In Defense of the Worst Fanfic Ever Written: Reexamining My Immortal From a Feminist Perspective
"We went on the bed and started making out naked and then he put his boy's thingy in mine and we HAD SEX. (c is dat stupid?) (My Immortal, Chapter 11)
These powerful lines are only one of many in Tara Gilesbie's fanfic My Immortal, widely regarded as one of the most popular fanfics ever written. The story first appeared on in 2006 under the username "xXblo0dyxkissxX," and it quickly became a fandom phenomenon, with each new chapter garnering thousands of readers and reviews. This has given the fic a kind of cult status in the fandom community. Abraham Riesman has gone so far as to compare the fic's iconic status to that of "Stonehenge or the works of Shakespeare" (Reisman, 2015). Anne Jamison, a renowned fandom history scholar and author of Fic, considers the fanfic as "really brilliant"(Jamison, 2013).
My Immortal's enormous cultural significance is demonstrated by the fact that the fandom community continue to read and discuss it a decade after it was first written. Even after the fanfic's inexplicable removal from the website in 2008 (it was reposted in 2011, and has garnered over 4,000 reviews since then) it has been widely shared and discussed. It's also inspired its own miniature Wikipedia, fanart, parody versions, dramatic readings, and even a live action web-series. And yet, despite the fic's enduring legacy, too many readers are unfairly prejudiced against it, railing against its strength and subtlety on their Tumblr and Livejournal pages. One can only speculate that several fans, jealous of the immense popularity of the fic even a decade after it was written, have persisted in labeling My Immortal as "the worst piece of fanfiction ever written", an appellation which has, unfortunately, blinded new readers to the fact that the fic is, in fact, one of the strongest, most empowering stories for young women today.
My Immortal is a bold and subversive take on the original Harry Potter series. It replaces the books' male protagonist with a 17-year-old vampire, Ebony Dark'ness Dementia Raven Way. Ebony becomes entangled in a passionate love affair with the sensitive, sexy vampire Draco Malfoy, also befriending his ex-boyfriend Harry "Vampire" Potter. Ebony, like several other characters in the story, belongs to the most marginalized clique in the school; she is a Slytherin as well as a "goth," constantly at war with the more popular "preps" and "posers" at the school. Over the course of the fic, Ebony battles depression, rescues herself and her boyfriend from the advances of the pedophilic Professor Snape, and goes back in time to seduce a young Dark Lord Voldemort to stop him from turning evil.
Thus, this essay will reexamine this classic fanfic from a feminist perspective, paying close attention to its searing, soulful portrayal of Ebony as a young woman in a patriarchal society. I will argue that My Immortal tells the story of a woman whose sexuality is under siege by powerful male authority figures, specifically the wizards Dumbledore and Voldemort. I will show that while Ebony is constantly threatened by male wizards, she refuses to give up her right to engage in sexual activity, eventually finding ways of opposing the authority of the male figures who try to repress her. She carves out a space for her own desires by using her sexuality as a weapon against those who seek to threaten it, emerging triumphant at the end of the story.
No matter how biased they are against My Immortal, no reader can fail to admire its unflinching portrayal of female sexuality, as noted in the quote below:
"He was so sexy that my body went all hot when I saw him kind of like an erection only I'm a girl so I didn't get one you sicko" (Chapter 5).
Here, Ebony is entirely unapologetic in describing her ardor for Draco. By using the word "erection" to describe female sexual desire, Gilesbie makes a compelling point about the patriarchal world of Hogwarts, a world in which female sexuality is always viewed with suspicion. This is made doubly obvious when Ebony breaks the fourth wall and attacks the reader as a "sicko" for only wanting to read narratives about male sexual desire. This notion can even be read as a broader critique of the predominance of slash in fanfiction, a reminder to the predominantly female fanfic community that they are neglecting female desire in their male-dominated, homoerotic narratives. Simone de Beauvoir, in her foundational tract on feminist literary theory, The Second Sex, asked "Why do women not contest male sovereignty?" (p.7) (Beauvoir, 2009). Gilesbie, in appropriating the masculine word "erection" to describe her own sexual desire, is asking the fandom community the same question.
