In the mid to late 2000s, Snapewives were the object of Harry Potter fandom scorn. A Snapewife, for those of you who didn’t spend your formative years on HP-focused LiveJournal communities, is a woman who is overly invested in Severus Snape, the antihero of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, often to the point of justifying his worst behavior. These women largely haunted LiveJournals and fan forums celebrating the mysterious dark horse, but a smaller group was even more ardent in their fandom. A definition in Urban Dictionary sheds some additional light: “A group of middle-aged women on the internet who believe they are all married to Severus Snape from the Harry Potter books—on the astral plane. They have real-life meetings where they take turns channeling the spirit of Snape so they can have wedding ceremonies with him.”
According to another entry on Urban Dictionary, Snapewives built “domestic and/or online shrines to Snape” by “making collages.... photoshopping pictures of oneself and Snape together.” They also married Snape, “complete with wedding vows and faked photos,” as well as more stereotypical fandom behavior like writing fanfiction and poetry. If that wasn’t enough, some self-described Snapewives attempted to “channel the ‘Spirit of Snape,’” for purposes ranging from encouragement completing household chores and hobbies to spicing up their sex lives.
Back then, fandoms were far less communal. Before Tumblr and increasingly Twitter became hotbeds of fandom activity, blogging platforms and forums allowed fans to carve out their own space to discuss shows, characters, and romantic pairings free from prying eyes. But drama still managed to spill out of insulated communities and comment sections, causing shipping wars and lengthy, drawn-out battles. Snapewives were the group I beefed with.
These women had a deeply personal desire to protect Snape. They reminded me of the women who were overly empathetic toward the Columbine School shooters, romanticizing the pair as broody and sad. Though not as extreme, Snapewives are similarly attracted by this stereotypical portrayal of masculinity and rationalize Snape’s worst transgressions, finding fault with all who may have wronged them. Snape—a cruel but compelling character, a personal favorite of mine—was thus rendered into a Byronic hero, his angst so fetishized that he became an alluring, sullen bad boy who was simply misunderstood.
The most notorious Snapewives were far more extreme in their interest in Snape, an obsession that was documented in a 2013 academic paper by Zoe Alderton of the University of Sydney. Alderton described Snapewives’ devotion to the fictional character as a religion of sorts, deeming them Snapeists who followed Snapeism, as opposed to Snapewives, which she labeled as a pejorative. She followed the online chatter of three women—Tonya, Rose, and Conchita—who did, in fact, claim that Snape spoke to and through them, that he existed independently of JK Rowling, and that they felt submissive to him. Their blog and forum posts acted as both religious text and place of worship, where they shared their most erotic Snape-related fantasies in an arena of likeminded followers.
Tonya believed that she was so in tune with Snape that he “allowed her to introduce new codes of conduct and beliefs into the group.” A religious doctrine of sorts:
For example, she announces that Snape despises “annoying, giggling fangirls whom think they understand [him] as being a ‘cute fluffy funny’ being”. As Snape, she also makes clear “I only give audience to those women that are strong and able to withstand my fierce temper and do as I say. I coldly ignore those vain, simpering females that hold a thought like a leaky sieve”.Thus she is able to use her channelling to define who is and who is not an appropriate Snape devotee. Through [her], Snape declares “I can teach you how to feel, teach you how to think”. To submit to him is to accept this channelled wisdom.
It sounds like roleplaying gone awry. But Alderton argues that some of the criticism is rooted in misogyny, that we give overzealous female fans—especially older women—grief in a way that is rarely allotted to men who assemble fantasy football leagues or riot after their hockey team loses. And when one considers the far-fetched dogma of organized religion, is Snapeism considerably stranger than anything in the Bible?
Still, it’s less likely that fans of a beloved athlete believe that the figure to whom they are devoted can inhabit the body of their romantic partner during sex. But this was common among the original Snapewives: “Master would ‘take over’ for my Hubby and have fun,” Rose wrote. “Basically my Hubby would do things in ways that only Master can and could!” Here, the Master is Snape who—if you recall—is a fictional character.
