Data can teach us a lot about trends in fanfiction (Licensed)

What can data tell us about fanfiction culture?

Considering how ingrained they are in our everyday lives, it’s not surprising that prejudices about race and gender seep into fanfiction. 


Kira Deshler


Decoding Fandom is a weekly column that dives deep into the world of fan culture and runs on Saturdays in the Daily Dot’s web_crawlr newsletter. If you want to get this column a day before we publish it, subscribe to web_crawlr, where you’ll get the daily scoop of internet culture delivered straight to your inbox. 

Data isn’t always the most interesting way to analyze popular culture, but it can illustrate some compelling social trends. Take fanfiction, a popular but often misunderstood activity within fandom. Who reads and writes it, and what exactly are they writing about?

We have answers to those questions. Every year, a user on the fanfiction site Archive of Our Own (AO3), centreoftheselights, compiles a data set about the most popular fanfiction that year. (They are also the author of a much-cited 2013 census about the user demographics on AO3.)

In ranking the top 100 pairings on AO3 in 2023, centreoftheselights found that there were 59 male/male pairings, 12 female/male, 6 female/female, 16 Gen (platonic), and 7 Other. The top 12 pairings are male/male or Other, the 13th is female/male, and the first female/female pairing on the list (Robin/Nancy from Stranger Things) takes the 19th spot. Forty-seven percent of the characters on the list are white while are 43% characters of color, and the rest are racially ambiguous.

The stats for the all-time list are slightly different. The number one pairing is Castiel/Dean from Supernatural, and the most popular female/female ship (Kara/Lena from Supergirl) is number 6 on the list. Only 30% of the characters on the list are people of color (POC), and there are only 5 female/female pairings out of 100 total.

What can we take away from this data? centreoftheselights writes that her intention with these surveys is to highlight the disparities in fanfiction when it comes to female/female pairings and characters of color. She argues that there is a “glass ceiling” when it comes to POC pairings gaining popularity, a claim that can be backed up by these yearly data sets.

Fandom can be quite segmented, especially on AO3 where you can use the site’s search function to literally filter out what you don’t want to see. That’s why data such as this can be useful in showing us the bigger picture

In a journal article, Alexis Lothian and Mel Stanfill discuss the issue of race within fanfiction. They write that while fanfiction is assumed to be progressive, this is not necessarily the case. They suggest that fandom is “structurally white,” regardless of racial demographics. This means that while fan sites like AO3 are understood as safe spaces, this may not be true for everyone.

The second topic at hand is male/male fanfiction—why it’s so popular, and who is reading and writing it. In February and March of 2022, scholars Lauren Rose and Mel Stanfill conducted a survey about user demographics on AO3. They found that “white cisgender women still dominate fandom spaces,” though the assumption that most male/male readers and writers are straight women is not backed up by the data (centreoftheselights’ 2013 survey also contradicts this assumption).

Now that we have data about male/male vs female/female fanfiction, fans are proposing theories to explain the discrepancy. Considering how women dominate the genre, centreoftheselights suggests that internalized misogyny is at hand.

One popular theory on Tumblr takes a different approach, with fans speculating that the source material is to blame. If TV and films are populated by more men than women, and the men tend to be better written than the women, it follows that fans would be more drawn to writing about the male characters.

Considering how ingrained they are in our everyday lives, it’s not surprising that prejudices about race and gender seep into fanfiction

Why it matters

Fanfiction traffics in fantasy, and as Lothian and Stanfill write, “Fantasies, sexual or otherwise, are never apolitical, but neither are they transparent expressions of politics.”

Examining statistics like this can give us a bird’s eye view of what’s going on underneath all the discourse, allowing us to see beyond our own biases. Fanfiction is not an unproblematic utopia, though it does provide the illusion of absolute freedom. But is this freedom equally distributed? The numbers suggest otherwise.

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