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The boys’ love phenomenon: A literature review
by Ágnes Zsila and Zsolt Demetrovics

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Ágnes Zsila was supported by the New National Excellence Program of the Ministry of Human Capacities. This study was supported by the Hungarian National Research, Development and Innovation Office (Grant number: K111938).


Introduction to the boys’ love phenomenon

The increasing popularity of boys’ love media has received growing attention in academic fields over the past two decades, resulting in a wealth of exploratory studies focusing on either the media or the fan community (Galbraith 2009). “Boys’ love” is an umbrella term for Japan-specific media – primarily anime and manga –, which thematize the romantic love of two men, often in a sexually explicit form. The representation of male homosexuality appears in video games, movies, series, and other original or fan-created visual (fan art) and textual pieces (fan fiction) (McHarry 2011). Boys’ love originates from shōjo manga in the 1970s, created for young women, which depicted romantic encounters, mainly between heterosexual couples. However, representations of male homosexuality began to appear in these stories, attracting female enthusiasts (McLelland and Welker 2015, 4). The growing popularity of stories centering on male homosexual encounters contributed to the independence of this emerging genre, which was later divided into two subgenres. Shōnen-ai, which literally means “boy love”, portrays the romantic love between two men by focusing on emotional aspects, whereas yaoi[1] presents male homoeroticism in a sexually explicit form (Welker 2015, 42).

Stories thematizing the romantic love between two men have always been popular among young women not only in Japan but also in North America and several European countries (e.g., Germany, Italy), where movies and books depicting homosexual romance attracted many fans in the late 1970s (Welker 2011, 211-228). However, American gay movies and books never managed to create as expansive a space for fans as boys’ love did. Slash,[2] which can be considered as the Western counterpart of boys’ love, emerged in the 1970s in North America (Saitō 2011, 172), and established an active fan culture. Nevertheless, slash communities remained relatively small, closed groups that did not wish to draw attention from outsiders due to copyright concerns in respect of their non-original works (Thorn 2004, 174). By contrast, the growing popularity of anime and manga outside Japan resulted in boys’ love transcending the boundaries of the manga industry, and related materials (e.g. video games, visual novels) gained the attention of Western fans in the mid-2000s. The positive reception of boys’ love, which preserved most of its cultural specific features in the international adaptations, inspired the formation of large, online fan communities (Thorn 2004, 174). As the Internet became more accessible, manga fans with this special interest in boys’ love could meet online and contribute to the creation of fan-made pieces (e.g. fan fiction, fan art), establishing large, international collaborations (Thorn 2004, 174).

The global boys’ love phenomenon consists of three components: professional and amateur creators, consumers, and boys’ love materials (Mizoguchi 2003, 49-75).The extensive online fan communities and their wide range of activities provided an active, [End Page 2] international background for this phenomenon, and publishers and policy-makers also contributed in the comics market. According to Mizoguchi’s estimation, there were approximately one million Japanese boys’ love fans in the mid-2000s (2008, 44), whereas Thorn reported that hundreds of thousands of women had been engaged with the boys’ love phenomenon (2004, 174).

Parallel to the global expansion of the boys’ love manga industry and fan activities, further subgenres emerged due to the growing interest in male homoerotic stories. For instance, “shōta”[3] became popular in Japan, which portrays pre-adolescent boys in sexually charged situations as objects of attraction (McLelland 2005a, 15). However, this subgenre received mixed reception from boys’ love fans, since the portrayal of underage boys in erotic scenes was strongly associated with child abuse (McLelland 2005a, 2). In contrast, the male counterpart of yaoi, termed “bara”[4], was appreciated more among sexual minorities, although it never managed to transcend the boundaries of gay culture (McLelland2000, 136). Bara materials are created by and for gay men, and feature masculine characters in more realistic story settings. The underlying reasons for men and women showing an interest in male homosexual narratives are sharply different. Bara is primarily related to gay culture (McLelland 2000, 35-136), whereas its female-oriented equivalent, boys’ love, has created a unique space for women to share a collective fantasy in which they can dissociate themselves from gender constructs and social restrictions (Hori 2013).

As a consequence of the global popularity of this genre, the boys’ love phenomenon has also attracted the attention of academics. The English-language literature consists of theoretical studies and qualitative research in the fields of Japanese and East Asian studies, communication and media studies, cultural anthropology, and gender studies (Madill 2010). Only a few studies have conducted empirical research on large samples using quantitative methods (e.g. Pagliassotti 2008a). This paper provides an overview of the international literature on boys’ love from the past twenty years regarding genre-specific characteristics and tropes, fan culture and motivations, critics, and social implications.

The genre-specific characteristics of boys’ love

Boys’ love works combine traditional (e.g. forbidden love) and genre-specific (e.g. “rape as an expression of love”) narratives which reflect the conventional (yet undeniably problematic) tropes of heterosexual romantic literature, with the exception that this love occurs between two men (Mizoguchi 2003, 56). In the majority of cases, boys’ love stories depict the first encounter of characters who fall in love with each other at first sight. Following this, certain difficulties (e.g. sexual orientation concerns, coming out to family members and friends, or past negative experiences) begin to dominate the narrative. Relationship anxieties, terminal illness, rape, incest, and other dramatic themes are often found in this genre (Madill 2011). The portrayal of such psychological traumas in boys’ love stories has a special meaning for the fans of this genre, as will be discussed later in this section.

The visual representation of these stories (e.g. manga, fan art) reflects a particular aesthetic and idealistic design (Madill 2011). The early stories introduced European protagonists in idealized foreign countries (Bollmann 2010, 43). This tendency has, [End Page 3] however, changed in the past two decades, and the romantic encounters have been placed in a Japanese cultural setting.

General boys’ love stories feature “bishōnen” characters (i.e. beautiful boys), who have exceptional physical characteristics (McLelland and Welker 2015, 6). A common couple in boys’ love consists of a dominant, masculine character called “seme”, and a submissive, feminine partner, the “uke” (Bauwens-Sugimoto 2011). A considerable proportion of fans prefer the uke over the seme, which can be attributed to the similarities with female gender roles that allow female fans to identify with male characters (Kamm 2013).

According to the theoretical work of Mizoguchi (2008, 152), general genre-specific tropes are (1) rape as a representation of overflowing love, (2) preserved heterosexual identity of the protagonists after being involved in homosexual activities, (3) seme-uke roles based on physical appearance, (4) fixed roles that cannot be reversed, (5) sexual encounters always involving anal intercourse. However, Kamm (2013) points out that a number of stories do not include the latter two tropes. He argues that roles can be reversed at certain points in the story or with the introduction of a new character, and the depth of a relationship can be illustrated through different types of sexual interaction. In addition, intense emotions, never-ending love, monogamy and loyalty are also important tropes in most boys’ love narratives (Fujimoto 2007a, 63-68).

It is common for the uke to become a rape victim by the seme or by a third person in boys’ love (Mizoguchi 2008, 152) stories. In spite of the fact that rape is a serious societal problem, the boys’ love genre provides a positive reframing of sexual assault and victimization. As Hagio remarks, the (aesthetic) illustration of rape in a more supportive environment may help boys’ love fans cope with similar experiences by providing a more controllable and positive situation in the narratives to relive their own traumas (2005). The seme rapes the uke in their first sexual interaction, which begins with the resistance of the submissive character. However, the seme cannot suppress the overwhelming emotions he has for his partner, which were concealed until that point (Mizoguchi 2008, 151). The uke finally accepts his devotion and expresses his approval, which leads to the satisfaction of both partners (Orbaugh 2010, 181). After this, a deep emotional bond begins to form between the protagonists, which might be contradictory in light of the fact that the uke was raped by the seme previously, but this rape is positively reframed in boys’ love stories, and indicates the beginning of a passionate relationship. Indeed, same-sex relationships are portrayed as particularly deep and honest, and the partners are shown to be unconditionally supportive. For instance, if the uke is being raped by a third person, the seme provides psychological support for him (Mizoguchi 2008, 154). In reverse, if the seme struggles with the outcomes of an early life trauma (e.g. memories of child abuse), a common trope in boys’ love narratives, the uke provides him with help to overcome difficulties (Gibbs 2012, 186).

The prioritization of emotions over traditional social norms, gender constructs, financial advantage and social expectations is significant in the genre of boys’ love (Fujimoto 2007a, 63-68). The male protagonists are usually heterosexual men in a relationship with a woman (Mizoguchi 2000, 193-211) who suddenly fall in love with each other when they first meet. Interestingly, the protagonists are not labeled “gay”, even after being involved in a homosexual relationship (Mizoguchi 2010, 157). Their social environment maintains their heterosexual image, attributing their acquaintance and strong emotional involvement to an accidental coincidence that could happen to anyone (Mizoguchi 2008, 132). The two main characters do not consider themselves homosexual either (Galbraith 2011, 213). [End Page 4]

McLelland and Welker remarked that narratives focusing on the positive aspects of homosexuality, which avoid the presentation of stigmatization and sexual identity concerns, may suggest that it is easy to come out as gay in Japan where these stories are set (2015, 3), although theoretical (Mizoguchi 2008, 32) and empirical works (Pagliassotti 2008a) point out that the majority of boys’ love fans are aware that these stories do not reflect social reality. Saitō also emphasizes that boys’ love characters and settings are not representative of the real lives of gay men, but are constructed elements of a collective female fantasy (2007, 245) which has developed in the online world.

