Much of the literature on fan fiction sees slash fiction as transformative because of its imposition of a queer framework on heteronormative texts. While I do not disagree that this is one way fan fiction can be transformative, it is a mistake to believe that slash is inherently more transformative than het or gen fic just because of its queering of canon.Emily Regan Willis, Fannish discourse communities and the construction of gender in “The X-Files”
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The relationship between slash fan fiction and comics fandom is problematic not only because of the shift of medium from source text to fan text but also because of the shift of fan community. Comics fandom is often viewed as consisting of heterosexual white men and comics are often explicitly marketed to them, excluding and othering the rest of the audience. Comics fandom online subverts this expectation of audience because the majority of fan authors and creators are women. While canon plots privilege action and conflict, and the problematic depiction of women characters in them is so obvious it hardly need be discussed, comics fan fiction reverses these trends: stories privilege emotional arcs, and female characters are depicted as more recognizably human even when they are secondary to the male characters.
Comics fan works thus become completely transformative because of the shift in both fan space and fan audience: texts that are homophobic become homophiliac, authors and readers who are male become female, and that which had previously been other becomes the new norm. For these reasons, the fans are not just aware but indeed hyperaware of their own identity as subaltern and subversive practitioners.
Transformation is a political act. Whether it is slash fiction’s challenge to heteronormativity, cosplay at political rallies, or editorials that question the white male privilege of fandom, whenever fans appropriate cultural artifacts they transform them for rhetorical purposes. Fandom thus becomes the battleground through which cultural meaning is constructed and as such is always contested terrain.Matthew J. Costello, The super politics of comic book fandom
The OTW Events Calendar for May includes a call for participants for a survey by researcher Lucy Neville. Here Lucy gives some more background about this survey and the research it will be used for.
I am a Lecturer in Criminology and Sociology at the University of Middlesex (this is me: www.mdx.ac.uk/aboutus/staffdirectory/neville.aspx – you will find an overview of my qualifications, research interests and links to previous open-access research reports). I am also a writer (and appreciator!): of prose, poetry and slash (this is me: pouxin.livejournal.com/ – if you want to read any more of my writing, please send a friend request). I am currently carrying out an academic study into women’s involvement in sexually explicit m/m slashfic and gay erotica/pornography more generally. I would really appreciate it if you could take the time to complete the below survey.
What’s the research for?
The purpose of this research (both earlier focus groups I conducted and the survey) is to gain a better understanding of what appeals to women about (male) homosexual erotica, and how this sits within their wider thoughts and feelings around romance writing, erotica, pornography, gender and sexuality. As such, from a slash perspective, it is specifically looking at women who produce and/or consume explicit m/m slash. I see this very much as an exploratory piece of research, and have no expectations per se as to what I might ‘find’, I am just very interested in hearing about the diversity of experiences people have had, and their own reflections on their enjoyment of homosexual erotica. I think this is a very nuanced and complex area, and I don’t expect to find any ‘one size fits all’ theory at the end of this. But I would like to produce a piece of research that can act as a stepping stone towards a better understanding of how and why women interact with gay erotica, and, hopefully, will reflect a lot of your own experiences back at you, offering an opportunity for interesting future discussion.
For a detailed description of how I came to do the research and what my research philosophy is, please see this post.
Who is the questionnaire for?
The questionnaire is open for both readers and writers of male homosexual erotica. I am interested in exploring all forms of gay erotica, from m/m slashfic with a sexual content, to wider gay (male) erotic literature, and gay (male) pornography. Some questions will only be applicable to respondents who are either readers or writers (or both), so if a question does not apply to you (e.g. you do not write fic, only read it, and the question is asking you about writing), please leave it blank.
This survey is specifically interested in looking at women’s production and consumption of gay erotica, pornography, and m/m slashfic with a sexual content. As such it is only open to those who identify as women. However, if you’re a man involved in the slash community and you would be interested in sharing your opinion around any of this, please do get in touch. I see this very much as exploratory research and welcome all dialogue!
Due to issues around consent, the questionnaire is only open to those aged 18 and over.
What will you do with the data?
For your protection, I have sought and obtained ethical approval for this study from the Research Ethics Committee of the University of Middlesex, and in accordance with the recommendations of the British Sociological Association. All research (and data collected from it) will be conducted according to the University’s ethical guidelines and the British Sociological Association statement of ethical best practice. All data is untraceable back to you, will be stored securely (on a password protected computer), and will be treated as anonymous. Only I will have access to the full dataset. Nothing you say will be attributed back to you personally.
