It is also interesting to note that Glee debuted in 2009, the same year as RaceFail ’09. In many ways, this event, though not engaged with at the same level in all fandom spaces, marked a watershed in the ways in which debates around these issues were framed. While fans who point out the overwhelming whiteness and US-centrism of fan spaces and texts still face backlash, there has been a definite shift in the ways these categories are approached.““Yes, the Evil Queen is Latina!”: Racial dynamics of online femslash fandoms” by Dr. Rukmini Pande and Swati Moitra
I have written a lot about M/M and “dudeslash” fandom practices over my time of thinking critically in fandom because that was, for a very long time, the loudest part of the fandoms I was in, and adjacent to, and the thing I wrote the most as a fan creator. However, that may give the impression that femslash and F/F fandoms do not have the same issues that wider fandom spaces do and that would be incredibly incorrect.
For this Fandom Racism 101 installment, we’ll be talking about how femslash fandoms also suffer from some of the same issues that other fandom spaces do. We’ll also cover some reasons why more people don’t know that femslash has these issues, how we can clock racism in femslash in its most obvious forms, and some examples of how these fandoms fail… alongside ways they can be better about their practices.
I always look to tumblr user centrumlumina/Lulu’s AO3 ship stats when it comes time to think about the shape of a given fandom. The Archive of Our Own is probably the most visited site for fan fiction across the internet and its tagging system means that it’s possible to snag the site’s data when it comes to what’s tagged, what isn’t tagged, and where it’s all happening. For several years now, Lulu has been an incredible source of information for me and for other fans interested in the numbers of what people like in fandom.
She provides the “what” and the rest of us… just try to figure out the “why”.
In 2020, Lulu did a list of the top Femslash or F/F pairings on AO3 in 2020.Here are the top twenty ships from Lulu’s F/F list:
- Kara Danvers/Lena Luthor Supergirl (TV 2015)
- Evil Queen | Regina Mills/Emma Swan Once Upon a Time (TV)
- Clarke Griffin/Lexa The 100 (TV)
- Alex Danvers/Maggie Sawyer Supergirl (TV 2015)
- Laura Hollis/Carmilla Karnstein Carmilla (Web Series)
- Adora/Catra (She-Ra) She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (2018)
- Rose Lalonde/Kanaya Maryam Homestuck
- Waverly Earp/Nicole Haught Wynonna Earp (TV)
- Korra/Asami Sato Avatar: Legend of Korra
- Blake Belladonna/Yang Xiao Long RWBY
- Alphys/Undyne (Undertale) Undertale (Video Game)
- Chloe Beale/Beca Mitchell Pitch Perfect (Movies)
- Ruby Rose/Weiss Schnee RWBY 3322
- Jirou Kyouka/Yaoyorozu Momo Boku no Hero Academia | My Hero Academia
- Root | Samantha Groves/Sameen Shaw Person of Interest (TV)
- Kara Danvers/Cat Grant Supergirl (TV 2015)
- Krista Lenz | Historia Reiss/Ymir Shingeki no Kyojin | Attack on Titan
- Santana Lopez/Brittany S. Pierce Glee 2648
- Fareeha “Pharah” Amari/Angela “Mercy” Ziegler Overwatch (Video Game)
- Serena Campbell/Bernie Wolfe Holby City
From the jump, she points out that, “Of the 200 names on this list, there are 53 women of colour and 27 women of ambiguous race[…]” Compare that to the 52 POC/7 somehow racially ambiguous folks on the overall list because that’s interesting on multiple levels:
- the fact that there are no F/F ships in the overall top 100’s first 35 rankings
- The similar proportions for POC representation (excluding ambiguous characters) between the two lists
- The way that primarily white characters dominate the ships on both lists even in “diverse” fandoms for things starring multiple characters of color
Before I wrap this up, I will note that Lulu’s classification on the main list is… kind of flawed. Where she lists a character as “ambiguous”, sometimes they’re literally a character who is not assigned a race paralleling what we go through as people of color… or the media itself fumbles the ball on portraying them. (As in non-human aliens, mutants, or ambiguously colored/designed characters.)
Why don’t people talk about the racism in femslash fandoms?
There are people who write about the racism in femslash fandoms. The introductory quote from Pande and Moitra is a great academic example, as is my long-term mutual (like we’ve been through so many fandoms together over the better part of a decade) eshusplayground over on Tumblr. Queer fans of color and people who already highlight the experiences of fans of color trying to create and consume content about people like us… they’re already talking about what needs to be spoken about.
The issue is not theirs to fix, it is fandom’s issue.
For starters, there’s a lot less femslash than any other content. There are only thirteen thousand Supercorp stories on AO3 and they’re the number one femslash ship on AO3. In comparison, the most-written dudeslash pairing on AO3, Destiel from Supernatural, has almost eighty-five thousand fics on the site.
It’s not that queer women aren’t in fandom (obviously), but that they do tend to ship… dudes in some portion of their ships. Not a judgement call or anything, of course, because I’m here, queer, and have primarily shipped dudeslash for a huge portion of my fandom experiences….
