Online Fan Fiction and Identity
The concept of fan-authored works using popular culture characters is hardly new: the introduction of the television series Star Trek brought with it the popularization of zines, or magazines, filled with erotic stories based on the main characters. However, with the increasing popularity and available access of the internet, large communities have been created to centre around these works of fan fiction, with a particular focus being given to canonically heterosexual male characters being written into homosexual relationships by and for women. Previous studies into this phenomenon show its popularity among marginalized populations including women, visible minorities, and those of non-heterosexual orientation[i][ii] but there is still a lack of study as to why women (and particularly homosexual women) choose to read stories that do not fall into line with their own sexual preferences. Within this paper and drawing on personal observations and multiple interviews, I will look at the different reasons that readers connect with fan fiction (in part using Dewey’s concept of active aesthetic experience as well as Huizinga’s concept of a “magic circle”), how different populations connect to and interact with fan fiction and others on sites such as Tumblr, FanFiction.net and ArchiveofOurOwn, and how fan fiction itself is being brought into mainstream popular culture. I argue that fan fiction is being used online to create spaces of connection and acceptance, while allowing for participants to move outside of their own identifiers in a way that reinforces their identities.
I will begin with a very brief history of fan fiction, drawing on the work of Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse to give an insight into the female-produced Star Trek magazines that were the jumping off point of the genre before shifting to Francesca Coppa, who focuses on fan fiction written with contemporary characters in an online space. I will then examine the concepts of the magic circle and active aesthetic experience, as presented by Huizinga and Dewey respectively, and argue that they can be applied to the acts of reading and writing fan fiction. This will give a theoretical background for the main section of this ethnography, where the conducted interviews and participant observation will be broken down and analyzed. Finally, I will conclude with the major findings of this research, and how it can be applied to future study.
From zines to teens: a brief history of fan fiction
The idea of fan fiction, or fan created works of literature using characters from existing popular culture, can be traced back to the 1960s and the introduction of the popular television show Star Trek. Through the collection of ethnographic essays found in Hellekson and Busse’s The Fan Fiction Studies Reader, readers learn of the beginnings of the genre, where fans of Star Trek produced hard copy magazines filled with stories involving the show’s characters, particularly William Shatner’s James T. Kirk and Leonard Nimoy’s Spock. These collections of stories and other Star Trek information were available to readers to purchase either in-person at science fiction conventions (where fans could discuss their favourite shows or books, purchase memorabilia, or even meet with actors from popular shows) or order them through the mail. The first of these zines to gain widespread popularity was Spockanalia, which contained some fan fiction stories, along with fan commentary, art, and some correspondence with Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, who considered them to be valuable sources of information on fan reactions to the show and had the entire writing staff read each new edition.[iii] These primarily female writers (both of Spockanalia and other less prominent zines) wrote stories that paired Kirk and Spock (termed K/S) together rather than include a female character, which Joanna Russ posits as Spock’s alien “otherness” is a stand-in for femininity without being trapped in the expectations that often surround a female character.[iv]
In later years, due in part to the creation and increased access to the internet, fans began to move away from print media and into online spaces to share their thoughts, feelings, and ideas about popular shows. This meant that the geographic and monetary barriers that were in place during the early decades of fan fiction could be overcome, and that fans could now share their thoughts and works freely with people across the world. Websites such as tumblr.com, fanfiction.net, and archiveofourown.org became electronic meeting places for creators to share their works of fan fiction and fan art, and Tumblr in particular became a place for fans to create their own spaces to present who they felt that they were through their favourite media. By joining these fandoms (loosely defined as a collection of people who enjoy a particular show, movie, or book series), fans could connect and interact with other blogs that had the same interests by tagging posts by show or character name(s), as well as adding their own personal ones.
As seen in the Star Trek zines, there is a great prevalence for what is referred to as “slash fiction”, which pairs together two characters of the same sex into relationships that would not be written canonically (usually heterosexual male characters, such as Supernatural’s Dean and Castiel, Sherlock’s Watson and Sherlock, and many others). These are more often than not filled with explicit sexual scenes, which is somewhat surprising when most of the readers and writers are women, but this will be touched upon in the analysis. This is not to say that all works of fan fiction have been made exclusively available online: the extremely popular Fifty Shades franchise (read by middle aged women everywhere) started out as Twilight fan fiction before the author changed the character names to publish it.
To better understand why people read fan fiction, I have decided to utilize John Dewey’s concept of active aesthetic experience and Johan Huizinga’s concept of the magic circle. While these two concepts are often linked to art or play, I believe that the act of choosing to read fan fiction for pleasure can be categorized as such.
First, Dewey said that art is not simply static[vi]: it has a beginning, middle, and end; it is focused on enjoyment; and it requires both conscious action and an emotional undertaking. In short, Dewey believes that art is meant to be an experience that is subject and individual. This can be applied to to act of reading fan fiction stories, as it is a reader seeking out and taking in the created work of another person, for the sole purpose of creating emotions and experiencing a fulfillment.
This leads well into Huizinga’s concept of the magic circle, which he originally describes in his 1949 book Homo Ludens as “a stepping out of “real” life into a temporary sphere of activity with a disposition of its own”[vii]. Again, while this is traditionally used by play theorists, I believe that it can be applied to the act of reading fan fiction. Figure 4 gives a visual representation of how the magic circle works, where one moves out of the everyday world and life to a new “virtual” space with its own goals and activities (connecting back to Dewey) before transitioning back into the “real” world upon completion - in this case, finishing a story.
Fans of fan fiction - why do we read slash?
