(featured image via Shutterstock)
Sitting on the patio of a neighborhood cafe-bar where freelancers nurse coffees until happy hour hits and they finally give up on the tedium of the gig economy and order a beer, I turned to my girlfriend and read her an excerpt from an article on trademark law’s implications on fandom and fanfiction. The article, written by my lawyer aunt, astutely pointed out that if the internet had been around when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was still penning Sherlock Holmes stories, impassioned fans would no doubt write fanfiction shipping the original Sherlock and Watson. At this point, my girlfriend turned to me, astonishment in her eyes, and asked: “Wait, does straight fanfiction exist?”
My girlfriend is not an internet person. I’ve had to explain many things to her over the years: tumblr, subtweeting, Mariah Carey famously saying “I don’t know her” re: Jennifer Lopez, and sliding into DMs — a concept that she always contextualizes as “how Sarah Paulson and Holland Taylor started dating.” My influence has no doubt affected her perception of pop culture. I’m pretty sure she thinks Scandal is a television show about the love story of Mellie Grant and Olivia Pope, probably because that’s what I’ve said it’s about. Eventually, she figured out that when I say a show is “super queer,” she should have me clarify whether it’s actually queer or if I’m just providing my own interpretation based on unfulfilled subtext. Still, this latest reveal that she briefly thought fanfiction was a queer utopia came as a bit of a shock. But how could she have known? Her exposure to fanfiction has been limited to me reading passages out loud about all my wlw ships. (She’s going to ask me what wlw means when she reads this.)
As I began to explain that straight fanfiction does indeed exist, I realized that it was a bit like me trying to explain the Eiffel Tower, or Antarctica, or the movie La La Land: I know these things to be real, but I’ve never seen them for myself.
I came to fanfiction late in life. It’s perhaps the only facet of fandom I didn’t throw myself into when I first became a certified Internet Person in 2004. Back then, I frequented the WB (RIP) message boards, participating in roleplaying communities for Charmed, Smallville, and Gilmore Girls (my username was PiprLoreleiClark). But for some reason, fanfiction remained on the periphery of my fandom experience. I think a large part of my fanfiction ignorance was the fact that I obsessed over shows, books, and movies so much that I actually wanted to be a part of the story. Fanfiction allows fans to create, to add to, to subvert and challenge the narratives they derive from. I wanted to insert myself into the narrative quite literally, as evidenced by the not-quite-fanfiction I wrote in my composition notebook in elementary school in which I was the quirky best friend to Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen as the detective characters from their serialized book series. This tendency to cast fictional characters as my imaginary best friends continued well into my early teens, when I would daydream elaborate adventures shared between me, Dr. Gregory House, and Dr. Lisa Cuddy. These daydreams became a chaotic labyrinth of crossovers. Cuddy and I would link up with Jean Grey and Sydney Bristow and maybe even a Desperate Housewife or two to save the world.
I’ve since learned there’s a term for the narcissistic fanfiction narratives I dreamt up as a youth: self-insert fic. But self-insert fic seems largely to be a very private endeavor. Because frankly, who cares? Fanfiction is democratic; it’s communal; it’s more widely appealing to people than the tales of Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya and Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen.
It was during my senior year of college that I finally said the words “I’m a lesbian” out loud. Around that time, I also started realizing The Media, and television specifically, played a huge role in suppressing my queerness. My life revolved around television, but I rarely saw lesbians on TV. There were even fewer non-white lesbians. Finally, I saw the power of fanfiction. There were stories out there where the queer subtext could finally be realized! There were stories out there that acknowledged the fluidity of sexuality that television often ignores! There were stories out there where the lesbians who television killed were still alive.
Like the true millennial I am, I first turned to Harry Potter fanfiction, where I was met with the plethora of Hermione/Ginny (sorry!) stories I craved. One of the best ones I ever read featured a bisexual Ginny who was a powerful witch and lawyer?! Eventually, I branched out into Hunger Games and The Vampire Diaries and The Good Wife fanfiction. I read Glee fanfiction long after I stopped watching Glee.
I still remained a pretty casual consumer of fanfiction, mostly because I didn’t really know where to find the good stuff, and there was only so much I could take of the really poorly written shit that switches tenses with no explanation and goes out of its way to avoid calling the characters by their names (seriously, what is up with this fanfiction writer tic?!). Luckily, my friend Mariah entered my life — fittingly, at Comic-Con. A connoisseur of fanfiction, Mariah is my official Fic Librarian. Without her, I’d be lost in a sea of passive voice usage and comma splices. (The only time my requests have ever stumped her was when I was sought Rachel/Quinn UnREAL fanfiction. Unfortunately, they share the names of a rather popular Glee pairing.)
