of this paper is the emerging genre of internet fan fiction,
and the way in which women, the primary authors of such fiction,
are using the paradox of cyberspace--personal privacy in a public
forum--to explore feelings and ideas denied them in the past.
Its specific focus is on erotic stories inspired by characters
created for TV and film that fans have appropriated for their
own narrative purposes. I am going to suggest that the protection
and freedom of cyberspace is enabling these writers to defy
many of the social taboos that have inhibited self exploration
and self expression in the past, and that the implications of
this phenomenon can inform our understanding of the social,
psychological, and literary uses of cyberspace.
discovered this emerging genre by visiting web sites devoted
to my own favorite actor, Antonio Banderas. On these fansites
frequent visitors are collaborating on novels, stories and film
sequels. An example is Zorro Returns, a "fantasy sequel"
to the 1998 film The Mask of Zorro. (http://www.banderas-mall.com./sequel/index.html)
In a paper which I presented in June, 1999 at the Interactive
Frictions Conference at the University of Southern California,
I found that the ultimate function of a cultic figure, like
the Banderas hero, is to provide a site upon which a web of
real life friendships can be formed as the result of writing
collaborative fan narratives.
On the fansites
I examined, the Banderas hero becomes the vehicle rather than
the object of affection. I interviewed about twenty authors
of Banderas-related interactive narratives, and discovered that
while they did not consciously use this form of creative writing
to consruct community, the outcome of their writing in fact
has been to make cyberfriends who, in the parlance of communication
theory, have "migrated" to other forms of contact
such as telephoning, exchanging gifts, and meeting face-to-face
(Parks and Floyd). I concluded in that paper that the affection
directed at the Banderas hero is somehow reflected off of the
icon and redirected onto those who share him as a benevolent
life force, and that once this transfer of affection is accomplished,
the centrality of the icon is diminished and personal friendships
of affection, however, does not address the original impulse
that led the fan authors and fan readers to the Banderas websites
in the first place-erotic desire for the iconic figure, which
in this sense consists of sexual longing projected onto a safe,
distant, fantasy figure. Because of the interactive nature of
the internet, these erotic fantasies can be shared with others,
sometimes on comment boards, but more elaborately in erotica
posted on fan websites.
For instance, as can be seen on the Zorro Returns fansite, there
are red letter highlights warning of sexual content in particular
scenes. These red-letter fantasies in Zorro Returns signal the
phenomenon I wish to explore in this paper: the use of cyberspace
by women to express desire in ways that have been socially prohibited
in the past, and which continue to be publicly and generally
taboo for women in our society.
is that the paradox of public access and private/anonymous identity
has made it possible for women who have access to the internet
to create permissive and transgressive spaces which have been,
in the past, the traditional reserve of men's magazines and
men's clubs. The larger question posed by this phenomenon, toward
which this paper can only sketch preliminary answers, is to
what degree and in what way does the openness and anonymity
of cyberspace allow women to appropriate power over their own
imaginations and bodies?
Paradox of Cyberspace
in a recent article entitled "Drag Net: From Glen to Glenda
and Back Again: Is it Possible?" examines the benefits
of concealing one's biological gender while participating in
MUD culture. Since the characteristics of male and female gender
identity must be constructed in real life anyway, she argues,
reconstructing identity in a MUD by changing gender enables
both men and women to escape the expectations of their biological
sex and to gain insight into the opposite sex. While the authors
of internet fan fiction are, as a general rule, not concealing
the fact that they are women, the majority of them-especially
those writing erotica-conceal their real life identities with
pseudonyms. Thus one element of the cyberspace paradox-personal
privacy-is achieved, and the woman author is granted a level
of liberation, like those in Turkles's MUD culture, that goes
beyond first amendment rights. Even though authors who publish
in print media are free to write uncensored erotica, social
mores inhibit most women writers from doing so. By writing on
the internet under pseudonyms, women can go directly to their
readers without risking their identities with editors, publishers,
or-as Henry Jenkins describes in Textual Poachers -anti-erotica
fans. In pre-internet times the only way to buy fan erotica
was to attend conferences and buy fan 'zines sold by the authors
themselves, which made the authors vulnerable to being "outed"
by those who wished to discourage their use of celebrity heroes
in sexually explicit stories(201).
to go directly to the reader on the internet is the second part
of the paradox of cyberspace. In the past, the desire or need
for privacy would have either limited one's access to an audience
or would have placed the author at risk of discovery. In cyberspace,
however, the audience for anonymous fan narratives is huge.
One way audiences find each other is through the free WebRing
program ( http://nav.webring.org/)
owned by Yahoo, which allows any interested person to become
a "ringmaster" by inviting others on the internet
who have relevant sites to join in their particular webring.