The true topic of interest in this ethnography is why women (either heterosexual or homosexual) choose to read stories that involve male/male pairings - something that does not fall within their own sexual preferences. I have conducted four interviews in an attempt to find out where these interests originate: these were done with a homosexual female (Samantha), a heterosexual female (Caroline), a homosexual male (Liam), and a heterosexual male (Alex).[viii] I chose to take such a broad look as I was also interested in seeing if the reasonings behind women reading male/male stories could be applied to men and female/female (“femslash”) stories as well. The bulk of this section will focus on my interview with Samantha[ix], who was the homosexual women.
Samantha has been reading fan fiction since 2010, which is both the time that she joined Tumblr and when she entered into her first lesbian, monogamous relationship (as is a common story with many of the non-heterosexual people I know, this coincided with her graduation from high school). She did not start actively reading these stories until I introduced her to the popular television series Supernatural, at which point she gravitated towards stories that had the pairing of Castiel and Dean, two of the main characters of the series. Much like Spock in Star Trek, Castiel was an “other” as he was an angel that came down to aid the human Dean and his brother on their many adventures to save people (and later, the world). This was a time when there was very little gay representation in the mainstream media (Modern Family, which is one of the most prevalent examples now, had come out just the year before), and what there was often felt contrived and forced to her, as it was often written by heterosexual show writers. Even Modern Family follows some of these “gay tropes”: as Sam said in our interview, “when you see a male male relationship typically one, even in Modern Family, one is for lack of better words, girlie in the sense that one isn't as masculine as the other.”[x] Because of this, she found herself reading stories where writers had taken these (usually very physically attractive) heterosexual characters and wrote what they wanted to see out of a homosexual relationship.
It is important to note here that most of these stories that she reads involve male characters: Samantha believes that this is because she is not a gay man, and thus does not have personal experience with the situations that come up in the stories. This allows her to maintain a little distance between herself and the characters, because she cannot actually judge if the scenarios are completely correct as she only knows them through a lesbian perspective.[xi] She struggles to read femslash fan fiction because she had already gone through her own period of uncertainty and “doesn’t need to relive the pain”.[xii] There seems to be a similar view among the fan fiction community, as a search of the ArchiveOfOurOwn Supernatural section shows that people are far more interested in writing male/male stories than they are female/female or female/male - as shown in Figure 6, there are over 100,000 stories tagged as being male/male, while only 4,259 and ~24,700 were female/female or female/male. This also fits well into what Caroline and Liam both described as their preference for male/male stories, which brings up another interesting point.
Caroline, as the straight woman, described many of the same reasons as Samantha for preferring to avoid stories that fell in line with her own sexual/relationship experiences: she didn’t want to read the same struggles that she had felt, but also didn’t want to read anything that felt like the “fairytale boy-meets-girl and there’s absolutely nothing to stop them from being happy immediately”[xiii], which got a laugh from us both. Liam was the outlier in these sets of interviews (as Alex did not and had never read fan fiction, which followed the trend for heterosexual men that I polled), as he exclusively read male/male stories. Unlike the two women, he was only interested in reading stories that fell within his own sexuality, due to the fact that he “doesn’t even know how a vagina works, so why would [he] want to read all about them?”.[xiv] This seems to indicate that the reasons that Samantha and Caroline both presented are not universal across marginalized populations (such as women or non-heterosexual people), and that larger sample sizes would be needed to determine a more standard reasoning as to why people, and particularly women, choose to read stories involving homosexual male relationships. Age does also seem to impact whether or not someone is more likely to actively seek out fan fiction: an informal poll of 32 adults (even distribution of men and women, all above the age of 30, and all heterosexual) showed that while some of them had heard of fan fiction before, no one had read any online. However, when asked who had read Fifty Shades of Grey, 13 of the 16 women raised their hands and were surprised to learn that the franchise originated as fan fiction (as mentioned earlier). Unsurprisingly, none of the men had read the book (or at least were unwilling to admit it).
According to the interviews, participant observation, and polls conducted over the course of this research, the act of reading fan fiction appears to remain tied to marginalized populations. However, even within that subset there is further division, where female readers of both major sexualities wish to step away from the struggles and limitations of femininity and see men fill those roles instead. This warrants further exploration, with a greater focus being put on why female and homosexual male readers have such different views on reading about pairings of the opposite gender, with a larger sample group to better determine general views. This information can be taken by creators (both of fan works and of mainstream media programs) to better gauge what it is that their audiences would like to see from the characters in new and existing shows, just as Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry did in the late 1960s. It would seems that space was not the final frontier for fans: instead, it was just the beginning.
[i] Francesca Coppa, The Fanfiction Reader: Folk Tales for the Digital Age (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2017).
[ii] Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse, The Fan Fiction Studies Reader (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2014), 75-76.
[iii] Maria Jose Tenuto and John Tenuto, “Spockanalia — The First Star Trek Fanzine,” Star Trek, last modified October 20, 2014, http://www.startrek.com/article/spockanalia-the-first-star-trek-fanzine
[iv] Joanna Russ, “Pornography by Women for Women, with Love,” in The Fan Fiction Studies Reader, ed. Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2014), 84.
[v] Maria Jose Tenuto and John Tenuto, “Spockanalia — The First Star Trek Fanzine,” Star Trek, last modified October 20, 2014, http://www.startrek.com/article/spockanalia-the-first-star-trek-fanzin
[vi] John Dewey, Art as Experience (New York: Putnam, 1934), 208.
[vii] Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens (London: Routledge, 1949), 8.
[viii] All self-identified as such.
[ix] All names have been changed to protect informant identities.
[x] Interview with the author, 2017. All further notes will be the same.