No Pairing Left Behind: The function of lesbian fanfiction in conversation with mainstream media

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Title: No Pairing Left Behind: The function of lesbian fanfiction in conversation with mainstream media
Creator: BooklandReeve
Date(s): 2014-07-22
Medium: online
Topic: Femslash, Fanfiction
External Links: No Pairing Left Behind: The function of lesbian fanfiction in conversation with mainstream media. - BooklandReeve - Femslash Studies [Archive of Our Own], Archived version
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No Pairing Left Behind: The function of lesbian fanfiction in conversation with mainstream media is a paper by BooklandReeve.

Some Topics Discussed

  • Brief definitions of fandom terms
  • Why people are interested in femslash
  • Mainstream media’s portrayal of lesbians
  • Lesbian community relation to femslash fanfiction
  • How canon is interpreted in fanfiction


Most people have heard of fanfiction, even if they have never read a word of it. The word has acquired many negative connotations, synonymous with ‘not original,’ ‘not creative,’ and in some cases, ‘very bad writing.’ What I hope to prove through this paper is that to deride fanfiction is to deride something that has played a profound role in the lives of many people, including myself. By dismissing fanfiction as poor, unoriginal stories, a person is only considering one fundamental aspect of a much larger phenomenon; fanfiction represents the purest form of interaction between society and its books, television, and movies (three things which, for the sake of brevity, I will refer to collectively as ‘mainstream media’), and lesbian fanfiction specifically demonstrates a unique rhetorical conversation between a poorly represented subculture and mainstream media.

Lesbian fanfiction, more commonly referred to as femslash, is unique in that it is specifically about lesbian relationships, and generally written by lesbians and bisexual women. This distinguishes the genre from the more commonly(1) studied ‘slash,’ which is written about gay male relationships, and is most commonly authored by heterosexual women. Through the voices of many femslash writers, I will establish the importance of femslash as a specific rhetorical response, a genre in itself with established forms and recognizable patterns, that came about specifically to counter an untenable situation for lesbian women in mainstream America.

The first question in the examination of femslash seems to be, necessarily, “Why?” If, as Lloyd Bitzer tells us in his seminal work, The Rhetorical Situation, a particular rhetorical discourse - in this instance, a work of lesbian fanfiction - “comes into existence because of some specific condition or situation which invites utterance, (Bitzer, 4)" then in order to understand lesbian fanfiction we must first establish what it is a response to. When asked how they understood the mainstream media’s portrayal of lesbians, most responses ranged from scathing, to critical, to dismissive, with only a few attempts at positive spin

The overwhelming answer of a community composed of predominantly lesbian and bisexual women to, “How do you feel about mainstream media’s portrayal of lesbians?” was that lesbians are flatly underrepresented, and poorly represented when they are. Dhampir, a writer of X-Files femslash, recalls her first exposure to a lesbian character:

“I can’t remember the name of the movie, but it was an old movie (may have even been a black and white film) where one woman fell in love with her friend. After finally confessing her feelings her friend couldn’t deal with it and rushed away in the car. Running after her, the lesbian character was hit by a car or truck and killed. It was considered a ‘good’ ending because the friend ended up not leaving her husband, and the ‘disturbed lesbian’ was put out of her misery.”

As a teenager struggling with my own sexual identity in the 1990s, I was keenly aware of my options according to those rare mainstream lesbian portrayals: kill myself, be killed for being myself, or die of natural causes but alone and desperately unhappy. I wasn’t alone; speaking to the entirety of her experience with mainstream media’s lesbians, SFW, who started out writing for the South of Nowhere fandom, responded, “Mainstream media has told me there aren't (happy) lesbians. There are girls that are shortly infatuated with girls later to fall into the arms of a man. There are girls who kiss girls just for fun. There are girls who like girls but no girl ever likes them back. There are girls who like girls and die... There wasn't a lot of great representation back then compared to now (and there isn't a great deal now).”

More than any other genre of fanfiction, femslash is a place where the sex is always good and the endings are always happy. In response to the categoric lack of happy endings for lesbians in mainstream media, femslash stories exist as a place where, while perhaps a relationship might begin with misunderstandings and strife, and surrounding characters may respond to the main ship’s romance with derision and violence, the end is idyllic and accepting. Tony DiNozzo realizes that he just wants Ziva David to be happy, and she won’t be happy with him when she’s in love with Abigail Sciuto; Emma Swan and Regina Mills both finally admit to each other that they would rather raise Henry together, as a family, than fight over who his ‘real’ mother is.

This need for a happy ending was cited frequently as a reason community members turned to fanfiction in the first place. Stephanie said she began reading Xena/Gabrielle “because I was reeling from the terrible show ending and looking for the romantic pairing that we didn't get on the show.” Clare noted, somewhat gleefully, that, “If you don’t like the direction a storyline is taking, chances are there is a story out there that has ‘fixed’ it.”