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December 15, 2017

We Need to Talk About How We Talk About Fan Fiction

And just in time for The Last Jedi.

The stereotypical image of a Star Wars super-fan is male. In general, the science fiction fan is characterized as male. In spite of the many scholars who would argue that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein grandfathered the entire genre, the story goes that sci-fi—whether that be film, TV, literature, you name it—was a boy’s club until the 1960s and 70s, both in terms of creators and consumers, when a few women finally managed to fight their way in.

It’s a narrative many believe because it’s repeated so often it seems like it must be right. It’s so ingrained in the narrative that people with entirely opposing viewpoints—for example, female sci-fi enthusiasts and misogynistic fanboys raging on Reddit over girls invading their treehouse—would likely agree on it, though their feelings on the matter would diverge entirely.

There’s only one problem: it’s simply not true. The historical record does not back it up. Isaac Asimov did, with his notorious comments that sci-fi was just for men—that the original audience for sci-fi magazines was “male adolescents who were… afraid of girls” and that the publications “didn’t want girls in science fiction stories, and they didn’t want women writing them”—but if he was still around now he’d be going down in flames a la Harvey Weinstein and company because he was the sort of disgusting person who thought it was okay to grab a woman’s boob in greeting instead of shaking her hand, so we’re not going to take his word for it.

Instead, we’re going to look at the actual data collected by Eric Leif Davin for his book Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction, 1926-1965, which shows that the first iteration of the hugely influential sci-fi/fantasy/horror magazine Weird Tales was edited by a woman, Dorothy McIlwraith, for over a decade (1940 – 1954) and that over a quarter of the fan mail published in the magazine over its lifespan (1923 – 1954) came from female readers. The magazine also contained stories written by a number of female authors. Similar investigation into comparable publications from around that time suggests similar demographic breakdowns. Sure, it wasn’t a 50/50 split, but it wasn’t exactly a boy’s club either, and the women present were hardly quiet bystanders. In fact, they were already loudly protesting many of the same irksome trends that unfortunately persist to this day. But don’t take my word for it, take the word of Naomi D. Slimmer, a nurse and sci-fi fan who sent the following letter into Science Fiction magazine back in 1939:

“You’d be surprised how many women read magazines of this type. Even the pussy-cats who go for sticky romances make a grab for a copy when I’m dealing out magazines to the patients at our hospital. The nurses read them too… to keep awake and think of something besides a cranky patient. So how about giving us females a thought when you are picking tales for future issues? Phooey on the hussies who are always getting their clothes torn off and walling an amorous eye at the poor overworked hero.”

Basically, the moral of the story is that women have always existed in science fiction circles both as producers and consumers. And from publishing fanzines to organizing fan conventions, women have always had a sizable presence in fan communities. So where is this misconception coming from?

Well, part of it may come from people listening to misogynists like Asimov, and arguably part of it comes from early second wave feminists taking their arguments regarding lack of representation a little further than what the reality actually warranted in certain situations, but on the whole none of the research I did when working on this piece—all 1000+ pages of it—featured any explanations that seemed completely satisfactory, though many discussed the phenomenon in question.

One possibility I did not see addressed in my research, but that I personally think quite likely contributes to the continuing dominance of this utterly baseless fiction has to do with perception. To get at the underlying principle I want to communicate here a bit more simply, we’re going to take a temporary detour into analogy. Say you’re a scientist in the field and you’re looking to find out how many of a particular kind of beetle live on one tree. You have been told these beetles are green, so you disregard any bugs that aren’t green. As it turns out, this particular beetle also comes in blue—and you, being an intelligent human, would have definitely realized these blue beetles indeed belong to your species of interest if you had taken a closer look. But you didn’t, because why would you? You were looking for green beetles.

Applying that principle, let’s say you’re looking for Star Wars fans, and have been told that they are identifiable by their lightsaber replicas and trading cards. Your perception will be similarly narrowed by what you are expecting to see. The stereotypical Star Wars super-fan shows his devotion in particular ways—trading cards and other collectibles, battling with prop lightsabers, playing tie-in video games. Fans expressing their fandom in other ways—or, say, predominantly in the virtual worlds of online communities—might be accidentally overlooked.

