"Yes, the Evil Queen is Latina!": Racial dynamics of online femslash fandoms

Rukmini Pande

University of Western Australia, Perth, Australia

Swati Moitra

Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India

[0.1] Abstract—Online media or participatory fandom has long been theorized as a unique creative and communicative space for women. Further, scholarly work has highlighted the possibility of it functioning as a space that is conducive to the articulation of queerness—both through transformative work and participant identity. However, this theorization has failed to account for the differential operations of these spaces when they are forced to deal with issues of race and racism. This essay argues that this is a significant blind spot as fannish spaces cannot but negotiate with the multiple loci of privilege and intersectional concerns that underpin their functioning. It therefore proposes a significant intervention in the study of the same, drawing our attention to the historically queer and oft-sidelined fannish spaces of femslash fandoms. This analysis seeks to locate the ways in which such queer spaces grapple with critiques of misogyny and homophobia in popular cultural texts and online spaces, as well as the problematics of race and racial identity within such spaces, focusing on the queer fan community built around the relationship of Regina Mills and Emma Swan, eponymously known as Swan Queen, in the television show Once Upon a Time (2011–).

[0.2] Keywords—Fan community; Fan fiction; Intersectionality; Queerness; Race; TV

Pande, Rukmini and Swati Moitra. 2017. "Racial dynamics of online femslash fandoms." In "Queer Female Fandom," edited by Julie Levin Russo and Eve Ng, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 24.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Fans of popular cultural media texts in 2017 occupy a somewhat unique position. On one hand, studios now battle for eyeballs in an ever-expanding globalized marketplace, and their efforts at currying fan favor now encapsulate activities once considered weird or derided for their links to fannish subcultures. Glitzy fan conventions encourage cosplay and cosplayers; fan fic is solicited and fan art contests are a matter of routine. There has been, over the last 10 years, a significant mainstreaming of certain aspects of fan culture. As numerous academic studies have pointed out (Jenkins, Ford, and Green 2013; Booth 2015), a key role in this process has been played by the proliferation of fannish activity on the Internet, particularly the rise of social media platforms like LiveJournal, Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. As content creators and marketers have been able to listen in to fans like never before, fans have also been granted unprecedented access to talk back to the creators, leading to a fourth wall that is more porous than ever. This newly acquired cultural capital and leverage is not, however, distributed equitably, and access to it remains highly determined by other aspects of individual fan identity—most crucially, race, gender, and sexuality.

[1.2] Fan studies in 2017 is also at a crossroads of sorts. Exciting new possibilities of research have opened up in numerous directions, encompassing everything from fandom tourism to the evolving mechanics of transmedia storytelling. It is, nonetheless, crucial to draw attention to some of its recurring blind spots, particularly in relation to race. Stanfill (2011) examines racial dynamics in media fandom communities, but does so with a focus on the power relations between white male fans and the mainstream that sees them as an aberration and as possibly misdoing whiteness. While interesting, this discussion does not engage with nonwhite fans and their positions within fandom vis-à-vis white fans who might misdo whiteness but nonetheless retain considerable privilege. Rebecca Wanzo's (2015) crucial intervention has underlined the whiteness of the very genealogy of the field, with studies of African American fandom in particular having been overlooked in theorizations about US-based fan cultures. This is a very significant critique, which we would like to extend to engage with nonwhite fans who participate in media fandom communities as conceived of within mainstream fan studies. Warner's (2015) work on the black female audiences of Scandal and Johnson's (2015) examination of misogynoir and antiblackness in The Walking Dead fandom are also recent notable interventions in the field.

[1.3] While theorists (Busse 2013; Stanfill 2013) have pointed to the role that gender and, to an extent, sexuality, play in the fashioning of the ideal fan for the marketers of popular cultural texts, little attention has been paid to the ways in which this paradigm is also heavily racialized. For instance, the oft-criticized fanboy/girl binary, with the fangirl characterized as irrational, hysterical, and ultimately unprofitable (Flegel 2015), is certainly a valid analysis, but it remains a partial one, bypassing completely, for example, the differential treatment that nonwhite fanboys and fangirls receive in fannish spaces. Similarly, when it comes to sexuality, there has been a consistent focus on the ways in which queerness has been expressed, both within fan texts and fan communities; extant studies have focused on male slash communities for the most part (Lothian, Busse, and Reid 2003). However, these examinations ignore or erase the role that race plays in these fan communities and their production. Because they do not speak to or of nonwhite fans, their analyses of subversion, resistance, and co-option do not have the weight they might have with a less parochial, more intersectional approach.

