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Response: The Secret Lives of Women: Cyberspace and Fan Erotica

In “Private Uses of Cyberspace: Women, Desire, and Fan Culture” Sharon Cumberland argues that cyberspace is a liberated arena for female authors of fanfiction erotica. Its ability to provide a personal outlet within a public forum allows women to explore and write about alternative ideas surrounding gender and sexuality, as well as “feelings and ideas denied to them in the past.” Her insistence that the anonymity of cyberspace offers a realm of protection to women who wish to break free of social norms is problematic for several reasons.

Firstly, Cumberland over-simplifies cyberspace as a place free of oppression and scorn due to the fact that the authors can choose to remain anonymous, but does not explore the repercussions of that action. She refers to erotic fanfiction genres as “social taboos” as if they are universally understood as such, and does not further explore that generalization.  She argues that women are using cyberspace “to experiment with ideas of sexuality and gender identity that the three dimensional world does not offer or support,” but does not unpack what that actually means in terms of leading a double life and, conversely, what the real world can offer in terms of alternative lifestyle acceptance.  Furthermore, her argument that the Internet can be a vehicle for women to reclaim spaces that have belonged to “men’s clubs” is not properly explored, as she does nothing to address sexism on the Internet. 

While it stands to reason that women authors can be granted a certain level of liberation by writing fanfiction erotica, Cumberland does not successfully make that case for women exclusively. Instead, she appears to be arguing for cyberspace as a risk-free space for unpublished authors who want to make their work, in whatever genre, available to the public without the professional pressures associated with editors, publishers, etc. Cumberland’s idea that cyberspace is a place “where a woman cannot be criticized […] for her writing” is completely inaccurate and does not take into account, for example, that a woman can easily be criticized by a homosexual male reader for writing unrealistic portrayals of homosexual encounters informed by heterosexual female fantasies. Finally, given that Cumberland frames her entire argument with the generalization that “slash” fanfiction is only written by and for heterosexual women, her optimistic view of cyberspace as a safe haven appears naive and does not touch upon the multiple layers of author/reader interactions and varied audiences.

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.

URL: http://web.mit.edu/comm-forum/papers/cumberland.html

About Judy

I am a digital media and posthumanism scholar researching how technology affects our conception of the body and helps us to redefine the physical and digital spaces we occupy. I am currently completing my Ph.D at the University of Waterloo.

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