The boys’ love fan community

The global accessibility of the Internet played a significant role in the international popularity of the boys’ love genre and the formation of online boys’ love fan communities in the mid-2000s, when boys’ love anime and manga were introduced to a Western audience (Thorn 2004, 173). Since then there has been a growing interest in scanned and translated boys’ love manga among young women (2004, 174). Consequently, large fan communities of female enthusiasts have developed. These anonymous, closed groups allow members to express their appreciation for bishōnen characters involved in homosexual romances (2004, 173-174).

“Fujoshi” is a commonly used expression for female fans of boys’ love. The Japanese term means “rotten girls”, which refers to fans’ sexually-driven reading practices (Galbraith 2011, 212). Based on the prevalence of heterosexual women in fans’ conversations on gay-themed magazines in the 1970s, it was assumed that the vast majority of female boys’ love fans were heterosexual. However, empirical research conducted in the mid-2000s did not support this presumption. In 2008, Levi (2009, 154) found that only around 58% of North American respondents (86% female) were heterosexual; while Pagliassotti (2008a) reported that 47% of English-speaking European fans (89% female) and 62% of Italian participants (82% female) were heterosexual. Zsila, Bernáth and Inántsy-Pap (2015, 60) recently found that 66% of Hungarian boys’ love fans were heterosexual (91% female). Moreover, Lunsing (2006) and Welker (2006, 841-870) also emphasized that lesbian fans were vital members of the boys’ love fan community in the mid-2000s.

The vast majority of fans (93%) are both creators and consumers (Pagliassotti 2008a). Age difference, level of education and social status are insignificant in the social community of boys’ love enthusiasts, and there is no clear distinction between professional and amateur creators (Mizoguchi 2008, 336-350).

It is common for boys’ love fans to reinterpret general communication signs as homosexual affections (Galbraith 2011, 221). This mechanism was described by Galbraith under the term “rotten filter” (2011, 221), whereas Meyer used terms such as “yaoi-eye” and “yaoi glasses” to describe this perceptual process (2010, 232). It is common for female fans to view the world through their “rotten filter” and to imagine homosexual encounters resulting from sexually neutral objects or interactions, although imagination and reality are adequately separated and coexistent in their everyday lives (Saitō 2007, 245). They consider non-fujoshi as “normals”, and themselves as “abnormals” for having this fascination with homosexual men (Galbraith 2011, 221). [End Page 5]

“Playing gender” (Thorn 2004, 176) and experiencing sexuality in the safe confines of fantasy play a significant role in this phenomenon. Galbraith (2009) argues that boys’ love fans are always seeking “moe”, which could be defined as a strong emotional response to fictional characters. Moe is considered by Galbraith to be the most important motive for creating and sharing boys’ love materials. According to Galbraith, “moe talk” is a common activity in boys’ love fan communities. Moe talk is an affective conversation about fictional characters and couplings that evoke moe in fans (2015, 158). Two related terms should be mentioned in connection with Galbraith’s work. The first is “transgressive intimacy”, which is strongly related to the dynamism of the “rotten filter”, as it refers to romantic and erotic potentials that are perceived in sexually neutral verbal or nonverbal communication between men, and are screened out by boys’ love fans’ rotten filter after being detected (Galbraith 2011, 213). By contrast, “nioi-kei”[5] materials purposely contain hints of homosexual affection in order to be detected by fans (Aoyama 2013, 66).

Yaoi role-play is a popular social activity among boys’ love fans, in which two or more participants engage in a virtual, mostly chat-like sexual interaction with each other, playing the roles of gay lovers (Galbraith 2011, 227). The majority of fans have preferred roles, character types and settings, and seek role-play partners in the form of advertisements in boys’ love fan communities. The seme-uke roles, physical traits of both men, and situational characteristics are described in these advertisements. Mizoguchi calls these fans “virtual lesbians” for engaging in sexual role-plays with each other in order to act out male homoerotic fantasies (2008, 339). Furthermore, the author considers the community of boys’ love fans a sexual minority according to the way that they communicate with each other using fantasies of male homosexuality (2010, 155).

The underlying motivations behind participating in fan activities related to the genre of boys’ love have been examined in qualitative research (e.g. Chou 2010, 78-90; Pagliassotti 2008b). This has provided us with a deeper knowledge of the global boys’ love phenomenon, and helped to draw a more nuanced picture of the function and importance of this genre for the fans.

The motivation behind the boys’ love phenomenon

According to the results of qualitative research conducted on a sample of Taiwanese boys’ love fans, the main motivations behind creating and consuming boys’ love were linked to its entertaining, inspiring and sexually arousing characteristics (Chou 2010, 78). These motives were also found in Pagliassotti’s research, who systematically categorized fans’ responses based on theoretical considerations (2008b). As a result, she identified ten distinct motivational dimensions. The “Pure” love without gender dimension comprises responses emphasizing that boys’ love characters express their love for each other regardless of gender and related social expectations. Pro-gay attitude/forbidden & transgressive love contains responses emphasizing that boys’ love promotes supportive attitudes toward gay men, since these stories point out that the love of same-sex couples have for one another is not so different from the feelings heterosexual couples have: only sexual preferences are distinct. The Identification/self-analysis dimension was important for those fans who wished to gain a deeper knowledge of themselves, their emotional reactions [End Page 6] and sexual desires. This motive also appeared in Penley’s (1992, 484) and Suzuki’s arguments (1998, 243). Melodramatic/emotional elements attracted those fans who wished to read or view stories that evoked strong emotions in them. The Dislike of standard romances/shōjo factor referred to those who disliked heterosexual romance stories due to their perceived schematic structure and one-dimensional characters, whereas other respondents pointed out that they found pornography inappropriate for themselves due to its explicit portrayal of sexuality. A female-oriented romantic/erotic genre was an important motive for those who found this genre closer to their tastes than other romantic genres, since boys’ love is created by and for women, and authors pay careful attention to the emotional impact of slightly erotic homosexual representations on female fans. The Pure escapism/lack of reality dimension reflected responses emphasizing that boys’ love helps readers escape from real problems, illustrates fictional characters and settings that expand the imagination of fans, and helps readers forget about real life. The appreciation for Art and aesthetics in boys’ love materials also appeared in Chou’s study (2010, 87) as a motivation. The Pure entertainment factor comprised responses that focused on the entertaining and relaxing characteristics of boys’ love media. Finally, several fans were motivated to read boys’ love manga because they found it Arousing/sexually titillating.

Theoretical research in the field of boys’ love studies has revealed that the creation of the genre was highly associated with gender issues (e.g. Welker 2011; Fujimoto 2007b; Nagaike and Suganuma 2013). Boys’ love is often considered to be a critical response to a patriarchal society (Welker 2011, 223), and an escapist genre rooted in dissatisfaction with traditional gender roles and related social expectations (Kamm 2013). According to this, boys’ love characters are considered to be representations of the ideal self-image of those women who feel that the socially constructed gender system is not appropriate for them (Fujimoto 2004, 86) due to perceived inequality in power and social hierarchy (Welker 2011, 223). In contrast, boys’ love stories equalize power (Chou 2010, 88) by constructing idealized male characters with a female soul (Fujimoto 2004, 86). Female fans can therefore dissociate themselves from restrictive gender expectations by identifying with a gender construct provided in boys’ love narratives that is more appropriate to their needs (Welker 2011, 223).

Thematic stories often contain dramatic themes such as early-life traumas (Bollmann 2010, 44) and gender-related problems (e.g. relationship anxieties rooted in sexual identity dilemmas) that represent women’s collective and individual struggles (Welker 2011, 223). However, these concerns are presented in a supportive and positive form (e.g. rape blame does not exist in boys’ love), contributing to a potentially more positive reframing of fans’ personal experiences (Mizoguchi 2008, 154-155). As Mizoguchi (2008, 84-86) explains, the visual representation “constitutes the comic readers’ psychological reality” instead of the real content. Nevertheless, a number of boys’ love fans may never be able to overcome their problems through fantasy, and thus they avoid stories including certain scenarios that are close to their personal experiences (e.g. rape) (2008, 32).