I will make all aggregate data available to participants through my LJ page, and by informing other relevant organisations (e.g. the OTW). If you have any feedback on any of the findings, please don’t hesitate to get in touch – a lot of my previous research within social sciences has adopted an ‘action research’ philosophy (where participants are actively involved in how data are used and interpreted to form a community of best practice), and as such I welcome opinions, feedback (and constructive criticism) that can help me to design better research going forward, and get the richest interpretations from the findings themselves. As an academic, I also see this as a really fantastic opportunity for me to receive informed feedback on my work before sending it off for peer-review!
I will also link to any publications that arise from the data, and, while I won’t always be able to post completed articles on my LJ page due to copyright issues, I will happily email full articles to anyone who is interested.
Filling in the questionnaire
If you are at all uncomfortable with any of the questions, please don’t feel under any obligation to answer them – just leave them blank. Any data you provide is useful, so please don’t feel that you need to answer all the questions if you don’t want to.
I’ve constructed the questionnaire to enable participants to give lengthy responses if they want to, as from my experience in the slash community I know a lot of us have a great deal to say. However, if you don’t want to provide additional information (or are in a rush!) please don’t feel obligated to give lengthy text box answers.
The questionnaire should take 10-25 minutes to complete, depending on the length of your answers.
If you have any further questions about the research, please feel free to contact me: email@example.com
I have already carried out focus groups with women who are involved in the production and consumption of gay erotica, but am interested in conducting more interviews and focus groups in this area. If you are local(ish) to London and would be interested in participating, please contact me via email or through my LJ.
Thank you for your time.
UPDATE: Thanks so much to all participants so far for feedback on the q’naire, it’s incredibly helpful, and while I can’t change the actual questions now I’ve started it (re: validity, reliability etc.), I will of course make use of suggestions/feedback/concrit over wording when I analyse the results etc. Keep it coming!
When I first read this article titled “Russian Orthodox Priest Starts a vKontakte Group to Battle Slash”, thanks to a tip from from teddybearsandspaceships, I clicked straight to the vKontakte group in question (vK is generally known as “the Russian facebook”) and at first was convinced the page had to be a none-too-clever satire.
I mean, “battling slash” using internet memes? Earnestly explaining that an overinvestment in fictional characters screwing each other would lead young girls to ignore boys their own age who were trying to court them? A genuine attitude of “slashers are wonderful people! We only want to save them from the evils of this terrible hobby”? It had to be a joke, right?
But no, according to the article – posted originally on a news site covering the southern regions of Russia – it was all completely serious.
Some background on Russia and Fan Cultures
The thing I find particularly fascinating about this is that in all of this it seems like the article finds the priest and his focus on fighting slash a bit odd but what the article doesn’t find odd is, for example, fanfiction. Or slash itself.
As a Russian speaker who grew up on the fringes of the Russosphere, the way the article described fan culture was emblematic, to me, of how I’d always experienced it within my community. I never had any trouble telling my parents or friends that I wrote fanfic or made vids or graphics or anything of the sort. There was no shame in creativity and devoting my time to science fiction in particular was always considered a worthy intellectual pursuit. This wasn’t because my parents were “geeks” (indeed, I never identified as a geek despite being actively in fandom since I was 13), but because of the different status of both science fiction as a genre and creative spare time pursuits in general in the post-Soviet Russian speaking world as opposed to the English one.
To put it simply, in a country where the overwhelming majority of college graduates were engineers, everyone had a hobby. People sang, acted, wrote, composed, all in addition to their day-jobs. Many authors, poets, musicians of the Soviet era were scientists by trade.
The starkest example, to me, of how differently fanfiction was treated in my world as opposed to the English speaking corners of the internet I inhabited, was this: my parents bought me printed, illustrated, hardcover fanfiction when I was in middle school, without even bothering to tell me that it wasn’t canon.
Having read Lord of the Rings in Russian (highly recommended, by the way, but that’s a different post), I was delighted to discover that Frodo’s adventures had sequels, past “Return of the King”. Under the New Year tree, one year I received all six of Nick Perumov’s books – the first three set in Middle Earth.
