Long story short, last year I took a seminar on the history of sexuality. For my final essay, I chose to write a history of slash fanfiction. (Why yes, my prof was awesome. She told me she used to read "way too much homosocial Wesley Crusher fanfic.") You can't write about slash without writing about Kirk/Spock, what with some fly Trekkie ladies
The Female Gaze and Male Gays
Exploring Slash Fanfiction in Online Communities and Feminist Contexts
Exploring Slash Fanfiction in Online Communities and Feminist Contexts
In March of 2008, the Scottish actor David Tennant appeared on BBC Channel 4’s late night talk show The Friday Night Project. He was there to promote the latest series (1) of Doctor Who (created by Sydney Newman and Verity Lambert, 1963-), the long-running science fiction television programme in which he starred. In one segment, the hosts Justin Lee Collins and Alan Carr told Tennant that they would read to him some “Who porn” they had found online. After Carr mockingly described the story as “filth” that “someone’s been typing with one hand,” Collins read a short excerpt from a story that described a sexual encounter between the Doctor (Tennant’s character) and his female companion Martha Jones (played by Freema Agyeman). The audience laughed, and Tennant said, “That’s [the story] a little inappropriate, isn’t it?” Carr responded, “You think that’s bad, listen to this.” He then read out, “‘Captain Jack [a male companion of the Doctor] lunged forward with the power and strength that the Doctor had always so admired and took him in his manly arms. His hands moved down towards his groin.’” Carr stopped at that point, claiming that he couldn’t read any further on a family show. (2)
This segment was meant to be entirely comedic; confronting an actor with amateur pornography written about a character he played brought the expected reactions of shock and surprise. Tennant claimed the story about the Doctor and Martha was inappropriate for characters designed to be watched by the entire family, but jokingly referred to the Captain Jack story as coming from a blog written by John Barrowman (the actor who played Captain Jack). Despite the segment’s frivolous nature, it revealed a great deal about public perception of fandom and fanfiction. Nearly everyone is a fan of something, be it a television programme, a film, or a book. Not everyone participates in fandom in the same way, however: some fans recommend books to friends, some see movies more than once, some buy their favourite television programmes on DVD. Others attend filming or conventions, or write fanfic. This is where the divide in public perception of fandom enters the conversation. One news article about a group of Lord of the Rings fans described them as “near-obsessive super-nerds of pop culture's wild frontier.” (3) While some may consider more active fans’ relationship with media unusual, it is a huge part of way Western society interacts with mass media. An astonishingly tiny, truly shameful, amount of work has been done on fandom. In particular, fanfic – simply stories written about established characters not created by the writer – has been ignored. Not only fanfic a way in which fans interact with the source material and each other in female-centric communities, (4) but its often sexual nature demands historical examination from the standpoint of sexuality. In particular, slash fanfic – stories written about homosexual relationships between two male characters – is by its very nature sexual. Documented slash has only been found to occur for the last few brief decades, but what it says about female pleasure in intersection with mass media’s portrayal of gender speaks volumes.
The documented history of slash began in the world of science fiction. In the 1930s, independent fan magazines began writing on popular works of sci-fi, from novels to radio programmes. These zines usually had small runs, from seventy-five to two hundred copies per issue, and were less focused on original fan work than discourse and discussion. In this way they were not very different from licensed fan magazines available in any bookstore today; shows such as Lost, CSI, Doctor Who and Star Trek all publish official magazines with reviews, commentaries, and critiques. Amateur fiction was not the focus of the zines at this time; by the 1950s, when sci-fi had become popular in the mainstream media, most stories were professionally published. (5)
As far as any researcher has been able to tell, slash really began with the broadcast of Star Trek (created by Gene Roddenberry, 1966-1969). Spockanalia, the first Trek zine, was published just before the beginning of the second season, and Grup, the first zine with adult content, was published in 1972. Grup featured only heterosexual fanfic, yet it still prompted discussion amongst fans. Were these stories putting beloved characters in new, unexplored situations, or were they debasing the canon material? At one point, Grup’s publishers were called “godless pornographers,” (6) one of the first times the label of pornography was applied to sexual fanfic. In 1974, the third issue of Grup featured the story “A Fragment Out of Time” by Diane Marchant, the first ever published slash fanfic. (As a side note, Trek fanfic is where slash gets its name: opening summaries identified stories as Kirk/Spock rather than Kirk & Spock in order to warn fans who didn’t want to read of the characters in a homosexual context.) “A Fragment Out of Time” was written in an oblique style, referring to Kirk and Spock only as “he” and “him.” Readers would have to be aware of the Trek universe to understand that the protagonists were supposed to be Kirk and Spock. Marchant, an Australian fanfic writer and organizer of Trek events in that country, essentially made slash visible. Before “A Fragment Out of Time,” slash had been written but never published. Instead, it was generally handed around friend-to-friend. (7) Marchant’s story, as well as an essay she wrote discussing Kirk/Spock that was published in the following issue of Grup, prompted huge open debate within the Trek fandom. Slash was no longer invisible, and four years later, the first all-slash zine Thrust was published, an anthology entirely of Kirk/Spock fanfic.
