What separates a headcanon from a reading? Technically speaking, there’s little difference between the definitions of these two words. A headcanon is one’s imaginative interpretation of a work, one not confirmed by the text itself. A reading is an interpretation of a work, drawing upon the text itself but doing so with a particular lens or perspective. Yet, obviously, these two words do not have the same meaning in practice. What constitutes the difference between them, then, and is it a legitimate distinction in the first place?
In discussing headcanons, let’s start by getting incredibly jokey ones out of the way. Plenty of the time, when people say they have ‘x’ headcanon, they’re not really saying that they interpret a character in the text to be, say, a furry, but that it’s funny to imagine them as such. This is clearly not a reading and is primarily done for humor’s sake, so I’ll be excluding it in this discussion because it’s not particularly relevant. What we’re interested in here are headcanons which indicate a given person’s actual understanding of the world, the story, or the characters within it, even if that understanding isn’t actually based on the text to any significant extent. For instance, if someone says that they headcanon a character as trans, they usually genuinely believe that the character is trans to at least some extent.
Yet, it’s clear that there’s a difference from a reading even here. For instance, one might say that they read Feris from Re:Zero as trans. While there’s a number of other possible readings that exist, this is a legitimate one for someone to have, and clearly draws upon the text through a specifically queer lens. On the other hand, if you headcanon Deku as bi, well, few people are going to call this a reading because it’s not backed by the text in any meaningful way. Given the similar definitions between the two terms, this almost totally exclusive gap seems a bit much, yet it’s clear that these are very distinct. Why?
On one level, the difference is one of evidence and perceived legitimacy. There are a lot of people out there who, to put it charitably, invest a great deal of their personal identity in the fandoms they’re a part of. To these people, the works of fiction they’re focused on are often very few in number, and constitute entire worlds in themselves that exist beyond the bounds of the text, just as our own world exists. It’s only natural to develop intense headcanons with little basis in the text if you inhabit this environment, because you lack other works within which to find the traits you’re attributing to characters in the works you’re reading. It seems utterly reasonable to me to say that if someone assumes a character is, say, from Canada, when there’s basically zero evidence within the text to support this, that it’s not in any meaningful sense a reading of the text. Yet, if they need Canadian representation for whatever reason, and they only really care about five works of fiction, it’s easy to see why they’d expand the worlds they’re concerned with such that Canadians are present.
I’m going to put forward a controversial point here, at least among some in the circles I frequent: I believe headcanons are less legitimate and worthwhile than readings. It’s often said by those who participate in deeply consumptive ‘fandom’ that the difference between a headcanon and a reading is how seriously people take the interpretation, and while I agree that this is basically true I don’t agree that there’s anything wrong with the state of affairs. Arbitrary headcanons, while perhaps important to those who take them up, are just that, ultimately arbitrary, usually more of a sign of how relatable a given character is to a fan than of anything else. This isn’t to say that they’re worthless or should be mocked, which is just mean and immature behavior, but unlike a reading, which can be debated based on the evidence, a headcanon is personal and bordering on irrational. That is to say, there’s no cause for debate or discussion, which will only result in circling the wagon in the end. A headcanon like this is hardly even an opinion and comes closer to something like an emotion, and for that reason there’s little point in discussing it. After all, you can’t easily (or often, ethically) argue someone out of their gut feelings.
That said, it’s certainly true that some interpretations are classified as headcanons regardless of the evidence behind them, purely as a result of being focused on queer issues or other marginalized experiences. Whether or not you consider Astolfo being non-binary to be a headcanon or a reading will depend heavily upon the political and social perspective you’re bringing to the text in the first place, among other factors. Now, I’m fairly agnostic on Astolfo’s gender, but it seems to me that it’s obviously a valid reading of the text to see him as non-binary (and no, my use of he/him there is not coming down one way or another, he’s absolutely the kind of character who’d be cool with those pronouns even if he was non-binary. Also, policing pronouns of anime characters when there’s room for any debate whatsoever is stupid, stop.) Calling a reading ‘headcanon’ is quite clearly a way of dismissing it as invalid or even ‘cringey’, and that’s all the more likely to occur if it’s related to queer issues or those of other marginalized groups. It’s not a shock, then, that some push back against the separation between headcanon and reading altogether. After all, if anything you think about a work will be reduced to your headcanon, why even maintain the distinction?
Well, I do think we need to maintain this distinction, and my reason why is a fairly simple one, though it may get painted as somewhat elitist: there’s a fundamental gap between critical and general discussion of art, and that gap should be maintained. Everyone is capable of participating in critical discussion, of course (though education systems do not, in general, do a great job of bringing this latent potential out), but the difference between fandom, which inherently involves a specifically consumptive relationship to a given work or franchise, and criticism, which aims to take some distance from art as capital, is something that’s more needed today than ever. Headcanon is always tied up in the view of a piece of art as a miniature world in itself within which details totally unprovided within the work can exist, while readings approach the art as texts to be interpreted. Neither of these need to be thrown out, but it’s not wrong to draw a line between them, and ultimately, I believe it needs to be made an even clearer line in the sand.