Call For Comments: Sex, Gender and Fan Fiction

From Mav: I have a fascination with fan fiction. In particular, I have a fascination with the way fan fiction has a history that complexly entangled in issues of sex and gender. I wrote about the porn and fanfic connection a bit on my personal blog a couple years back, and I even had some of the students from my Sex, Violence and Comics class write guest blogs on it. It’s not really my specific area of focus, but I’ve  been giving it a bit more thought lately.

One of the things that I find most fascinating about fanfic is the dual purpose of the creator and the tension with their status as fan. That is the “fan” part is just as important as the author part. Typically, with a text, the reader is the consumer of the product created by the author, at least in theory. I wait for Lucasfilm to toss me a new Star War or for JK Rowling to feed me a new installment of Hermoine Granger and Her Two Relatively Incompetent Boyfriends. We tend to think of our consumption as passive and the author’s creation as active. But in reality, that was never the case… as every cosplayer that’s ever put on some spandex or really, every four-year-old who’s ever made He-Man fight Darth Vader (or kiss him… more on that later) can tell you, a large part of our consumption of stories has always happened in OUR imagination outside of the creator of the canon.

And in a sense, the cosplayer and the four-year-old are creating fanfic. But there’s a key difference. The fanfic author tends to have SOME additional responsibility towards the canon of the original work while also disavowing it. In his book, Playing Fans: Negotiating Fandom and Media in the Digital Age, Paul Booth argues that the creator of fanon tends to aspire to some sense of fidelity to the original extant text, no matter how much they may deviate from the actual story. That is, a fanfic author can decide that Hermoine, Luna and Cho are now involved in a threeway lesbian relationship, or even gender bend Harry and Malfoy into female characters, but suddenly deciding that Hermoine was a C-student or that Harry is bad at Quidditch would completely destroy suspension of disbelief and likely be viewed as heresy by the fandom.

And geek fandom gets SUPER ANGRY when you “break their toys.” Especially certain segments of fandom mostly inhabited exclusively by straight white males. Just look into a Star Wars chatroom or reddit thread from around the time The Last Jedi came out and say something like “wow, how interesting is it to have a female character totally divorced from the Skywalker legacy playing in opposition to the patriarchal lineage that family represents and the way in which the homosocial relationship between Poe and Finn challenges notions of heteronormativity.” Then wait to see how long it takes you to get doxed.  And like, that’s all actually canon! If you say “and also, I’m pretty sure Han only gave them a lift off Tatooine because Luke blew him in the Cantina bathroom in a deleted scene…” someone will totally put a hit on your entire family.

Of course, the geek community does imagine storylines beyond the extant canon text. The desire for more adventures is why we have official supplemental material like Star Wars novels and Pottermore. But fans have always extended the adventures with their own imagination as well. After all, that’s the entire reason that action figures exist in the first place. And, since most of the most popular fandoms are based around material that is PG-13 or safer, any desire to consider the specifics of sexuality inside the narrative is necessarily extra textual. And common! Every geeky 13-year-old heterosexual boy who has ever seen Return of the Jedi has imagined himself being Han and fucking Leia in the slave girl bikini after heroically rescuing her… despite the fact that Han has literally zero acts of agency or heroism in that entire exchange and Leia was actually rescuing him (the fact that she’s an unconsenting sex slave to a giant alien slug has no bearing on this fantasy whatsoever). Of course, it makes sense that fans might imagine sex between Han and Leia. The films make it clear that they have done so. They’re explicitly romantically linked; they go on to have a kid together. Of course it’s ok to imagine their sex-lives. The film encourages you to… so long as you keep it all hetero!

That said, the fanfic community is far more accepting of change and reinterpretation by its very nature. The entire point is to extend the works in ways that aren’t canon. And I’d argue that perhaps because of this, it has also become far more welcoming of creators that are not straight white males than  the typical geek community might traditionally be. If I’m going to be imagining some untold adventure of Harry Potter and the gang where they team-up with heretofore unmentioned Hogwarts student Mary-Sue Maverick to go out and fight Dracula… well, then I might as well throw in a scene where Harry and Malfoy finally give in to the obvious sexual tension they’ve always had and in one moment, when they’re most afraid that an evil greater than Voldemort is going to turn them into the living dead, they just go to town and fuck each other silly in raunchy explicit detail for about five pages of my seven page story… you know before Hermoine shows up and just saves everyone like she always does… sure, it could happen!

