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Fanfiction Comes Out of the Closet (willow & tara mentions)

Malinda Lo

Wednesday 4 January 2006, by Webmaster

In December 2005, the New York Times reported that Showtime’s lesbian drama, The L Word, was set to team up with website Fanlib.com to produce a 12-week contest in which viewers could “contribute ideas for show scenes as part of a continuing story line.” At the conclusion of the contest, which will be overseen by a staff writer, the winning scenes will be compiled into a commemorative ezine of the episode, with Showtime having the option to produce the finished script for TV down the road.

Whether the episode will actually be produced is not certain, but this contest (which has not yet started) marks yet another step in the mainstreaming of fandom and its cultural products, specifically fan fiction.

This idea of letting fans produce “ideas for show scenes” may at first seem only distantly related to fan fiction-which is fiction written by fans featuring the characters and setting of a television show, movie, or book-but upon closer examination, it is clearly connected. Many fans turn to writing or reading fan fiction because they find their favorite television show lacking. They may want to see a certain character fall in love with a different character; or they may want to find out what really happened when the camera panned away from a particular scene. Fan fiction allows them to take the story beyond the confines of scripted television or film, or even the pages of a book.

By inviting L Word fans-many of whom already create their own “ideas for show scenes” through their fan fiction-to invent their own storylines, L Word producers are piggybacking on a phenomenon that is rooted in centuries of community storytelling, and that has been more recently studied as a part of sci-fi fandom dating back to Star Trek.

In effect, what once was a closeted (or at least semi-closeted) community of fan writers scribbling stories about their favorite Star Trek character has become a worldwide, public phenomenon reported on in global media and openly acknowledged by cultural producers like Showtime.

Most significantly for lesbians and bisexual women, the changing of television-which has increasingly included openly lesbian characters-has also affected fan fiction, with slash (fan fiction about same-sex couples) expanding from its male/male homosocial roots to an open expression of lesbian romance and sexuality.

What is fan fiction, anyway?

Fan fiction originated in the pre-Internet science fiction fan communities that erupted around Star Trek in the 1960s and ’70s, with fan-written stories traded through printed fanzines. These fan fiction writers were predominantly white middle-class straight women, an unlikely group who nonetheless pioneered the sexually explicit, homosexual genre of fan fiction known as “slash.”

This term was coined from the usage of a slash mark (“/”) between the names of two same-sex characters engaged in a sexual relationship; the most popular of these pairings at the time was Kirk/Spock.

With the advent of the Internet and newsgroup technologies in the early 1990s, fan fiction experienced explosive growth, as did fandom communities in general. The X-Files, one of the first fandoms to emerge entirely on the Internet in 1993, rapidly became one of the largest fandoms after Star Trek and one of the most prolific in terms of fan fiction production. The Internet also heralded a change in the demographics of fan fiction writers.

Though precise statistics are unavailable and no sustained research appears to have been done on the makeup of online fan fiction writers, it seems clear that the average age of fan fiction writers fell once the Internet became the primary means of distributing fan fiction.

Fan fiction and its communities have long been of interest to academic researchers, with the most well-known study, Henry Jenkins’ Textual Poachers, appearing in 1992. Early academic theorists have argued that writing and reading fan fiction is a subversive act; indeed, Jenkins stated that “Fan fiction is a way of the culture repairing the damage done in a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations instead of owned by the folk.” This utopic argument has recently been complicated by an increasing convergence between mainstream or legitimate cultural producers (e.g., Hollywood studios) and grassroots fan-based creations including fan fiction and fan-made films.

Although many fans have read these academic studies on fan fiction and have quite sophisticated understandings of the power dynamics at play between fan and producer, many fans will hasten to point out that the urge to create fan fiction is rarely rooted in the desire to subvert mainstream ideologies or wrestle power from the big boys in Tinseltown. Instead, as Xena fan (and fanfic writer) Lunacy explained in a 1998 Whoosh! article on the history of Xena fan fiction, “Unrestricted by time constraints, or censors or any of the other sensibilities imposed by film or TV, fan fiction allows for a fuller exploration of characters and themes and storylines making it incredibly appealing for fans.”