In fact, the story is full of instances of the famous literary trope of "coitus interruptus." In this respect, Gilesbie was a predecessor of literary visionaries like Stephanie Meyers and Veronica Roth, who also used the same trope to great effect in the Twilight and Divergent series. Throughout the fic, whenever Ebony tries to have sex, she is frequently interrupted by Dumbledore, Voldemort, and a number of other authority figures. An example of this is her first sexual encounter with Draco, which takes place, significantly, in the Forbidden Forest:
"Draco climbed on top of me and we started to make out keenly against a tree. He took of my top and I took of his clothes. I even took of my bra. Then he put his thingie into my you-know-what and we did it for the first time. 'Oh! Oh! Oh! ' I screamed. I was beginning to get an orgasm. We started to kiss everywhere and my pale body became all warm. And then…. 'WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING YOU MOTHERFUKERS!'
It was…Dumbledore!" (Chapter 4)
Gilesbie is very explicit and unapologetic in her portrayal of Ebony's ardor. The short, staccato sentences mimic the urgency of the sexual act. The extensive use of ellipses serves the purpose of titillating the reader, and here again, the author pays homage to her largely female audience by focusing so explicitly on female sexual desire. The use of ellipses also serves to make Dumbledore's entrance on the scene all the more jarring. As the prominent male authority figure at the school, his violent, misogynistic response is symptomatic of a larger problem of patriarchal repression at Hogwarts. The location of this encounter in the Forbidden Forest points to the dearth of legitimate spaces for female sexual desire in androcentric societies.
The tree against which the pair engage in coitus is also very obviously a phallic symbol, one of many which recur throughout the story. Later in the fic, when Ebony goes to the tree or the Forbidden Forest, she is crying over a fight with Draco, and she is once again threatened by a powerful male wizard:
"Then all of a suddenly, an horrible man with red eyes and no nose and everything started flying towards me on a broomstick! He didn't have a nose (basically like Voldemort in the movie) and he was wearing all black but it was obvious he wasn't gothic. It was… Voldemort!" (Chapter9)
With his red eyes and his menacing broomstick (an obviously phallic symbol of power) Voldemort is a menacing figure, and it is significant that his first act in the fanfic is trying to place the Imperius curse on Ebony. He poses a considerable threat to her agency and autonomy throughout the fanfic, literally forcing a gun on her and telling her that she must kill Vampire (Harry) Potter. When she tries to refuse, he threatens her newfound love and sexual autonomy, telling her, "If thou dost not, then I shall kill thy beloved Draco." After this, Voldemort "flies away angrily on his broomstick" (Chapter 9).
It is at this point that Ebony begins to fight back against the male authority figures in the fanfic. Refusing to kill Vampire, she deeply upsets Draco, driving him into a depressive episode that tears them apart. A short while later, she is taking a bath when she notices something horrifying:
"Then I looked out the window and screamed… Snape (?) was spying on me and he was taking a video tape of me! And Loopin was masticating to it! They were sitting on their broomsticks. (Chapter 11)"
Here again we have two powerful male authority figures at the school encroaching on Ebony's privacy and sexual freedom when she is at her most vulnerable. In fact, Gilesbie goes beyond the allusive literary symbolism of broomsticks, to a literal exposure of male genatalia through her portrayal of Snape and Lupin "masticating" on their broomsticks. Ebony, confronted by the stark reality of her masticating teacher, cries out in rage and terror. Vampire (Harry) runs in to rescue her, but interestingly, his attempt to cast the Killing Curse fails. In this patriarchal society, there is now no male character who has been able to save Ebony. So it is fitting that she experiences her first moment of triumph at precisely this pivotal moment. In the words of Simone de Beauvoir, "All oppression creates a state of war. And this is no exception" (p.754). Ebony turns Voldemort's gun, the male symbol of power and aggression, to defend herself against Snape and Lupin:
"I took my gun and shot Snape and Loopin a gazillion times and they both started screaming and the camera broke" (Chapter 11).
