Female characters in fanfiction

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Title: Female characters in fanfiction
Creator: princessofgeeks, and commenters
Date(s): October 1, 2015
Medium: post on Dreamwidth
Fandom:
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External Links: Female characters in fanfiction, Archived version; archive link.
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Female characters in fanfiction is a 2015 Dreamwidth post by princessofgeeks. It had 48 comments.

It was made in response to Where exactly do people get this idea that fandom is dominated by straight women from?, a post by ormondhsacker.

Topics Discussed

The Post

The always amazing morgandawn reposted part of a discussion from Tumblr about female characters in general and also F/F fic.

Her repost is here, and it includes links to a bunch of the original Tumblr posts.

Some of the discussion is centered around the question of why there is so little fan fiction that features F/F romance or female friendship, compared to the piles and piles of M/M slash fic out there.

The original (as far as I can tell; I find attribution of authorship on Tumblr posts very hard to understand -- it's me, I know. Sorry. That's a different topic entirely.) poster was specifically not talking about X-rated fic or porn of any kind -- she was specifically interested in fic that concerns female friendship or F/F romance.

My tentative answer to this is…. that so few Hollywood shows present female friendship in the first place that it probably got a late start in getting attention from media fandom. I know the shows that do include it, like "Legend of the Seeker" and "Rizzoli and Isles" and "Xena", have devoted followings and awesome fic (I am only mentioning shows that I know and have watched; I am certain there are others that I don't know about). Ensemble shows like "Agents of SHIELD" and "Firefly" also do have some fantastic fic focusing on the female characters, even if the overall body of fic in those fandoms is M/M or gen. Again -- this is based on my experience only. I'm sure I'm leaving out a bunch of important canons. For example, I haven't delved into "Star Trek: Voyager" nearly as much as I would like, and I'm sure there must be a bunch of great fic there about women.

One issue for me personally is that I got initially interested in fanfic that presented an aspect of male friendship that I had not seen anywhere else before -- what Driscoll dubbed the "intimatopia." Whether the relationships are brotherly, romantic or sexual, I was captivated by that, for whatever reason, when I discovered fan fiction -- specifically Frodo/Sam. That was my starting place.

But I've also really enjoyed the female friendships in the shows I have dived into, where they exist in canon, such as Sam and Vala or Sam and Janet in "Stargate SG-1," and the fic about them.

And some of the posts point out that sometimes, like in "Pacific Rim", which I know nothing about, fans of the female characters are getting frustrated because even when there are prominent female characters, the bulk of the fanfic tilts toward the male characters. Is this a trend you all are seeing? I am so not up on new canons that I have no idea. What about "Jupiter Ascending"?

For me as a writer, the slashy angle on male characters has proven to be extremely fascinating, and new, and also titillating. I have to mention this as an important factor for me, although the X-rated stuff was specifically excluded as a focus from the posts I'm referring to. And, I find I often much prefer slash fandoms' take on male characters to the show writers' take!!!

And further, for me personally, writing male characters is more of an exotic challenge, and that's where I've put my focus so far in fanfic. When I write orig fic, on the other hand, I seem to be just as interested in the female characters as the male ones.

For the future, regarding fic featuring female characters -- One thing that could happen would be the ongoing impact of the popularity of crossovers. If a show doesn't present many female characters and few opportunities for them to become friends, the incredible popularity of crossover fic could allow for a much broader range for fic centered on relationships among women. (I actually don't prefer crossovers the way much of fandom does -- and I do usually prefer romantic fic to gen, so if this trend exists already for female characters, I might actually be unaware of it because I read so few crossovers.)

(Some of the posts are mostly about the issue of the sexual orientation of the women who write fanfic, and how difficult it is to quantify that, which was not really what struck me about the subject just now.)

But it's a perennially fascinating question -- here we are in fan fiction land, which is unequivocally dominated by women fan writers, and most of the fic we write is about men. Perhaps the preponderance of male leads in our source material is the explanation, but perhaps not. In any case, it was fun to see this particular topic again.

Comments

Commentator's names below have been redacted.

