British boy band One Direction is set to release its new album this month, and if you can’t hear the growing roar of screaming teenage girls rumbling across the globe, maybe it’s because they’re blogging their excitement instead. Keeping up with my newly developed 1D beat, I investigated one particularly vocal niche of the band’s mammoth Internet community for the first issue of Tomorrow magazine: The female fan fiction writers who build their own romantic tales about the band’s members, in which the boys are all totally gay for one another.
Take Cassady Ranford, a 20-year-old Canadian fan fic writer. She’s published over a dozen elaborate variations on this theme: The boys struggle with their strange new feelings; the boys seduce one another; the boys marry; the boys kill to cover up their dark secret. Now, she reigns over a fandom of her own, made up of thousands of other straight girls who follow her every Tumblr post. These girls come from a long tradition of slash fans who subvert mainstream pop culture narratives by swapping traditional heterosexual courtship for forbidden gay love. Think Kirk and Spock, Frodo and Merry, Harry and Draco, Backstreet and *NSYNC.
But One Direction’s is the gay fantasy to rule them all. The slash contingent of the 1D fan community has now grown so powerful that it’s begun to disrupt the intended purpose of the band: A group of nonthreatening British boys farmed from reality television to sell straight girls around the world a traditional romantic script. Since the rise of 1D fan fic, the boys have been forced to publicly deny the gay rumors and modify their behavior to seem less fey. Their mothers have gotten involved.
The boys may be fiercely defending their heterosexual appeal IRL, but on the Internet, the girls write the rules of their relationships. For a while, writers like Cassady seemed resigned to confine their fantasies to the online world. Then, last month, a ray of hope: 16-year-old fan fiction writer Emily Baker inked a deal with Penguin to turn her own One Direction fan fiction into an e-book. Unfortunately for slash fans, her story, “Loving the Band,” follows that typical fantasy trope promoted by One Direction’s songwriters themselves—regular girl meets famous boys. They compete for her love. Everything is straight.
Whenever fan fiction writers go mainstream—from the teenaged Baker to middle-aged E.L. James—the acquisition represents an opportunity to shake up the traditional romantic narrative that’s usually sold to women. Fan fiction, by definition, explores elements that the source material has not. In fan fic communities, chaste Twilight gets a sex-slave twist. Boy band members explore a love that cannot speak its name. Sixteen-year-old girls take control of the products marketed to them by older men. Publishers are smart to catch on. Just change a few details to sidestep copyright and defamation issues, and you’ve already got a first draft.
But as fan fiction gets its due, it appears that publishers are still picking up stories that conform to old models about what women want. Baker may not be your traditional romance writer, but she’s selling a familiar story: She lifted the hetero One Direction script from the lyrics, put it in her own words online, and then sold it back to the mainstream. And 50 Shades of Grey may have been steamier than the source material, but it kept Twilight’s passé dynamic intact—competent older man schools naïve virgin.
Now, Cassady’s fans have begun to clamor for her to publish her work professionally, too. But even the most well-populated fantasy worlds may be too transgressive for the mainstream. Six months ago, Cassady mocked a fan’s request to write some straight romance for a change. After the Penguin book deal was announced, she reconsidered that position. She’s now toying with converting one of her most popular slash stories into a heterosexual tale. “I know that’s sort of mainstreaming it,” she wrote on her blog. “I just feel like it might be better received that way.”