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.
In one of the interviews, when asked about her thoughts on the ethical considerations surrounding the scene, Barbie Ferreira, who plays Kat or the fanfiction writer in Euphoria, stated that, “The show reflects reality in a way that gets people uncomfortable….I was in the fandom. I was fully aware of Larry Stylinson to the point where it was trending everyday and it was something that was so spoken of that it had a cultural impact, which I think was definitely topical.”
This statement is testament to the fact that excessive use of certain tropes in fanfictions end up creating narratives that overpower the reality and overrule the comfort and consent of the individuals involved. The cultural impact of Larry Stylinson is a complicated territory. While the conspiracy that the two band members dated briefly and eventually ended up being star-crossed lovers given their management’s homophobia gives many closeted queer individuals a narrative to relate with, it totally neglects the consent, privacy and opinion of both Harry and Louis. As a result, Larry Stylinson fics end up creating a relatable and comforting narrative for some and an invasive conspiracy for others.
Another example of the invasive nature of fanfictions is one of the most well-known One Direction fic – the After series by Anna Todd, which has not only been published but also made into a movie franchise. Although the names of the band-members were changed upon publication, the fanfic remains controversial for its hypersexualisation of Harry Styles, who was barely an adult at the time. The ethical boundaries concerning Real-Person Fanfictions on platforms like Wattpad thus remain flimsy, defeating the purpose of community-feeling and safety these spaces are expected to guarantee.
At the same time, using ‘Wattpad’ and ‘AO3’ as synonyms for platforms associated with merely erotic fiction is highly reductive, for there’s much more to fanfictions than non-consensual hypersexualisation of real-life artists. These synonyms are not self-generating. They are manufactured in the light of the excessive spotlight lent to erotic fiction associated with these platforms by the mainstream media. Series such as After, The Kissing Booth, and Fifty Shades of Grey started as unassuming fanfictions, which were cherry-picked and highlighted in the mainstream print and television media as the flag bearers of fanfiction. There seems to be a trend towards cherry-picking a particular genre of literature from Wattpad and turning it into mainstream productions. This in turn, discredits the validity and authenticity of any other unproblematic work that may exist on the same platform.
Fanfictions, despite their shortcomings, constitute a corpus of writing, mainly from women and queer individuals and are worthy of valuable analysis. If one were to compare the Wattpad version of a story with its published version, one would find that many hints and traces of self-expression are glossed over or subdued, giving the narrative a very mechanical or detached character. Fanfics walk the thin line between use and abuse, and demand a certain degree of regulation in order to make the space safer and more inclusive.
Editors: Maddy Manning-Bi, Megan Lin, Lydia Lee, Cathay Lau