[e-1]:

I tend to think of male media characters as being more interesting than RL men, and female media characters as being much less interesting than RL women. It's entirely possible to write about made-up men who are fun to write about, without believing that real women are boring! Also, I have no problem with OCs, so I wouldn't mind coming up with an awesome female friend, mentor, relative, etc. for a somewhat underpowered female canon character, but a lot of writers WOULD mind. And a lot of readers would click out.

[p of g]:

This is really fascinating! Because it points up the problem of Hollywood writers being predominantly men, and also how many of them really don't do a good job of writing female characters. Which totally may be part of the problem.

(But not all -- because fandom falls in love with minor male characters all the time. Paul in SG-1. Parrish and Lorne in SGA. Arthur and Eames in Inception. You know.)

And it also points to the issues fandom has with OCs. I heart OFCs, too.

[c]:

OMG the discussions are annoying in their pseudo-authority and purposeful ignorance. Yeah, the last time anyone talked about slash was in 1992. Sigh. I have to step back because SOMEONE IS WRONG ON THE INTERNET (and also amazingly aggressive [1])....

Like, I think these are important questions, and there are many ways to respond to this (though I'm slightly annoyed how a 46 year old woman cannot acknowledge that just maybe not as many people self-identified as lesbian/bi in the late 80s/early 90s?), but the real question shouldn't be, how many woman are not attracted to men, but really, what can the representation of two men offer a woman that two women can't. (I still think this is ultimately an issue of gender and not of sexuality, i.e., the crossidentification is appealing).

I will always and forever repeat Julad's unmarked bodies....

[c]:

So, just commenting to myself, because I seemed to have gotten two people mixed up (yes, Tumblr!), and conflated what turns out to be antagonists:

[2]

Bert and Ernie's 46 and "studying" fandom; Ormondhsacker is mid-thirties and I think they try to retcon how everyone's inner self-identified gayness was repressed...

And now I need to get off Tumblr!!!

[p of g]:

Yeah, when the discussion got exasperated and that one person accused the other one of being bigoted, that was not fun to read..... Yeah, I had a very hard time following the discussion given the Tumblr format, which is on me. But I could see that by the end people were getting testy, and I didn't understand the reason for that at all.

And you are right -- people have certainly studied this since 1992. For sure. And I think your point about the self-identified orientation of female fans might go a bit differently today than in 1992. For sure.

For me, the central issue was not so much the orientation of the fan writers, but the perennial question of the way we write women.

And I really like the way you conceptualize the "real question."

What did Julad say about "unmarked bodies?" I should know this but I don't. I am assuming she meant male bodies?

I adore Julad still.

[e-1]:

Ahaha, "by the end people were getting testy"? More like, "pre-testied for your discomfort," amirite. I mean, the argument started years before the post.

Like the classic xkcd cartoon: "He sure sucks at math" "Women sure suck at math". If a particular leading man is boring, "That show is poorly written" "Actor X sure is hot, he deserves a better show". If the closest the canon has to leading woman is boring, "Why'd they waste time on her when they could have had another car chase and blown up two more buildings?" A male character, especially a young-ish white male, tends to be viewed as an individual, not "the white male body." This is much less true of female characters and characters of color.

[p of g]:

Yes, definitely pre-testied. And it is definitely not a new discussion. New to some of them, of course. But we were all newbies once. I guess because I was a newbie with journalism training, my first instinct when I got into fanfic was to go looking for history and mentors and "explainers." Not sudden and annoyed pontification.

[e-1]:

Online spaces, and ESPECIALLY Tumblr, are kind of like the bars Mal goes to on U-Day: the brawl isn't a bug, it's a feature.

[e-1]:

In some ways, though, the current social atmosphere is *more* conservative than in the 1980s. I mean, I'm Older Than Dirt, so I've kind of been through three sets of 20-year-olds Discovering REALLY IMPORTANT THINGS Never Thought Before By Anyone. People used not to read books that were written by people who couldn't possibly know anything because they weren't 20 years old now. And now they don't Google things that were written by people etc.

