In the vast expanse of the internet, women have carved out niches for communication, content sharing, and community building. One such niche has been the emergence of fan circles, with many women stepping into the role of “Textual Poaching”—becoming active creators within fan communities, especially as fanfiction authors (Jenkins, 2014). When discussions arise about fanfiction, a predominant platform that comes to mind is Ao3. As one of the world’s largest fanfiction repositories, Ao3 not only stands as a testament to the creativity, intelligence, and emotions of fans from diverse backgrounds but also as a formidable tool that offers a myriad of possibilities for women’s narratives. Critics might argue that fanfiction platforms simply mirror broader cultural norms. But Ao3, in particular, has empowered the feminist movement with a unique platform to challenge the pervasive “bro culture” in the digital realm.
What is Ao3?
Archive of Our Own, or Ao3, is a fan-driven, non-profit platform hosting diverse fanworks. Notably, over 80% of its users are female, with a significant portion identifying as LGBTQ+ (Network, 2023). Ao3’s creation in 2008 was pivotal; women primarily designed it for the fandom community. Its emergence was a response to FanLib, a male-run platform from 2007 aiming to monetize traditionally free, female-dominated homoerotic content, leading to criticism and accusations of exploitation (Fiesler et al., 2016). Ao3, contrasting this, became a space of authentic fan expression. As of 25 August 2023, it showcases 60,340 fandoms, houses 6,293,000 users, and hosts 11,780,000 works, affirming its influence in the fan community (Home|Archive of Our Own, n.d.).
What is “bro” culture?
“Bro” culture is characterized by its staunch endorsement of traditional masculine ideals, emphasizing behaviours related to sports, alcohol, and the objectification of women. This culture is reinforced by societal “gatekeepers,” ranging from parents to coaches, who advocate for hegemonic masculinity traits, such as dominance, homophobia, and explicit power displays. Notably, they ostracize individuals deviating from this norm, especially targeting gay men or those challenging traditional male roles (Chrisler et al., 2012).
Prominent in media, from reality shows like “Jersey Shore” to magazines like “Maxim,” “bro” culture often depicts women as complicit in their own objectification. Such representations suggest that male dominance and mistreatment of women are accepted and expected by women. The power of media portrayal is undeniable, and many in society have seemingly internalized these misogynistic views (Chrisler et al., 2012).
The repercussions of such a culture are palpable, particularly for marginalized groups. An illustrative incident occurred in 2022 in Itaewon, South Korea—a nation grappling with its own “bro” culture—where Holland, a K-pop singer known for his openly gay identity, was assaulted due to his non-conformity (Benjamin, 2022), exemplifying the dire consequences faced by those who challenge these cultural norms.
Feminist Activism on Ao3
In 2019, Ao3 clinched the Hugo Award for Best Related Work, underscoring its impact in the literary world. This victory not only celebrated the plethora of homoerotic works on the platform but also emphasized Ao3’s core belief: artistic creation flourishes best within a community (AO3 Wins 2019 Hugo Award for Best Related Work | Archive of Our Own, 2019).
So, how does Ao3 provide a space for feminist narratives against the backdrop of “bro” culture? “Bro” culture often mirrors the broader patriarchal framework of society. Feminism, both an ideological and a political movement, champions women’s rights and opposes gender-based discrimination (Stanfill & Lothian, 2021). Driven by this mission for equality, Ao3 becomes a haven for diverse feminist discourses that explore myriad social, cultural, and economic facets.
A striking example of this is the “ABO” setting popularized in fanfiction. In this universe, male omegas possess the capability to bear children (Alpha/Beta/Omega – Fanlore, 2023). This challenges the entrenched belief that women are exclusively bound by biology for procreation, while men remain unburdened. By inverting this paradigm, the “ABO” setting defies patriarchal norms.
Furthermore, Ao3 serves as a mouthpiece for marginalized voices, especially the LGBTQ+ community. Take, for instance, a fanfiction inspired by Oikawa Toru from Haikyuu!!. Crafted by “Oikawa Fanclub”, this narrative delves into the ordeals faced by those persecuted due to homophobia in societies where “bro” culture dominates (Fanclub, 2021). These stories not only entertain but also resonate, offering powerful commentary on societal issues.
How does Ao3 provide a space for feminist narratives against the backdrop?
