Let me start this post by saying that I LOVE fanfiction. Yes, the caps are necessary, because that’s how much I love fanfiction. I can safely say that most of my free time I’m either on Tumblr or reading some sort of fanfiction.
But recently I have been very frustrated with fanfic. After writing about both the lack of lesbian couples in pop culture and about queering straight characters in fanfiction I’ve started to realize something. Fanfiction, which has so often been hailed as a way that authors and readers could write/read about characters of varied genders, races, sexualities, and physical and mental abilities, is not actually an epitome of acceptance and diversity. In fact, in many ways fanfiction has the same sexist, racist, and homophobic issues that the mainstream media has.
When I first started reading fanfiction, I was in the Harry Potter fandom and maybe I was just reading some good fanfiction, but I feel like there was a little more diversity. I was just as likely to read fanfiction about Dean Thomas as I was about Harry Potter. I could find fanfiction that even made Ginny or Hermione the main characters and heroes of the story. Not that the Harry Potter fandom was perfect—the out-and-out hatred of some female characters like Cho Chang and Lavender Brown in fanfiction is enough to show that. So yes, there were still just as many harmful sexist or racist tropes found in fanfiction for Harry Potter, and maybe nostalgia has clouded my judgment. However, even though there were problems, I still remember a wide variety of diverse fanfiction for the series.
But recently I have noticed that one thing dominates fanfiction: slash. Male/male pairings have become a big deal. Not that they weren’t before; Kirk/Spock started slash fanfiction in the sixties, and I’ve certainly read more than one Harry/Draco fanfic when I was younger. But recently I have been noticing that the only pairings that seem to matter in fanfiction communities feature white, able-bodied, cisgender, gay men. The recent Slash Madness Tournament almost exclusively features pairings that feature white, able-bodied, cisgender, canonically straight men (who are often portrayed as gay) with few exceptions. In the recent list of the most popular pairings posted on AO3, only male slash and het (heterosexual) pairings are listed. Out of fifty-one pairings, almost none include characters of color, or characters with disabilities. There are no femslash pairings on this list. There are also no transgender or genderqueer characters, but to be fair there aren’t many in pop culture either.
Now I’m not claiming that gay men have taken over fanfiction, but I have already written about the sexualization of gay men in fanfiction by female writers, which is definitely problematic. But the fact is that fans and fanfiction don’t seem to give much more of a voice to oppressed minorities than mainstream pop culture does.
When I first heard about Teen Wolf, I didn’t know that Scott McCall, the main character and a person of color, even existed. Eventually before watching the show I heard of him, but I truly believed that Stiles was the main character. I was shocked when I started watching Teen Wolf and found out that Scott was the lead. I would have never guessed that from the fandom. The fanfiction even tends to mostly focus on the Sterek pairing and often demonizes Scott for supposedly not being a good enough friend to Stiles and Derek (which is definitely not in character for him).
Female characters, whether in Teen Wolf or in almost every fandom, seem to be constantly ignored or demonized, and femslash pairings are practically nonexistent. Sexualities other than heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual are also rarely represented, though there are some attempts.
Even the new Welcome to Night Vale fandom has had problems with race representation.
Fans are casting almost all the characters mentioned in the WTNV podcast as white and even white-washing Carlos, canonically described as a character of color, in fan castings. I have even seen a few people argue that Carlos is white despite the fact that in the show Carlos is described as having dark skin.
Furthermore, when other fans complain about these problems in fandom and in fanfiction, they are almost constantly shut down and dismissed as “just imagining the problems” or being “too sensitive”. And while it may be acceptable to change a character’s sexuality in fanfiction, things like race-bending white characters or making cisgender characters transgender instead is still seen as pretty controversial by many fans (though gender-bending characters does seem to be widely accepted).
Now yes, it is true that fanfiction authors write things for fun and aren’t thinking about issues like this when sitting down to type out their newest piece of fanfiction. And I will agree that probably a lot of the sexist or racist stereotypes that appear in fanfiction are probably largely due to ignorance (though that shouldn’t excuse it). Furthermore, because fanfiction is written for fun, yes, most of it is going to be about wanting to see certain romantic pairings become real if only in fanfiction. So yeah, it makes sense that there is more fanfiction about John Watson/Sherlock Holmes than there is fanfiction about Molly Hooper and her adventures. But is fanfiction really just about smut or romantic pairings? I used to argue that it wasn’t, but now I’m not so sure. Fans are obsessed with romantic pairings and certain ships are very popular, but when it gets to the point that other ships are demonized it becomes a problem. I have even had some authors tell me that they avoided writing femslash or gen (general, nonromantic, or fanfiction lacking ships) because they knew it wouldn’t get any views. That’s pretty sad.
My point here is that there is a major problem in fanfiction and in fandoms in general. Fanfiction is often praised for giving a voice to minority groups, but the reality is that it doesn’t, or at least not as much as it should. I want so badly for fanfiction to set an example for mainstream pop culture so that writers, directors, and producers will see that we want a more diverse range of characters—that including female characters, queer characters, transgender/genderqueer characters, characters of color, or characters with disabilities won’t hurt ratings or sales. If we as fans can’t even get behind wanting and caring about having more diversity in fanfiction, how can we possibly expect it in regular media?
I think all I can really ask and hope for is for authors to think about things before they write or contribute to fandom in really any way. Why, when you write, do you portray Supernatural’s Lucifer as some poor misunderstood angel, but portray Uriel, who has the same
opinions as him, as an evil heartless dick? Is it because Lucifer is played by a white man and Uriel is played by a black man? Why do you profess to adore Donna Noble and wish she’d come back on Doctor Who, but your fanfiction almost never features her as a main character? Every good professional writer thinks deeply about the choices they make when writing. I think fanfiction authors should do the same.