Geek Word Wednesdays: A Definition of Meta in Fandom

Welcome to Geek Word Wednesdays, where members of Girls Got Game! will be featuring common terms relevant to geeks everywhere, and to a more critical discussion on geek identity, geek culture, and geek discourse. If you’ve ever got a word that you’d like us to study, let us know!

So we kicked off our #GeekWordWednesdays column with the definition of “geek”, which is the best term to discuss in light of what we’re trying to do here. This was followed up a few weeks later with the definition of “fandom”, which moved our discussion from talking about the individual to the community. Now we’re going to take a look at the definition of meta in fandom, within the specific context of the works people are fans of, fan works themselves, and discussion within fandom circles.

Throughout the course of my research for this article, I realized that there is no unifying definition for “meta”, which is interesting in itself. I’m pretty sure, as well, that lot of geeks don’t even know what meta entails – it seems as though it’s only popular as a term within certain online circles, while other circles either avoid using the term or aren’t aware that it exists at all. As such, I plan on constructing this definition from my position as a fan and literary/cultural studies scholar, based on what I’ve dug up online, what I’ve seen in the communities that I participate in, and from the critical opinions of other scholars. This, therefore, is less an attempt at standardizing a definition, and more like an informed opinion that readers can use as a launching point for further discussions.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s proceed!

Definition of Meta, for the Definition of Meta in Fandom

Etymology Online’s entry (pictured above) illuminates the specific context behind the use of the prefix in tandem with academic study. There is no mention of its use in the context of fandom and discourse within fandom. On the other hand, has something a little more specific to our interests:

Meta describes a concept which is an abstraction from another concept, used to complete or add to the latter. It is derived from the Greek preposition and prefix meta- (μετά-) meaning “after”, or “beyond”.
In fandom, particularly LiveJournal-based fandom, meta is used to describe a discussion of fanworks of all kinds, fan work in relation to the source text, fanfiction characters and their motivation and psychology, fan behavior, or fandom itself.
Meta or a meta essay can also be a fan-authored piece of non-fiction writing that discusses any of the above topics.

Interestingly enough, the next section of the article is titled “Not All Fans Agree on the Definition”. Surprise!

“From Metaphysics to Teen Wolf Meta: The Evolution of a Word” takes a look at meta from a philosophical (phenomenological?) standpoint, tracking the evolution of its use from its literary origins. On my end, I’d like to frame my definition of meta in fandom within this context for one simple reason: everything fandom-related can be viewed as a text that one can analyze. The works themselves, regardless of their medium, are stories with elements that we can study in parts and as a whole. The interactions between fans also have their own “narratives” that we can look at. There are patterns we can observe, textual gaps we can speculate on, subtext we can attack, and the like.

On that note, let’s talk about two terms: metafiction and metanarrative. Wikipedia defines “metafiction” as

…a literary device used self-consciously and systematically to draw attention to a work’s status as an artifact. It poses questions about the relationship between fiction and reality, usually using irony and self-reflection.

Metanarrative, on the other hand, is “a ‘narrative’ or ‘story’ is used for what we might ordinarily call a ‘theory’ about the way the world operates. Many such ‘theories’ are ordinarily taken to be the objective ‘truth’.” (The Literary Link)

Based on my personal observations, when some fans “do meta” online, they do a mix of metafiction and metanarrative. Their discussions count as metafiction, in a way, because they’re providing MORE fictional aspects to a fictional work, which is either grounded on their reading of the text at hand or their personal preferences as a fan of the series, character, or pairing. Fans know, of course, that there might not be any basis for their theories or interpretations whatsoever beyond their own opinion. Many of them don’t care. Some of them, in fact, continue to believe in their take on the character/series/pairing even AFTER the original creators of the work introduce elements that disprove their interpretations.

Image Reference of Mark Hamill, Definition of Meta in Fandom
Opinions regarding Mark Hamill’s statement on Luke Skywalker’s sexuality have been mixed. Some people feel that it was “revolutionary”, others weren’t happy with it. Still others were apathetic, because at the end of the day? For some fans, it doesn’t matter what “official voices” in their fandom have to say on any of the things that they love. (Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Disney, taken from this article)

This is REALLY relevant, I feel, to blog-based roleplayers, many of whom create “headcanons” for the characters that they roleplay from their fandoms. No two Roy Mustangs are alike: the “muse” of a roleplayer (slang for the character that a fan has decided to roleplay) is an artifact that a fan constantly constructs and deconstructs. RPers “canon review” for their characters, mining the source text for the sole purpose of depicting a character of their choice as “accurately” as they can manage, determining what is “useful” to them and what isn’t, locating points of ambiguity that they can exploit in a plausible (or, at times, downright gratuitous) fashion. It’s sort of like how several actors will all have different takes on the same concept, with just a few points of convergence.

