Fanfiction and LGBT+ Representation
This year, Archive of Our Own (AO3), an online fanfiction archive and network, won a Hugo award for Best Related Work, an award never before given to a website or unpublished work. For fans of literature, the significance of this is astounding: Hugo Awards have almost always been given to notable literary or dramatic works, typically in the tradition of print media. Fan fiction, or fanfiction, by contrast, is largely an online medium today, and encompasses unpublished, written fan works based on other media, such as comics, television, film, and books. Perhaps because it is written by “amateurs” or because it is unpublished, fanfiction has often been scoffed at as unprofessional or self-indulgent. But for fans, fanfiction can be a way of reshaping popular media to reflect their identities. Members of the LGBT+ community in particular often criticize popular media for lacking compelling narratives surrounding LGBT+ themes, and when left unsatisfied, many fans turn to fanfiction to see themselves in the media they otherwise enjoy.
Despite how it has existed for centuries, fanfiction or “fanfic” continues to be treated as a dirty word, both on- and offline. Fanfiction fills a void in representation for LGBT+ fans, while building and maintaining a fanbase for its media source. Perhaps this Hugo Award signals a new understanding of fanfiction, and maybe fanwork, as a whole: that fanfiction’s inherent transformative abilities offer endless creative opportunities for amateur content creators, and despite the negative aspects of an online, anonymous community, it deserves recognition as a driving force for diversified media.
What is fan fiction?
When you hear the term fanfiction, what comes to mind? For most people, fanfiction is nearly synonymous with anonymous, eroticized fan writings, posted online and shamefully hidden from public circulation. But fanfiction, or fanfic, includes and covers an astonishingly wide expanse of fan work and artistry that is largely dismissed by non-fan communities.
Fanfiction is ultimately about taking an existing story, setting, or characters, and altering it in some way. It “continues, interrupts, or just riffs on stories and characters other people have already written about” usually in an unpaid, volunteer fashion 1. Whether someone is rewriting the plot to an episode of Supernatural or creating an “alternate universe” where Fox Mulder and Dana Scully live a normal life of The X-Files, fanfiction is an expression of passion for a work and how fans just can’t get enough.
Fanfiction also helps fans find other fans they relate to, and builds connections across a fanbase through creative work. When fans come together, usually via an online platform, they may develop into a “fandom” with increasingly complex inside jokes, memes, and tropes surrounding characters or settings from their favored media. In some ways, fanfiction can inform communities, and communities of fans can inform fanfiction. It garners community, especially with websites like Archive of Our Own and FanFiction.net, which encourages commenting and feedback.
Some works become so well-known, either positively or negatively, that their presence has become synonymous with the fans themselves. One such work is the Harry Potter spin-off, “My Immortal”. Despite its terrible grammar, strange and oft-manic plotlines, and excessive number of chapters, the series has inspired an array of parodies, homages, and re-enactments, spanning from live action YouTube interpretations to fan art. The mystery surrounding the identity of the true author and its combination of early-2000s emo culture with a New York Times bestselling franchise only deepened the interest in the work 2. While it continues to be largely perceived as comically cringe-worthy, its presence in popular culture as a meme has expanded beyond the limits of fanfiction creators and consumers.
Like the author of “My Immortal”, most fanfiction authors use pen names or remain anonymous online–for privacy, or for fear of backlash. The anonymous nature of fanfiction, and therefore many members of fandom, allows opacity in the way that individuals express their gender and sexual identity. These communities “increasingly offer[s] a space where gender, like sexuality, is not an either/or phenomenon, and gender and sexual dissent, even rebellion, has long been a part of fic’s story,” states Anne Jamison, in her book, Why Fanfiction is Taking Over the World.
Fanfiction isn’t just about eroticism–but it can be. The brilliance of fan works is that they can be anything at all.
The History of Fanfiction
To really appreciate the power that fanfiction can wield, it is critical to look at its history.
