Fans of color in femslash

Mel Stanfill

University of Central Florida, Orlando, Florida, United States

[0.1] Abstract—This roundtable discussion brings together a group of fans of color to discuss their experiences specifically in femslash fandom.

[0.2] Keywords—Gender; Intersectionality; Racism; Sexuality

Stanfill, Mel. 2019. "Fans of Color in Femslash." In "Fans of Color, Fandoms of Color," edited by Abigail De Kosnik and andré carrington, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 29.

1. Introduction

[1.1]Femslash is a minority of shipping. The top 100 pairings on the Archive of Our Own (AO3) in 2017 were 68% male/male, 20% heterosexual, and only 4% femslash (with 5% general or nonromantic fiction and 3% other) (centrumlumina 2017). Correspondingly, the specific experiences of fans of color in femslash have not been well understood, even as work emerges on fans of color in heterosexual ships (Warner 2015a; Warner 2015b), m/m slash (Pande 2016), and general fandom (Pande 2016; Wanzo 2015). This discussion, alongside work by Pande and Moitra (2017) and Navar-Gill and Stanfill (2018), attempts to fill part of that gap. Modeled on the 2009 "Pattern Recognition" dialogue (TWC Editor 2009), the organizer posed a series of questions, and participants answered them and responded to each other over the course of several weeks in early 2018. The dialogue brings together a group of participants who all participate (or have participated) in the Swan Queen fandom (Once Upon a Time, 2011–2018), but have also been involved with multiple other femslash fandoms over time. The conversation that follows has been lightly edited for clarity and flow.

2. Question 1

[2.1] Mel: Tell me about you.

[2.2] Leo: My name is Leo and I'm a recent graduate of the University of Michigan. Next fall, I'll be starting at the School of Social Work with a focus on community organizing. I'm also a 21-year-old Chinese transgender man who writes fan fiction that often centers queer relationships. And I have two moms. Basically, Modern Family (2009–).

[2.3] Asher: I'm a black woman from the Caribbean living in the United States for the last 20 years. My first foray into fandom was with the B'Elanna/Seven pairing from Star Trek: Voyager (1995–2001).

[2.4] Regina: I'm a nurse who retired early due to disability. I'm mixed heritage with one half being German/Irish/Mexican and the other half Mexican. I'm an out lesbian now that I no longer have a career. I have always been interested in fandoms, but since retirement I have gone from observing them to being more involved in them.

[2.5] Eri: I'm a 29-year-old queer, Brazilian, nonbinary, neurodivergent, light-skinned black person. My first fandom was Xena (1995–2001) but I've only been continually in fandom since 2012.

[2.6] Ema: I am a first-gen butch, yellow Trinidadian American who still questions my family's choice in coming here but am still grateful because otherwise I may not have known about Tumblr and AO3. I am an OD survivor with C-PTSD and a myriad of other health conditions, one of which, in some people's opinion, is lesbianism. I am still new to the fandom/fan fiction world, as in I found out last September, but I'm currently working on projects for two of the fandoms I'm in.

3. Question 2

[3.1] Mel: Fandom often likes to think of itself as progressive and femslash fandom even more so because it's primarily queer women and nonbinary folks. Do you find there's any truth to that? Is it better than straight fandom? Worse? Different?

[3.2] Eri: When comparing straight fandom and femslash, yes, femslash is better overall.

[3.3] Ema: I have seen at least racism and mental illnesses addressed more in femslash than I have in straight fandom, but to be frank, I try to avoid all straight fandom like it's a sloppy wet kiss from your great aunt. But I still believe we gays do it better.

[3.4] Regina: I find femslash fandom progressive in some areas such as feminism and queer issues, but in other areas such as racial issues they tend to be just the same as any other fandom I've been involved in.

[3.5] Asher: Fandom is racist, and femslash fandom is especially racist because it is so progressive. The presence of LGBTQ people in femslash fandoms gives people an excuse not to question unconscious racist ideas or beliefs. That said, femslash fandoms provide a framework for the argument and introspection needed to challenge these beliefs in a way that straight fandoms do not. We know how to challenge each other and accept new ideas. It is why we exist.