It took me a very, very long time (since I was never active in LotR fandom) to discover that in the English speaking world, no one knew that Tolkien’s work had sequels. Where to me it was so obvious – all my friends had read Perumov’s books, I had them up on the shelf, in beautifully illustrated hardcover, right next to the original trilogy.
On How Slash is Perceived
This general disregard for copyright, prevalent in Eastern Europe to this day in every major industry (film, music, books) and a much more favorable attitude to fannish pursuits in general, brings us back to the priest, father Alexei, who’s decided to fight slash on the internet.
As the article states, father Alexei originally came to meetings of a Sherlock Holmes fan club in Moscow, where most fans were into the recent BBC version. He was surprised when one of the first questions he got from the audience was “will we be discussing slash themes?” It was then that slash was explained to him.
It’s amazing to me, after reading article upon article in English over the past few years where fanfiction was treated as inferior, threatening, weird, illegal or amoral, how completely neutral and nonchalant the Russian description here is and how accurate, considering some of the ways I’ve seen slash characterized elsewhere.
“Slash is a genre of hobbyist creations (“fanfiction”) which depicts sexual relations between same-sex characters of well known works where said characters had no homosexual feelings for each other in the original. Among the most popular examples – homosexual fantasy about the characters from the Harry Potter book series.”
The entire article takes a somewhat amused tone at the priest’s preoccupation with slash and his attempts to “eradicate” it, all while never classifying slash readers as exclusively women nor characterizing slash as a genre concerned only with male characters. (I also love that they used Sherlock BBC fanart for the cover photo).
In fact, in the priest’s description of the group of slash fans he originally encountered male description words are used. Of course Russian, a gendered language, has a tendency to use male words to describe a group even if it has a female majority, but I still find it interesting that slash is not perceived automatically as the interest purely of women, in the same way that gendered perceptions of literature (Jane Austin wrote “girl books”, for example) are different in different cultures. In Israel, the media used to refer to the “Twilight” series as “teen fiction” until the books became so popular in the US that the coverage started to reach over oceans and seas. Eventually “Twilight” was re-branded as “books for girls”, because of the influence of the US market.
In the vKontakte group there’s mention of the fact that slash is “particularly popular with young women and girls” but then, the explanation given for why “fewer boys are into slash” is that they feel like the genre “steals the girls’ attentions from them.”
Fighting the Battle Using Internet Memes
Lastly, the group itself is almost too surreal to be believed.
The logo itself is a crossed out “/”, the posts consist of internet memes such as an old Russian lady yelling “why don’t you try making your father and your neighbor into a ‘pairing’?” as if trying to emphasize the inappropriateness of doing this to fictional characters, joke graphics of BBC Sherlock dreaming of moving to Russia – to have a wife and child (and lots of borscht at last!). There are stills of Sherlock with the anti-slash sign photoshopped in to warn viewers “not to speculate too much” about Sherlock’s precarious lying-down-like position, advice posts on living a “healthier” life that includes riding bicycles and going to sleep early instead of staying up late on the internet. As a sign of achievement the group even posted this graphic, ostensibly created by slashers, with an anti-slash symbol painted on Batman’s chest and the words “they got in the way of our fapping”.
And of course, my favorite part is that despite being a product of the Russian Orthodox Church (which frowns on homosexuality) many of the arguments posted in the group are the same sort I’m used to seeing around fandom. For example, the claim that slash appeals to women who hate weakness, politeness, emotional-ness, and other typically “female” characteristics and slash is so popular because it allows women to pretend they’re straight men – tough, quiet, strong – while still maintaining their own heterosexual interest, and so making these straight men be interested in other men, instead of women. The argument is that to love slash is to hate femininity and that a real “pro woman” stance would mean embracing the qualities that slash seeks to erase.
Other arguments include the claim that slash is simply unbelievable and that it’s ruining the depictions of friendship in media. “First male-female friendship was undermined to such a point that any two characters of the opposite sex in a story are assumed to have sexual tension and now male-male friendship is being undermined…”
None of these arguments hold much water, but they do touch on issues of gender and sexuality and representation that I think are present in slash, and academic and fannish discourse on slash, and taken together with the way the page seems completely fluent in fandom terminology I’m impressed at how well organized this effort is, how well it knows the phenomenon it’s fighting.
