'Fix-it fiction' gives queer women the happy endings they deserve

TV treats its lesbian characters horribly. An online community is rewriting those wrongs.

The CW

Back in the late 1980s, for English composition class, I wrote myself into the British author Enid Blyton’s novel Secret Island in the form of an impressive 25-page story. It left my teacher, who would have preferred to see my prolificacy manifest in some original writing, unmoved.

But it wasn’t originality that I was after. I was looking for a place where I was accepted without question, without the second glances and probing questions that accompanied me wherever I went because I wasn’t a “gender normal” girl.

I was naive enough to imagine my brown-skinned, non-binary, South Asian self fitting perfectly into Blyton’s starkly white, heteronormal, postcolonial setting. And those being the pre-internet days, there was no one to tell me otherwise. So my subversion remained solitary, my safe space a secret, my community imaginary, and my belonging absolute.

It would be many years before I discovered that fandoms were tangible spaces, that fan fiction was an authentic coping mechanism when you were marginalized in the real world. In the early years of the 21st century, when I was struggling with my identity and how to express it, I stumbled upon Moiraine’s World, a fansite for Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time high-fantasy book series.

We were “lonely nerds,” as Devin Marie, the creator of Moiraine’s World and my friend of 15 years, puts it. For many years, this place was my sanctuary, both as a fledgling author inspired by Jordan to write fantasy, and as a space where, finally, I did not feel abnormal for being myself.

In 2016, Elena Maris, a media and tech researcher, wrote a paper about the influence of technological innovation and queer fandoms in the production of mainstream television series. She used the syndicated show Xena: Warrior Princess to illustrate her findings. Many queer women consider Xena to be TV's first mainstream lesbian story, even though it was all subtext. “Online fan communities,” Maris wrote, “enabled [LGBTQ] groups to communicate their desire for alternative narratives.”

'Xena: Warrior Princess' is widely considered TV's first mainstream lesbian story, even though it was all subtext.Syfy

This need for different narratives evolved into what’s called “fix-it fiction.” This is a subgenre of fan fiction in which writers “fix” the stories that went wrong. It manifests as either correcting the biases of show makers, or giving queer women the happy endings they deserve.

“The fix-it is a very beloved strategy of fan fiction,” says Julie Levine Russo, a fandom studies scholar from Evergreen State College in Washington who specializes in queer fanfic, particularly femslash (a type of fanfic in which female characters who appear together in film, television, or other popular media are portrayed as having a sexual relationship). It’s more than just fixing something like a “bury your gays” story, a television trope in which queer characters are disproportionately likely to die.

“It would be very sad to only have the scathing essays and not the fan fiction that imagines how things could be different.

“When fans and encounter a choice in the canon that is upsetting, you often see negative emotions being unleashed, like essays and activism and critique, but at the same time these creative and transformative energies can be unleashed into creating the better version,” Russo says. “It would be very sad to only have the scathing essays and not the fan fiction that imagines how things could be different.”

One of the people I spoke with about queer fandoms and their fanfic goes by the nom de plume Lulu. She’s a 25-year-old educator from England who has been crunching numbers at the fan fiction website Archive of Our Own (Ao3 for short) since 2013. She estimates that the F/F (female/female) fandom could be as big as 100,000 people worldwide. “It’s hard to know how big a role fanfic plays in the wider scheme of things,” she says, “but I’d say it’s a significant subculture. Fandom definitely has ties to other parts of LGBT culture, especially for queer women.”

Lulu, being in her twenties, has always used the internet for entertainment and to find communities. “Of course, technology has drastically changed fandom,” she says, “just like it’s changed every other part of our lives.”

My first dalliance with reading fix-it fiction was with the male/male pairing of Captain Jack Harkness and his comrade-in-arms Ianto Jones in the BBC's “grownup” Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood, which ran from 2006 to 2011. Ianto was a victim of bury-your-gays — not Torchwood's first. But his death was the first time I felt that crushing sense of loss that’s impossible to fully articulate.

Alternate-universe fan fiction reimagined Jack and Ianto having a lasting relationship, and though it was not always what one could consider stellar storytelling, it was enough. This was long before I knew of bury-your-gays — and that there was a hierarchy even within the trope, with lesbian TV characters being at a disproportionately higher risk.

This is borne out by reports that show that lesbians are more likely than non-lesbians to be harmed, by death or tragedy — usually to further the story of a heterosexual character. GLAAD’s "Where We Are on TV" report for 2019–20 points out that summer and early fall television in 2019 included the death or presumed death of several queer women. “It is critical,” the report says, “that these instances prove to be anomalies rather than a resurgence of this dangerous trend.” That trend peaked in 2016, when more than 25 queer female characters died on scripted television and streaming series.

With the mainstream reaction being “It’s just a story, get over it,” it falls to fandoms to provide solidarity and healing.

For a marginalized demographic to see itself represented in popular culture can be a reassuring experience, more than just a story. Conversely, when representation fails, it can be equally destructive. This is not something show makers are always cognizant of. One fanfic author, who goes by the screen name AskaSophia, calls it a problem of context. “I see this as a problem of perception because they just don’t see it, or don’t know how to tell [our stories], or even that they should tell them,” she says, “because we exist outside of the heteronormative context portrayed in the [stories].”

A case in point is a British television series called Last Tango in Halifax. It's a beautifully scripted, funny, clever drama by Sally Wainwright (of Gentleman Jack fame). But one with a representation problem. Queer viewers will remember it for its macabre kill-your-gays storyline, in which the main character Caroline’s wife dies the day after their wedding in order to further the relationship between Caroline and her mother.

