My Fanime Exploration of Fan Fiction—Questions of Consent and Erotic Expression

Sara FrykenbergEvery year, my husband, sister and I attend the Japanese animation convention Fanimecon in San Jose, CA. We cosplay, watch anime and peruse the various panels designed for fan entertainment and education. This year I was even lucky enough to be interviewed for the student film Unconventional, about cosplay culture, which you can check out following the link above!

Since I can’t (and don’t want to) leave my feminist lens at home, I often seek out the panels that address issues of representation, gender, diversity and sexuality when attending this conference; and usually, the con does not disappoint. Here are some examples of the panels hosted at Fanimecon in the past three years:

Image sourced from here.
Image sourced from here.

Diversity in Cosplay
Female Characters in Anime
Handling Cosplay Harassment
Loli vs. Lolita
Philosophy in Anime
The Dark Side of Magical Girls
Anime: Spirituality and You
Creepers: How to Avoid Them
Religion in Anime

This year I attended the panel Fic W(rec)k, presented by a UC Santa Cruz undergraduate student, exploring:

The diversity, and lack thereof, in fan fiction through a feminist lens…[focusing] on sexuality, characterization, and representation in fan fiction and how that informs queer culture, consent, and identity politics. This talk will discuss themes of sexuality and abuse as well as provide a recuperative reading for fan fiction.

Fan fiction is basically fictional writing based upon the lives of characters from other, usually published or mass-produced, works of fiction. These fan produced fictions appropriate materials from well-known works in order to create new storylines, explore territory uncovered by the original authors, mix genres or the stories of more than one author, continue a series that has been discontinued, etc. While copyright law and fair use issues do arise, modern works of fan fiction are often regarded as evidence of fan interest and are rarely published or produced in such ways as to infringe upon authorial publication rights.

Image sourced from here.
Image sourced from here.

So, what’s the controversy here? Well… a lot of fan fiction tends to explore sexual relationships between characters, relationships that did not exist or were only hinted at in the original work itself. Did you sense the sexual tension between Kirk and Spock in Star Trek: The Original Series? Many fan fiction writers did, and have documented their relationship. Or how about the love affair between the brothers Sam and Dean Winchester in the CW series Supernatural, or their love triangle with the angel Castiel?  Writers for this series actually introduced the topic fan fiction into the show script itself, perhaps responding to the outpouring of fan fiction written about these characters. Piercing the “fourth wall,” of the television series, the brothers have to contend with a series of novels written about them by a prophet who doesn’t realize that he’s actually documenting “real” people’s lives. In the episode “The Real Ghost Busters,” the brothers even attend a “Supernatural Convention” where they are mistaken for cosplayers and have to join a staged ghost hunt while they hunt for the real monsters.

Image sourced from here.
Image sourced from here.

Silly or frivolous as it may seem, the Supernatural writers’ playful response to actual fan fiction highlights many problematic or uncertain elements of fan fiction that were identified and discussed in the Fic W(rec)k panel:

  1. Fan fiction often changes the sexual orientation given to characters by original authors,
  2. Fans writing sexual scenes often do not identify with the sexual orientation about which they are writing – actually, the speaker showed evidence suggesting that most fan fiction authors are young, heterosexual women who write about Caucasian, gay male relationships,
  3. Violence is often the backdrop for staging sexual encounters and romantic relationships in fan fiction, and…
  4. Fan fiction can sometimes move out of the realm of fictional characters, instead creating fictional narratives about the sexual lives and exploits of actors or other actual people.

I did not agree with every conclusions the Fic W(rec)k panel speaker presented. However, she raised some important questions about consent, the lack of sexual and racial diversity in fan fiction, issues of representation and who should write about what, and the place of abuse or violence within sexual fiction.

When I cosplay, I don’t worry about changing a character’s sex or parodying their gender expression. I cosplayed Samus from Metroid this year, trading in her armor for a flouncy skirt and high heels—the recreation inherent to the art of cosplay is part of what makes it fun and empowering. Two friends of mine once cosplayed the lesbian couple, Sailor Neptune and Sailor Uranus. One player was a heterosexual woman, the other, a lesbian woman; and no fans that took their photos questioned whether or not the two women were actually a couple. All of these cosplays attempted to honor the characters they represented in some way, performed by fans, for fans.

But, does this same artistic license apply to erotic fiction and fan fiction? As one individual in the Unconventional documentary explained, trying on characters in cosplay is sometimes a form of escape or a way to be someone else for a while. Is the same true of fan fiction?

A predominantly online genre today, fan fiction can be an avenue for “identity tourism,” what Lisa Nakamura describes as “the process by which members of one group try on for size the descriptors generally applied to persons of another race or gender,”[1] to which I would add, sexual identity. Identity tourism is debated as both positive, for example, by allowing a marginalized person to experience visibility in a way he, she or they might not have previously,[2] and negative, allowing for people to misrepresent themselves, lie and appropriate other cultures. Yet, Jessie Daniels suggests that fluid, online identities are more frequently used to “reaffirm the bodily selves,”[3] rather than co-opt someone else’s identity or body.