One of the most widely studied forms of fan fiction-which can be categorized in innumerable ways according to each specific fandom-is slash, which has historically been mostly about male/male couples. Academic study of slash has generally concluded that it involves loving relationships between otherwise-heterosexual men, and it is a way for women to evade or reconstruct gender to their liking. However, fans have resisted this interpretation, and male/male pairings have become grittier and more violent in fandoms such as The X-Files or Angel, unlike the idealized harmony of the Kirk/Spock couple.

On the other hand, female/female slash, or femslash, has historically been quite rare. It was not until Xena: Warrior Princess, with its often quite overt subtextual homosexual relationship between Xena and Gabrielle, that the amount of femslash approached male/male slash in volume. Since Xena, other femslash pairings have included Seven of Nine/Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager; Buffy/Faith, Willow/Tara, and numerous other female/female pairings on Buffy: The Vampire Slayer; CJ and a number of female partners on The West Wing, and Olivia Benson/Alex Cabot on Law and Order: SVU, among others.

After the premiere of The L Word in 2004, femslash became much more mainstream, though some fanfic writers may question whether L Word stories about same-sex couples are actually “slash,” given that they are openly lesbian in the show itself.

One Buffy fanfic writer, nepthys12, argued on the Kittenboard, a bulletin board for die-hard Willow/Tara fans, in 2002, “Some (including me) feel that slash is any m/m or f/f relationship, even if it’s conventional in the show. To me, Willow/Tara is slash, and I have labeled it as such on my website.”

Why is it that femslash has never been as popular as male/male slash?

One writer, Kadorienne, theorized in an essay titled “Some Thoughts on Femslash” that the main problem was “finding a fandom that has not only one, but two interesting, complex female characters. In most fandoms, we’re lucky to get just one.” Indeed, now that many shows include multiple female lead characters, femslash has certainly increased. In addition, Kadorienne noted that the majority of fanfic writers are straight women, for whom reading and writing about men having sex is more pleasurable than reading and writing about lesbians.

So Tell Me About This Femslash, Already!

The mother of all femslash is, without a doubt, Xena: Warrior Princess, which premiered in September 1995. Xena was unique in that it was a television program in which the hero and the hero’s sidekick were both women. That relationship, between former warlord-turned-heroine Xena and the initially innocent bard Gabrielle, was one of the most three-dimensional relationships between women seen on television. That relationship also involved them in a number of sexually suggestive situations, as the two famously bathed together, shared mystical kisses, and sang to each other in melodramatic musical episodes.

It seems almost inevitable that fans would pick up on the lingering glances and interpret those declarations of unending “friendship” as a lesbian romance in the making. Xena producers even caught on to the fans’ interpretation of the subtext and obliged them by inserting more and more subtext into the show as the seasons passed.

The fan fiction that was written about Xena and Gabrielle almost immediately took these subtextual instances and elaborated on them, creating a genre of Xena fanfic dubbed “alternative” or “alt” fanfic to denote a departure from what was depicted in the scripted series. “Romantic Altfic,” according to Xena fan Bongo Bear, “is an adult fairy tale through which the [writer] expresses her own beliefs and ideals about loving relationships. One of these ideals is that lesbian lovers are as unremarkable as any heterosexual couple. This is an unspoken premise of almost all Altfic, romantic or not, and it is the significant differentiator from traditional heterosexual romance.” ("Don’t Mind the Ladies: Lesbian Fanfic as an Old-Fashioned Romance," Whoosh!)

After the 1997 episode “The Xena Scrolls,” in which the characters of Xena and Gabrielle were essentially reinterpreted in the characters of Mel and Janice, two archaeologists living in the 1940s, the genre of “uber-Xena” fan fiction became extremely popular. In uber-Xena fan fiction, the essence of the characters Xena and Gabrielle are placed in another time or place. Because the two women are “soul mates,” they will always find each other, no matter where they are.

