Fanfiction Made Me a Better Feminist

I write about gay relationships between fictional characters. Here’s why other women should take that seriously.

My best writing, the stuff I’m most proud of, is also the writing that makes me the most ashamed. It shouldn’t have to be that way.

I’ve been a writer since I knew what the word meant: poems and short stories and unfinished novels litter first notebooks, then hard drives into my young adulthood. I’ve got bona fides to spare: half an MFA in creative writing, published poetry in my twenties, essays and book reviews on my CV.

But I didn’t find my creative voice until recently, when I started working in the least respected genre imaginable: fanfiction. Specifically, slash fiction — erotic stories about same-sex fictional characters. My slash of choice is Dean Winchester and Castiel, Angel of the Lord, from the TV show Supernatural, a pairing referred to in fandom by the handy portmanteau “Destiel.” In fandom parlance, I “ship Destiel”: in my stories, Dean and Castiel fall in love over and over again. Sometimes, their romance takes place in the world of the show, but often it’s set in alternate worlds where they’re firefighters or teachers or high school kids, baristas or bartenders or bakers. Wherever they are, whoever they are, they end up together, and often have explicit sex along the way.

I started posting my fic on fan-run site Archive of Our Own (AO3) in September 2013; since then, I’ve posted over 100,000 words under the pseudonym Amelia_Clark, earning a respectable following. That’s a book’s worth of stories, the best creative work I’ve ever done, and the work with the most enthusiastic audience. Serial fiction, of which fic is the most common modern form, has the advantage of immediate feedback; I write, I revise, I send it to my beta (i.e., editor), I revise again — and then it’s posted out in the world, and friends and strangers tell me what they liked about it. This is invaluable for a writer. To be told “I love your work” or “this is perfection” or “your writing is so beautiful” has made me write more — and write better — than ever before. It’s given me confidence in my professional work, made me more willing to pitch paid work to editors. I am so, so proud of my fic.

And also ashamed. Because fic, especially erotica, is an easy cultural punchline, and for many, the stories that have finally made me feel like a real writer mark me out as exactly the opposite. This casual dismissal matters; the majority of fic readers and writers are women and other marginalized genders (more AO3 users identify as genderqueer than male), many of whom have no voice in mainstream writing. But though fic-shaming is linked to misogyny, it’s a little-known issue outside of fandom culture. Even good feminists roll their eyes at rabid fangirls like me.

A million Tumblr users and I could make the case for Dean and Castiel being totally in love (their lingering gazes alone are a strong argument). But their creators seem unlikely to make their relationship unambiguously romantic. So that’s what I’ve done over the past year or so: followed through on the subtext. Most of my work is set within canon — scenes from the show where there could have been an admission or a declaration or some smoochin’ or rippin’ off of clothes. For me, the purpose of fic is primarily corrective, and often cathartic — if an episode makes me angry, I rewrite it, or tack on a coda that fixes things. I’ve got literary precedent to back me up in this — William Thackeray was so pissed off by the ending of Ivanhoe that he wrote a new ending where Ivanhoe ended up with the right girl. I think it’s an impulse most people can recognize, especially writers and other artists — the knee-jerk nooo, that wasn’t supposed to happen that leads to daydreaming how things should have gone. My other genre, alternate universe (AU) fic, might seem stranger — it involves taking the characters from the show and weaving them into a different world so that they are still recognizably them — but actually, it should be familiar to other writers, too. The BBC’s Sherlock, for instance, is AU fanfiction set in the modern era; the setting has changed, but Holmes and Watson are still reminiscent of Doyle’s characters. Or think of all the retellings of fairytales out there, from Angela Carter’s dark, revisionist The Bloody Chamber to network TV’s Grimm and Once Upon a Time.

So slash, and its “legitimate” relatives, can be a correction or an expansion on the beloved text. But I also see slash as subversion, a way to fight the relentless heteronormativity of the culture that permeates its art. The producers, writers, and actors involved with Supernatural are happy to wink at fanfiction — an episode from the current season, actually called “Fan Fiction,” featured Dean’s flustered discovery of Destiel shipping — because this behavior gets ratings from fans and cements their loyalty. But they sidestep questions about slash fiction and the show’s romantic overtones, or outright deny it all. Jensen Ackles, who plays Dean, claims that he and Castiel “don’t play [their characters] that way.” Bless his heart.

Because of this, then, slash is corrective not only to the show but to the attitudes that produce it. When I write story upon story that allows Dean and Castiel to express their implicit love for each other, I’m fighting back against an official record that refuses. I’m aware that I’m not writing “authentic” male/male sex — I can’t, as a woman — but the audience I write for is also mostly women, and we know what we like.

I won’t attempt here to defend the entire concept of fic; it’s been done, and done well, by other writers and academics. I’m particularly fond of Anne Jamison’s excellent anthology Fic, which examines fanfiction from multiple angles — community, sexuality, history, technology, controversy — while treating it with good humor and respect.

But despite the existence of classes and degrees in fandom studies, despite serious critical analysis, despite the fact that it’s read and enjoyed by so many, fic remains a joke in mainstream journalism. There’s no excuse for this. A single article by Gavia Baker-Whitlaw and Aja Romano on the Daily Dot (“A guide to fanfiction for people who can’t stop getting it wrong”) contains all the background needed to write an intelligent, courteous piece on the subject.

And yet we still get Benedict Cumberbatch (whose Sherlock and sidekick Watson are the second most reblogged ship on Tumblr after Destiel) joining the editor-in-chief of Out in a good sneer at “rapacious slash” fans — how the genre’s all about adolescent sexuality, a way of “neutralizing the threat” of other women being involved with the male characters they adore. Cumberbatch is a white, straight man, as are most media creators; when these men say contemptuous things about their own fans, fans so emotionally invested in the world they’ve created that they hunger for more, it matters.

Because fic often includes smut (I have at this point written more blow jobs than I have given in real life), laughing at it means you’re laughing at female sexual desire. Sometimes even feminists like to get in on the joke. Influential British feminist Caitlin Moran famously goaded Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman (who plays Watson) into reading explicit fic out loud for a crowd, and it apparently never crossed her mind that she was literally holding up another woman’s erotic imagination for public ridicule.

So this is where I end up: a fic writer in a culture that stereotypes me and my readers as either silly teenage girls or sexually frustrated housewives. And despite the blatant misogyny of these portrayals, I’d wager many feminists outside fandom find me a little embarrassing, unworthy of defense.

But it’s not hard to picture feminism with room for Destiel (or Johnlock, or Sterek) — because I see it every day. The friends I’ve made within fandom are all fiercely feminist, and intersectional in a way that’s expanded my own feminist experience: I had never met a genderqueer person before I started writing fic, and many if not most of my Tumblr acquaintances identify as bi- or pansexual. I’d theorize that the frank sexuality portrayed in fic has something to do with its attracting non-hetero folks; it’s far easier to find sex scenes tailored to your orientation in fic than in mainstream publishing.

So why, then, isn’t fic-shaming regarded widely as a feminist issue? To be honest, I think the greatest hurdle is awareness. If someone’s only exposure to fic is as a joke or flipping through Fifty Shades of Grey, they’re likely to look at it askance — and in the latter case, assume that most fic is poorly written. (Some of it is. That’s how literary genres work. Some of it is incredible.)

You don’t have to read fic in order to defend it. Once you understand where it comes from and who’s participating in that world, though? I think you’ll want to.

And then I can stop being ashamed.