Euphoria’s third episode, which aired Sunday night, revealed the backstory of Kat (Barbie Ferreira), a sharp-tongued teen whose reputation as an unremarkable plus-sized girl contrasts with her newfound part-time gig as a camgirl, performing in lingerie for the denizens of Pornhub. But before Kat started posting twerk videos to the internet, and before she was the victim of a cruel act of revenge porn, she was just another virgin writing erotic fanfiction on Tumblr.
“The summer before high school, [Kat] started writing fanfiction,” Rue (Zendaya Coleman) narrates over a shot of Kat writing a make-out scene (the characters’ tongues “battled for dominance,” an overused fanfic trope). “By the year’s end, she’d become one of the most prolific smut writers on Tumblr. She was known for her AU-crossovers and her consistent NC-17 ratings.”
Kat became anonymously famous for writing a smutty fanfic about One Direction’s Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson that quickly went viral. In the Euphoria-verse, she’s credited for starting the real-life widespread Larry conspiracy theory that hounded Styles and Tomlinson for much of their tenure in One Direction. In case you need a visual, the show beautifully illustrates said fanfiction with an anime-style cartoon of Kat’s Larry fic in action, with a seductive Styles easing a nervous Tomlinson’s pre-show nerves with a blowjob backstage before a concert. In the throes of passion, the boy band members morph into ethereal star constellations, 69'ing in a swirling cosmos while a transfixed kawaii version of Kat watches in the distance.
Online fandom—communities for fans of a piece of media, be it a book series, TV show, or a band—has long felt like something of an inside joke. It’s a hobby that only the Very Online actively dabble in and even the most socially inept understand as potentially too gauche to discuss with “IRL” friends. There are casual fans—say, someone who has watched all of the Star Wars movies—and there are the kinds of fandoms that go the extra step, using online platforms to share anything from Star Wars fan art to meandering headcanons about what kind of music Kylo Ren would listen to if he a teen outcast in a Star Wars High School AU fic, or alternate-universe fiction. (Post-hardcore, probably.)
It’s why Kat’s story comes across as both a mortifying unloading of dirty laundry and a conspiratorial wink. It’s also a representation I didn’t quite know I needed: that of the geeky teen girl who spends more of her formative years reading and writing about fucking than actually fucking.
That Kat was writing smut fic despite being a lovelorn virgin at the time reminded me of all the smut written by clueless teens and young adults whose limited understanding of sex was a mixture of fanfiction, porn, sex ed, and urban legend. This isn’t to say that everyone writing smut online has never had sex, but in retrospect, I stumbled upon far too many fics about Draco Malfoy’s 10-inch dick as a teen for the contrary to be true.
The girls who have favorite pieces of fan art, who made playlists for their favorite fictional pairings, who were somehow convinced into believing that saliva is lube and hopefully know better by now... Kat’s origin story was an homage to these girls, and it was refreshing as it was revealing. There aren’t many contemporary pieces of television or film that have explored this phenomenon as more than just a passing joke, which is absurd. Fanfic has defined the adolescence of hordes of millennials and Gen-Zers since the 2000s. And this rite of passage didn’t just impact the teens who are big on fantasy or sci-fi or pop bands either: There’s an entire generation of black women who could tell you about the time they read B2K fanfic.
Fanfiction, in particular, has always felt like the dirtiest fandom secret, an activity far too intimate to ever willingly discuss with “IRL” friends without wanting to die a little. I hesitate to say that I’m embarrassed by fanfiction, because it encouraged me to write and helped me explore politics and identity through an unconventional medium. But there’s something about admitting to being so invested in someone else’s fictional universe that you’re willing to read and write stories about their characters that will always feel a little silly, like playing make-believe way past the acceptable age range.
As someone who has spent more than half my life reading and writing fanfiction, it is something that I would hesitate to ever talk about with anyone who didn’t dabble in it themselves. Fanfiction is a deceptively vulnerable transaction where one allows their work to be consumed by a judgmental audience of complete strangers, and in return, the audience trusts a writer to help them get lost in a world that’s familiar but different. In a sea of mediocre fics, there are always the ones that stick with you, the ones that make you want to become a better writer, the ones that you stay up all night reading until you’re a bleary-eyed monster who only got four hours of sleep. There are the ones you try to desperately Google because the author deleted their archives, and those that haunt you because they were last updated three years ago and will likely remain incomplete because a pesky little thing called real life got in the way. How can you explain your myriad feelings that a particular fan fiction made you feel, to someone who thinks the entire concept is an oddity?
Fanfiction, and to a larger extent fandom, has largely remained a closed venture where online friends swap fanfic recommendations, silently judging the preferred pairings of your mutual fandom friends, and geek out without prying eyes. But as much as Kat’s introduction served as an homage to the girls of fandom, it also reminded me of the ways in which these communities are becoming increasingly less private.
As online subculture becomes mainstream, the concept of geeky havens—anonymous or otherwise—feel like they’re disappearing. Stan culture—the combination of “stalker” and “fan” which now generally refers to obsessive fans of a celebrity or piece of media—started to have more of a public presence on apps like Twitter instead of the labyrinths of Tumblr, LiveJournal, forums, or other fandom-friendly zones. This means that both the incredibly online and fandom freaks occupy the same space as moms, politicians, and their not-so-geeky peers, making the illusion of private space increasingly scarce. There’s also much less separation between fans and their objects of affection; at this point, Styles and Tomlinson are all too aware that people took Larry seriously, and comic-book nerds have deluded themselves into thinking they have a sense of ownership over entire film franchises, to cite two examples.
Euphoria’s succinct breakdown of Kat’s fandom acted as both an overdue depiction of what geeky girls are really like in the 21st Century, and a reminder of a simpler fandom of the past. Fandom was at its best when its weirdness was enclosed and kept to the dregs of LiveJournal and Tumblr, and while a fandom community still exists at the latter, the decentralization of this community has hurt more than it has helped. But maybe this is generational; 30 isn’t too far off in the horizon for me, and as a 15-year fandom veteran, I’ve seen fandoms live and die, fandoms migrate to different platforms, fandoms politicize. But regardless of how fandom evolves in the future, we can count on a subset of teen girls whose coming of age consists of reading fanfiction about their favorite fictional vampires, wizards, superheroes, and band members... fucking.