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Gender Identity in Transformative Fandoms: Some Initial Results

I am currently immersed in the unique hell that is securing a PhD. Past the hurdle of candidacy; ploughing straight on towards the trauma that is a dissertation. The one (small) silver lining is that I get to write about something I'm actually, truly obsessed with: fanfiction. More specifically, the Coffee Shop AU.

Teasing out this massive genre----or trope, depending on who you ask----isn't the easiest of tasks, but it sure as hell is fun. I get to trace the Coffee Shop's overt connections to the Hollywood romantic comedy, 19th century courtship novels, and Shakespeare's comedies, all while teasing out what changes when the prominent "woman's voice" is filtered through slash instead. I get to research the commercialization of coffee and the epic rise of Starbucks, unpacking how Millennial/Gen Z social values (and jokes) worm their way into these settings. Interested in how fans negotiate characterization when those characters leave their traumatizing lives filled with fantasy and wonder for a normal, boring coffee shop? How first kisses are described with the languid detail that curls our toes without quite crossing into the dreaded purple prose? What about the recent call for realism in the genre ("Who the hell likes being a barista?!") and how it mirrors many queer folks' desire for non-sexualized LGBTQIA spaces----exactly like coffee shops?

There's a whole lot going on here and I'm excited to tackle all of it. One tiny portion though concerns the question of authorship. No matter how much work has already been done on fic as a sociological phenomenon, no matter how much I want to tackle the text as text, worthy of both distant and close reading, it's simply impossible to disconnect fanfiction from the community it was written in. Thus, part of my work concerns parsing out who is writing fic and, just as important, who's reading, drawing, viding, chatting, and otherwise informing the development of those stories. Over the years academic and fandom circles alike have worked under the assumption that fic is a woman's medium. It's written by, for, and (despite what all the slash might imply) about women, and for the last few decades that assumption has seemed to hold true. But with the recent acceptance(ish) of various gender identities here in the U.S., things have gotten a lot more complicated.

Now this isn't to say that non-binary, gender queer, transgender, and agender individuals suddenly sprung into existence a few years back. Of course not. They've always been around and, presumably, they've always been helping us write and consume fic. It's just that now these terms have made their way into mainstream culture and we're cultivating spaces, including fandom spaces, where people feel safe enough to come out if they so choose. I no longer feel comfortable calling fanfiction "women's" work and I don't want to claim as much in my dissertation because, quite simply, there are a whole lot of people writing it who just don't identify as women. The question is, how many?

So I decided to start a survey. It's admittedly an informal thing. My training isn't in any form of statistics and I will, of course, be very clear about all the potential pitfalls of this experiment. The wording of my questions. The specific websites where it's been circulating (mostly tumblr). The currently small study population. But I think that's okay. This is far from the foundation of my research and ultimately I'm not looking to prove anything about transformative fans' gender identity. Any supposedly definite conclusions you come to are bound to be proven false because fandom communities are always far more diverse and far more complicated than we tend to think they are. All I'm looking to do is undermine the assumption we've been working under for the last three decades, and I think this data is starting to do that.

I'm hoping this survey continues to travel in the coming months, collecting more data as it goes, so until then I'll just be considering the first 100 responses. (Also because, you know, SurveyMonkey charges you past the first 100 and I'm not shelling that out until absolutely necessary). Though small, this data is, academically speaking, really stupidly interesting.

Out of these 100 responders 66 of them write or have written fanfiction in some capacity: in the past, occasionally, rarely, once, or all the damn time. In contrast, 99 say that they read fic (that's a whole lot of people who should be commenting :D), and that's basically the dynamic that I would expect from a website with so many strong, fandom communities attached to it. You almost always have more people consuming a product than creating it.

More interestingly, out of all those readers and writers 42 say that they have publicly transitioned and/or changed some aspect of their gender identity/how their identity is presented in fan spaces, either for themselves or for others. Meaning, this includes the fan who came out as trans during their fandom life as well as the fan that presents as more masculine to avoid sexist comments in gaming communities. We have to keep in mind when analyzing fan identity that, unless we conduct interviews with every individual, assuming really does make an ass out of u and me. The fan with a male character as their username might not be a guy. The 'girl' you see in a selfie might not identify as a girl. Just because someone presents in a certain way in a certain community doesn't mean that's what they prefer in other spaces and among other people. This data helps to emphasize the common but exceedingly complex phrase, "Gender is a construct." Was transformative fandom as we know it built by women? Yes. Supposedly. But it's worth noting that had those fans been working in 2018 they might not identify as women anymore. Hell, lots of them are still fans and many of them don't!

Which brings me to the data I'm really interested in. Regardless of how long you've been in fandom, no matter how much you have (or still are) questioning your gender identity, I asked everyone to provide a label for what they currently identify as. Of those initial 100 responses, 56 identify as cis women. So yeah, there's still very much a culture of "women's work" within fandom. But so far that's only about half. The other 44 consider themselves outside of the gender binary somehow. 7 are trans, 8 agender, and 24 chose the broader terms genderqueer/non-binary to describe themselves. 4 chose the "other" option provided, perhaps because they prefer a different label or aren't comfortable settling on one. And finally there's one man who identifies as cis male-----the gender that has long been considered the outlier in transformative fan communities. They're there though and god bless this guy for admitting as much.

Now I want to reiterate that, of course, this is an incredibly small sample size and as tumblr was the first site I posted the survey to these first responses probably come solely from there. We also need to consider the way that tumblr is structured. When I post something to my personal blog (as I did here), only those already following me will initially see it. Then, if I'm lucky, they reblog the post to their blogs and anyone following them gets to see it. And so on and so forth. Though a fairly standard structure for social media nowadays, this means that at least at the start, a survey such as this is circling primarily among like-minded people. Though I've worked to try and spread the questionnaire to fan websites with varying cultures (like Reddit), this initial bias is something to keep in mind when examining the final results.

Nevertheless, so far it looks like my original hypothesis is holding true. Transformative fandom has been and currently is populated by a whole lot of women... but not nearly to the extent that we once assumed. It's worth keeping that in mind as we continue to unpack fan communities: how they're viewed by mainstream media, how they see themselves, and the impact that their work has on social issues-----like the representation of gender in popular culture.

Fandom has never been as clear cut as we'd like it to be, but hell. Isn't that what makes it fun?

(And just for the record, you can take the survey here----please spread it around!)

Image Credit






#4: Personal screenshot

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