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Unpacking the twisty genre of political fanfiction through Curtis Sittenfeld’s Rodham

The Vox Book Club digs into why we’re fascinated by fiction about politicians.

Hillary Rodham Clinton during her senior year at Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts, 1969.
Wellesley College/Sygma via Getty Images

Welcome, book clubbers! This July, the Vox Book Club is delving into Rodham, Curtis Sittenfeld’s alternate history that explores a world in which Hillary Rodham never married Bill Clinton. Instead, Sittenfeld’s Hillary becomes a senator on her own — and she ends up running for president against Bill.

There are a lot of possible approaches to take with a book like Rodham, so this month, we’re changing up our usual discussion format to investigate the book theme by theme as opposed to chapter by chapter. This week, we’re talking about Rodham as a form of political RPF.

RPF, or Real Person Fiction, refers to any fiction written about real people, as opposed to fiction written about fictional characters. There’s a long tradition of RPF in the historical novels that frequently appear on the New York Times bestseller list, but there’s also a plethora of communities on the internet where amateur writers share stories they’ve written about contemporary celebrities, influencers, and even politicians.

To fully understand Rodham’s place in this strange and murky genre, I decided to call in an expert. So for this week’s discussion, Vox’s fandom expert Aja Romano has graciously agreed to lend their considerable knowledge of political RPF to the book club.

Constance Grady

Aja Romano! Thank you very much for joining the Vox Book Club this week to share your expertise. Let’s start off with a basic question: What is the appeal, as you understand it, of political RPF?

Aja Romano

I think we have to first broaden that question to ask: What’s the appeal of all RPF? There’s a primal human desire to turn the lives of public figures and celebrities into a spectator sport. You see this everywhere in culture, from the mythologizing of real Greek historical figures to tabloid journalism and reality TV — this desire to elevate the lives of celebrities into larger-than-life fictional archetypes. Because celebrities have cultural capital in a way that the rest of us don’t, and because they benefit directly from our interest in them, we often see their lives and their public personas as extensions of what’s happening in the culture itself. We write new myths around their lives — so, for example, the myth of the Knowles-Carters is a myth of modern Black excellence. The myth of the Kennedys is about the underlying tragedy of the American dream.

But we also want to insert ourselves into the minutiae of the daily lives of famous people (or obscure historical figures, we’re not picky) — to get into their heads, walk around in their imagined shoes for a while. Because RPF is a mode of fiction, it allows you to distance yourself from any icky discomfort you might feel if you tried to peer this deeply into the life of someone you know personally. And we assume as a culture that the celebrity persona is a fabricated construct to begin with. When you fictionalize it further, you have a way to project your own ideas, beliefs, and desires onto the “narrative” of these “characters” — a narrative that’s usually about celebrity, fame, and, in this case, politics.

There are three main kinds of political RPF: fictionalized biographies, like Alison Weir’s historical novels; regular fanfiction, like the kind I and my friends have written where the “characters” are just hanging out and doing tropey fanfiction stuff — having wacky White House shenanigans or working at a bakery or starting a rock band, the usual; and RPF in the form of political satire.

Most mainstream media thinks of political RPF as primarily satire, because that’s what they see the most — skits on Saturday Night Live, for example, or parodies in the Onion. But there’s increasingly an interesting blurring of all these categories: for instance, two recent plays about Hillary Clinton, Soft Power and Hillary and Clinton, both have elements of biography and satire but seem to fall more firmly in the realm of fanfiction in terms of where they take Hillary Clinton as a character.

Constance Grady

That’s so fascinating! And Hillary certainly seems to be the political figure who gets this particular not-quite-satirical treatment most often, even more so than the oft-parodied Donald Trump. Perhaps that’s because she’s been in the public eye, and heavily criticized within the public eye, for so long that she’s come to feel like not quite a real person to us anyway. She’s just a pantsuited silhouette you can put a slogan on top of.

