Lonely Weirdo Hearts
When I was 13 years old, my parents decided that our house would get dial-up Internet.
This was probably the second most influential thing to happen in my pre-adult life, the first being that girls got really pretty in late adolescence. On the Internet, albeit an Internet where it took a solid ten minutes to download a single image file and the sheer concept of streaming a video seemed stupidly impossible, I found myself.
You think that sounds crazy, and maybe that’s because you had healthy normal emotions and a well-adjusted social life around the same time adults were telling you that you were “becoming a woman.” But if you had a Livejournal and an obsession with elvish languages or monster movies or some other weird uncool thing that made your classmates wary of you, then you know exactly what I mean. The Internet came around and all of us dweebs found each other. A worldwide network of utter dweebage was formed, a community of lonely weirdo hearts, and it was goddamned beautiful.
You could say that I’d been looking for myself for ages, poking around in the hearts and minds of American Girl dolls and the constantly shifting politics of preteen girl cliques and issues of Seventeen magazine at my dentist’s office, applying the most likable bits to myself. Nothing seemed to stay stuck. And then I found the Internet, where you could talk to a person (a real person!!) at any hour of the day on a forum designated for exactly the weird thing that made you the subject of bullying at your middle school. And this person (a real person!!) was as obsessed with this weird thing as you were, to the point where this person wrote stories about the weird thing, and edited pictures of the weird thing, and shared the stories and pictures on the forum. I was especially fascinated with the stories, because I already wrote stories, long and epic and terrible fantasy stories, and I didn’t think anyone else did the same long and epic and terrible things I did.
I didn’t find femslash until I was 17. I can’t remember the exactly when but I do remember the exactly what: Ginny Weasley and Pansy Parkinson. I noticed that Ginny seemed a lot happier and more alive with Pansy than she ever did with Harry, kind of like how teenage me was noticing that I hated being around boys but was positively radiant in a girl’s presence. You can actually track the evolution of my sexuality with the fanfiction I read and wrote: the more comfortable I became with my hugely gay life, the more hugely gay my bookshelf was, fanfiction included.
Looking back, it’s perfectly natural that I was processing my own experiences and identity crises through fictional characters, especially when I was the one in control of their fates. I couldn’t find enough lesbians in the media who actually got the girl and came out on top and didn’t kill themselves, but on the Internet, femslash was giving me more than just a queer character who made it to the end of the story. Femslash characters got to thrive and survive and have messy beautiful love. I finally saw the happy endings I didn’t know I was allowed to have.
A Brief History of Playing in Someone Else’s Sandbox (or Transporting The Sand To Another Reality, Questioning Importance of Sand, What Is Sand Exactly, Why Doesn’t Your Sand Look Like My Sand, Etc.)
The Brontë sisters used to write epic fantasy stories about a real life duke and his sons, just because they could. They made the characters all hunky and heroic and capable of inhuman feats, probably because they were bored teenage girls who weren’t allowed to be too creative or crazy or sexual.
Scholars credit Star Trek as the fandom that created what we know today as fanfiction, and that’s not surprising considering science fiction as a genre is continually building upon and communicating with itself, a literary movement that bends backwards and foregoes linear movement as much as it looks to the future. Fanfiction originally grew in fanzines, but these publications were only circulated within insular communities, remaining relatively unknown to those outside of fandoms.
These days, a lot more people know about fanfiction, probably to the slight horror of those of us who used to hide our stories in covertly titled files on our parents’ computers so no one, no one, would ever find out about them. As of 2008, fanfiction made up one third of all Internet content related to books. Fifty Shades of Grey was famously adapted from a famously bad Twilight fanfiction, just like the City of Bones series was famously adapted from a famously bad Harry Potter fanfiction. George R. R. Martin has said that he strongly opposes fanfiction and considers it to be copyright infringement (but go ahead and finish that Sansa/Margaery Roller Derby AU as soon as possible, fuck the man). Other authors tolerate it and seem vaguely into it, if not at times enthusiastic about its creation.
Television producers and filmmakers are often asked about the strangest or most poorly written fanfiction inspired by their work, a question that most conscientious members of fandom dread. Badly informed journalists keep writing badly informed articles about fanfiction and talking about how it’s “cool” now. No, it’s definitely not cool now, because if it was cool then you wouldn’t be dredging up all the terribly written stories that some poor 12 year old girl in Ohio is writing to get through the horrific reality of 7th grade and making her favorite actress read it out loud during an interview on Access Hollywood. Fuck you, seriously.