In rescuing herself so decisively, Ebony has taken her first step towards independence and empowerment. The plot rewards her for it when Dumbledore declares her as the Chosen One:
"There is only one person who is capable of killing Voldemort and she is in the school. And her name is…..Enony Dark'ness Dementia Raven Way" (Chapter 22).
This is a transcendent moment for the character, her empowerment, and her autonomous self-actualization, and it is marked by the use of her full name, her fully realized identity. It is, in fact, a pivotal moment in Ebony's journey. She has gone from being a victimized teenager to becoming the last best hope for the wizarding world; she has essentially usurped Harry Potter's place in the narrative. In addition, the extensive use of ellipses here gives her new identity as the Chosen One an added sense of power and wonder, quite different from the menacing note with which it was used to describe Dumbledore earlier in the story.
Unlike Vampire, however, Ebony turns for guidance not to Dumbeldore, but to a young, powerful witch—her favorite teacher, Professor Sinister. Sinister is "really young for a teacher," but, like Ebony, she is also a goth. She dresses provocatively, flaunting her confidence and her sexuality by wearing "gothic black lipstick" and "a black leather top with red lace and a long (gothic) black ripped dress." Ebony thinks that she is "da coolest fucking teacher ever" (Chapter 24). It is this teacher who becomes Ebony's mentor, reappropriating the role Dumbledore performs for Harry in the original series. Sinister is instrumental in Ebony's eventual defeat of Voldemort.
Significantly, Professor Sinister does not suggest a direct confrontation with the Dark Lord. Explaining that in his youth, Voldemort had had his heart broken, she tells Ebony:
"U must go back in time and sedouce him (Voldemort). It is the only way. If he is still evil then you must kill him" (Chapter 27).
This piece of advice is one that not only allows Ebony to express her sexuality, but it also legitimizes it. It is extraordinarily powerful that after she and Draco are continually interrupted by male authority figures earlier in the fic, Ebony is now allowed to use her sexuality as a weapon. It is also significant that after this point, Draco seems to play a diminished role, reducing his influence on the trajectory of the plot.
Under Sinister's guidance, Ebony uses a Pensieve to travel back in time to when Voldemort is a teenager, successfully seducing him in what is probably the most lyrical passage in the fanfic:
"'Kul.' I raised my eye suggestingly. And den…. he tok of my cloves sexily and we started 2 make out. I tok of his shit. He had six-pak justr lik Gerard Way! We frenched" (Chapter 38).
The description shows that Ebony is no longer just a victim of the men around her but has learnt to use her sexuality as a weapon. In raising her eye "suggestingly," she initiates the sexual encounter. The comparison to Gerard Way—the charismatic frontman of the band My Chemical Romance and her idol—shows that she is very aroused by Voldemort. From this point on, Ebony behaves with greater confidence and agency, bringing the teenage Voldemort, who is hopelessly in love with her, to her timeline and offering him her protection, thereby enacting the part of a traditionally male, chivalric hero. In a startling and brilliant twist, she also manages to catch Snape and Lupin having sex in a classroom and videotapes them, threatening to blackmail them if they try to interfere with her friends or her sex life. Here, again, we see her acting decisively to re-appropriate power from the male wizards in the story.