Up until this point, slash was largely confined to the Trek fandom. In 1977, however, Star Wars (dir. George Lucas) was released, and with its enormous success came an explosion in sci-fi fandom. Zines became not only more widely read, but also more numerous, and this is when it can be seen that slash became more mainstream. No longer were slash stories confined to Trek, or even sci-fi. Star Wars sexual fanfic was stifled for decades (as is explained below), but with the expansion of zines, fandoms outside of sci-fi began to explore slash. The largest of these post-Star Wars slash fandoms was the television programme Starsky & Hutch (created by William Blinn, 1975-1979), which by 1980 had a zine published in the UK exclusively comprising slash fanfic. At this point, the concrete ways in which fan communities interacted had not changed for nearly fifty years; zines and APAs (amateur press associations, which were like more professionally produced zines that operated like a mailing list) were still the standard. The real change occurred with the growing availability of personal computers and the internet – Kelly Simca Boyd states that fanfic was available online as early as 1991, albeit mostly in closed email lists and newsgroups. This ensured that slash fanfic still had a relatively small circulation, much like the zines.
Usenet was established in 1980, a proto-internet networked communication system that allowed for discussion much in the same way that forums later came to serve. Early fan communities such as rec.arts.tv.soaps challenged the concept of male-dominated computer spaces. Despite the majority of Usenet’s users being male, 75% of the participants at r.a.t.s were female, appropriating a male space in order to discuss female areas of interest. (8) Online communities undoubtedly became a space for interaction and discussion, much in the same way as a comic book shop or a sports bar. Nancy K. Baym, who studied r.a.t.s., noted that social theorists consider a community made by “habitual ways of acting that support, maintain, and continually recreate a group’s norms, values, and belief systems.” (9) For instance, online discussion enriches community members’ opinions and memories. Members of r.a.t.s. would often update each other on episodes others had missed or information on characters’ back-stories, providing “resources to get more story from the same material, enhancing many members’ soap readings and pleasures.” (10) The large number of fans in r.a.t.s. ensured that the community had more knowledge at hand than possible for any one fan.
ql:frivolous, a later Usenet group and email list based on the sci-fi television programme Quantum Leap (created by Donald P. Bellisario, 1989-1993), also had a primarily female membership. In part, ql:frivolous came to be because female members of the group rec.arts.tv felt pushed out of the community for posting too often, or being “too silly.” (11) Andrea MacDonald saw this as part of a larger occurrence wherein women’s contributions to mixed-gender discussion groups were often made light of, or simply ignored. One study found that responses by both men and women to women’s posts constituted only 32.5% of responses. (12) The spin-off email list from the ql:frivolous community, QLLC (alternately described as the Quantum Leap Ladies Club or the Quantum Leap Lust Club) began after complaints from male members of ql:frivolous that female members were discussing attractive male actors or the characters’ relationships too often. QLLC maintained a closed membership and frequently changed names in order to preserve a safe space for “a climate and situation in which women can focus on their experiences and achievements without pressure to conform to the expectations or dictates of patriarchal authority and without fear of male censure.” (13) The enforcement of a female-only space in the online world of 1994 set the stage for later female-positive slash communities.
As the internet grew, slash eventually began to be posted on personal web pages, and Simca Boyd described it as “extremely prolific” online by 1996. (14) Fandom online was much more accessible to fans seeking out communities which shared similar interests. For instance, how was a fan to find a zine, mailing list or APA without already being aware of it, or having a friend within the fandom? The APA Strange Bedfellows had only 39 members in 1993, when it was studied at length by Shoshanna Green, Cynthia Jenkins and Henry Jenkins. (15) Compare the LiveJournal community devoted to the Merlin/Arthur relationship in the BBC series Merlin (created by Julian Jones, Jake Michie, Johnny Capps, and Julian Murphy, 2008-) which in April of 2009 had over 2700 members. (16) Fannish discourse is centred around the computer and online communities more and more every day. (17) Fans often find it difficult to find fans in same area, or those who enjoy the canon material to same degree. Online, stories were no longer exclusively focused on characters that easily lent themselves to slash, such as the close partnerships of Kirk and Spock or Starsky and Hutch. Rather, almost every fandom has slash somewhere. Slash became so visible online that it has even been discussed within the mainstream media from which it originated. The horror-drama television programme Supernatural (created by Eric Kripke, 2005-) devoted an episode’s meta-fictional plot to a series of novels written about its main characters, the brothers Sam and Dean Winchester (played by Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles, respectively). As “a significant portion of [Supernatural] fan fiction speculates that the brothers' love for one another is far more than brotherly,” (18) the story-within-a-story even discussed slash:
Dean: There's Sam Girls and Dean Girls and…What's a slash fan?
Sam: As in Sam slash Dean together.
Dean: Like together, together? They do know we are brothers right?
Sam: Doesn't seem to matter.
Dean: Well that's just sick!(19)
Torchwood (created by Russell T. Davies, 2006-), a spin-off from Doctor Who, featured a relationship between the aforementioned Captain Jack and his fellow team member Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd), a relationship often gleefully referred to by Torchwood fans as “canon slash.” Given the origins of slash, canon slash is a contradiction in terms, suggesting that the lines between fandom and canon are now blurred in a way impossible before fandom’s online presence.