Different people wear their fandom differently, and some hide it instead. Though I couldn’t find any research addressing the matter, I think it quite possible that there might be significant male-female differences in this. Now, I do not say this because I think men and women are mentally wired differently—in fact, I think most of those arguments are generally nonsense, but that’s another story for another time—but because of socialization. Though things have changed somewhat even since I was a kid a decade or so ago, a lot of the stereotypical expression of science fiction—including Star Wars—fandom tends to be marketed towards boys. Though I had Star Wars action figures as a kid that I loved dearly, they were likely a gift from my father (I was four, I don’t remember exactly), and despite the depth of my early love for the franchise, my collection of Star Wars themed toys or other memorabilia never really expanded beyond that. And I distinctly recall one of the reasons why being that I felt self-conscious. I felt like I didn’t like what girls were supposed to like—I wanted to act out adventures with my Luke and Leia and Han figurines on building block sets instead of hosting Barbie tea parties or what have you—and while I wasn’t self-conscious enough to try to force myself into only being interested in “girly” things, I was decidedly uncomfortable and generally too embarrassed to specifically ask for toys or games clearly marketed for boys, even if I thought they looked cool.

But then there is a particular fan sub-culture that is predominantly female: fan fiction. Why the field is by literally every account female dominated I have no idea. All I know is that for me, as well as for others whose personal accounts I encountered in my research, coming up with fan fiction is something I started doing as a child, long before I ever heard of the term. Ever since I was little, I would construct narratives involving my favorite characters in my head to lull myself to sleep instead of counting sheep or focusing on my breathing or any of those other techniques adults would suggest that struck me as repulsively boring.

So, when I learned, around the age of ten or eleven, that there were whole communities of people online who shared such stories, I was thrilled. In middle and high school I even wrote my own fan fiction. It was an ideal platform to not just practice my writing skills but get feedback and encouragement. Weirdly, it’s much easier to publicly but anonymously publish your writing and receive feedback from total strangers than to share such work with people you actually know. And just to be clear, I didn’t stop writing fan fiction because I “grew out of it,” but because I simply got too busy with other things. I still read fan fiction. It’s free, enjoyable, and requires minimal mental effort—less than dealing with an entirely new narrative and set of characters—but also isn’t entirely repetitive in the way re-reading a favorite novel or watching a rerun can be. And yes, to tie it to Jedi Week, one of my fandoms of choice is Star Wars. I am a life-long fan, after all. Just look at five-year-old me:


As the Millennium Falcon cake suggests, Han Solo was my favorite

Anyway, as fan fiction has started to seep into the wider public consciousness, I have also noticed a growing derisive attitude towards it, especially since coming to be damned as the source of 50 Shades of Grey. A review of The Last Jedi for WIRED magazine features the line, “After a recent decade in which the majority of big-budget blockbusters have become at best, impressive adaptations of old comics and at worst over-engineered fan-fiction,” and such comments are not uncommon. When it comes to derisive comments about fan fiction, we culture critics seem to be the worst perpetrators. Over at The Verge, a critical review of the most recent season of Game of Thrones ran under the headline “This season of Game of Thrones feels like fan fiction.” While I actually agree with the majority of the complaints made in the review in question, I must take issue with the headline. Season 7 felt like just okay fanfiction, because have you ever read the really good stuff? It would blow the pants off the penultimate season’s lopsided character development and at times unfortunately trite plot machinations.

“Like fan fiction” is an increasingly common criticism being thrown around in the world of pop culture commentary. Fan fiction is a female-dominated expression of fandom, and it is arguably the expression of fandom that is quickly starting to receive the most derision, even as fan culture becomes more and more mainstream. There is a long and well-documented history of things considered feminine—whether personality traits, pastimes, or forms of entertainment—being devalued and disproportionately criticized. I think it entirely possible that these two things are not unconnected.

