Not long ago, I wrote a post called Rape Culture in Fandom in which I called fandom out on the rape-y tropes in fan fiction. I’ve had some interesting conversations about it. What I kept thinking most often, though, was that I didn’t want people unfamiliar with fandom to think that it’s all bad because of my post. In fact, fandom has raised my awareness of social issues more than almost anything else. It has also brought me great joy. So I want to share with you five important lessons I’ve learned from fandom.
1. Characters of different races are not interchangeable.
I have a friend who determines the genders and races of the characters in the stories he writes by generating numbers based on the demography of whatever the setting of his story might be, then randomly assigning these to the roles he’s already come up with.
My friend is coming from a good place. He wants to make sure that women and people of color are in every part of the story and its setting, without allowing his own biases to determine what role they should play. But his strategy doesn’t work, because races can’t be randomly assigned to characters. Their roles in the story are necessarily shaped by gender and race.
Fandom taught me this lesson through the phenomena of genderswapped and racebent fic. In genderswapped fic, a character is written as if they were another gender. I say “another” rather than “the other” because sometimes characters are swapped to be genderqueer. This is almost always done to male characters, as they make up the majority of characters anyway. In racebent fic, white characters are written as people of color. There are also fics that imagine cisgender characters as transgender. These fics are very interesting because they change many aspects of the character, demonstrating how races and other identities are not interchangeable.
Racebending Revenge was a multifandom challenge to racebend white characters. I encourage you to check out all these fics, but my favorites were A Regular Van Helsing (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Expectations (White Collar), and The Battle of Songhu (Doctor Who).
2. Asexuality is a lot more complicated than just not wanting to have sex.
Before I got way into fandom, I had a vague notion that some people were asexual. You know, not so interested in sex. I was fine with it, but it didn’t seem to have anything to do with me, and not very interesting anyway.
Now, two of my major fandoms are ones that feature main characters who can easily be interpreted as asexual: the Doctor from Doctor Who and Sherlock Holmes from Sherlock. As I got into these fandoms, I read a lot of essays about the asexuality of these characters, and I discovered that I had been wrong about asexuality. Asexuals are people who aren’t sexually attracted to other people. Most asexuals aren’t interested in sex, but not all, and they can have romantic relationships just like sexuals do. They can even be into kink, as I learned from the great White Collar fic series Sex is just a word.
But the most fascinating aspect to me is how asexuals negotiate their sexuality in their relationships, romantic and otherwise. I’ve read some great fics about it, like Labels and Behavioural Modification (BBC’s Sherlock). Learning about all these aspects of asexuality via fandom has also helped me in my personal life. I’m not attracted to men; that is to say, I am asexual with respect to men. Without reading fics about asexual kink, I would never have figured that I might enjoy BDSM with men – and, it turns out, I do.
3. You can’t just say you’re going to give marginalized characters their due. You have to do it.
Fandom has a problem. It tends to ignore or actively hate on characters who are women or POC or both. If you look at the slash phenomenon, it’s almost all between white men, even when there’s stronger slashy subtext for a couple involving a POC (seriously, Marvel movies fandom, Tony Stark spends way more time on screen being bros with Rhodey than with Steve.)
About a year or so ago, I read some posts by fans calling out other fans on the way they overlook characters of color. I realized, to my chagrin, that I was guilty too. So I told myself, “I’ll do better,” and moved on.
That’s not good enough. Just telling myself I’d do better wasn’t enough to actually get me to read fanfiction about characters of color. I didn’t do it.
So what I ended up doing was going out of my way to read fanfiction about characters of color. The reason I needed to do this was that my preferences when I just randomly clicked on whatever fanfiction interested me were not neutral. Whether I knew it or not, I was on some level ignoring fanfic about characters of color. So I needed to put what felt like an emphasis on it. I found myself reading fic I never would have read before. And I really liked it. It inspired me to write some very long fanfic about a black woman character.
Let this be a lesson, whether you read fanfic or not: you need to make yourself read fiction by and about marginalized people. The works you “just feel like” reading are not neutral. This project with fanfiction inspired me to go out and find books by and about people of color. If you do that, you’ll discover worlds of fiction you never knew existed.
4. All kinks are normal.
For those who don’t know, a kink meme is a thread in which people post some combination of characters and kinks, and other people reply with fanfic that satisfies the prompt. A prompt could be as simple as “Kirk/Spock, blindfolds” or as complex as a whole story outline.
Visiting a kink meme is an illuminating experience. People prompt things which you may not have realized anyone found hot or interesting. They prompt kinks you had never even imagined before. They also prompt things that you find hot. Things you thought no one else liked. Things you thought you were a freak just for thinking about.
In my case, fanfic helped me come to terms with my desire for domination and sadism. I knew that I could find the stuff of my fantasies in kink memes. I could read about my favorite characters struggling with their desires the same way I did. I could read a story about Rose Tyler discovering the joys of domination, and not only find it hot, but also see excited comments from other people who found it hot too.
No matter what it is that gets your gears going, I guarantee you that it gets someone else hot too. You are not alone. Whatever you desire is normal.
5. Together, women can form a powerful and just community of writers and editors.
Fandom is a predominantly female community. That means that most of the fanfic you read is written by women, edited by women, written for women, and reviewed by women. The fanfiction authors who have personally inspired me the most are almost all women.
That is amazing, if you think about it. I also write original fiction, and inevitably a lot of my inspirations are by male authors about male characters, since that’s what predominates in literature. Also, inevitably, most editors or agents who might look at my writing will be male. But when I read and write fanfiction, the opposite is true.
When I write fic about female characters kicking ass, my beta readers (fandom lingo for editors) cheer me on. When I read a sex scene between two women, I can be almost certain a woman wrote it. I’ve had a reader tell me that she’s taken quotes from my fic and tacked it to her bedroom wall. I’ve had a reader tell me that a fic I wrote helped her think more deeply about her own gender identity and sexuality. It touches me deeply that I’ve had an impact on other women that way.
This is what I love most about fandom. For all of its flaws, it’s women being creative together and supporting each other, and that’s a fundamentally beautiful concept.
Endnote: I am happy to provide fanfic recommendations that fall under any of the categories I’ve listed above, in the fandom of your choice (provided I’m familiar enough with the fandom.)