Thursday, April 18, 2019

The Feminine Between: Fanfiction as a Gendered Space

Fanfiction is not only a proponent for creative culture, but could also be the outlet that young women need.  ♦ 
The rise of the internet as an entertainment platform has enabled content creators of all kinds to profit from their works in ways that were unprecedented only a few decades ago. For example, the rise of streaming services, such as Netflix and Hulu, has catapulted our favorite TV shows and movies from a commercial-heavy DVR to the zero-commercial, zero-hassle bliss of binge-watching on almost any screen. As more of this type of easy-access content appears, fans of this content will multiply. But, inevitably, those fans will reach a point when they can simply binge no more. And where does one go to consume his or her favorite content when the canon runs out?

The fandom, of course.

Where else, besides within a fandom, could you find fanart of your favorite characters from The Walking Dead opening a bakery together? Where else could you engage in lengthy discourse about what exactly happened in Season 4, Episode 1 of Supernatural? Where else could you read a 300,000-word story entirely based on that one scene that would have been so much better if it had gone just a little bit differently? Fandoms are where you go when you don’t want the content to end, or you wish it ended differently, or you think you could’ve done it better yourself. Therefore, the people who are attracted most to fandoms are those who feel as if their voices are not represented within modern media: namely, young women.

Within online fandom spaces, young women can find an escape from a reality in which their voices are not valued. Indeed, many creators within fandoms rejoice in the fact that their audience is limited to other women who have common interests to theirs. According to Beth Weeks, a fanfiction author with an online following more than 25,000 strong, this is part of the appeal: “I’m not interested in men reading my work or men’s perspective of my work. I’m always writing for my 16-year-old self.” Writing in this milieu has since helped her within more professional contexts. “I can say that one of the strengths I had when I came to the MFA was that I was acutely aware of writing for an audience.”

That being said, the limits of a fandom’s audience can also be detrimental to an aspiring author because of one key factor: “Fanfic is so much of a community thing. We’re writing to contribute to a greater lexicon, and the whole purpose of it is to showcase our genre. Original work is kind of in a vacuum. You inevitably derive your work from other people, but you can’t admit that,” confessed Weeks. And, indeed, one of the most challenging facets of being in an MFA program for Weeks was “Writing what I wanted to write, not what other people wanted to read.”

Furthermore, writing within a fandom can be challenging for reasons one might not expect. While the audience and community are one of the best parts about the genre, they can also be incredibly overwhelming. According to Weeks, “The place of a fanfic writer is a completely unique circumstance. The place of a popular fanfic writer is the strangest place to be, because we’re not allowed to talk about our popularity, we’re not allowed to acknowledge any kind of fame, and we’re not allowed to complain about it.” This is because, according to fandom logic, receiving attention and acclaim from an overwhelming audience is better than not receiving any at all. However, this is not a struggle felt by authors of original texts.

Weeks elaborated on this point, “If you’re a popular author of an original text, you don’t have to reply to your Amazon reviews. You don’t have to keep an open Ask Box, you don’t have to reply to your Twitter mentions. But fanfic authors have to constantly engage. In some cases, fanfic authors have larger followings than original authors, and, in many cases, they do. And yet, we are tasked with the unpaid labor of constant engagement because we are reader-writers of the same lexicon. And so, we have to engage as fans of a greater text, even though we’re in this between space of also being creators, but we have to do all of the work of being a consumer in addition to a creator.”

And yet it is within that “between space” that aspiring female authors are able to dramatically influence culture at a micro-level that can become macro. One example of this occurred when Supernatural paid tribute to its fans with its 200th episode entitled “Fan Fiction.” Filmed in the form of a musical and performed by a young female cast, the television show celebrated the fanbase that insured its popularity. On a more individual level, writing fanfiction is what put best-selling authors E.L. James and Anna Todd on the map. However, while there still are inherent issues with catering to a large audience without a PR team to support and guide an aspiring author, by contributing to fandom content, a young woman can feel empowered and learn skills that can positively impact her future writing. Regardless of how this space is interpreted in the public eye, fandoms represent massive online platforms in which young women have the power to reshape mainstream content into any form they desire.

And even though in today’s culture fanfiction is still not taken nearly as seriously as canonical writing, the canon can only go so far. But the fandom? Well, that goes on forever.

  • About the Author
    Mary Seaman is a Creative Writing and History double major who has been a fanfiction connoisseur since 2012. She is currently attending Miami University as a third-year senior.

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