The matter I’m discussing covers far more than just the Star Wars fandom, but considering the release of The Last Jedi, it is currently the fandom in question to which this matter most applies. Months after The Force Awakens, The explosive “ship wars” within the Star Wars fandom—that is, online arguments about hypothetical relationships between fictional characters that have not and quite possibly will never actually get together in the actual source material—were big enough to inspire a long-form article on the subject from The Atlantic. It seems highly unlikely that the fan reactions will be more subdued this time around, or that it won’t be subject to some commentary in the pop culture lull that generally occurs in the aftermath of peak holiday season.

The thing is that these articles and inquiry pieces regarding fan fiction are almost always written from an outsider’s perspective. In academic spheres, this is actually generally considered proper form—distance is all the better to keep “objectivity” with (though your mileage may vary regarding how much you actually regard that as a legitimate concept). The issue is that coverage of the subject then often has undertones not entirely unlike David Attenborough commenting on some particularly strange creature deep in a jungle somewhere—i.e. “hey, look at these weirdos.” Or, as the author Joli Jensen puts it in a 1992 essay, “the literature on fandom is haunted by images of deviance.” There’s judgement there, and I think it’s enough for a number of fans to guard their fannish tendencies—especially if those tendencies take the form of fan fiction readership—like something of a dirty secret. And I think it might be especially true for women.

Going back to Davin’s book on female participation in early science fiction, there’s one point when he’s discussing the contents of female fan letters and notes that “many female fans wrote similar letters saying they had to endure the hostility or ridicule of family or friends in order to enjoy their favorite literature.” With this trend in mind and considering the increasingly dismissive attitude towards fan fiction outlined above, I don’t think it’s too much to add up 1 and 1 and get 2: that particularly when dealing with fan fiction and other online, “invisible” displays of fandom there are a number of participants who hide that element of their personality in real life for fear of judgment, and that, considering the demographics of fan fiction communities, these “secret fans” are likely predominantly female. Such a conclusion doesn’t just align with various elements of research I encountered, but also my personal experience.

I attended the nerdy sort of high school where people regularly used terms like “shipping,” as in relation-shipping, and had large get-togethers to marathon Season 5 of the Doctor Who revival with fish fingers and custard. Being immersed in such a culture I quickly forgot that my high school’s normal was not actually normal. And then I went to college.

Sometime during first semester, I was in a club meeting and happened to be sitting next to another girl I was acquainted with because we had a class together. I glanced over and noticed her laptop had a browser tab open with a fan fiction I happened to be familiar with.

“Oh, I’ve read that one before,” I commented, as we were still waiting for the actual meeting to begin and I figured it would make a decent conversation starter.

Instead, she blushed and made a subtle but insistent cease and desist motion. Though taken aback, I acquiesced.

In the time since I have had a number of other encounters that were variations on this same theme. And then, when I went to see The Last Jedi earlier this week, the friend who went with me tapped me on the shoulder in the middle of one particular scene.

“I ship it,” she admitted quietly and somewhat sheepishly as if she was confessing to single-handedly eating an entire carton of ice cream in one sitting. I nodded understandingly—I had been (quietly) shipping it since 2015, after all—but was also surprised. We had been friends for over a year and yet somehow had never discussed fan fiction. How had that happened?

Upon reflection, I realized it was at least in part because somewhere along the way I had started turning into cease-and-desist girl, gradually growing more and more reluctant to admit my affinity for fan fiction for fear of being judged. But that’s a silly thing to be afraid of, so here I am, writing this article. Regardless of if you are 15 or 20 or 55, there’s nothing wrong with fan fiction or enjoying it. I certainly do.

In the coming weeks, extensive discussions of Star Wars, including references to if not a full-blown commentary on fan fiction, will be taking place. The franchise is king of the pop culture world, so it’s inevitable. As both a popular culture commentator and reader of fan fiction I have just one suggestion/plea/Christmas wish: can we show some love for adjectives and switch to the far more accurate critique “like bad fan fiction”? After all, what would you even call shows like Sherlock or a film like Mr. Holmes or a musical like Wicked besides fan fiction? Fan fiction, when it’s good, really is pretty damn good, and I think it’s high time we acknowledge that.

Red Dots

Header illustration by verauko on DeviantArt.

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