You lovingly leaf through wizarding worlds in early adolescence and think there’s no devotion purer than the one you have for your beloved boy wizard, until a few years later when you lovingly tap through virtual chapters and think there’s no devotion purer than the one you have for your boy wizard and his icy-haired non-canon boyfriend. Until a few years later when you lovingly scroll through obscure Tumblr tags and think there’s no devotion purer than the one you have for your boy wizard’s terrifying professor and his long-haired non-canon Death Eater boyfriend.
These niche ships are called “rarepairs,” and they’re exactly what they sound like: pairings within a fandom that have only a handful of aficionados. This can be due to the characters’ lack of interaction, individual popularity, or compliance to social norms—in this world, Snape/Lucius is a very tame example.
Rarepairs are far from being rare, however. There are over 8,000 fanfics tagged “rare pairings” in Archive of Our Own (AO3), a site where fans of all kinds gather to create in the name of their often fictional muses. Among them are ships like Ginny Weasley and Viktor Krum—“the ultimate Quidditch couple,” according to one Redditor—and Eurus Holmes and Ella Thompson, both from Sherlock and whom I had to Google to recall. Because its following is more minuscule, it comprises only a margin of total fanwork, dragging fans into what is called “Rarepair Hell,” marked by the complete lack of coverage of your pairing. But when you do stumble across the right AO3 tag, leading you to a treasure trove of full-length fics and fan comics, the feeling is unmatched. “It’s that amazing moment where you find what’s been lost forever,” wrote one user in an anime forum.
This explains why fans still engage in rarepairs despite the fleeting gratification. “If I love the characters, that’s enough of a reason for me to want to write about them,” read one reply in a Reddit discussion about why fan fic writers continue to write for niche fandoms. Kiel, a 19-year-old from the Philippines who’s a constant consumer of fanwork from multiple fandoms, shares this sentiment: “Shipping is very communal for me, [but rarepairs] don’t necessarily make it less rewarding as much as it makes you more patient. The ship remains, even though there’s not as many people crewing it.”
At the same time, because rarepairs are built on the notion that canon can be bent in any way and still work, it easily becomes an avenue for fans—often young women and queer people—to explore sexuality and relationships freely and safely. Rarity implies underrepresentation, and through creating bodies of work centered on non-cis, non-heterosexual, non-male, non-monogamous desire, fans are subverting the male gaze and creating an inclusive space where a power imbalance is nonexistent. “This is evident when you consider that the bulk of fan fiction is stories centered [on] consent, mutual pleasure, queerness, emotionality, and healthy relationship-building,” Ally Matas wrote in the essay “Reading for Pleasure.”
”It does help to see those elements of yourself be discussed or portrayed in ‘normal’ ways. In fan fiction, you are provided a window to others’ opinions about aspects of yourself that you would otherwise not discover in more mainstream media,” Kiel adds. “For writers, this is especially true considering that they are given the ability to shape the fandom they love into something that accommodates or acknowledges what’s important to them.”
Among rarepair fics posted in AO3, 22.6% are femslash—female/female, or between two female characters—and 52.8% feature polyamory. In fact, most rarepairs usually originate from unintended gay subtext between characters. Kiel says any character interaction can be expanded to a romantic relationship regardless of shared screentime or logic of canon. “A good way to get me into a rarepair ship is to show me at least one interaction between them that has even the smallest hint of interest—prolonged eye contact, banter, smiling,” he shares. In a post aptly titled “Slash is where you find it,” a blogger mused that everything they consumed hinted at possible “slash,” the fandom nomenclature for male/male pairings. “Shakespearean slash? It’s all over the place. Hamlet and Horatio, Othello and Iago, and especially Sebastian and Antonio from Twelfth Night,” they wrote. Aja Romano, in The Daily Dot, provides a possible explanation: “Fandom is subversive. If a canonical worldview is entirely straight-white-male, then fans will actively resist it. Freeing homoerotic subtexts from restrictive source canons is a rebellion against heteronormative constraints.”