There is a social expectation toward women in Japan and in several European countries that women should be chaste and repress erotic thoughts. Boys’ love allows them to develop sexual fantasies and to express their desires in the form of creative works and social activities (Galbraith 2011, 213-216). They can participate in sexual experiences within the safe confines of fantasy without any real consequences (Früh 2003, 27-56), and in a closed, female-dominated community in which members do not have to restrict or censor [End Page 7] their erotic thoughts (Fujimoto 2007b, 36-47). Since the sexual interaction takes place between two men, and thus erotic thoughts are projected onto male characters, female fans can dissociate themselves from their female desires that cause tension, given that it contravenes socially constructed gender expectations (Fujimoto 2007b, 36-47; 2004, 87). However, thematizing male homosexuality in women’s fiction is widely accepted in Japan, since these texts are considered to be part of women’s sexual culture (McLelland and Yoo 2007, 18). The acceptance of male homoeroticism is deeply rooted in the history of homosexual culture in Japan. Indeed, homosexual practices are intertwined with several Japanese traditions, and a complex system of age-structured homosexual customs called “shudō” persisted through several historical periods (Pflugfelder 1997, 26). For instance, this custom established a deep emotional and personal relationship between samurai warriors and apprentices as part of the mentorship and training process in becoming a warrior (Leupp 1999, 53-54). Restrictions on homosexual behavioral practices clustered in time around the appearance of Western cultural values (McLelland and Welker 2015, 7).

According to representations of Japanese society in boys’ love media, it could be concluded – incorrectly – that Japan is particularly tolerant of homosexuality compared to Western societies (McLelland and Yoo 2007, 18). However, gay men constitute a sexual minority there too (McLelland and Welker 2015, 3), and face difficulties with societal stigmatization (Herek 2009, 32-43).

Research points out that the positive representation of gay men in boys’ love media and the core message of equality regardless of gender and sexual preference is of special importance for fans of the post-industrialized Anglophone world (Pagliassotti 2008b). Indeed, it is particularly important to them that boys’ love media promote tolerance, which can contribute to the social acceptance of homosexual men (2008b). In a similar vein, Mizoguchi (2010, 159) highlights the importance of raising awareness of this potential among creators of boys’ love, as this could be used to increase social acceptance.

Despite the positive aspects of the boys’ love phenomenon (e.g. creativity, international collaborations, self-supportive resources and promotion of pro-gay attitudes), critics have stated that this genre may not serve as a positive representation of gay men. Instead, the idealistic illustration of fictional characters and controversial situations (e.g. rape as the expression of love) reflects an unreal and rather detrimental image of gay society. Furthermore, the pathologization of female fans devoted to media content focusing on male homosexuality, and censorship as an effort to control the circulation of thematic materials including controversial themes (e.g. erotic content featuring underage boys), have raised particular concerns relating to boys’ love fan culture.

Boys’ love critics

The “yaoi debate” (or yaoi ronsō) began in the early 1990s as a protest by gay activists against boys’ love (Mizoguchi 2008, 178-180). This debate took place in a fanzine in which a provocative essay, written by gay activist Masaki Satō, was published, who wished for the decline of the boys’ love genre for presenting an unreal image of gay people (Mizoguchi 2008, 179). Several heterosexual and lesbian women responded to Satō’s essay, starting a debate, which expanded into a discussion on gay rights and the social perception of sexual minorities [End Page 8] that might be biased by representations in boys’ love media (Mizoguchi 2008, 178-184). Satō argued that women consider men perverts for expressing sexual desire, while they do the same in boys’ love by misinterpreting their sexual fantasies in order to maintain the impression that they create art which, in their view, cannot be equal to pornography (qtd. in Mizoguchi 2008, 178-180). Furthermore, Satō argued that boys’ love increases discrimination against gay men due to its idealized portrayal of them (Mizoguchi 2008, 181-182). He claimed that this genre only widens the perceived social distance between gay men and heterosexual individuals (Mizoguchi 2008, 180-181), since the majority of gay men are not young and beautiful but average men with ordinary jobs (Mizoguchi 2008, 181). Thus, boys’ love may give the impression that gay men are generally attractive, usually develop a “proud gay identity”, and have a stable, homosexual relationship (Mizoguchi 2008, 181). However, highly idealized illustration of characters can be found in many other romantic literary genres; thus, this argument could be applied to a number of works of romantic literature besides boys’ love.

Satō also argued that the refusal of boys’ love characters to accept their gay identity clearly shows that this genre cannot promote social tolerance but serves only as a source of private entertainment for women (Mizoguchi 2008, 181-182). Finally, Satō outlined that boys’ love should not serve as an escapist genre for women but should function as a medium which contributes to the growing social acceptance of sexual minorities without portraying gay men as objects of the female gaze (Mizoguchi 2008, 186).

Regarding the sexuality of female fans, empirical research findings do not support the commonly held assumption that the vast majority of boys’ love fans are heterosexual women (e.g. Pagliassotti 2008a; Levi 2009). Mizoguchi describes in her work that she became a lesbian through reading boys’ love manga (2008, 164), suggesting that this genre may have an impact on the sexual behavior of fans. However, further research would be required to determine a causal relationship between sexual preference and exposure to boys’ love media.

Boys’ love fans may find it difficult to navigate between the heteronormative world and fictional homonormativity. According to Galbraith’s (2011, 220-221) work, fans devoted to boys’ love media consider themselves privileged dreamers who have an extensively developed fantasy world. They reported that nontraditional romances expand their imagination. They label themselves “abnormal” for this special interest, while consider those “short on dreams” as “normal” (2011, 221). Similarly, “normals” often pathologize boys’ love fans for their attraction to gay men (Kamm 2013). A widely held assumption has also emerged that boys’ love fans might be sexually-deprived women, although this hypothesis is not supported by empirical evidence (Mori 2010, 101; Sugiura 2006, 40). A number of boys’ love fans might also consider their fascination with gay romance a pathological construct at the beginning, but their anxieties diminish when they get to know other people sharing the same interest (Mizoguchi 2008, 72).

The emergence of the boys’ love genre, particularly shōta, raises concerns about the impact of explicit sexual content featuring underage boys on the healthy sexual development of young female fans (McLelland and Yoo 2007, 14-18). Japan seems to be more permissive in terms of placing underage characters into fictional erotic scenarios, since the appreciation of young and beautiful boys was part of the cultural tradition in several historical eras (McLelland 2005b, 96-159; McLelland and Welker 2015, 6). Although boys’ love narratives containing explicit sexual representations of underage boys are legal as virtual child [End Page 9] pornography in the United States, these materials could be categorized as child-abuse media in Australia and countries with similar local legislation (McLelland and Yoo 2007, 15). Since several boys’ love fans associate shōta with pedophilia, they remain critical regarding its content, despite the fact that these materials are targeted at young women who, as McLelland and Yoo point out, incorporate these fantasies as part of their healthy sexual development without causing harm to other individuals, particularly young boys (2007, 8).

The social potentials of boys’ love

The formation of large online communities in the mid-2000s provided a space for intercultural communication among individuals attracted to homosexual romance stories (Thorn 2004, 173). Furthermore, these communities established intercultural collaborations among fans, which contributed to the spread of scanned and translated manga which had not been published outside of Japan (Thorn 2004, 173). Scanlations – i.e. manga scanned and translated by fans (Noppe 2010, 131) – provided a great opportunity for boys’ love enthusiasts to improve their English language skills as well as establishing a core base for international friendships that transcended cultural differences (Nagaike and Suganuma 2013). These international collaborations contributed to the process through which individuals with the same interest met online, and their wide array of social and creative activities have expanded into a “universal psychological phenomenon” (Mizuma 2005, 20) since gaining the attention of publishers, followers and academics (Thorn 2004, 171-178).

In addition, boys’ love fan communities encouraged members to cope with personal problems through social activities, provided a supportive environment, and helped fans become more self-aware (Suzuki 1998, 243). Thus, the intimate, female-dominated space of boys’ love enthusiasts could be seen as ideal for helping fans to cope with problems and for establishing virtual friendships based on their attraction to male homosexual erotica (Mizoguchi 2008, 339). Consequently, the perceived “abnormality” of the fujoshi identity (Galbraith 2011, 221) is of positive significance in this context and reduces the extent to which boys’ love fans may feel socially isolated.

In recent years, social networking sites have provided an appropriate space for boys’ love fans to share material and discuss their fascination with male homosexual romances. This interactive online platform is very significant for underage boys’ love fans, since their membership remains hidden in the case of secret groups where they can share adult content. They can gain knowledge of their sexual desires and act them out in a safe place of fantasy, as emphasized by Früh (2003, 27-56). Furthermore, anonymity is provided for all fans on web pages and forums (Wood 2006, 409). They therefore cannot be identified by parents or friends (Wood 2006, 408-409). Indeed, the families of boys’ love fans do not know anything about boys’ love in the vast majority of cases, thus they are not aware when a family member is involved in the boys’ love phenomenon (Wood 2006, 409). Consequently, parents have no control over the exposure of young girls (or boys) to homosexual content, which has both advantages and disadvantages.

Finally, qualitative research (Pagliassotti 2008b) proposed that the boys’ love genre could contribute to society’s acceptance of gay people in a cross-cultural context (Pagliassotti 2008a) due to its positive portrayal of gay people. Although critics doubted that [End Page 10] boys’ love media would promote favorable attitudes toward gay men, a positive association was found between exposure to boys’ love media and pro-gay attitudes, irrespective of sexual orientation (Zsila 2015, 399-403). However, it is not clear whether it is the exposure to boys’ love media that gives rise to pro-gay attitudes, or vice-versa. Further research is therefore needed to determine whether boys’ love fans are more accepting or the frequent exposure to boys’ love media has a positive impact on fans’attitudes toward gay men (Zsila 2015, 404).


