For a lot of people, fanfiction is something they would never openly admit to reading.
Its reputation in the mainstream media may have something to do with this. As with anything on the Internet, we are often drawn into discussing the most out-there examples of the phenomenon. From 50 Shades of Grey‘s origin as a Twilight fic, to the recent New York Times piece about the Omegaverse, to… well, incest pairings — yep, those are a thing — it’s easy to see how these unofficial, often sexual spinoffs have developed a bad rap. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s valid.
Like anything else online, there’s an infinite variety available, and the vast majority of fanfiction holds another appeal altogether. We can all appreciate the value of creativity and community. But there are a few things offered by fanfiction in particular which have helped it evolve into a beacon for queer and questioning teens and young adults worldwide:
1. A modern-day twist on a near-timeless medium
Fun fact: most fanfiction is written with the same purpose as olden-day romance novels.
Sure, fics are set in the world of pre-existing stories — but people have been writing this way for centuries. Well-known characters have always been repurposed and depicted in new and creative ways — Shakespeare, anyone? — which typically involve new plotlines with satisfying romantic endings.
Modern fanfiction can range from micro fics of a few hundred words to multi-book sagas, each with a novel’s worth of chapters and detail.
2. Queer. Sex. Ed.
How does queer sex work? What do safe sex practices look like for queer couples? These are questions that fans are often looking for answers to, and they’re finding them in these stories. More importantly, including these details in an informative and accurate way is a job many fic writers take incredibly seriously. (If only the same could be said of our education systems…)
In addition, fics can offer a low-risk opportunity for readers to engage in shame-free kink exploration, with many healthy portrayals of BDSM — including an emphasis on safe word usage. Search results on all popular forums can also be filtered by maturity rating, searched for using keywords, and excluded via trigger warning tags, promoting safe and appropriate consumption for all.
3. Queer love and relationships
Queer folks — especially those still questioning or coming out — are STARVING. We need positive representation in fiction. And in the absence of accurate world depictions in media, it seems we’ve decided to take care of it ourselves.
These fics really do have it all! I’m talking queer weddings. Children raised by queer parents. The introduction of partners to families in controlled and supportive environments. Dating milestones through a queer lens. First queer relationships in otherwise sexually experienced characters. Older characters finally feeling safe enough to question their orientations. Genderbending and the embrace of gender fluidity. There’s a rich, vivid history here, and we aren’t getting it anywhere else.
4. Defiance of social norms and restrictions
I think this is where we can begin to understand the true beauty — and even political power — of fanfiction: its radical, intersectional acceptance.
Let’s think for a minute. Why on earth would a group of people who have been historically ostracized and oppressed by society be drawn to a genre that actively works to eradicate the oppressive norms that very society has built?
It’s worth looking at the ways in which fanfiction is making a real-world impact:
Fans often pick up on homoeroticism and subtext between characters that show creators are being actively discouraged from exploring by network executives.
The rejection of heteronormativity in the majority of these stories then becomes a method through which many women, regardless of orientation or relationship status, are immersing themselves in depictions of relationships where equality is expected between partners. This is allowing alternative gender roles and healthier relationship dynamics to permeate the broader culture.
Writers are most often female. This allows a different perspective on romance to emerge that isn’t often expressed in original media, which is still overrun with male writers, directors, and producers. Women are giving themselves the opportunity to express the way they’d like to be treated by a partner, and to depict the way they think love should unfold.
By existing outside the standards of capitalism and corporate media, disabled creators can provide themselves with the accommodation they deserve. Company deadlines and network schedules do not exist, and writers can set their own timelines — and, in doing so, their own boundaries — as regularly or inconsistently as needed. In this way, fanfiction is dismantling a major barrier to disabled contributions and voices in arts and literature.
On top of all of this, the work is all done by fans for free — and for the love and fun of it. Forums where pieces are posted allow for support and feedback from readers, allowing aspiring writers to improve their work — and this can be especially valuable to those who are unable to seek formal training or education in the field.
So yeah, fanfiction is changing the game. In taking control of a narrative, fans are also taking control of the norms of creation itself.
And what could be bolder, more radical, more unapologetically queer than that?