[1.4] This absence of attention to race in fan studies is ironic, because these debates have never been more hotly discussed and contested in fandom spaces than they have been in recent years, particularly after the controversial series of events and discussions that constituted RaceFail '09 (note 1). This is particularly true of the social media platform Tumblr (Hillman, Procyk, and Neustaedter 2014). Although scholars have noted that social media platforms have changed the way online spaces and interactions function, there is as yet little work on Tumblr, which is a major site of fan online activity in the present day (Nosko, Wood, and Molema 2010; Carstensen 2011). Tumblr offers us evidence of just how interconnected and fluid media fandom spaces have become, disrupting the accepted sectioning off that fan studies has itself partially enabled in its divisions of, for example, studies along genres of male slash, het, and femslash. Likewise, because it is a particularly friendly site for women, queer people, people of color, and progressives, it has become a space in which social justice politics and fan activity intersect. This is not to argue that there is nothing to be gained by focusing our attention on specific aspects of fan production—this essay is very much in that tradition—but to fully address the current social media scenario, we must also look at fan sites as complex continuums, rather than as completely different watertight compartments. We must bring intersectionality (Crenshaw 1991; Bobo 1995; hooks 2009; Rodríguez 2003) into the heart of our analyses of fandom spaces—not just as part of a list at the beginning of papers and presentations to show an awareness of these aspects of identity, but with the same weight as gender and sexuality.

[1.5] Thus, this essay offers an intersectional intervention in fan studies by focusing attention on the historically queer and oft-sidelined spaces of femslash fandoms. We seek to locate the ways in which such queer fans grapple with critiques of misogyny and homophobia in popular cultural texts and online spaces, both in relation to and in conjunction with the problematics of race and racial identity, and thereby address this existing lacuna in contemporary fan studies. We will locate this discussion within a consideration of existing scholarship on femslash and its relationship to other genres of media fandom activity. Following that, we will also consider the ways in which race has been engaged within certain key femslash fandoms in order to historicize our understanding of the same. Our particular case study is the queer fan community built around the racialized relationship of the characters Regina Mills and Emma Swan, eponymously known as Swan Queen, in the television show Once Upon a Time (2011–). We will focus on the vociferous fannish debates centering around the claiming of Regina Mills (or the Evil Queen) as Latina, and the complex negotiations in Swan Queen fan works that seek to foreground the Evil Queen's Latina identity in opposition to the purported color-blindness of the source text.

2. Examining the ghettoization of femslash

[2.1] Fan studies over the years has seen a remarkable degree of multidisciplinarity—almost too much of it, some have claimed (Hellekson 2009)—in terms of the methodological approaches to the analysis of fan activity, drawing from fields as diverse as anthropology, communications studies, music studies, Internet studies, and so on. However, much of this work tends to approach Western media fandom in particular with an implicit understanding that its dividing lines fall quite neatly along the generic divisions of het, male slash, and femslash. These divisions are broadly ordered in terms of gender and sexuality. Significant academic focus has been devoted to the study of those fan communities wherein there is a perceived shocking disruption of accepted correlations between what fans are and what they ship. This has resulted in an inordinate focus on male slash fandoms as initially they were seen to be constituted of straight female fans. The foundational texts of the field (Russ 1985; Penley 1991; Lamb and Veith 1986) saw these fans as subversive because they were disrupting patriarchal discourses regarding what they were meant to find desirable in their fannish practices. While this almost all-pervasive formulation of male slash fandoms has been questioned significantly in recent times—multiple surveys (Melannen 2010; Centrumlumina 2013) now attest to the fact that male slash fandoms also have a high representation of queer women along a broad spectrum of identity articulations—the inherent subversiveness of these fandoms remains a dominant strand in theorization about them (Driscoll 1996; Busse 2005).

[2.2] Conversely, femslash fandoms and texts are often somehow seen as inherently less disruptive to patriarchal strictures, as lesbian sexual performance in particular is argued to be produced almost overwhelmingly for the straight male porn viewer (Smyth 1990). This particular charge is mirrored by the oft-heard accusations that many women in the realm of popular culture pretend to be queer in order to titillate male viewers. Recent academic analyses, such as that of Russo's (2013), examines the problematics of negotiating a mode of queer female intimacy that resists this co-optation as something that femslash communities have to deal with, particularly when the texts they focus on are popular ones that engage a wide audience. These concerns have also informed other existing studies on femslash fandoms, such as those that focused on the relationship between the characters of Samantha Fraser and Janet Carter in the prolific Stargate SG-1 (1997–2007) fandom (Millward and Dodd 2016).

[2.3] One effect of the almost ghettoization of genres has been that femslash has largely remained a footnote to most studies on fan culture. For one, femslash fandoms are continually held as less popular than those accruing around het and male slash pairings, though this assumption is increasingly disputed (note 2). More pertinent to this essay, however, is the fact that this erasure has also been animated by the aforementioned focus with tracing those aspects of fan activity that have crossed conventionally accepted gender and sexuality correlations. Since femslash fandoms have been assumed to be dominated by queer women from their inception, there has been very little impetus to examine the motives for their engagement in such activities. However, with the convergence of fan activity on shared platforms like Twitter and Tumblr, fans now have noticeably different entry points into a particular fannish universe. In actual fannish practice, particularly with the convergence of fannish activity on shared platforms like Twitter and Tumblr, there has been a noticeable engagement of fans with differing entry points into the common fannish universe. This has led to a significant disruption of long-accepted narratives about what has constituted visible or significant fan activity. For example, a lengthy feature on fan fic by the online magazine Vulture included a section captioned, "A Fanfiction Syllabus: Ten Classics That Cover the History, Breadth, and Depth of the Form, with Original Custom-Designed Covers." The section did indeed list some excellent examples of fan fic; however, the texts chosen remained dominated by cisgender white men, and no femslash text made an appearance on the list at all. This erasure was hotly contested by both femslashers and nonwhite fans, who underlined how this selective mythmaking and historiography about what is considered noteworthy about fan texts perpetuates and reinscribes erasures and biases within fan communities (allofthefeelings 2015).