Of course, all of this does tie into anti-gay rhetoric used by the Orthodox church in Russia – the possibility that slash could be appealing to anyone but straight teens is never even mentioned – and the attitude is very much that of “saving” slashers from themselves, steering them away from this harmful hobby and into a healthier way of life.
It’s tough to say how many of the “anti-slasher” vK group’s followers (379, as of this writing) are there because they sympathize with the cause versus how many are there for the lolz. The original article quotes father Alexei saying, “Slash groups on vK consist of hundreds of thousands of members. Every fandom-related group has slash stories, slash graphics, video, audio. We’re just a handful of people. But thousands will agree with our thinking and together we can make a difference on social networks.”
Whether or not the effort to eradicate slash is successful (my money is not on father Alexei, I’m afraid), I find it interesting, yet again, that the struggle here is occurring on the Russian version of facebook – not an arena anyone wanting to confront English speaking slash fandom would have likely chosen.
Reading Reflection on Chinese boys’ love fans: An insider’s view by Erika Junhui Yi in the latest issue of TWC, I was struck not just by how extreme reactions to BL can get, but also how little info sometimes gets through to English-speaking media fandom about fandoms in different places that use different languages.
Yi describes how BL fans are sometimes stigmatized in China because BL often involves explicit sexual content, and homosexual content at that. For instance, she says that “in the massive censorship crackdown launched in 2010, thousands of BL fan forums, Web sites, and personal blogs were censored, along with pornography”.
Censorship is bad enough. But then there’s this:
These media reports, along with the Internet censorship, made BL fandom a target of attack. Perhaps the most outrageous action taken against BL fan girls happened in 2011. The police in Zhengzhou Province arrested 32 slash fiction writers whose work had appeared on a Web site specializing in homoerotic content. The arrested writers were all women, and most were in their 20s (Xin Kuai Bao, March 22, 2011, www.ycwb.com/epaper/xkb/html/2011-03/22/content_1068001.htm). This news caught the attention of other BL fan girls, most of whom had also created some kind of fan work, making them vulnerable to legal action.
If this was talked about in English fannish circles, I completely missed it. Was it discussed? Google is being no help at all. The only thing in English I found that mentions this episode is an academic article on BL in China, Forbidden love: incest, generational conflict, and the erotics of power in Chinese BL fiction (paywalled, alas. Comment if you’re looking for access, someone may be able to help). A bunch of Japanese friends I mentioned it to did know about the incident, though. Turns out it was even slashdotted in Japan.
It’s things like this that make me think we need better ways to make sure that at least the very important info about troubles and incidents in non-English-speaking fan communities gets over the language barriers. I’m not sure if English-speaking fans could have been of any help in this particular incident, but 32 fic writers getting arrested seems like something that should have made more waves than it did.
When I try to explain slash to non-fans, I often reference that moment in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan where Spock is dying and Kirk stands there, a wall of glass separating the two longtime buddies.
Both of them are reaching out towards each other, their hands pressed hard against the glass, trying to establish physical contact. They both have so much they want to say and so little time to say it. Spock calls Kirk his friend, the fullest expression of their feelings anywhere in the series. Almost everyone who watches the scene feels the passion the two men share, the hunger for something more than what they are allowed. And, I tell my nonfan listeners, slash is what happens when you take away the glass. The glass, for me, is often more social than physical; the glass represents those aspects of traditional masculinity which prevent emotional expressiveness or physical intimacy between men, which block the possibility of true male friendship. Slash is what happens when you take away those barriers and imagine what a new kind of male friendship might look like. One of the most exciting things about slash is that it teaches us how to recognize the signs of emotional caring beneath all the masks by which traditional male culture seeks to repress or hide those feelings.
Guest Post by Mark McHarry and Dru Pagliassotti:
Dru Pagliassotti and I have launched a blog, Yaoi Research: www.yaoiresearch.com. Formal work about yaoi and boys’ love is finally beginning to appear but we saw a need for a central place to publish more informal content than that in a journal or book.
If you study, create, and/or enjoy yaoi, BL, and/or male/male romance and would like to contribute well-informed descriptive or analytical writing to our blog, please contact us: firstname.lastname@example.org.
We’re hoping for posts about ongoing work, observations and opinions, reviews, commentary, analyses, and research notes and queries. Discussions of fanfic, artwork, original stories and novels, including slash and gay comics and fiction, are welcome, as are posts about context, creation, or consumption across historical periods, regions, and cultures.