One of the elements of fanfiction-y political RPF that tends to draw rubbernecked gawking from outside of the fanfic community is the centrality of sex to some of these stories, Rodham perhaps especially included. And I have to admit, when I got to the sex scenes in Rodham, I found myself clutching my pearls a bit. That was Bill Clinton talking about Hillary Rodham-not-yet-Clinton’s “honey pot” that I was reading! I had this reflexive feeling of getting icked out by how explicit the scenes were.

But I also ultimately found them helpful for thinking about the connection between fictional Hillary and fictional Bill. Part of Sittenfeld’s interpretation of their relationship is that Hillary is used to being treated as a sexless brain by most of the men she is attracted to, and so when she finds herself forging a connection with Bill that is both intellectual and sexual, she is grateful to him for the affirmation he has given her. And it’s this sense of affirmation, ultimately, that makes it so difficult for Hillary to leave Bill, even after a woman accuses him of rape: With Bill, she is both desirable and intelligent. Without him, she is a dowdy smart girl no one wants to have sex with. The storyline was ultimately humanizing, even though I also found it shocking.

How do you think about the function of sex in political RPF? Is it inherently intrusive? Is it humanizing? Both?

Aja Romano

So this is a super-controversial question! Many people find the whole idea of RPF to be a giant disgusting social taboo, especially when it involves sex. Those people are wrong! I’m very biased here because I see RPF as so completely divorced from the real people it’s being written about. Sittenfeld’s Hillary is a fictional construct that’s based on another fictional construct, Clinton’s carefully cultivated public persona. I’m assuming she’s never seen Billary be intimate together, never seen what Hillary is like at the end of the day when she stops performing a role and reverts to herself.

Everything Sittenfeld writes about that other Clinton, including her sexual proclivities, is made up. The only relationship her fictional sexual practices have to the actual Hillary Clinton is that we’re meant to project our own perception of “Hillary Clinton” and “Bill Clinton” into those scenes, and reconsider our assumptions about those personas accordingly. That’s just what you did while you were reading, and it sounds like, to that end, the story was effective.

Constance Grady

I’m interested in your statement that the belief that RPF is a disgusting social taboo is wrong. Could you say more about that? I think a lot of people who aren’t familiar with the genre see the words “explicit sex scene between a former president and first lady” and immediately respond, “Gross and intrusive; these people still have a right to privacy.” As someone who has spent much more time thinking about RPF than I have, how do you respond to that knee-jerk criticism?

Aja Romano

I’d remind them that they see such depictions of real people all the time, all across media, from The Tudors to The Kennedys to recent seasons of The Crown that showed real members of the royal family — people still currently alive — having sex. We have zero problems with that, culturally, because the act of casting actors to play those roles removes our association with the real people being depicted. But it’s all RPF. The only difference is that when we see the actors having sex, we picture the actors in our heads rather than the real people they represent. If the RPF is textual, then without that extra fictional layer of cinema, we usually just picture the real celebrities, which probably makes such sex scenes feel more like direct sexual fantasies.

And that’s something else to consider, frankly: Fantasizing about celebrities is typically healthy and normal, whether you’re fantasizing a sexual encounter or whether you’re fantasizing, as countless fans do, about befriending the celebrity or being related to them or just getting to meet them and have a personal encounter with them one day.

Like other social taboos, we don’t typically have a problem with people fantasizing about public figures as long as it stays under wraps and in your head. But age-appropriate fantasies are a part of reality, and to some extent we recognize this as a culture. That’s why we collectively created ”the Exception,” or “the Hall Pass.” You know — the one celebrity you’re allowed to cheat on your partner with. Culturally, we sexualize politicians as well — just look at the Kennedys or sexy Joe Biden.

Many, many celebrities commodify their sexual appeal as a part of commodifying their persona in general. And most celebrities are open about the difference between their public and private face, and they operate with the knowledge that their public face doesn’t entirely belong to them — that the public claims a stake in the construction of their public personas. After that persona is constructed, we might want to take it all back if things get sexy, but I’d argue by that point the persona we’ve all built together is its own nearly independent entity, and the sexualization of that persona is divorced from the real person we can never truly know.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t definite lines that shouldn’t be crossed, like sexualizing real underage people, or the entirety of the celebfakes and deepfakes porn craze — that, to me, is essentially AI revenge porn being enacted aggressively upon celebrities (near-universally women). But there’s a huge broad spectrum of ways we sexualize real people long before we reach those extremes, and people tend to focus on the parts that shock them while totally normalizing all the other parts.