All of this is to say that most people are now familiar with fanfiction, even if they’ve never actually read any fanfiction. Their concept of fanfiction is likely rooted in the examples that mainstream media dares to acknowledge, chiefly the works that will be easiest for people to laugh at or think of as embarrassing. If you’ve never actually visited a site like Archive of Our Own, you may think of fanfiction as overly sexual, poorly written, or plagued by author inserts. And all of these things do exist, and they’re not as awful as people make them out to be. In fact, one could argue that they are all very necessary and valid, otherwise the author wouldn’t have felt so compelled to write them and share them with the world.
Fanfiction is, after all, about strong compulsions. Fanfiction writers are not being compensated for their work, even if it’s longer than most novels and read by thousands. They can never publish their work for profit, at least not in its original form. As writers, they remain relatively anonymous even if their work is extremely prolific, since (99.9% of the time) they are only publishing under usernames.
Most interestingly, fanfiction is not just about continuing popular narratives. Fanfiction is almost exclusively based around relationships, or ‘ships.’ It’s why fanfiction sites divide works not just by fandom, but by relationship, and even more specifically the orientation of the relationship. I would argue that fanfic writers aren’t just obsessed with the original work; they’re really obsessed with the love and the kissing and the fucking and the complicated will-they-or-won’t-they that comes with it. Fanfiction that’s considered “Gen” is a relationship-less story, and it’s few and far between, as it is not particularly popular. Far more popular and immensely common are the works that focus on a pairing (or two, or five, or ten, in any number of combinations) and spend the story exploring all the ways in which that pairing interacts.
Fanfiction loves love, and all its complicated and challenging forms.
“Write Like A Girl”… Just Don’t Write About Girls
Fanfiction is an overwhelmingly female-created medium. Like many other female-dominated artforms, it’s often dismissed. There’s a lot of internalized shame in the fanfiction community. No one wants to be accused of being a fangirl. Who wants to be associated with the teenage girls of the world? After all, the boy in my high school English class who told me that I “write like a guy” was telling me that because he thought I wrote well, and were that not the case, I’d be “writing like a girl.”
Fandom, like everything else in our sad messed up world, is very much tainted by misogyny. It’s not just that we don’t have enough femslash — because we don’t — it’s that we as a society of fans still hate women as much as the rest of society. We talk quite openly about how much we hate female characters. We even write into television shows and tell them that if they introduce a female love interest for one of the male leads, we’ll stop watching and we’ll hope that character dies! Because nothing sends fandom into a tizzy quite as much as upsetting the possibility of two apparently hot men banging each other. Nothing gets us on our feet quite as fast as upholding, consciously or not, patriarchal bullshit.
Patriarchy teaches us to care the most about male characters, most often white male characters. Patriarchy says that male characters are the most relatable, the most interesting, the most likeable. Unlikeable female characters are a reason I hear cited for the lack of femslash out there, but it makes me wonder: Are these characters unlikeable because they’ve been crafted this way, or are they unlikeable because we have been trained to automatically find female characters less appealing? We let their male counterparts get away with murder and adultery and bad behavior only to condemn the ladies for being wet blankets or cheaters or “crazy bitches.” It’s called the Skyler White Effect, after Anna Gunn’s character on Breaking Bad.
Is this dislike of female characters part of the reason there isn’t more femslash? It’s probably difficult to write a love story between two women when you can hardly stand the women on their own, when you don’t think they’re deserving of a storyline at all.
Historically, female sexuality, specifically queer female sexuality, flies invisible within our culture. You’ve probably experienced this when you’ve held hands with your girlfriend and she is still referred to as your friend, your roommate, or even your sister. Two girls being affectionate to each other, physically and emotionally, is seen as relatively acceptable and not indicative of homosexuality, so long as neither girl looks like one of those queer deviants. Let’s call it “Gal Pal Syndrome,” since celebrity queer ladies can be making out with their current smooch in public, but they’re still just gal pals out on the town, right? Maybe the same thing is happening in the media we consume: physical, emotional, and even sexual tension between women is something that is supposedly very hard to read, so it’s possible we’re just not seeing it.
But the proof is in the pudding, and the femslash community exists because we are really familiar with this particular queer pudding. We’re queer, and we know queer when we see it. We may not be the only ones who see it, but we certainly have been the only ones to feel passionately about it. The numbers speak for themselves.
Predictably, the boys are on top. Gay male pairings make up a whopping 42.6% of fanfiction works on contemporary fanfiction giant Archive of Our Own. Femslash comes in at a pathetic 3.8%, behind heterosexual pairings’ 15.4%. In fact, works of fanfiction that have no defined relationships at all have more works of fanfiction than femslash.
