So often we hear about the bad parts of fandom – about the fighting, the entitlement and the cliques. About the hurt feelings and the misunderstandings. But that’s not all fandom is, not all it should be.
Today, we’re here to talk about the good things. About the shared love for something, about feminism, about the women we grew up idolizing. We’re here to talk about Katie Kawa and her Fan Mail Project. And what better way to do that than to speak with Katie, and have her explain to us what this project is all about:
What exactly is The Fan Mail Project?
The Fan Mail Project is a project I started through my website, Nerdy Girl Notes. The idea was to collect letters from fangirls and fanboys around the world to female characters who have had a positive influence on their lives. It’s basically a collection of thank-you notes to female characters from the fans who have been inspired by them. The plan is then to take those letters, write some essays connecting them to each other (and to the ideas of the importance of female representation in the media and the value of connecting to media through fandom), and put them together into a book to be published.
What was the inspiration for this project? What made you think: This is something I could do? More importantly, what made you think: This is something I should do?
I’ve known for a long time that I wanted to write a book about the media and fandom, but it took years for me to figure out the best way to do that. I wanted to do something more unique than a collection of essays, and that’s when I came up with the idea of writing letters to female characters whose journeys have inspired me.
Writing letters is something I’ve always loved. I find them to be an incredibly therapeutic exercise and a way for me to express my most sincere emotions without any kind of insecurity. Back in the very early days of Nerdy Girl Notes, I wrote a letter to Princess Leia from Star Wars, thanking her for inspiring me for so much of my life, and I was always so proud of that piece because it felt like the closest I’d ever gotten to showing people my true self through my writing about fandom.
Quick, though, I discovered, that this project would have a much greater impact if it wasn’t all about me. I try to live my life by the words of Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation: “No one achieves anything alone.” And that was how I wanted to approach this project. Over the years, I think Nerdy Girl Notes has become known for its community of open-minded and supportive commenters. As such, I wanted to find a way to keep that spirit of sharing and community alive in this project.
I believe that fandom represents a really beautiful intersection of the personal and the communal, and that was such a huge source of inspiration for The Fan Mail Project. Every time we share why a piece of media means something to us or why we love a character, we’re sharing a part of ourselves. I thought of what an honor and privilege it would be to share the stories of my fellow fangirls and fanboys by giving them an outlet to write about the impact a specific character has had on them.
And maybe in sharing their stories in this way, I could highlight just how much female representation matters. I’ve been interested in the concept of female representation in the media since college (I was an English and Communication Studies major with a concentration in Media Studies.), and this felt like a way to make the conversation about representation feel more personal while also giving those who might feel alone in caring as much as they do about this issue a sense that they’re not alone—there are so many of us who care so much.
How many letters do you have? What are the most-featured female characters?
As of right now, I have 67 letters from fellow fans, in addition to the 10 I’ve already written myself. I also have a couple left to write, and I have a few more coming in from fans who needed more time to write theirs. (If anyone is still interested in writing, I’m still taking submissions while I’m working on putting the book together, so feel free to email me about it at email@example.com.)
The character who is featured the most as of right now is Emma Swan from Once Upon a Time, which is fitting because she’s an incredible character who represents so much of what it means to be a strong woman in charge of her own story. Emma is closely followed by Peggy Carter (the Marvel Cinematic Universe), Lorelai Gilmore (Gilmore Girls), and Belle (Beauty and the Beast and Once Upon a Time).
What’s your goal for the project? If you take away everything else, what’s the one thing you want others to get out of reading these letters?
One thing? But there are so many! (To say I approach everything I do in life with many goals in mind is an understatement.) I think the biggest thing I want to do with The Fan Mail Project is to give those who wrote letters a voice and to show those who read the letters that they have a voice, too. The thing that means the most to me with this project is showing that these stories—both the fictional stories of female characters and the stories of the people inspired by them—matter.