If this were FFA I guess I'd be "Porn Broken Because of Vocabulary Nonnie." I mean, the words available for male bodies and responses are inadequate, but the ones available for female bodies and responses are MORE inadequate by orders of magnitude.

[c]:

"Porn Broken Because of Vocabulary Nonnie" Yes. That!

Though they very aggressively don't talk about porn, but it's all the same to me. There are few female characters I want to identify with. And even fewer who then are in a canon where there's another female to play with.

And yes, it IS easier still for me to read the guys...and yes these are questions that are worth exploring.

But no one has ever gotten a discussion going by telling us all we're dumb and bigoted and...whatever else she's telling us.

Otoh, can you elaborate how it is MORE conservative than the 1980s? I do think sexual orientation and gender identity have come a long way....

[e-1]:

It's true that I'm unusual in the extent to which I just don't care about identifying with characters--I'll read about/watch anything that I think is interesting, including things like Breaking Bad that are about interesting horrible people. And indeed one important function of art is showing us what it's like to be somebody completely different from the reader/viewer. That does not necessarily mean a blameless victim who is completely different from the reader/viewer.

Reading about/watching media about sex doesn't have to be done with the intent of getting aroused; sex is an interesting topic, and people sure do some strange things for sexual reasons. But if people do consume media with the intent of getting aroused, well, it'll have to be something that turns them on, so I'll go with the two-scoops-of-ice-cream explanation. I'm in favor of women doing things that give them pleasure, and each woman gets to decide what gives her pleasure--including reading about actions she wouldn't undertake in real life. Maybe that's WHY she's reading about them.

[c]:

Nods. but that was at the extreme end, wasn't it (and yes, i'm not sure if you saw, but I just taught Is the Rectum a Grave and How to Have Sex in an Epidemic, but I had to teach first the discourse within which these essays were written).

Then again, The Normal Heart gets produced in 2014 and its anti-promiscuity message remains strong and the sex scenes are all loving or in the realm of fantasy (see http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/imr/2014/08/08/new-normal-heart). Watching 80s news programs and AIDS news accounts was certainly fascinating in how much things have changed and how much they've stayed the same. (Still no better sex ed than abstinence???)

I think for me the difference is that the general acceptance (even if it's within a heteronormative framework) is much higher. I see high school kids coming out left and right as gay, bi, asexual; I had 2 trans students in a class of 20 last year (and you KNOW where I live :). That is a huge change. Even being able to identify with 15 different Tumblr identities is a huge step, because that's a chance neither of us had. And I think that IS change!!!

[e-1]:

But perhaps The Normal Heart got produced in 2014 *because* of its middle-of-the-roadness; HBO didn't film "As Is". It's not really that different from "Brian's Song"--awww, it's so sad that those nice people got horrible diseases and died!

It'll be interesting to see what shakes out with nonbinary identities. The legal system is a lot more comfortable with re-assigning people and issuing name changes and new birth certificates within the categories of M or F than with None of the Above or None of Your Business.

[s-1]:

the real question shouldn't be, how many woman are not attracted to men, but really, what can the representation of two men offer a woman that two women can't. (I still think this is ultimately an issue of gender and not of sexuality, i.e., the crossidentification is appealing).

I agree with this. Tbh I'm surprised that the discussion seems to focus so much on sexuality, especially because there is also more non-explicit m/m than f/f and the male/female character ratio in gen fic is in my experience not that different from ship fic (I don't have data though.)

[p of g]:

I freely admit that I am less conversant with all other kinds of fanfic compared to m/m slash. I initially got into fanfic for the romantic porn, and I still love that best.

But I do read other kinds of fic and enjoy it. And there is plenty of it out there; enough for meaningful comparisons.

I imagine that for all kinds of fanfic, the starting point of canon means that the fic will get skewed by the way the gendered characters are portrayed (going back to executrix's comment about how well the characters are written), and the fact that there are many fewer female characters than male ones in lead roles.

Once you account for that, it gets quite interesting.

[k]:

Okay, I guess I wasn't the only one who felt those Tumblr posts were super-aggressive?