“There was obviously some real resonance with the idea that he was just absolutely in charge and that he was an incredibly domineering, fearful force,” Alderton told me. “I think there’s a lot of people who feel sexually attracted to that, but also kind of socially attracted to it. Like, gathering around this amazing, domineering, real kind of alpha character, even though he’s also brooding and on the sidelines. I think people like that combination.”
But these women’s fantasies, along with their photoshopped images of themselves alongside Alan Rickman’s onscreen portrayal of Snape, tended to come across as a fantasy about Rickman above all else. Rickman’s Snape was far more seductive than his literary counterpart; his approach made Snape suave, with a deep voice that melts panties. Rickman exuded a kind of dark masculine energy that helped turn Snape from a fictional sad sack to an intriguing bad boy. This only encouraged the Snapewives’ devotion.
Meanwhile, the book version of Snape is considerably less sensual, closer to an incel on a Reddit forum. Rowling described him as greasy and in desperate need of shampoo, a description that many diehard Snape fans reject as the “Harry filter,” Snapewife shorthand to describe what they argue is Harry’s biased point of view.
Snape was a man in his 30s (yes, half the age of Rickman), brilliant but prone to cruelty. Some of this is explained by his backstory: His abusive childhood, bullying by James Potter, his friendship with and unrequited love for Lily Potter (née Evans), and, eventually, his decision to become a follower of Voldemort. Snape’s heroics were highlighted toward the end of the series once it was revealed that, despite being a double agent and a massive prick, his allegiances were firmly on the side of the light despite siding with the dark as a young man. He died trying to atone for his betrayal of Lily and protected Harry to the end. Still the overall goodness of his character is up for debate—unless you’re a Snapewife.
Snape’s development and redemption arc made for one of the most thrilling facets of the Harry Potter series. But it doesn’t negate the fact that he was an absolute terror of a professor and a grudgingly reformed bigot whose friendship with Lily ended after he called her a slur (Mudblood, an insult that readers are made to believe is equivalent to calling someone the N-word). His bravery as a double agent cannot be denied, but neither can the fact that he embraced the dehumanizing and deadly ideology that Voldemort championed.
This complicates his character significantly and makes him much more difficult to sympathize with. Not so for Snapewives, who were invested in his character to the point of myopia, perhaps because they see a bit of themselves in him. Snape is a loner who embraces control and ruthlessness—a fantasy of sorts for a bullied loner—and debating the value of these qualities is as good as taking them away, from both Snape and themselves.
This particular dynamic was reflected by one Snapewife in a fan forum:
“I see a lot of myself in him. I’m painfully blunt, I’m an intellectual, I’m socially awkward. I have a dry sense of humor, and can be very sarcastic. My family will also agree that sometimes I bitch just to bitch, not because there is actually a problem or I’m actually upset. I also am very loving and will do anything I can to save people/beings from pain. And I know where he get’s that from, having come from an abusive household myself. You either continue the pattern or do everything you can to not repeat it, not harm others.”
“I do admit I’m a bit “hung up” on the character of Snape - probably because I recognize and identify with much of the treatment he gets from both other characters and some readers. I’m not saying Snape’s exactly an angel himself, but I do find his behavior kind of logical. Except that the stoicism with which he is still willing to ‘do the right thing,’ even when each and everyone is against him, is something I truly admire.”
The leap from projection to sexualizing and softening even his irredeemable qualities is less of a mystery once gender roles come into play.
“I think a lot of women are socialized and brought up to feel like their role is the nurturer, and that you’re not central to your own story,” Alderton said. “You’re the nurturer, you’re the mum figure or the girlfriend figure. I think for a lot of women that’s where their minds go, because that’s been the narrative that’s been given to them their whole lives.”
In the late ’00s and early ’10s, my friend Ramona Kywe and I spent a considerable amount of time writing essays and crashing these Snape obsessive forums, our adventures chronicled for posterity in our LiveJournal accounts. Not unlike the very people we quarreled with, we spent an inordinate amount of time online. I contacted Kywe to reminisce and pore over decade-old threads, excavating some pages that have since been deleted, but remain accessible via the Wayback Machine.
We were two young women of color, sparring with these women we assumed were largely white and twice our age, and we saw their tendency to defend Snape at all costs as deeply misguided. These women weren’t the type to kneel before an effigy of Snape (though I did spot a Snape cardboard cutout decorated in Christmas lights posted to a Snape-centric forum around the holidays). Rather, they were more intellectual and enjoyed comparing Snape to other fictionary characters and tropes. He was, after all, their Byronic hero. Snape was their literary bad boy to protect from foolish critics, and this became a labor of love.
