Fanfiction is the Voice of Girls and Gays
March 9, 2022 / Catherina Chowdhury
Those with power have always had control of what stories were told and how. Fanfiction subverts that power.
In my earliest fantasies, I am a Pevensie. I’m the youngest and prettiest Kardashian sister. I won the Hunger Games once. I am in a love triangle with Dean from Supernatural and Eli from Degrassi (he wins).
I would fall asleep adding to these stories in my mind every night, but I never spoke of them. They were my personal “worlds,” where the most perfect version of Catherina lived, and where I wanted to live. But, at around age 10, I learned that my stories weren’t destined to the confines of my mind; there was a whole world that wanted to know about my worlds and share their own worlds. Enter — the fanfiction community.
Throughout my entire adolescence, fanfiction has come in phases of obsession and withdrawal. I’ve dabbled my hand in writing, and my interests have changed fandoms and tags and content warnings, but I never stopped reading fanfiction. On the eve of my 21st birthday last month, I stayed up until 6 a.m. reading a Destiel fic.
As constant of a large role that fanfiction has had on my life, it wasn’t until college that I even asked anyone I knew if they read it. Though never explicitly explained to me, I’ve always understood that fanfiction was the business of dorky, unserious, oversexed girls, and that’s not who I wanted to be. Its stigma precedes it as something secretive and shameful. But, like how I discovered dreaming wasn’t unique to me at age 10, 18-year-old me was let in on the bigger secret: everyone read fanfiction.
But, if everyone is reading it, then why is it so shameful?
To understand the societal fear of fanfiction, we must understand its audience. One misconception that I hear too often is that fandom is a space dominated by weird, lonely boys, which could not be farther from the truth. 86% of fanfiction readers are female or non-binary and around the age of 25 (Ao3). This is where the pieces start clicking. Fanfiction is a space for (mostly) young (mostly) women to celebrate their interests and create their own media. Given that it wasn’t too long ago that women in the western world weren’t allowed to make media at all, it’s no wonder that fanfiction’s by-women-for-women model is labeled “dangerous.”Media for young women has always been seen as a threat.
It’s impossible to talk about fanfiction as representation without talking about fanfiction’s role in queer representation. Mainstream media is an economics game; what movies and books get made is dependent on what investors think will sell. What investors think will sell depends on what the existing culture values, but until very recently, the existing culture did not value queer people. So, while Hollywood’s TV shows and movies tried to ignore the existence of gay and trans people altogether, gay and trans people wrote their own stories. These stories became so popular in fanfiction that the terms slash (a romantic or sexual relationship between two same-sex characters) and femslash (the female equivalent) were coined to classify works with queer relationships. Popular slash pairings like Harry/Draco, Spock/Kirk, and Natasha/Wanda are now almost synonymous with fanfiction. In a society that expects cis-gendered heterosexuality, slash fiction is a resistance to the norm, a way of telling the world we still exist. For me and many others, fanfiction was a low-stakes way to explore my sexuality anonymously and online before coming out.
Indeed, the internet poses many explanations as to why some view fanfiction as weird and morally wrong, but they all tell me what I know to be true. Fanfiction is for the girls and gays, and culturally, we hate the girls and gays.
To love a piece of media without reserve is a threat to those who make it. It’s no longer old, stinky white men in suits deciding Captain America’s love interest; it’s an 11th grader with an affinity for highschool AU’s. Those with power have always had control of what stories were told and how, but fanfiction subverts that power. Its accessibility and popularity give a voice to everyone who doesn’t make it into a publisher’s or writer’s room — spaces notorious for being white, rich, and male. Fanfiction writers take the media that isn’t made for us and make it ours. It’s a radical transformation of power masked as a slash fic.
As for fanfiction’s reputation as porn, I am not as interested in disproving that as I once was. I have been exposed to enough pop psychology to know the obvious: women’s sexuality scares men. Perhaps fanfiction is porn for women —so what?
Fanfiction is a love letter, a saga, an “I love this so much I want to expand it.” It’s a critique, a “Hey, why aren’t there any gay avengers yet and how can we change that?”. 10-year-old me saw the fanfiction community as a space where my dreams came true. 12-year old-me saw it as a way to explore the idea that maybe I wasn’t straight. 18-year-old me saw it as a source of bonding with new college friends. Now, at 21 years old, fanfiction is all of the above and my first love. At least there’s one thing that both Destiel shippers like myself and critics can agree on: that fanfiction, like it or not, is here to stay. ■
by: Catherina Chowhury
graphics by: Amanda Garza