A Plea to Fandoms - Stop Erasing the Women!
I have been reading fanfiction for more than fifteen years, and writing it for almost as long. During that time, I've seen fandoms go through all kinds of phases, on many different platforms. For the most part, I've stayed out of the whirlwind of fandom conflict, preferring to write what I like, when I like. Many trends have come and gone, but one trend continues to trouble me...especially given the point of this blog.
That trend is the continuing and purposeful erasure of female characters in and by their own fandoms.
A few disclaimers. Of course, there are fandoms where this is not true. Ensemble casts with mostly women, for example, do not show this trend. This piece will be about several specific fandoms, though its lessons may prove valuable to other movies and shows.
Let's begin with my current major fandom: Marvel. More specifically, the Thor branch of the ever-expanding Marvel tree. Up until the release of the first Thor movie, I hadn't really been caught up in the MCU. Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, while good movies, were just that; good adventure flicks meant to pass the time. As a fanfic writer, I look for a larger universe with a more speculative end, and those films didn't give me that.
Also, though Pepper Potts and Betty Ross are solid characters, neither of them appealed to me as an "in" to the MCU, so to speak.
Then came Thor. It's a movie that's right up my alley, mingling fantasy and reality with appealing characters and a great, heroic story. It also had what I was waiting for in the MCU...a leading woman I could finally get behind.
Jane's a scientist, fully engaged in pursuing her own goals when she bumps into Thor. At no point in the movie does she relinquish her ambition to ally with Thor, unless her goals and his happen to coincide. She's driven and absentminded, easily flustered but resolutely passionate...and she goes for what she wants, kissing Thor with as much enthusiasm as she drives into a storm.
Jane is nuanced, detailed, and—in my opinion—gets even stronger characterization in the movie than Thor does. At the end of the film, I had a stronger grasp of her personality than the leading man's!
So—as any avid fanfiction reader does—I went immediately to to read everyone's take on what happens next.
And you know what? From the movie's release in 2011 to the date writing this (March 16, 2016), Jane is written out of her own goddamned story.
If you search for the "Jane Foster" tag on AO3, how many stories do you find? 7,208.
That seems like a lot until you search for "Thor". He has 31,498.
And Loki? 29,244.
Now, you can spin this in a multitude of ways. Jane has only been in 2 movies, as opposed to Loki's 3 and Thor's 4. You could argue (badly, and you'd be wrong—but you could argue it) that she's not a main character in either of her films.
But the math doesn't line up. Thor and Loki both have four times the amount of fic Jane does!
Besides, this is fanfiction. Writers can do anything in the big, sprawling, interconnected MCU. If writers wanted Jane to be there, she would be there.
I could do the same analysis for every woman in the MCU, but I would be willing to bet that it's the same for pretty much every single one (with the possible exceptions of Natasha and Darcy, who has the Darcyland fandom on her side, but even so...).
There are dozens of excuses for why this could be; there are more men in the MCU, so more shipping possibilities exist that only include men. Writers may just not "click" with the MCU's women, and therefore aren't as interested in writing them.
But I'm not doing an in-depth analysis of each story...I'm just counting numbers. And by the numbers alone, MCU fanfic writers are leaving women out by a huge margin.
Why not write Sharon Carter into your Stucky romance? Why not have Thor remembering Jane fondly even as he develops a relationship with his adopted brother? Why not have Maya Hanson survive IM3 and partner with the Science Bros? Even if Tony ends up with someone else romantically, that doesn't mean you have to brush Pepper aside!
These are all options...all interesting ones. And I'm sure they have been written. Just not enough.
So much for the MCU. Let's switch gears and talk about a completely different scenario: The Hobbit.
Of course, the original book had no female characters. Not one. When the movies came out and Tauriel was announced as a new, main character, there were various currents of backlash. Naturally, some of it was from the die-hard gatekeeping fanboys who complained that not a single change should be made despite, you know, 50% of the world's population being left out of the story.
However, the fanfiction community has not welcomed her either. A woman was added to the story—and yes, she was a token woman, and yes, she could not possibly appeal to everyone—but she was added to the story for us. For the audience.
And she's been ignored.
Search for "Tauriel" on Ao3, and what do you find? 2,693 stories.
Okay, so she's not a lead, and we don't have the book to give us detail into her character. Let's apply that to another character in the same boat.
Thranduil, the elf-king of Mirkwood, is not even mentioned by name in The Hobbit. So his expanded role in the movies should be just as suspect as Tauriel's added role, right?
Well, let's see. Searching for "Thranduil" on Ao3 and...5,608.
You know what? Before writing that last segment I hadn't even looked at the numbers, and I was hoping against hope that my hypothesis would be wrong. But when the number popped up...damn it, I'm seething now. I have also done myself the additional disservice of searching for "Bombur", the dwarf in the 13 who says not a single word on-screen...and he has 2,115 stories, just shy of Tauriel.
Tauriel was an interesting addition to The Hobbit, and this is coming from someone who did not expect to like her. Before seeing the movies, I assumed she would be just a kickass elf-warrior there to look pretty and fall in love. And unfortunately, Evangeline Lilly was thrown into a love triangle in post-production, one she fought against and one which was as ham-handedly shoehorned in as I'd anticipated.
But she was also more than that. Through the movies, we get hints of her personality and character; she is a moral force. She saves Kili because it's the right thing to do, not because she loves him. She risks banishment to do it; had Legolas not supported her, she would have been banished. She stands up to Thranduil; outside of Gandalf, she is the only one who does this.
In addition, it's implied that Tauriel's confrontation with Thranduil is what makes him return to the field. She makes him see reason when his own son can't do it.
Isn't that worth some exploring?
If Tauriel were a man, I guarantee you it would be.
In closing, let me just add a personal note.
When I was growing up, fanfiction was my way of figuring out who I was, in a lot of different ways. It helped me through the confusion of puberty by letting me explore my sexuality through the lens of fiction. It helped me hone my writing skills and follow my ambitions as a fiction writer. It's inspired me, entertained me, and comforted me.
But it also disappoints me when I see numbers like this. Because so many fanfiction writers are women, and it concerns me to see women writing themselves out of their own stories.
Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying you have to find Natasha more interesting than Steve, or think that Tauriel should get more notice than Bilbo. I'm not saying you have to—or even should—write heterosexual or lesbian romances if you're a woman. God, no.
What I am saying is that you should romanticize the female characters as much as you do the men. There are so many male characters who have minimal roles in their source material that are given ambitious backstories and relationships in fandom to rival any leading character. At the same time, leading women are shunted aside.
Is it any wonder that studio heads are wondering if female-lead products can be successful?
For better or for worse, fanfiction is being recognized as a voice for the fandom. And we all know that fandoms can mobilize to save or sink their shows.
So if you really want more women on TV and in movies—more leading women, more nuanced women, more women in STEM, more bisexual and lesbian women, more any kind of women—for God's sake, support the ones you have in your fandoms!