Boys’ love, which portrays the romantic love between two men, has received a great deal of attention from researchers over the past two decades. As a consequence, a number of relevant theoretical studies, and qualitative and quantitative research articles, have emerged, focusing on either the media of boys’ love or its consumers. In this paper, we provided an overview of the international literature relating to boys’ love based on the main characteristics of this genre, the fan culture and motivations behind it, critiques of the genre, and the possible social implications of boys’ love. Although there is a growing body of English-language literature on this genre, a great number of articles are still only available from Japanese sources, making it difficult to synthesize the conclusions of different disciplines that investigate distinct aspects of the boys’ love phenomenon. Moreover, both the characteristics of boys’ love media (e.g. preferred settings, character types) and fans’ needs change over time, as was emphasized by several authors, e.g. Bollmann (2010, 42-46); Mizoguchi (2008, 53-128); Welker (2015 42-75). However, there are a number of apparently common features across time periods and audiences. Firstly, boys’ love has inspired the creativity of numerous fans, motivating them to create self-expressive pieces intertwining their desires with their art. Secondly, this genre has contributed to the formation of active fan communities, leading to international collaborations between fans. Finally, boys’ love media has created a supportive space for women, who can share their fantasies without the pressure of social restrictions, and who wish to achieve the same for gay people proven that qualitative research demonstrated that pro-gay attitudes promoted by boys’ love media was one of the main motives of women to be fans of this genre.

[1] Japanese acronym originating from “yama nashi, oichi nashi, imi nashi”, which means “no climax, no point, no meaning”. This expression refers to the focus on sexual content instead of a complex storyline.

[2] Fan-created stories borrowing characters and settings from original works (e.g. movies, TV series). The term “slash” comes from the / symbol, which refers to the romantic bond between two characters in these works (e.g. Kirk/Spock in the early Star Trek stories).

[3] Japanese term derived from the anime entitled “Tetsujin 28-go”, which featured a young male character, Shōtarō, who was a symbolic representation of cuteness and charm in the story (Saitō 2007, 236).

[4] Japanese term, which literally means “rose”. The expression is derived from a gay photo collection published in the early 1960s, and was revived later by a magazine for gay men entitled “Barazoku” (Mackintosh 2006). [End Page 11]

[5] Japanese term that refers to literary and visual media that hides “nioi” (hint, touch) for the fans of male homosexual stories to detect the signs of homosexual intimacy. “Kei” is a widely used term to describe groups or categories (Aoyama 2013, 66). [End Page 12]

Works cited

Aoyama, Tomoko. “BL (Boys’ Love) Literacy: Subversion, Resuscitation, and Transformation of the (Father’s) Text.”U.S.-Japan Women’s Journal 43 (2013): 63-84. Print.

Bauwens-Sugimoto, Jessica. “Subverting Masculinity, Misogyny, and Reproductive Technology in SEX PISTOLS.” Image & Narrative, 12.1 (2011): n.pag. Web. Accessed 7 Oct. 2016.

Bollmann, Tuuli. “He-romance for her – Yaoi, BL and Shounen-ai.” Imaginary Japan: Japanese Fantasy in Contemporary Popular Culture. Ed. Eija Niskanen. Turku: International Institute for Popular Culture, 2010. 42-46. Print.

Chou, DienFang. “Exploring the Meaning of Yaoi in Taiwan for Female Readers: From the Perspective of Gender.” Intercultural Communication Studies 19.1 (2010): 78-90. Print.

Früh, Werner. “Triadisch-Dynamische Unterhaltungstheorie” [Triadic-dynamic entertainment theory]. Theorie der Unterhaltung: Ein interdisziplinärer Diskurs. Eds. Werner Früh and Hans-Jörg Stiehler. Cologne: von Halem, 2003. 27-56. Print.

Fujimoto, Yukari. “Transgender: Female Hermaphrodites and Male Androgynes.” U.S.-Japan Women’s Journal 27 (2004): 76-117. Print.

– – –. “Onna ga otoko wo aisuru toki: Yaoi teki yokubouron/shiron” [When a woman loves a man: A tentative theory of Yaoi-style love and desire]. Yuriika, 536: Fujoshi Manga Takikei. Tokyo: Seidosha, 2007a. 63-68. Print.

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Kazumi Nagaike, Katsuhiko Suganuma, and James Welker. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2015. 155-168. Print.

Gibbs, Christy. Breaking Binaries: Transgressing Sexualities in Japanese Animation. Diss. University of Waikato, 2012. Print.

Hagio, Moto. “The Moto Hagio Interview. Interview by Matt Thorn.” Comics Journal 269 (2005): n.pag. Web. Accessed 11 Jan. 2016.

Herek, Gregory M., J. Roy Gillis, and Jeanine C. Cogan “Internalized stigma among sexual minority adults: Insights from a social psychological perspective.” Journal of Counseling Psychology 56.1 (2009), 32-43. Print.

Hori, Akiko. “On the Response (Or Lack Thereof) of Japanese Fans to Criticism that Yaoi Is Antigay Discrimination.” Transnational Boys’ Love Fan Studies. Spec. issue of Transformative Works and Cultures 12 (2013): n.pag. Web. Accessed 10 Jan. 2016.

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Kamm, Björn-Ole. “Rotten Use Patterns: What Entertainment Theories Can Do for the Study of Boys’ Love.” Transnational Boys’ Love Fan Studies. Spec. issue of Transformative Works and Cultures 12 (2013): n.pag. Web. Accessed 10 Jan. 2016.

Leupp, Gary P. Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. Print.

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Mackintosh, Jonathan D. “Itō Bungaku and the Solidarity of the Rose Tribes [Barazoku]: Stirrings of Homo Solidarity in Early 1970s Japan”. Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context 12 (2006): n.pag. Web. Accessed 12 Jan. 2016.

Madill, Anna. “Girls Love ‘Boys’ Love’: Exploring Sexuality and Gender in Japanese Manga.” Conference paper, Women in Comics II, Leeds Art Gallery in association with Comics Forum. 18-21 Nov 2010.

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McHarry, Mark. “(Un)gendering the Homoerotic Body: Imagining Subjects in Boys’ Love and Yaoi.” Textual Echoes. Special issue of Transformative Works and Culture 8 (2011): n.pag. Web. Accessed 12 Jan. 2016.

McLelland, Mark. Male Homosexuality in Modern Japan: Cultural Myths and Social Realities. London: Routledge, 2000. Print.

– – –. “The World of Yaoi: The Internet, Censorship and the Global ‘Boys’ Love’ Fandom.” The Australian Feminist Law Journal 23 (2005a): 61-77. Print.

– – –. Queer Japan from the Pacific War to the Internet Age. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005b. Print.

McLelland, Mark, and S. Yoo. “The International Yaoi Boys’ Love Fandom and the Regulation of Virtual Child Pornography: Current Legislation and its Implications.” Journal of Sexuality Research and Social Policy 4.1 (2007): 93-104. Print.

McLelland, Mark, and James Welker. “An Introduction to ‘Boys Love’ in Japan.” Boys Love Manga and Beyond: History, Culture, and Community in Japan. Eds. Mark McLelland, Kazumi Nagaike, Katsuhiko Suganuma, and James Welker. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2015. 3-20. Print.

Meyer, Uli. “Hidden in Straight Sight: Trans*gressing Gender and Sexuality via BL.” Boys’ Love Manga: Essays on the Sexual Ambiguity and Cross-Cultural Fandom of the Genre. Eds. Antonia Levi, Mark McHarry, and Dru Pagliassotti. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010. 232-256. Print.

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– – –. “Male-Male Romance by and for Women in Japan: A History and the Subgenres of Yaoi Fictions.” U.S.-Japan Women’s Journal 25 (2003): 49-75. Print.

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[End Page 16]


Fifty Shades of Remix: The Intersecting Pleasures of Commercial and Fan Romances
by Katherine Morrissey

The commercial success of the Fifty Shades of Grey books has prompted an outpouring of media coverage on the trilogy and its rapid success. Much of this coverage has focused on the idea of “mommy porn” and the notion that not only do female readers seem to enjoy erotic literature, but there is also potential for making money off this trend. For readers of all kinds of romantic fiction, however, this news is neither particularly shocking, nor, in any way, news. What may be of more interest to many romance readers [End Page 1] and scholars are, instead, the origins of Fifty Shades, and the fact that the series has made the move from a not-for-profit piece of Twilight fan fiction to a set of commercial books. Fifty Shades’ history and success marks an opportunity for fan studies and popular romance scholars. This is an occasion to revisit past conversations regarding the connections and disconnections between romantic fan fiction and commercial romances.

