Transport yourself for a moment. Think of your ultimate unattainable crush, like your favorite celebrity, or a beloved fictional character. Now picture how your usually very separate worlds might collide — you reach for the same coffee order, or their dog tackles you in the dog park. You get to talking, and maybe one thing leads to another, and then ... congratulations: You've written your first "Imagine" on Tumblr.
If you're not familiar with the concept, Imagines are a niche form of fan fiction, written primarily on Tumblr but also on platforms like Archive Of Our Own and Wattpad, in which the author pens short scenarios with fictional characters or celebrities — only this time, it breaks the fourth wall. The story isn't about them. It's about you.
"Imagines are a genre of the internet that are situated at the intersection of fiction and role-play: they're a kind of open-ended roleplay that 'you' are invited to participate in," says Francesca Coppa, author of The Fanfiction Reader: Folk Tales for the Digital Age and one of the founding board members of the Organization for Transformative Works, in an interview with Bustle. "In that way, the writer of an Imagine is not entirely unlike a game designer, or a playwright, as much as an author. And 'You' are not just a reader, but a player and an actor, too."
"In that way, the writer of an Imagine is not entirely unlike a game designer, or a playwright, as much as an author. And 'You' are not just a reader, but a player and an actor, too."
Authors accomplish this with a set of unspoken guidelines that most Imagines follow. For instance, they're often written in second person. They use the term "Y/N," short for "Your Name," whenever someone references the fictional protagonist, so a reader could copy the work, hit "Find + Replace," and insert their own name into the narrative. They typically fall into certain categories, depending on what a reader is looking for, that range from "fluff" (think: first dates, cuddling) to "AUs" or alternate universes (think: you're going to college together; one of you is a barista in a coffee shop) to smut (think: literotica, but with your favorite characters/celebrities).
These Imagines vary wildly in their content, from sweet to romantic to downright scintillating, but the heart of most of them boils down to this: They are fantasies written by women, for women, in one of the very rare corners of the internet where their content is relatively safe from any unintended audiences. And as niche as they may seem, many Imagines authors have massive followings in their fandoms. Take, for instance, Tumblr user @mend-es, who spoke to Bustle under the pseudonym "Berry." Her prolific catalogue of Shawn Mendes-themed Imagines have attracted thousands of readers, and for good reason — her mastery and delightful subversion of common tropes, from holiday fluff to smut to her most popular ongoing Imagine, a college AU, are providing an outlet for her majority female readers that very little mainstream media can.
...the heart of most of them boils down to this: they are fantasies written by women, for women, in one of the very rare corners of the internet where their content is relatively safe from any unintended audiences.
"In terms of the actual content, I can’t speak for all Imagine writers, but I and (I hope) my readers get to think about the relationships we want and deserve," writes Berry to Bustle. "Sometimes it’s just harmless, ridiculous fun, but I often think it goes a bit deeper than that. How do we wish other people saw us? We write about Y/N being the girl with perfect hair that’s always shiny who’s sexy, because we want to have perfect, shiny hair and feel sexy. We also want to be the girl who can be in sweatpants and a messy bun, and still be unconditionally beautiful. Writing imagines in Shawn’s/the celebrity’s perspective happens quite a bit, likely for that reason. We want to feel seen and admired, for who we are and who we can be. Doesn’t everyone?"
"I can’t speak for all Imagine writers, but I and (I hope) my readers get to think about the relationships we want and deserve," writes Berry to Bustle. "Sometimes it’s just harmless, ridiculous fun, but I often think it goes a bit deeper than that. How do we wish other people saw us?"
It is impossible to talk about the concept of Tumblr Imagines without acknowledging a well-known problem: In 2018, there is still a massive gap in content like this created for women, by women, on a large, well-budgeted scale. Media aimed at women is simply scrutinized the way media aimed at men is not. We see this in the way Ocean’s 8 is considered a litmus test for women-led films, in the same month that Tag, arguably the infinitieth movie of its exact genre, will flop, and more films of the same ilk will continue to be made without question. We see this in the way "fangirls" are mocked for their enthusiasm over "silly" obsessions, where stereotypically male obsessions are considered "industries." We see this in the way women's desires, both romantic and sexual, are dismissed both in real life and in mainstream porn, which is often degrading to women.
