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genres

[META] Whose pregnancy?

Mary Ingram-Waters wrote an article in the most recent issue of Transformative Works and Cultures called “When Normal and Deviant Identities Collide”, about her experiences trying to collect information from authors of mpreg fan fiction stories at a Harry Potter fan convention. She was seven months pregnant at the time.

“Mpreg” means “male pregnancy,” and it has its own subgenre niche inside fan fiction. Ingram-Waters quotes a fan author as ruefully explaining, “It’s definitely a ‘guilty pleasure’ for some and a squick for others, and is in general not that well regarded [among fan fiction readers and writers], mostly because it allegedly turns the male characters into whiny, feminized versions of themselves.”

Ingram-Waters writes that there was a distinct difference in the way she was treated by the authors she interviewed in person compared to the authors she interviewed via email. The authors she interviewed at the convention seemed to make more mention of the stigma of writing mpreg when faced with an actual pregnant woman. They seemed defensive and took pains to note that they had done research on pregnancy before writing. One writer refused to be interviewed at the convention, after previously agreeing.

Ingram-Waters writes, “One explanation for the negative interactions is that my physical presence illuminated the extent of deviance of their mpreg stories.”

Deviance can certainly be found in fan fiction, however one wants to define the term (I immediately thought of that tag line, “You say that like it’s a bad thing!”), but I am focusing on the dictionary definition of the word, seen in the way she contrasts “normal” and “deviant” in the title of her article. I think by that contrast, we can see that mpreg is not all that “out there” in fan fiction terms. One of the things fan fiction does with mpreg is the same thing that commercial science fiction that speculates with gender roles does – it experiments. It plays. What does it mean to be pregnant – socially, culturally, personally? Would it mean something different to a man than it does to woman? What do we learn about pregnancy if we posit that it’s the men who do it and not the women, like sea horses? What is gender, anyway, and what does it have to do with reproduction?

A lot of this sort of questioning and playing goes on in fan fiction, as it does in science fiction, and I have always found those kinds of questions deeply interesting, and also at times downright entertaining.

This particular Ingram-Waters article was confined, however, to the methodological issues, and did not go on to actually examine her findings as she researched the subgenre of mpreg itself, although I am hoping that at some point she’ll publish the outcome of her research on the stories and the authors! That would be fascinating too.

She found that unlike other scholars who have conducted field research while pregnant, the experience of being a “visible normative reproducer” was of no help in establishing rapport with mpreg writers. Some scholars in other fields, she found, have written that being pregnant makes them seem nonthreatening and gives the people they meet something perceived as positive to talk about, something familiar.

Ingram-Waters also noted that she had gone to some pains to identify and establish herself as an acafan as she pursued her research into the mpreg subgenre online, but that face to face, her identity as a pregnant cisgendered woman trumped that pretty completely.

She found a silver lining in even her negative interview experiences, writing that perhaps she’d stumbled on an efficient way to elicit “stigma management strategies for mpreg authors.” I share her fascination with subjects concerning “identities of gender, sexualities and normative bodies,” and I look forward to getting to read more, someday, of her actual research into mpreg fan fiction.

In the meantime, her description of how she was received made a fascinating story.

[META] Genre shift?