Past explorations of fan fiction as romance have often focused on the categories of het (male/female relationships) and slash (male/male) fan fiction. This work often either categorizes fan fiction as a type of romance writing, or works to mark out boundaries, separating fan fiction and romance into two different storytelling types.[1] Fifty Shades refuses such clear categorizing. In its transition from a lengthy work of fan fiction titled Master of the Universe by fan writer Snowqueens Icedragon to the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy authored by E.L. James, Fifty Shades blurs the lines between fan work and commercial fiction, amateur and professional, as well as the romantic and the erotic.[2] Fifty Shades compels us to look beyond taxonomic mappings of what does or does not constitute romance. The series reminds us that the differences perceived between categories can be shaped as much by networks of production and distribution as they are by story content.

With these themes of intersection and blurred boundaries in mind, I want to use the grey-ness of Fifty Shades as an opportunity to explore the connected pleasures that fan and commercial romances bring to their readers. First, I will review some of the concerns raised regarding the reconfiguration of fan work for the commercial market. Next, I will turn to past scholarship on the similarities and differences between fan fiction and commercial romances, discussing the challenges faced by scholars exploring these different modes of production. Finally, I will outline the importance of play with form and intertextuality across fan and commercial romances, emphasizing the significance of these elements to readers’ pleasure. While scholars need to be attentive to disciplinary concerns and medium specific contexts, the impulse to deny intersection and to quickly apply labels like “original,” “derivative,” and “formulaic” can signal problematic assumptions and artificially segregate certain storytelling forms. As Abigail Derecho argues, “[t]o label [a] genre of fiction based on antecedent texts ‘derivative’ or ‘appropriative’ then, throws into question the originality, creativity, and legality of that genre” (64). These terms reinforce stigmas long connected to women’s authorship and reading. In exploring intersections between fan fiction and commercial romances, new opportunities emerge to explore the ways that romantic storytelling is working within and against social norms and testing new possibilities for the representation of relationships and desire.

Reacting to Fifty Shades

For many readers and writers of fan and commercial romances, the repackaging of works of fan fiction as commercially sold texts is seen as a growing problem or threat to their reading experiences. While Fifty Shades has gained notoriety as a media event, it represents neither a first incident nor an isolated one. As digital publishing opportunities expand, a growing amount of stories and authors are moving from non-commercial fan spaces into digital-lit markets. This movement is facilitated by increased opportunities for [End Page 2] self-publishing as well as a growing digital publishing industry. Recently, has even taken steps to get involved in this trend, marketing their new Kindle Worlds service as a self-publishing platform for authorized works of fan fiction.[3] Readers and writers of commercial romances and fan works are observing these trends and wondering what Fifty Shades’ success may signal. Fifty Shades has offered these two communities an opportunity to discuss this type of crossover literature. In spaces like Dreamwidth, LiveJournal, and Tumblr, many fans have posted their reactions to the Fifty Shades series and its success. There have also been lengthy discussions on popular romance blogs like Smart Bitches Trashy Books and Dear Author. These discussions have raised questions regarding the ethics of converting fan fiction into a commercial product and the impact this may have on fan communities. Discussion has also focused on aesthetics and the perceived quality of fan work, fan fiction’s legal status, and whether something like Fifty Shades, a story that began as fan fiction and has been converted, qualifies as “original” work.

For many fans, the monetization of fan work has often meant a fan author “pulling to publish”: removing their writing from the community, deleting files on fan archives, and erasing as much of the work’s history as possible on fan websites and archives. Since fan fiction is generally produced within a community setting, pulling creative work from this setting is viewed negatively by many fans. The processes of both production and reception for fan works are highly social and the stories are often perceived as part of this larger community network, a network of exchange built around themes of sharing and giving, rather than profit and commerce (De Kosnik; Hellekson). Fan work is also particularly intertextual. Fan fiction writers use their fandoms as common frames of reference and extrapolate on these frames as they develop their own interpretations of settings and characters. This intertextuality goes beyond the relationship between the fan work and the source text it responds to and encompasses social relations between fans. As Louisa Stein and Kristina Busse explain:

[b]y definition, fan fiction is in intertextual communication with the source text; however, in practice, it also engages with a host of other texts, be they clearly stated requests [from other fans], shared interpretive characterizations, or even particular instantiations of the universes that the fan writer chooses to expand upon. (199–200)

Fan writers utilize and comment on these broader community ideas, critiques, and interpretations, adding to them with their own writing. Stories in this network influence and rub up against each other, feeding into a broader community dialogue around characters, narrative choices, and various potentials within different story worlds. Removing a particular story from this network threatens the gift economy through which fan networks often operate.[4] It erases a social history, moments of conversation, and moments of pleasure from a particular network of fans.

For readers of commercial romances, the repurposing of fan fiction stories into commercial ones is becoming increasingly visible with the growth of digital publishing, particularly within the category of m/m romance. The reworking of stories without disclosing their origins is sometimes framed by romance readers as a form of deception or a kind of cheating. (An allegation that implies fan authors are simply repurposing other people’s ideas and labor without putting in much work of their own.)[5] This sense of [End Page 3] deception may arise simply from a reader’s desire to know the history of the manuscript. However, a sense that the author is cheating can also reflect a deeper ambivalence regarding the very process of fan production itself and whether that process constitutes original work or, indeed, any work at all. While fan work has become more visible as a social practice in recent years, fans’ creative practices remain contested and debated. Fan work challenges traditional notions of authorship, ownership, and labor practices around creative production. In this way, fan work and the blurring of romance and fan fiction as writing categories may also serve as a threat to readers and writers of commercial romances. In a community that is so often told by society that romance is not real literature and where romance authors are often perceived more as hobbyists than authors, the prospect of being connected with the proudly unprofessional world of fan fiction may spark understandable concern.

Just as commercial romance readers and writers are concerned about larger public perceptions of romantic literature, fans may also be uncomfortable with their work being associated with romance. (The history of this in fan scholarship will be discussed further in the next section of the paper.) It is important to remember that here too, there is a community reacting protectively against larger public perceptions. Fan practices are often characterized as obsessive, frivolous, and aberrant in ways strikingly similar to the ways that commercial romance reading practices have been positioned.

Stigma around romance and fan writing is part of a long legacy of public concern around women’s writing and reading practices. Concerns about women’s reading and writing have come from many different directions, conservative and liberal, academic and cultural. As Joanne Hollows explains, due to the genre’s association with women, “[m]any literary critics [have] regarded romantic fiction as the ultimate example of the trivial” (68). Romance has also been positioned as work “produced for mindless, passive consumers” (Hollows 68). Similar concerns have been raised regarding fan fiction. Discussing the ways shame operates in many predominantly female fan communities, Lynn Zubernis and Katherine Larsen note that there is a “cultural fear of female sexuality which sometimes lies beneath criticism of female fan behavior” (60). In particular, Zubernis and Larsen observe that cultural discourse around “the ‘wrong’ kind of desire is powerful… and is an integral part of the cultural containment of female desire in general” (60).

The public nature of Fifty Shades’ success and the equally public media debate over the “threat” BDSM content might represent to susceptible (i.e., female) readers has brought both fan fiction and romance into the spotlight again, reactivating many conversations about the relationship between these two modes of writing. Of course, the reactions and concerns described here do not reflect the views of all fan or commercial romance readers. More importantly, while here these reactions have been organized as emerging from two different writing and reading communities, the reality is that there is also a great deal of crossover between these spaces. Many fans of romantic stories read both fan fiction and commercial romances. Although there are differences between fan fiction stories and commercial romances, the success of Fifty Shades reminds us that stories, readers, and writers are flowing across these community boundaries. [End Page 4]

Romance(s): Problematizing the Slash/Romance Binary

Scholarship examining the relationship between fan fiction and commercial romance has a tendency to either rapidly align the two modes of writing and move on or position them in opposition to each other. More often, the tendency has been to focus specifically on one category of fan fiction, slash, contrasting the m/m relationships found in slash with the traditionally m/f world of commercial romances. This approach excludes het fan fiction and tends to footnote femslash (f/f relationships) entirely, dismissing it as a smaller and less relevant fan fiction category.  As Laura Kaplan describes it, “[t]he comparison usually carries with it a whiff of scorn for romance, if not for slash. Romance, it is to be understood, is a simplistic and static genre… slash fiction is either more of the same or is essentially the same but somehow improved” (121). This history sets up problems for scholars interested in exploring Fifty Shades and its position within both fan and commercial spaces. Fifty Shades began as Masters of the Universe, a lengthy piece of fan fiction connected to Twilight, a young adult paranormal romance series. As Masters of the Universe, it explored and reworked Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, adding more sexually explicit content and investigating the power dynamics of Bella and Edward’s relationship in Twilight through the context of a fictional BDSM relationship. Later, as the commercially sold Fifty Shades series, the same content was repackaged with new character names and sold as a boundary pushing erotic romance. Where do we place such a story? Do we analyze it only as fan fiction? Do we ignore the text’s ties to Twilight and focus more on the ways that Fifty Shades pushes at the boundaries of erotic romance? In order to better understand a text like this and the intertextual moves it makes, we need to revisit past scholarship and investigate some of the assumptions made regarding the relationship between romance and fan fiction.

