Mind the gap: the dominance of MLM content in fan-created works

by E. Jarcy (they/them)

**Before beginning, it is worth noting that for the purposes of this piece, the author examined only content on Archive of Our Own to get the largest sample sizes for data and did not inspect fanfiction.net, Wattpad, or other fancontent sites.

***Additionally, the term ‘queer’ is used in this piece as a catchall for all queer identities (sexuality and gender) for the sake of brevity.

Are men inherently more interesting than women? The answer, of course, is no, but if you were to only look at fancontent, the scale would certainly tip in favor of men: 69 of the top 100 pairings on Archive of Our Own in 2021 were gay male relationships.[1] According to a 2014 survey, 72.1% of MLM shippers self-identified as queer.[2] The imbalance in favor of gay male (henceforth referred to as MLM) pairings (‘ships’) as opposed to heterosexual or lesbian ships directly correlates to the prevalence and legacy of male-dominated media as well as the ability of the modern media consumer to utilize fandom in crafting their own identity.

The first cause of the MLM shift is, plainly, a lack of female characters that strike the same emotional chords as their male counterparts–throughout history, female characters have simply served as plot accessories to the male characters. The issue is so prominent and unshakeable that in 1991, Katha Pollitt coined the term ‘the Smurfette Principle’:

“Contemporary shows are either essentially all-male, like “Garfield”, or are organized on what I call the Smurfette principle: a group of male buddies will be accented by a lone female, stereotypically defined (…) The message is clear. Boys are the norm, girls the variation; boys are central, girls peripheral; boys are individuals, girls types. Boys define the group, its story and its code of values. Girls exist only in relation to boys.”[3]

Going back as far as the seventh century BCE, we can find examples of the Smurfette Principle: In Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, Penelope, the wife of the main character and mother of the secondary main character, has as her only plot point delaying a remarriage until the return of her lost husband–her role is to serve as a prize to be defended by her husband and son, a woman without agency. Jumping forward to Shakespeare, women rarely had plots that did not revolve around the actions of the men in their lives–Desdemona for Othello, Juliet for Romeo, Lady Macbeth for Macbeth, Ophelia for Hamlet, and so on. Princess Leia was rendered as a distressed damsel and a love interest despite also sharing Force abilities with her main-character brother (also admittedly to a lesser extent, and not to mention the whole gold bikini thing). Even today, the Principle stands. In Guardians of the Galaxy, badass assassin Gamora is the love interest and sidekick to main character Peter Quill; Gravity Falls’ cool-older-teen Wendy is Dipper’s unrequited crush and source of side-plot angst; Uraraka in My Hero Academia is Deku’s plot device for developing empathy as well as being his exposition-creating cheerleader; Mary Winchester, Jo, Ellen, and Charlie of Supernatural all wind up dead for the sake of the men; and Mary Watson of Sherlock was killed off for narrative momentum so that the main male-male friendship would have a larger focus going forward.

Of course no one would want to be the weak sidekick or plot afterthought. Considering this pattern, then, it’s little wonder that fans shift their focus to the men. The men get meaningful plots, kick ass and take names, have intense monologues and plain just get to possess a sense of independence not often afforded to the females alongside them. We exist in a male-dominated society, and while things are certainly shifting in a more equitable direction, patriarchal conceptions of gender roles plague us still.

In the picture there are two men standing in very close proximity to each other with their eyes closed and foreheads pressed together and we get the sense that they are about to kiss. One of the men has their hands on the other's head, while the other is holding his partner by the waist.
Two men about to kiss.