As Jordan West of the popular media critique site The Mary Sue states, fanfiction has been in your life at every turn, probably without you even realizing it. “If you’ve taken an English class in America, you’ve almost certainly been assigned fanfiction to read, not just in the form of Beowulf and Shakespeare, obviously, but also in the form of books like Johnny Tremain, Wide Sargasso Sea, and Paradise Lost,” among others 3. Note that many of these books, especially those espoused as “classics” in the literary world, have largely been written by men.
Long before people were posting their fanfiction online, fans of written and visual works were writing and sharing their own “amateur” works in fan circles. The Sherlock Holmes stories inspired a number of amateur writers to devise their own mysteries, calling themselves The Sherlock Holmes Society and the Baker Street Irregulars 4. Long before that, William Shakespeare riffed on popular legends, characters, and tropes to write plays that spoke to audiences for centuries after. Even longer before that, Greek myths were shared through oral tradition–and even then, there were detractors of the written word. As long as there has been entertainment and the willingness for fans to share their feelings about it, fanfiction has existed.
While the term “fanfiction” itself may have originally arisen from amateur-written original works published in magazines in the late 1800s and early 1900s, fans of the television program Star Trek popularized the term and the practice. Fans are notoriously remembered for the fan “zines” or non-published, fan-printed mini magazines of “slash” fiction, pairing together characters Spock and Kirk in a romantic setting. The romantic pairing was shortened to “K/S”, which gradually informed the slang for fictional gay romance, as written in fanworks, as “slash” 5.
This is likely where the connotation of fanfiction with homoeroticism began; as “slash fiction” grew, it began to incorporate other identities and expressions. But this is also where the negative association of fanfiction with lewdness or distastefulness; it can’t be a coincidence that fan-written works suddenly gained a negative association when a large group of fans favored a gay romance. A romance that, it should be noted, never would have emerged onscreen. “Slash” or homoerotic works fill gaps created by Hollywood’s own blindness to its misogyny, heteronormativity, and machismo.
As the internet became increasingly accessible and online fandom communities flourished across burgeoning social media websites, fanfiction also flourished. In the early 2000s, LiveJournal and FanFiction.net offered users a place to publish and share their written works, including erotic and adult content. But as fans took creative liberties, a fire was lit beneath the debate over freedom of speech in fandom, especially as websites attempted to monetize their clout. In 2007, controversy arose when LiveJournal began running on ad-supported revenue, rather than user support, which pushed site moderators to remove and delete controversial content 6. Many fans considered this reaction as censorship, and left the site. Fanfiction.net experienced several “purges” of content deemed NC-17 rated by site moderators, which consisted of banning users and removing material. Fans reacted quickly by moving to different websites, including Tumblr and Archive of Our Own 7.
In 2007, Organization for Transformative Works (OTW) was “established by fans to serve the interests of fans by providing access to and preserving the history of fanworks and fan culture in its myriad forms” because they “believe that fanworks are transformative and that transformative works are legitimate” 8. As a nonprofit, OTW created Archive of Our Own, named for Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, as a webarchive for fanworks. As a defender of fanworks and fancontent, it quickly became popular for its no-holds-barred freedom of expression, hosting both explicit and non-explicit fanworks.
Queering Modern Media
Due to its nature of anonymity, fanfiction has always been an inviting space for young writers who are “still figuring it out” in regards to their sexual or gender expression. In a 2013 survey of Archive of Our Own users, only 38% of respondents identified themselves as heterosexual. Around 80% of respondents identified as women, and more than 50% of the survey’s respondents identified as women who were of sexualities other than heterosexual 9. These statistics imply the majority of users of the site–as of 2013– were largely demographic minorities in the mainstream media they wrote fanfiction for.
The heavily-gendered nature of fanfiction communities also may play a part in why and how fanfiction is somewhat looked down upon in popular culture. In an article for Vox, Constance Grady writes, “there’s a special ire reserved for the particular corner of the web where people make transformative works about the media they love — and given that this corner is primarily composed of young women, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this ire is gendered” 10. Fans, especially those who celebrate certain romantic pairings, have been familiar with open hostility targeting their communities for decades. But these are communities perceived to be dominated by women; for example, when the Beatles were perceived to be a British boy band, its fans were reduced to crazed fangirls, dubbed “Beatlemania”. In contrast, sports fans–who are known in some areas of the world for literally rioting over game results–are never considered part of fandom, largely because it’s overwhelmingly seen as masculine, manly, and therefore more legitimate as an interest.
