Fanfiction and Women’s Empowerment

Who hasn’t wished at least once in their lives to be able to rewrite that Cinderella scene and point out to Prince Charming that he should ask her name before trying to kiss her? Or who wouldn’t wish they could change the ending to their favourite TV show? Fleabag, I am looking at you. As it turns out, you actually can. Not only that, but you can try to make the world a better place in the process. How? Fanfiction.

In her book Why Fan Fiction is Taking Over the World, Anne Jamison defines fanfiction as: “writing that continues, interrupts, reimagines, or just riffs on stories and characters other people have already written about”. These could be stories found in books, films, tv shows, comics and music bands. Writing fanfiction is not the only way of producing fanart though: many reimagine and alter their favourite stories using drawings or other visual means, creating the wider world of fandom.

Even though fanfiction can be traced back to the late 60s and Star Trek, it is thanks to the internet that the phenomenon has spread and has taken the connotation we know today. Unfortunately, many still consider fanfiction to be the past time of obsessed teenagers with too much time on their hands, instead of a cultural phenomenon worth studying and with major potential to foster positive cultural change. It’s also an inexpensive way to test and improve one’s creative skills which could turn into a lucrative profession: E.L. James, author of Fifty Shades, started her career by writing Twilight fanfiction. And even though some of you might be raising your eyebrows at both of those examples, don’t forget James now has an estimated net worth of $150 million dollars. Not bad huh?

On the other hand, many are trying to reclaim the cultural significance of fanfiction, analysing it with a serious approach. This is the case of the Journal of Fandom Studies, Fan Studies Network and University’s degrees. In Italy, an association called fanheart3 examines the phenomenon and has even attracted the attention of the prestigious International Venice Film Festival, securing in 2019 the creation of a collateral award assigned to movies that have the potential to become relevant to fan culture.

An image of one of the panels from ficsIT 2019, the first Italian convention on fanfiction, organised by Fanheart3 association. Credit: Fanheart3

I sat down (well, at least I assume we were all sitting behind our screens) with some fanfiction experts, Agnese, Francesca, Sara and Susanna, to discuss fanfiction and in particular their relevance for female empowerment.

We have explained what fanfictions are, but what do they talk about? What are some of the themes explored in fanfiction?

Agnese Pietrobon (president of the cultural association fanheart3, drawn from her own experience as a researcher to shed a light on this complex universe): “For my master’s degree, I worked on a research about fanfiction and I had to pick stories at random from relevant fanfiction archives to analyse their contents and structure. It was an exciting but scaring (and scarring!) experience. You can literally find everything in fanfiction: from the classic literary genres (romantic stories, dramas, humorous works) to contents that are fanfic-specific in a surprisingly innovative way (the most well-known example is probably the Omega Verse), to very dark works that address themes such as rape, torture and perversions.”

“As happens in any creative writing, even if sometimes these topics are discussed just for the sake of shocking the readers, in many cases they are a way for the writers to face internal demons or fears, to explore worlds that we could never safely face in other ways and sometimes even to open up their readers’ eyes to something that is not well known, such as asexuality or anxiety or specific social problems.”

Taking the example of recent fanfictions based on The Mandalorian’s character of Din Djarin, Agnese explains that, “Most of the time fanfictions focus on relationships and psychological dynamics. There can be entire stories that are just an exploration of an internal battle that a character is facing. And stories where the plot is just the excuse to put two characters in the same space and make them interact with each other.”

Francesca Bufera is a new media researcher, writer, and critic, who echoes Agnese’s words: “The beauty of fanfictions is that they can explore any theme! Whether they are written by men or women, the key words remain creative freedom; a sort of safe space where one can explore their preferred themes. Because of their nature, fanfictions also offer a space where to exchange and share points of view amongst the members of this community”.

It’s interesting to note that, most of the time, the main characters in fanfictions are not women, though according to data, the community of fanfic writers and readers is mostly made up of women who, as Francesca said, can find a safe space to create and explore.

So, how can fanfiction be a way to empower women?

Sara Ferrari, Gender and Media Studies scholar, thinks the empowerment comes from “Women being the ones holding the pen and sharing affective artefacts outside of capitalist logic.”

Nonetheless, Sara points out that fanfictions are not always an idyllic place free of sexism, though she still argues that fanfiction is freeing for women: “It’s because it’s a rare space where women command the narrative, where they can process their traumas and daily negotiations of power removed from the clumsy intercession of a cisstraight male storyteller, where they govern their pleasure and share it shamelessly with other women. It’s galvanizing to feel seen and welcomed by a story. It’s empowering, the act of manipulating for yourself, the reclaiming of a canon that evoked emotions that mattered, the pooling of discourses around desire.”