Many early pieces of scholarship on fan fiction and romance seem overly focused on answering the question: Why would women want to read that? Often making problematic assumptions about what “that” is. Working in a variety of disciplinary fields, scholars often use terms like romance, pornography, and genre in ways that do not cleanly intersect, frequently causing communication errors. More recently, however, there has been a great deal of popular romance scholarship calling attention to the problems inherent in defining a single universal type of romance. Similarly, in fan scholarship, others are calling for a reconsideration of the slash/romance binary. As popular romance studies emerges as an interdisciplinary field looking at various modes of romantic storytelling, it is important that we treat this history with care and be mindful of the different ways our disciplinary fields may position us and the terms we use.

In scholarship on fan fiction, slash has often been framed as a kind of feminist and/or grassroots counter to a predominantly heterosexual mass-market romance (Lamb and Veith; Penley; Kustritz). Slash is also sometimes aligned with the pornographic or seen as utilizing and renovating pornographic elements into a new and distinct mode of romance writing (Penley; Woledge). In this configuration, the pornographic is often problematically positioned as active and romance assumed to be passive (Driscoll). The problem with positioning slash in opposition with commercial romance is that it overlooks the many shared interests and themes between these two modes of writing. It also ignores the diversity of commercial romances and the various ways that romance sub-genres [End Page 5] approach sexual content. Furthermore, the heavy focus on slash artificially isolates it from the larger field of fan fiction, which includes a variety of romantic stories, as well as stories with no romance plot at all. The relationship between slash specifically and fan fiction generally is far more intertextual than confrontational. Similarly, the heavy focus on “pairings” and “ships” across fan fiction, and a focus in these stories on overcoming obstacles to place two characters in relationship with one another, suggests that fan fiction and commercial romances are not oppositional modes of writing, but instead are modes of writing with linked interests.[6]

In much past analysis of slash, romance has been positioned as a problematic starting point which slash renovates and improves on. Penley, Lamb and Veith, Kustritz, and others contrast romance with slash, positioning slash as a “redoing,” a “radical departure,” or a “tear[ing] down” (Penley 318; Lamb and Veith 238; Kustritz 377). For example, Patricia Frazer Lamb and Diana L. Veith find consistent themes of “psychological, emotional, and physical intimacy” in slash when they look at Star Trek fan zines from the 1980s (238). The difference between slash and romance, they argue, is that slash zines insist “that true love and authentic intimacy can exist only between equals”—the implication being that this equality is not possible in a relationship between a man and a women (244).  To find this equality, Lamb and Veith argue that Star Trek slash writers and readers move beyond their day to day realities, and look instead to m/m romances and fantastic futures as a way of transcending the complicated realities women negotiate in their own relationships.

If slash renovates romance, this still implies that it is heavily dependent on and exists in conversation with romantic conventions. Furthermore, this notion of slash as a kind of romance improvement model can overlook ways that themes of intimacy and equality are also popular in commercial romances. As Pamela Regis observes, a common element in much commercial romance literature is a flawed society which “may be incomplete, superannuated, or corrupt” and “always oppresses the heroine and the hero” (33). According to Regis, this setting often becomes a major part of the external and internal barriers that the protagonists struggle to overcome. In negotiating with these obstacles, romance is often working to bring its characters from a place of inequality and misunderstanding into greater intimacy and connection. Commercial romances also take flawed relationships and remodel them for their protagonists. Indeed, it might be said that a key element across romantic storytelling is the constant return to and reworking of relationship dynamics.

While much scholarship on the relationship between fan work and romance has focused exclusively on slash, it is also important to remember that slash is not the entirety of fan writing. Slash is one piece of a larger network of fans’ creative work. While there are many fans who prefer one particular variety of fan fiction over another, the fandoms themselves weave together different threads of fan interest, serving as loose social networks that connect many types of fan fiction readers and writers. Thinking about slash in connection with other types of fan fiction reveals larger patterns. It reminds us of the significance of “pairings” and “ships” across fan fiction and suggests that the relationship between commercial romances and fan fiction is less oppositional and more interdependent.

Catherine Driscoll uses the existence of general, or what fans call “gen,” fan fiction as evidence of the dominance of pairing culture within fan work. “Gen,” she explains, “is [End Page 6] defined mainly by opposition… [it] is fan fiction that falls predominantly into no other available genre” (83). In this way, gen becomes a kind of catch-all categorical other to het and slash, suggesting “a layering effect to classification in fan fiction, where pairing and rating function as more important generic markers than comedy or angst” (Driscoll 84). Driscoll observes that common romantic patterns “of ignorance and revelation,” as well as “obstacles arranged around status of different kinds,” are used in fan fiction (84). These elements are used as barriers “to defer romantic fulfillment, which is the usual point of narrative closure” in fan fiction stories (84). As with any attempt at mapping out a mode of writing, there are ways Driscoll’s description both encompasses many fan fiction conventions and also cannot cleanly apply to all of them. Her observations are still a reminder, however, that romantic conventions are common across many types of fan fiction. Each mode of writing (fan romances and commercial ones) varies in its use of these conventions and takes them in different directions. In particular, differences in production medium, editing systems, and distribution/reception networks all influence the kinds of romantic stories told within fan and commercial spaces.

A Blurry Field of Reference

Conversations regarding fan fiction and romance can be tripped up by terms and stalled by attempts to deflect stigma. Scholars interested in the larger questions that cross these writing spaces are often hindered by the meanings, implications, and histories different terms carry with them. Fan and popular romance studies are both interdisciplinary fields. Within their various research disciplines, fan and romance scholars are working to address and move beyond stigmas collectively faced by many modes of storytelling associated with women. With these goals in mind, greater care needs to be taken to ensure that this research is not deflecting stigma by constructing problematic hierarchies of its own.

The study of popular romance is an interdisciplinary field featuring various media, industries, and modes of storytelling. An interest in representations of love and sexual desire often connects this work, but terms like “romance,” “erotica,” and “pornography” can mean very different things in different disciplinary spaces. As the field of popular romance studies grows, our ability to place terms in relationship with one another and explore how various texts represent love and desire will be equally dependent on how we approach these words and our attentiveness to how others are using them.

This issue of terms also seems to saturate conversations regarding Fifty Shades. Readers and scholars alike struggle over whether Fifty Shades should be labeled romance or erotica, “original” work or “derivative” fan fiction, bad role model or good. The more complicated answer may be that Fifty Shades is all of these things at the same time. What different reading communities want to argue Fifty Shades is not may indicate as much about the person doing the analysis and their own perspective as it does Fifty Shades. While broader, cross-media analysis is challenging (and will always need to be balanced with focused and site specific analysis), this work remains important for scholars interested in broader cultural conversations and in thinking about genre beyond medium and industry specific zones. Despite the challenges, it is important that popular romance scholarship [End Page 7] considers romantic storytelling at both micro and macro levels of genre and culture. It also requires that scholars remain particularly attentive to and reflexive about the ways disciplinary context and medium shape their research and analysis.

Rethinking terms and taking care in how they are used seems particularly important at a time when romance scholarship, so traditionally located in the medium of print, is experiencing its own remediations and fluctuations. Genres are constantly undergoing change, but, at the current moment, the influence of digital publishing on the broader world of romantic literature warrants greater attention and study. Popular romance studies is working simultaneously to adapt to and trace this process. This makes seeking a clean classification system to either separate or connect commercial and fan romances a quest that is fraught with issues. Rigid taxonomies are not useful when examining a flow of texts and culture which is inherently intertextual, multi-modal, and constantly changing to address both market demands and shifting cultural norms.

Within and Against / Unique and Familiar

With these themes of intertextuality and interdisciplinarity in mind, this paper will now return to the issue of the “formula.” I want to look again at the significant roles that intertextuality and a spirit of play (with form and archetype) perform within fan and commercial romance writing. Being mindful of the differences between them, we can also find clear intersections between the intertextual play of fan work and that of commercial romances. Recent fan and romance scholarship suggests that these are processes that lie at the heart of both modes of writing. Within fan and commercial romances, intertextuality can function at the level of archetype/setting, as well as shared forms and narrative rhythms. Noticing these patterns reveals processes of storytelling in which texts and authors are constantly in conversation with one another, pushing each other to explore new configurations and possibilities for love and desire. Given Fifty Shades’ success as an erotic romance series and the text’s history as a lengthy work of Twilight fan fiction, Fifty Shades invites analysis from the perspectives of both fan and popular romance studies. With this need in mind, I want to place recent works of fan studies and popular romance scholarship in conversation with each other and then use these connecting ideas to think about some of the possibilities this scholarship has for a text like Fifty Shades of Grey.

Scholarship on romance novels has often worked to refute the stereotype of a mechanically reproduced romantic form. Carol Thurston, Jayne Ann Krentz, Pamela Regis, and others have worked to explore historic shifts in romance conventions, to reconsider formula as generic codes with nuanced meanings to readers, and to consider them as narrative elements found across literary history. Recent work by Pamela Regis and An Goris has called for these formulas to be seen instead as common frameworks: story elements available as creative tools for authors to work with.