Putting themselves into other people’s shoes and exploring sexual relationships, does a fan fiction author exploit identity, or simply affirm their own erotic fantasies and desires? Is a young, heterosexual woman’s story of fictional gay male intimacy about the men involved, about her own eroticized view of male intimacy or maybe, a little of both? What is the impact of such public fiction on real lives? How does it add to or take away from existent systematic oppressions?

I realize I am asking a lot of questions in this blog—and that is because I don’t have clear answers, or rather, have been given too many different answers to these questions during the course of my feminist studies. I also realize that I am stepping into the classical feminist debate over pornography.[4] On the one hand, I do not appreciate being sexually objectified in the many heterosexual male fictions mass produced for society. On the other hand, I am also wary of any attempts to further police the sexual desires of marginalized individuals… kyriarchal control is too often played out in sexual control.

Do our erotic desires have to be neat? Does personal fantasy have to mimic real life ethical praxis? I do not believe so; though I do believe that a person acting on certain desires is capable of doing great harm—if desires are enacted without consent, or by threat or manipulation, if such desires cause damage (which I see as different from pain, simulated violence or desired physical alteration, etc.). I firmly believe in the importance of consent in sexual practice.

But what about public desire, erotica or fan fiction? What does consent look like when writing about fictional people? Where and how do you draw the lines here? I’ve been thinking a lot about these questions; and I would love to hear your thoughts on these issues.


[1] Lisa Nakamura in Jessie Daniels, “Rethinking Cyberfeminism(s): Race, Gender and Embodiment,” WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly, Vol 37, No. 1 &2 (Spring/ Summer 2009), 109.
[2] Ibid, 110.
[3] Ibid, 111.
[4] I do not have space to consider this complex debate in this blog. However, if you’d like to read a more recent discussion about this debate, please check out this article on Ms. Magazine’s blog.

Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D.: Graduate of the women studies in religion program at Claremont Graduate University, Sara’s research considers the way in which process feminist theo/alogies reveal a kind transitory violence present in the liminal space between abusive paradigms and new non-abusive creations: a counter-necessary violence.  In addition to her feminist, theo/alogical and pedagogical pursuits, Sara is also an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a level one Kundalini yoga teacher.

6 thoughts on “My Fanime Exploration of Fan Fiction—Questions of Consent and Erotic Expression”

  1. Aesthetic lines are drawn which are consistent with the intention of the writer. A therapeutic revenge fantasy of a marginalized individual is going to look a lot different from a philosophical manifesto of a social revolutionary. I think. But it does get rather “bowl of spaghetti”-like after a while.


  2. How interesting, Sara! I never heard of this before and I’m not familiar with the characters, but it leads me to think about stories we tell, or listen to, and how they become so familiar they lose their “punch”. I will now approach these things with “fresh vision” thanks to you.


  3. I had a student last semester in my course Costume and Culture do his research paper/presentation on women and video games. He choose to do gender and sexuality, specifically a Japanese game (can’t recall the title). All the female characters wear almost modified Victorian clothing , nothing sexualized. The three men functioned as symbol for the female characters. The point–the female characters demonstrated subjectivity throughout the game while the male character’s roles were very secondary. Joseph’s presentation also showed the intersectionality of gender analysis in video games and how much more needs to be done. Thank you for this insightful post–a world I know little about.


  4. Gee, this is a whole new topic to me. I know what anime is, but nearly everything else you write is about is a great mystery to me. The last video game I played was Frogger, and I was soundly defeated by nine-year-olds.

    What does cosplay mean? What does the W(rec)k mean? I guess I’m just not keeping up.


  5. Sara, As a former science fiction and fantasy (sff) fan (I don’t make it to Wiscon, the feminist sff con here in Madison. anymore), I’m familiar with cons and what you call cosplay. Within that arena, it seems that most cosplay is pretty harmless and reflects more on the participant and his or her sexual self-understanding (maturity, etc.) than on the character from the sff or animé or the audience for whom the person dressed up. But once something is published (either online or in print), I think it’s a whole other kettle of fish. Maybe it’s that I feel there should be greater amount of responsibility for something that’s out there, permanent, etc. compared to a costume a person dons for a day. Of course, teenagers will be teenagers and do things that they may regret later in life, like trying to depict their own ill-defined sense of sexuality dressed up in characters, whose sexual lives they don’t understand. But it seems to me that a lot of stereotyped behavior can be depicted in such fan faction that will have negative impacts on those people, like gay men in your example above, whose lives are difficult enough already.


  6. I take a more positive view of fanfiction, though it may just be the spheres I inhabit. Most fics in the particular ship fandoms I read are actually written by people of the same gender or orientation as the characters they’re depicting (f/f). M/m fandoms seem to have a completely different makeup (straight white girls, as you mentioned). That said, even in the circles I pay attention to, there’s still misinformation depicted in fics about girl x girl relationships, especially intimate activities.


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