The first time I tried writing fanfiction, I couldn’t stop laughing. It was a gut reaction; I felt like I was getting away with something. At any moment, someone could walk in, and I’d be like a teenage boy caught with a sock, some Vaseline, and a Playboy back issue. For so long, fanfiction was one line I would never cross; my reasons changed constantly, but when asked about it, I realized I was simply too afraid to write something self-indulgent. My writing had always been a badge of honor for me, proof that I was actually good at something. Whether or not I enjoyed it was a different story. Writing something purely because I wanted to seemed rebellious, almost hedonistic—so when I sat down and wrote my first honest-to-God shameless fic, I had to laugh off my anxiety. I’m seventeen and this is the extent of my teenage insurrection? “Man, I must be repressed,” I texted a friend jokingly.
And then I realized I wasn’t wrong.
Why was fanfiction so embarrassing to me? It’s the butt of endless jokes in a way that straight-up porn rarely is; people who write fanfiction, explicit or otherwise, are often portrayed as sex-crazed and awkward. I still have to tamp down a burst of shame while writing this article, and I can’t help but blush when people ask me what I’m currently writing. It’s 100% ethical, completely harmless, and good writing practice: my prose has never been sharper. Ignoring the “rules” of good storytelling and plunging headfirst into the fun stuff helped me start loving stories again. A friend even told me that one of my fics was actually, genuinely the best thing she’d ever read. Even still, I felt mortified, both because of my “uncool” interests and my own sexuality. Since when did I have all this baggage? I’ve never been one to shy away from what I want—or so I thought.
Historically speaking, anything a young woman likes or engages with is, on some level, embarrassing; The Beatles weren’t a “serious band” until older male critics came around to them, and history is repeating itself with The 1975. Women-led fandoms, like any other type of women-led movement or subculture, get a bad rap because they advocate for self-expression and fight against repression. Fan culture is routinely labeled as a cesspit of toxicity, but personally, I’ve found a home in it. With some exceptions, fandoms are safe havens for teenage girls and LGBT people just trying to figure things out. Like many Gen-Z lesbians, I discovered my own identity through The Legend of Korra when I saw Korra and Asami become the first canon gay couple in a kids’ cartoon. Returning to those online spaces through writing brings back happy memories, except this time I’m working to dismantle the shame that lingers behind them.
As I continued to write fanfiction, I started to get more comfortable—not just with wish-fulfillment but also with myself. At first, I had attributed my lack of enthusiasm for romance to a busy schedule, but as I explored my interests through writing, I realized I couldn’t have been more wrong. Internalized homophobia sat right alongside the embarrassment over the things I liked, so deep-rooted I had mistaken it for preoccupation. It wasn’t that I didn’t have time to think about attraction; I just felt deeply wrong when I focused my desire on one specific person or thing. I felt like a predator. Growing up openly gay, I suffered a lot of sharp looks from friends’ parents, warnings that sounded like threats when I showed affection toward their children. It was worse if I developed a crush. Somehow, those subconscious feelings got tangled up with the stigma surrounding fanfiction and any reclamation of sexuality. No matter how trite or trivial fanfiction might feel to some, for others, it’s the difference between fully accepting themselves and denying parts of their identity.
Needless to say, all these feelings were a lot to come to terms with while writing about pegging.
After around a month of experimenting, I’m a better writer than I was before, but I’m also enjoying myself more in general. Liking things just for the sake of liking them is fun, past shame and repression aside. It’s nice to make something without worrying about deadlines or awards or literary merit, and I’d almost forgotten what it was like to indulge my sexuality. Fanfiction has a long, complicated, oft-scapegoated history, but it also celebrates the part of your imagination that extends past the page or the screen. That kind of creative power is necessary whether you’re a sex writer, an aspiring YA novelist, or a Ph.D. candidate. Fanfiction’s excesses, indulgences, and contradictions make it one of the most empowering uses of the public domain—and hey, if empowerment means penning a genre-defying slow-burn about Elle Woods and Captain America, I’m all for it.
By MJ Brown
Illustration by Ashley Setiawan