The fanfic ends with a breathtaking and grandiose battle when the older, more evil version of the Dark Lord Voldemort resurfaces with the intent of killing everyone. During the duel that follows, we experience the satisfaction of seeing Dumbledore completely helpless, shouting, "Save us, Ebony!" in a panic. Ebony's casting of the Killing Curse, "ABRA KEDABRA!11111" is the last line of the fanfic (Chapter 43). Despite the visceral, abrupt ending, the general consensus in the fandom community is to regard it as a complete fic. Indeed, it is hard to argue that this isn't a satisfying place to end a story—with Ebony at her strongest, most confident self, standing up to Voldemort and saving her friends from evil. She has overcome all the male authority figures who tried to oppress and shame her for daring to feel desire.
In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir points out that, "Objections to this system always imply respect for sexual taboos; but it is useless to try to inhibit curiosity and pleasure in children; this only results in creating repression, obsessions, and neuroses; exalted sentimentality, homosexual fervor, and the platonic passions of adolescent girls along with the whole procession of nonsense and dissipation are far more harmful than a few childish games and actual experiences." (p.762). We see this truth borne out by the plot of My Immortal, in which the entire narrative is driven forward by Ebony's determination to overcome the repression of her sexual desire by a violently misogynistic and patriarchal society.
Thus, even detractors of the fic cannot be left without the impression that Ebony has done anything but triumph at the end, both over her enemies and over all the men who attempted to encroach upon her privacy and her sexual autonomy. This is a powerful message for the thousands of women who have read and responded to this fanfic over the past 10 years, as well as for all of humanity. Given its enduring legacy, the subversive portrayal of female autonomy in the fic might make this, in fact, the very best fanfic ever written.
Beauvior, S. D. (2009). The Second Sex. New York: Vintage Books.
Gelesbie, T. (2016, 2 15). My Immortal. Retrieved from ff .net: s/6829556/1/My-Immortal
Jamison, A. (2013). Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World. Dallas, Texas: Smart Pop, BenBella Books, Inc.
Riesman, A. (2015, 3 12). The Bizarre, Unsolved Mystery of 'My Immortal,' the World's Worst Fanfiction Story. Retrieved from The Vulture.
I am not crazy. This was written as an assignment for my Humor Writing and Satire class. I was trying to parody academic writing and modeled this after the countless essays of literary criticism that anyone in academia would be familiar with.
Most of my classmates don't know much about the world of fanfiction and had never heard of My Immortal, so they laughed really hard while we were work-shopping this. I also want to say that though I poked fun at Twilight and Divergent, I have read and enjoyed both these series. I also definitely don't think that women are ignoring their sexuality by writing so much slash- that would be ridiculous! But it is just the sort of statement that a pretentious literary critic would make.
Also, here are the complete quotes by Abraham Reisman and Anne Jamison which I mentioned in the first paragraph, just in the interest of transparency. I wanted to include citations but no one has ever seriously argued that My Immortal is a literary masterpiece before, so I had to work with what I had. Both these quotes are pulled from the fantastic Vulture article by Abraham Reisman (the link is in the citations):
1. "Like Stonehenge or the works of Shakespeare, we'll probably never know who was behind "My Immortal" — the massive Harry Potter–inspired text that is widely regarded as the worst piece of fanfiction ever written — but there's no shortage of theories."
2. "It's really brilliant, in its way," said Anne Jamison, an associate professor of English who's teaching a course about fanfiction at Princeton University this semester. "It's all the things that people in the fanfic community most hate." She's of the opinion that "My Immortal" is a satire, and a viciously intelligent one, at that. Indeed, she's made the story the first piece of assigned reading for her class."
FYI, Anne Jamison's book Fic is included in the citations even though it doesn't include the actual quote because it is utterly fantastic and should be read by everyone in fandom. It traces the history and the evolution of fanfiction from Sherlock Holmes to the present day. I loved it and I think anyone who has been in the world of fandom for even 5 or 6 years would get a lot out of this has a whole segment on Cassandra Clare and other amazing stories of famous flame wars and fandom wank.
Though it was well-received by my teacher and classmates, I am very curious to know what the fandom audience will make of this reading of My Immortal. Please review and let me know what you think!