Feminine media has always been portrayed as dangerous, unartful, or just downright disgusting. At least until it is adopted as mainstream–then, everyone can enjoy it, and the fans are no longer touted as sex-crazed or out of their minds, like with Beatlemania. While pervasive in many forms of media, the double standard in creative writing becomes obvious when you consider how many “classic” works of literature that riff on popular stories, myths, or legends–like Paradise Lost, Dante’s Inferno, or any of Shakespeare’s plays–are treated as legitimate and exemplary, partly because they were written by and for men. The fact that a large percentage of fanfiction authors identify as female may play into this double standard, affecting how it is perceived as a “feminine” medium.
In reality, there is no such thing as “feminine” media or “masculine” media–but a large number of feminine individuals may coalesce and abscond upon a certain piece of media due to the potential to transform into something for them. Whether it’s unconventional characters in Good Omens, a bunch of nonthreatening boys in a volleyball manga, or the hypermasculine battles of The Avengers, fanfiction offers a space for women, LGBT+, and gender non-conforming individuals to remake their favorite media into something that reflects them or their interests. Media is still largely created with straight males in mind. And doing anything to remake that norm–of threatening the status quo–makes creators a target. As Grady states,
“Young women are so attacked for loving the media they love that it is a radical act for a young woman to love something unashamedly. And transformative fandom is the most radical act of all, because it reverses that ‘lady thing to respectable thing’ process. It takes a piece of media that may not have been designed for young women and makes it for young women.”
For everything from television to comic books, individuals who see themselves as minorities may not see themselves in modern media, and therefore react by transforming their media on their own.
But why women, and LGBT+ individuals in particular? Why are they the ones writing and being featured in fanfiction? It largely comes down to the lack of quality representation in media. The disposable woman trope is a well-documented phenomenon wherein a female character is killed off to further the plot for other, usually male, characters 11. And it gets even rougher if those women belong to other minority groups, like race or sexual identity. For example, the 2015-2016 television season was the deadliest on record for lesbian and bisexual female characters, with 42 women killed off in shows available to U.S. audiences (excluding international shows) 12.
Entire databases have been created to track LGBT+ characters being killed off in television shows, including LGBTfansdeservebetter.com and Does an LGBT person die?. In some genres, they’re practically invisible. In anime and manga, outside the oft-fetishized yuri and boy love manga, there are extremely few examples of gay or lesbian characters. In Marvel and DC comics, artists and writers often find their hands tied when it comes to how they portray gay or lesbian characters, if they are given the freedom to do so at all 13.
By writing favorite characters as gay, trans, bisexual, queer, or of a different race, individuals who consume media but fail to see themselves represented within it are able to create the scenarios that they most relate to. In an environment where LGBQ young people are more than twice as likely to feel suicidal, and over four times as likely to attempt suicide, compared to their heterosexual peers 14, producing media depicting complex, realistic LGBT+ individuals of all ages can be a form of encouragement and support for otherwise marginalized groups.
It also helps writers of particular identities to feel less alone, as they see themselves finally represented in media they consume. Kellye Ann Guinan contends that fan fiction has a communal aspect of reiterating similar tropes, much like communities repeat stories as part of their communal folklore.
“Women and queer individuals use fanfiction as a means of showing their struggles and needs by reinterpreting popular media. In this sense, television shows, movies, comics, video games, etc. all function as a shared symbolic language through which individuals can explore identities closed off to them in real life. Fanfiction is the way in which minorities can give themselves a chance at being the hero or the villain. Because it takes the same story cores and reuses them time and again, it can be seen to follow a process of folklore (3)” 15.
In this way, fan fiction is culturally subversive, but also connective: it allows individuals to bring out the pieces of themselves they would otherwise hide away. It challenges cultural norms while invoking creativity, shaping individual expression into collective expression, and forming a subculture of its own.
