Gender in the Tolkien Fan Fiction Community

This post is part of the ongoing Tolkien Fan Fiction Survey series. For more details on the survey, hop on over to the Tolkien Fan Fiction Survey masterpost.

I am beginning with community demographics, asking the essential question: Who are we and how do we compare to fan fiction writers as a whole? To answer the latter part of the question, I am using Lulu’s AO3 Census for comparison. Obviously, the comparison isn’t perfect: Lulu looked at only one archive, albeit one of the largest on the Internet, and recruited her participants primarily on Tumblr. In comparison, my study included and recruited participants from multiple groups and sites used by Tolkien fanfic community members (although not all; Fanfiction.net was a major site that was unreachable unless the authors participated on other sites as well, since the site is very stringent about posting external links).

The survey asked participants, “What is your gender?” at the beginning of the survey, prior to beginning the questions directed specifically at writers and at readers of Tolkien-based fan fiction. Participants entered their response into a text field that allowed them to enter any gender identity rather than choosing from a limited list of options. As described in the survey introduction, twenty-two participants were removed from the data because they either didn’t consent to participate (n = 1) or they didn’t meet the criteria for participation, which required that the participant write and/or read Tolkien-based fan fiction (n = 21). These participants were not included in the data discussed here, even though some of them did answer the question, “What is your gender?”

Since participants typed in their response to this question rather than selecting from a list, then there was some variation in responses. For example, some participants entered “F” as a response, while others entered “female” or “woman.” I classified responses within four categories: female, nonbinary, male, and no response. I did not ask whether participants were transgender or cisgender. Some participants provided this information as part of their response, however, and were included in the gender with which they identified, regardless of whether they were cis or trans. For example, someone who entered “trans male” would be counted under “male.”

Most Participants Identify as Women

Gender Identify in the Tolkien Fan Fiction Community

Fan fiction is widely known as a genre that is dominated by women. My survey showed that this was true for the Tolkien fan fiction community as well. An overwhelming majority (88.5%) of participants identified themselves as female.

Similarly, males were a minority: only 3.61% of participants identified as male. Just as Lulu found in the AO3 Census, more people selected nonbinary/genderqueer identities (5.99%) than identified as male.

Tolkien Fan Fiction Survey AO3 Census
Female 88.5% 80%
Nonbinary 5.99% *
Male 3.61% 4%
No Response 1.90% 0.2%

*Lulu’s survey allowed participants to select multiple identities from a checkbox but also add other responses in a text field. This makes her data difficult to include in tabular form. The AO3 Census gender results page shows the breakdown of her results.

Other Factoids Related to Gender and Tolkien Fan Fiction

  • Women were most likely to list escapism as a motive for writing fan fiction. When asked to respond to the statement “Writing fan fiction is a form of escape for me,” 86.0% of women agreed or strongly agreed. In contrast, 83.3% of nonbinary participants and 77.8% of males agreed or disagreed.
  • Participants who entered a gender identity that was not male or female were far more likely to view representation of underrepresented character groups as a motive for writing Tolkien-based fan fiction. When asked to respond to the statement “Writing fan fiction allows me to explore the perspectives of female characters,” 90.5% of nonbinary participants agreed or strongly agreed, compared to 77.5% of female participants and 74.1% of male participants. When asked to respond to the statement “Writing fan fiction allows me to explore the perspectives of LGBTQ+ characters,” results were even more dramatic: 92.8% of nonbinary participants agreed or strongly agreed, while only 57.0% of women and 80.4% of men agreed or strongly agreed with the same statement.
  • Slash is often identified (and sometimes criticized) as a genre written by women. Survey results, however, showed that this was not the case. When asked to respond to the statement “I identify myself as a slash writer,” women and men agreed or disagreed at fairly similar rates, with the men agreeing slightly more than the women: 45.9% of women and 48.1% of men. Participants who identified as nonbinary were most likely to also identify as a slash writer, with 54.8% agreeing or strongly agreeing with the statement.

Analysis

This week’s results were largely unsurprising. That most members of the fan fiction community identify as female has been long treated as common knowledge by fans and discussed by scholars. I was surprised by how few men participate: only 3.61% in my survey, which is very similar to Lulu’s 4% in the AO3 Census.

I chose this week to look at the statement about escapism because fan fiction is often criticized as “just female escapism.” Since a significant majority of the community identifies as female, why this is surprising much less deserving of negative commentary is itself rather ridiculous. For all the criticism they endure, for example, action movies are rarely criticized as “just male escapism.” A majority of writers are women, and a majority of those women use fan fiction for escapism (and at higher rates than other gender identities did): To me, this makes the scorn toward “fanfic as escapism” a gendered criticism.

Jumping ahead, I was surprised by the data on slash, a genre that is also commonly treated (and criticized) as “women’s writing.” This survey showed that this is not the case–or it is not the case any longer. I suggest that the change might have come about as slash fiction has increasingly become a form of sociopolitical commentary or used to represent more gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters in fiction. At least in my experience, these motives were far less common ten years ago, when I was new to the fandom and slash was largely regarded as a form of erotic entertainment for female fans.

The most interesting and dramatic data this week, in my opinion, concerned the importance writers attach to using their fiction to remedy under-representation of certain groups. This week, I looked specifically at female and LGBTQ+ characters. Participants who identified as a nonbinary gender found representation of both of these groups as a more important motive for writing than did participants who identified as female and male. This did not surprise me, although I did not expect the differences to be quite so dramatic.