As Francesca puts it, fanfictions can become a place of self-reflection and almost therapeutical analysis, away from the male gaze. A place where to explore a female point of view on the world and, especially, on the media. For example, according to a research on the use and creation of online sexually explicit materials including fandom-related works, almost 60% of men and 86% of women said they had read sexually explicit fanfic and over 30% of users identified as members of the LGBTQ+ community. It is possible that sexual and romantic relationships less represented on mainstream media find a safe space to exist within the realm of fanfiction.

Fanheart3 founders and fanheart3 awards 2019 jury with actor Toby Wallace, winner of the Silver Ship, together with Eliza Scanlen. Credit: Fanheart3

Maybe because I am a hopeless romantic and I believe in the power of people to influence the world for the better (how cheesy!), I’ve always been interested in the relationship between those making films (directors, screenwriters, producers and so on) and those enjoying those products. In other words: the fans. This relationship and its power dynamic have certainly evolved through time but I do believe fans have nowadays some -or much- influence on the content of certain TV and film productions. Let’s think for example of the numerous outcries from Marvel fans to have a queer character finally represented on screen or social media hashtag campaigns getting more and more traction (I am thinking of #GetElsaAGirlfriend).

How is the industry adapting to this phenomenon? Do they listen to their fan-base?

“Especially in the USA, feedback from the public is taken in high consideration by the media, but also authors”, explains Francesca. “Bryan Fuller, author of the series Hannibal, stated that the public had understood the relationship between the two leading characters better than him, motivating him to explore that relationship in a romantic sense as well.”

Regarding female characters, Francesca thinks that there has definitely been an improvement both in terms of quality and of quantity: “If we want to use the Bechdel test (does the film have at least two clearly defined female characters? Do these characters have a conversation during the film? And is this conversation on something other than men?), up until the early 2000s it was rare to find a blockbuster saga that passed the test -both the original Star Wars saga and the trilogy of Back to the Future do not pass this test – while nowadays pretty much all do.

“Sometimes though, productions wanting to please everyone end up with weak and incoherent storytelling, as it happened with the new Star Wars films”, concludes Francesca.

“The industry tries to serve itself first and, in an effort to do so, some franchises definitely fan serve”, adds Sara, though she thinks that when fans cry for meaningful change toward diversity, “the way the industry tries to adapt to newly vocal demographics is often to find creative routes to get away with doing the bare minimum to get that sweet engagement, then drop the ball. Part of it is capitalist strategy: neoliberal feminism, rainbow capitalism… Part of it speaks to the type of people that still get to make most of the decisions”. But not all is lost, and Sara mentions films like Netflix original The Old Guard, which she considers a win for women and queer people who love that genre (I definitely recommend that film) and encourages better support towards independent artists and voices.

The fanheart3 awards were amongst the Venice Film Festival collateral awards and a tree adoption was the prize: an important nod to sustainability. Credit: Fanheart3

Not only the film industry is taking notice of fan communities, but film festivals too. As already mentioned, the Venice Film Festival has added the Fanheart3 Awards to its list of collateral awards, which are assigned to films presented at the festival each year. Susanna Norbiato, founding partner of Fanheart3 association, explains why it’s significant that an international festival like Venice has endorsed the creation of an award dedicated to fans:

“The Venice Film Festival, under the direction of Alberto Barbera, has been characterised by the choice of films that have both an unquestionable artistic value and are aligned with the tastes of the general public. Movies like Birdman, The Shape of Water, Three Billboard Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Joker, all presented in Venice, well represent products that are typical festival material while also being suitable for the wider distribution. In this context, the Fanheart3 Awards show the Festival’s intention to widen its horizons, while maintaining a quest for quality. The Award is an important step towards dismantling the wall between traditional cinematic standards and more pop content, allowing the public to look at the film selection with a different eye”.

I switch off the Zoom call and, while sipping my black tea, I can’t help but think about the power of communities. Communities of women (and others) creating and freely sharing content to explore desires, taboos or simply something they cannot find portrayed on mainstream media. Underrepresented communities that are able to find their own voices without judgement. Or communities of people who love storytelling and cannot resist lingering on a universe a little bit longer or a little bit deeper. Communities of storytellers who listen, challenge believes and make the world, even if just the virtual one, a more inclusive place. See? My cheesy self was right after all. Or maybe, at the end of the day, I’m just a fan.

by Serena Cecchinato

Serena was born in Venice, Italy and now lives in London. She is passionate about filmmaking and storytelling, and takes pizza extremely seriously. Her favourite films include The Lord of The Rings trilogy, Practical Magic and Notting Hill. In life, Serena aspires to be like Sandra Bullock’s character in Miss Congeniality! You can find her on Instagram.

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