Throughout my fanfiction journey, I was never exposed to the “straight” fanfiction my girlfriend apparently does not believe in. The closest I came was probably the time I procrastinated from studying for my Econ exam by reading a 52-chapter The West Wing fic told from the perspective of a goldfish (I should note here that I have never seen The West Wing). For me, fanfiction always served one clear purpose: providing me with the queer narratives mainstream pop culture insufficiently provided. I understand that there is fanfiction that doesn’t center queerness and that there’s even fanfiction that doesn’t revolve around ships at all. But that’s not what I’m here for.
So my girlfriend’s question remains: Does straight fanfiction exist? I was more than willing to adopt her willful ignorance and just proceed with life as if it did not. But the headline of this article promises a study, and I do not break my promises when it comes to internet detective work. First, I hit up the Fic Librarian herself, who is also my token straight friend, but she quickly saw through my questions and pointed out that just because she’s straight does not mean she mostly reads fanfiction about straights. She has a point. She also did not want me exposing some of her more embarrassing fanfiction interests, but she wished me good luck on my foray into the world of hetero fic. I would have to take this journey solo.
First, like the prestigious investigator that I am, I Googled “heterosexual fanfiction.” One of the top results is a Supernatural fic called “Dean Winchester is a 100 Heterosexual, Manly Man of Masculinity.” Unsurprisingly, the title is ironic. Dean falls in love with a man, as he tends to do in 90% of Supernatural fanfiction. Even Google doesn’t seem to believe straight fanfiction exists. To find what I was looking for, I’d have to think like a straight person. So I sat down and challenged myself to think about what the straightest ship ever might be. Then it hit me: Jack Donaghy and Liz Lemon.
Friends, perhaps you are hoping for some particularly outrageous excerpts from the mentally scarring Jack/Liz 30 Rock fanfiction I found myself drowning in on the darkest parts of the world wide web. To which I say: You will have to look it up yourself. I cannot bring myself to republish these atrocities. I realize that this is turning out to be a pretty bad study, but I also feel like I’m doing you a favor.
Straight fanfiction is stylistically very similar to my beloved queer fanfiction. The sex scenes are similarly overwritten and detailed to the point where they almost read like furniture assembly instructions. Straight fanfiction can be raunchy and absurd and funny (sometimes intentionally) and immersive, just like the fanfiction I read. The biggest difference I found between straight and queer fanfiction is that the former tends to build on canon ships more often than not. With a few exceptions, I’m used to reading slash fics and ones in which the queer subtext of the original work becomes fully realized. The vast majority of fanfiction I found about heterosexual pairings built on canon relationships, like Leslie Knope and Ben Wyatt from Parks And Recreation or Will Gardner and Alicia Florrick from The Good Wife. Sure, there was a fair share of non-canon shipping going on in the straight fanfiction community, too, like Glee‘s “Schueberry” (yikes!), Hermione/Snape (double yikes!), and probably some that aren’t problematic teacher/student pairings, although those certainly stood out (perhaps I am being hypocritical given that I read a lot of fanfiction about a certain ship that rhymes with “proctor satanic”).
Another interesting thing I noticed is that when it comes to shows that are popular among queer women because of a particular ship — canon or not — the queer fanfiction far outnumbers fanfiction about the canon heterosexual pairings. For example, in the world of Supergirl fanfiction, Kara/Lena fics significantly outnumber Kara/Mon-El fics. Even though Kara/Lena fanfiction writers are building on real sentiments and moments from the show, turning the subtext into bold text, there’s an element of wishful thinking at play. Those of us who can see the obvious chemistry between Kara and Lena don’t trust the show to bring that tension to fruition, so we turn to a place where it can. Fans of Kara/Mon-El get enough overtly romantic moments between the two on the show to be more satisfied. Even I switched from Alex/Maggie fanfiction to Kara/Lena fanfiction after Alex and Maggie became a legit couple on the show (though I sometimes return to the Alex/Maggie stuff because their scenes have becoming increasingly sparse). Fanfiction fills the gaps in representation. If people don’t see themselves reflected in a show, they can turn to fanfiction, much like I quite literally added myself to the story with my active imagination as a teen.
As with any medium, there is plenty of aggressively heteronormative fanfiction out there. Far worse than the grammatically challenged stories, there’s also plenty of racist, sexist, homophobic, and ableist fanfiction out there. If you’re not good at finding the good stuff, I highly recommend finding yourself a Fic Librarian. After a few hours of digging through fanfiction in which two women don’t even so much as make meaningful eye contact, I’d had enough. I much prefer my queer utopia of fanfiction, where bisexual Ginny Weasley kicks ass in magical court and Lexa lives long enough to build a house for Clarke and Alicia Florrick leaves her husband for Kalinda Sharma. Straight fanfiction might technically exist, but to quote Mariah Carey, I don’t know her.