Participants who identified as male were the least likely to be interested in using their fiction to explore the perspectives of female characters, but they were much more likely than female participants (80.4% versus 57.0%) to use their fiction to explore the perspectives of LGBTQ+ characters. I believe that this difference was largely caused by transgender men. Six male participants (out of 27 men who answered this question) self-identified as transgender in their response; of these participants, five strongly agree with the statement “Writing fan fiction allows me to explore the perspectives of LGBTQ+ characters,” and one agreed. Of the men who did not self-identify as trans (and remember that some of these men may have been trans but chose not to include this information), 61.9% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, a number that is much closer to the number for female participants.

(It is worth mentioning that none of the participants who identified as female also identified themselves as being trans–and again, that does not mean that there were no trans women, just that none chose to self-identify as such. In contrast, several women listed “cis” or “cisgender” in their answer, whereas none of the male participants did. I don’t know that there is any significance in this, but I found it interesting.)

One can perhaps explain the data for the statement about LGBTQ+ characters as authors writing about characters like themselves. However, this is not the case for female characters: Women were just slightly more interested than men in using fan fiction to write about the experiences of female characters (77.5% versus 74.1%). This suggests that writing about under-represented groups is more a matter of values than simply wanting to see the experiences of characters like oneself depicted in fiction. (It is perhaps worth noting, however, that more men strongly disagreed with the statement about female characters: 7.41% versus 1.98% of female and 2.38% of nonbinary participants. All of the men who self-identified as trans, on the other hand, agreed or strongly agreed with the statement.)


Creative Commons License
“Tolkien Fan Fiction Survey” by Dawn Walls-Thumma is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

You may use, share, repost, or reprint the statistics and information in this post in any nonprofit project. If you do so, you MUST credit me with my name (Dawn Walls-Thumma in academic/professional contexts or Dawn Felagund in fannish contexts) and link to the Tolkien Fan Fiction Survey category on my blog: http://themidhavens.net/heretic_loremaster/category/tolkien-fan-fiction-survey/

For permissions not covered by this license or any questions, email me at DawnFelagund@gmail.com.

See the Tolkien Fan Fiction Survey masterpost for more information on this project, permissions, et cetera, et cetera.

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9 Responses to “Gender in the Tolkien Fan Fiction Community”

  1. […] Gender in the Tolkien Fan Fiction Community […]

  2. RinaBlackcat says:

    Ah, what a pity I didn’t know the word “nonbinary” at the moment! I believe I’ve given “no answer” because I just can’t figure out what word to type in. So thank you for the educational enlightenment as well 😛
    It’s very interesting. Please keep going.

    • Dawn says:

      Thank you! The responses that I classified under nonbinary were myriad. I am defining “nonbinary” as anyone who … well, doesn’t place themselves on the male-female binary. :) I know that is a major simplification, but I wasn’t sure how meaningful it was to break it down further (although I’m certainly willing to share that information if anyone is interested).

  3. Himring says:

    I would have expected the Tolkien fandom to skew slightly differently from other fandoms with regard to escapism. There can’t be that many fandoms that have a canonical defence of escapism to fall back on. But maybe I’m overrating that factor.

    • Dawn says:

      That’s an interesting point! I think it’s certainly a possibility. Certainly “escapism” isn’t the dirty word to a lot of Tolkien fans that it is to people in general.

  4. Amy Fortuna says:

    I found this part really interesting, as someone who identifies as non-binary. I think I’ve actually noticing my motives/interests in fanfiction shifting over the years as I’ve figured out my non-binaryness – initially, it was very much escapism, when I identified as female, not knowing about any third options at the time. My life was also really difficult – I definitely had something to escape from then, whereas that’s less of a factor now.

    These days, I would say it’s less about escapism per se, and while there is some part of my interest in fanfic that’s about LGBTQI representation, mainly it’s about enjoyment and fun. I write much more from my ‘id’ as we say now, rather than my head, and enjoy playing with the characters and scenarios. The fanfiction community and friendships have always been important to me, and that’s one thing which has remained constant.

    • Dawn says:

      These are really interesting observations. I feel like my trajectory was kind of the opposite. I was a much more fun writer when I first started! :) I mean, my first “fanfic” (before I even knew the term existed) was a comedy play about the House of Feanor. The second was a political satire about Nargothrond. In the years since, with much less time to write, I’m generally trying to accomplish something–either criticism of the legendarium, commentary on the real world, or trying some kind of literary shenanigans–perhaps because I feel like what time I DO have should be spent making it count.

      I asked quite a few questions on motives for reading/writing Tolkienfic, and I’m kind of itching to do something with those now … 😀

      • Amy Fortuna says:

        Criticism, commentary, and literary shenanigans definitely qualify as fun in my book! (But then, I’m not an academic, that might make a difference. :S) I do all three of those at times as well, sometimes it’s even mixed in with the incest smut. Mocking and otherwise undermining LaCE is a joyful hobby. 😀

        I’m very interested in the motives questions!

  5. […] minority of total participants; only 3.61% of participants overall identified as male (see the post Gender in the Tolkien Fan Fiction Community for the full breakdown and discussion). This means that any single male in this group exerts more […]

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