I am an avid consumer of fanfiction. I read it every day during my commute, when I want to de-stress at work and before I go to sleep. I’ve been reading works of fiction by fellow fans since I was 10 years old — for more than half of my life, really. I have also written works of my own, pieces that are scattered all over the internet from Fanfiction.net to LiveJournal and Archive of Our Own (AO3).
to say that I’m obsessed with fanfiction is an understatement. Fanfiction is my life.
But today, I’m not really here to talk about much I love the genre (yes, it is a genre and I say this with full conviction as a former Creative Writing major). I’m here to talk about the power that fanfiction holds, its appeal to fandoms, and its importance to female writers all over the world.
The powerful and subversive nature of fanfiction
[SPOILER ALERT: Skip the next paragraph if you haven’t watched Avengers: Endgame yet.]
Imagine this: Captain America didn’t end up with Peggy Carter in Avengers: Endgame. He ended up with his childhood best friend, Bucky Barnes a.k.a. the Winter Soldier, and they retired from being superheroes, deciding to live a peaceful domesticated life in a cottage near the mountains.
Sounds crazy? In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, yes, it is downright crazy, but in the wild and wonderful world of fanfiction – this is just one of the hundreds of different endings that Stucky (Steve x Bucky) fans have written for their favorite pairing.
One of the reasons fanfiction is so popular among fandoms is that it encourages the idea that stories are malleable. This is what makes fanfiction subversive – it changes not only the endings, not only the beginnings but all of the spaces in between. It reveals further possibilities by reshaping popular media and creating material featuring characters from works with copyrights held by others.
Fans respond to the source texts and re-purpose them, turning them inside-out and upside-down to figure out how they can make the texts better for themselves and for other fans. Sometimes, the stories take place in the universe of the source text and sometimes, they build other worlds where the characters can be anything from baristas to strippers to preschool teachers. Through fanfiction, fansbecome active participants of consumer culture, defying “what is” and writing their own versions of “what should be.”
If that’s not powerful, then I don’t know what is.
A genre that’s female-dominated
Now, imagine this: an entire genre of fiction that’s dominated by women writers.
Sounds amazing? That’s fanfiction for you.
Now, there are no studies to support my generalization, but as someone who has been involved in fanfiction for over 12 years, I can guarantee you that stumbling upon a straight, cisgender male author in AO3 or Livejournal is like finding a needle in a haystack. They are the outliers and in a patriarchal world, fanfiction communities have become a safe place for female (and also LGBTQIA+) creators.
Even the first pieces of modern pop culture fanfiction were written by women writers. In the 1970s, female fans of “Star Trek,” the original series, organized conventions and created self-published journals or fanzines with fanfiction about Kirk and Spock. A small, but notorious portion of those fanzines were pieces that heavily depicted romantic and sexual themes.
Fast-forward to today, women writers are still writing fiction about male characters and we must look at this from a distance. Creators and innovators of the most popular media franchises all around the world, especially in Hollywood, are still overwhelmingly male. While many men are talented directors, comic book artists, writers, etc., there is one thing that’s obvious to women who consume popular forms of media –they’re consuming work made mostly by men.
This is why fanfiction is a revolution. Fanfiction allows women to rework the media they’re consuming. They are taking the stories, whether it’s by page or by screen, and rewriting them to tell their own versions. Maybe this doesn’t seem revolutionary to a lot of people, but it is.
That’s why fanfiction has always been and will always be female. It is a safe space for female creators to reinterpret and reinvent. It is a safe space where female creators can look at stories and popular media characters (regardless of sexuality) and say, “This is not good enough for me. I will make it better.”Fanfic authors are engaging with a mainstream male-driven culture and changing it from the bottom up. For many, the opportunity to change and transform the media that they’re forced to consume – that little bit of freedom to subvert from the status quo – is beautiful.
What is the future of fanfiction?
The idealistic thing to say is that one day, fanfics will get published and distributed to a mainstream audience. However, for many fanfiction writers, publishing isn’t the goal. They’re not trying to make money from writing fanfics or from the characters they’re “borrowing.” Heck, they post these pieces online anonymously. They just want to make the fan experience better for the community and this includes featuring same-sex pairings that are given little to no representation in the original texts.
And perhaps, this is the sad part about fanfiction — it will continue to stay within a niche community until popular media stops rejecting it. Outside of the community, fanfic writers are still made to feel ashamed for writing erotica about superheroes even though they are given invaluable love by fellow fans. This dismissal by popular media matters because the majority of fic writers and readers are women and other marginalized genders — many of whom seldom have a voice in mainstream writing and literary criticism.
So, why then, isn’t fanfiction-shaming widely regarded as a feminist issue? To be honest, it might be due to a lack of awareness. If someone’s only knowledge of fanfiction is Fifty Shades of Grey, then they are likely to think that all of fanfiction is poorly written and not worthy of their time.
But that’s how literary genres work — some of it is terrible and some of it is incredible.
I won’t attempt to defend the entire concept of fanfiction in this article. It’s been done better by other writers and academics, but I do have this to say — if you write fanfics or you read fanfics every day, don’t let the stigma weigh you down. Maybe someday, the rest of the world will stop stereotyping us as sexually frustrated housewives or silly teenage girls. Don’t feel embarrassed and continue reading that 100k slow burn fanfic of Dean and Castiel.
Remember, we are not limited by what we consume. We are only limited by our imagination.