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Personal Essay: Fanfiction and Representation
The first thing that I read that was really good fanfiction was a Harry Potter fic. It was an alternate universe piece, set in a rural high school, where Draco and Harry are pinning for some reason, a fake dating scheme, and prom. It wasn’t the first thing I read, that dubious honor goes to something on FF.net that I have repressed deep into my memory, but it’s the one that I can remember as one of the first, and then in some ways, is the first. The reason I still remember it, is because it serves as an example of both why I continue to read fanfiction and why I love it. It features, in all the glory of a sixteen year old’s first big writing attempt, a romance that is hard to find in bookshelves in now. A gay relationship.
I didn’t realize that people could be queer until I was around nine or ten, maybe eleven. This discovery directly coincided with me stumbling upon fanfiction. Fanfiction, in case you are wondering, is the timeless act of taking something that you love, be it movies, comic books, or TV shows, and reinventing it. Often it is centred around romantic relationships that would never play out in the actual canon, but sometimes it’s around giving characters a happy ending, or placing them in a modern setting. It was in fanfiction that I first saw diverse representation of gay relationships
I knew what being gay was, nebulously, but I never thought that it could be applied to me. All the stories I consumed were around the guy getting the girl, or sometimes the girl getting the guy. Rarely, they were about main character standing alone. I had no precedent or examples about queer relationships and queer love, and therefore had no system to even think that this might apply to me.
Fanfiction didn’t exactly make me gay, but it did open my eyes up to the idea that yes, I could be gay. Reading about healthy or sometimes even unhealthy relationships between men and other men, and between women and women, letting me feel more comfortable with the idea of being queer. Through fanfiction, I got something that I had been sorely missing from the published books I had been consuming: I felt that I could exist in my own skin and be a hero.
I know that I’m not the only who’s felt this way. People of color, girls, disabled people, trans people and more are underrepresented in our media. If they are shown, it’s often just one stereotype after another. This leads people to unconsciously undervaluing themselves, or thinking that it’s not possible for them to be anything but straight or white or cisgendered. When all your life you’ve been told that you can’t be anything beyond a stereotype, that what you are is inferior, or you can’t find anyone who looks anything like you, you start to remove yourself from the social identifiers that you are.
That was what happened to me. I read a lot of fiction when I was younger, and still do, but rarely did I ever read about a mixed race girl. Or a gay girl. Or a queer girl. Or a girl, really. Of course, I could find books about a guys, but try finding a guy that wasn’t white or straight or, hell, even respectful of his female companions in any of the books I read, and you’ll see there aren’t many. I still found fiction that I enjoyed, of course, but not being able to go to my library, pick out a book and say: “oh hey, she’s like me,” like the way so many guys can, taught me two things. One, that I should take what I can get, and two, that who I was was fundamentally wrong.
It was only when I got into fanfiction that I started to feel welcome somewhere. I started to feel I could belong into my skin, that yes, I could be more than what I was. As I got deeper and deeper into fanfiction, more and more things about me made since. Reading about how Buffy as time went on found Faith more and more attractive, and that she liked her in that way, it helped me realize that the fact I liked Anya in that way as well. Reading about how one of the more badass characters I liked was trans helped me become better at realizing my own biases.
As I got deeper and deeper into the world of fanfiction, learning more about what I liked to read and what I didn’t. I drifted in and out of fandoms, I also started to be more and more aware of my own sexuality. After starting to accept that being queer was a possibility, I did what a lot of questioning kids do: turn to the altar of the Internet for help. I read through several glossaries and chose a label that I had seen before, in fandom and in fanfiction: bisexual.
Trying to find published fiction that stars people like me was hard before; it’s harder even now. The most common kind of queer lit that you can find is for gay men, and in particular, white gay men. There is maybe one novel that I can think of, off the top of my head, has a queer man of color. In terms of finding books that even talk about WLW, the choices are even slimmer. Often times, if I want to read about a character like me in this aspect, I still have to turn to fanfiction. If by chance I do find one, it’s almost always about the sexuailty part. Not about a girl who likes girls and is the space-queen of France, or not about a kickass girl who’s dating a guy and is still bi. Which isn’t bad, per se, but it goes to show how little choice I have in terms of representative fiction.
The other day I reread a Les Miserables fic, Cosette and Eponine in a fantasy alternative universe, based off of Snow White. I’m only slightly embarrassed to say that I teared up a little. It hit most of the tropes and things that I love to see in a story, of any kind, and the fact that the relationship, one that I personally identify in some ways, was handled so well really was shocking. I don’t get to read many pieces that are like that, both fanfiction and not, and the simple fact is that so many other people, besides me, who aren’t even like me, can say the same is heartbreaking. It sucks to try and look for books that contain characters who carry some of your same social identifiers, and only find one or two. Both of which you have read before.
Fanfiction gave me the opportunity to explore my sexuailty, and it also gave the space, and some of the language, to define in. I’ll always be grateful for that. But it shouldn’t have had to be that way. I should have been able to, when I was nine or ten, walk into the kids section, and be able to find a gay character. Or a trans character. Or someone disabled, or someone with mental health issues. I shouldn’t have to go outside the world of “acceptable” fiction, to be able to get some representation in books. Fanfiction changed my life, and again, I’m grateful for it, but I don’t other kids growing up without books that they can relate to.
Fiction has profound effects. People cry over it, people rejoice when the main character wins, or looses, and people see themselves in it. Fanfiction is a space that is ultimately created for people to put themselves into the story. And even if we aren’t given the language, or the understanding, or the tools, people will find a way to write about themselves. It’s the beauty of fiction: if you can’t find what you want, make it.