Femslash: Demystifying Fandom’s Gender Disparity

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Title: Femslash: Demystifying Fandom’s Gender Disparity
Creator: lierdumoa
Date(s): 2015
Medium: online
Fandom:
Topic: Fanfiction, Femslash
External Links: Femslash: Demystifying Fandom’s Gender Disparity,
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Femslash: Demystifying Fandom’s Gender Disparity is meta post by lierdumoa.

Topics Discussed

  • Lack of Femslash
  • Fear of writing obnoxious or abrasive female characters
  • Gender double standards

Post

Alternative titles for this essay include:
Why U No Read Femslash?!? One Fan’s Screed

Pin the Tits on the Jackass: Writing Effective Escapism

How to Win Friends and Influence People with Lady Porn

So I’ve been thinking a bit about femslash.

About how even on the rare occasions I find a female character in film/tv that is both 1) well written and 2) relatable I often find the fanfiction version of this same character to be oddly … sanitized in a way that makes me find her less relatable.

I used to watch Grey’s Anatomy for Christina Yang - Charming Genius Asshole Extraordinaire. I’d then go on AO3 to look for fanfic and I’d get Christina Yang - Hard Worker and Good Friend. All of her abrasiveness was smoothed over. She wasn’t funny anymore. She wasn’t fun anymore. She was boring.

I have a similar issue with het fanfiction see discussion, where even when I find the rare tv/film het pairing that defies the usual gender normative romcom tropes, the fanfic writers for that pairing will often go out of their way to reimpose those same tropes. Perhaps the most egregious example was the Game of Thrones fanfiction author who thought it was a good idea to cisswap Jaime/Brienne.

But I digress.

My favorite fictional relationship dynamic, romantic or platonic, same gender or different gender, can be summed up as follows:

Character A: You’re such a tool.
Character B: Your face is a tool.

Now I know plenty of women who share this dynamic. I know a very small handful of female characters in film/tv who share this dynamic. I’ve been in fandom for 15 years and I have yet to read a single work of femslash that reflects this dynamic.

People are afraid, I think, to write women being obnoxious, or abrasive, because they think it will make those women unlikeable. Yet these are the very qualities that make us fall in love with male characters. Fandom loves Failwolf!Derek Hale and snarky malcontent!Stiles Stilinski. Flawless queens make for great photosets, but boring stories.

We live in a culture of gender double standards.

It is much easier for us to imagine men being layabouts, or workaholics. A woman who is either very lazy or very career focused is viewed as unloveable and neglectful. It’s easier for us to imagine men as pranksters. When a woman pulls one over on her friends her actions are viewed as malicious.

Escapist fantasy is defined very differently depending on the gender being catered to. I go into further detail about this disparity: here.

To summarize:

Women get perfection fantasies. Stories about girls who are beautiful inside and out (they don’t know they’re beautiful) (that’s what makes them beautiful) who work hard and hone their skills yet always find time to help out their friends.
Men get power fantasies. Stories about morally dubious loners with obsessive personalities who achieve success and acquire an entourage of unconditionally loyal friends/sidekicks all thanks to having one single marketable skill.

People in large part read fanfiction for the escape. That’s not the only reason, of course. We also read it for critical analysis, and for representation. But when we look at escapist fanfiction, and in particular what makes escapist fanfiction successful, it has been my observation that power fantasies make better escapes than perfection fantasies.

Mary Sues can be inspiring. But I think after a certain point, the female reader becomes disillusioned by the reality of living in a sexist world, and perfection fantasies stop being sources of inspiration. She becomes tired. The idea of being the perfect leader/lover/achiever becomes exhausting even to think about. The idea of a hapless fuckup finding love/redemption/success in spite of all their personal failings becomes more and more appealing.

What does that mean for femslash? Consider some of the more popular femslash ships.

Andy Sachs/Miranda Priestly:

I think part of the reason The Devil Wears Prada fandom has been so prolific with regards to femslash is that Miranda Priestly offers a kind of escapism usually reserved for male power fantasies, being that she is a filthy stinking rich morally dubious corporate mogul.

Emma Swan/Regina Mills:

Once Upon a Time’s Regina Mills, aka The Evil Queen spent one season committing mass murder and another three changing her ways and redeeming herself (all while living in a mansion and blowing things up with the power of her mind). Emma Swan seems to have gotten the same character arc in reverse.

