Female and queer fans challenge pop culture by taking control of their own stories


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Most people who don’t participate in fandom, the communities that spring up around a piece of pop culture, tend to view transformative fan work — fanfiction, fan art, fan comics, fan-made video games and the like — as a waste of time at best, and juvenile at worst. Fanfictions that have made it into the wider cultural consciousness such as My Immortal (an infamous piece of Harry Potter fanfiction, riddled with grammar errors and awkward sex scenes) and 50 Shades of Grey (the popular BDSM romance novel that originated as a piece of Twilight fanfiction) have not helped the genre’s reputation.

Yet millions of people worldwide continue to write fanfiction, share fan art, and use their own particular talents to express love for their favorite media, in spite of societal pressure to detach from it.

Why? In part, because of that societal pressure. The people writing fanfiction often belong to the very demographics sidelined by popular culture.

In 2013, a Tumblr user called Centrumlumina conducted a census of people who use Archive of Our Own (AO3, a fanfiction publishing site) to either read or share fanfiction. The census included about 10,000 respondents (out of more than 1.5 million AO3 users, who still only represent a small portion of wider fan culture), so the results aren’t gospel. But as some of the only demographic research done on the subject, it still shines a light in the dark. Only 38 percent of respondents identified as heterosexual, and about 64 percent identified as some form of LGBTQ.

More striking, and more supported by anecdotal evidence, the majority of respondents were non-male: 94 percent.

These two sub-groups of people — LGBTQ folks and women — come to fandom, and transformative fiction in particular, for similar reasons.

Given the amount of abuse and stigma society heaps on LGBTQ people, many gravitate toward escapism as a coping mechanism and are likely to hyper-fixate on a TV show or a book series. Plus, traditional media often do a poor job representing LGBTQ identities. It’s only natural that so many queer folks seek out fanfiction, wherein they can take something created with a straight audience in mind and queer it, or at least personalize it.

Women, too, get the short end of the stick when it comes to media representation. The Bechdel Test, created by lesbian comic artist Alison Bechdel, challenges a piece of media to include at least two named female characters who speak to each other about something other than a man. It’s a low bar, but according to bechdeltest.com, less than 58 percent of nearly 8,000 movies pass all conditions of the test.

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Moreover, media often simplify women’s stories and queer stories, relegating queer people to supporting roles and women to one-dimensional love interests, seldom exploring the vibrant inner lives or challenges of these characters with any kind of nuance.

When pop culture shies away from topics such as sexuality, trauma and abuse (or tells these stories poorly by, say, glorifying rape), fanfiction can go a long way toward healing cultural wounds.

Yet society continues to deride fanfiction, in spite of the advanced themes it often presents and the necessary outlet it can provide. Why the backlash? In short, because this genre of storytelling was built and maintained by women.

In an article published in the online journal Transformative Works and Cultures, issue 27, titled “Bricolage and the culture of the margins in the romantic era and the digital age,” Evan Hayles Gledhill explores the way women’s contributions to the literary world have been blocked, mocked and otherwise devalued from the romantic period to today. “Attempts to contain and control the intellectual and creative pursuits of women [speak] to [literary scholar] Judith Fetterley’s argument that literature, and cultural production more widely, is inherently masculine,” Gledhill writes, “even as commercial publishing exploits female fan labor for content, and denigrates the fan for overtly gendered reasons.”

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It may seem self-serving for a fanfiction writer to say that misogyny lies at the root of the societal devaluation of fanworks. But consider this: Fantasy football, wherein football fans create a dream team out of existing players and pit them against each other in fake tournaments, is a socially acceptable hobby. Creating a fantasy crew of a Star Trek starship and writing that crew’s story is not. How is one of these pursuits less geeky than the other?

And even when it comes to stereotypically nerdy interests — Star Wars, for example — men will post fan-theories on message boards about why they think Rey is Luke Skywalker’s daughter, drawing from the extended universe and citing previous films, but will mock the first woman to write a fanfiction in which that theory comes true.