I've gotten to the point where seeing slash/slash fans deconstructed or analyzed makes me v. cranky, because there's usually this accusatory or blaming/shaming agenda under the thin veneer of 'just wanting to understand.'

I've been through more wanky "discussions" of this subject than I can remember over the past 20+ years, and every one of them boiled down to how we're all misogynists and puppets of the patriarchy, what we like is just *wrong*, and it's our fault that other characters/pairings aren't more prevalent because we're bad fans who should be squeeing over/writing something else. Which, no.

[c]:

Well, the thing that was really bothersome was when Flourish got attacked for merely agreeing with a side conversation on explicit fanfic. I mean "Good greif, I’m just about done with you all." is aggressive as all fuck.

Thing is, yes they all have points. But they get obscured by excessive rhetoric, bad research, unsubstantiated data, and just... tumblr? :)

[k]:

Well, Tumblr has become the hangout of choice for a lot of fans, but trying to have any sort of discussion there just sucks. And much of the climate is similar to Twitter (lots of preemptive attacking and dogpiling, then *maybe* backing off a tad if necessary), which can make just reading posts v. stressful, let alone engaging someone.

Posts like these (and this one) make me wonder how many fans who say they're into f/f actually are, and how many just say so because of peer pressure and fear of being called out?

You're right about interesting ideas and theories being obscured, but it seems to me that most of this particular gripe stems from people not getting what they feel is their due (or what they need) from fandom -- which is also nothing new.

[morgandawn]:

There is a sense of familiarity when I read posts like this one http://nullrefer.com/?http://ormondhsacker.tumblr.com/post/129008770033/musings-of-a-low-popularity-pairings-writer

where the personal becomes political and the faults of the world are magnified through a tiny lens.

[k]:

Very much so (as are other 'fandom meta' posts), with recurring themes like, 'I'm entitled to feedback because creating fanworks is hard, dammit,' and 'I don't write for myself, you know.'

I honestly don't understand people who think other fans owe them anything. And if 1000 hits/50 kudos is a poor return on one's time and effort, every vid I've ever made has been an epic failure.

[l-1]:

Yeah, I think a lot of it is simply that there's a lot of canons with only one female character or, if there's more than one they never get any interaction. Canons with lots of female characters have lots of femslash. I've been writing fic since 1996 and over that time I've written more and more female characters and f/f because there are more. Pacific Rim and Jupiter Ascending are two great examples of fandoms with only one prominent female character - Pacific Rim seems to literally have one woman, Jupiter Ascending has one lead woman, her two families and a few barely-seen assistants. I enjoyed both canons but wrote nothing. In MCU, I wrote fic for Thor (two major female characters who interact a lot) but not for either Captain America movie, even though I liked the CA movies a lot more.

[i-2]:

I know this is anecdata, but one thing that came up the last time I had this conversation w/ women who wrote both fanfic and original fiction is 1. I was talking to ppl who mostly shipped m/m fanfic and 2) they all wrote female protagonists + queer women in their original fiction. It's worth remembering that fannish texts may not be a person's main/only consumption or production and may meet a particular need. (This is not to say there's anything wrong w/ primarily dealing in m/m or fanfic, it's just a perspective).

[s-1]:

I try to write women/OFCs in fanfic, but a lot of the time I get so much more discouraged than for original fic. If I'm going to put all the time and effort into writing something, I want to get something back for it; and if my choices are "get very little response simply because it has women in it" and "possibly get published and paid", I'm a lot more tempted to keep my female characters on the origfic side of things.

[l]:

I get so frustrated with all the "but there are no interesting female characters! female characters are written so badly! but I am super into this guy that has three speaking lines and will now ship him into juggernautyness with another guy." (And I love the Parrish/Lornes and Clint/Coulsons of the slashiverse. I do. I have written them. I read them!)

I think if you stack up female character and male characters in the shows I watch, the guys get stupid character backwards development or pigeon-holeyness or whatever at the same rate as the female characters. It only renders the female characters unworthy of writing about.