And if fanfic can allow that sort of exploration because it is inherently divorced form the heteronormative patriarchal mainstream, then it stands to reason that it might also be attractive to creators that might normally find themselves ostracized from that same heteronormative patriarchal mainstream. As such, the fanfic community is capable of being a “safe place” and haven for female and queer (and queer female) creators in a way that mainstream fandom never can be. First, being primarily built in virtual space, there is a level of anonymity inherent that provides some safety to the author from persecution by divorcing the online author persona from the real life persona, even when a level of notoriety is reached. Furthermore because of this anonymity, combined with the freedom that the texts offer to explore sexuality in general the capability to explore aspects of sexuality and gender, generally discouraged in mainstream culture (namely anything queer and female enjoyment of sexuality in general) becomes possible, and therefore appealing. In the same text mentioned above, Booth argues that:

Slash, as a predominantly female-authored genre, represents the tensions inherent within patriarchal culture and rejects the notion “that gender roles are fixed and predetermined and embrace[s] the idea that sexuality can be fluid and filled with various erotic possibilities.” In this scholarly view, slash represents empowerment and denotes the creation of a queer space for rereading mainstream media texts. The men in slash reject society’s customs, participating in the “more fluid and less restrictive” relationships that traditionally women have had. According to this type of slash discourse, slash writes outside the hierarchical restrictions of mainstream society (Booth 133-134)….  porn parody works simply because it is making a statement about something media-savvy audiences are already aware of: the hypersexualization of our culture. Similarly, slash fiction works simply because it is making a statement about the heteronormativity of mainstream culture (149).

While not all fanfic is queer, or in fact even sexual at all, there’s certainly a notable subsection that is. Similarly, there certainly exists fanfic that is written by straight white cisgendered males, but a large percentage of the community is what would be considered Othered in the mainstream. Certainly the cross-section between non-normativity in author and in story is notable — perhaps more-so in fan fiction than in any other literary medium. Fanfiction, and in particular slash fiction allows for the personal exploration of the themes that the traditionally Othered author might find too transgressive in the mainstream simply by normalizing the transgressive behaviors. Furthermore, the popularity inherited from the base narrative lends the fanfic author a built-in audience that the unknown author would not ordinarily be privy to.

From Wayne: Mav pretty much covers the topic. I’m fascinated by the idea that everyone is a co-creator of our fandoms. There is the official “Canon” established by whoever owns the copyright and trademark, though as Marvel, DC, and Lucasfilms prove, even that official “Canon” can be thrown out and changed. We all have our own “Head Canon” of who these characters are and how they would behave. Fandom is participatory, from the kid who ties a towel around his neck and shouts, “Up. Up, and Away!” to those who write fanfic and beyond. It’s akin to musicians doing covers of their favorite songs. Some are very true to the original and some bring a whole new vision to it that changes and plays with the original meaning. We are in an era where many comics professionals, and those in other media, began their careers by posting fanfic. It is a creative spawning ground for new talent where one can polish their skills in a relatively safe space. When these people become professionals many of them take the ideas from their fanfic and make them canonical. A personal vision then becomes a shared mythology.

This points to the idea of our fictions, specifically our shared Pop Culture fictions, serving as a collective modern mythology. But that’s probably a bigger topic for another podcast.

From Mav: Let us know your thoughts on fan fiction, slash fiction, and the explicit sex and gender issues that are often featured in them. We’d also like to know your thoughts on the communities and cultures, LGBTQ and otherwise, that surround the fanfic culture. Then join us on the next Vox Popcast where we will discuss and analyze the phenomenon and your comments with members of the the fanfic community, Laura Valentine and Bethany Scettrini-Van Arsdale.

4 Replies to “Call For Comments: Sex, Gender and Fan Fiction”

  1. I don’t have too much to add here other than to say growing up with the internet but before porn was free (or at least reasonably accessible with dialup and parents who grounded you if you tied up the phone line) I found fanfic to be a wealth of information.

    It was very obvious to my 13 year old self when something was written by a cis male or not based on the descriptions of the sex scenes. There was something about reading a woman’s perspective on sex that made it seem less scary and confusing and even, gasp, fun, that would not come across in male written fic. Because usually the male character did the act and the woman received it.

    Similarly, slash fic was informative as well. Like, obviously they didn’t teach you how anyone but a hetero couple engaged in sex at school (and even then, barely). And here were these stories, explaining things you had no one to ask about and in some ways, I think, normalizing those relationships.

    I wonder if this is less of their role now because anyone can get on porn hub and look up anything. But 20 years ago? I learned everything I know about sex from fanfic

    1. these are definitely interesting points. There’s a lot to the argument that boys learn sex from porn. And a corresponding argument that girls learn romance from media targeted at them as well. And certainly, especially at the time you would have been a 13yo, the porn readily available to you would have been almost entirely heteronormative-male focused. There are certainly more options today easily available to a teen who know how to search and clear their browser history before mom finds it, but it’s certainly not balanced.

      But that said, you’re right. If you want to see cis-hetero-female focused porn as a 13 yo in 2018, you certainly can find it without too much effort. But the fact that fanfic, or really any written erotica, is still a thing, implies that there is a certain fascination with the imaginative aspect of the engaging with your smut in addition to the titilatilation aspect. After all, bodice rippers still sell too…

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