Gledhill writes: “female fans’ emotional responses are consistently delegitimized, not only as appropriate responses to media, but as fannish responses … because she is a fan for the wrong reasons and in the wrong way.”

Fandom, and the female and queer fans who create transformative fan works, often internalize that misogyny, directing it toward themselves in the form of shame, and toward the characters they represent in their work.

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As of this writing, there are almost 2 million M/M (male/male, meaning stories that romantically pair two male characters) fanfictions posted to AO3, nearly 1 million M/F (male/female), and only about 320,000 F/F (female/female). Fanfiction.net, a large archive similar to but older than AO3, doesn’t support site-wide searches that would provide exact numbers, but anecdotally contains more M/F fanfiction than either queer combination. Archives specific to pieces of pop culture with heavily female casts (such as Xena: Warrior Princess, for example, which has a long F/F fanfiction history) will have vastly different proportions. But in general, fanfiction tends to favor M/M pairings, with M/F usually close behind, and even stories without romantic subplots often focus on male characters.

For decades, fans have discussed the seemingly endless reasons why women may gravitate toward M/M pairings and stories, outside of the fact that many women who write such stories are queer themselves.

For one: the lack of well-developed female characters in most movies and TV shows. When men are the only characters who interact meaningfully with each other, it’s easier to imagine relationships forming between them.

Take Supernatural for instance, a CW show that will (inexplicably) enter its 14th season this fall. As of Feb. 26, 2017, according to statistics blogger Toastystats, Supernatural was the third most popular category on AO3 after Marvel comics and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But Supernatural has violently killed nearly every recurring female character, few of whom stick around for more than a few scattered episodes or spend very long with the main characters of the show (all men). Fans looking for romantic content are more likely to find potential for a relationship within the core cast, rather than buying the network’s failed attempts to pair these men with short-lived female characters. (Disclosure: I couldn’t continue watching Supernatural after season eight, which was far too long anyway, but I’ve confirmed that the treatment of female characters hasn’t improved.)

One explanation Centrumlumina gives for the underrepresentation of female characters in fanfiction that goes a little deeper suggests that writing fanfiction about women, “forces them [the writer] to confront issues such as body image, everyday sexism, etc., which they find painful. Writing about male characters is a form of escapism, and allows these issues to be handled in a less personal way.”

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Then, there’s the most controversial reason: Heterosexual and bi/pansexual women, the majority of fanfiction writers, find men attractive. Fan communities often discuss the fetishization of M/M relationships, and some assert that male characters are often paired simply to fulfill the sexual fantasies of their female writers. But this analysis taken alone sidelines the experiences of queer writers, no matter their gender.

Besides which, erotica isn’t nearly as prevalent in fanfiction as many believe. Toastystats found that between Fanfiction.net and AO3, the most common ratings for fanfiction were General Audiences and Teen. Explicit fanfictions (which Fanfiction.net doesn’t even support) only made up a little more than 15 percent of all analyzed fics.

All and none of the reasons above, including internalized misogyny, could account for the disproportionate representation of M/M pairings, and male characters in general. But fanfiction as we know it today is still young — having only become a social phenomenon around the time of Star Trek about 50 years ago — and the culture of it consistently (and quickly) evolves. As most fandom interaction now takes place online, it’s the evolution of these online spaces that now shapes fan interaction and transformative fandom.

Thanks to the many views and perspectives at play in online spaces, issues such as racism within fan works and the underrepresentation of female characters are beginning to change for the better, as fandom becomes more socially conscious. On the flip side, in an effort to be “socially conscious,” fans often bare their teeth at each other, challenging their fellows to create the most ideologically pure stories, or “ship” the most ideologically pure couples.

This public (and often vitriolic) discussion is both a drawback and a benefit of modern fandom. A drawback, because it can create hostile environments for the “wrong” kind of fan works, but a benefit because discussion is, and always has been, the purpose of engaging with media in this way — discussion about characters we like and relate to; discussion about difficult-to-address themes, about sexuality; and most importantly about the lives traditional media fail to recognize.








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