But why?, ask those outside fandom. Why do slashers choose to portray homosexual relationships between men who are apparently canonically heterosexual? This is part of the aforementioned public perception of fandom and slash as “wild, sexed-up…really, really weird.” (20) Star Trek, for instance, has numerous instances of Kirk displaying sexual desire for women. The aforementioned article studying the slash APA Strange Bedfellows, about the counter-intelligence agents programme The Professionals (created by Bryan Clements, 1977-1982), posed the question to the members of the mailing list. There were as many responses as members, the most memorable (“[Is slash] anything other than normal female interest in male bonking?”) providing the title of the article. (21) Strange Bedfellows was a small fan community with at least some obviously shared opinions, yet no one answer was applicable to even such a small group of people. There is no one answer as to why slashers portray canonically heterosexual men in homosexual relationships, but to help understand the dichotomy, two concepts must be established. The first is that to understand slash, one must reconsider how we view the canon material’s depiction of gender. The second and more important concept is that slash is not about homosexual men, but rather about heterosexual women.
In her landmark article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” the seminal feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey argued that there is a specific way in which gender is acted out in film. She termed this the male gaze; in brief, “men look and women are to be looked at.” (22) Men are active; women are passive. Additionally, men are usually the protagonists of most films; they are the ones who drive the plot. Women are seen as spectacle to be controlled by the male. Despite writing two decades after Mulvey, Simca Boyd deprecatingly described female characters in television as “large-breasted, small-waisted women that habitually throw themselves at our ‘heroes’ each and every week.” (23) As such, Mulvey concluded that the viewer identifies with the male protagonist no matter the gender of the viewer. Mulvey therefore offered one solution as to why fans write slash: they feel the need to have a male at the centre of a story, because that is what media and film has conditioned the viewer to see. However, in the application of this theory to slash, a major flaw is evident in the abandonment of the consideration of the mainstream romance. Even novels, films and television programmes that are not billed as romances can confidently be expected to include a romance in a subplot. Indeed, it is difficult to come up with examples of texts that do not include any kind of romance. With that in mind, Mulvey’s argument appears to be lacking, as the majority of those plots are focussed on heterosexual romance; theoretically, the viewer would be conditioned to expect heterosexual romance, rather than romance centred solely around men.
Film theorist Mary Ann Doane also disagreed with Mulvey. In her study of 1940s ‘women’s films’ – films about women, designed for female audiences – Doane expanded upon Mulvey’s concept of the male gaze. These films “[claimed] to deal directly with female subjectivity and desire,” but Doane saw this claim was inherently paradoxical given that the films were still produced within a Hollywood framework that was designed upon male fantasy. (24) Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) is a key example of Doane’s theorization. Based on the Daphne du Maurier novel of the same name, Rebecca is the story of an unnamed female protagonist and her conflict with both her housekeeper Mrs. Danvers and the titular Rebecca de Winter, the protagonist’s husband’s previous wife. Despite the story’s focus on female characters, women in Rebecca are still to-be-looked-at. Both Mrs. Danvers (who is implied to be a lesbian) and the new Mrs. de Winter are obsessively focused on Rebecca, to the point that the protagonist attempts to shape herself into the form of that woman. The female gaze is still gazing upon women, with the protagonist seeing Rebecca as a concept of objectified unattainable desire. Although the female gaze is present, it is ultimately without agency. The protagonist is incapable of fulfilling her desire regarding Rebecca, while her husband Maxim achieved his desire twice in both his marrying and murdering Rebecca. In Rebecca, the female gaze is superseded by an overriding male gaze that even comes to literal manifestation when Maxim de Winter projects home movies. He is in control, looking, while the protagonist is in the dark, and even briefly has the footage of Maxim and Rebecca projected onto her.
In this way, having heterosexual characters in canon is not a detriment to slashing. It has been proposed by Constance Penley that this allows women to literally have their cake and eat it too. Slashers can take the culturally acceptable position of power in a sexual encounter by identifying with a male character in slash. This means they do not have to worry about the taboo or impotent nature of female desire, and by identifying with one male character can take part in relationship with the other male character. At the same time, when canon places the character with females, the female viewer can place herself in the role of the female on screen. (25) For example, in Merlin Penley’s theory suggests the female viewer could slash Merlin and Arthur and enjoy taking the role of Arthur. Within canon, the slasher can then enjoy identification with Gwen or Morgana, both of whom Arthur has shown romantic interest towards.
In Strange Bedfellows’s discussion of why women construct male homoerotic fantasies, one French slasher named Cat discussed female identification within narrative convention, mirroring Mulvey and Doane’s theories:
"In this society, someone enriching/feeding their fantasy life with TV fare will come across variations of the traditional pattern: the hero (dashing); the buddy (his confidant and accomplice); the screaming ninny (his romantic interest)…
In this threesome, there are reasons to identify with the hero:
(1) He is usually the main character (the heroine being seen less often, usually a supporting character).