4. Question 3

[4.1] Mel: It sounds like there's a tension between queerness and race and not a lot of intersectional thinking in fandom. Would you say that's accurate?

[4.2] Regina: I agree with Asher above. I find many of the same harmful attitudes and beliefs about race in the femslash fandom, except with this group they tend to think they're shielded from much of the criticism due to their membership in a marginalized group.

[4.3] Asher: "I don't ship heterosexual ships" is a blanket excuse for dismissing many interracial pairings out of hand. To which, I respond, it is not the rejection of the interracial heterosexual ship that makes you racist. It is, instead, the forms that rejection takes. Is the nonwhite character not good enough? Does the very idea of the pairing make you angry? Do you find yourself attacking people just because they want it to exist?

[4.4] Eri: I agree with Asher, and it's not just the way we reject interracial straight couples but also how we easily pass judgement on shows with queer WOC representation, many times before it even airs (note 1). And I agree with Regina. Personal preference is often used to justify their racism, and since it's not something they go through, it's easy for them to dismiss it. And I think it's a similar situation with ableism. I very rarely see any conversation about it.

[4.5] Ema: Thank you for mentioning ableism. I deal with it more often than not with some of my medical and mental conditions, with both family and professionals, and I would love to see that addressed in general.

[4.6] Eri: I think racism is probably the most noticeable problem in femslash, and the biggest problem is people refusing to acknowledge they are being racist and they should change. It's easier for them to pretend nothing is wrong than to face that queer people can be, and often are, racist. And it's the same when talking about transphobia and ableism, people refusing to acknowledge a problem if that means having to change, and most of them choose their own prejudice. I know because I lost some friends just because I asked them to stop saying racist and/or transphobic and/or ableist jokes. Once a person told me I was like poison (because I didn't want to hear racist jokes anymore).

[4.7] Asher: Which brings me to the one truism of fandom. Black people in fandom appear to be few, far between, and often not liked. A popular Tumblr puts it thusly: fandom hates black people, yo. Woo Boy! It is often assumed that I am being aggressive. I find myself the subject of attack in conversations where I am one of many talking about a certain thing. On the other hand, people listen to me on issues of race and privilege. It's an odd combination of being respected and targeted.

5. Question 4

[5.1] Mel: It sounds like you're saying people assume whiteness. Would you say that was accurate?

[5.2] Regina: Yes. I find the need to repeatedly prove my identity as a nonwhite member of fandom to be tedious.

[5.3] Asher: Conversations are hard to get started because you have to out yourself as not white. The default assumption in fandom is whiteness.

[5.4] Leo: I agree with Asher. I also feel like getting involved in a conversation about race immediately puts you in a position of being that person, that one POC who can't just be cool with what we've got.

[5.5] Regina: One thing I find common is when one Latinx voice echoes the white fan sentiment; this gains traction while my voice and the voices of those criticizing get ignored. My posts explaining my issues often die without much discussion.

6. Question 5

[6.1] Mel: So the response isn't that great when you point these issues out to white fans?

[6.2] Asher: No. You have to deal with the fallout. No one likes being challenged, but it becomes easier after a while, as I explained above.

[6.3] Regina: And then it becomes my voice against this rising tide of whiteness that is more concerned with their personal feelings being hurt than the harm against the Latinx community.

[6.4] Leo: And, like Asher said, no one wants to recognize their own biases or acknowledge that a show they like or a character they love is racist. No one wants to admit that something that offers an escape from reality is still just as problematic.

[6.5] Eri: Trying to start a conversation about racism when you're a POC is really hard, but in my experience it's hard in and outside of femslash. And white people don't just deny racism: when denying doesn't work, they start to attack us personally. Most of my experience with this is in real life so people usually frame their racism in a more polite way, but the core of the experiences are the same. So, I think it's basically the same.

