equally entitled to have their own, they insult and harass those who don't adopt them. An example of this would be a fan who claims that the only explanation for a character's quiet and withdrawn behavior is childhood bullying, then when others point out that social anxiety can have other causes, writes vitriolic rants accusing them of being ignorant and uncaring toward victims of bullying.

Hardline transformative fans might even insist that their own ideas and spins are better than the original, no matter how contrived or half-baked they are. They equate making something more enjoyable for themselves with making it objectively better, period. A good example of this are people who think that making anything dark and gritty automatically makes it smarter, more mature, etc., even if their altered versions make no internal sense and completely eliminate the qualities that made the originals so appealing.

Despite all of their differences from hardcore curatorial fans, when it gets down to it hardline transformative fans have exactly the same problem: they try to impose their own opinions and creative visions on others. They both complain about people getting things "wrong" in their RPs, fanfics, adaptive works, etc. Both get upset when other people have "incorrect" opinions or interpretations. Both of them think that their own opinions on what's good or fun are better than anyone else's. Both of them treat fandom as a zero-sum game where someone doing something "wrong" is somehow taking something important away from them. Both of them act like they have the moral high ground while being nothing more than pests who need to learn how to mind their own business.

Here's what it boils down to: Everyone is allowed to have opinions. Everyone is allowed to criticize things they don't like. People are allowed to think that canon is just fine, and they're allowed to think that it could use some polish. Unless what someone is doing could actually get someone hurt (EG, by promoting a hateful agenda), or is in tremendously bad taste, or is directly interfering with your own personal affairs somehow, relax and let it be.

You might also like:

Basic Advice For Giving Useful Feedback To Creators
How To Behave In A Creative Help Community
Dealing With Criticism & Negative Reviews
The Voice of Reason vs. the Control Freak - The Difference

How To Quickly Spot Abusive & Manipulative People
How To Recognize A Moral Abuser
How To Recognize Gaslighting
Guilt Tripping: What It Is And Isn't, And How To Deal With It

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