[2.4] Shades of these arguments are also reflected in some other recent meditations on the place of femslash within fandom communities. These arise from the diversification of knowledge about the makeup of male slash communities, and seek to interrogate why queer women choose not to write about queer female relationships. Most of these arguments revolve around the freedom that female writers find in writing queer male bodies. Writing queer male bodies, it is argued, allows female writers to distance themselves from the effects of misogyny and rape culture that writing about female characters forces them to face head on. Additionally, in terms of more pornographic writing, it is more conducive to erotic fantasy to imagine a body that is wholly other, thus freeing the imagined experience and allowing for heightened physical responses that are unmoored from actual experience (Rachel A 2015). While these arguments all have some validity, they continue to remain stable only when a singular axis of difference is considered—that of gender. The almost total domination of white male bodies forming the focus of well over 60 years of documented male slash writing (drawing primarily from English-language media texts) points to the fact that some male bodies are clearly too much the other to form the object of fantasy or escape.

[2.5] These are highly problematic positions, especially when they seem to lead to a conclusion that the most subversive thing queer women can do in fandom spaces is write about white male homosexual relationships. Our understanding of what makes up subversion, resistance, and co-option in fan practices therefore needs further interrogation, especially from an intersectional standpoint. In this essay, we refer to intersectionality in the light of Kimberlé Crenshaw's (1991) powerful formulation of the complex layering of discrimination that black women in particular have historically faced. This formulation has been adopted across disciplines to underline the need for multifaceted approaches to analyses of various issues that take into account race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, and disability, among other aspects of identity. In the particular case of fandom, a failure to adopt such a position leads to the unquestioning elevation of white queer relationships over those which include nonwhite characters, even in the contemporary reality of US-based popular cultural texts wherein interracial relationships are still a rarity. One example of this was the backlash against the canon relationship of the characters of Spock and Nyota Uhura in the Star Trek reboot movie released in 2009. As a text hailed to be the originator of male slash fandom activity, the new Star Trek movie was eagerly awaited by many fans, and the chemistry between the characters of Kirk and Spock made them rapidly into the fandom juggernaut. However, this also led to considerable amount of racism and misogyny directed at Uhura within fan fic and meta, especially from the fans of the Kirk and Spock pairing. As many black fans argued, for the canon to pair Uhura with one of the film's heroes was in fact a very unusual and subversive act, as black women are seldom depicted as romantic leads (Scodari 2012). For fannish spaces to try and erase that, often in extremely toxic ways, and then try to argue that this had been done in the name of pushing for greater queer representation is obviously a highly dubious and effectively racist position (peri-peteia 2009). While this particular example has been drawn from a male slash versus het formulation, femslash fandoms have often been guilty of these blind spots as well, as will be discussed in more detail the next section of this essay. To reiterate, this is a problem that affects all fandom spaces and should be examined as such.

[2.6] The notion of what constitutes subversiveness, therefore, needs to be further interrogated from multiple perspectives, including the variegation of dynamics found in femslash fandoms. For instance, Russo (2013) argues that,

[2.7] male slash implies a particular mode of reading that interfaces with the mass media's codes for representing masculinity: because affectionate gestures between men are taboo, onscreen instances of intimate male–male relationships appear charged with romance and eroticism. In the rarer cases where two female characters have a close relationship, their attachment may be expressed more freely but thus read less clearly as homoerotic. (458)

[2.8] This lens is certainly accurate in terms of some male slash pairings that have garnered fan attention, but it is equally true that there are other dynamics (such as that of sworn enemies) that do not necessarily express affectionate intimacy and have also garnered massive followings. Similarly, fans invested in queer female relationships are drawn to a wide range of relationship dynamics. Isaksson's (2009) analysis of the BDSM-heavy fan fic written for the pairing of the characters of Buffy Summers and Faith in the cult television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003) offers one such example. Both women were vampire slayers and were portrayed as frequently shifting between being collaborators and antagonists. Their clashes were read by many fans as explicitly erotic, and related violent power dynamics were frequently explored in fan fic about them. Isaksson notes, "The sexual pleasures of violence and pain are frequently thematized in femslash featuring the two Slayers, which challenges the gender coding of violent sexuality in the canon as well as in Buffyverse kink-fic" (22). Swan Queen, which forms our case study in this essay, had similar antagonist/collaborator dynamics in the first season of Once Upon a Time, and was interpreted as similarly erotically charged by femslash fans. It would therefore not be inaccurate to affirm that femslash fandoms do engage with multiple dynamics between female characters and, in doing so, expand the ambit of what could be considered homoerotic and subversive expressions of queer female desire.