Graduate students, professors, independent scholars, publishers, and published mangaka, dōjinshika, and novelists are especially encouraged to contribute. If you do, please take a look at our submission guidelines.
You don’t need to present original research or in-depth analysis, just interesting ideas that may stimulate thought. Although we request that posts be in English, if it is not your first language we will help you copyedit your contribution should you wish.
Best Wishes for the New Year / あけましておめでとう.
Hannah Hamad made a recent post on the Flow TV blog about the bromance between two members of the UK pop group Take That, and considered this event as an example of the recent trend of bromantic themes in movies and television.
I kind of hate the coined word “bromance,” a conflation of “brother” and “romance,” according to Wikipedia, but I guess we’re stuck with it.
Apparently film and TV critics and scholars are definitely seeing examples of this sort of male/male friendship, marked by emotional intimacy and openness and more physical touching, cropping up everywhere these days. Wikipedia, again, notes that it’s a post-feminist expansion of what is allowable in male friendships.
What is socially acceptable for Western men to do in friendships may indeed be changing, thanks to the impact of feminism, and it makes sense that these changes would show up in the culture, and in the buddy picture genre, from Butch and Sundance to “Boston Legal” and everywhere in between. And that pop stars would spin their friendships this way in their PR.
I’m kind of tickled when I read about bromance, though, because it’s as if the “conventional wisdom” about what happens in male friendships is now basically saying that it’s okay for men to nowadays do friendships the way women always have — hugging, touching, telling secrets, being intimate. More than just getting together for shared activities or sports, the traditional “common knowledge” about how men “do” friendship. So all the dither about “bromance” seems a little obvious to me, perhaps.
And I imagine there’s a huge disregard of history going on here — weren’t there periods in Western history where male friendship looked very different from the way John Wayne or Sam Spade are depicted as conducting it? Where more intimacy was considered ordinary and not a new sign of feminine influence, or perhaps relaxed expectations of gender roles thanks to the influence of gay culture?
And regardless of this newfangled trendy attention to bromance, literature featuring male friendship — and scholarly analysis of same — go back centuries.
The same buddy pictures and buddy TV shows that serve as examples of bromance, of course, are where slash fan fiction finds its characters and stories. In this genre of movie or show, the primary relationship is between the male protagonists, and any female romance is in the background, or relegated to some sort of Babe of the Week event.
Slash fan fiction pushes the friendship seen in these shows and movies further into intimacy, of course — to sexual intimacy and love, and that is sometimes offered as a criticism of m/m slash — that it focuses too much on sex and ignores or discounts other forms of friendship and affection that aren’t romantic or sexual.
Slash, of course, is a special case when it comes to reimagining or expanding what is possible in male/male friendship. For one thing, it’s written overwhelmingly by women. I’ve pondered many times the elegant saying I heard on Live Journal years ago: “Slash is about men the way “Watership Down” is about rabbits.” I tried very hard to track down the source of that aphorism, and both the writers to whom it’s usually attributed disavow saying it, though they both remember the online conversation (apparently now deleted or lost in the mists of time?) in which it was offered.
And while I am fascinated by the way slash fan fiction reimagines or reinterprets male/male relationships, I always readily admit two things: First, slash is, unavoidably, a very small and very specialized part of whatever societal conversation or evolution is going on about men and their gender roles, whether it’s bromance or the Victorian era or Abraham Lincoln’s friendships that is being discussed. And I’m noticing that often, in conversations both about bromance and about slash, the impact or effect or input of gay men isn’t considered much. There seem almost to be three separate conversations there. And they only rarely intersect.
Of course, depictions of gay men in Hollywood are occurring with glacial infrequency, and slash until recently was usually not trying at all to accurately depict actual gay men based on real life or real communities.
But I remain fascinated by all the ways society depicts the changing expectations and roles for men, in the media and in life, and it’s interesting to compare these different conversations.
Over at Obsidian Wings, Doctor Science has posted an analysis of The Social Network using a fannish vocabulary. I’ve been overwhelmed by the range, quality and quantity of fan activity surrounding the film, and I thought that Doctor Science’s post would provide me with some great material to discuss in my first post for the Symposium Blog.
