I just want a sugar daddy but instead of it being a rich older man, I want it to be Gillian Anderson
On Wednesday, we hosted a night in Brighton dedicated to all that is great and grotty about fanfic . As well as sharing some graphic examples, there was some (almost) serious stuff about it too. Here’s my take…
We begin with a teenage girl in the nineties starting to wonder about what she wants. There’s already an endless parade of tits and flesh on every surface of consumable media, so the straight boys are happy. They’re already being told of the glorious opportunities that await them, and the rest of us…
What we’re finding, by which I mean what I’m finding, back then – in the pages of More magazine and J17 - is a rulebook on how to be appealing to those boys. How to look attainable enough for them to want to have a paw at those first blooming signs of puberty.
It didn’t take long for me to decide that this was largely bullshit. I felt terribly clever when I switched my hate-bibles for the pages of NME and Melody Maker. It was great; there were pages of men – men with guitars, men in eyeliner, men spouting philosophical drug-fuelled nonsense that sounded so profound at the time. I was delighted. I felt like I’d bypassed the first round of self-shaming; none of those bands were telling me that my hair was too fluffy, my make-up too intimidating, or, Christ, aren’t you brave, going out in public with a body like that?
The music press kept its casual misogyny a little more covert. It also showed me the Manic Street Preachers.
The picture is to prove that they used to be hot.
They proclaimed that ‘all rock n roll is homosexual’ and frequently courted the idea that at any moment, they’d take a break from spouting situationist rhetoric and Nicky Wire would just wrap his gangly arms around Richey, tug at the buttons of his spray-painted shirt, and bum him into a good mood.
The problem for my hormonal teenage brain was that it still hovered in the realms of subtext.
Until one glorious Thursday morning.
My friend finds me and she’s got these 3 sheets of A4 paper, printed with Times New Roman size 11 font. She’s the only one of us with internet access at the time.
“You’ve got to see this!” she says. “It’s about the Manics – you just – you have to read it!”
So I take the paper, fold it in the back of my history textbook, and as we’re being taught about the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, I’m reading about James Dean Bradfield and Nicky Wire tag-teaming an unnamed female character in a cramped lift. It’s beautiful, and it’s quite possibly the first time I’ve understood that erotica might exist for people like me. It’s just much better hidden, is all.
It’s also telling me that the idea of a female, self-insert character makes me feel horrifically awkward. Back then, I hadn’t figured a way to acknowledge anattraction to women without having to view them as benchmarks for my own inadequacy. It also hadn’t dawned on me that the idea of an empowered, sexually confident girl getting the experience she wanted might have been a good thing; like many girls, I was taught to be afraid of demanding too much. So, I wanted that story, but I didn’t want a ‘me’ in it.
Basically, I wanted a sausage-fest. But, I was 14, so I wanted a really angsty sausage-fest.
My friend understood, and the next week she found another story. This one was all male, full of self harm, fucking and tears. It was like the holy trinity of confused adolescence.
Until some days later when my mother found it, thus ending the glorious reign of fic reading until I found an internet connection of my own.
We fast forward to more recent times and the discovery of sites like fanfiction.net, Live journal, Archive of Our Own and the now defunct fandomination.net. And there are thousands of us, tens of thousands of us, all hiding out here, sharing our headcanons of what we like to think really happens when the Strokes go on tour, of how Angel and Spike have centuries of romance between them, and of how Mulder and Krycek might have worked out their differences.
There’s every kind of kink I can imagine and plenty more I still can’t. Embedded in these stories are snippets of info about safe kink practices and the kindest ways to open a person’s…back door. More than that, there’s a space where we get to explore what we like, how we like it, and beyond a handful of shipping wars, no gatekeeper is there to tell us that we’re wrong for doing so.
It’s not just a space for women – it’s anyone who’s had their representation shut out of media. It’s a place to explore gender binaries and the wibbly wobbly range of sexualities, whether it’s in a multi-chaptered hurt/comfort fic in which Legolas experiences his first pregnancy, or in a story where Loki exists as a woman and hatefucks 8 different versions of him and herself, and a horse for good measure. [That bit comes from the myth, so obviously it’s totally canon].
And beyond the smut, what we’re finding are female characters who can’t be replaced by sexy lamps. Women are still heavily under-represented in fanfic, but we’re getting better at finding a place.
This is where the gatekeepers try and step in.
Some of them are telling us to be ashamed for exploring our silly little headcanons – we’re not true fans, they tell us, because we’re just making stuff up. Comic writer Al Ewing shared an excellent piece which helpfully highlighted the difference between the acquisitive form of fan engagement; where the focus is on knowledge of the canon and the owning of the merchandise, and is largely male coded – and of creative fan engagement. The creative side being female-coded, and therefore subject to the judgement and criticism of the “fake geek girls are ruining everything” brigade.
“Mary-sues and self-insert characters are pretty tragic” they say, whilst immersing themselves in the narratives of cis white men who accidentally overcome great life obstacles and have sex with many beautiful women.
The thing is, those stories, they’re still the ones being told by the people with influence.
But, it’s starting to change. The bigger fandoms get, the more people are starting to accommodate them. Show-runners in particular are starting to grasp the need for broader representation. Not all of them are doing it helpfully; the third season of Sherlock teetered between acknowledgment and mockery. Laurie Penny wrote a brilliant article highlighting the glorious contradiction and hypocrisy of fan-criticism in the show.
And there’s Supernatural – for the uninitiated, this is a show about two brothers with parental issues road-tripping across America and killing ‘demons’. They get repeatedly beaten and bloodied and live in a car that has more respect - and better survival chances - than any female character. In their 4th season, they introduced a character named Becky Rosen; a socially inept slash writer shut-in who all but masturbates over the Wincest smut she writes.
It was unnecessarily cruel. The show had an opportunity to re-evaluate their view on fandom some episodes later, but fluffed it royally; the Becky character descended further into caricature and only the male characters were allowed to say that actually, fandom might be an okay thing.
But, on the flipside ,there are the positives.
Last year saw a mainstream Marvel comic series – Gillen & McKelvie’s Young Avengers – working with a pretty much all queer team. I could talk for hours on how good this run was (but I’m not allowed to, here) - but their sexuality wasn’t the most important thing about them. It was simply there, and in a reachable place.
And, because I find it really hard to talk about positivity in fandom without referencing Hannibal in some way, there’s Bryan Fuller. This is a man battling against a network which allows a man cutting his own face off and feeding it to dogs, but won’t allow the term ‘muff-diving’. He loads as much homoerotic subtext into his show as possible:
– because there’s still a lot of hassle around it being actual text.
But it’s progress, and even if it’s crumbs where we’d rather have the whole cake, it’s getting better.
And this is where the internet provides us with a happy place- we’re not just dependent on sneaky sheets of paper being passed to each other in private, or on writing and rating stories under pseudonyms lest we be held accountable for exploring our own wants. We’re making more of a noise, even if, sometimes, that noise is just a slightly gross ‘unff.’
It’s not just that there are so many of us – it’s that we can now see how many of us there are, we can talk to each other and call out the things that appear as problematic, and the more of us there are, the more we’re starting to change the way sexuality – and ourselves – can be represented in the media around us.