An Open Letter to Stephen Colbert

editorial

Note: this article was also published on Medium.

Dear Stephen,

May I call you Stephen? I’ve been a fan for quite some time and have enjoyed your work, whether it’s been skewering President George W. Bush at the White House Correspondents Dinner or singing in Company, so I feel like I can be a bit familiar with you.

One of the many reasons I like you, Stephen, is that you are unashamedly a nerd. Whether it’s the Captain America shield on the set of The Colbert Report or “winning” a Tolkien trivia contest against Peter Jackson, the fact is that you are one of the many celebrities that have helped combat the stigma against the geek/nerd/fan and have helped make it not only okay to admit you’re a fan, but to even be cool because of it.

But here’s the thing, Stephen. Last night, The Late Show broadcast your interview with Martin Freeman as part of the promotion of series 4 of Sherlock that’s coming out in January. While I don’t normally tune in to any late night shows, I watched – both as a fan of Sherlock and as a fan of Mr. Freeman.

Photo by Scott Kowalchyk and courtesy CBS Broadcasting Inc.

The interview, for the most part, was good. Yes, we had the standard stuff you expect from these promotional gigs, but you got to make your Hobbit jokes and have a bit of fun with him since you’ve interviewed him before. However, you then proceeded to ask Mr. Freeman about Sherlock fan art – and then showed him (and the world) a piece of ‘erotic’ fan art and proceeded to talk to him about the art that is out there.

As a fan yourself, you should know better. While yes, fan artists and fan fiction writers put our work on the Internet, which means anyone can access it, you as a fan should know that there’s an unwritten code that says fan art and fan fiction is produced with the understanding that it won’t be shared with anyone connected with the media it’s portraying. At least, not without the creator’s permission. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that there were lawsuits against these sort of things, partly in the fear of diluting copyright.

In addition, you did it with the intention of making Mr. Freeman uncomfortable about it, which in turn has the subtext of making fun of the fan art. I am disappointed in you, Stephen. While we as fans have come to expect the usual jokes about how ‘crazy’ and ‘silly’ we are from mainstream people such as Graham Norton, I expected better of you. I had hoped you of all people understand the thin line between laughing with and laughing at fans, and with this part of the interview, you crossed that line.

Photo by Scott Kowalchyk and courtesy CBS Broadcasting Inc.

It doesn’t help that many fan creators identify as women – and many young women to boot. Especially in the Sherlock fandom. Women – especially younger ones – have historically been treated as ‘silly’ and ‘crazy’ for their passions. Even the term ‘fangirl’ has a more negative association with it than the opposing ‘fanboy’. This has directly led into the whole ‘fake geek girl’ myth that still plagues many of us.

For many women, erotic fan fiction and fan art is an important way for us to stake a claim in our sexuality, a way to acknowledge that we have sexual desires that are perfectly valid. Our culture is designed to mock women for owning their sexuality, denying them that freedom and agency. While women are teased for watching Sherlock for how handsome Benedict Cumberbatch is, there’s no similar acknowledgement of how so many men are fine with ogling Scarlett Johansson’s skin-tight suit in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s considered a rite of passage for young boys to have posters with scantily clad women as part of their entry into the world of heterosexual masculinity, but when young girls have posters of One Direction, they are considered frivolous and silly and not taking things seriously. (And don’t get me started on how heteronormative this is: many fan creators fall within LGBT lines, and are doing this less out of a desire for the erotic content and more out of a desire to see representation on screen.)

You’ve often purported that you are a feminist, Stephen, and have stood up for the rights of women. You’ve even interviewed Anita Sarkeesian, so you have an idea what women geeks are up against. Mocking erotic fan art and fan fiction can be seen as an attempt to take our power away: to show that these creators aren’t “serious”. In effect, it’s along the same kinds of mocking of fans that geeks have been getting for years – just along gender lines instead.

The Late Show’s marquee, lit for the first time in 2015. Photo by Jeffrey R. Staab and courtesy CBS Broadcasting Inc.

As I said at the beginning, Stephen, I’ve always liked your style. You portrayed the idea that you know personally the struggle we nerds have gone through in the past, and usually show a little bit of that wonder that it’s now – for the most part – chic to be geek. It was unfortunate that you let this part of the interview happen, and I am saddened that you showed the art without even acknowledging the artist.

I’m still a fan of yours – you’re still a good guy, after all. But maybe think twice about this kind of bit in your future interviews? Handle it more like the nerd you are, instead of the celebrity you became. After all, that’s what makes you unique.

Your fan,

Angie Fiedler Sutton

  • I can understand where you would be offended, however their art is out there. Should Stephen have shown it to Freeman for the purpose of making him uncomfortable. . . no. However, that fan art is out there, so if it were to be shared, I mean you’re putting that out there. Who knows? Maybe Martin Freeman already knows about this fan art already?

    • Angie Fiedler Sutton

      First, apologies for taking so long to reply. My day job got a little crazy, and then I got some freelance work, so I’ve not had the time I wanted to devote to giving your comment the attention it deserved.

      Second, thank you for commenting. It’s always great to get comments on my blog – they’re very rare. So I appreciate it.

      Third, I’m very sure that Martin is very aware of the fan art that’s out there. As I wrote in my essay, it’s been done to him before. Hell, there’s a running joke on Tumblr that he’s probably on there, trolling us with the worst of it. That’s not what bothered me.

      What bothered me, as I wrote, was that Stephen *specifically* did this. I probably would’ve just shook my head in frustration had this been done on Jimmy Fallon or Jimmy Kimmel. As I wrote in the essay, “As a fan yourself, you should know better. While yes, fan artists and fan fiction writers put our work on the Internet, which means anyone can access it, you as a fan should know that there’s an unwritten code that says fan art and fan fiction is produced with the understanding that it won’t be shared with anyone connected with the media it’s portraying. At least, not without the creator’s permission. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that there were lawsuits against these sort of things, partly in the fear of diluting copyright.”

      Had he acknowledged the artist, or indicated he had gotten the artist’s permission, and had it not been done with the intention of SHAMING the artist/fans, I wouldn’t have written this. As a fan himself, he knows the struggle we have – and as I wrote in the essay, the shaming of erotic art inevitably is tied up in the ‘aren’t girls just silly?’ trope we see way too often. As my essay indicated, I expect better of him. He has always held himself up as a defender of the nerd, and a defender of women to boot. This was a shaming on both levels, which made it clickbaity in the worst way.

      Thanks again for writing, and I hope you understand my frustration better.