The ‘Secret’ Lives of Women: Cyberspace and Fan Erotica

As of late, I’ve been doing some research on the use of cyberspace as a community-building platform that challenges the private vs. public space sector of the Internet. Looking at findings by Henry Jenkins, T.L. Taylor, and Sherry Turkle (to name a few) has made me question the motivations behind creative writing within fan-based communities built upon television shows, books, movies and video games. Particularly, media that has gained “cult” status seems to attract all sorts of writers and readers wishing to further explore and expand their favorite characters and storylines in innovative, non-canonical ways. It is well known that fans will often appropriate characters and their respective worlds in order to gain closure or to satisfy curiosities not explored by the medium itself. This brings me to the ever-popular custom of pairing characters who were never involved romantically within the original medium – a phenomenon that has been spearheaded by heterosexual women, at least according to Sharon Cumberland in an MIT-published research paper.

In “Private Uses of Cyberspace: Women, Desire, and Fan Culture” Sharon Cumberland explores the benefits and limitations of what she refers to as the “paradox” of cyberspace, while focusing on women as liberated authors of fanfiction erotica. Cumberland argues that cyberspace’s ability to provide a personal outlet within a public forum allows women to explore and write about alternative ideas surrounding gender and sexuality, as well as “feelings and ideas denied to them in the past.” This insistence that the anonymity of cyberspace offers a realm of protection to women who wish to break free of social norms is problematic, and is not accompanied by much tangible evidence.

Throughout the article, Cumberland refers to erotic fanfiction genres explored by women as “social taboos,” as if they are universally understood as such, and over-simplifies the idea of cyberspace as a place completely free of oppression and scorn due to the fact that the authors can choose to remain anonymous. There are numerous points where Cumberland argues that women are using cyberspace “to experiment with ideas of sexuality and gender identity that the three dimensional world does not offer or support,” but does not unpack or address what this actually means in terms of leading a double life. Cumberland seems to dismiss, or perhaps is not aware, that there are certainly avenues in “real life” that encourage and support “alternative” lifestyle practices. Furthermore, she states that the Internet can be a vehicle for women to reclaim and create spaces that have traditionally belonged to men and “men’s clubs,” which she does not address or explain. Again, her statements oversimplify and sensationalize the Internet as a space that is free of scrutiny and flaming towards women, all because they can hide their true identities behind pseudonyms/user names.

While it stands to reason that women authors can be granted a certain level of liberation by writing fanfiction erotica, I don’t believe that Cumberland successfully makes that case for women exclusively. What she appears to be arguing for is how cyberspace offers a risk-free opportunity to unpublished authors who want to make their work, in whatever genre that may be, available to the public without the professional pressures associated with editors, publishers, etc. Cumberland’s idea that cyberspace is a place “where a woman cannot be criticized […] for her writing” is completely inaccurate and does not take into account, for example, that a woman can easily be criticized by a homosexual male reader for writing unrealistic portrayals of homosexual encounters informed by heterosexual female fantasies.

Given that Cumberland frames her entire argument with the generalization that “slash” fanfiction is only written by and for heterosexual women, her optimistic view of cyberspace as a safe haven appears naive and does not touch upon the multiple layers of author/reader interactions and varied audiences. The remainder of her article, or the only thesis that I could really identify, sets out to prove that women use fan communities or web-rings in order to write about a coveted character within the safe space of like-minded women. Once they have gained a following and begin interacting with other readers and writers, these women forge friendships with another and have relationships that trump the fan-worship that originally brought them together. This argument seems a bit obvious and its impact is somewhat discredited by Cumberland’s generalizations about fanfiction writers addressed above.

Cited: Cumberland, Sharon. “Private Uses of Cyberspace: Women Desire, and Fan Culture.” Rethinking Media Change: The Aesthetics of Transition. Eds. David Thornburn and Henry Jenkins. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2004. 261-279. Print.

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