Buffy: The Vampire Slayer has also had a significant impact on femslash because the show features several three-dimensional female characters, and because one of the characters, Willow, came out as a lesbian in Season 4. For the first few seasons of the series, Buffy fan fiction was largely heterosexual and not terribly explicit, but as the characters matured, so did the fan fiction. A favorite slash pairing was the violent and moody Angel/Spike couple, while femslash inspired by Buffy includes Buffy/Faith, Buffy/Willow, Buffy/Cordelia, and any number of other female/female couplings. But the largest amount of femslash in the Buffyverse centers on Willow/Tara, the show’s first openly lesbian couple.

The characters of Willow and Tara quickly developed their own group of fans within the broader Buffy fandom, and in comparison to other slash fandoms that were largely comprised of straight women, Willow/Tara fans are often lesbians. (For a more nuanced discussion of the Willow/Tara fan following, see Judith L. Tabron’s article “Girl on Girl Politics: Willow/Tara and New Approaches to Media Fandom” at slayage.tv.)

Though some fan fiction writers may question whether Willow/Tara stories qualify as “slash,” given the fact that their relationship was in the text, rather than in the subtext, other fans have argued that it does qualify as slash. On the Kittenboard in 2002, Dumbsaint explained why she began writing sexually explicit Willow/Tara fan fiction:

“They are unique in that they are the first longterm, serious, passionately in love lesbian couple that anyone has ever had the opportunity to see on TV. But even still, their desire for one another had to be relegated for two years to metaphor on a show that has only been too happy to push the envelope with showing sexual situations in prime time. And while ME pulled off the metaphors with more grace and creativity than usual, and while I loved the metaphors for the way Aly and Amber played them- they were still metaphors. We still never saw their first kiss. Never knew for sure when they made love for the first time. That’s kind of infuriating in comparison to the way developing relationships between straight characters are portrayed. I fell in love with Willow and Tara, and I wanted to figure out for myself how desire worked between them, in a more physical kind of way- because I was denied seeing that on the show.”

On The L Word, one can’t very well argue that sexuality between lesbian characters is not portrayed, but like any other show on television, The L Word provides numerous entry points for fan fiction writers seeking to flesh out their favorite characters’ lives. The fact that most of the characters on the show are openly lesbian or bisexual simply removes the initial shift away from heterosexuality that slash fiction historically has required.

Fan writers can immediately dive into stories about how Bette and Tina first met, knowing that later on in their fictional lives, these characters will actually be gay.

It’s All Coming Together

The L Word’s recent announcement of its contest to construct a fan-created episode is actually just the latest in a growing trend. Although producers in the past have resisted fan-created fiction and films, citing copyright violation problems, the boundaries between fan production and “official” production have increasingly become more porous. For example, Xena fan writer Melissa Good, a fan favorite, went on to write two episodes of the series, “Legacy” and “Coming Home,” which both aired in 2000.

In addition, after X-Files fan fiction writer Leyla Harrison died of cancer in 2001, X-Files producers named character named after her in two episodes that aired later that year, as a tribute to both Harrison and to X-Files fans.

In 2001, scholar Henry Jenkins acknowledged to Intensities that “I think to some degree what’s happening is a media industry being forced by an interactive age to become more accountable and more responsive to its audience than previously.” Reflecting this change, FanLib.com cofounder David Williams told Media Week shortly after the Showtime contest was announced, “Clearly when you take something that might have generally been regarded as a free-for-all, and you build certain controls around it, that’s obviously more appealing as it makes it safe for the marketers.”

This raises the question of whether fan-created texts will be limited or freed by these collaborations with the media producers themselves. Obviously, fans of a program like The L Word are likely to be excited by the prospect of working with writers of the show. However, by enacting the “controls” that Williams mentions, fans’ abilities to take the series’ characters wherever they want are certain to be restricted.

It seems, then, that this coming-out for fan fiction is a double-edged sword. Producers are clearly giving fans a level of respect that they have long wanted, but that respect comes with some limitations. In this particular contest, for example, producers will make decisions about which story arcs merit inclusion in the hypothetical episode-a weeding-out process that will undoubtedly eliminate fan storylines that producers would never consider (e.g., moving Jenny to Antarctica permanently).

Which means those viewers who want to watch a Jenny-less L Word will still have to comb through the stacks of fanfic websites-or learn how to write those stories