(2) He does all the exciting things and seems to enjoy them. He is the one to whom the adventure happens and the one who makes it happen…
There are reasons not to identify with the heroine:
(1) A woman, having internalized the values of our culture, might feel that women are devalued per se, regardless of script, thus the woman-heroine becomes a worthless object of identification. (26)
(2) When female characters are shown to be effective and powerful, it is often through their ‘feminine wiles’…As to women powerful through their use of beauty and seduction (i.e. their power to manipulate men to further their schemes), they could easily become alien, incomprehensible creatures to ‘average’ women full of self-doubt or teenage angst, since they represent values that are not only difficult to achieve, but also considered obsolete…
So you don’t want to be her, you don’t want to enjoy the emotions she feels. The male hero is easier to ‘feel’ the adventure with: what he is made to feel you enjoy. And if you are the daydreaming kind, you will ‘borrow’ him, to make him feel some more interesting things.
If you do not want sex or romance to be absent from your daydreamings and you are identifying with the male hero, seeing the adventure from his viewpoint, who the heck are you going to use as a romantic interest? … That person is unlikely to be the screaming ninny (because, if you liked her, you would have identified with her)…
This is where the male buddy comes in, since he is the only one (with the screaming ninny and the enemy) who shows a sustained interest in the hero. The woman who has empathy for the hero will enjoy the emotions produced in the hero by the Buddy…[The relationship] is not tainted with sexism, with expectations of a given role, because the one is female and the other is male. It is equality. Not in practical terms: the buddy can be less or more strong or skilful than the hero. But his weakness is not perceived as something that makes him in essence inferior or different. (27) It has a different cultural meaning. They are attracted to each other’s personalities…” (28)
Cat’s explanation fits neatly with Mulvey and Doane’s theories – heavily psychoanalytical and seeing the fan’s connection to source material as one of identification. Several aspects of fannish interaction with media become clear upon a close reading of Cat’s analysis. First, slashers have always been deeply aware of how they interact with media. Cat’s terminology regarding the viewers’ identification and internalization shows a consciousness of gender and interaction similar to Mulvey’s work. As previously noted, Marchant, the first published slasher, followed “A Fragment Out of Time” with an essay discussing Kirk/Spock. Another Strange Bedfellows writer named only as Barbara took an approach more similar to Doane when she wrote:
The fan game is to see everything in the context of the show itself. If an actor, or a pair of them, are busy projecting rampant sexuality, the fan mindset is to look within the program for the object…there’s nobody but the two men themselves to justify the sexual display, so the concept of slash (instead of the fan just thinking what a sexy, appealing show it is to her, herself) arises.” (29)
Rather than see the hero as avatar for the fan, Barbara theorized that the hero is the fan’s plaything. As in Doane’s study of women’s films, the gaze is key here. In essence, Barbara stated the male gaze is the primary cause of slash, as the characters Cat dubbed the Hero and the Buddy project outwards within the scope of the story. Homoerotic parodies often play up this projection; the parody television programme The Bullshitters concluded a Professionals spoof with the agents Bodie (Lewis Collins) and Doyle (Martin Shaw) embracing and declaring their love for one another in the midst of an action scene. (30) Within Barbara’s explanation, however, slash is also a rebellion against the male gaze. No longer are women to-be-looked-at; rather, women are left by the wayside as men become both the gazers and the gazed-upon.
A close reading of Cat and Barbara’s explanations also offers a second aspect to slashers: a deep discomfort with the presentation of gender relations in the media. Cat memorably referred to female characters as “the screaming ninny,” while Barbara commented that female characters simply do not have enough screen time to justify “TV’s tired male/female relationships.” (31) Female commanding officers or bosses would appear to contradict this categorization, but as noted by Cat, slashers often find women in power difficult to identify with, or reject their power as being based in their sexuality. For example, due South (created by Paul Haggis, 1994-1999), a show with a fandom characterized by its slash pairings (and the basis of Simca Boyd’s “One Index Finger on the Mouse Scroll Bar”), featured a female commanding officer not coincidentally named Meg Thatcher (Camilla Scott). When discussing Thatcher, Lieutenant Harding Welsh (Beau Starr) described women in power as a “quandary”:
“I mean, you want to treat ’em like the rest of the guys, you want to have them nod off in strategic planning sessions, you want them to have sweat rings, and maybe a little too much garlic on their breath. But no. No, not women. Women smell good. And women look good. And then they smile at you. And before you know it, you’re smiling back. And the first time they tear a piece off you, it’s like somebody’s sticking an ice pick through your heart.” (32)
Here, Welsh fulfilled every complaint about the presentation of females made by Cat and the other slashers; women in power are both flawless and defined by their sexuality. In essence, according to slashers a male/female relationship can never offer equality. Slash relationships remove the gender barrier, allowing the two men to relate to each other on equal ground. This approach also ignores any constraints that men encounter within society’s gender roles – what Cat calls the “tourist approach,” a land where one is free of the rules enforced by one’s country of origin, while unaware of the rules of the tourist land. (33) One respondent to my survey likewise saw slash as an escape, despairing of the prevalence of het storylines in mainstream media:
“…I can turn on the TV to any channel and find het. If I walk into a bookstore and pick up a book at random it's probably going to be het. I walk into a mall and I'm going to see het couples. I go to see a movie and there's a 95-99% chance of het, even if it's out of place. The action hero will stop in the middle of his exploding car chase to have quick bedroom scene with a generic hawt babe just to go 'LOLNOTAFAGLOL'. I go to the local BBQ restaurant and there are two smiling dancing pigs on the sign, ONE has eyelashes and a skirt to prove these are 100% het pigs bygolly. No faggot BBQ here.” (34)
Another person surveyed responded, “With two characters of the same gender there is a great deal of opportunity for frequently unexplored power struggles and character conflicts. I imagine Lolita would have been a much different book if Lolita had been a boy.” (35) Whether slashers are bored of traditional story lines or uncomfortable with the portrayal of women, slash is a wilful rewriting of masculinity to fit the desires of the female audience.
