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Why fans think HBO’s Euphoria crossed a major fanfiction boundary

‘Larry’ fanfiction enters the mainstream

anime artwork of Harry Styles behind Louis Tomlinson in an embrace HBO

HBO’s Euphoria kicked off its third episode with a deep dive into ... fanfiction.

The series, which is deliberately provocative in its depiction of teenage sexuality, drug abuse, and sexual assault, has already shown that it’s not willing to pull any punches or soften content for its audience (remember the now-infamous “30 penis scene?”). The series’ latest episode kicked off with a deep dive into nascent camgirl Kat’s backstory — including her history writing massively popular One Direction fanfiction on Tumblr.

In a fanfiction dream sequence (written by Kat, narrated by Zendaya’s protagonist, Rue), an animated Harry Styles sidles up behind One Direction bandmate Louis Tomlinson, gently and seductively massaging the tension out of his shoulders before attempting to relieve Louis’ pre-show jitters through a decidedly more NSFW method. Pretty soon, they’re 69ing through the fabric of the universe — tension, presumably, relieved.

It’s a standard smut setup that wouldn’t bat an eye on a fanfiction hosting site like the Hugo-nominated Archive of Our Own or Wattpad. Furthermore, it makes sense in the context of Kat’s character arc — having grown up ostracized from her peers, she builds a substantial following online by sexually explicit fanfiction on Tumblr. Her fic writing career takes off after the aforementioned story, titled “The First Night,” blows up and, in-universe, kicks off the “Larry Stylinson” conspiracy theory, which insisted that Styles and Tomlinson were in a secret relationship.

Kat in HBO’s Euphoria laying in bed and using her computer.
Barbie Ferreria as Kat in Euphoria.
Eddy Chen/HBO

The sequence incited fan discontent for depicting the two idols in a sexual relationship, presumably without their consent. Tomlinson confirmed on Twitter that he “was not contacted nor did [he] approve [the sequence].” Styles has yet to speak out on the incident.

Writing fanfiction about real people — particularly the members of One Direction— isn’t a unique experience. The One Direction fanfiction archive runs deep: over 55,000 1D stories have been posted on Archive of Our Own, and searching “One Direction” on Wattpad returns over 292,000 results.

Even outside of that, writing fanfiction about real people isn’t particularly “edgy” or off the beaten path: Other bands like K-pop group BTS also have substantial fanfiction archives tied to their name, and real person ships were some of Tumblr’s top ships of 2018. Real person fanfiction (hereafter referred to as RPF) is fandom’s worst-kept secret. However, it’s one that many fans desperately attempt to keep out of the mainstream.

In the time since the episode aired, “Larries” — One Direction fans who ship Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson together romantically — have taken to social media in order to express their discontent. One tweet reads, “as a larrie i do NOT support that scene in that tv show. and i will not accept ANY blame for this and i will not tolerate any hate against me or other larries, who are all vastly in agreement, that this was NOT OKAY to put on a fucking tv show.”

However, others have pointed out potential hypocrisy in Larries disavowing Euphoria.

There is an apparent double-standard at play: why are fans who ship Tomlinson and Styles and write One Direction fanfiction frustrated with its depiction on a prestige television series?

To understand the discontent, you must first understand the history of “Larry Stylinson.”

Female fans shipping two male characters together — or in this case, two real people — is run-of-the-mill fandom. However, “Larry Stylinson” is widely regarded as the textbook case for fic transgressing fandom boundaries. Vox pointed out in 2016 that the ship has been around for almost as long as One Direction itself. However, there’s a distinction between imagining (and writing, and drawing) two celebrities in a relationship and “tin-hatting,” or committing yourself to the belief that they’re dating in real life.

As fans continued to dissect every small interaction between the two men, they became less affectionate in public. Tomlinson told The Sun in 2017 that shipping culture “created this atmosphere between [himself and Styles] where everyone was looking into everything we did. It took away the vibe you get off anyone. It made everything, I think on both fences, a little bit more unapproachable. I think it shows that it was never anything real, if I can use that word.”

Even while the band was still actively promoting together, fan insistence that the two were romantically together actively affected their relationship. Tomlinson reportedly told Tumblr’s since-discontinued Storyboard in 2012 that “[Larry] is a subject that was funny at first but now is actually hard to deal with, as I am in a relationship. Me and Harry are best friends. People look into our every move — it is actually affecting the way me and Harry are in public.”

Facing the negative consequences of certain “Larries’” actions, “Larry” became the poster child of fandom taken too far, or rather too close into contact with the objects of its affection. Now, that spectre haunts not only contemporary One Direction fandom but also other fandoms that regularly produce fanfiction about real people.

The ethics of RPF are morally grey at best. Fanfiction is occasionally (but not necessarily) sexually explicit. Even aside from negative consequences like the weakening of Tomlinson’s and Styles’ relationship, there are issues of using someone’s name or likeness in sexually explicit scenarios.

Fans generally cope with this by keeping fanfiction and other fan works as far away from the people they’re actually about. Those who create NSFW content regularly block the social media accounts of the celebrities they write about. Tagging artists in social media posts or worse, bringing fanfiction or ships up in person, is a major fandom taboo.

Perhaps most importantly, there’s a distinction between the “tin-hatters” and those working with a strong understanding that the characters they write about are nearly fully divorced from the individuals that they’re based on. Maintaining this understanding and keeping RPF as far away from the artist as possible are the two major rules in fandom centered around real people.

Euphoria broke one of them.

The sequence in question is lush with a cosmic color palette and anime-like illustrations of Tomlinson, Stiles, and Kat herself. It’s clear that this isn’t really supposed to represent either of the two men. However, the sequence brought the conspiracy theory out of the background hum of pop culture and into the mainstream, thrusting RPF into the spotlight given HBO’s television dominance and the buzz that Euphoria has been generating since its first episode.

Larries are protesting the sequence not because of its fanfiction roots, but because of both the complicated cultural norms surrounding RPF and the fandom history behind “Larry Stylinson.” The discourse surrounding the ship has been moderate at best in the years since One Direction began its hiatus in 2016, which feels like a relief after the fandom’s most controversial days in the early 2010s. Euphoria invoking “Larry” in 2019 dredges up fan drama from what may consider to be days past.

Despite this, Euphoria’s decision to invoke “Larry” makes sense. No other ship of its ilk has the same genre of pop culture resonance or instant recognizability. Furthermore, invoking One Direction fanfiction as a cultural phenomena indexes a particular kind of adolescent fandom experience: it’s boy band mania, burgeoning sexual desire, and massive online community rolled into one.

Ultimately, the vehement fan response — no matter how hypocritical — is testament to a perceived transgression of fandom boundaries on HBO’s part. In any case, “Larry Tomlinson” is back in mainstream discourse, for better or worse.

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