Fan Fiction Comes Out of the Closet

Carmen and Shane from The L WordGabrielle and Xena in Xena: Warrior Princess

In December 2005, the New York Times reported that Showtime’s lesbian drama, The L Word, was set to team up with website Fanlib.com to produce a 12-week contest in which viewers could “contribute ideas for show scenes as part of a continuing story line.” At the conclusion of the contest, which will be overseen by a staff writer, the winning scenes will be compiled into a commemorative ezine of the episode, with Showtime having the option to produce the finished script for TV down the road.

Whether the episode will actually be produced is not certain, but the contest (which has not yet started) marks yet another step in the mainstreaming of fandom and its cultural products, specifically fan fiction.

This idea of letting fans produce “ideas for show scenes” may at first seem only distantly related to fan fiction—which is fiction written by fans featuring the characters and setting of a television show, movie, or book—but upon closer examination, it is clearly connected. Many fans turn to writing or reading fan fiction because they find their favorite television show lacking. They may want to see a certain character fall in love with a different character; or they may want to find out what really happened when the camera panned away from a particular scene. Fan fiction allows them to take the story beyond the confines of scripted television or film, or even the pages of a book.

By inviting L Word fans—many of whom already create their own “ideas for show scenes” through their fan fiction—to invent their own storylines, L Word producers are piggybacking on a phenomenon that is rooted in centuries of community storytelling, and that has been more recently studied as a part of sci-fi fandom dating back to Star Trek.

In effect, what once was a closeted (or at least semi-closeted) community of fan writers scribbling stories about their favorite Star Trek character has become a worldwide, public phenomenon reported on in global media and openly acknowledged by cultural producers like Showtime.

Most significantly for lesbians and bisexual women, the changing of television—which has increasingly included openly lesbian characters—has also affected fan fiction, with slash (fan fiction about same-sex couples) expanding from its male/male homosocial roots to an open expression of lesbian romance and sexuality.

What is fan fiction, anyway?

Fan fiction originated in the pre-Internet science fiction fan communities that erupted around Star Trek in the 1960s and '70s, with fan-written stories traded through printed fanzines. These fan fiction writers were predominantly white middle-class straight women, an unlikely group who nonetheless pioneered the sexually explicit, homosexual genre of fan fiction known as “slash.”

This term was coined from the usage of a slash mark (“/”) between the names of two same-sex characters engaged in a sexual relationship; the most popular of these pairings at the time was Kirk/Spock.

With the advent of the Internet and newsgroup technologies in the early 1990s, fan fiction experienced explosive growth, as did fandom communities in general. The X-Files, one of the first fandoms to emerge entirely on the Internet in 1993, rapidly became one of the largest fandoms after Star Trek and one of the most prolific in terms of fan fiction production. The Internet also heralded a change in the demographics of fan fiction writers.

Though precise statistics are unavailable and no sustained research appears to have been done on the makeup of online fan fiction writers, it seems clear that the average age of fan fiction writers fell once the Internet became the primary means of distributing fan fiction.

Fan fiction and its communities have long been of interest to academic researchers, with the most well-known study, Henry Jenkins’ Textual Poachers, appearing in 1992. Early academic theorists have argued that writing and reading fan fiction is a subversive act; indeed, Jenkins stated that “Fan fiction is a way of the culture repairing the damage done in a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations instead of owned by the folk.” This utopic argument has recently been complicated by an increasing convergence between mainstream or legitimate cultural producers (e.g., Hollywood studios) and grassroots fan-based creations including fan fiction and fan-made films.

Although many fans have read these academic studies on fan fiction and have quite sophisticated understandings of the power dynamics at play between fan and producer, many fans will hasten to point out that the urge to create fan fiction is rarely rooted in the desire to subvert mainstream ideologies or wrestle power from the big boys in Tinseltown. Instead, as Xena fan (and fanfic writer) Lunacy explained in a 1998 Whoosh! article on the history of Xena fan fiction, “Unrestricted by time constraints, or censors or any of the other sensibilities imposed by film or TV, fan fiction allows for a fuller exploration of characters and themes and storylines making it incredibly appealing for fans.”

One of the most widely studied forms of fan fiction—which can be categorized in innumerable ways according to each specific fandom—is slash, which has historically been mostly about male/male couples. Academic study of slash has generally concluded that it involves loving relationships between otherwise-heterosexual men, and it is a way for women to evade or reconstruct gender to their liking. However, fans have resisted this interpretation, and male/male pairings have become grittier and more violent in fandoms such as The X-Files or Angel, unlike the idealized harmony of the Kirk/Spock couple.

On the other hand, female/female slash, or femslash, has historically been quite rare. It was not until Xena: Warrior Princess, with its often quite overt subtextual homosexual relationship between Xena and Gabrielle, that the amount of femslash approached male/male slash in volume. Since Xena, other femslash pairings have included Seven of Nine/Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager; Buffy/Faith, Willow/Tara, and numerous other female/female pairings on Buffy: The Vampire Slayer; CJ and a number of female partners on The West Wing, and Olivia Benson/Alex Cabot on Law and Order: SVU, among others.

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