Rethinking Fanfiction and its Role in Gender Inequality Aug15

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Rethinking Fanfiction and its Role in Gender Inequality

“Storytelling” by Meirii.

When I was a fourteen, I was a member of a Lord of the Rings forum website, where I started reading fanfiction and, eventually, wrote my own. A year and a half ago, I turned to the forums again when I was breastfeeding my daughter; I needed something to keep me awake and engaged during those 2 a.m. feedings.

Fanfic gets a bad rap. It is usually derided as something for teenage girls or trashy romance, or it’s silly and a waste of time. It’s also mostly written by women and LGBTQ folks—a factor I don’t think we can ignore when we examine the bias against it.

As with everything, women have had to fight for their place as legitimate writers. In the Victorian era, women’s writing was seen as vulgar and taboo, and was never taken seriously. Writers whom we laud today as trailblazers, like Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, had trouble getting their manuscripts published because of their gender. The work of a little-known playwright named Aphra Behn was completely erased from existence after her death because it was too “scandalous” for her time. Even J.K. Rowling’s publisher suggested that she hide her gender so that her book would “appeal to boys and girls.”

We also know that LGBTQ representation in mainstream media hasn’t grown very much in recent years. Thor: Ragnarok, for example, came under fire when it failed to include any mention of Valkyrie’s sexuality, even though she is canonically bisexual.

Today, shelves are lined with books written by women, but stereotypes still persist. A study by The New Republic, which examined 10,287 book reviews from the Sunday Book Review of The New York Times, found that reviewers adhere to the notions that women are sentimental and men are serious. For example, they were more likely to use words like “husband,” “marriage,” “mother,” and “love,” when describing books written by women, and “president,” “leader,” “argument,” and “theory” when describing books written by men. The implications are clear: men write about ideas and women write about family.

In June, Dana Schwartz, the brain behind the brilliant Twitter handle @GuyInYourMFA, wrote about finding her book of essays on a list of “7 of The Best Guilty Pleasure Beach Reads To Indulge In This Summer.” She writes,

The phrase ‘guilty pleasure’ has become disproportionately attached to women’s works in a way that serves to diminish them… They are all stories marketed primarily toward women, about women; calling something a guilty pleasure is less often a meaningful descriptor than a knee-jerk apology for daring to discuss something that appeals to women.

With personal essays about depression and eating disorders, Schwartz’s book, Choose Your Own Disaster, is certainly not beach reading, and yet it was classified as such (but, as Schwartz points out, the same would never happen to David Sedaris or Nick Hornby).

Novels, poetry, plays, fantasy, science fiction, TV, movies: all areas where men have actively tried to keep women down and ridiculed them for daring to write in the first place. Fanfic is just the latest iteration of that.

Fanfic writers are made up of women and LGBTQ folks because they are not represented enough in the literary world.

In February, Lithub published an interview with Lonely Christopher, author of the book THERE, which is a reimagining of Stephen King’s The Shining. In the interview, Christopher says:

I took the basic tropes of The Shining and replicated and subverted them, and I also took chunks of language and interwove material pieces of Stephen King’s novel… I’ve never read this book, but when I was writing the first draft of my novel I had a copy of The Shining in my lap and was actively using it to some extent or another the entire time.

How is that not fanfiction? Oh, Christopher has an answer for that too: “I guess the reason why this isn’t ‘fan fiction’ is because, first of all, it’s not enjoyable in the same way and then it’s vaguely academic… Intellectually, it has a relationship to Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, Debord, and especially Baudrillard. So it is having conversations with different texts in different ways.”

THERE has generally received critical acclaim, whereas the myriad of Pride and Prejudice continuations, like Linda Berdoll’s Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife, get passed off as “Chick Lit.” Even though both these works are fanfic because they tell new stories in a pre-existing world, they have been received differently; I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the reviews came out in favour for the book written by a man.

Even in fandom, there seems to be a hierarchy among spheres of fan expression, where cosplay and attending cons come out on top and fanfic sits near the bottom. Fanfic still feels like the “dirty little secret” no one wants to admit to reading or writing.

Well, I’ve read a lot of it. And yes, some of it was not very good, but for the most part what I’ve found is a community of writers who just want to tell stories and help each other improve their skills. There have been many times during my years in fandom when I finished reading a book and still wanted to live in that world for a bit, or when I was dissatisfied by something that happened on a TV show and wanted to see how others “corrected” it or filled in the gaps. Fanfic was there for all of that, and it can be a useful tool for writers learning the craft.

Seanan McGuire, a sci-fi writer who has won both the Nebula and Hugo Awards, writes about this in a Twitter thread: “Fanfic taught me pacing. Taught me dialog. Taught me scene, and structure, and what to do when a deadline attacks. Fanfic taught me to take critique, to be edited, to collaborate, to write to spec.”

The reason, she says, why fanfic writers are made up of women and LGBTQ folks is because they are not represented in the literary world: “A not inconsiderable number of us started writing fanfic because we wanted to live the stories we love, and then discovered that we loved telling stories. We wanted to do it always and forever and maybe… maybe we wanted to tell OUR OWN STORIES.”

Fanfic still feels like the “dirty little secret” no one wants to admit to reading or writing.

And that’s exactly what I did, too. The fanfic I wrote when I was fourteen was terrible, but it was terrible because I didn’t know what I was doing, not because it was fanfic. And, more importantly, it sowed the early seeds that led me to becoming a professional writer and editor.

I’m encouraged that the conversation about fanfic is more open now and that creators, like Seanan McGuire, are fighting the implications that they should be ashamed; Neil Gaiman himself wrote, “I won the Hugo Award for a piece of Sherlock Holmes/H.P. Lovecraft fanfic, so I’m in favour” in response to a tweet questioning the validity of it. And I love that Terry Jeffords and Ben Wyatt (from Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Parks and Recreation, respectively) are canon fanfic writers.

I won’t fault people who engage in their fandoms by writing fanfic. But I want to challenge those who  dismiss fanfic as meaningless or trashy to rethink their perspective in light of the writers who use it to hone their craft—they may go on to be tomorrow’s next bestsellers. And, some fanfic writers simply enjoy playing in someone else’s world, using their creativity for something they’re passionate about; there’s no harm in that either. After all, what are these universes for if not to spark creativity and imagination? If we stamp that out, men and women alike will lose something valuable indeed.

Kyla Neufeld

Kyla Neufeld

Contributing Writer at Area of Effect
Kyla is a poet, writer, and editor. She writes about various sci-fi and fantasy series, and is interested in the intersections between geek culture, feminism, and social justice. She lives in Winnipeg with her husband, the Sith Lord, and her daughter, the Nazgûl child.
Kyla Neufeld