A DWRP's Muse List, for the Definition of Meta in Fandom
Here’s a screenshot of the muse list of a roleplayer on DWRP. Using HTML codes, the roleplayer created a table whose cells each link back to the journals that she uses for each of the characters that she roleplays. They are all from different canons, with different levels of complexity with regard to their portrayal in their respective series. Furthermore, of interest is the tag “!63”, which means that those are genderbent interpretations of the characters mentioned above.
Making a muse list is common practice in DWRP, especially since it helps other roleplayers find someone to play with. You can look other examples here and here.

As implied above, however, meta may also involve other aspects of the series outside of characters and relationships between characters. When I posted an open call to share their definition or understanding of the word “meta” on my Plurk account, two of my old buds from DWRP (hello, Sabriel and Momo!) mentioned that meta is the providing of details or conjecture on the fictional world or history of a fictional world that the author or canon was vague about, or did not mention at all.

I’ll continue my theme of using Fullmetal Alchemist as an example by mentioning the country of Amestris. Many fans believe that Amestris is meant to be Hiromu Arakawa’s take on an alternate post-World War I/pre-World War II Germany, framed within the context of how the world might have changed with the existence of alchemy. There is nothing specifically stated about this, and yet an analysis of the narrative, a study of the aesthetics of design behind Amestris, and a close look at the details that readers are provided with lend itself well to this interpretation.

Map of Amestris (for the Definition of Meta in Fandom)
Amestris is, in fact, the warmongering country in Fullmetal Alchemist. The conflicts it engages in with its neighboring countries provide the basis for a lot of the tension. Many of these fictional wars can be viewed as allegories for historical conflicts.

Peter, Kuri and Anne – three of my scholar friends – have more to add on meta and how it is used among fans. All of them framed meta as a form of literary analysis – specifically, something akin to a “closed reading” of the text at hand by looking, as mentioned above, at the elements of the piece.

Performing a closed reading of a text in literary studies means taking a Formalist approach to a story. By looking at the elements of fiction – plot, character, setting, and so on – and seeing how the author uses each of these elements, a reader can formulate an interpretation of what the story “means”. Since it focuses on the raw elements of a story, closed readings are always the basis upon which someone can interpret a work of fiction. Other theoretical frameworks – like, let’s say feminism – rely on the groundwork set by a solid closed reading.

Academic literary analysis is, of course, meant to be as “critical” as possible, where the analyst’s own personal opinions and biases are not meant to factor in on the discussion. However, Anne noted that while literary analysis and meta are used interchangeably, meta distinguishes itself precisely BECAUSE of the personal slant it possesses:

…you go a step further and posit details that do not exist in the canon itself. An example: the tumblr post I saw recently that requested “meta” on Steve Rogers and the USO girls, what his interactions (outside of the canon that we saw) would be like, why would he act that way, what would he know, etc. extrapolating from canon to a point where we posit these ‘what about this detail that isn’t ever brought up in canon’

Meta, therefore, relies initially on a closed reading, and then extends outward using what is likely a mix of the fan’s personal preferences and the fan’s need for wish fulfillment as born by their love for the canon in question.

Yet ANOTHER strain was cited by Peter, who pointed out that people also claim to be doing meta when they’re discussing fandoms themselves. It’s a “confused” term, which is probably the impression that you all have been left with throughout the course of this article.

How ever it is used, meta discussions are grounded in fandom and discussions between fans who “speak the same language” of canons and personal preferences. Its critical edge varies from fan to fan, and its relevance waxes and wanes according to the practices of individual fan communities. It’s possible that we’ll never end up having a “proper” definition of meta in fandom, but that does beg the question of whether we even need one. After all, inasmuch as providing a definition means laying out the groundworks for further understanding, specificity can be restrictive.

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Pamela Punzalan
30, female, not in Narnia about anything. Games, writes, DMs, watches shit, reads shit, loves cats. Answers to Kae, Pamela, Pam, Pam-Pam, Pammy, Pammeth. Pamera, and Pammu. Also part of the admin team of What's a Geek, over at!

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