I think many of these same people are the ones who say they don't write about female characters or read about female characters in fanfic because they're not sexually attracted to women, at which I boggle--all fanfic is porn? What they hell do you watch on TV? Do you not go to the movies? Do you read no professionally published books? You cannot consume media that isn't exclusively about people you're sexually attracted to? WTH?

[p of g]:

As one of the participants in the Tumblr discussion was saying, and I think cathexys too, up above, setting porn aside from the discussion does distort it a bit, because it's such a central part of how fanfic pushes the envelope and differs so much from both commercial porn and Hollywood tastes, IMHO.

But your point is well taken about how poor writing in the original source material is no excuse for ignoring a certain character. And highlighting how minor male characters get fan focus all the time. I mean, Figwit, for crying out loud.

[e-2]:

Oh, interesting discussion!

I agree with morgandawn when they say that "just because one is heterosexual does not mean one would not be interested in femmeslash". I mean, as for myself, I'm a heterosexual woman and I'm mostly oriented towards slash and female characters-centric gen but I have a few femmslash pairings myself. Like, maybe about three, but those three I very feel strongly about, the characters are just so perfect for each other (Emma/Regina, come on!) and I'm saddened by the lack of fanworks.

/sometimes, like in "Pacific Rim", which I know nothing about, fans of the female characters are getting frustrated because even when there are prominent female characters, the bulk of the fanfic tilts toward the male characters. Is this a trend you all are seeing?/ - Oh, yes, I can confirm that's definitely what's happening with the Pacific Rim fandom. *nods* It's a bit baffling.

/And, I find I often much prefer slash fandoms' take on male characters to the show writers' take!!!/ - Well, that's because fandom is always better than canon LOL

And, lastly, talking about slash I found this meta really illuminating: sometimes you just don't want to identify with female characters and want the escape that slash provides you with.

[f in t]:

And further, for me personally, writing male characters is more of an exotic challenge, and that's where I've put my focus so far in fanfic. When I write orig fic, on the other hand, I seem to be just as interested in the female characters as the male ones.

That's interesting to think about! For me personally, the majority of my fic has I think focused on men (and the majority of my fandoms have been male-dominated canon. For those that aren't, my ratio is less high). But pretty much all my original fic is almost exclusively about women and girls. I only care about fictional men I already know, it seems!

[morgandawn]:

ex: "It strikes me as just another underhanded way to criticize and nitpick expressions of queer sexuality that don’t meet some arbitrary standard. A lot of folks seem to equate their personal tastes in fic as some sort of holy grail rather than inherently subjective." [from:] http://autie-baeddel-cat.tumblr.com/post/63917577526/heterosexual-female-slash-fans

I’m not saying you have to start liking M/M, or stop calling it out when you come across problematic examples, because this is important. But I am annoyed that so many people have seen my unrelated post and decided it’s the place to complain about the entirety of slash fandom indiscriminately. For better or worse, thousands of queer women use M/M to express themselves and their reactions to mainstream culture. Telling them that they’re automatically misogynistic or heterosexist for doing so without bothering to understand the reasons for their interest is the exact opposite of supporting them." [from:] centrumlumina[3]

[k]:

Thanks, I hadn't seen those quotes.

Or this one:

"Because here’s the thing: if it’s part of my erotic practice, and my erotic practice takes men as its object, then telling me I’m writing or reading too many men starts looking an awful lot like a moral judgment of my sexuality. Nobody intends this, but that may be the effect of the discussion. Statistics like this are marvelous, truly. It’s how they can get used that makes me nervous."

Pigeonholes make me nervous -- and angry -- because it's far easier to bash a group of people you've cobbled together using stats, assumptions, personal judgments, and whatever other justifications support your view. And you can do that until the cows come home, but it'll never make you right and them wrong, or vice-versa.

And I'm really sick of seeing slash demonized as "problematic" or "fucked up." There are a lot of things I personally find "problematic" (like non-con, bdsm, bestiality, and chan), but it's not for me to say what other fans should and shouldn't like, fantasize about, write, vid, or draw. No one has that right.

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