Sharon Cumberland’s “Private Uses of Cyberspace: Women, Desire and Fan Culture” focuses on the female-dominated subsections of fandom concerned with the production and distribution of fanfiction. These spaces, she contends, represent a way in which women “are using the paradox of cyberspace—personal privacy in a public forum—to explore feelings and ideas that were considered risky or inappropriate for women in the past” (261). Her account, however, suffers from what seems to be a lack of thorough knowledge of fanfiction communities (a particularly interesting issue given our readings this week about responsible digital ethnography), as well as from several assumptions about women and female sexuality that are oddly unnuanced given the nature of her claim.
Cumberland’s discussion of heterosexual (‘het’) fanfiction showcases both of these issues. This type of writing, she argues, is a form of wish fulfillment for women, depicting “a parallel universe in which men have as much capacity for emotional attachment and meaningful communication as do women” (269). Not only is Cumberland relying on an ancient stereotype that all women are experts in communication and commitment while men are silent and aiming to escape long-term attachments, but she seems to be ignoring the thousands of examples of het fanfiction which are utterly unconcerned with depicting heterosexuality in the context of normative, long-term relationships. (PWP or “Porn Without Plot” stories are hardly specific to slash communities, after all.) Though Cumberland references her involvement with Antonio Banderas fan communities, her brief mentions of other groups like the DDEB and DROOL are suggestive of someone skimming the surface of fandoms that often have more complex takes on eroticism, heterosexual and otherwise, than she is recognizing.
Might it not be more productive to consider these stories, particularly those centered exclusively around ‘alternative’ erotic interactions, as a way for women to challenge the notion that sex and love must always be linked, particularly in the female psyche? Similarly, with alt. fiction (which depicts relationships between women), is it not possible that these texts are largely unconcerned with performing an educational “service” (271) to straight women, as Cumberland claims? Instead, perhaps part of what these writers identifying as “missing” (267) from mainstream media is the sense that lesbians sometimes have sex, and sometimes do so for reasons that have nothing to do with a desire for long-term attachments, or with justifying their orientation to straight readers by employing beloved fictional characters.
Cumberland, Sharon. “Private Uses of Cyberspace: Women Desire, and Fan Culture.” Rethinking Media Change: The Aesthetics of Transition. Eds. David Thornburn and Henry Jenkins. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2004. 261-279. Print.