Most slash is centred around female modes of desire, with a heavy emphasis on relationships rather than adventure. For instance, Mirna Cicioni’s work on slash was centred on the fandoms for the two shows Inspector Morse (created by Colin Dexter, 1987-2000) and The Professionals; Simca Boyd’s work was centred on due South. My own research is centred on the show Merlin, a series set before traditional Arthurian legend and featuring Merlin as Prince Arthur’s manservant. Despite these programmes’ different genres and storylines, they all principally focus on a partnership designed to fit well together, whether the characters are cops or kings. The characters’ traits suit each other, because they have to work together for important purposes such as finding murderers or fighting mythical beasts. Episodes are based around mysteries, action, adventure, chases and the search for the solution to the story. Meanwhile, the slash based on these pairings is completely different.
As slash is all about the relationship, the action is removed to the background. Stories often take place in off-duty times. As one British Professionals slasher wrote, “Who really cares about C15 and international terrorism? We all know that what the fans really are dying to see is B and D share sandwiches/exchange backchat in the car/save each other’s lives.” (36) Furthermore, hints about characters’ backgrounds not fully explored are often “tantalizing tidbits” that encourage fans’ “commitment to ‘emotional realism’” in expanding the timeline of the primary texts. (37) One popular Professionals fanfic, “The Party Spirit,” has each chapter take place in between two episodes of the show, exploring what happens off-camera. The relationship of partners Bodie and Doyle is charted from a brief “semi-drunken sexual romp” occurring just before the first episode, to their openly living together in a committed relationship after the final episode. Another multi-story series known as “Emma” follows Bodie and Doyle’s relationship for fifteen years, culminating in “a public commitment to each other and to monogamy.” (38) Cicioni was writing in the mid-nineties, and many of the fanfics she discussed were from 1992. Before gay marriage began to be legalized, much of this sort of story culminated in a private declaration of love and fidelity – what Cicioni termed as “virtual marriages.” For example, one Professionals fanfic chronicled Bodie and Doyle’s impromptu personal ceremony:
“Doyle gave [Bodie] an uncomplicated smile. ‘Would you marry me?’
‘In a heartbeat.’ Bodie helped himself to another kiss. ‘But we can’t. Not legal, remember?’
With one hand flattened against Bodie’s chest, Doyle said confidently, ‘We can. In here. Much more important than on a piece of paper…I, Raymond Doyle,’ he whispered formally, ‘am yours. And only yours. Forever, Bodie.’
…‘Then I, William Bodie…’ He faltered, knowing that once said, these words would bind him for the rest of his life. It surprised him that they came so easily. ‘Will be yours as long as you want me.’" (39)
Seventeen years later, little appears to have changed in the desires of slashers. The following excerpt is from the extremely popular fanfic Drastically Redefining Protocol, commonly referred to as “If you only ever read one fic in [the Merlin] fandom, it should be this one.” (40) In an alternate universe (AU) re-imagining of Merlin, Arthur is the modern day Prince of Wales, while Merlin is a sleep-deprived medical student. The key conflict in their relationship is Arthur’s role as public figure and future head of the Church of England, and thus their possible inability to marry. The story concludes with newspaper reports of Arthur and Merlin’s royal wedding, but in the penultimate scene, Merlin and Arthur act out a virtual marriage strikingly similar to Bodie and Doyle’s:
“‘Last opportunity for this in a while,’ Merlin told him, stripping Arthur of his jacket to use as an impromptu blanket on the grass. Arthur pretended briefly to fight him for it before Merlin's eyes flared golden, laughing and in warning, and he said, ‘All right, all right,’ and subsided, resting his head on Merlin's lap, eyes closed and dozing in the flickers of summer heat that came on the spring wind.
‘We'll make time,’ Arthur said, and decided they would…
‘I hope we do,’ he said, fervent and already-yearning, so wistful that Arthur was forced to snatch the hand in his own.
He caught Merlin's gaze for a moment, smiling and asked, ‘You ready?’
‘No,’ Merlin laughed. ‘And don't lie, neither are you.’
‘No,’ Arthur said, ‘but why wait.’” (41)
AU stories with modern settings are extremely prolific in the Merlin fandom; We’re a Storm in Somebody Else’s Teacup by paperclipbitch deals with the ramifications of Merlin and Morgana having magical powers in the modern world, while moonythestrals’s more comedic “MERLIN,” which sets Arthur and Merlin as university students collaborating on a screenplay, is also very popular. Despite “MERLIN”’s deliberate tongue-in-cheek tone, the central couple still receive the requisite happy ending in the coda “A Random Collection of Firsts”:
“When Arthur spins around in his chair and sees Merlin, his smile is ... ‘brilliant as the rising sun,’ or however Arthur has described the shine in Merlin's eyes in the script.
‘Hi,’ Arthur says, getting up from his chair, and ducks easily under the paper Merlin is brandishing.