Similarly, in fan scholarship, there has been increased attention to the intertextuality of fan work, positioning transformative work or remix as a long-standing cultural and creative practice. In this way, fan scholars are arguing that the remixing of characters and settings from individual fandoms should not simply be seen as a derivative process. They argue instead that the fandom (or source text) for fan work is only one [End Page 8] component of the process through which fan fiction is produced. In both fan and commercial romance communities, these processes of play with form and archetype seem to provide an important component to the pleasure of reading and writing romantic stories.

Play with formula is now being argued to be a principle part of the pleasure of reading and writing commercial romances. An Goris discusses this in her article “Loving By the Book,” a project which analyzes “how successful romance writing is… conceptualized from within the romance industry” (73). Goris points out that, despite dismissals of romance novels “as repetitive and formulaic… [romance writing handbooks] define and locate the genre’s success precisely in its ability to… [offer] its readers experiences of both comfort and surprise” (76). This practice, Goris continues, “translates into the simultaneous and interacting occurrence of familiar and new creative features in the romance’s narrative, as well as in its rhetoric, thus profoundly influencing a reader’s entire textual experience” (76).

Goris further emphasizes that, since this practice of repetition establishes a clear framework for all works in the romance genre, each text serves to provide a consistent and affective reading experience of “escape, relaxation, and positive emotions” (77). Consistency and predictability are not what is happening here. Readers expect common features, but look for them to be utilized in new ways. As Goris explains, “the romance reader expects and demands a new, exciting, and surprising reading experience… a unique new story which is still somehow familiar” (77). Key in building this encounter is the combination of an author’s voice with the traditional patterns of romance literature. In this formulation, the often-derided notion of the generic formula can be seen more as a basic narrative pattern providing a particular affective rhythm to the reader. This is a pattern that comes with common character archetypes and relationship dynamics, but these are elements that the author can be playful with, use creatively, and personalize. Authors bring the reader the affective rhythms they enjoy while also offering new possibilities, settings, and interpretations.

Goris is, of course, not the only romance or genre scholar to explore this process of playing with the familiar and to note its pleasures. As Eric Selinger and Sarah Frantz observe in their introduction to New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction, whatever the genre, “competent readers… take their pleasure in individual texts by reading them at once within and against the traditions and possibilities of that system” (6–7). Selinger and Franz observe, however, that genre scholars have historically hesitated to explore how this process plays out within romance. This is one reason why Goris’ analysis seems so useful. Mapping out the pleasures that familiarity and surprise brings to readers, Goris argues that the emphasis on voice and creativity within romance writing handbooks offers scholars a counter to the accusations of unoriginality and repetition the genre is often subjected to. Also notable here, beyond this notion of working with and against the familiar, is an underlying spirit of play, both with form and the reader’s expectations. A reader may read for a particular emotional journey, but part of writers’ work is to deliver a consistently happy point of narrative closure, while simultaneously producing a sense of risk and surprise in the reader. Additionally, particular settings and archetypal characters are both reused and reworked to test different configurations and possibilities. Within this play, intertextuality serves an important role for both readers and writers, with narrative patterns and archetypes becoming a shared referent for a writer to work and rework. [End Page 9] Readers, then, have the pleasure of experiencing this process as it unfolds, uncovering the ways that each text in the genre links to those around it. This can occur in common patterns which a text utilizes or by offering a kind of rhythmic counterpoint to other texts in terms of approach, articulation of character, and the ways an individual author chooses to narrate one particular instance of romance.

This play with voice and narrative rhythms can be seen in both Masters of the Universe and Fifty Shades of Grey. Both texts follow a similar narrative arc to the one provided by Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight (a pattern that is also common to many romantic stories). In each text, the male and female leads encounter each other and immediately experience attraction and desire. Edward/Christian warns Bella/Ana away and this warning serves as a mystery that only draws her closer. Over time, secrets about the hero are revealed and these secrets challenge the couple’s ability to form a normative romantic relationship. Like the first book in the Twilight series, the first book in the Fifty Shades trilogy also concludes with our heroine alone and grieving over the apparent end of the relationship. The couple then spends the next books in the series working through the different barriers blocking intimacy and a long-term relationship between them.

To a degree, the narratives of all of these texts share a common momentum. Once Bella discovers that Edward is a vampire and Ana learns that Christian is a Dom, each text begins to work through this disclosure and feel out the kinds of obstacles it will present to the protagonists forming a romantic relationship. In each text, the hero presents some danger to the heroine and this threat becomes a part of the novel’s sexual charge. What is immediately apparent as different in the ancillary texts, however, is the way the narrative handles desire and sexual attraction. Masters of the Universe/Fifty Shades diverges from Twilight by insisting on addressing and satisfying Bella/Ana’s sexual desire for Edward/Christian. As a paranormal romance targeting a young adult audience, sexual desire is present in Twilight, but it also remains carefully under wraps. Masters of the Universe/Fifty Shades aggressively departs from these limits, pushing desire to the surface and making the couple’s sexual relations a primary focus of the narrative. Rather than reading about Bella and Edward spending many chaste and intimate hours talking together in the woods of Forks, Washington, in Masters of the Universe, these characters spend this time locked away together in Christian’s sexual playroom. In the process, Masters of the Universe/Fifty Shades reconfigures the narrative patterns of Twilight to bring different relationship elements to the surface of the text. As the characters negotiate the terms of their sexual relationship in Masters of the Universe/Fifty Shades, the subtextual desire present in Twilight becomes quite literally textual. Now the extent and form of the protagonist’s sexual relationship is discussed via numerous email exchanges, and Christian attempts to codify it further in the form of a contract between dominant and submissive partners.

In transitioning from Masters of the Universe to Fifty Shades, the revised text clouds the story’s legacy as fan fiction by changing character names and making small alterations to the story. The familiar shifts again into something new. In the process of changing publishing environment (and, eventually, moving from digital publication to print), the text’s ties to fan culture and the Twilight series fade from immediate view. Instead, the traditions and possibilities of each publishing system work to open up new angles of analysis. As Fifty Shades moves into the sphere of commercial literature and the references to Twilight become less vocal, the story’s broader ties to other bodies of romantic and [End Page 10] erotic literature may now be better able to come to the surface. For example, Fifty Shades’ frequent references to Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and the parallels drawn between Hardy’s Tess and E. L. James’ Ana, subtly remind the reader that Bella and Ana (in all their textual iterations) are part of a long line of romantic heroines struggling with their desire and the themes of power, submission, and danger long attached to representations of female sexuality.

As a product, Fifty Shades also shifts the text’s target audience from the younger readers associated with Twilight to a more adult demographic. The focus now moves from implications of desire and a narrative that focuses more on longing and delay towards a story in which desire is brought to the surface and made explicit. The sexual encounters between the lead characters of Fifty Shades and Masters of the Universe are not possible within the publishing realm of young adult paranormal romance. Sexual content is, however, a familiar story element for fan fiction and commercial romance readers.

These themes of intertextuality, play with form and archetype, reading for an emotional experience, and the pleasure that comes with balancing familiarity and surprise seem strikingly familiar to many of the elements fan studies scholars have described as pleasurable and central to many fan fiction communities. Indeed, Selinger and Frantz’s description of readers taking their pleasure by reading “within and against the traditions and possibilities of that system,” feels profoundly similar to some of the core pleasures fans describe finding in the reading and writing of fan fiction (6–7).

Selinger and Frantz refer to genre as a single system, but in fan writing, it is often possible to locate multiple systems that fans are working within and against. In addition to a fandom’s system of romantic conventions, fan writers are also working with an immediate referent text (a fandom and its characters/story-world), a system of conversation within fans’ social networks, as well as broader generic systems like romance (Stein and Busse). The multiple systems activated within fan fiction may help to reveal further layers in commercial romances as well and, in particular, help to shed light on the ways that commercial romances utilize formulaic elements associated with the pornographic or the erotic. This, in turn, may help scholars to better understand the various generic systems at work within Fifty Shades of Grey.

Comparing slash fan fiction and commercial m/m romances, Deborah Kaplan argues that “[s]lash and romance conventions play off one another intertextually [in slash] to create something which is difficult to pin down” (126). Still, there are striking parallels that emerge within the reading and writing process for both noncommercial fan work and commercial romance. This suggests that fan studies scholarship exploring intertextuality may offer useful insights to romance scholars. Goris suggests that further analysis of romance’s process-oriented reading and writing systems may help romance scholars blur the high/low cultural divisions still producing literary hierarchies within our contemporary culture (82). Fan studies scholarship exploring intertextuality may offer useful insights to romance scholars pursuing these questions.