The Problems with Fanfiction
While fear-mongers denounce fanfiction and fandoms as unable to separate reality from fantasy, the most evident problems with fanfiction tend to stem from inter-community conflict. When communities come together to express their passion for something, there’s bound to be a few impassioned disagreements. Great fissures can be created between fan creators. The emergence of the term “wank” or “shipping wars” can be linked to serious disagreements about how characters, settings, events, and morals of a piece of media should be portrayed through fan work, whether it is fanfiction or artwork. The arguments can be linked to the expression of minority gender and sexual identities.
Passionate fans of a series may feel strongly about certain romantic couples and therefore “ship” them. While much of this can be fan-created romanticism, sometimes creators lend creedence to certain “ships” and sexual identities by claiming them as canonical. Anne Jamison, author of Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World, writes in her chapter about the Harry Potter series that J.K. Rowling’s involvement in post-series fan enjoyment of the characters seriously molded attitudes toward the potential of fanfiction as transformative.
“Although the sexual life some fanfiction imagines for Harry Potter’s underage characters has long been a source of discomfort for their creator (and for a different set of fans), J.K. Rowling’s post-series announcement that beloved wizard Dumbledore was gay fixed in canon the kind of possibility in which fanfiction had long been dwelling. Harry Potter slash helped shape and challenge attitudes toward sexual diversity among the generation that grew up reading it and arguing about it (a lot) online” 16.
The idea of paring two characters together, romantically, sexually, or platonically aligns with the preferences of the fanfiction writers and/or readers. Combativeness over these pairings can, in turn, be interpreted as comabatting over one’s identity as it is perceived to be reflected in a favorite work. This is why fanworks can be so incredibly personal: they reflect personal, daily struggles with identity and sexuality, not necessarily just sexual fetishization.
“The fandom dynamics of wank–though I do not believe they show off the best of fanfiction or fan communities–are telling because they often serve as proxy controversies for working out complex but more abstract arguments about the nature of authorship, textual boundaries, and individual v. community ownership, and responsibility” 17.
These “ships” and romantic pairings may not even necessarily represent their authors as a one-to-one ratio; while some fanfic may clearly be a way for the author to “self-insert” themselves into the work to express a reflection of how they see themselves and their sexual or gender identity, it may also be a way of subverting exhaustive tropes. This kind of artistic expression is deeply personal, and likely emotional, on top of being a major investment of time, energy, and attention, often garnering or utilizing online clout.
The Future of Fanfic
As it stands, fanfiction is likely to only grow. Communities of fans of all kinds of media–comics, film, television, anime, literature–spring up with astonishing quickness, thanks in part to widespread internet access and social media exposure.
But will the “underground” nature of fanfiction ever change? When might, say, a middle-aged mother of two feel proud to post a link to her Avengers fanfiction on a public Facebook status?
With the nature of fanfiction being about subverting tropes and gathering around minority identities, it’s not likely that it will ever go mainstream. Gender and sexual minorities continue to seek safe spaces to express themselves online, and the simultaneous inclusivity and exclusivity of these spaces tend to welcome the disenfranchised and exclude the intolerant.
However, the controversial nature of fanfiction–anyone being able to write anything–offers a platform for pedophilia and incest, among other unacceptable dynamics. Regardless of where you stand in the debate of freedom of speech and fanworks, there should and could be consequences of being associated with a platform that supports contentious works or sub-genres.
Not to mention the copyright issues. Content that uses characters, settings, or even similar concepts can be subjected to copyright infringement, resulting in the pressure to remove the work, close the website, or even fine the content creator. Fanfiction is legal in the United States if it follows the guidelines as a “derivative work” meaning that it acts as “an expressive creation that includes major copyright-protected elements of an original, previously created first work. The derivative work becomes a second, separate work independent in form from the first” 18. Despite this definition, the legal gray area inhabited by fanfiction and other fanworks can leave each individual piece up for scrutiny.
To prevent infringing on media copyrights, sites like AO3 have formed around a nonprofit organization, ensuring that neither the website moderators or the content creators receive any monetary compensation for the works. While most content creators seem to be fine with this arrangement, it begs the question: how close to the original work does something need to be to infringe on a copyright? How does fanfiction perform work in a way that’s different from a remix of a Top 40 song?