‘Is this, like, some kind of gay gesture?’ Merlin asks, unable to keep this stupid, stupid laugh from his voice.
‘No, ass,’ Arthur says, grinning. ‘This is,’ and leans forward to press their mouths together.” (42)
One explanation for the copious number of AU fanfics in the Merlin fandom (other than copycatting of the aforementioned very popular stories) is the possibility of this happy ending. With the burgeoning availability of gay marriage, the ending traditionally reserved for mainstream romance stories becomes more and more possible for slashers to explore. Hence, slash can be seen to traffic in the same sort of stories as popular romance novels, a fact that slashers are not loath to acknowledge; one termed slash as “the idealized romance, two against the world, forsaking all other: the ultimate Mills and Boon.” (43) Granted, these works are often far more sexually explicit than the average romance novel, but that is not the significant part. What is significant is that these sorts of stories place men in a context where the most important relationships to them are those of lovers and family, relationships generally more closely associated with women’s desires. Through the emphasis of character over plot, it is suggested that these men “develop most positively through long-term interpersonal relations rather than professional activities and violent action.” (44) Both long-term relationship fanfics, as well as hurt/comfort (often abbreviated to h/c) stories take a more traditionally ‘romantic’ approach to the slash relationships. Hurt/comfort stories are what Cicioni called the eroticisation of nurturance, a way in which one partner nurtures the other with a basic physical need (warmth, food, medical care), or a more emotional need – essentially mothering him. (45) More than any other aspect of slash, the hurt/comfort genre shows the ways in which slash is a restructuring of male/male relationships into “downright soppy” female fantasy. (46) Cicioni described these slash narratives as “fantasies in which the sexual desires women are trained to suppress and the nurturance they are trained to cultivate come together, have a positive outcome, and result in satisfaction.” (47) One such example occurred in We’re a Storm in Somebody Else’s Teacup after the death of Merlin’s childhood friend Will:
“‘Look,’ Merlin begins unsteadily, ‘I’m fine. I’m just tired, and it was my friend’s funeral so I think it would be more worrying if I was perfectly cheerful, and I don’t need someone to-‘
‘Shut up, Merlin,’ Arthur sighs, crossing the room immediately and pulling Merlin into his arms.
‘Shut up,’ Arthur repeats, crushing Merlin harder against his chest. Merlin remains rigid and disconcerted for a moment, and then when Arthur shows no signs of letting go, lets himself crumble. He presses his face into Arthur’s shoulder and curls his arms around him and lets Arthur be strong enough for both of them. Arthur is warm and certain and he doesn’t say anything at all, which is sort of a relief, and Merlin wonders how long he’s been needing this.” (48)
When looking at an overview of the history of slash, gender seems an obvious topic of discussion, but the presence of sci-fi cannot be ignored. Why did slash begin in sci-fi, and still remains a strong presence in sci-fi fandom? One possible answer is in sci-fi’s inherent differences; stories are about discovery and finding something new. As gender roles shift in the real world, sci-fi still supplies a world in which people who are inherently different try to live together. The psychoanalytic film theorist Raymond Bellour made the claim that in the nineteenth century men looked at women and feared they were different, but in the twentieth century men looked at women and feared they were the same. (49) Constance Penley expanded upon this concept and applied it to sci-fi; if men and women were no longer different enough, sci-fi offered numerous relationships with plenty of difference: human/alien, as in Starman (John Carpenter, 1984), human/android, as in Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982), or humans from different periods of time, as in Terminator (James Cameron, 1984). In a discussion of the eighties television franchise V, Penley said, “The only difference remaining in V is that between the aliens (scaly, green reptiles in human skin) and the humans. The difference, however, comes to represent sexual difference, as if the human/alien difference were a projection of what can no longer be depicted otherwise.” (50) Homosexual relationships can also be seen to “reactivate infantile sexual investigation” in offering that degree of difference from the traditional heterosexual relationships in the media. (51)
But Penley’s reference to infantile sexual investigation was focused on alien beings, the question central to a creature with sexual organs in its hands as in The Man Who Fell to Earth (Nicholas Roeg, 1976) or “How do replicants [the androids from Blade Runner] do it?” (52) To blindly apply such a statement of alien curiosity to slash, and therefore to gay men, is not only ignorant but also offensive. However, who are the main consumers of slash? On The Friday Night Project, Tennant jokingly referred to Barrowman (who is openly gay) as a writer of slash, making the assumption that the audience for slash is identical to other works of gay pornography. But gay men are not the main audience for slash: heterosexual women are. In this way, Penley’s alien metaphor can be applied as a concept of fantasy. Sex between two men is impossible for women of any sexuality to experience, hence a possible explanation of its allure. In a discussion about the relatively small amount of femslash (fanfic written about two women), Strange Bedfellows’ Sandy wrote, “I have that equipment, I have sex with women – I wasn’t able to go with the flow so much. There was an intermediate level doing the rather stupid job of checking each piece of action and thinking, ‘would I like this,’ ‘have I done this,’ ‘would I do this…’” (53) Fellow Strange Bedfellows member Agnes responded in the next issue to Sandy, agreeing with her that the appeal of slash was maintained through fantasy: “Writing (and reading) about things we can’t experience directly, we can fantasize that these relations can be far beyond the best sex WE may have ever had, not limited by or interpreted through our own direct experience.” (54)
