Friday, May 24, 2024

Femslash, Canon, and Fannish Strength

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If I haven’t already outed myself as a “fandom old” with the title, I’m about to right now: There was a point within the last 10 years when femslash was such a minority and so frequently dismissed by het and boyslash fans alike that ship wars within F/F fandom were actually rare. Likewise, femslash’s demographic was unique. It was mostly populated by queer women, whereas both M/M and M/F were populated by predominantly straight women.

As a result of the dynamics mentioned above, you had a lot of overlap between femslash ships, even within fandoms for a single show. People got along, and often multishipped, because 1) OMG more than two girls?? 2) social media hadn’t become the haven for trollish behavior that it is today, and 3) there was minimal investment in seeing their readings of the text reflected onscreen.

To a degree, the absence of queer women was just assumed. Sometimes, femslashers themselves could be the most skeptical of whether or not subtext between two characters was intentional. The likelihood of seeing queer stories made explicit “in-text” was very low, outside of spaces specifically labeled “LGBT” (and if you wanted to market your work as anything other than “LGBT,” including openly gay characters and plots could be a tough sell). Other fans made a point of reminding femslashers of this fact, as well. Both M/M and M/F shippers regularly used phrases like “It’ll never be canon!” to dismiss femslash fandom as a whole and individual ships whenever they ran into reminders that they existed.

As if we needed the reminder, fifteen years ago Buffy was getting ready to wrap up, and they’d shown one of the first lesbian sex scenes on broadcast television (Willow and Kennedy in “Touched”)—in 2003. Queer storylines that centered on women were still so few and far between that there were, essentially, treasured lists of books, movies, and other works, many of which were decades old by the time they were posted on the internet, and new additions were not the kind of regular roundups that you see on Autostraddle (sometimes not even monthly).

“It’ll never be canon” was a way of saying that femslash shippers were delusional. In saying this, primarily-straight fans flaunted the fact that straight relationships and normative readings of a text are privileged, male characters are more valued by creators and fans alike, and that F/F shippers (usually queer women) were completely alone in seeing what they saw—what they saw being their own experiences. All super classy things for straight people to say to queer people.

And how did femslash fandom deal with that?

They dealt with it by shrugging and going, “So what?”

So what? I know my experiences.

So what? It was never about “becoming canon” anyways. “Becoming canon” was an invention of M/F and M/M shippers looking to invalidate and humiliate people who had a different reading of a text than they did. All things considered, that was rather ironic.

Because at first? Creators were rather negative about fandom as a whole, especially ships. Some were blatantly antagonistic about it; some were more diplomatic. Depending on the creator, they might bully fans, post screeds on their blogs, threaten to sue them, or actually sue them. So for a long time, it was pretty taboo in fandom to ask creators about ships at all.

And then shows and networks decided they wanted to make money off fandom, so they came to cons, and they set up Twitter accounts—and suddenly, fans could get the illusion of attention from the people involved in creating the media they’d formed communities around.

After a while, creators caught on that they could get a lot of mileage out of affirming the idea that “people can get a lot of different things” out of their creations, especially when it came to questions about a character’s sexual orientation. The default answer when asked about ships shifted from, “That makes me really uncomfortable, please don’t ask me that” to, “Sure, if you see it.”

I can’t overstate how important that moment was to fandom. And, when it happened for femslash fandom? It hit even harder. Because it’s true: Representation matters. Affirmation matters. And when it’s so rare, it’s electrifying, it’s heady.

So heady that we sometimes lose sight of the bigger picture: “Canon” is only one goal. But it’s not the only one in fandom. And the idea of “becoming canon” has been used primarily by fans looking for a way to invalidate other ships, or to counter accusations like “you’re delusional.” They want to win an online argument, so they appeal to the “authority”—the creators of canon.

For a long time, all of fandom was told, “You’re deluded/crazy for thinking the story could ever be the way you say it is. You’re wrong”. Quite often this came from creators themselves, or trolls who positioned themselves as defending creators’ rights. As a result, fandom spent a long time arguing that it wasn’t about being right or wrong; it wasn’t about disrespecting the author’s vision. It was about enjoyment. It was about possibility. It was about transformation.

To now see F/F fandoms deride people within them for being “wrong” or “delusional” for interpreting characters, ships, or canon events “incorrectly” isn’t just ironic. It’s hypocritical. Seeing them appeal to canon, which has never been on their side, in order to do it? Is mind-boggling. Seeing femslashers mobilize the very insults that were used against them to tear down other fans—including femslashers—is at once heartbreaking and worrying.

Let’s be clear about one thing: If they’re “delusional,” then so are the rest of us. Fan theories are always just that, no matter if they turn out to have been correct predictions in the end. We are all “wrong.” And the evaluation of an idea’s worth by its closeness to canonicity (and the equation of widespread popularity with “it should be canon”) puts the power in this arrangement squarely back in the hands of an establishment whose main concern is making money, not necessarily the well-being of the communities it “represents.”

Representation matters. To normalizing the idea that gay people exist to queer teens and adults who have often had to read themselves into a story between the lines. However, it is dangerous—as fans—to move into a mentality where we are solely dependent on professional, mass media creators to find stories about ourselves. To so completely invest in the message we want to send to others that we forget the fact that we have power, in our fandom spaces, and it is not dependent on our ability to make the stories we want to see happen onscreen. We have the ability, even in the face of real resistance from exploitative networks, hostile political and cultural dynamics, and even legal action from homophobic creators, to affirm our own stories and experiences.

With the focus on convincing creators that “we need representation,” that history is in danger of being forgotten—and to our detriment, if the Powers That Be ever decide that they don’t need to be concerned with F/F fandom, or fandom in general. We forget what we’re capable of. We forget what the people who came before us were able to achieve. We wait and watch and hope for something that… may never come, and even if it does, it may be foreshortened or unsatisfying. We start to think we are dependent on others for permission to see ourselves, to write about ourselves, to claim our own readings of a text.

We need to be able to articulate our own perspectives, and our own deep and varied interactions with “canon” texts, to believe in our own existence enough to put it down on paper, understanding that we may not get affirmation or validation from anyone else. That is not a thing we can afford to lose our capacity for, even if we’re pressing forward on other fronts.

Fandom’s power has not historically been swaying the opinions of creators to have their ideas “legitimized” and recognized. Fandom has spent most of the past half-century facing “cease and desist” orders, lawsuits, DMCA takedowns (as of the turn of the millennium), and accusations of defamation for daring to imagine a character might be gay. However, ship lobbying on Twitter did not convince media creators that they’d profit more by listening to their fans. Tireless legal work by affected fans, organizations like the Organization for Transformative Works—and very importantly, other parties negatively impacted by legislation like the DMCA—created a space for this shift to occur.

But fandom as the indefinite mass of people who gather around a piece of media to share their enjoyment of it? Tell stories about it? Spin legends out of it?

That fandom’s real strength has always been its ability to not care about whether or not the establishment thinks it’s legitimate; to give the middle finger to canonicity. To persist, adapt, color outside the lines, and above all to not be held captive by the mandates of media creators, who at any given moment may be very hostile to the people who find community and solace in the works they create.

Don’t reinstall those same people as gatekeepers of your imaginations—political, cultural, or artistic—all over again.

Featured Image Courtesy of the CW

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