3. Negotiating race in femslash juggernauts

[3.1] Before moving to our specific case study, it is necessary to locate that discussion within a broader consideration of how femslash fandoms other than Swan Queen have engaged (or not) with race. Considering the limited scope of this essay, we will focus on three fandoms that have had a considerable impact on the growth of femslash communities at different points in time—(1) Xena: Warrior Princess (1995–2001), as Xena is the starting point of most discussions of femslash, and it remains central to conceptualizations about what the act of shipping two women together based on textual cues (overt or subtextual) has signified since then; (2) Glee (2009–15), since it remains a watershed moment in terms of queer representation on mainstream television, and the pairing of Brittany and Santana is significant for this essay's analysis for its depiction of an interracial queer relationship and its interpretation by fandom; and (3) The Legend of Korra (2012–14), an animated series set in a fictionalized Asian-inspired universe, since it allows us to examine the specific (sometimes problematic) ways in which fandom has depicted both Korra and Asami as nonwhite characters.

[3.2] While femslash fan works have existed since the time of printed fanzines, the online communities formed around the ship of Xena/Gabrielle (Xena: Warrior Princess) were the first ones to attract the attention of fan scholars (Helford 2000, Jones 2000). Jones characterizes the Xena femslashers as lesbian and bisexual women who "identify themselves among history's lost tribes—the colonized, the terrorized, the outcast, the dispossessed" (405). Additionally, Jones claims that with their queer reworkings of the text, fans "rethink history itself and, in particular, its inscriptions of marginalized identities" (406). The language of this analysis is troubling, as it leans heavily toward equating all femslashers with historically oppressed cultures and communities that face the brunt of appropriation and colonization within the text of Xena itself. For instance, in the highly problematic India arc in season 4, the show's rethinking of history results in egregious orientalism and exoticization, while also facilitating white saviorism. By ignoring the real, historical intersections of power in the reworking of myth and history in the show and focusing purely on the available queer readings of the text (focusing on two white female characters), both fans and academics allow for only a single axis of identity around which to base ideas of subversion and resistance. This trajectory of research has also been replicated in more recent studies of Xena's queer fandom (Hanmer 2014). As pointed out earlier, this is by no means unique to femslash fandoms, but it does set up a troubling precedent in terms of their framing and, specifically, in their loaded choice of terms.

[3.3] Following on from this, much has been written about the profound effect Ryan Murphy's Glee has had on the way queerness, especially teen queerness, is depicted on US television screens. While much of the analysis has focused on the characters of Kurt and Blaine, the pairing of Brittany and Santana (known as Brittana) has also been seen as pivotal (Jacobs 2014; Hobson 2015). Brittana was not originally part of the plan for the show's writers, who decided to turn a throwaway in-joke into a character arc only after fans advocated for it vociferously. As actress Naya Rivera (who played Santana) remarked, "Who knows if the writers would have taken that relationship so seriously if there hadn't been such an outpouring for them to get together" (Ito 2011). This level of response certainly points to the fact that femslashers made up a very significant part of Glee fandom and also marked one of the first times in which a television show responded to demands of fans in context of a nonheterosexual relationship (note 3).

[3.4] Given the attention the show and its fans have received, it is surprising that there has not been much in-depth analysis of the fan fic produced around it. Ellison's (2013) examination of the Glee kink meme brings up some extremely interesting data on how various kinks were conceptualized in that shared fannish space, showing once again the interconnectedness of these genres. While not the primary focus of this essay, Ellison's detailing of certain femslash-specific kinks, such as the frequency of girl!penis, also points to a much greater variegation in how queer female sexuality is being conceptualized in these spaces than has been explored so far in fan studies. Ellison, however, does not focus on racial dynamics, and neither is this remarked upon in other fan-centric analyses of the show (Marwick, Gray, and Ananny 2014). While Santana's queer Latina identity has been analyzed within the narrative of the show, these studies do not focus on fan texts (Phelps 2014; Molina-Guzmán 2013).

[3.5] In order to investigate how fan authors in the Brittana fandom negotiated with Santana's racial and ethnic identity (or if they did so at all), we examined a series of interviews that were conducted by Tumblr user oh-thats-wanky of seven high-profile fan fic writers in 2012 (oh-thats-wanky 2012). In each of the interviews, the authors were asked about their preferred writing styles, their favorite aspect of the pairing, and how they research their stories. It is intriguing that while there is mention of researching specific aspects of music, costumes, setting, and so on that are incorporated into various story ideas, there is almost no mention of researching Santana's background or positioning within these narratives. Out of the seven writers, only one, referred to as JJ and who writes as themostrandomfandom, mentions considering the intersections of Santana's identity as part of her isolation within "a group of outcasts." In the specific alternate universe (AU) fan fic referenced in the interview, The Knife Thrower's Daughter, Santana's experience of being racially coded is central to her introduction into the narrative, as she is considered a possibly exotic addition to a circus ensemble. After speculating on her possible ethnicities, the circus manager, Mr. Adams, decides that it would be best for her to have a "favorable nationality" and asks if she can "feign an accent."

[3.6] "Pardon?" Santana asks, confused as to whether Mr. Adams would prefer her to have an accent or not. Her whole body flutters with nerves. She feels her pulse pick up in neck and bites her lip. "I'm afraid I don't understand."

[3.7] "Nobody wants an American-born fortuneteller," Mr. Adams says bluntly. He scrutinizes Santana a second longer and then repeats, very calmly, "Can you or can you not feign an accent?"