While the reason behind a fixation on male characters is established (and could even be drilled deeper), it doesn’t explain why queer male fancontent is so prevalent. We exist in a male-dominated society, and while things are certainly shifting in a more equitable direction, patriarchal conceptions of gender roles plague us still. In the male characters we see, emotional depth is not often part of the package–rage, grief, bitterness, badass stoicism in the face of danger and loss, yes, but ‘soft’ emotions are usually lacking. Men are not soft, men are not tender, men are not cuddly and affectionate–these are female things. However, human beings possess a full gamut of emotion and it makes sense for fans of these characters to project a wider spectrum of feelings–to ‘fill the gap’, so to speak. If a character is interesting, it would be only natural for a fan of the character to humanize them in ways that aren’t being depicted in canon. Lupin III’s Daisuke Jigen is notoriously curmudgeonly and is not often seen being particularly affectionate to any of his companions–his lack of a love life even being a running joke–but a not-insignificant portion of the queer fanbase depicts him as a softer, more thoughtful man than he is in canon. Within the same fandom, Inspector Zenigata, Lupin’s longtime archnemesis, is shipped with Lupin as a blushingly awkward love interest who uses his endless pursuit to arrest Lupin as a form of devotion. This type of emotionally-oriented shipping can be interpreted as a response to the lack of emotional substance within the canon of a particular media.

A secondary, and much more personal (and theoretical) cause of the focus on MLM fancontent is simply the existence of queer individuals in a largely heteronormative society. As queer individuals begin to seek out what it means to not be cis, they will encounter and create their own queer content as they endeavor to define themselves in a society that still doesn’t completely encourage them to be non-conformist. Fan-created content serves as a major, although underestimated, gateway to understanding non-heteronormative genders and sexualities.[4] MLM fiction presents an opportunity to explore the male body and male-male relationships–for gay and trans men, this can be particularly meaningful to understand physical sexuality. For female-identifying individuals, particularly those assigned female at birth (henceforth referred to as AFAB), male-male content provides insight into the male body in a culture where female purity is still highly valued and non-marital sex both discouraged and risky for youths who often do not receive an adequate sexual education. For many young queer individuals, particularly in the United States, MLM literature and art may be the best schooling on male bodies and gay relationships they can receive (the inherent problems with this are left for another time). For many queer people looking to understand themselves, fancontent can be a window into a non-heteronormative world, where they can learn about new genders and sexualities from both the content and the creators, which may spur more queer content to be created as exercises in understanding the true self.

The over-representation of men in media results in a higher amount of content for those male characters as well as causes the fans of this media to fill in perceived emotional gaps, particularly where love and sexuality are concerned. The generation of queer content naturally attracts queer creators who continue the cycle in an effort to understand themselves through art. This is not to say no female/female (WLW) content exists or to ignore the existence of queer content that doesn’t fall under MLM, but the prevalence of MLM content is a curious phenomenon to examine. Perhaps, with new shows with a larger canonical LGBT representation, this slant towards MLM will shift in a different direction. Regardless of the opinions one has on MLM content, its value in the queer community cannot be ignored as a vital pulse of an increasingly queer society, a lifeline for those exploring a world often held back from them, and a chance to pursue the authentic self.


About the Author:

E. Jarcy (they/them) is a librarian on the U.S. east coast. They enjoy writing, white wine, and snuggling their cat. They are on Twitter as @elizabethjarcy and love to talk about queer media.


Bibliography:

[1] Centrumlumina, Lulu. “AO3 Ship Stats 2021.” Archive of Our Own, July 31, 2021. https://archiveofourown.org/works/32940190/chapters/81752386. 

[2] Centrumlumina, Lulu. “M/m Fans: Sexuality and Gender.” The Slow Dance of the Infinite Stars, October 7, 2013. https://centrumlumina.tumblr.com/post/63373124511/m-m-fans-sexuality-and-gender. 

[3] Pollitt, Katha. “Hers; The Smurfette Principle.” New York Times, April 7, 1991. nytimes.com/1991/04/07/magazine/hers-the-smurfette-principle.html. 

[4] Three Patch Podcast. “Our Fandom Full of Mogi.” Three Patch Fandom Analysis, November 7, 2016. https://tppfandomstats.tumblr.com/post/152864236817/our-fandom-full-of-mogi.


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