These questions can’t be answered here, or in any fanfiction. Instead, appreciating fanfiction as remixed media lends some credence to the efforts of fan creators, who spread popularity for a series or work, and can be attributed for maintaining the popularity and success of a series. With community feedback, concept development, and improving writing skills, fanfiction can easily become a spring-board to unique content-creation. So, be mindful the next time you mock that Avengers alternate universe romance fanfic: it might be written by tomorrow’s New York Times bestselling author.
- Jamison, Anne Elizabeth, and Lev Grossman. Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World. Smart Pop, 2013. ↩
- Riesman, Abraham. “The Bizarre, Unsolved Mystery of ‘My Immortal,’ the World’s Worst Fanfiction Story.” Vulture, Vulture, 12 Mar. 2015, https://www.vulture.com/2015/03/bizarre-unsolved-mystery-of-my-immortal.html. ↩
- West, Jordan. “None Of This Is New: An Oral History Of Fanfiction.” The Mary Sue, 2 Nov. 2014, https://www.themarysue.com/none-of-this-is-new-an-oral-history-of-fanfiction/. ↩
- https://www.themarysue.com/none-of-this-is-new-an-oral-history-of-fanfiction/ ↩
- Staff, Newsweek. “Star Trek: Spock, Kirk and Slash Fiction.” Newsweek, Newsweek, 13 Mar. 2010, https://www.newsweek.com/star-trek-spock-kirk-and-slash-fiction-79807. ↩
- Stephen, Bijan. “Tumblr’s Porn Ban Could Be Its Downfall – after All, It Happened to LiveJournal.” The Verge, The Verge, 6 Dec. 2018, https://www.theverge.com/2018/12/6/18127869/tumblr-livejournal-porn-ban-strikethrough. ↩
- “FanFiction.Net’s NC-17 Purges: 2002 and 2012.” Fanlore, https://fanlore.org/wiki/FanFiction.Net’s_NC-17_Purges:_2002_and_2012. ↩
- “What We Believe.” Organization for Transformative Works, https://www.transformativeworks.org/what_we_believe/. ↩
- “AO3 Census: Masterpost.” Fanlore, https://fanlore.org/wiki/AO3_Census:_Masterpost. ↩
- Grady, Constance. “Why We’re Terrified of Fanfiction.” Vox, Vox, 2 June 2016, https://www.vox.com/2016/6/2/11531406/why-were-terrified-fanfiction-teen-girls. ↩
- Andrews, Travis. “’Disposable’ Women? TV Wives Keep Dying on Shows Centered on Male Actors.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 29 Apr. 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2017/10/06/disposable-women-tv-wives-keep-dying-on-shows-centered-around-male-actors/. ↩
- Out Magazine. “62 Lesbian & Bisexual Female Characters Killed Over Past Two Television Seasons.” OUT, Out Magazine, 9 Mar. 2019, https://www.out.com/news-opinion/2017/7/11/62-lesbian-bisexual-female-characters-killed-over-past-two-television-seasons. ↩
- Abad-Santos, Alexander. “Why We Worry About DC Comics’s Gay Characters.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 29 Oct. 2013, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/10/why-we-worry-about-dc-comicss-gay-characters/310076/. ↩
- Human Rights Campaign Foundation. “Mental Health and the LGBTQ Community.” https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/LGBTQ_MentalHealth_OnePager.pdf. ↩
- Guinan, Kellye Ann. “Culture and Community Online How Fanfiction Creates a Sense of Social Identity by Reshaping Popular Media.” Culture and Community Online: How Fanfiction Creates a Sense of Social Identity by Reshaping Popular Media, Honors College of Middle Tennessee State University, 2017, https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/1f8e/b1c8c00ac344c595817b3ab1a9bdd5eec025.pdf. ↩
- Jamison, Anne. “Lessons From the Megafandoms: Harry Potter and Twilight.” Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World. ↩
- ibid ↩
- Gribben, Bailey. “Fanfiction: A Legal Battle of Creativity.” Reporter, https://reporter.rit.edu/views/fanfiction-legal-battle-creativity. ↩
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