Fan fiction culture is unique (and not just because it’s one of the only spaces you’ll find dramatic YouTube readings of stories starring characters like “Enoby”, “Vlodemort”, and “Dumblydore”). It is also one of the few online spaces that is primarily female.
This is a realm in which girls and women can mold popular culture to their own interests, taking what’s been sold to them and changing or improving it. It can be especially powerful for female fans who feel excluded from more stereotypically male-dominated genres like sci fi or fantasy.
Now, some independent filmmakers are trying to make a movie about it. Called Slash, the Kickstarter page for the film describes it as a “coming-of-age comedy” about “high school freshman Neil” whose life changes when an older student gets him to publish his fan fiction online.
It’s cool that this movie is being made. But, why is the protagonist a boy??
This is a movie about a subculture created overwhelmingly by and for girls and women, in response to their marginalization in mainstream media — and it seems only to continue to erase us. In making the main character a boy, it looks like these filmmakers have missed the point of fan fiction in the first place.
And while I hate to pick on an independent filmmaker, this is part of a much larger issue.
A more compelling example is the upcoming film about the 1969 Stonewall riots, which triggered the beginning of the mainstream American gay rights movement. Butch lesbians and trans women of color were leaders in the actual, historical events the movie portrays, but the film appears to replace them with a white male protagonist. Although it’s hard to judge fairly based on previews alone, Stonewall seems to seriously downplay women’s roles in a major event in American civil rights history.
What’s going on here? I would think that women’s contributions to popular culture and history were being ignored, but clearly they aren’t: they’re the focus of feature films. On the contrary, it seems that women’s contributions are so significant that men are given credit for them.
Supplanting girls and women with boys and men in media is also, of course, a marketing tactic. It’s conventional wisdom that books and movies use male protagonists so that they can reach a wider audience: girls will read books about boys, but boys won’t read books about girls. This is a harmful belief for many reasons — for instance, it implies that men are the more highly-valued audience. Their stories and voices are more worth representing, and their attention is more worth getting, than girls’ and women’s.
And this is exactly the problem that female fan fiction culture exists to remedy. Oh, the irony.
Sasha Albert holds a Master’s degree in Gender and Sexuality from the University of Amsterdam, and works in public health research in the Boston area.