From time to time, the OTW will be hosting guest posts on our OTW News accounts. These guests will be providing an outside perspective on the OTW or aspects of fandom where our projects may have a presence. The posts express each author’s personal views and do not necessarily reflect the views of the OTW or constitute OTW policy. We welcome suggestions from fans for future guest posts, which can be left as a comment here or by contacting us directly.
Bridget Liang is a mixed race, queer, transfeminine, neurodiverse, disabled, fat fangirl. They’re a PhD candidate in the Gender, Feminist, and Women’s Studies Program at York University, a community researcher, workshop and group facilitator, performance artist, and fiction writer. Catherine Duchastel de Montrouge is a PhD student in Science and Technology Studies at York University in Ontario, and a research assistant in the PiET (Practices in Enabling Technologies) lab in the Lassonde School of Engineering and Computer Science. Cath is interested in how technosocial practices influence disability discourses in fanfiction spaces. Today, Bridget & Cath talk about their work on disability and fanfiction research in the issue they edited of the Canadian Journal of Disability Studies.
How did you first find out about fandom and fanworks?
Bridget: I was 14 when I first discovered fan fiction. Some of the girls I knew at school were talking about it and I thought I’d check it out. And of course, the first thing I did was go to the R rated section of fanfiction.net. I still remember the first fanfic I ever read. It was about Yami Yuugi from YuGiOh being made pretty and feminine for a date with Seto Kaiba. I didn’t like the ship so I became a puzzleshipper (Yami Yuugi x Yuugi Mouto). And I also quickly jumped into the Beyblade, Pokemon, Digimon, Harry Potter, Fire Emblem, Golden Sun, and David Eddings fandoms. And funnily enough, I didn’t even fathom the possibility that I was even gay even though I read only m/m and the odd f/f pairing. I was actively disinterested in m/f pairings.
I lived in my own little bubble of shipping feels. It didn’t occur to me that there was anything wrong with my fic reading practices or how I thought that, “oh hey, this is interesting, these guys are hot and it’s hot when they are having sex with each other”. When I was 16 it suddenly hit me. “I want to engage in the romance and the sex with the guys around me, wah?” But instead of spiraling into internalized homophobia, I accepted myself as gay pretty quickly. I just was and that was the end of it. I believe this is partly because of fandom, and partly because I’m the kind of autistic that isn’t affected by social pressures or norms. I was also the weirdo freak that no one really paid attention to as well. But it was through growing into my sexuality that I was able to make friends. My first friends who were genuine friends with me were queer identified fans — some of whom I’m still friends with today.
Cath: My very first encounter with fandom was in the late 1990’s when I was working night shift in a call centre: one of my co-workers would write Star Trek fanfiction during our down time, but I’m not even sure she used the word fanfiction to describe it. I know she sent it to the writers of the shows, which would indicate a different type of fanwork from fanfiction.
I didn’t quite understand what made her do it then, and although I looked up Star Trek stories written by fans online, I somehow did not get into it then. It wasn’t until a few years later, during the summer of 2002, when I was coming out to myself as queer and found Chimera Bloom’s original fiction and femslash fanfiction, mostly Janeway/Seven of Nine (ST:Voyager) and Buffy/Willow (BTVS) AUs. I remember reading a Janeway/Seven of Nine lesbian smut fanfic and having my mind blown by it. Although Chimera Bloom disappeared shortly thereafter, I had found the Xena Warrior Princess fanfic archives, and just went from there. I read as much as I could on those archives! For the longest time I associated fanfic with femslash, and it’s only when I started reading fics on fanfiction.net that I realized slash was much more popular.
What made you want to examine how disability manifests in fannish spaces?
Bridget: I’m a disabled person and have rarely ever seen anyone with my disabilities in stories I’ve read. Once, I found this author on a gay erotica website who wrote his protagonist with a disability that was different from mine, but the character “moved like me” (Mullis, 2019). I was so overcome with emotion that I sent a very long email to this author detailing all my feelings. As a sometimes writer, one of my biggest focuses is representation. As I’ve mentioned basically everywhere, I’m queer, trans, mixed race, disabled, autistic, and fat. I’ve never seen someone who has every single one of my identity categories. I feel like a monster, undesirable due to social norms.
And so, I love my monsters and I try to represent people who share traits with me having nice things happen to them. I know, I’m not writing anything profound or award winning, but representation matters to me. What does it say when I’m only reading about two white, conventionally attractive cis boys in love with each other, who get married, move into a nice place, and adopt/have kids? I’m none of those things but I still yearn for and desire love. I still want to make enough money to have more than a “bare life” (Agamben, G. (1998). Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. California: Stanford University Press). This special issue was Cath’s pet project. She just invited me along for the ride.
Cath: The short answer is that I’m a disabled fan who’s into fanfic. The long one is that because fanfic was a solace to me as a queer person, a place where all the stories I read were femslash or slash, a place where queer representations were abundant and varied, I also started wanting to see disability represented similarly. And mostly I didn’t see it represented in ways that I found to be empowering, or even accurate.
I mean, there is so much disability representation in fanfic! Hurt/Comfort is basically based on using disability as a plot device and a way to develop characters, and a lot of angst also uses disability very liberally, but what’s said about what disability means (pitiable, pure, an insurmountable loss unless cured, a sign of evil, all those usual disability stereotypes) just seemed to reproduce how disability was used in mass media already. Which is weird, because fanfiction does the opposite when it comes to queer representation: it challenges accepted heteronormative narratives, and queers them in any number of playful and irreverent ways.
