Women’s Fandoms: Unruly Desires, Perverse Pleasures

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In fandom, the beloved text or set of texts can be read in many ways: interpretations may conform to the creator’s preferred reading or they may veer off into wilder, more unruly and unexpected territories. The latter is more often the case because fandom necessarily involves a personal reading, a way of tapping into what it is that we want from the text rather than simply what the text wants from us. In women’s fandoms in particular, I notice that a lot of women, myself included, want to carve out a space in the text that caters to our own desires, our own particular pleasures and imaginaries. This might involve imagining all sorts of character pairings that don’t exist within the ‘official’ text; it might involve writing/reading/creating new versions of the text that incorporate a wider range of pleasures (slash and smut being obvious examples); it might involve passionately sharing or discussing a particular interpretation on Twitter or Tumblr.

But when women fans create and explore readings that go against the grain of the text and spill outside its official bounds into unruly zones of desire, they are often derided. This derision is more often than not framed through a derision of femininity and female desire. The gendered language used to deride these fans and fandoms usually include words and phrases like: delusional, crazy, hormonal, irrational, embarrassing, unrealistic, ‘too much,’ ‘too intense,’ and so on. In this culture, ‘legitimate’ readings of texts are defined as cool, distanced, measured, sensible, ‘realistic’ and therefore masculine. Readings that assert unruly female pleasure pervert and disrupt these carefully guarded and policed aesthetic boundaries of ‘good’ taste, spilling over into unauthorised pleasures. Bad taste comes to be defined through a derision of the feminine and its multiple excesses which are seen as significantly inferior to masculine ways of reading and engaging in fan culture. Women are thought to fantasise too intensely, their erotic imaginaries are condemned as too unruly and in need of a ‘reality check.’ Furthermore, these expressions of pleasure are seen as evidence that women fans are stupid, vapid, and unthinking (here I am reminded of the disgusting phrase “TwiTards” used to deprecate girl fans of the Twilight franchise). So women fans are considered both too much and not enough — too desiring but not smart enough, as if pleasure overrides any capacity for critical engagement (spoilers: it doesn’t). This logic springs from a sexist hierarchy of taste in which masculine ways of reading and expressing desire  are considered ‘normal’ and ideal, while women’s reading strategies and desires are seen as deviant, decadent, indulgent, illogical, inferior, and just plain wrong. Women are called ‘crazy’ or ‘embarrassing’ for simply expressing their desire and I believe that this condemnation has little to do with the content of their fantasy scenario, and more to do with the fact that they are unashamedly, and often quite explicitly and loudly, demanding a space to declare their desires.

Vociferous fangirling emphasises and centres on women’s pleasure, and our culture never takes this seriously and frequently regards it with utter contempt. Male fans and fandoms are ‘passionate’; women fans and women’s fandoms are ‘crazy’ and embarrassing unless they adhere to the narrow, approved reading of the text. Spilling outside these boundaries into shipping ‘perverse,’ unauthorised, or queer pairings (or groupings) of characters/actors, reading the text against the grain and therefore pushing it into new and perhaps unruly territories, fashioning a space for the articulation of a range of pleasures and desires (erotic or otherwise) that we are typically not allowed to articulate in our day to day lives within patriarchal culture – these are some of the strategies that women fans within fandom. The gendered policing of the bounds of ‘good’ taste and ‘legitimate’ or ‘proper’ fandom demonstrates that these strategies for articulating women’s desires continue to be met with derision and deprecation, and that this has everything to do with cultural anxieties about women’s desire and pleasure.

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