Fangirl was/is a very important book to me. It did so many things that I rarely saw and it did them relatively well—a character deeply ensconced in fandom, who writes fanfiction on an industrial scale and deeply loves it, and isn’t presented at all as a parody or something awkward to kind of laugh at; a look at the way fandoms can shape and help people and the incredible catharsis that can come from engaging with a creative work; a protagonist with anxiety disorder; a fictional mother that left rather than tragically dying as is the norm; the horrors of plagiarism as a legitimate antagonistic plot device; and, and this is one of the big ones honestly: a YA love interest I actively liked.
Guys, Fangirl was good. Cath was a great, relatable and three-dimensional protagonist and I came to really adore her and support her, and in the end her coming of age didn’t involve her leaving fandom and fanfic behind so much as branching out and embracing other kinds of creativity and friendship as well. And good lord, her relationship with her soft, sweet, good-hearted but ultimately flawed and human love interest Levi was a rare gem of teen romance that I really connected to and enjoyed.
Upon finishing this novel, filled with the popping candy joy of completing a good book, I realised something I hadn’t really thought to notice while reading it: gay people only exist in fanfiction.
Given how Fangirl embraces and advocates the un-weirdness of slash fic and the queer relationships therein, it seemed strange in retrospect that there were no queer relationships—or even queer single people—explicitly appearing in the rest of the story. It would have been relatively simple (if a bit lazy, but I would’ve taken it) to mention that Classmates X and Y who are both girls are hanging around in the hall holding hands like always, or have one of Cath’s or her more extraverted sister’s friends mention thinking someone of their own gender is hot. But as far as I remember there’s a void, which is, well, normal for most YA unfortunately, but leaves this particular book with some awkward implications.
See, if gay people only exist in fanfiction—something which, though the story knows is important, a lot of people dismiss as weird and dumb—it kind of reduces them to fantasy. Fantasies played out repeatedly by a straight 19-year-old girl, too, which sort of buys into the whole notion that all female fanfic authors love slash pairings because they love (and not respect) The Gays for aesthetic, fetish-based reasons. This notion can be true, of course—there is an ongoing debate in the depths of the Supernatural fandom that I sometimes glimpse from afar that questions whether fans really want Dean to be confirmed as bisexual because it would be great queer representation, or because they want their hot boyxboy ship to come true. Indeed there was an episode of Teen Wolf that a bunch of people reportedly boycotted because it had a straight sex scene in it that paired off one of the most popular slash ship members with a girl… despite the fact that the show had recently made leaps to include an actual legitimate gay relationship featuring different characters.
Not to say of course that shipping slash pairings automatically means you fetishize and don’t respect gay people, but it can and certainly does happen, and many queer members of fandoms have spoken up and said that it makes them uncomfortable. The stereotype of the slash fic lover (or yaoi fangirl, in anime land) is of a frothing-at-the-mouth teen geek girl who sees attractive men and wants them to make out for her visual or narrative enjoyment… whether they’re fictional or real. There’s a whole comedy series that’s just come out about this called Kiss Him, Not Me! and even if that particular one does have the fujoshi as the sympathetic heroine, the spectacle of the ridiculous, voyeuristic fangirl is still there to be giggled/scoffed at.
Cath by no means fits this stereotype, which, again, was one of the things I loved about the book. But does Cath respect queer people, or does she just love writing about her two favourite fictional boys falling in love? We don’t know, because there aren’t any queer characters for her to meet. Nor are we given any indication that Cath herself could be not-straight, though that would actually have been a fascinating thing to look into character development wise—after all, a significant portion of the slash fic writing community identifies as queer, and it makes sense that if you’re beginning to explore the idea that you might not be straight, you might start exploring that through writing stories about people who aren’t straight. It could even be subconscious, like that time I started coming up with a bunch of asexual original characters and applying ace headcanons to pre-existing ones, and then, about three months later, went “wait… maybe I am the thing?” It would be really cool to see a story like that, and it would have been interesting to see it for Cath.
My ultimate suggestion? Genderbend Levi. Nothing about her personality changes, nor does her dynamic with Cath, but now as well as having a sweet, confident, mutually affectionate and supportive love story we have a queer sweet, confident, mutually affectionate and supportive love story, and Cath gets to come to terms with her sexuality (wherever on the spectrum she lands) as part of her coming of age story, and the boost in self-esteem and self-acceptance that she already gets by the end of the novel would have this detail added to it.
I’m not saying that Rainbow Rowell hates or fetishizes gay people either, just to be clear—it just seemed incredibly odd to create a world where they only exist in slash fanfiction, something that’s basically acknowledged to be weird, embarrassing and kind of gross by most characters outside of the main cast. Which reflects the real world, obviously, but while Cath’s love for writing about these gay fictional characters is justified and never presented as a bad thing, the actual act of being gay isn’t, which leaves it in this weird limbo state of vague awkwardness. Gay characters exist within a fictional universe within a fictional universe and really only are there to further Cath’s plotline.
Which, again, would be completely solved if Cath herself was queer. If I needed any more excuses to love her and Levi’s romance, that would be it.