The earliest work on slash and slashers was done by the theorists Lamb and Veith in 1986. Although their work has since been disputed by both fans and academic writers, they were the first to point out that slash is primarily written by women, for women. Every single study from that point onwards stated this, but not until Simca Boyd in 2001 did a researcher back up their claims. (55) Simca Boyd drew from a voluntary survey that she had asked those in her own fan communities to participate in. In her survey, Simca Boyd requested basic information such as age, sexuality and gender, as well as more investigative questions regarding the respondents’ activities in fandom and their thoughts on censorship and feminism regarding slash. My survey was designed directly on Simca Boyd’s model, disregarding some of the more criminological aspects on which she chose to focus. (56)
Out of 210 respondents to Simca Boyd’s survey, only ten were male. Fifty people replied to my survey, three of whom were male. Interestingly, that is almost the exact same ratio as Simca Boyd received. The average age of my respondents was 23. 48% of Simca Boyd’s respondents identified as straight, compared to 40% of my respondents. It is notable that many did not given their sexual orientation as one given category. For instance, the youngest respondent identified as straight but noted she enjoyed kissing girls; others identified as asexual, pansexual, or preferred not to say. One respondent was transgendered; another had a transgendered partner. With fannish discourse now existing almost solely in the realm of online communities, it is important for writers on slash to not fall prey to assumptions and guesses. Lamb and Veith wrote in the mid-eighties, and yet it took until Simca Boyd for any concrete proof of their key assumption to be analyzed statistically. While Baym exhorted that the internet’s increased ease in accessing slash would benefit researchers, she did not take into account the sheer size of fan communities. (57) Merlinxarthur’s 2700 members result in an average of ten to fifteen posts a day, making the researcher’s quest for a unified voice less of a search for a needle in a haystack, and more of a search for one particular piece of hay.
The significance of 94% of slashers being female is in the way they interact with media. Simca Boyd categorized television programmes as “men’s most basic fantasies made large,” with women primarily filling more minor, less effective roles. (58) As previously noted, this generally results in a greater emphasis on relationships, as well as a discontent with the portrayal of male/female relationships. It is not debatable that most slash is designed according to female modes of desire. Here was where Lamb and Veith differed from later researchers, as they claimed that explicit sexual scenes were metaphors for emotional bonding. However, every researcher since (including myself) has seen these explicitly sexual scenes as pornography (a term often used by slashers themselves), not encoded emotional scenes.
After attempting to enter the Gilmore Girls fandom, my mother once asked me the question, “Is all fanfic porn?” It is not; genres exist just as much in fanfic as in any other written endeavour. However, the question of whether some sexual fanfic qualifies as porn is moot. The subtitle of Simca Boyd’s thesis openly associates pornography as an aspect of slash, and rather than shy away from the term, slashers embrace it. They often use MPAA-style ratings to categorize their stories; fanfiction.net is built around a similar ratings system. However, most movies are rated G to R, as an NC-17 rating guarantees that a movie will not receive a wide audience. In comparison, slashers have no qualms about using the NC-17 rating. While Jenkins made the claim that “the focus is often on sensuality…rather than penetration and ejaculation (the most common images in traditional pornography),” many slashers have no qualms about openly describing their more explicit stories as porn. (59) For instance, rageprufrock wrote two brief sequels to Drastically Redefining Protocol, both rated NC-17, which she termed as “sextras.” In the rating of the first sequel, she noted, “I could warn for filth and barebacking, but you guys should really have seen that coming with just ‘filth.’” (60) Moonythestrals made the claim that her story “Umbrellas on the Inside” “morphed into porn halfway through,” (61) and the LiveJournal community merlinxarthur has porn as one of its genres. (62)
The sexual nature of slash has resulted in censorship having a long and privileged history, beginning as early as the post-Star Wars boom in zines. A common practice with these early zines was to send a copy to Lucasfilms as a sign of respect and appreciation. However, in 1981 fans sent the zine “Slow Boat to Bespin 1 & 2,” a collection of het fanfic, some of it pornographic in nature. As a result, Lucasfilms sent the fans a cease and desist letter, saying that they meant for the Star Wars universe to be family friendly. In essence, they would tolerate any fan work other than pornography. (63) In fact, all fanfic writers are breaking the law, as characters are property of their creators, not of the fan writers. (Furthermore, while writers such as Chris Berry compare Japan’s enormous yaoi – also known as boy love, or BL – genre of manga and anime stories to slash, the very fact that slash is not commercially viable by either volume or copyright serves as the main reason why the two genres are not comparable other than their being stories about homosexual men largely consumed by heterosexual women. (64) ) This action essentially shut down the slash community in the fledgling Star Wars fandom, and slash did not truly gain a foothold until the release of The Phantom Menace (George Lucas, 1999) nearly twenty years later. This franchise could boast of one of hugest, most recognizable fandoms of all time, and for slash to be shut down in such a way shows that the producers had enormous power over their fans. It is likely that the taboo nature of the writing helped fans self-censor.