As the WebRing advertisements claim, there are "84 affinity
groups (in the ringworld directory), 66,000 rings on any conceivable
topic, and 1.5 million member sites." The press release
goes on to say that "The WebRing system can support an
unlimited number of separate and distinct Rings across the Internet."(Austin)
This allows the visitor to move through cyberspace in what feels
like a circular pattern, either by jumping from site to site
in a designated order or skipping along the ring randomly.
that many of the fansites with iconic narratives were participating
in webrings. While this approach to ordering the internet is
not all-inclusive-for instance, there is no Antonio Banderas
webring-it offers one method of organization that might give
a sense of the extent of the audience for adult fan fiction
on the internet I could only explore a fraction of the choices
offered on the Adult Fan Fiction webring because of the extremely
large size of the field (http://nav.webring.org/cgi-bin/navcgi?ring=adultfic;list).
There are 145 separate rings listed on this topic in the ringworld
sub-directory. To consider a broader category, under the heading
of "alternative fan fiction" (which would include
lesbian, gay, and all permutations of s&m and bondage fiction)
there 601 webrings, with over fifteen thousand individual sites,
each one with dozens of stories-that would be over 180 thousand
fan authored stories.
of Fan Erotica
the internet's unique combination of privacy with access to
an audience has enabled a huge subculture of adult fan fiction
to thrive. Though there are many genres, as the "alternative"
category shows, the three major genres of fan found on the internet
are "het" or herterosexual fiction, lesbian fiction,
and "slash" fiction, a genre consisting of male-on-male
erotica written by heterosexual women for an audience of heterosexual
women. Women who write for adult audiences are experimenting
with and challenging the conventional gender definitions imposed
upon them in real life society. In cyberspace, where a woman
cannot be criticized-or even identified-for her writing, one
can see areas of curiosity and concern that could not be seen
in arenas where women would have to pass through editorial hierarchies
or expose themselves to the expectations of gender roles in
public three dimensional life.
at a site called Obsession-one of the hundreds of sites devoted
to the characters in the TV show, Xena, Warrior Princess (http://www.obsession14.com/)
--one can both read and submit erotica which builds on the plots
and characters of the series. Though there are Xena fan sites
by both male and female fans of this heroic character played
by Lucy Lawless, the fans are overwhelmingly women who are writing
alternative fan fiction. Obsession provides a related link where
the visitor can find over fifty-five authors of alternative
erotica devoted to the two main characters of the show, Xena
and Gabriel, as well as awards for the best fiction (the "Golden
Lath Awards") and guidelines for submission of fan fiction
to the site. (http://www.obsession14.com/XenaRotica/fanindex.html).
One of the
reasons that Xena is so popular is because she is one of the
few female characters on television who is at once strong and
independent and who has a female sidekick in the same way that
Captain Kirk has Mr. Spock or that Batman has Robin. The owners
of this site, who call themselves DAx and The Goddess, invite
alternative fiction contributions, requiring only that the stories
be true to the established characters of Xena and Gabriel, and
that the sex scenes be embedded within "a plot beyond the
moans of passion". A final requirement addresses sexual
violence. DAx writes, that:
similar het fiction pages that can be found throughout the adult
fiction webring and on many other sites on the internet. These
are broken down into such sub-genres of "hetsmut"
"triosmut", Treksmut for Star Trek fans, and seemingly
endless erotic combinations of men, women, gods, goddesses,
werewolves, vampires, and aliens from outer space. "Merri
Todd's Het Page," for example, is part of the Adult Fan
Fiction webring, and contains the work of an individual who
is experimenting with "triosmut" involving the characters
from the televsion show X-Files. (
Het Page" gives a graphic definition of the term "triosmut"
and annotates each story link so that the reader has some idea
of what she will encounter in its contents. This is typical
of sites I have examined, in that the authors have no desire
to take their readers by surprise, but give ample warning of
the contents, both to comply with web conventions requiring
adult readership to be 18, and to be considerate of fans who
do not wish to see their cultic heroes in explicitly sexual
situations. It is as though the lawless frontier of the internet
is self-policed, at least in this area of woman-authored erotica,
as a way of protecting the freedom that enables women to experiment
with sexual possibilities they cannot-or would not wish to experience-in
the three dimensional world.
genre flourishing on the internet is called "slash fiction."