[6.6] Regina: I think there are many people who want to learn and most have their hearts in the right place, but human nature seems to place personal comforts and enjoyments above making the world better for us all, and I'd like for people to understand better that sometimes, I just get exhausted of it all.

7. Question 6

[7.1] Mel: Tell me more about that "putting personal enjoyment first" part.

[7.2] Leo: The problem is, we don't have as much as others like to think. Queer and trans POC still have stories that deserve to be represented, and when we try and voice our opinions, we're not taken as seriously. In fandom, I think it's really common to have our concerns dismissed as us not being grateful enough or being too picky.

[7.3] Regina: Since becoming more involved in fandom beyond simply being a reader of fan fic and what they called a lurker, I tend to be more of an activist due to my identity that I'm proud of. It took years to accept myself as a lesbian, but I'd always been proud of my Mexican heritage and always remembered my grandmother's accented voice telling stories of generations of our family traveling north from their Mayan ancestors until she and her husband finally reached the United States. This pride doesn't let me accept what seems to be the majority of fandom's desire for me to sit quietly in the place they give me and be happy with any scraps of attention I may or may not be given. I'm also an older member of fandom, and as such I take a personal responsibility to try to make the experience easier for the younger people who may be walking in my footsteps. I always try to tell myself this time I'll be quiet and simply enjoy, but one example of oppression leads to another, and my fighting spirit rears up.

[7.4] Leo: I completely agree. I see a lot of folks in fandom try and say that having a canon white gay couple is a win for the entire community. But when queer or trans people of color try and point out that many of us don't feel represented, we're told to create our own stories or to be happy with the little progress that's been made so far.

[7.5] And while I identify as a transgender man, I'm a man nonetheless, with privileges I try and keep awareness of. I don't usually write intimate scenes as it may make readers uncomfortable for a man to write love scenes between two women—specifically with the concept of the male gaze so easy for men to fall into. In truth, for the most part, I keep to myself. One of the only times I've actively engaged in fandom discourse is in regards to G!P fics, where one of the ciswomen characters magically or some other way has a penis. I'm not sure how much of it has to do with my identity as a trans man, but I usually shy away from cis folks writing any sort of trans storylines or references to anatomy that can be related to trans topics.

[7.6] Mel: Can you say more about trying to avoid the male gaze? Similarly, there has been some controversy in OUAT fandom in particular over whether Regina (a Latina character) is fetishized. Do you have thoughts about that?

[7.7] Leo: In terms of avoiding the trope of male gaze and fetishization, I think the topic of intersectionality is once again a major problem in that there isn't any on the show. At least, there hasn't been. Regina, a half-white, half Latina woman, is written as very powerful. Her Latina heritage is also rarely addressed, which makes it easy for audiences to forget her background. But then in fan fiction, I see a lot of people trying to respect Regina's cultural roots with her speaking Spanish and being immersed in a mixture of Latinx cultures; some of them include Regina speaking Spanish as a means of romancing Emma, as if her being bilingual is some sort of kink, which definitely falls under fetishization.

8. Question 7

[8.1] Mel: It sounds like not many people are willing to learn. Is anybody?

[8.2] Leo: It seems like some people know the term intersectionality and will use it in discourse, but when we as queer or trans people of color explain that we have multiple identities that we feel are being overlooked, white folks in the fandom suddenly don't understand.

[8.3] Regina: At times I even see superficial understanding of queer and feminist issues, but for these there seems to be more open dialogues for learning while racial education seems to gain no traction.

9. Question 8

[9.1] Mel: So then given all that, why be in fandom? What's good about femslash fandom, for you?

[9.2] Eri: When I was eleven, I cried my eyes out when I watched Xena and Gabrielle kissing for the first time. I refused to believe Xena was gay 'cause that would meant she was still evil. It took me almost a week, but I understood that being gay didn't make anyone evil, and Xena was once again my favorite show. When I was sixteen, I joined Xena fandom and I consumed everything I had access to. I even read some fics in English (which was a very big deal for me at the time). Later I joined Glee (2009–2015), and Bering and Wells (Warehouse 13, 2009–2014) fandoms, and because of them I joined Tumblr, and that's when I started to be part of the femslash fandom. But it was only after I joined Swan Queen fandom that I realized how important talking about social issues is. Before I never really talked about social issues in fandom (the main reason for that is because I was part of the Brazilian side of the fandoms I was in, and it's hard to talk about social issues in fandom, even today, at least in my experience) so I didn't know how bad it was (I actually never thought that not talking about something could be a problem).