Like any invested fan involved in online fandom, they underwent deep analyses of Snape’s character, contemplating what his difficult upbringing might have looked like or equating his affinity for potions, to a gentle, even feminine touch.
“I think Sev was basically Harry’s main father figure in the books, even more than Dumbledore.”
“The story of Snape’s reformation is probably the strongest draw for me...It’s the irresistible draw of the true Gothic hero—the romance of the fall from grace, the remorse and redemption, and the return to grace. I cannot for the life of me understand how/why anyone could NOT find that story compelling.”
“Couldn’t figure out where to post this, so I put it here. I only have this picture because of my love for our dear Severus.
Here is my photo of the Arch of Septimius Severus in the Roman Forum.”
Their disdain toward those who simply didn’t “understand” Snape was almost as deep as their disdain toward James and his friends (the Marauders), who bullied Snape as teens. But it was their dislike of Lily that really ground our gears. They often characterized Lily as a foolish, misguided girl who was not empathetic enough of Snape’s inner turmoil (unlike them). Her needs and boundaries as a marginalized person in this fictional setting were not as important as Snape’s feelings. Refusing to forgive Snape for calling her a slur and having the audacity to marry Snape’s former bully was a betrayal on top of betrayal on top of betrayal.
To me and Kywe, their analysis of Lily came across as both misogynistic and racially insensitive.
While these fans accepted or even enjoyed Snape’s redemptive arc that highlighted his love for Lily, it always seemed as if their dislike of Lily stemmed from this idea that if they were in her shoes, they would have treated Snape with the care—the nurturing—he deserved. This re-imagining of Lily as a more empathetic young woman has been a frequent theme in fanfiction as well, suggesting that Lily’s change of heart could have saved Snape from himself.
In retrospect, these debates over Lily and Snape were actually quasi debates about race and gender. This translated into some projecting of our own, using our experience as racially marginalized women to relate to Lily and slam those who couldn’t bother to empathize with her perspective.
“For me personally, this was around the time I started figuring out my own voice and what I didn’t like about certain aspects of fandom,” Kywe told me. “It was during the time when a lot of social issues in fandom and online spaces were being brought to the surface more... and a lot of [Snapewives] defending Snape ended up delving into defending racism.”
Little did we know that these discussions would be a precursor of the next decade of online discourse, especially about race, gender, and internet culture. The 2010s gave us incels, Gamergate, and an up-close look at how young men are radicalized by online right-wing extremism. Because of this, the excuses these fans made for Snape’s callousness and attraction to radicalism have aged poorly. (Almost as poorly as the “Snape is trans” fan theory, given Rowling’s anti-trans commentary in the last year.)
Maybe it was much easier to empathize and even excuse Snape’s behavior—and his seduction by the dark—in the 2000s, when the trope of monstrous jocks and vicious It Girls reigned supreme. But fandom has changed significantly in the last decade, and so has the world and politics that influence it. Instead of the echo chambers of Livejournal and forums, today’s platforms allow a diversity of voices and ideas. Fandom chatter isn’t exclusive to shut-ins spending too much time online, and white women are no longer the sole gatekeepers.
“I think that has expanded the way that people can relate to characters now, and I think that probably has neutered a lot of the popularity of Snape as well, Alterdon said. “I don’t see him being worshiped nearly so much as he was a good fifteen years ago.”
Kywe agreed. “Snape worship would not survive today.”
I have a sneaking feeling that Snapewives morphed and now are simply this generation’s Kylo Ren superfans, who also revel in sexualizing the brooding, dark energy of the Star Wars villain played by Adam Driver. (Driver’s own features are also, ironically, Snape-like.) Maybe I’m wrong, but there will always be a mysterious, brooding fictional man whom a subset of women feel compelled to protect, and they’ll happily do whatever mental gymnastics are needed to justify their worst behavior.
But Snapewives, and the lengths that many went to profess their love for the object of their affection, will go down in internet infamy.
(Updated 3/2/22 with new details)