For a long time, the idea of forming an intense emotional connection to a work of fiction was derided, and to some extent it still is. Some people can’t understand how someone could care about a fictional character as deeply as we do, and those people mock whatever they can’t understand. They label us “weird” or “crazy,” and I’d love for The Fan Mail Project to help even just one of those people understand why we care as much as we do, why a character’s happiness or success or just their ability to stay alive means so much to us. It’s because we see our stories reflected in their stories, and all we want is to believe that we can be happy, successful, and alive and well, too.
That’s why it matters when female characters are killed off of television shows at an alarming rate. It makes those of us who identify with those characters feel like we don’t matter, like we can easily be silenced and snuffed out. The world needs these letters and the stories they tell more than ever; the world needs to know why female characters and the treatment of them matter.
So if I could leave just one impression with someone who reads these letters, I hope it’s this: Stories about women matter—because stories about people like us make us feel less alone. And when we celebrate the stories we love, we’re celebrating our own stories, too.
Give me your Top 3 female characters. Who’s Katie writing letters to?
This is such a hard question! I’ve written 10 letters so far: Princess Leia, Leslie Knope, Emma Swan, Jamie Sullivan (A Walk to Remember), Rapunzel (Tangled), Rachel Berry (Glee), Kate Beckett (Castle), the women of The Selection series by Kiera Cass, Sydney Bristow (Alias), and Rey (The Force Awakens). I also have a few more I’d like to write this summer, including ones to Peggy Carter and Paige Jennings (The Americans).
If I had to pick my Top 3 female characters, I would narrow it down to Princess Leia, Sydney Bristow, and Leslie Knope. All three changed my life in a major way, and all three are characters who I look to for inspiration when I’m going through tough times. They taught me that women can be strong in so many ways. They taught me that the things I used to feel sensitive about—my outspoken nature, my intelligence, my inability to hide my emotions, the way I care deeply about what matters to me—are things I should value in myself because I value those traits in them. I consider it a huge honor any time I am compared to any of those three characters.
What did you learn about yourself and about fandom in general by undertaking this project? And, is the general impression positive or negative?
This entire experience has been and continues to be even more positive than I could have ever hoped for it to be. I’ve grown as a writer, a fangirl, and a human being through this project, and I can’t wait to keep growing as the process of turning all these letters into a book continues.
As far as introspection is concerned, I learned a lot about myself in discovering which characters moved me to write to them and what I ended up saying about those characters. All of them are women who defied what the world around them wanted them to be and chose to write their own narrative, to be their own person. And that taught me that I have something inside of me that longs to be like those women, who longs to define myself on my own terms and who is learning how to do that one day at a time.
I also learned that it takes real bravery to be open about what you love and why you love it. There were times when I sat at my computer and cried because I was so afraid to write a letter and share it with the world. But the bravery and honesty of those who participated in this project inspired me to keep going and to share my story, my truth.
That taught me that fans in general are much braver than we often get credit for being. It takes guts to be open about the things you care about, and that’s what it means to be part of fandom.
In terms of fandom in general, The Fan Mail Project reminded me that every single person in a fandom is just that—a person. They have their own stories, and those stories should be treated with care. We all interpret fiction based on our own experiences, and no two people have the same life experiences. So no two people will have the exact same interpretation of a work of fiction. That’s why we should always try to listen to each other and respect each other when we’re talking about the characters and stories we love. Fandom is a great way to learn about people, if you’re willing to take the time to get to know the person behind the URL or username.
The men and women who’ve contributed to this project represent the enthusiastic, articulate, and powerfully vulnerable spirit of fandom that often gets lost amid discussions of fandom behavior at its worst. More than anything, The Fan Mail Project showed me the very best of fandom: the collection of brave, open, hopeful hearts that just want to celebrate and talk about what they love. I can’t wait to share their stories with the rest of the world.
Want to participate in the project? Katie has reopened submissions from now until July 10th at 9:00 PM EST. Just send the letters to firstname.lastname@example.org.