The Revolutionary Power Of Fanfiction For Queer Youth

By Jane Hu

Adapted from Unsplash/Oliver Thomas Klein
Online fanfic communities remain a safe space for young, queer writers to gather and connect.

I f one considers Google autocomplete an accurate barometer of popular sentiment, it would seem fanfiction leaves much to be desired:

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Many people outside the fanfic realm wonder why people are compelled to spend their time writing stories about existing fiction…for no pay and an ostensibly tiny readership. But research suggests something quite different. It turns out that fanfic communities can do a lot of good for writers — especially young, queer ones. Fandoms combine the undeniably awesome power of fiction with the unflaggable support of a community; in fact, science says this heady amalgamation actually make writers happier and better adjusted.

It appears that a large majority of the online fanfic world is young and queer. A 2011 analysis of user profiles on Fanfiction.net found that the average user’s age is around 15, while popular fanfic site Archive of Our Own found in their informal 2013 census (AO3) that the average user’s age is 25. The AO3 census also found that only 38% of respondents identified as heterosexual, and more people identified as genderqueer than as male. (Both analyses have sampling issues that make it difficult to know how well their results capture the fanfic community at large, but they’re the only attempts that have been made to collect stats on who writes fanfic.)

Fanfic communities are often a safe place for young, queer writers to begin navigating their identity. “Sometimes, the online space is the only place they can be out,” says Kristina Busse, founding co-editor of Transformative Works and Cultures. “They are still negotiating what they want to be called — like what their pronouns are — and coming out as trans online allows them to explore that identity.”

Fanfic communities are often a safe place for young, queer writers to begin navigating their identity.

Fiction allows writers the space to simulate aspects of their own lives, to think through fraught issues, and to even “try on” different scenarios that could comprise their future. It’s a modern-day take on an ancient and essential impulse: imaginative play. It’s well known among psychologists that play is crucial for developing social and emotional skills; kids age 3 and 4 who spend more time pretending score better on social tests measuring how well they understand other people’s thoughts and beliefs. Other animals — kangaroos, rats, and even wasps — spend a significant amount of time playing, too. Play helps animals learn boundaries and rules in their environments, and test those boundaries with fewer consequences.

For writers, fanfiction allows for a low-risk way to experiment with characters, scenarios, and dialogue. “[Young writers] often write stories about bullying or not being popular, and about dealing with things like sexuality,” says Rebecca Black (“not the singer,” as her Skype username specifies), an associate professor at University of California at Irvine who has studied adolescents’ participation in fanfiction communities. In the course of her research, Black vividly remembers coming across one story from a young gay man who wrote what the fanfic communities call slash stories — stories that center around a gay relationship. “He hadn’t come out, and fanfic was a space where he was using the characters to work through those issues,” Black recalls.

Both Black and Busse say many writers are explicit about using their work to think through scenarios from their own lives. “This isn’t just me psychoanalyzing them,” says Busse. “[Writers] would say, ‘I want this person to go through the same things I’m going through.’” Some writers even place themselves directly into stories, imagining what they would do if they met their favorite characters and were confronted with solving problems from their universe.

This type of exercise can be both socially and psychologically beneficial for writers. While there haven’t been studies directly addressing the link between fanfic and these social skills, there’s no reason to believe that reading and writing in fanfic communities would be any different from reading other forms of fiction. Research on reading fiction finds that readers may have increased empathy in addition to theory of mind, which is described as the ability to account for others’ thoughts and beliefs.

Research on reading fiction finds that readers may have increased empathy.

At first, researchers thought maybe the causality went the other way — that perhaps more empathetic people are just drawn to reading fiction — but the results hold up even if you control for people’s personalities, suggesting fiction could be responsible for those improved social skills. And there was no link between reading fiction and improvement in a non-social skill — intuitive physics understanding — which further suggests there’s something about fiction that encourages people to think about relating with others. Researchers theorize this may be because fiction requires us to engage with a world that mimics our own — offering a rich tapestry of people, emotions, beliefs, and relationships to negotiate.

And writers engage with those elements of the story in a surprisingly realistic way. Psychologist Jennifer Barnes argues that just as kids connect with their imaginary friends, writers develop strong bonds with their fanfic characters. Even though they’re not real, fans feel like they know them. Researchers call these one-sided bonds “parasocial relationships” — the same type of relationship we have with celebrities or Twitter personalities. While there has not yet been explicit research about fanfiction writers’ parasocial relationships, other studies suggest these relationships can improve people’s motivation to achieve their “ideal self.”

Beyond parasocial relationships with characters, the fanfic community also offers support from fellow fans. Black says that when the young man she encountered told his community that he was going through the same issues that appeared in his fiction, readers were incredibly receptive to his struggles. “The outpouring of support he got through older kids giving him support and advice were really helpful,” Black says.

It’s this community that encourages fans to keep writing. “It’s the most important part,” says Busse. The community offers feedback on stories — in fact, many participants in fandoms are not writers, but rather avid consumers of fanfic who post thoughtful critiques and enthusiastic praise. Fanfic communities offer a network of people who share a mutual understanding, even if not mutual lifestyles or backgrounds.

“For us, slash fandom has become a place where a young urban dyke shares erotic space with a straight married mom in the American heartland, and where women whose identity markers suggest they would find few points of agreement have forged erotic, emotional, and political alliances,” wrote Busse with co-authors Alexis Lothian and Robin Anne Reid in a paper on slash fanfiction as a queer female space.

The Internet, especially, has made it easier than ever to form those connections. Before the web, fans mailed out zines or got together in person to share work, but there’s a forum for practically every kind of interest online. From large, popular fandoms like Harry Potter, Star Trek, and Twilight to more niche interests — NASCAR fanfic, Goodnight Moon fanfic, even stories imagining Flo (from those Progressive insurance commercials) getting with Mayhem, the All State insurance guy — every fan can find their crowd.

And just being part of a group can improve people’s social lives and happiness. Research about online communities suggests that — like other social web activity — participating in fandoms can develop perspective-taking skills in young people, decrease people’s feelings of depression and loneliness, and improve psychological well-being (especially in people with low self-esteem).

Just being part of a group can improve people’s social lives and happiness.

Over the years, fans have taken these friendships from the virtual realm into their daily lives. Busse says she’s seen a lot of strong relationships forged in fanfic communities. Some fans “move to a new city, looking for a place to live, and become roommates; sometimes three to four fangirls end up living together.” For others, online friendships develop into life-long bonds: “There are fan-met couples — they moved to another country for their girlfriend, then got married.”

We should be striving to create more safe spaces for young, queer writers to feel welcome, but until that happens, online fanfiction communities will remain a safe space for them to gather and connect. So perhaps it’s time we change our tune about how we view fanfic, and its role in young people’s lives. For starters, Google’s search suggestions could say instead: “fanfiction is art,” “fanfiction is inclusive,” “fanfiction is good for you.”

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