When I started reading fan fiction, around 2002, I ran across fan fiction of all ratings right away. I had vaguely heard of fan fiction and ‘zines as far back as the seventies, but I had never read any or even seen any except in passing. When I got interested in fan fiction, I found it online, and I ran across missing scenes that could have been slotted right into the original shows or movies or books, and I also ran across triple-X rated, *fans self* porn that most emphatically rejected the fade to black — sexually explicit stories that could never have been included in the original books or movies, but showed the characters we knew and loved in bed. When I first ran across the term “slash”, I wrongly assumed it meant any adult-rated romantic fan fiction story. Furthermore, I assumed that if fan fiction were grouped in any way, it would be divided into categories I knew from mainstream movies — the G, PG and PG13 stuff would be separate from the R and NC17 stuff. I was completely surprised to learn, the more I explored list-based and Livejournal-based fan fiction, that in fact the groupings were based on other concerns completely. The categories I found were gen, slash, femslash and het, and the boundaries between them were less about ratings for explicit sex or violence than about the presence or absence of romance, and the presence or absence of same-sex relationships. My preconceptions were, perhaps, a product of my 21st-century introduction to fan works. A little history, drawn from articles on media fandom (meaning fan communities that grow up around TV, movies, and other forms of pop culture), on Fanlore, this article by Coppa in Transformative Works and Cultures, and her chapter in “Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet”. Fan fiction as written within media fandom seems to have been an outgrowth of science fiction fandom, and seems to date from the sixties and early seventies. When fan writers began weaving their own tales about Kirk and Spock and Number One and the Alien Babe of the Week, the male/male slash was hidden away in boxes under the tables, while the straight romances, even the explicit stories and the explicit art, were displayed widely at conventions, along with the action-oriented, plot-oriented fan stories whose focus was not romance and which became known as gen. Based on my readings in fan history, it seems that the first widely written femslash came out of Xena, and that fandom seems to have a separate history. (Please correct me if you have different information!) As we all know, societal attitudes toward same-sex relationships were harsh in the sixties in the USA — and still are, in many places. Because the Hollywood TV and movie canons we write about are so, so, so heteronormative, fan fiction that tells stories about intimate relationships between men or between women is usually pairing off people who aren’t presented as queer in the original shows or movies. (As an aside, the range of sexualities explored in fan fiction is limitless and often sets aside entirely the idea of sexual binaries.) So the objection to the earliest slash fan fiction often took the tack of: “Oh no! Don’t make that character gay!” Gay, lesbian or queer characters in mainstream Hollywood productions are very, very rare to this day. So if you hold out for only the romantic relationships that are present in the original canon, that means het (unless your fandom is Torchwood or one of the non-Western fandoms….). Of course, we’ll always have subtext, and certainly we are all watching different shows in our heads, and Hollywood is getting less reluctant to show us non-straight characters, but…. Let’s just say the lavender revolution is not yet in Hollywood. So my exploration of the history of fan fiction showed me a het+gen versus slash+femslash divide (and femslash is still by far the rarest category — all that history deserves a post of its own. In the meantime, I direct you to the Fanlore entry on Femslash, which is just fascinating.). But it’s my impression, and cryptoxin has written about this as well, that the het+gen/femslash+slash split is not as pronounced these days, two generations into what’s become known as media fandom. The lines that delineate the camps are blurring. Why is this? I’d love to hear your answers. I think it’s because movies and TV now include more female characters in roles other than Babe of the Week, and even occasionally pass the Bechdel Test. One reason that is sometimes advanced for the emergence of slash was the lack of strong female characters in television and movies in the sixties. I don’t know that I buy that, but it is true that fan writers now have a broader range of strong characters of both sexes from which to draw for our stories. So, my question is this: Do we have one fan fiction community now, instead of two or three or four? Or maybe we still have two, but a different two than slash+femslash and gen+het — maybe now we really do have the two categories I wrongly assumed almost a decade ago: Adult Rated, and Everything Else? And if these category lines have blurred, is it because society changed in terms of accepting queers? Or is it the shows that changed? Have vehicles like Buffy and Leverage and Stargate Atlantis and Queer as Folk and Torchwood, shows that have queer characters and female protagonists, driven the shift I see — the blurring of fan fiction genre lines and the lessening of negative judgments against each genre? For example, I rarely see today’s slash fans asserting that “there’s no good het” — and honestly, I always have a hard time understanding how bad het fanfic could be any worse than the badfic of any other genre! Another question: Did the internet accelerate the boundary crossing among fan fiction genres after, say, 1995? And, am I wrong in my additional impression that the fan enterprise of writing romances involving two people who are not traditional male/female, perhaps doesn’t horrify The Powers That Be as it once did? I do know that it was slash which captured the attention of the academic researchers, moreso than erotica of any other type, because it seemed “strange” that women would be interested in porn about two men. (Fan fiction is overwhelmingly written by women.) There’s a terrific discussion of this in Driscoll’s chapter in “Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet.” But surely, such an interest is not strange anymore to academics? Or to Hollywood? Or is my personal comfort level with this type of fanfic — and with GLBT lit in general, for that matter — obscuring for me a colder reality? There will never be an end to ‘ship wars, of course, and probably never an end to gen-only fans ruefully noting what they see as a fan fiction community preoccupied with romance and sex at the expense of other kinds of stories, but at least within media fandom, it seems to me that the het and the slash and femslash and poly and noromo and bob fans coexist much more peaceably than in earlier days.