[3.8] Santana searches inside herself, wondering if she can. She's never pretended such a thing before. She thinks of her grandmother, of her rounded t-sounds and wide vowels and nods gingerly. "Yes, I believe I can," she says, mimicking her grandmother's accent, putting lifts and flares into her words that she's never used before while speaking English.

[3.9] In her own ears, it's a poor imitation to the beautiful cursive of her grandmother's speech, but the attempt seems to satisfy Mr. Adams nonetheless.

[3.10] "Very good," he says staunchly. "The country folk won't know the difference between Spanish and Italian anyhow. You sound exotic. You can pass."

[3.11] Pass. (themostrandomfandom 2012)

[3.12] Clearly then, while not an overt concern in much of the fan writing and analysis around the pairing, some writers were well aware of the nuanced nature of Santana's experience of queerness and isolation. It is also interesting to note that Glee debuted in 2009, the same year as RaceFail '09. In many ways, this event, though not engaged with at the same level in all fandom spaces, marked a watershed in the ways in which debates around these issues were framed. While fans who point out the overwhelming whiteness and US-centrism of fan spaces and texts still face backlash, there has been a definite shift in the ways these categories are approached.

[3.13] This aspect can be further interrogated through a brief analysis of the fan activity around the critically acclaimed animated series The Legend of Korra. Korra is a unique text in a number of ways, but most significantly for this essay, it is set in a completely nonwhite world (note 4). The character of Korra initially seems to be interested primarily in Mako, even dating him, but by the end of the show is quite clearly romantically involved with Asami (amusingly also Mako's ex-girlfriend). While not made absolutely explicit in the main text of the show, its cocreator Bryan Konietzko confirmed the pairing on his blog immediately after the finale aired (Konietzko 2014). Korrasami occupies a unique space as one of the only popular nonwhite couples occupying a primary position in an English-language fandom (het, male slash, or femslash) and thus their interpretation in fan texts becomes key in this analysis. As a largely Tumblr-based fandom, the pairing has produced a large amount of fan art, wherein there is a troubling trend of colorism in the depiction of the canonically darker-skinned Korra and the fairer Asami. In many cases, Korra's skin is lightened by fan artists, either consciously or unconsciously. In other cases, especially those that imagine the pairing in AUs, Asami is often whitewashed with her cultural specificity erased.

[3.14] This can be a problem both of art-style and of setting. Fan artists often remix narrative worlds from different source texts to produce images set in AU's. This can have troubling effects if there is an erasure of specific racial/cultural/ethnic contexts. In our survey of artwork for the pairing, we came across numerous examples that placed Korra and Asami into the universe of the Disney version of Tarzan. This is a problematic choice because apart from the fact that the Tarzan story itself is deeply racist, the darker-skinned Korra was consistently cast in the role of the uncivilized brute who must be tamed by Asami—who was inevitably cast in the role of Jane. While such positioning may well be unintentional on the part of fan artists, it nonetheless reinforces, implicitly and explicitly, racist stereotypes and narratives. We have chosen not to use specific examples of fan art here so as not to single out individual fans, but it is important to note this trend—along with documented racism in practices like cosplay—in order to see this as an issue that affects all aspects of fan activity (Eddy 2013; Gooden 2016). Fan art has so far mainly been studied as important in terms of youth educational activities, and as such would also benefit from an intersectional lens (Manifold 2009; Zaremba 2015).

[3.15] It is in these contexts of erasure, awareness, and misrepresentation that we locate our case study of Swan Queen fandom. Along with Glee and The Legend of Korra, it stands among the most popular present-day femslash fandoms that feature at least one character of color (Curious 2015). Swan Queen, as another post–RaceFail '09 fandom, has had to negotiate with the source text's problematic handling of both its queer subtext and its racial dynamics, as well as engage with the fandom's often virulent ship wars and address its own blind spots when it comes to race and ethnicity. Our analysis will trace how some fans, often identifying as fans of color, have attempted to reinscribe race as a constitutive element in their meta-readings of the source text and in fan works. Given the source text's marked instances of egregious racefail, these moments of intervention within popular fan works that assert the need to claim Regina Mills as a Latina and represent her as such become charged with meaning on the dual axes of race and queerness.

4. Once upon a problematic show

[4.1] Once Upon a Time, produced by Adam Horowitz and Eddie Kitsis, is a fantasy drama that aspires to be a modern take on fairytales familiarized by the Grimm Brothers and, more importantly, Disney, which owns the rights to most of the show's characters. The show's premise has, at its very heart, a nonheteronormative familial configuration. The Evil Queen of Snow White fame (Regina Mills, played by Lana Parrilla) casts a curse to destroy all happy endings, one that transports the majority of the residents of the Enchanted Forest to the fictional Storybrooke, Maine, in "our" world, the Land Without Magic. Snow White and Prince Charming (Ginnifer Goodwin and Josh Dallas), in a final effort to defeat the Queen, send their infant daughter, who is the prophesied savior, through a portal to the Land Without Magic. This daughter, Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison), grows up an orphan, and in a dark period in her life, gives birth in prison to a boy whom she puts up for adoption. Ten years later, that boy (Henry Mills, played by Jared Gilmore) shows up at her doorstep, with the words, "My name's Henry. I'm your son," and recruits her—albeit reluctantly—to the cause of taking him home to his adoptive mother, Regina Mills, whom he claims is the Evil Queen, and whose curse Emma must break to save them all. This premise—"Henry has two mommies," as it is often referred to—and the protagonist/antagonist relationship between Regina and Emma that drove the show's plot in the first season, found its resonance with femslashers who flocked to the fandom.

