Queer Fanart - Representation or Fetishisation?

Is fanart a medium for fans to reinterpret relationships and characters as queer, or a mode for straight artists to fetishise queer individuals? Arts and Creativity Editor Emily Sheehy reflects on the uses of fanart and its positive and negative uses.

Fanart, alongside fanfiction, has become an integral part of fan culture. Fanart is artwork created by an artist of a character or person from popular culture. It can be traced back to the 19th century, when fans of the Sherlock Holmes series illustrated their own stories including the character. Since the explosion of the Internet in the 1990s, fans have been able to share their work easily with people all across the world on forums and social media sites. Similarly, the Internet has allowed for the growth of queer discourse, especially in relation to popular culture. It is no surprise then that fanart has developed as a medium for fans to offer an alternative, and often queer, vision of a piece of fiction and its characters.

Like slash fanfiction (fanfiction that focuses on the relationship between two same-sex characters who are not paired together in the canon test), fanart has the possibility to reimagine an original text to find moments of queerness between two characters. It can also compensate for a series’ lack of queer characters. For example, fanart depicting Edward Cullen and Jacob Black from The Twilight Saga actively challenged the series’ rather hegemonic heterosexuality, masculinity and conservative notions of gender and sexuality. 

Furthermore, fanart can compensate for a fan’s frustration with queerbaiting. Films and television shows often tease and allude to a queer relationship between two characters but never actually make the relationship official or make any disclosures about a character’s LGBTQ+ identity. In this way, the media can garner a queer audience without excluding more conservative viewers, but fails to offer any kind of genuine queer representation. This was the case with a lot of popular culture in the 2010s, such as BBC’s Sherlock (John/Sherlock), Riverdale (Betty/Veronica), Supernatural (Dean/Castiel) and Star Wars (Finn/Poe). Fanart of these ‘ships’ (romantic relationships) have been very popular on social media platforms such as Tumblr and DeviantArt to compensate for the lack of true representation on screen.

Distributing fanart on these social media platforms has the possibility to create communities of queer fans. Tumblr and DeviantArt were crucial in bringing LGBTQ+ artists and fans together. Not only could creating queer fanart help LGBTQ+ individuals work through their own sexuality, but also bring them into contact with likeminded people, creating a supportive community joined together by their love of a certain pop culture text.

I would argue that fanart is a medium where queer fans can critique heteronormativity. GLAAD’s yearly ‘Where We Are on TV’ report states that only 10.6% of all characters on scripted primetime broadcast series for the 2022-2023 season identified as LGBTQ+. Additionally, 47% of those LGBTQ+ characters were white. If queer representation is few and far between on our screens, it is up to fans to fill in the gaps. Fanart shows how popular culture is open to interpretation and manipulation, rather than a closed text with a singular meaning. It encourages not only artistic creativity, but also challenges the dominant gender and sexuality norms that persist in Western culture.

Fanart shows how our popular culture is open to interpretation and manipulation, rather than a closed text with a singular meaning. It encourages not only artistic creativity, but also critiques the dominant gender and sexuality norms that persist in Western culture.

Yet we need to consider whether queer fanart is actually made by queer people for queer people. The majority of queer fanart consists of white MLM (men-loving-men) characters. These ships tend to be favoured by (mainly cishet) female fans, rather than queer men trying to see their likeness in the media. It raises the question whether queer fanart is really as progressive as it seems, or if it is merely a way for female fans to fetishise male characters and vice versa. 

There also exists the issue of male artists fetishising women in lesbian fanart, but it seems MLM fanart does not always face the same criticism. This is not to say that cishet artists shouldn’t draw queer fanart, but instead they should avoid the tendency to fetishise and objectify same-sex couples. In this way, fanart can be detrimental to the representation of LGBTQ+ identities, favouring only attractive white men and positioning gay men as objects of fetishisation and entertainment for the straight female viewer.

There is also the issue of fanart depicting real people, instead of characters, in same-sex relationships. It can be harmful to present fanart of celebrities in same-sex relationships, especially when they have not confirmed their LGBTQ+ identity. Some of the most popular celebrity ships have been Taekook (Taehyung and Jungkook from BTS), Phan (Danisnotonfire and AmazingPhil from YouTube) and of course Larry Stylinson (Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson from One Direction). The vast majority of these shippers were again straight young girls. Issues arise when we treat real life celebrities as vessels to project our desires and fantasies as it can put pressure on them to disclose their sexuality and damage relationships with the people they are shipped with.

It is dangerous to treat real life celebrities as vessels for fans to project their desires and fantasies as it can put pressure on them to disclose their sexuality and damage relationships with the people they are shipped with.

Dan Howell, a YouTube personality, came out as gay in 2019 and admitted that shipping, fanfiction and fanart was detrimental to understanding his own sexuality and his relationship with his friend and coworker Phil Lester. The ‘Phandom’ acted as if they had the right to know Dan’s sexuality and relationship status, as if he had a moral obligation to come out and was letting fans down. In multiple videos in the early 2010s, Dan and Phil would scroll through their Tumblr tags and often come across explicit fanart of them both in a sexual context, which would make the two visibly uncomfortable. 

Additionally, Louis Tomlinson has stated that ‘Larry’ conspiracy theories damaged his friendship with Harry Styles. Fans had no reservations about sending Larry fanart to the two on Twitter and constantly asking them to confirm whether they were dating. It was even referenced in the TV series Euphoria, where one of the characters is known for writing Larry fanfiction. Tomlinson has repeatedly shut down the rumour, calling the conspiracy theory “childish”. 

Therefore, it seems that fanart can have both positive and negative usages. Fanart can be used to explore queer relationships between characters who are depicted as heterosexual in the canon text, or to counteract the frustration caused by queerbaiting. It can create communities and friendships between queer fans and help people discover their own sexualities. Queer fanart can certainly counteract the widespread heteronormativity present in our media culture and offer an alternative reading of a text.

But these progressive aspects are not always the intentions of the fan artist. Fanart can also contribute to the fetishisation of same-sex relationships when it is created by cishet artists for their own pleasure. Moreover, queer fanart of real people who have not disclosed their LGBTQ+ sexual identity is problematic in the sense that it can put pressure on closeted individuals or be used as a form of harassment. Despite this, I believe that queer fanart is an integral part of fan culture and isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Therefore we must be conscious of the fanart we create and consume to ensure it has a positive impact on queer representation.