'Last Tango in Halifax' upset fans with a macabre "bury your gays" storyline.PBS

It took Wainwright months to acknowledge that she had made a mistake. Even so, when the show came back for a new season in early 2020, it used the same old formula of using lesbian distress as drama, with a pinch of queer-baiting stirred in. (Queer-baiting is when shows hint at a same-sex relationship, sometimes to attract queer viewers, only to have the characters end up in heterosexual pairings.) To add insult to injury, Wainwright appeared to once again defend her decision to kill Caroline’s wife, implying that her acclaimed lesbian period drama Gentleman Jack made up for it.

With the mainstream reaction to this controversy being “It’s just a story, get over it,” it falls to fandoms to provide solidarity and healing. Writing fix-it is one way to do it.

In the latter half of the 2010s, a long-running BBC hospital drama called Holby City captured the hearts and minds of queer women across the world with its portrayal of a groundbreaking lesbian couple that came to be known by the portmanteau Berena. Two acclaimed surgeon characters in their fifties fell in love, attracting an unexpected fan demographic — older professionals, mostly women, mostly gay, from across the world.

While Holby City promised care with the storyline, it eventually fell prey to numerous tropes, including bury-your-gays. Four years on, Berena is dead in the canon, but lives on in the annals of fix-it fiction — and in the lasting friendships and relationships formed in the fandom.

'Holby City' featured a lesbian couple known by the portmanteau Berena. Things did not end well.BBC

There is one thing that makes the female/female fandom stand out from other queer fandoms, Russo says. Namely, the assumed correspondence between the sexuality and gender of the characters and of the fans. The femslash fan demographic, she says, “is queer women who are fans of queer women, and that, I think, creates a different sense of identity and support.” (Male/male fans are mostly straight women.)

This solidarity sometimes spills over to activism, which is what happened with the death of Lexa on the CW's The 100. Lexa was a lesbian character whose 2016 demise created an immense backlash from fans and propelled the bury-your-gays trope back into the limelight. It also resulted a group of creatives establishing the seven-point Lexa Pledge, which asked writers, producers, and directors to do better by their queer viewers and make shows that offer better representation.

'The 100' character Lexa, another victim of the "bury your gays" trope.The CW

AskaSophia feels that the conversations that happen in queer fan communities are “much bigger than just a gender studies department in academia or a woman sitting with her wife on the couch, watching Doctor Who, and commenting that Kate Stewart and Osgood should really get together." She adds, "It enables queer women the world over to connect and discuss their stories and how they are represented. I think it’s empowering. It gives us a say and a voice, individually and collectively.”

But who owns the words that come from these voices? Who owns these corrective stories by queer fanfic writers? These are difficult questions, and paradoxical ones, according to Russo. “Because obviously there’s intellectual property, and it’s held by the company and the creators,” she says. “But for fans, TV and movies only are valuable because they find them and consume them and interpret them.”

“There’s this sense that we know the characters better, we know the stories better.”

So when fans create their own works out of the material, they are also the authorities on it, especially in the case of queer fans who identify with the characters. “There’s this sense that we know the characters better, we know the stories better,” Russo says.

It is a desire to assert authority over something that is meaningful to the fans, their way of acknowledging that these are more than just stories to them. These stories have sometimes been significant in their lives and coming-out journeys, particularly for the youth. “Struggles over representation are very, very deeply a matter of survival for some people,” she adds.

It was fan fiction that led to lesbian author Jenn Matthews, from the southwest of England, being discovered on Ao3 by a German publisher. “I wrote a fan fiction about [Berena], got some quite good feedback from it, and I literally looked through the lesbian fiction publishers to see who was easy to submit to,” Matthews says. One day, the boss of Ylva Publishing emailed her, asking her to Skype.

Today, Matthews is awaiting publication of her third novel, and has two more cooking. “The internet broadens the amount of art and writing you can share with people,” she says. “You put your stories up and people can see them, talk about them, and that in itself, I think, creates communities.”

Fix-it fiction is also about healing. For queer women, the stories they claim are more than just fiction; they are representations and manifestations of how they would like to see themselves in the world. So when women-loving-women stories go wrong, or don’t keep their promises, there’s a lot more than disappointment at stake.

Many queer viewers believe Once Upon a Time’s SwanQueen to be the greatest love story never told. It started as queer-baiting and ended with a backlash against fans who shipped Emma Swan and Queen Regina. The show went out of its way to “straightwash” the characters. Unsurprisingly, it led to a rift between the fans and the show that could never be mended. But of course, there are Once Upon a Time fix-its by the dozen.

Nothing gay whatsoever going on in this still from 'Once Upon a Time.'ABC

Sometimes there are life-altering repercussions within an embittered fandom, particularly when the show washes its hands of any responsibility, as happened with the Berena storyline. When it was on, Berena was a triumph of representation — of the acknowledgement of middle-aged lesbian love, and a transformative, life-affirming story that resonated with young and old, in the U.K. and beyond.

When the couple broke up in the week before Christmas 2018 and when one of them died offscreen in August the following year, I was not the only one grieving in a way that I had difficulty understanding or articulating. Fans reported suicidal thoughts, self-harm, depression; we got into a routine of checking in on each other via texts, social media direct messages, and private groups. We set up an online signature campaign to hold the show accountable. And we propped each other up.

And, of course, we wrote and read fix-it fiction. A year and a half down the line, the healing has only just begun. In Facebook communities, Twitter DM groups, Discord chat servers, instant-messaging platforms, emails, and sometimes even snail mail, the fandom is slowly shifting its focus from what happened to what should — or could — have happened. Maybe Bernie didn’t die. Maybe Serena didn’t cheat. Maybe they walked off into the sunset well before these catastrophic events came to pass.

There is no one ending that we, the fandom community, agree on. But there is one thing on which we do concur: that we have reclaimed Berena. We tell the stories now. That is the power of fix-it fiction.