Rachel Berry/Quinn Fabray:

I haven’t really read any Glee femslash, but I do know that the most popular femslash ship in that fandom is Fayberry, and that Rachel Berry’s is portrayed as obnoxious, to a degree that few female television protagonists ever achieve. Female tv characters with true type A personalities are exceptionally rare, and are usually portrayed as unlovable.

Popular femslash pairings are generally comprised of female characters who defy conventions for what the media defines as “acceptable” female behavior.

But more than that, popular femslash pairings feature female characters who enjoy the same freedoms and privileges (redemption arcs, loyal sidekicks, material success, destructive powers, influence) we expect for male protagonists in male power fantasies. We don’t just love The Evil Queen because she breaks the rules, but because the narrative allows her to get away with breaking the rules, thereby making her a viable power fantasy.

Writing nuanced female characters who screw around and fuck up is only half the battle. If women who break the mold are constantly scrutinized and punished for doing so, the story comes across as cynical, or even worse – as preachy. The opposite of what your average slash fan is looking for in the average fanfic.

If we want readers to enjoy reading about diverse, flawed, nuanced female characters, we need to put those female characters in worlds where their behavior is normalized and celebrated. Where they can play.

TL&DR

Girls just wanna have fun.

Comments

[ormondhsacker]:
You know it’s kind of funny, that perfection fantasy isn’t just applied to characters who are women in the source material, it happens just a often when a writer cis swaps a male character.
I’ve read so many fem!lock and fem!kirk stories where all the originality, brilliance but also bad sides are completely erased. When Sherlock becomes Shirley, she’s no longer arrogant, sharp tongued and abrasive, in stead she’s polite even servile and no longer flaunt her deductions. And when Jim becomes Jane, she loses her tactical brilliance along with her commanding personality and sexual appetite (this is mostly for AOS, I have only read 1 fem!Kirk fic for TOS).
[bonehandledknife:]:
You know what tho, additionally there’s the difference between a “nice fuck up” and a “real fuck up”, which is to me the difference between “pretty crying” and “ugly crying”.

Or, the difference between a “sympathetic depressed/mentally ill” person where people make sad faces at you and an “annoying depressed/mentally ill” person where people are just so fed up with you because your state of mind is messing things up.

Why are males the only ones allowed to fuck up in both ways big and small? Where Rodney McKay makes his scientists cry and is generally abrasive and blows up most of a solar system and fic are allowed to thoroughly explore all of this, from the good all the way to the dark villian au’s?

Why is it so surprising when women are allowed to actually grimace and emote on screen? To make an “ugly face”? And why is this perpetuated in fic, where women aren’t allowed the full range of fail?

Only the ‘pretty’ failings?

I mean I *get* that media is so saturated with the negative images and imagery of women so there’s an effort to counteract that.

But when this effort literally stifles creativity and the stories that I am very much interested in? That’s depressing. Because maybe I’m not the only one who is not writing much fic about women because of the very very fine line you have to walk to be ‘acceptably’ broken, ‘acceptably’ fail.
[lierdumoa:]:
#flawless queens make for great photosets but boring stories i wonder how this person would talk about korrasami because its perfection fantasy plus power fantasy (at least partly) asami is a perfection fantasy; people have always called her flawless and sympathized with her and embraced her as Beautiful and Noble and Sad more than any other character i remember people saying in B1 that she suffered the most out of anyone (???) and korra as a power fantasy korra in books 1 & 2 is a PERFECT example of a female power fantasy she is flawed and virtuous in equal measures and makes mistakes and fights with her boyfriend and makes up with him maturely and etc. and she is still the HERO anyway. in sum. is korrasami about escaping into a perfection fantasy or a power fantasy?

[amapola:] Sometimes a cigar is a phallic symbol and sometimes it's just a smoke. So said Freud and he was right. I say the reason for this disparity is simple. Heterosexual women watch anime to see beautiful male characters. And like men who enjoy seeing two women together, women enjoy seeing two men together. It's a normal sexual fantasy. Writers just happen to put their thoughts into words for others to read. If men were interested in writing fanfiction instead of looking at pix or going to "gentlemens clubs," they'd write femslash, guaranteed.