Fanfiction: A History of Marginalization
I strode into the first lecture of my ENG276: Fanfiction class at nine A.M. last semester, fingertips tingling with excitement despite the scarce four hours of sleep I’d gotten the previous night. I took a seat in one of the middle rows, as usual, opened up my laptop, and waited with my hands clasped in my lap as the other students began filing in.
A few minutes later, Professor O’Flynn marched in and down the steps to take her place at the podium at the front of the lecture hall. She delivered the usual introductory spiel about the syllabus, buying the textbook, and assignment policy. “This course is different from other English courses, because studying fanfiction is different from the usual close reading and literary analysis we do with the texts we study in English courses,” O’Flynn explained. “We’ll also be looking at critical perspectives, including fan studies material, and how fanfiction comes out of the highly social context of fan communities. How many of you here read or have read fanfiction?”
My hand rose, along with those of half my classmates.
“Okay, a good number!” the professor nodded. “How many of you write fanfiction?”
I was just about to raise my hand on instinct when she covered her mouth sheepishly. “Oops, should never ask that question in real life, sorry.”
A low chuckle bubbled out from among the students. I huffed in amusement along with them. Fan writers understand the matter of fan identity as something to be protected. I hadn’t understood this when I was thirteen and newly excited about my fandom blog, but I certainly understand now.
Not only do fans have to worry about media producers’ vendetta against fanfiction writers (see: George Lucas and J.K. Rowling), there’s also the fact that participation in fanfiction is, socially speaking, something to be kept on the DL. Exposure of one’s body of fanwork to the public means exposure to potential stigmatization. And so despite the prolific and deep-rooted communities of fanfiction writers and readers, fanfiction remains something of a guilty pleasure — it’s a hobby that you don’t disclose to someone you’ve just met; you only talk about it openly with people you already know are cool about these things.
Fanfiction, or the creation of stories using the fictional worlds, characters, and storylines of copyrighted media, has been stigmatized since its beginnings in science fiction fandom, mostly due to the almost completely female nature of the fanfic community. Although we’ve recently begun to see a small number of men entering the fanfic sphere, the legacy of modern fanfiction culture is built upon the work of female sci-fi fans who paved the way for Fanfiction.net and Ao3 with their fanzines and photocopy circulations in the 70’s and 80’s. Present-day fan writers retain the foundational premises of these women’s cultural subversion, from the bending and reshaping of copyright law to the tight-knit yet underground fan communities to the non-profit and gift-giving infrastructure of the fanfiction trade.
But what bothers me is how increasingly ashamed we are about associating ourselves with fanfiction, even as almost all other aspects of media fandom and fan participation have made the transition into mainstream culture (consider the boom of fan conventions, tabletop RPGs, and even fan merch’s newfound desirability). Sure, fanfiction roots itself in subculture, but I cannot think of any justifiable explanation for such deep-seated stigmatization besides misogyny.
This stigmatization harkens all the way back to the original female media fandom organizers of the late twentieth century, whose fanfiction and other critical fan works were produced out of rebellion against and subversion of the cultural norms and laws of their time. Fanfiction when it first began was inherently an act of civil disobedience by women, as Francesca Coppa expounds in her 1991 ethnographic study of early fandom.
But why, considering how much the North American social world has progressed since the late twentieth century, does fanfiction remain an institution that incites such ridicule and vilification?
Although modern fanfiction still inherently builds upon subversion, it has evolved into something more of a therapeutic or cathartic outlet for young girls and LGBTQ+ youth. Critics have commented on fanfiction’s function as a safe space to explore personal trauma, sexual identity, gender identity, kink, and other social taboos which would be difficult to embrace within other contexts. More recently, they’ve begun to speculate the importance of fanfiction as one of the only platforms for extensive sex education that teenage girls (Fanfiction.net’s average demographic) have.
Arguably just as important, though, fanfiction creates a space for these youth and women to create, write, and gift these labours of love to themselves and their community. There shouldn’t have to be some deeper intention, some fleshed-out moral reasoning to enjoy writing and reading fanfiction in all its badly written, highly experimental glory; yet we continue to raise the need for one time and time again. Again, we don’t see the same thing happening for participants of other fan activities, such as convention-goers and comic book collectors. We simply accept their version of fan culture as the canon.
The vilification of young girls’ enjoyment doesn’t only manifest in matters of fandom and fan participation; it pervades almost every realm of entertainment. And even within the fanfiction community, we see instances of women putting down other women — just look at the demonization of the “Mary-Sue,” a fanfiction character trope that infamously plays to fangirl self-indulgence via self-insertion into fanfiction stories. Defenders of the Mary-Sue have pointed out that many video games and most action films are products of male self-indulgence and self-insertion, yet never receive the condemnation that Mary-Sue fanfiction does.
To answer my earlier question of why fanfiction is still continuously delegitimized, I believe that the opposition to fanfiction and its users has shifted within but not exited the realm of retaining control over women. While fanfiction was an “improper” channel of entertainment and intellectual expression for women back in the late twentieth century, it now flourishes as a markedly female and queer community of fan participants. Adversaries of fanfiction now take into account the hugely deviant nature of fanfiction’s content and creators, with regard to sexual and gender norms. Those aforementioned social taboos, which prosper within fanfiction’s themes, find a home in this community. Just as the female pioneers of fanfiction wrote brazenly about sex when they weren’t supposed to, the new generation of fanfic writers experiment with bending the boundaries of gender, sex, and traditional media. And the defamation, stigmatization, and belittlement of fanfiction aids in keeping such discussions out in the margins of society. This is just another way that queer sex education, female-catering pornography, and stigmatized expressions of trauma (among so many other things) can be chastised and subjugated.
It is certainly sad that a community with such a fascinating history and culture of its own has remained so invisible to the rest of society. But we have a lot to learn from fanfiction and its unapologetic nature in finding joy and community in popular culture media, in giving a voice to the voiceless, in pushing the boundaries of reason. And the story of fanfiction’s marginalization offers room for contemplation of the ways that marginalized voices are suppressed and delegitimized in all areas of society.
About the Author
Grace Kwan (she/her) studies Sociology and Professional Writing & Communication at the University of Toronto. She writes both creatively and critically, and her speculative short fiction and prose poetry has been published in multiple anthologies and magazines.