There have been numerous explorations of the functions of intertextuality, repetition, and play within fan work. Abigail Derecho has, for example, identified an “archontic” process at work in fan fiction, a term which Derecho uses to describe “works that generate variations that explicitly announce themselves as variations” (65). Derecho’s concept of an archontic work is derived from Derrida’s notion of the archive and an archive’s drive to expand and multiply. Archontic literature repeats with difference, [End Page 11] explores potentialities, and is shaped in relation to other texts (73–75). Within archontic literature, there is a drive to build on what came before, referencing other texts and adding new variations with each new iteration. Derecho sees the archontic process as a way to expand existing canons and add variation to norms (72).

This impulse to draw upon previous models and offer alternate interpretations to the canon can clearly be seen in Masters of the Universe, as well as being found across fan fiction and commercial romance writing more generally. In the Twilight series, Edward’s fascination with Bella leads him to regularly sneak into her bedroom to watch her sleep, and he insists on controlling when and how she touches him. Bella is regularly threatened by different vampires in the series because of the temptation she presents to them. These details point to an underlying tension in Twilight around issues of desire, temptation, and control. Masters of the Universe takes up these same power dynamics and examines what they might look like within a relationship between adults where they are addressed more directly as aspects of fictional BDSM relationship. As Fifty Shades, the references to Bella and Edward are removed and, instead, the broader ways that the text works within and against generic borders come into view. Fifty Shades is a bestseller, but it is also just one of many erotic romances currently on the market tackling issues of power and control within a sexual relationship. In this way, Fifty Shades is one text of many within this conversation and builds on a long literary archive of works exploring the relationship between the erotic and the romantic.

Derecho argues that archontic literature’s drive towards expansion and variation means that this type of literature will always appeal to the subordinate and provide those with less cultural privilege a place to speak. This is a tricky claim to uphold in relation to fan fiction given that, like all cultural products, it too struggles with issues of diversity and can reinforce hierarchies of cultural capital. Nonetheless, by framing archontic literature as a kind of expanding archive that gives voice to alternate possibilities, Derecho’s work opens up new opportunities for thinking about the environments that fan fiction and commercial romances have traditionally been produced in. A writer’s ability to be a voice for the subordinate or to deviate from norms also depends on conditions of production and market interests. Thinking about the ways different production environments facilitate or limit variance within romantic storytelling may provide alternate possibilities for discussing differences between various fan and commercial romances. This also raises intriguing questions about works and authors that cross these spaces. What enables a work like Masters of the Universe/Fifty Shades to move from fan fiction to commercial product? What drives authors to leave their publishing contracts and explore self-publishing or to write within fan networks? These are questions both fan and romance scholars will face as digital publishing opportunities expand and reading habits change.

Moving away from the metaphor of the ever-expanding archive, Mafalda Stasi describes slash fan fiction instead as an “intertextual palimpsest,” connecting “the various types of intertextuality in slash… to other textual strategies in different genres, styles, and periods” (119). Stasi uses the palimpsest—a surface that has been cleared for new work, but still contains traces of what came before—as a metaphor for fans’ use of existing characters and story-worlds as archetypal tools with which fan writers test new possibilities and variant histories.

Fifty Shades is a surface that contains the traces of many different texts within it. The two most visible influences are the work of fan fiction it was (Masters of the Universe) and [End Page 12] the Twilight series that initially inspired it. For example, Fifty Shades’ use of first-person narration leads directly back to the first-person narration in Twilight. The story’s regular references to Tess of the d’Urbervilles also remind the reader of traces of even older texts and literary traditions. Fifty Shades is not unique, however, in the ways that it contains traces of past texts. The reuse and repurposing of certain archetypes and paradigms is common across commercial romance literature.

Fifty Shades’ sexual language, however, and the use of non-conventional sexual encounters may also help explain the difficulty different zones of production have in fully claiming this text as one of their own. Frank discussions of menstruation are not necessarily standard fodder for romantic sex scenes in mass-market literature. Slowly working through barriers to intimacy, however, to form a mutually satisfying relationship is a paradigm at the heart of many romantic narratives. Fifty Shades is a story that borrows from many different writing traditions, high and low. The fact that this story emerged first online as a transformative fan work, and later made its way into print, may help explain Fifty Shades’ jumble of influences and literary reference points.

In their discussion of archontic literature and intertextual palimpsests, both Stasi and Derecho also seek to cross between notions of high and low culture, as well as folk processes of retelling (as craft) with creative legacies and influences in art and literature. Like Goris, they are aware that intertextuality and reference are traits that all creative works share at some level, yet each of these scholars is also exploring the heightened role that intertextuality seems to play within their particular sphere of romance writing.

Expressing a frustration that should feel familiar to many romance scholars, Stasi argues that, “[f]ar from being a monolithic, repetitive set of substandard texts created by a naïve set of scribbling women, whose bizarre hobby stands apart from any self-respecting body of literature, slash is a legitimate part of the literary discursive field” (119). In Derecho and Stasi’s work, we see two fan studies scholars working through the particulars of intertextuality in fan writing, but also connecting these aspects of fan fiction to longstanding creative practices. Within Stasi’s insistence that slash is more than a “repetitive set of substandard texts created by… scribbling women” and Selinger and Frantz’s earlier frustration with genre scholarship’s reluctance to explore romance’s repetitions at an aesthetic and formal level, we see both romance and fan scholars struggling with a similar problem: The ways that intertextuality and play with form within genres associated with women have culturally been relegated to the role of mechanized formula, labeled a particularly feminine pleasure, and categorized as pastime or hobby. The intersecting modes of pleasure in these storytelling forms have historically been stigmatized and diminished within academic institutions and in broader society. This should remind us that, while these clusters of texts are not identical, fan and romance scholars still struggle against similar forces. Both fan and commercial romances constitute important and connected pieces of a larger conversation about women’s leisure time, female desire, and women’s creative work in our contemporary society. Fifty Shades makes these conversations and interconnections particularly visible, but this conversation should not be limited to Fifty Shades. [End Page 13]

The Borders Are Always Grey

Past scholarship linking romance and fan fiction has sometimes been guilty of oversimplifying the similarities between these two storytelling modes, using them reductively to draw conclusions about “good” versus “bad” romantic formulas. This work has a difficult history. Both fan studies and popular romance studies scholars are warranted in their rallying call for more careful, contextualized, textual analysis of individual works within these different spaces. There is still much to be gained, however, in exploring the intersections between fan and commercial romances. Fifty Shades of Grey‘s massive popularity reminds us of the impact that digital publishing is having on the broader romance market. As a text, Fifty Shades shows us that fan and commercial romances not only intersect, but that movement across these writing spaces may be increasing. Many of the broader public reactions to Fifty Shades— asking, should women read this? is this good for them?— represent concerns that, hopefully, romance scholarship is starting to move beyond. In this way, Fifty Shades is also an opportunity to push the conversation further. Authors, readers, and scholars interested in fan and commercial romances still struggle against ongoing discomfort with expressions of female desire, writing and reading connected to emotion and sensation, and work that challenges capital “R” Romantic notions of authorship and originality.

The intertextuality underlying commercial and fan romances may sometimes play out in different ways, but these are stories in which the blending of personal voice with shared characters and forms is profoundly pleasurable. Fifty Shades of Grey reminds romance and fan scholars that, while drawing up disciplinary boundaries is necessary to develop fields and methodologies, scholars also need to be mindful of interdisciplinary flows and of the intertextuality of their own work. Stories and readers do not easily stay in fixed categories, and in today’s transmedia market, genres flow messily across media forms. Thankfully, however, as much as comfort and surprise are part of the pleasure of reading and writing romances, they also constitute part of the pleasure of studying it. Exploring the familiar in a new way seems a useful place to begin.

[1] Some of this history will be covered later in this paper; however, a sampling of work on the relationship between romance and fan fiction includes:  Lamb and Veith 1986; Penley 1994, 1997; Kustritz 2003; Salmon and Donald Symons 2004, 2004; Woledge 2006; Kaplan 2012.

[2] Both Snowqueens Icedragon and E.L. James are pseudonyms.

[3] Of course, many in fan studies have countered that this service is simply a new spin on the traditional practice of licensing tie-in novels for popular media franchises. For more on Kindle Worlds, see the announcement from the Amazon Media Room:

[4] For more on gift economies and fan cultures, see Hellekson, Karen. “A Fannish Field of Value: Online Fan Gift Culture.” Cinema Journal 48.4 (2009): 113–118.

[5] Debate about the legality or ethics of commercially profiting from fan fiction are beyond the scope of this paper. However, conversation about these issues has certainly circled around the Fifty Shades series and has long been a topic of debate in relation to fan fiction more generally. For a sampling of these conversations in relation to Fifty Shades, the [End Page 14] Dear Author blog’s series of posts on Fifty Shades (and its comments section) may be a useful place to start. For example, see the varied responses to blogger Jane Litte’s suggestion that disclosing Fifty Shades origins as fan fiction would be “courteous… truthful advertising”:

[6] Pairings and ships (relationships) are terms fans use to refer to romantic/sexual pairings of characters. Individual pairings and ships help to organize a great deal of fan work, often serving as key terms used to structure fan fiction archives, guide web searches, etc.

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