NOTE: Spoilers for She-Ra and the Princesses of Power ahead.
The terms ‘fandom’ and ‘fanfiction’ typically elicit some sort of negative reaction in most people, whose minds seem to jump straight to an image of an hysterical sycophant legally married to Professor Snape, or maybe a sex-crazed pervert intent on enhancing any salacious subtext they (though stereotypically, she) can glean from a buddy-cop partnership on a mediocre crime drama. Yet these extreme impressions are hardly surprising given that fanfiction’s biggest ‘success’ story is the infamously raunchy Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, developed out of E.L. James’ Twilight fanfiction. Whether you think the Fifty Shades is empowering or degrading, the series has garnered terrible reviews and, despite its commercial success, is still mocked around the world. If this is what fanfiction is, it must be smutty, unhealthy, and poorly written, right?
Though there can be some of that in there, much of modern fan content is harmless: beneficial, even. Many fandoms (which typically materialise on social platforms like Reddit and Tumblr; fanfiction sites like Archive of Our Own; and to some extent more mainstream social media entities like Twitter and Instagram), are transnational communities founded on the simple precept that all of its members share a passion for the same thing: they’re fountains of creativity overflowing with words, art, and memes celebrating the properties they love. Research has shown that being a part of these online communities can decrease feelings of depression and loneliness and improve psychological well-being, as well as allow for a safe space for those looking to explore their identity – particularly in the young people who frequent them. Indeed, underneath all the bad press lies the less circulated fact that some of the most progressive pioneers working in television today – notably in cartoons, given fanart’s crucial role – have grown from these humble beginnings to become lauded creative leaders in their own right. Just on a cursory glance at their work it’s clear that the freedom of expression they learned in these accepting spaces never left them.
Take the creator of Dreamworks’ She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, Noelle Stevenson. An Eisner-award winning cartoonist, the success of her 2015 graphic novel Nimona led the way to her appointment as the show-runner of She-Ra, a reboot of the 80s He-Man spin-off, at the age of 24. The show steadily gained both general popularity and critical praise – and it’s not just down to its Moebius-inspired scene design, charming humour, and surprising depth of thematic focus (the show sensitively covers topics like dementia, grief and isolationism). She-Ra’s distinctive queerness is embedded within its characters and their arcs to the extent that, according to Stevenson, “it couldn’t really be denied or circled back on” when he pitched that the finale, which aired in May, must end with a lesbian kiss that saves the universe.
That’s not to say queer love hadn’t been seen before in children’s animation. Nickelodeon’s The Legend of Korra concluded with an expressive shot of the protagonist holding hands with another woman, with their confirmed canon-status relationship subsequently explored in an official trilogy of graphic novels. Then there’s Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe, which, among many other LGBT storylines, depicted the wedding of two female-coded characters, Ruby and Sapphire. Stevenson herself said of the episode this year that, “As someone who also just got married last year to my wife, it gives me a lot of feelings. I mean, kids of today are going to grow up knowing that they can marry whoever they want, and that hasn’t been true up until very recently.” The strides being made, they continued, “are in no small part due to Steven Universe.”
But they speak too humbly. That She-Ra’s protagonist was effectively given a lesbian true love’s kiss was just as groundbreaking, particularly because Adora and Catra’s overarching cat-and-mouse/‘will they, won’t they’ dynamic formed the backbone of the show: it is their relationship arc specifically which has inspired the most fanart and garnered the most critical acclaim. “What I’m interested in is telling central queer stories, not having queer characters necessarily just being supporting members,” Stevenson also said. “I want stories that are built around them.”
Other shows that have followed or preceded She-Ra’s example employ a similar workforce – in fact, Stevenson’s own wife, Molly Ostertag, works as a writer on Disney’s The Owl House, which, though only in development for its second season, seems to be following the She-Ra-esque trajectory of a sapphic frenemies-to-lovers romance. So much so in fact that, much like the ‘SuperWhoLock’ multi-fandom which monopolised the Tumblr of the early-mid 2010s, ‘Catradora’ shippers and ‘Lumity’ shippers operate in the same forums. Additionally, Steven Universe’s showrunner, Rebecca Sugar, identifies as a non-binary bisexual woman, and has stated that in developing the identities of the Crystal Gems (Steven Universe’s otherworldly superhero-types), she learned to explore her own.
If we consider the fact that LGBT representation is only now becoming normalised, almost none of the sexualities or gender identities of these animators were adequately represented in the mainstream content they consumed growing up. So where, then, did they flock to in order to share their work and express themselves comfortably? Fanfiction and fanart, of course.
Now, the history of this subject is a winding and tumultuous one. But its most notable subsection – so prolific that some simply consider it synonymous with the genre as a whole – is slash. Derived from the forward slash interposed between ‘Kirk/Spock’ (Star Trek is widely believed to have been the first fandom in our modern sense of the word), slash fiction features a romantic and/or sexual relationship between non-canonically linked characters, typically resulting in the centring of gay relationships. It’s a much studied topic that there isn’t space here to thoroughly dissect, but academic and fan critics alike seem to agree it originated in the desires of (mainly female and heterosexual) fans to rewrite the boundaries of masculinity within a media environment practically devoid of developed female characters. As a result, the majority of fanfiction as a whole, in stark contrast to pretty much everything else, has always chosen to prioritise gay narratives. It’s a space which represents, as influential fan writer Julad has theorised, both a “yearning void and infinite potential” to tell stories that would otherwise go untold.