Naomi Novik, a founding figure of Ao3, envisioned a platform rooted in community solidarity. Ao3, a non-commercial space, was constructed by volunteer efforts and funded by user donations, embodying the ethos of serving its users instead of exploiting them. Such principles inevitably make Ao3 a fertile ground for feminist narratives.
With the rise of new media, everyone, especially women, gained unparalleled access to information and platforms to challenge patriarchal injustices. However, this progress is shadowed by the increasing prominence of the “bro” culture, even in seemingly progressive sectors like Silicon Valley. A telling example from 2017 is venture capitalist Shervin Pishevar, accused of sexual misconduct, yet comfortably finding a position at Kanye West’s Yeezy (Griffith, 2022).
Industry insiders like Christie Pitts of Backstage Capital, and Taryn Langer, founder of Moxie Communications Group, highlight the underlying problem. Despite advancements, women still lack the entrenched networks that their male counterparts enjoy. Such incidents underscore a sobering reality: for-profit social media platforms, born and bred in environments rife with gender imbalances, might not be the best allies for feminist movements.Taryn Langer, founder of Moxie Communications Group, said. “Women don’t have the kind of deep, decades-long network of relationships that these men have” (Griffith, 2022).
In contrast, Ao3, with its woman-led foundation and non-profit orientation, provides a conducive environment. Here, women can critically analyze societal misogyny, reflect upon feminist milestones, and debate its prospective paths.
Ao3 and racism
Alexis Lothian and Mel Stanfill have articulated a prevalent concern within fiction: it often magnifies white male narratives, leaving characters of color either underrepresented, stereotyped, or marginalized. This narrative bias perpetuates racial hierarchies and overlooks the rich diversity of queer stories from varied ethnic backgrounds (Stanfill & Lothian, 2021).
However, delving deeper into user preferences and content trends reveals a more intricate picture. Characters and stories achieve popularity due to a multitude of reasons. For example, the relationship dynamics between Sherlock Holmes and John Watson from the famed Sherlock series are complex, layered, and intriguing. Their appeal isn’t rooted in their racial identity alone, but also in their well-developed characters and story arcs, leading to a proliferation of homoerotic fanfiction about them.
In the realm of music, K-pop has seen an explosive global surge in popularity. BTS, a leading K-pop band, has an extensive fanbase on Ao3, with approximately 200,000 fanfiction entries dedicated to them. Their prominence on the platform attests to the global appeal of their music and personas (Search Works | Archive of Our Own, n.d.).
Furthermore, data from Lofter, China’s renowned platform for homoerotic content, provides another perspective. The overwhelmingly white narrative of “Harry Potter” has attracted 482,000 contributors, while “Bungo Stray Dogs,” a Japanese anime rooted in Asian culture, has an even larger audience of 545,000 contributors.
Such observations underscore the idea that platforms like Ao3 and Lofter primarily cater to entertainment. While they undeniably house feminist and racism, most of their content is driven by popular culture, character dynamics, and fan preferences.
In conclusion, the rise of platforms like Ao3 signifies a pivotal shift in the digital realm, presenting opportunities for marginalized voices to resonate louder than ever before. The feminist movement, particularly, has embraced Ao3 as a formidable weapon against the pervasive “bro” culture. This community-driven platform, founded and maintained mainly by women, stands not only as a testament to creativity but also as a bulwark against the constraints of patriarchy. It’s not just about uplifting women; it’s about redefining the very fabric of gendered expectations. Through its diverse narratives, Ao3 sends a compelling message: liberation from patriarchal norms benefits everyone. Marginalized groups find representation and voice; men discover spaces free from toxic masculinity; and everyone is reminded of the fluidity and spectrum of gender.The rebellion against traditional gender norms on Ao3 is a powerful reminder that there’s strength in embracing our unique identities. Stories of men challenging societal expectations or women breaking free from stereotypes abound on the platform. Ao3 epitomizes the belief ：women are rebelling against the traditional rules of gender on Ao3, which is an inspiration that no one needs to feel bad about being different, and that anyone can wear a dress.
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Benjamin, J. (2022, May 11). Holland Speaks Out After Suffering Homophobic Attack in Seoul: “I Want People to Recognize the Pain & the Courage.” Billboard. https://www.billboard.com/culture/pride/holland-homophobic-attack-seoul-interview-1235069890/
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