[4.2] In the course of its five seasons, Once Upon a Time has accrued numerous charges of racefail and queerfail from its viewers. The show's main cast continues to feature only one POC, Lana Parrilla, who is of Puerto Rican/Italian heritage and identifies as a Latina. Until the fifth (current) season of the show, there were no explicitly queer characters, despite its heavily subtextual teasing of Mulan's bisexuality—first, with her gender ambiguous expression of love for Princess Aurora, and later, with the characters Ruby and Merida in the fifth season of the show. The show's producers announced the inclusion of an LGBT storyline in the fifth season as a show of support for its queer audience, saying that, "We know that community have been big supporters of the show and we would love to be able to tell a love story that reflects that" (O'Sullivan 2016). The eventual love story, featuring two white characters (Ruby and Dorothy) played by guest stars with no larger role in the narrative, left many viewers disappointed, even as others observed that it "sent a strong signal of support to LGBT fans and openly defied the homophobes in Once Upon a Time's viewership base for the first time in series history" (Sparks 2016). The fandom, despite these fails, continues to be a thriving one.

[4.3] The particular problem with articulating queer spaces and texts as the only or primary axis of identity within fan communities, and the extension of that to academic theorizations of subversion and resistance in fan spaces, becomes apparent when one considers the fault lines within the Swan Queen fandom's celebration of the nonheteronormative family unit of Regina, Henry, and Emma, or the Swan–Mills family. The show's problematic storyline in the early seasons that constituted the undermining of Regina as Henry's evil adoptive mother in favor of Emma as the good biological mother, the white savior, was hotly contested by most fans of Regina's character and Swan Queen. The canon storyline was perceived as antiadoption and, furthermore, as one that presents a disturbing mirror to the systemic racism in real-world practices that leads to a disproportionate number of women of color in the USA being deemed unfit to raise their children (Roberts 2002; Garcia, Aisenberg, and Harachi 2012). In the words of a fan, stanley-tuccis, responding to a storyline in the second half of the show's third season, wherein a memory-wiped Henry remembers being raised by Emma, as opposed to Regina, "Regina is being robbed of her identity again. which shouldn't be surprising. but it's sad…we are in season 3 and Regina is still being denied as a mother. as Henry's mother. and that is so fucked up" (stanley-tuccis 2014).

[4.4] Regina's Latinidad has been a subject of relentless scrutiny within the fandom, even though the actress, Lana Parrilla, playing the said character identifies as Latina and once famously claimed, in what would become a rallying cry for many fans, "Yes, the Evil Queen is a Latina!" ( Once Upon a Time's mythology, especially in its homogenous vaguely European, Disneyesque fairytale land, does not make an effort to elaborate on the racial or ethnic identities of characters of color. In response to an anonymous question posted at the sqfanawards Tumblr (a Swan Queen fan fic awards blog)—"Are there any fics that acknowledge Regina being Latina (and not just through epithets or a few lines) in the nominated/winning fics [at the sqfanawards]?"—the moderator wrote, "Now is where I feel completely confused and don't understand where this specific canon [head or otherwise] came from. Explicitly within the show nowhere did it even hint as to what nationality or race she's portraying" (sqfanawards 2014). The position taken by the sqfanawards moderator, demanding explicit articulations of ethnic/racial identity for characters of color in fannish source texts, is not uncommon in fan spaces, cutting across het/male slash/femslash spectrums. The default whiteness of mass media productions—of which Once Upon a Time is a prime example—allows for color-blind interpretations of the source text, even within queer fan spaces that celebrate diversity and the subversive pleasure of queering a heteronormative space. Tumblr user wherethewhiled, identifying herself as a Chinese American fan, drives the point across when she writes,

[4.5] sqfanawards, your post asks for fact, proof and explicit statements re: Regina's heritage and race. Here is a fact that I can provide: race and ethnic identities are not conditional, it is not an optional character trait, it is relevant 100% of the time. It isn't ever "superfluous" in life, it is an inextricable part of who a person is, it impacts how a person lives. Therefore, if a story is to portray a human being well, how can those identities be "superfluous"? How does it not impact that character's story? The answer is: when we homogenize, then default characters to "colour-blind" white or a generalized white culture. The kicker is: people of colour in real life do not have that privilege of being treated as "without colour," and so, when that outright erasure happens in fiction, it isn't an extra detail that could or could not be included, it is a life of triumphs and hardships and pain that is being stripped and thoughtlessly dismissed as unimportant. (wherethewhiled 2014)