When Henry Jenkins wrote Textual Poachers in 1992 he devoted
an entire chapter to slash, a genre that emerged when fans of
Star Trek, the original series, began to probe the sexual implications
of the relationship between Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock (thus
K/S indicating sexual content in a Kirk/Spock story). Jenkins
discusses the spread of slash fiction to other male program
characters beyond Star Trek, slash as an expression of female
erotic desire projected onto the male body, and the possible
implications of slash in terms of pornography, the romance of
androgyny, and other psychological dimensions posed by the depiction
of male-on-male relationships by heterosexual women. Jenkins
also gives generous excerpts from the slash 'zines he had collected,
since it would have been very difficult for a reader of Textual
Poachers in 1992 to find and read any slash fiction apart from
attending a Star Trek convention or going into the underground
publishing world of the specialty 'zines.
slash has emerged as a major style of adult fan fiction on the
internet, with 85 webrings consisting of 1,261 individual sites
containing over fifteen thousand stories and novels. Jenkins'
assertion that slash is "fandom's most original contribution
to the field of popular culture" has proven to be true.
(188) It is no longer a curious subset of the fan fiction phenomenon,
but has become one of the mainstream forms of internet erotica.
called Slash Fiction Online (http://slash.virtualave.net/)
is an example of the most useful kind of site in the ringworld-those
that offer glossaries and meta-critiques of fan writing so that
the reader can go directly to stories that have impressed at
least one other reviewer in the circle.
site there are 82 current listings of reviewed stories written
by 55 separate authors. I visited about ten percent of these
websites and discovered that each one had dozens of stories,
either by the author of the story listed, or by additional authors
who share the site-another indication of the extent of the phenomenon.
example of "slash " fiction that illustrates both
the quality and the conventions of this genre is by a group
of three women who jointly call themselves The Krell. http://www.mediafans.org/krelldom/desert/prince1.htm).
The Seduction of the Desert Prince is an illustrated novel of
nineteen chapters based on the television show The Highlander
and its primary character Duncan MacLeod, but is set in an "alternative
universe," i.e. a setting other than that provided by the
creators of the television series. The story centers on the
intimate relationship between Duncan MacLeod and a desert prince
who has bought him as a slave. Typical of slash fiction, there
are extended sex scenes, but they are few in number, relative
to male-authored gay erotica, and they are embedded in a plausible
and suspenseful plot. The characters are well developed, and
they ring true to the original series, which is a primary criterion
of success in fan fiction.
exchanges with the authors of this novel, I asked what motivated
them to write, since it was clearly not financial gain or commercial
success. One author who responded said that writing is a hobby
and an avocation and that "doing it professionally would
add levels of stress
and personal expectation that I don't
have with my fan fiction" (elynross). Another of the authors
told me that she wrote what she wanted to read since erotica
in bookstores is focused on sex and not relationships: "I
write erotic stories because I like to explore the themes of
emotional intimacy, and I write fan fiction because it lets
me do that with characters that already interest me" (Killasdra).
This is a perfect summation of slash fiction-erotica that occurs
only in the context of emotional relationships, involving familiar
and favorite characters.
if they would have written erotica if they had not found fansites
on the net and audiences who responded positively, the authors
stated that they would not. "I do think I would have written
regardless, " says one, "but whether I would have
written pure erotica? I doubt it. Not without the community
of other women out there reading it and responding to it."
reinforce my findings on the Antonio Banderas fansite investigations-
that community with other women, both as readers and as "migrated"
friends-takes precedence over the projected desire on a hero
that initiated activity on the internet in the first place.
Says one of The Krell about her cyberfriends, "I'd be a
little disturbed if my friendships weren't incredibly more important
to me than my feelings about the fictional characters"
(elynross). Clearly, for these women, erotic fantasies are made
more potent by being shared with a community of like-minded
women. Our notions of the relationship between sexuality and
privacy are challenged by the fact that many-perhaps the majority-of
these women would not have written erotica in the absence of
a community of appreciative female readers. The internet fan
fiction world provides these authors with a safe, anonymous,
and-paradoxically-public place to meet with like-minded women
in order to experiment with ideas of sexuality and gender identity
that the three dimensional world does not offer or support.
Says another of The Krell, "My online friends are RL [real
life] friends, many closer than people I know in my face-to-face
this preliminary investigation into erotica on fan websites,
I will end with a favorite fanfiction site of mine entitled
"Torero" ( http://www.banderasmall.com/torero/chapters/index.html)
in which the cultic figure of a bullfighter from Spain-played
by Antonio Banderas, of course-is kidnapped, enslaved, subjected
to homosexual rape, and eventually rescued by a beautiful woman
who frees him from his bonds and marries him. This pretty much
sums up the slash and het genres, and acts as a metaphor for
the phenomenon of women's erotica on fansites: high adventure,
far-flung or historical settings, improbable sex, all within
the safety of a non-judging, sympathetic, indeed, enthusiastic
community. While the significance of this paradox of public
access and private/anonymous identity will require much more
analysis over time, it is clear that women who have access to
the internet have created permissive and transgressive spaces
which have been, in the past, the traditional reserve of men's
magazines and men's clubs. Fan websites have, in effect, become
women's clubs, where erotica can be safely explored without
damage to the reputation, the career, or the domestic life.
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