Fandom Academia: Gender Influences Filk Far Less Than You'd Think

I love the highly-specific title of this academic paper by Melissa Tatum, Robert Spoo, and Banjamin Pope: "Does Gender Influence Attitudes Toward Copyright in the Filk Community?" It combines three hot-button issues: copyright, gender, and fandom. It's a like a powder keg of things people have very strong opinions on.

Tatum et. al.'s paper was published in the American University Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law. They did an awful lot of work to discover very few gender differences.

The authors begin by defining filk, which is something a lot of us just know about. But imagine some stuffy law professor trying to parse this:

"Filk" is the term used to describe the music of the science fiction community, and "filkers" are the members of the filk community and are most commonly found participating in song circles at science fiction conventions.

From there, the paper breaks down filk into eight types:

There are, then, eight basic permutations of filk songs:

1) Original lyrics to an original melody;

2) Original lyrics to a traditional melody;

3) Original lyrics to a melody under copyright;

4) Original lyrics to a melody composed by another filker;

5) Lyrics based on characters/universe created by another person and set to an original melody;

6) Lyrics based on characters/universe created by another person and set to a melody in the public domain;

7) Lyrics based on characters/universe created by another person and set to melody under copyright by someone else; and

8) Lyrics based on characters/universe created by another person and set to a melody composed by another filker.

The second section of the paper details the copyright issues presented by each of these categories, with the original works/those based on public domain songs being fine and the works incorporating other people's works presenting more issues.

Fandom Academia: Gender Influences Filk Far Less Than You'd Think

But the real meat of the paper is in Section III. Section III contains the original research done by the authors. First, a database of 895 filks were collected in a database, with certain facts about the songs noted: gender of the authors, whether the songs included copyrighted material, the age of the song, whether the songs were nominated for awards, etc. Second, a survey about attitudes to copyright were sent out to filkers for response. The survey revealed very few differences in the genders, which seemed to indicate that the feelings filkers had about both what was appropriate music type and copyright wasn't gender correlated.

The statistic analysis of filks was more interesting. The 895 songs studied were collected from the Pegasus Award (a major filk award), songs mentioned in the Filk Hall of Fame induction citations, and a random sampling of songs published in the filk magazine Xenofilkia. And, according to "Does Gender Influence Attitudes Toward Copyright in the Filk Community?"'s data, there's been a sharp drop in the publication of female-authored filks. Here's their chart:

Fandom Academia: Gender Influences Filk Far Less Than You'd Think

And yet, far more women authors than male ones had been given Pegasus Award nominations. The authors speculated that the reason for this disparity was that the magazine they chose for their publication statistics tends to favor filks that do not use original melodies, and the statistics see women writing more original songs than men:

The statistics show that the type of melody used is strongly dependent on gender. For example, females were more likely to use completely original melodies (females 30.0%, males 21.4%), while males were more likely to use a copyrighted melody (males 40.5%, females 35.1%) or the melody of another filker (males 25.2%, females 19.5%). Put differently, 45.3% of females used a melody that was not subject to someone else's copyright, while only 34.3% of males did. Conversely, 65.7% of males borrowed someone else's copyrighted melody, while only 54.6% of females did.

While melody was correlated with gender, originality in lyrics was not:

Fandom Academia: Gender Influences Filk Far Less Than You'd Think

Finally, the Pegasus Award nominations had raw numbers that generally showed equal distribution among the genders, with females favored a bit overall. At the time of this paper, 6.1% of females were nominated multiple times — compared with 3.4% of males — and 84.3% of males had never been nominated for a Pegasus — compared with 74.4% of females.

In conclusion, the authors felt that they could only make a few tentative conclusions based on their data. For female filkers, they proposed this:

Women in the filk community are more likely than men to create original melodies to accompany their lyrics, while women are only somewhat more likely to borrow from others' lyrics than are men. Because filk is often viewed as an imitative culture, the tendency of women to depart from that ethos in creating their own melodies seems significant. It might reveal a heightened contextual sensitivity to the legal rights of others, a sensitivity also suggested by the greater number of female respondents who believed that filkers should give credit to the authors from whom they borrow, and should not record copyrighted work without permission. Similarly, female respondents were much more likely to define fair use as not profiting from others' work, and somewhat more likely to define it as giving credit to the original author and making private as opposed to public use of a protected work.

For male filkers, the authors gave these tentative conclusions:

Male filkers, on the other hand, offered fewer responses about how to define fair use (Figure 12), while being significantly more likely to assert that they consider all legal requirements before engaging in filk activities (Figure 11). That men showed a markedly greater tendency than women to borrow the melodies of others would seem to be consistent with the imitative, competitive, and satirical impulses behind filking, and may suggest that attitudes of men and women to exploiting these impulses differ in certain respects.

Male respondents, however, were slightly less likely than female respondents to make use of the lyrics of others, i.e., slightly more likely to create their own original lyrics. Some of this may depend, however, on what respondents meant by "original" lyrics. Men might have been suggesting, for example, that filk lyrics that borrow from others' songs but transform those lyrics to some degree are "original" lyrics. Women might have been more reluctant to make that claim, particularly in light of their greater sensitivity to giving credit to other authors and their markedly greater tendency to define fair use as not profiting from others' work.

I'd add that the survey results also indicated that far more of the women filkers were "artists" as opposed to male filkers who were students or in technical fields. The attitudes of the female filkers, especially that about credit, and the trend toward original melodies is consistent with artists. While the fact that the male respondents are more likely hobbiests with jobs unrelated to making music does line up with the reliance on existing melodies.

In the end, though, the paper reveals far fewer differences between the genders than it does differences, which is a nice change of pace.

If you have more examples of excellent academic work on fandom, please send them to me at or send me a link Twitter: @k_trendacosta.

Coryn Wolk via Wikimedia Commons | CC BY 2.0

Photo credits (in order): Fellowship! The Musical Parody of The Fellowship of the Ring