"I’m of two minds about Imagines," Coppa tells Bustle. "On the one hand, I think it’s great to see young women casting-off the stigma that used to be associated with the figure of the 'Mary Sue,' that is, the figure who was the obvious female authorial insert in a story. Own your fantasies, that’s great, and why shouldn’t you? Put yourself in the story! ... That said, Imagines can often be very personal and second person can make them seem even more so. And when they’re written by teen girls or obviously very young women, I wonder if those authors realize how far their fantasies may be traveling beyond their own circles. While it’s great that the internet has made fandom so accessible, it’s also made fandom spreadable outside of traditional fannish communities, and that has upsides and downsides."
One of these downsides is, unfortunately, one that women are no stranger to: shaming as overt as trolls on the internet, and as subtle as someone they know in real life wrinkling their nose and saying, "You write about what?" It's the reason why this genre has only flourished recently, now that specific Tumblr tags have provided a "safe space" for it that didn't exist before... the reason authors like Berry are "Berry," rather than their actual names. Yes, a part of it is that this fiction involves real people — and authors like Berry are very cognizant of the fact that those real people are more universal placeholders in "Imagines" than representations of the people themselves — but it also boils down to the fact that we simply do not live in a world where women feel safe to openly express their desires and needs.
... it also boils down to the fact that we simply do not live in a world where women feel safe to openly express their desires and needs.
Which makes an overarching truth about Imagines rather sad: They are often not overly-romantic, fantastical narratives. They are a male character being kind and respectful to a female character; they are a woman whose sexual desires are acted on with reciprocation, and without shame; they are a place where women can live out a narrative not just how they want it to be, but how it should be. And the fact that there are so many of these, and that the content is consumed so widely, is at least in part because for so many women — the primary consumers of this niche content — those basic, simple pillars of mutual respect are unsettlingly rare in real life.
"Which makes an overarching truth about Imagines rather sad: they are often not overly-romantic, fantastical narratives. They are a male character being kind and respectful to a female character..."
"I tend to like writing the same kinds of things I like to read," Berry explains to Bustle. "Most of my Imagines have an already established relationship between Shawn and Y/N, probably because I’ve read so many 'falling in love' things that 'staying in love' things are more interesting to me. It’s the domesticity-type ones that I really love — Shawn cooking dinner, Shawn sleeping in with you, Shawn distracting you from your work ... I like reading the Imagines that fit my own life the closest." She adds, in regards to writing smut, "I think that’s where I learned a lot about what I like and don’t like, or what I want and don’t want in a relationship. It gave me the ability to choose in that way."
In this sense, Tumblr Imagines are far more than a safe outlet for the desire that women run the risk of being shamed for in the real world — for many, they're a template for how they should expect to be treated in a relationship. It's women writing for other women as a service, and almost an act of compassion: It's one anonymous writer saying to an anonymous reader thousands of miles away that they can and should own their desires and have these standards for the way they're treated, delivered in an admittedly unconventional way.
It's women writing for other women as a service, and almost an act of compassion...
Berry hits the nail on the head, describing the heart of many of these Imagines: "It’s situations where we want to say things like, 'Hey, here’s this man who’s not trash, and when I get drunk, instead of trying to sleep with me or leaving me alone, he takes my makeup off and gives me an aspirin in the morning. Because you know what? I deserve that kind of respect and love.'"
Love them, hate them, embrace them, or mock them — Imagines are nothing if not a reflection of society's attitudes about mutual respect in relationships and female desire. And until the kinds of narratives in these Imagines aren't considered "wish fulfillment," they are proof that we still have a long way to go.