Constance Grady

That’s such a nuanced point. It’s also interesting that Hillary is not one of the politicians we consistently sexualize, in spite of the fact that the broader public sexualized Bill quite a bit even before his plethora of scandals. Our understanding of Hillary as a sexless public figure only adds to the impression of scandal and transgression in these scenes.

Moving away from the sex question, it strikes me that political RPF is also a way of writing about power: who gets to wield it, what kinds of personalities are attracted to the pursuit of it, and what we can expect from them.

Rodham is particularly concerned with the question of charisma and its relationship to political acumen. In real life, Hillary “you’re likable enough” Clinton is consistently dinged for her perceived charmlessness. And in Rodham, Sittenfeld’s Hillary is continuously evaluating her own lack of sparkle when compared to natural politicians like Bill. She argues — without all that many specifics — that she is better at the hard work of legislating and executing policy than Bill is. But she also knows that he’s a better campaigner than she is. And one of the major questions of the book is whether Bill’s charm entitles him to more power than Hillary can amass.

Are these the kinds of questions that political RPF is particularly good at helping us think through? Do you think they would have the same urgency were Sittenfeld to “file off the serial numbers” and write Rodham about a generic fictional political romance turned sour?

Aja Romano

You’ve just hit on the key to RPF. I’ve spent all this time arguing that RPF is divorced from its subject, but the subject’s relationship to society, mediated by the public, is crucial to making RPF work.

For example: There are a little over 450 Bill/Hillary fics in the online fanfic archive AO3, and the most popular ones tend to involve them negotiating their post-Lewinsky scandal relationship both publicly and privately. That dynamic could still exist if they were a fake first couple, but as a reader, you wouldn’t have the direct added cultural context from knowing how society perceives the real Hillary Clinton. The fictional wife might be a hardworking woman who stays loyal to her husband, but we wouldn’t have the indelible image of Clinton saying, “I’m not standing by my man like Tammy Wynette” to contextualize what that loyalty looks like in real life.

Through fiction, we as members of the public can really explore and drill down into the way Clinton’s version of “soft power” has so often been wielded to protect and shield her husband from backlash even though he’s ostensibly the more powerful of the two. And if you actually ship Bill and Hillary and want them to live romantically ever after, you may have the interesting conundrum of choosing which era of Bill and Hillary you want to try to repair. That’s an additional commentary on their respective political and social evolutions, and on the way we’ve read them over the years. It all ties into the idea that the “character” has a real history that’s unfolded before you, and that history is real — it has some relationship to your own history, your own reality.

So you take the heightened emotional intensity of fiction and combine it with the layers of meaning and context around the real character fiction is working with, and you as a writer or reader now have a personal stake in that character and that real context that you didn’t have before.

Constance Grady

I love this. And Sittenfeld is absolutely critiquing the way Hillary’s soft power protects Bill. In real life, Hillary’s Tammy Wynette line was instrumental to Bill winning the Democratic nomination and then the presidency. But in Rodham, Bill has to face down that 60 Minutes interview without Hillary at his side. And Sittenfeld posits that in this scenario, he crashes and burns so hard that he leaves politics altogether — until he decides to throw his hat back into the ring just as Hillary is gearing up for her presidential run.

But how do you feel about Rodham, book clubbers? Does RPF strike you as a worthy genre? And do you think the execution pays off here?

Let us know in the comments, and then meet us back here on July 24 to discuss Rodham’s alternate history. And on July 30, we’ll be talking with Curtis Sittenfeld live on Zoom! RSVP now, and be sure to sign up for the Vox Book Club newsletter to make sure you don’t miss anything.

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