By: Swathy and Krishna
Imagine you are a teenager who loves teen dramas, pop music and social media in the early to mid 2010s. You likely identify as female/ female aligned and/or as queer. Your screen time is probably skewed heavily towards Chrome, your most visited websites are Tumblr, YouTube, Wattpad and Archive of Our Own. You blog all about your likes and dislikes, you get into arguments over it and have just discovered the holy grail that is fanfiction.
What is fanfiction though? According to Wikipedia, “Fan fiction or fanfiction (also abbreviated to fan fic, fanfic, fic or FF) is fictional writing written in an amateur capacity by fans, unauthorized by, but based on an existing work of fiction.” There are several websites you can access fanfic from and Archive Of Our Own (or as it’s known among readers, AO3) is arguably the most popular, hosting over 9 million works right now. This makes AO3 the ideal place to analyze the culture that surrounds fanfiction. One of its most beloved features is the tagging and filtering system, which makes it very easy for users to find the exact work they feel like reading (if the author tagged their work properly).
These filters also reveal something very interesting. Under the ‘m/m’ tag the number of public fics — works that can be read without an account — are over 4.37 million, under ‘f/f’ it’s around 818 thousand, ‘f/m’ has just under 2.23 million pieces. 1.72 million works are tagged as ‘gen’ with the rest as ‘multi’ or ‘others’. This means that over half of the works on AO3 are about or contain LGBTQ+ characters. A survey in 2013 by AO3 of its users found that only 38% of them identified as straight. It also found that more people identified as genderqueer or non-binary than male. This is in stark contrast to population surveys that estimate that 80% of people worldwide are straight.
What does this imply? Unlike other forms of literature, why are queer voices so loud on these sites? It’s probably because so many of these sites don’t curate work with the goal of profit. Fanfiction in its raw, unfiltered form is unprofitable, but endlessly appealing. It’s imagining a different life for your favourite characters; it’s a work of love from fans to fans. So is it really that surprising when a community that has a history of terrible representation – from queerbaiting, to portraying them as evil or creepy, to never getting a happy ending – fulfil their fantasies of seeing themselves represented through some of their favourite characters?
A yearly analysis of the top relationships on AO3 by a Tumblr user by analysing tags, found that since 2013 the list of top 5 ships have been almost the same: Destiel (Dean Winchester & Castiel from Supernatural), Johnlock (Sherlock and John Watson from BBC’s Sherlock), Sterek (Stiles Stillinski & Derek Hale from MTV’s Teen Wolf), Stucky (Steve Rogers & “Bucky” Barnes from The Marvel Cinematic Universe) and Drarry (Harry Potter & Draco Malfoy from Harry Potter). All of the original works these ships are based on have received criticisms for poor LGBTQ+ representation. Other popular queer ships include Aziraphale & Crowley (from Good Omens), Kara Danvers & Lena Luthor (from CW’s Supergirl), Clarke Griffin and Lexa (from The 100), the Evil Queen & Emma Swan (from Once Upon A Time) and Keith & Lance (from Voltron).
So when discussing fanfiction, it’s also important to keep in mind the social undercurrents surrounding homophobia. Someone may view fanfiction as cheaper literature only because it’s derivative and writers do not need to put in effort developing their own characters, but it’s also likely that they don’t take any form of literature targeted at the queer community seriously. For most publication houses, fanfiction is disposable unless it is already popular and is sure to make a quick buck. Original queer literature published is also little compared to the amount of non-queer stories out there; these original works also aren’t as widely appreciated.
It may be because in our society, straight is the default and such stories are expected to be enjoyed by all whereas queer literature is supposedly targeted to only those in the community. This is possibly why all the popular published fanfictions from big traditional publishers, have mostly been about straight characters and straight relationship dynamics. Even if fanfictions have had a strong queer infuence, every work that recieves attention panders to straight audiences in some way.
This is where modern avenues like self-publishing and online websites come into play. While for some queer writers, fanfiction is just a hobby they partake in for fun, for others it’s their way of honing their writing skills with the feedback from readers helping them get better. Some of the most beautiful prose written comes from these writers, who tell their stories so they can be heard; so others like them can feel seen. The least we can do is support them on their artistic journeys and make representation in fiction no longer a fantasy.