[9.3] Leo: I was seventeen when I first joined a fandom. Until Swan Queen, the only fan fiction I had ever heard of was from Harry Potter. As a millennial, I have the privilege of growing up with an increasing amount of representation during my teen years and into young adulthood. Even though I had come into my identity as a trans man in middle school, there was still a lot I had to learn about inter- and intracommunity dynamics in queer and trans spaces.

[9.4] I first heard about Swan Queen the summer of Comic-Con 2013, right after comments regarding an LGBTQ story line had been made during a panel. At the time, I figured it's the creators' story, they have the right to go wherever they wish, not acknowledging that they'd been consistently queerbaiting many of the fans, teasing at chemistry between Regina and Emma but with no plans to pursue it. I also thought that since some of the actors identified themselves as allies to the LGBTQ community, that was enough. And I pushed back against the idea that there should be a gay couple on the show just for the sake of having one. I had completely missed the point of Swan Queen and the history of the fandom. I wasn't acknowledging the intersection of attractionality (sexual orientation) and race. The power that Swan Queen had, canon or noncanon, became blatantly clear. And as a nonwhite person, I finally began to understand what Swan Queen represented, or could represent.

[9.5] As I learned more about Swan Queen and what it represented, I saw that there had been a lot of discussion around Regina's Latina identity and what it would mean to have a nonwhite woman in a relationship with another woman. This show was about modern fairytales, after all, so why not?

[9.6] I don't remember what the turning point was exactly, but several folks in fandom had taken the time and energy to call me out on my homophobic rhetoric surrounding Swan Queen. Since then, I've been heavily involved as a fan fic writer for several femslash fandoms. I usually write for Swan Queen but have also written Clexa (The 100, 2014–) stories and Berena (Holby City, 1999–) fics. As a nonwhite person, I try to do the characters of color justice—acknowledging their canon racial identities and how that can affect social and interpersonal interactions.

[9.7] Asher: I was straight but curious when I joined the fandom for the B'Elanna/Seven pairing from Star Trek: Voyager fandom, bisexual a few months later, and an out lesbian within a year. The fan fiction helped me imagine a world in which loving a woman was normal, and the community gave me the support I needed to face a world in which it wasn't. I could not have come out without femslash fandoms. They were the only gay people I knew. From there it was forays into the femslash fandoms of True Blood (2008–2014) and Star Trek: Enterprise (2001–2005) ending with Swan Queen.

[9.8] Eri: A few years ago, I was in Carmilla (2014–2016) fandom. I can't say it was an awful experience, but it was BAD, but because of Carmilla I've watched Kaitlyn Alexander's videos on YouTube, and they helped me realize I was nonbinary. Like, I already knew a lot about gender and nonbinary, but it was after watching one video in particular that I got that was an option for me. Femslash connected me with other neurodivergent people and helped me accept that part of myself, something that I refused to do before. I've never met an autistic person in real life, and autism is sort of taboo where I live, so connecting with other autistic people organically through femslash is priceless to me.

[9.9] Asher: Swan Queen has been the experience of a lifetime. The story had so much promise as a modern fairytale but quickly devolved into a lesson on what homophobia, racism, and misogyny really looks like in our society. In our lives and on the show, we were told and shown in every way possible that fairytale happy endings are reserved for straight white people alone.

[9.10] Eri: Asher once wrote a post about not letting your friends be racist toward you, and say something or change friends (I don't remember the words but it was something like that), and I think it's really important advice to follow IRL and in fandom life, and not just with racism, and my life's been better ever since.