Other fandoms did not react in the same way. As the eighties sci-fi TV show Blake’s 7 (created by Terry Nation, 1978-1981) became more popular, fans and actors sometimes interacted. In 1989, fans showed some slash to actors and they took offence, requesting that the practice be stopped. However, the fandom quickly bounced back after a short time and did not take any notice. Fans still routinely place disclaimers on introductions noting that the characters are not their property. Naturally, this is sometimes a point of humour, such as “Characters are not mine, I’m only playing with them” or “Not mine, but I sure wish they were…” When asked what fans thought TPTB (The Powers That Be, a catch-all for shows’ creators and producers) thought of slash, their responses ranged from humour (“Thousands of teenage girls never would have become fujoshi (65) if it weren't for the internet”) to careful considerations of sexuality within fandom as a whole:
“I think the large quality of poor writing in fandom as a whole has more impact on the overall public perception than the access of slash fiction does. Slash fiction is no easier to access or obtain than the millions of sexually explicit heterosexual fiction, or even the dozens upon dozens of sexually explicit images and videos that float around freely on the web. If anyone raises a stink over slash fiction and not a sex scene between two heterosexual people, that's a question of tolerance instead of ease of access.” (66)
When Simca Boyd wrote her thesis in 1999, she focused heavily on censorship and the taboos slasher felt they encountered. Ten years later, I asked many of the same questions and people honestly responded perplexed. One said that where she wrote, censorship was simply not an issue, while others noted varying degrees of trying to keep personal and fandom online lives separate. (67) In response to the question “What – if any – precautions do you take to avoid censorship?”, responses ran the gamut:
“Hopefully I don't take [risks]. Very few people online know my real name and I don't have a MySpace, Facebook, etc. anything that would reveal my real name or location. This means no employer or potential employer will ever be able to link my real name with my pseudonym. There are no connections. None of my family members know my internet pseudonym either. I believe I am safe as long as none of my close friends or people who I've had business transactions with ever reveal the connection.” (68)
“I separate my real name from my fandom slash. In addition, I'd strongly consider writing under a psuedonym [sic] if I were to write professionally.” (69)
Curiously, the real issue surrounding slashers’ willingness to discuss their fandom activities is the fact that they take place in fandom. Fandom still carries the stigma of “fluent speakers of Elvish [and] collectors of Klingon pottery.” (71) Granted, some slash even now carries a taboo. Younger writers don’t want their parents to see what they write, and older writers don’t want their bosses to see. However, nowadays there is seldom the case that writers are completely anonymous, not wishing any association between even a screen name and slash writing. Slash is now less of a genre than an aspect to fanfic. The only real across-the-board case where writers remain anonymous is in the case of kink memes. These are specific communities where fans post requests for fan-based pornography, such as a story involving Kirk, Spock and foot fetishization. Because of their more exotic and fetishistic content, kink memes are still generally anonymous. (72)
Despite an early surge in research in the nineties apparently spurred by fandom’s move to online communication, work on slash and fannish discourse appears to have stalled. Clearly, this is an enormous topic with roots in literature, media studies, sociology, history and sexuality, so why is it that no one is studying it? While no answer seems obvious, one fact about academic researchers of slash cannot be ignored: every single one was part of fandom first and an academic second. More interestingly, every single one mentions this. It is usually mentioned in defence, and coded with the message, “outsiders wouldn’t understand this community,” which is interesting because yes, to interact with a fan community on these levels requires more than a quick Google. It requires time and participation, familiarity with the works the fandom is based upon, and the knowledge gained with time of the terminologies prevalent within fandom. Terms like slash, H/C, mpreg and fluff would not mean anything to someone not familiar with fandom. It is simply a matter of knowing the language of the community the writer is studying. However, I must play devil’s advocate and say every single researcher has the vested interest of making the slash community seem normal, if well-versed in discourse and theory. Fandom is discussion, we say, and debate. No one depicts the flame wars or the endless arguments about class or race or gender. Simca Boyd discussed her biases in her introduction, openly stating that while maintaining her integrity as a researcher, she felt “might also feel that it is in the best interest of the community to present the thoughts and views of the community in a positive manner so as to put the slash community’s ‘best foot forward.’” (73) She claimed to have avoided her biases, yet throughout academic slash discussion there is a thorough lack of criticism of slash fandom. Feminist writers such as Cicioni praise slash as “fantasies that articulate women’s desires,” yet a vacuum exists in the discussion of misogyny in slash. (74) Green et al. devoted less than two pages to misogyny in a community that routinely refers to female characters as “screaming ninnies.” While it is important to appreciate that the writers have taken the time to discuss their own viewpoints, their biases need to be examined a little more deeply.
Slash fandom does not have a long history. “A Fragment Out of Time” was published a scant thirty-five years ago, and through slash’s journeys in mailing lists, zines, APAs, Usenet, email lists and personal websites, the same characteristics can be spotted again and again. Women are unhappy with the omnipresent and unequal male/female relationships presented in the mass media. Female characters are invisible, or else superwomen that female fans find difficult to dovetail into normal life. In response, female fans have created their own stories over the last thirty-five years. These stories are romantic, sexual, sensual and emotional. They allow slashers common ground to enter communities devoted to female pleasure and the re-writing of stories considered unacceptable. The history of slash fanfic is one of what Mulvey, Doane and others thought impossible: the potent female gaze.
Honestly, I have no idea where those early slash fans were getting their ideas. None at all.