Since the advent of the internet and online fandom, the demographics have shifted – an informal Archive of Our Own (AO3) census conducted in 2013 revealed that, while women still dominated the fan space by a whopping 80%, only 38% of all participants identified as heterosexual. What seemingly began, according to scholars, as “normal female interest in men bonking”, has actually grown then to form a largely queer online space. This accounts for the rise of ‘femslash’, which is essentially female/female slash fiction, ‘gen’, which is fanfiction without romantic or sexual content at all, and other variants on the traditionally m/m nature of the genre. The current state of the community thus implies that fanwork is mostly by, about, and consequently for queer people. Historically starved of canon LGBT narratives, fans necessarily adapt pre-existing properties to make room for them.
Though Stevenson themself didn’t come out until they were 23, their familiarity with the vernacular of fan communities signifies their intimate history with them. A Black Lives Matter charity livestream event hosted by herself and Ostertag on June 9 casually utilised terminology like ‘canon’ (official source material), ‘shipping’ (supporting the notion of two characters being in a relationship) and the popular custom of creating portmanteaus to reflect said ships (‘Catradora’ being one example). Not to mention Stevenson’s still functional but woefully abandoned Tumblr blog, ‘Gingerhaze’, which serves as a portfolio of his early fanart, ranging from delightful sketches of the aforementioned Kirk/Spock and Korra to a full-on Lord of the Rings fan comic named Broship of the Ring. His wife, Ostertag, regularly produces her own Sam/Frodo slash fiction and art, which she publishes on AO3 and publicly broadcasts on a very active alternative Twitter account (@hobbitgay). Even Rebecca Sugar, five years older than the pair, apparently used to draw slightly NSFW Ed, Edd and Eddy slash fanart – though a lot of the evidence has been purged from the internet.
It’s interesting to gauge how far the showrunners’ previous involvement with fan culture has informed their relations with the fandoms of their own programmes. Sugar has in the past raised an erudite point about the habitually one-sided nature of a fan’s love for the artists they admire, citing Roland Barthes’ concept of ‘image-repertoire’ as a set of perceived realities a lover assigns to their beloved. “I really don’t want it to be a one-sided conversation,” she said. Referring to one particular episode, “Mindful Education”, she explained, “There was so much happening to the well-being of the characters, and also within the fan community. I wanted to respond to it through the show, and I wanted to do that by giving people a tool to process and calm extreme feelings.” Stevenson has also opened a more direct dialogue with fans, assuring the audience of her livestream of their genuine impact on production decisions. Regarding the possibility of a She-Ra movie, they said, “I don’t know how much sway you think you have, but people see what you’re saying, they’re paying attention, and if you are asking for more, I can’t emphasise this enough, you should always keep pushing.”
What happens, though, when the lines between slash and canon become blurred – when the authors of the canon themselves not only engage with but actively participate in their own fan communities? It’s one thing for Stevenson to remark that “the crew is the first fandom of the show,” or joke that “everything I say is canon,” but towards the end of the livestream, it was revealed that he had written and published a secret She-Ra fanfiction on AO3. It didn’t take long for eagle-eyed She-Ra fans to narrow down the potential candidates to Don’t Go, a short but intimate interaction between Catra and Adora following the traumatic events of the fifth episode of Season 5. It’s purely romantic of course – no smut here, folks – but the language they used to describe why they wrote it (“I had a lot of big feelings”) mirrors the sentiments of any regular fanfiction writer. The previously clear-cut relationship between fan and creator has been muddied: can fanfiction be canon if the show runner wrote it?
While the answer to that remains unclear, what we can gather is that, in Stevenson’s outright contribution to the fandom of his own show, she not only bestows upon fan culture an unprecedented kind of legitimacy, but reaches back to her roots to remind the younger queer generation that their voices can and do matter. That they too can go out and change the world whilst remaining true to their core identities and principles.
What’s even more promising in a way is that this isn’t the end of the story – Stevenson himself mentioned in a 2019 interview on the She-Ra: Progressive of Power podcast that they weren’t familiar with two of the defining social discussion platforms of today’s online landscape, TikTok and Discord. The show-runners of tomorrow are palpably looming within these systems. “What I really want to see,” Stevenson said in an interview with ComingSoon.net, “is the inspiration that people who watch this can take into the future to create new stories. Whether it’s fan works or whether it’s an original story, I want to see people act on that inspiration and keep these characters in their heart as they go forward.” Challenge accepted, Noelle.
To protect the legacies of fans and their content against commercial exploitation, please consider donating to the Organisation for Transformative Works, which offers safe spaces and support to fan communities in the form of legal advocacy, Archive Of Our Own (AO3), and the Fanlore wiki.
by Daisy Treloar
Daisy Treloar (she/her) is an “indecently” tall arts writer from London. She survives on a diet solely consisting of funky basslines, coming-of-age films, fantasy novels and indie platformers. Guilty pleasures include broadway musicals and 19th-century French oil painting. Find her at daisytreloar.com or @daisytreloar on Twitter, Instagram, Letterboxd, Goodreads, and GG; or alternatively crying in her room over cartoons.