However, once in a while I would come across a really good fic with disability, and I would think: this author gets it; either they’re disabled or they love someone who is. And that lets you know other disabled people are there too, even if you don’t see them, or feel invisible as a disabled fan. I started reading a lot of Rayne (River Tam/Jayne from Firefly) fanfics and, a big part of the attraction for me was all the different ways that River was written in relation to her disability; either it was cured, or disappeared in the background, or was controlled (via meds and/or Jayne’s love/heterosexual sex); or it was front and centre, and there was an explicit recognition of the importance of disability in who River was.
That got me thinking a lot about how central to Firefly River and her disability is to the very existence of the show: without River, there is no story to tell, she is the core of the narrative. This was even before I read “Narrative Prosthesis” by Mitchell and Snyder (2000), who develop this argument via literary criticism. This reflection about River led me to questioning the role of disability in fanfiction; it’s a creative practice by ordinary fans who are engaging with the dominant, mainstream cultural narratives, that can tell us a lot about how disability is imagined culturally and socially, how it circulates, and is constructed.
Your issue covers a lot of approaches to the topic. Was there anything you hoped to include that you weren’t able to?
Bridget: I really wanted more people to engage with race, disability, and fandom. And I’d really have liked to have had someone talk about trans identities. Please, someone who’s not me, talk about transmisogyny and disability tropes in fandom. There’s a link, I swear it! I’d have liked to see a lot more intersectional theorizing. I feel like I wasn’t even good enough in my intersectional perspective. Readers: do better than me. I want to be made out of date. I want to see intersectional perspectives in almost every article I read.
Cath: I really, really wanted to see some kind of analysis of Hurt/Comfort and disability! I think that’s an area that is ripe for analysis, and so much could be done with it.
I would also have loved to see some work on femslash and disability, because femslash is still my jam, but also because I think a lot can be said about how both femslash and disability are marginalized within fanfic, about how gender and ability are simultaneously co-constructed.
Finally, I’d say we need more intersectional analysis that takes into account racialization and racism in fanfiction spaces and how that relates to disability and pathologization in fanfiction as a creative practice (including reading) and as a social practice.
How did you hear about the OTW and what do you see its role as?
Bridget: I don’t remember when I heard about OTW. I joined AO3 officially around 2012 when I got seriously back into fandom again. I was pretty pissed off after the major purges on ff.net that made all my favourite fics disappear around 2007. I spent time after the purge hanging out on Adultfanfiction.net and a gay erotica archive, but wasn’t that engaged with fandom.
But then one day during my early transition, I bumped into One Direction’s cover of “Wonderwall” and I don’t understand how, but I got hooked. That brought me to AO3 and over the course of a few months, devoured all the Explicit fics (40+ pages) of my newest OTP that melted my brain. And then I ended up in a bunch of other fandoms including Teen Wolf. Whoops. I think I found OTW when one of my friends became a tag wrangler. Or it might have been when I was chatting with Cath about fic.
OTW does what ff.net has failed to do. It has created a space where fic can be archived and not deleted without warning. It’s helped frame fanfic as a legitimate practice and defends fan creators. I’ve also seen how OTW does a lot more work to make fic accessible both to more disabled folks, but also more generally to readers. Although I’ve seen a few fics deleted, especially after The Unmentionable Tragedy of 2015. I’m still wringing my hands over losing some excellent writers who hit me hard in the feels.
Cath: I heard about OTW through knowing about AO3. I don’t remember exactly when I first heard about AO3, maybe around 2009? 2010? I was spending a lot of time on Passion and Perfection, and fandom specific sites or on LiveJournal that catered to the ships I liked, like Copper for a Kiss, especially after the fanfiction.net purge of all NC-17 content. I didn’t like Adultfanfiction.net much, but I wasn’t reading a lot of fanfic on AO3 yet.
Then when I did my M.A. research I spent a lot of time looking at OTW, its mandate and organization, the projects it supported, like Fanlore.org and how it supported fans, and was made by fans. That’s when I started reading most of my fanfic on AO3.
What fandom things have inspired you the most?
Bridget: Not exactly sure what you’re asking, but I’m inspired most by fandom as a space where I can express my queer desires and have them validated with porny fic and feels of the things I want to see. It definitely helped me survive a heterosexist world where my desire for queer representation was never met in the media I consumed, well, until recently where the odd canonical gay or lesbian relationship shows up as a side plot. But I can generally find fic of pairings that I ship of the media I consume. Well, unless the fandom or pairing is especially rarepair. I’m still on the lookout for trans representation, especially transfeminine representation. I once left a literal essay on a fic that wrote a trans!fic in the One Direction fandom involving my OTP. I’ve only found one transmasc x transfem fic and that was in the Teen Wolf fandom.
Note to any fic writers reading this: The biggest compliment you can pay me is to write fic of my own stories. I am a published author so you’re welcome to see what I’ve written. Quick note: if it’s a story in an anthology, the freeform tags associated with the stories would include: zombies, gore, vore, noncon, blood, major character death, dead dove do not eat. There are fic writers who are definitely more talented writers than me. I’m amazed that I’m even published sometimes. But I believe that it’s due to the likely tens of thousands of fics I’ve read that I’m able to write…sometimes. After being locked to my computer while complaining loudly.
Cath: I think the same things that inspire me about feminisms are also those that inspire me about fanfiction communities and spaces: on the one hand there’s an acknowledgement that creativity can take many forms, that we are richer the more stories and point of views are given space to be heard. And on the other hand, there is an understanding that we should be critical about what we do, what we love. I really like the fact that fanfic is about desire, about irreverence, and about learning from one another as well as about playful explorations of fandoms, with other fans.
Catch up on earlier guest posts