By Ananya Prasad
Recently, BookTok creator and self-proclaimed ‘Queen of BookTok’ Kierra Lewis came under fire for her TikToks about the American National Hockey League team, the Seattle Kraken and more specifically Alex Wennberg – one of their team members.
Lewis’ account focuses mostly on sports romance novels, a subgenre of the larger romance genre that delves into romantic interactions between athletes and other characters. A large majority of her content falls under the hashtag #spicybooktok which is dedicated to romance books with sexually explicit scenes commonly referred to as ‘spice’.
Lewis began posting about the Krakens and Wennberg after reading Emily Rath’s Pucking Around using Wennberg as a ‘proxy’ for a character in the fictional hockey romance book. When Lewis’ content started to go viral, the Krakens started to take advantage of their new-found fame even going as far as to fly out Lewis to one of their games.
Months after this, Wennberg’s wife Felicia released a statement on Instagram asking fans to refrain from continually sexualising her husband. This wasn’t received very well by Lewis’ side of BookTok. She and her followers took to the comments, hurling insults and accusations at both Alex Wennberg and his wife.
Being horny on main
While this controversy singles out Lewis and hockey, it is by no means the only sport that spicy BookTok has commandeered. Lauren Asher’s Throttled, the first book in her four-part Formula 1 series, has given birth to a plethora of sexual edits and videos of F1 driver Charles Leclerc, who is BookTok’s face claim for the central character in Asher’s book.
More often than not, the athletes represented in these books are aggressively masculine, alpha males with a propensity for being wicked playboys. And it isn’t hard to see why, as sports have traditionally projected a very macho image.
Role of fan fiction
But this culture of self-inserts, real-person fiction and the use of fancasts and face claims owes its popularity to an entirely different subsection of literature: fan fiction.
Fan fiction about boy bands if we’re being more specific. Anna Todd, the author of the best-selling After series, first started writing her novel as Harry Styles fan fiction for Wattpad. In 2014, she signed with Simon & Schuster for a three-book deal and then went on to be a producer for the series’ five-movie adaptation.
More recently, fans of K-Pop and BTS have taken over the fan fiction forums with K-Pop, overtaking Harry Potter as the category with the greatest number of fanfics.
RPF: creative or unethical?
RPF, or real-person fiction, and self-insert fiction presents fans with an easy avenue to project their assumptions and desires onto the characters and/or celebrities who make them feel seen.
As with most fan fiction, RPF has a markedly queer undertone, acting as a method for readers to combat the heteronormativity of most mainstream media. For many queer fans, RPF can also provide a way to write themselves into an ideal narrative and explore parts of their identities in a safe space.
RPF isn’t inherently scandalous, especially not if creators make sure to put the appropriate content warnings and disclaimers on their fan fiction. The true issue arises when fans begin to confuse the real world with the fictional one they’ve created.
Where is the line?
I am no stranger to RPF, in sports or otherwise – one look at my Tumblr presence will show you that I am also guilty of reading some of the better-written works of celebrity fan fiction. Having said that, I feel there is a line that one must not cross.
Celebrities agree to be in the public eye when they choose their careers, but they do not agree to be subject to their fans’ sexualising and dehumanizing them. While the chronically online era of celebrity may not have started this phenomenon, it has played its part in amplifying the most toxic elements.
In my opinion, making sexually explicit content about celebrities and athletes is fundamentally a violation of consent. These celebrities don’t know any of us personally nor have they ever given their okay to be treated in ways that make them uncomfortable. It is also hypocritical to comment on male athletes in these ways when we know we would never do the same for women. No, men do not receive the same volume of harassment that women do, but that doesn’t mean sexual harassment of men is non-existent. The same rules apply to everyone.
The romantic root of the issue
The romance genre itself isn’t free of blame. When the characters in these novels behave in terrible ways and sexually harass their love interests, they’re lauded for their persistence and enduring love. It sets the precedent that consent during sex doesn’t have to be explicit.
Author Tessa Bailey, who has written multiple ‘spicy’ romance novels, once said ‘Feminism goes out the window’ when asked about her process for writing spicy scenes. She goes on to say ‘I want you to be so attracted to me you can’t control yourself’ about her characters.
This incessant need to sexualise everything on TikTok affects female (and non-binary) athletes and creators as much as it does males. Lissie Mackintosh, a commentator for Formula 1, creates informative and helpful Formula 1 content for new fans of the sport, yet her comments section on TikTok mostly consists of romance fans face claiming and ‘shipping’ her with male drivers.
Dr Jessica Maddox, a BookTok researcher said it best. She believes ‘…we’re seeing a disconnect between how it would be understood in a book versus how it would be understood IRL, so to speak.’
My final thoughts
No one person is to blame for the way this trend is growing but it is important for readers, authors and organisations to recognise their part. We need to work on minimising the effect of this kind of harassment on young athletes before it reaches a level that hurts the entire romance community.
Ananya Prasad is a student at the University of Melbourne, currently in her final semester of a Masters of Publishing and Communication. She is an avid reader and consumer of media and loves nothing more than a good story.
Feature image: The book-loving community is everywhere. Image by cottonbro studio on pexel. Used with a CC0 license.