[9.11] Leo: My identities as a trans man of color heavily impact my perception of queer ships, canon and noncanon. I'm also a child of two moms, which you'd think would've made me even more open to Swan Queen and femslash. Unfortunately, it took me longer than I'd like to have understood. I appreciate all of the folks who put in the energy and emotional labor to explain to me the significance of Swan Queen and how harmful the show had been. Even now, Asher and Angstbot are some of the folks I find myself constantly learning from on Tumblr and Twitter. I wish I had come around sooner, as I used some of the same problematic rhetoric as many of the homophobic fans outside of fandoms.

10. Question 9

[10.1] Mel: What would you want from white fans in femslash?

[10.2] Regina: I just wish other fans understood the words "None of us are free until we are all free" as more than just a platitude and lived the words they spoke. Stop forcing us to fight all the battles at the same time as speaking over us, using us as shields, and/or demonizing us.

[10.3] Asher: The assumption of aggression on the part of black women is racist. And please stop leaving racism clean up to us. It just makes us targets. Confront racism when you see it. Quietly ask if you're not sure, but do not leave it to us all of the time. It's exhausting. However, do not use racism as an excuse to push your unrelated pet fandom agenda forward. It is painfully obvious when the actions to deal with racism are thinly veiled attempts to attack a group you dislike or push a preferred ship.

[10.4] Eri: Don't think you know what it's like to go through something that you personally don't/didn't experience yourself. You may think you do, but believe me, you don't. Never stop listening to other people's experiences with oppression, and never stop learning.

[10.5] Regina: I agree, we all bring with us our own life experiences that shape the issues we see as important. Many of us share commonalities, and that can be both a strength when it comes to queer WOC but a weakness when it comes to queer white women.

[10.6] Asher: Not all nonwhite experiences are the same. Let people share the richness of their experience with you. Certain groups will focus on different egregious experiences and that's okay. Asian fans may want you to understand the dangers of the Compliant Asian Woman trope whereas black fans will want you to be aware of the Aggressive Black Woman trope and the Latinas, the Hot-tempered Homewrecker trope. These are all different and all dangerous.

[10.7] Leo: I think because femslash is predominantly queer women and nonbinary folks, those of us who identify as men but also as queer or trans need to be better when it comes to taking on the task of education. Like with any social issue, but especially within a community that's already so overlooked. And as others have already mentioned, I would hope that more white queer folks in fandom take on the responsibility of calling out racism and acknowledging their own biases.

11. Note

1. This happened with Black Lightning (2018–), which had its representation of a Black lesbian character dismissed before its premiere by some (white) queer fans because its host network, The CW, had done a poor job of queer representation previously.

12. References

centrumlumina. 2017. "AO3 Ship Stats 2017." The Slow Dance of the Infinite Stars. August 3, 2017.

Navar-Gill, Annemarie, and Mel Stanfill. 2018. "'We Shouldn't Have to Trend to Make You Listen': Queer Fan Hashtag Campaigns as Production Interventions." Journal of Film and Video 70 (3–4): 85–100.

Pande, Rukmini. 2016. "Squee from the Margins: Racial/Cultural/Ethnic Identity in Global Media Fandom." In Seeing Fans: Representations of Fandom in Media and Popular Culture, edited by Lucy Bennett and Paul Booth, 209–20. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Pande, Rukmini, and Swati Moitra. 2017. "'Yes, the Evil Queen Is Latina!': Racial Dynamics of Online Femslash Fandoms." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 24.

TWC Editor. 2009. "Pattern Recognition: A Dialogue on Racism in Fan Communities." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 3.

Wanzo, Rebecca. 2015. "African American Acafandom and Other Strangers: New Genealogies of Fan Studies." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 20.

Warner, Kristen J. 2015a. "If Loving Olitz Is Wrong, I Don't Wanna Be Right." Black Scholar 45 (1): 16–20.

Warner, Kristen J. 2015b. "ABC's Scandal and Black Women's Fandom." In Cupcakes, Pinterest, and Ladyporn: Feminized Popular Culture in the Early Twenty-First Century, edited by Elana Levine, 32–50. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.