[4.6] It becomes evident from the aforementioned debates that for sections of the Swan Queen fandom—one that fights regular, often-virulent battles with canon shippers of heterosexual ships on its reading of queer subtext in Emma Swan and Regina Mills's relationship—emphasizing of Regina Mills's Latinidad holds enormous value, one that is no less significant than their queering of the heteronormative maintext of Once Upon a Time. In some readings of this reclamation of their favorite character's Latinidad, fans flesh out elements of her backstory as a sympathetic villain to read the story of the Evil Queen's rise as a narrative seeped in white privilege and racial oppression. Once Upon a Time represents the fabled enmity between Snow White and her Evil Stepmother as one wherein the cruel machinations of Regina's mother and the master manipulator Rumpelstiltskin (played by Robert Carlyle), led to her marriage to Snow White's much-older father, King Leopold, against her will. Tumblr user deemnfic, another fan identifying herself as a fan of color, addresses this backstory, arguing, "Regina's forced marriage to Leopold can be likened to the position of a house slave or Mammy," and further, that it was a clear instance of "buying" an "older girl of color—to raise the lily-white child" (deemn 2013).

[4.7] Although Swan Queen fan fic engages with these readings of Regina's story in multiple ways, we will limit our discussion to two stories, both well-received in the fandom: Cops&Robbers by deemn (deemn 2014), which is an unfinished canon divergence story that sends the Swan–Mills family to New York and uses the fake marriage trope to advance Emma and Regina's relationship, and Send Up a Signal (that everything's fine) by coalitiongirl (coalitiongirl 2015), an AU that has Regina and Emma star in a television fantasy drama called Happily Ever After, which is in fact a reimagining of Once Upon a Time. Our choice of these two stories, apart from their reception within fandom, is to underline this complex wrangling of Regina's queer Latinidad as a constitutive element of fannish subversive practices.

[4.8] deemn's story, in a clever sleight of hand, places Regina and her family in New York in a bid to escape persecution for her past crimes as the Evil Queen and, in the process, squarely forces her—and the readers along with her—to confront a world wherein color-blindness is not an option afforded to people of color. The fan fic weaves in canonical references to dubious paperwork produced by Rumpelstiltskin (Gold) for Henry's adoption, and thus Regina finds herself in a position wherein she is a Latina without paperwork in the real world:

[4.9] She lays it out quickly, quietly. On paper, Regina doesn't exist. All the paperwork Gold forged for Henry's adoption describes a now forty-seven year old woman, but there's no paper trail for the last fourteen years, and modifying the original adoption records—it's going to be a mess. (deemn 2014)

[4.10] Emma and Regina find themselves thwarted, among others things, by attempts on the part of an enthusiastic realtor who attempts to find them a neighborhood in the city they'll fit in:

[4.11] Air whistles over the bottle top as Emma sucks in a breath. "Yeah, it was the white trash plus Spanish plus lesbians part."

[4.12] Regina lets the misnomer slide, just this once, chews at the inside of her lower lip until she thinks she has words in the right order. (deemn 2014)

[4.13] In one delicate moment, the narrative manages to address the complex intersections of multiple loci of privilege and oppression—sexuality, race, and class. Elsewhere in the story, Regina's lack of Spanish-speaking ability becomes a part of the fan fic's commentary on Latinx identity in present day America, with its constant negotiation with language and belonging. In deemn's version of events, there is no scope for ambiguity on the Evil Queen's queer Latinidad—the circumstances of the narrative do not allow its readers to forget that Regina is Latina, that regardless of the fantastic setting of Once Upon a Time, it is, at the end of the day, a product of our world and is enmeshed in its dynamics of power and oppression. In the process, it forces us to reconsider assumptions about the superfluity of racial/ethnic identities of characters of color in everyday fannish practices.

[4.14] coalitiongirl's Send Up a Signal (that everything's fine), reimagines Once Upon a Time as Happily Ever After, a modern fantasy drama. It stars the debutante Emma Swan and veteran actress Regina Mills, and in a conscious act of racebending, casts an Afro-Latino original character (Jamaal) as their son in the fictional show's narrative. The show is produced by none other than Cora Mills (Regina's mother) and Leopold Blanchard (King Leopold), who serve as convenient stand-ins for the showrunners and writers. A love letter to the Swan Queen fandom, the fan fic is a story of triumph against all odds—Emma and Regina's television counterparts, Rose and Victoria, overcome the demands of heteronormative storytelling and queerbaiting to eventually emerge as a canon couple, even as the two women who play the said characters navigate their own love story and the perils of being queer in a homophobic media industry. There are inside jokes and tongue-in-cheek references to various incidents over the years that are instantly recognizable to Swan Queen fans, but amidst it all, the story never loses sight of the fact that "the Evil Queen is a Latina." The author, who identifies as white, locates her in a world wherein racism is an everyday reality, often in delicate touches such as her typecasting in Hollywood.

[4.15] The story's most scathing commentary on race and representation in the white-dominated culture industry, however, is reserved for the character of Cora, whose blasé appropriation of the language of social justice leads to proclamations such as, "If we can't write diversity into our fantasy, what's the purpose of fantasy at all?," even as she defends her choice to cast white actors for the role of Jamaal's biological parents and calls herself a progressive showrunner. The stinging hypocrisy, in tune with Cora's canon characterization, is of course a commentary on the white-dominated media industry as a whole, but on Once Upon a Time in particular—weighed down by echoes of years of fannish outrage over multiple instances of racefail and Twitter trends like #OnceUponARacefail.

