Female Gaze and Imagination
"My advice to any heartbroken young girl is to pay close attention to the study of theoretical physics, because one day there may well be proof of multiple universes. It would not be beyond the realms of possibility that somewhere outside of our own universe lies another different universe. And in that universe, Zayn is still in One Direction. This girl [in the audience] may like to know that in another possible universe, she and Zayn are happily married.”
That’s actually Stephen Hawking. No seriously, I am not kidding. But since theoretical physics is yet to prove the existence of such a universe, let me ask you to pay close attention to the study of Wattpad. Teenage girls create alternate universes every day where the synonymous ‘Y/N’ is married to Zayn, who is still in One Direction. These universes exist in the digital archives of fanfictions on platforms like Wattpad, Archive of Our Own, Fanfiction.net, etc. I refer to teenage girls specifically because they dominate this genre of writing. Fanfictions are criminally underrated when it comes to analysing literary endeavours of women. They are barely considered literature to begin with in the mainstream media and are often relegated to genres like slash fiction, erotica, etc. We never stop to think about how millions of women across the globe are disguising in bits and pieces of themselves, their lives and their perception of the world into ‘ships’ and ‘imagines’ every single day.
Fanfictions embody the transformative aspect of fandoms. It has been observed that most fandoms dominated by men tend to be curative or more inclined towards putting together a collection of paraphernalia associated with their favourite songs, movies, actors, artists, shows, etc. Women-dominated fandoms at the same time, while being curative, are also heavily inclined towards the transformative aspect. This involves moulding the original narratives or real-life accounts in a creative and meaningful way by writing fanfictions, making fancams, fanedits, etc. These alternate narratives not only explore a fun ‘what-if’ side of the reality or the original narratives but also the way one’s identity and lived experiences transform the existing narratives. One of the reasons why women-dominated fandoms are increasingly transformative is because popular media heavily caters to the cis-het white male interests, barely leaving room for material women can relate to. Even the female-gaze in media is constructed in terms of binaries – something opposite of the male gaze or as a by-product of the same.
Platforms like Wattpad and AO3 provide spaces for experimentation and expression, free from the judgemental bounds of what constitutes as palatable for the majority of readers. Publishing industry, like any other form of media, is heavily governed by consumerist considerations. The largely male-dominated publication industry decides the rubrics of what counts as worthy of publication and what doesn’t. Fanfiction platforms, on the other hand, are free from the strict scrutiny of publication houses and establish a direct connection between the writer and the reader. Thus, we have a multiplicity of communities of women and queer individuals reading and writing together, and sharing their lived realities in due course.
The ‘imagines’ genre of fanfiction is a prominent example of how fanfictions help establish connections between the lived experience of the writer and the reader, and the shared narrative employed. These fanfictions offer an avenue for considerable degree of personalisation by allowing the reader to step into the shoes of the protagonist. Writers do so by replacing the possible name for a protagonist with Y/N which stands for ‘your name’. In this way, imagines constitute a unique method of connecting with your cherished show, movie, artist, etc., and also personalising bits and pieces of the author’s world-view.
Millicent Lovelock in her Master’s thesis You & I: One Direction, Fans and the Co-Construction of Identity, explores how fanfictions provide avenues for not only self-expression and acquiring a sense of connection but also navigating one’s own identity. Lovelock explores how a lot of homoerotic and slash fiction consciously or unconsciously aims at subverting the heterosexual binary one has to struggle with in real-life. Fanfic platforms guarantee both anonymity and audience – making it possible for queer individuals to feel safe and heard at the same time, thus guaranteeing a space for exploration and expression.
Despite the safety and anonymity platforms like Wattpad, AO3, etc., guarantee, authors do not always extend the same to the subject of their work – especially when the work is centred around a real person. For instance, one of the episodes of Season One of HBO’s Euphoria featured a short scene on a fanfiction writer who particularly wrote Larry Stylinson (ship name for Louis Tomlinson and Harry Styles) fanfics. The scene featured explicit animated scenes centred around the two artists and garnered severe backlash. Louis Tomlinson also took to Twitter to state that he had not consented to the scene and was deeply unsettled by it.