However, regardless of the reasoning behind it: femslash has a significantly smaller audience and creator pool than other shipping categories. This means that there are already very limited spaces to engage in community over femslash. It also means that these fandom environments are probably going to be even more hostile to criticism of fandom racism when they see it than the rest of fandom – which is already very racist.
Why the extra hostility?
If dudeslash fandoms and even fandom spaces for popular male/female pairings like Snowbarry or Rey/Kylo react to criticism like it’s actually harmful at every level, what must “smaller” fandom spaces feel like? Hostility to criticism is part of fandom (unfortunately) and the smaller the pool of readers/creators is – or the more they think they’re marginalized in fandom -, the louder they then are about rejecting criticism and viewing it as oppression.
So fans of color literally can’t talk about racism in femslash fandoms because it’s something that sets off queer (usually white) women fans who think they’re oppressed within fandom because of the relative lack of representation across fandom’s output.
And you know –
Because no one actually responds well to conversations about racism in fandom.
What does racism in femslash look like?
Let’s do a very quick bullet point list so that you all can see some examples of how racism can come across in femslash fanworks:
- Black/brown women in interracial relationships are made into tops for white or otherwise light-skinned women
- Black women as Mammy figures for their non-Black love interests (rather than portraying the relationship equally where the characters support each other)
- Black/brown women almost exclusively as female alphas in Omegaverse with some kind of penetrative genitals (because sometimes… it’s a tentacle or ovipositor)
- East Asian women – primarily when in relationships with non-East Asian characters – are rewritten as out of character submissive stereotypes
- Drawing or writing Black/brown women as significantly larger (taller, heavier, muscular) than they are in canon and especially when compared to a white woman or light skinned person of color they’re in a relationship with
- Women of color as irrationally aggressive to or about a white love interest (like not simply sexually dominant, but physically aggressive with the white love interest or in defense of her)
- The female character of color’s emotions do not matter (especially if she is Black or visibly brown) and she doesn’t get emotional depth from the creators or fans
- Genuinely just… racist stereotypes about what bodies look like and how they work
- Erasing canon queer women of color or rejecting the potential for a queer relationship between women of color in a pairing
- If shipping a white F/F pairing, a character of color (usually a male character of color) is demonized by the narrative that fans write (an ex, a friend, or a parental unit… sometimes all three)
A few specific ship-oriented examples are:
- Korra/Asami (The Legend of Korra) – Korra is often the top/alpha/Dom in fics, Asami is written often to be a slinky Dragon Lady or the submissive stereotype
- Mercy/Pharah (Overwatch) – Pharah is almost always the top in the pairing, drawn super massive and beyond butch, hyperfocus on physical toughness, her world revolves around Mercy who is not expected to reciprocate
- Catra/Adora (She-Ra and the Princesses of Power) – Catra, who is tacitly accepted as a WOC by much of that fandom – is often rewritten as a feral animal child who Adora has to “tame” and turn “human”
- For both Kara/Lena (Supergirl) and Clarke/Lexa (The 100) – while both halves of the pairing are white women, these fandoms vilify Black/brown men who are in platonic or romantic relationships with one or more members of the ship with that anger even extending out of fandom/canon to hating on the very real actor who portrays that character
How can fans be better?
There’s nothing wrong with loving a nice large butch so don’t get it twisted: the issue is that femslash fandoms will make a Black/brown woman a super aggressive butch even when nothing in the canon… shows that.
So let’s start with that: fans can be better by thinking about what they’re creating and consuming for queer characters of color.
If you’re only reading, writing, or drawing queer women of color along stereotypes because that’s what you find attractive and interesting… rethink that. Or pull back and figure out if you’re seeing these characters as characters instead of as kind of racist archetypes. Think about why you’re writing the only Black woman in a show or film as huge and hulking compared to the woman you ship her with – especially if that’s not what they look like in canon.
If you’re trying to figure out where to go next because you’ve kinked yourself into a kind of racist corner, research is the best way to get a bead on what people are actually interested in reading about WOC.
Start with WOC In Romance’s Lesbian page.
Then, look at autobiographies of queer women of color that exist. Look at historical media like POSE, documentaries about queer womanhood in all its forms and learn about butches of color. Sure, it may be hard to find histories on little represented queer communities that you might be writing in or around, but trying is really good enough. Watch movies about queer women of color – I Can’t Think Straight, for example, got me through college at one point. Engage with queer media about women of color that does things right – as in, not racistly… or that calls out the racism in these communities.
Chances are, if you’re writing femslash… you are a queer woman. Your local community is probably really neat and diverse depending on where you’re at and how possible it is for a community to form publicly, just… incorporate these experiences into your work.
Overall, it’s the same stuff here as with other parts of fandom: get informed and actively work to create and consume content that doesn’t hinge on stereotypes or push them so we’re all welcome here and able to see ourselves!