This penchant for slash, especially among women writers, was already prevalent in fandom even before rarepairs. Fan fic as we know it today began with Kirk/Spock fanzines in the ‘60s, and in 1985, feminist writer Joanna Russ explained women’s fascination with writing content about this specific pair: “Although Spock is not literally female, his alienness is a way of ‘coding’ into the K/S fantasies that their subject is not a homosexual love affair between two men, but love and sex as women want them, whether with a man or with another woman.” At the time, the only way women could imagine a sexual relationship with equally empowered people was to think of two men. Stephanie Burt writes in The New Yorker, “[Slash is described] as a kind of safety valve: a substitute for desires that could not be articulated, much less acted out, in our real world.”
It is also this exploration of Spock’s sexuality that gave rise to rarepairs. Many niche ships start in Fuh-Q Fests, fan fic writing challenges in which authors must pair someone with a given character and create a story about them. The earliest one was a Spock fest back in 2000, which, according to its creators. started as a joke. “Someone said that Spock wasn’t a sexual being, and we decided to prove them wrong,” said kira-nerys, owner of the largest Kirk/Spock fansite, Kardasi. “And so the gauntlet was thrown down to get Spock laid left and right.” With Spock’s history of being coded as non-male, this further proves that fan fic is more often about the sexualities of its authors (and readers) than the characters starring in it. By penning these erotic stories themselves, fans assert not only their sexuality but their agency: they are not only sexual, but sexual beings.
In 2014, Benedict Cumberbatch made condescending remarks about erotic Johnlock fic in an interview with Out. Elizabeth Minkel, in New Stateman, responded: “Does it matter that middle-aged men with very large platforms were sitting at a table pathologizing teenage girls’ sexuality—and making a whole load of potentially harmful assumptions about a topic they know literally nothing about? Absolutely.” Minkel further stated that in a self-reported survey among more than 10,000 AO3 users, more people identified as genderqueer than male, and only 38% identified as heterosexual. Frankly, culture should not vilify the young people whose sexuality has been so oppressed that they are only able to explore it by projecting it onto characters with more privilege. The question we should be asking is not if Cumberbatch was right to feel dismissive of Johnlock fic (for starters, Sherlock is fictional, and somebody should remind Cumberbatch he isn’t actually his character), but what draws these marginalized fans to write such fic in the first place—for once let’s not prioritize absolving the white man of his discomfort.
After all, deeming fics where John and Sherlock are “fucking in space on a bed, chained together” as nothing more than a reflection of teenage horniness is too simplistic. Abraham Riesman, in a piece for Vulture, wrote:
“The undeniable signature of a writer’s fic orientation isn’t eroticism but confession, the frank and extended discussion of emotions. If porn offers men the vision of women whose carnality is neither elusive nor mysterious, fic offers its mostly women readers men whose inner lives are wide-open books—not so easy to find in popular culture.”
Fanfic can be “smut” or obscene, but it can also be “fluff” or entirely feel-good; or “hurt/comfort,” in which one character experiences distress and the other cares for them. It can be sexual but not pornographic, because unlike porn, it isn’t demeaning; quite the contrary, actually.
Even more importantly, however, is how rarepairs, and fan fic in general, become a vessel for inclusivity and visibility. “Personally, slash-fiction has helped me resolve my internalized homophobia over the years. Several fan fics have opened my mind to more unconventional forms of sexuality such as polyamory… There are also many fan fics exploring genderfluidity, intersex individuals and experiences, as well as transgender characters and backgrounds,” Kiel explains. “Fan fiction, as a whole, can easily become a place for every kind of experience; this is mostly why it has remained with me for so long.”
And because the internet has made publishing more accessible and far-reaching, anyone who wishes to see some semblance of themselves represented in art they love is free to do so; as one fandom aphorism goes, “When you want a fic of a rarepair, you write it.” The magic of rarepairs is its mere existence, how something so distant from canon can still be found and celebrated by people who understand. When asked why they still write about rarepairs despite the low engagement, one Tumblr blogger answered, “I write polyamorous femslash ships. And guess what I’ve learned? People read my rare-ass shit. Way more than I would expect.” Where in mainstream media can you possibly find something like that? Through shipping rarepairs the periphery is made central; the margins, brought to light.
By Andrea Panaligan