I’ve heard a lot of excuses for why we don’t have femslash, and I think of them as just that: Excuses, and not particularly good ones. A lot of it sounds like internalized misogyny, or a confirmation that female sexuality is still misunderstood and rendered invisible.
“There aren’t enough three dimensional female characters.”
Y’all managed to write 1047 AO3 fics about the torrid romance between Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. They are, respectively, right wing/center and centerman for the Chicago Blackhawks. Once again, just to confirm, these are hockey players. They do not have a motion picture dedicated to their complex relationship. There are not multiple seasons of television that capture their stories and explore their characters. They play hockey for the NHL. So, what you’re telling me is that you folks have the imaginative power to generate entire novels worth of dramatic love involving two heterosexual hockey players but Rizzoli and goddamned Isles are only worth 652 stories? I’m serious, guys. These are real stats.
“There are barely any lesbian storylines in television, books, and movies.”
This one in particular boggles my little mind. Since when is canon a factor? Here are the top five relationships on AO3. The numbers beside the names indicate how many works of fanfiction have been written about these pairings.
- Sherlock Holmes/John Watson (19,875)
- Castiel/Dean Winchester (14,978)
- Derek Hale/Stiles Stilinski (14,851)
- Dean Winchester/Sam Winchester (7890)
- Rodney McKay/John Sheppard (6943)
Let’s tally up which of these relationships have a canon romance storyline. Hint: It is none. Apparently canon is no match for the great loves of lilywhite cisgender boys, but it is enough to topple even the most well-established female relationships.
“Femslash is a feminist thing, and I don’t want to write about feminism.”
I don’t even know how to argue with this one.
“Bechdel test, yo! We rarely see two women interact with each other, and definitely not for long enough.”
In the film Inception, Arthur and Eames interacted, what? Twice? With that gun thing and then the chair kick? A grand total of 6.47 seconds of direct interaction. And there are 4180 Arthur/Eames fics on AO3 alone. You can do the math.
The thing is that we don’t need any more excuses for why femslash isn’t happening. We need to ask the important questions.
Why is femslash the smallest genre in the world of fanfiction? Why is femslash the most underrepresented relationship type by a sizeable margin? More importantly, why is it that almost all femslash writers are queer women? Male slash pairings are written by straight women, queer women, and even some men (I say “even” because men are rarer than a two dollar bill in the world of fanfiction) and they’re read by a mostly female audience. Femslash has a completely different ideology, because it’s almost exclusively written and consumed by the community it portrays. Unlike a straight girl writing about two boys having sex (and I guarantee that they’re two conventionally attractive white boys whose female love interests have been deemed either worthy of death or asexual by the fandom), femslash is written by those whose identities and personal narratives are reflected in the stories themselves. Maybe the writer of that erotic scene hasn’t had sex with a girl yet, but damn, she has thought about it a lot. That queer author has two girls fall in love with each other in her story even if they’re straight in the original work because two girls falling in love means something to her and to so many people like her, and it’s important that she sees herself in a work of media whose canon forgets she exists. One of the great frustrations of LGBTQ media is the fact that so little of our representations end up coming from LGBTQ-identified creators, and thus we see inaccurate portrayals with limited diversity. Femslash exists because we were sick of being told we didn’t exist, so we wrote ourselves into their stories.
I can’t write this piece without stating somewhere that interests are personal, or I’m sure you’d crucify me in the comments. Every individual comes to write or read for their own unique reasons, out of their own unique experiences and perspectives. I cannot force anyone to eat candy if they don’t like candy. I can’t force anyone to make candy if they wouldn’t eat it themselves. However, I think it’s fair to ask someone to question why they find candy so unpalatable, if you get my drift.
I think it’s really, scarily important that we ask ourselves why so many people will read and write m/m and m/f fanfiction, but will state their disinterest in femslash as a “preference.” As queer people and lady people and queer lady people, why are we putting so much energy and passion into the fictional exploits of conventionally attractive white cis men and their squeaky clean buttholes? Why are we so quick to make excuses for why we don’t like to read or write about people who share our identities and experiences? Doesn’t that feel like something important and big?
Let’s think about why the male pairing so blatantly outshines the female pairing. Let’s think about lesbian invisibility, and female sexuality, and the goddamned patriarchy. And more importantly, let’s write! In fact, let’s write femslash whenever the heck we can. Let’s stage a femslash takeover. Let’s stop letting certain stories dominate the blogosphere. Femslash is overdue for a revolution, y’all.
Culture doesn’t need exploring so much as it needs exploding. We need to destroy things and reconstruct them in our own image, because the people who make our media aren’t going to do it for us. That’s why I want femslash to save the world, and I will not take no for an answer.