[4.16] coalitiongirl's story then turns its gaze upon the fandom itself. Happily Ever After's Victory Rose fandom (fans of Emma and Regina's television counterparts, Rose and Victoria), mirrors the Swan Queen fandom and its own complexities in the real world. In one instance, the fannish response to an offhand comment by Jamaal on Victory Rose—"gross," said laughingly, before a serious, positive response on the same—leads to furious allegations of homophobia from a fandom that thinks nothing of branding a 16-year-old an angry black man:

[4.17] He's 16. If he doesn't understand why he can't reply to a question about queer women by calling them GROSS, he shouldn't be at cons.

[4.18] Idk, he seemed really angry in that video. Like he didn't want to be asked about it at all. (coalitiongirl 2015)

[4.19] Within the narrative, Jamaal manages to escape the incident without career-damaging repercussions after interventions by both the protagonists on his behalf, but the story nonetheless seems to ask if queer fan spaces that are quick to raise charges of homophobia, at times at the expense of considerations of their own lack of awareness of racial dynamics and oppression, are necessarily as progressive as they aspire to be. Indeed, this is a key question for both fan spaces and fan studies going forward.

[4.20] The racial dynamics within Swan Queen fandom and the fault lines therein, as a case study, serve to highlight this contradiction between inclusion and everyday racial erasure that is part and parcel of fannish spaces. Certain fan practices, as we have underlined in our analysis, can constitute negotiations with such erasure—sometimes by reclaiming a favorite character as emphatically not white, through the creative reworking of canon in meta and fan works that engage explicitly with racial identity. Indeed, as the case of the Swan Queen fandom suggests, such negotiation and engagement makes for an integral part of fannish practice.

5. Conclusion

[5.1] Throughout this essay, we have traced the differential intersecting and interlocking aspects of identity that, while always being present in both popular cultural texts and the communities that form around them, need to be given further weight in academic theorizations of resistance, subversion, and co-option. As we have argued, racial and ethnic identity must be considered as important to our conceptualizations about fandom spaces as we have always considered gender and sexuality. To do otherwise will be to repeat the mistakes of fields such as feminist and queer studies that have at times unwittingly reinscribed the idea that race is somehow an additional aspect of cultural experience, something that can be disregarded at will (Ford 2011; Thomlinson 2012). Fan studies continues to have a strong thread of reading fan culture (especially female-dominated aspects of it) as enabling spaces that allow for greater freedom in (re)crafting the cultural narratives that seek to order our world. While these spaces definitely work to disrupt hegemonic constructions of what kinds of stories are allowable in fan communities, their recurrent biases and erasures are equally present. As elsodex, a Swan Queen fan, puts it when talking about the difficulties of writing Regina as Latina:

[5.2] This discussion we are having right now. This, right here, is an example of how, in order for our identities to be validated, we almost have to turn ourselves into utter caricatures just to be seen. Not only is that bullshit, but it's fucking harmful as all fuck. For everyone.

[5.3] What I'm trying to get at here is, it takes finesse and frankly, experience to write this sort of thing well. But that's difficult, when the examples we end up learning from are so messed up to begin with that we just end up perpetuating these things.

[5.4] So I understand sociopsychologically why some authors would feel the need to write with little epitaphs with no thought or consideration for the actual reality of the character.

[5.5] But here's the thing—none of that is an excuse. You want fanfic to be redemptive? You want fandom to be a "Take that!" to the corporations who own the stories—to be the capital "T" capital "V" True Voice of the people?

[5.6] Then you've got to fucking earn it, folks. (elsodex 2014)

6. Notes

1. To summarize, RaceFail '09 refers to a series of blog posts written by fans engaged in the science fiction and fantasy (SF/F) community, initially written in response to SF/F author Elizabeth Bear's (2009) advice about writing the other in fiction. These posts pointed out both Bear's apparent hypocrisy, critiquing her record of portraying people of color, and encompassed the failings of the SF/F genre as a whole when dealing with the issue of race. While it is not within the scope of this chapter to discuss the specific series of events that made up RaceFail, the discussions that took place, which involved fans, writers, and editors, have impacted the ways nonwhite fans engage with such issues across media fandom. For more, see Fanlore entry

2. For instance, in the case of the television show The 100 (2014–), the overwhelming negative reaction to the killing off of one half of the femslash ship of Clarke and Lexa (known as Clexa) is certainly proof by any estimation that femslash fandoms in the present day more than make up the numbers in terms of fan activity (Roth 2016).

3. This has also been dubbed the Brittana Effect, whereby fans of other shows have taken inspiration to advocate for their favorite queer ships to become canon, couching their arguments in terms of increasing diversity on television. This kind of advocacy, while welcome in certain contexts, also must remain contextualized within other aspects of representation in the concerned texts.

4. The problematics of creating an Asian-inspired fantasy world have been commented on by both fans and critics, but the show's treatment of individual cultural practices that make up its universe has in the main been well received by nonwhite fans.

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