I’ve been thinking a lot about fanfiction recently, and how it relates to gender. In case you’re not familiar with it, fanfictions (fanfics, for short) are original fiction based on the events and characters in already created popular media, such as books, movies, TV shows, and video games. It’s difficult to determine exactly how many people write fanfiction, but to give one example, in the last 5 years the number of stories on Fanfiction.net just about Law and Order: SVU, has more than doubled from 3,500 to over 7,800.
The majority of fanfic writers are women, with the age of the writer varying based on the source material (or “fandom”) they focus on. It seems most are young, including a large number of teenagers. And while many fanfics contain sexual content, the sexual orientation of the writer doesn’t always determine whether the sexual orientation of the story’s characters will be straight or “slash” (same-sex). For example, it’s popularly believed that most writers of slash fiction about male characters are straight women.
I started writing fanfic when I was in Grade 11. I wrote a number of stories about the characters in Law and Order: SVU. I’ve also been what’s called a beta reader, which is essentially a fanfic editor/proofreader, for stories about SVU, M*A*S*H, and The West Wing.
Recently I’ve been thinking back on these activities I’ve participated in. I’ll admit there’s a lot of fanfiction that can read like sloppily edited romance novels, and the fact that anyone can publish fanfic without having writing experience can mean readers have to wade through a lot of mediocre stories. So even though I enjoyed writing and reading fanfic, I was embarassed to talk about it. Now, looking into it, I’m realizing that there’s a lot to celebrate about fanfiction.
There’s been a little scholarship done around fanfiction and gender relations, including Angela Thomas’ research, which found that writing fanfiction allowed young women to create empowering narratives that let them feel more powerful in their everyday lives. She also found the sense of community writers got from fanfic was important, especially for teenagers who might otherwise feel excluded in their peer group.
Canadian Paulette Rothbauer’s research found that some lesbian and queer girls find role models in slash fanfiction, which some found particularly important at a time when they felt alone and unsupported.
Looking at another way fanfic challenges conventional gender relations, Melissa at The High Hat speculates that women writing about male slash pairings is a way for authors to “have the freedom of being male in their female bodies.”
And even if there are a lot of fics that couldn’t be seen as progressive, lack of censorship and encouragement from an online community is part of what makes fanfiction writing an activity that feels both safe and fun, especially to young women writers.
So basically I’ve come to the conclusion that fanfiction should be taken a bit more seriously. It’s unrealistic to expect the writing to be Pulitzer Prize-level, and I don’t think that’s what fanfic is about anyway. The most important thing is the opportunity it gives people, especially young women, to explore gender identities, build a sense of community, practice writing, and generally express themselves without fear of censorship.