The idea that The Social Network can, strictly speaking, be understood as as Real Person Fic (RPF), is, in the words of Doctor Science, complicated. The argument in favor is fairly common, and can be a frustrating conversation to have with outsiders to fandom: there are discrete traditions of professional fiction written about real people and RPF; this film belongs to the former, hence the easy and ubiquitous comparisons to Citizen Kane. I don’t say this to undermine the extent to which the film’s depiction of real situations made Doctor Science “uncomfortable,” but surely there is a difference between this huge-budget Hollywood film and the fanfiction inspired by it, only some of which is, strictly speaking, RPF. (And much of the Social Network RPF is actorfic, e.g. Jesse Eisenberg/Andrew Garfield, rather than RPF about the real people behind the real facebook.)
The author nevertheless points out an interesting irony in Aaron Sorkin’s decision to write a kind of story that could be understood as more properly belonging to female-dominated fan communities online, considering the writer’s fraught history with online media fandom. I wasn’t a West Wing fan myself, but the story of Sorkin’s reaction to the TWOP messageboards is widely-circulated as an example of why creators shouldn’t crash the party. Doctor Science is shrewd to draw attention to the connections between the sexism of the film’s narrative of the founding of Facebook and Sorkin’s history of misapprehending the gender politics of digital space.
Unlike the real Mark Zuckerberg, I was not concerned with the movie’s refusal to display the actual mechanics of building Facebook, although I would have liked to see more from the perspective of users, particularly female users. Certainly, as Doctor Science outlines, the film represents female characters as more interested in actually using the site than male characters — it’s not LiveJournal/Dreamwidth, but certainly women are at least as active on the site as men.
But I’m less interested in critiquing the film in this post than I am in drawing out this connection between the gender politics of the film and the gender politics of storytelling in the age of the internet. I don’t believe that it’s helpful to label The Social Network as RPF, because it does a disservice to the thriving RPF being produced in response to the film, and thus inadvertently discounts users once again.
Aaron Sorkin made specific decisions about his representation of the founding of Facebook , presumably in collaboration with legal advisors with experience in communications law, intellectual property, and libel. Fic writers are beholden to a different set of standards, and thus, produce a different kind of work, a kind that, it should go without saying, is at least as addictive as Sorkin’s dialogue. One of Doctor Science’s critiques of RPF in general, here referring to the larger concept of stories based on real life, is one that has been voiced repeatedly by critics of the film; the Doctor describes the erasure of Mark Zuckerberg’s real-life long-term girlfriend, Priscilla Chan, from the story as “cringe-worthy.” In the context of the film, this erasure was necessary for Sorkin to tell his story about the palpable connection between Facebook’s surveillance culture and the anxious masculinity that he believes drives innovations in tech.
But the critique has been made in the context of RPF proper, too, particularly RPS (Real Person Slash, e.g. Mark/Eduardo). There are those in fandom who find it just as cringe-worthy that primarily female fic writers would repeatedly produce situations in which real-life wives or girlfriends are erased in the name of two (or more!) attractive men finding True Love with one another. There are few enough complex female characters in mainstream media, the argument sometimes goes, and fic should serve as a space of rectifying mainstream media’s oppressive erasures, rather than taking them to their logical extension by erasing the women altogether. Of course, many fans take the opposite approach: fic should be a space of exploring the fullest possible range of ideas excited in readers by the media texts we love, and there’s no reason to regulate anyone else’s kinks.
After all, there are no limits on the amount of fic that can be produced from a sourcetext: if you want to read more about the women of The Social Network, write more. While it’s true that, in some fandoms, certain slash pairings come to dominate, I think that it’s up to members within those fandoms to articulate their own values about what this means, rather than anyone from outside. RPF/RPS writers understand that they are producing fiction, rather than producing an idealized social world. Particularly because RPF/RPS is controversial even within fandom (perhaps especially, because only within fandom are people aware how much of it there is!), I think that it’s fair to assume that writers are aware of potential objections readers might have. This doesn’t mean that one has to like or actively support it, but rather that it deserves to be understood on its own terms, in its own context. As one might criticize Citizen Kane‘s representation of media history, so can one criticize The Social Network‘s. But RPF proper must be understood in the context of other fannish productions, not in comparison with Hollywood films.
Every now and then, an article catches my eye from the mainstream press (or in this case, the GLBT press) about a presumed connection between slash fan fiction and gay romance novels.
Most recently I noticed this article, W4M4M, in the online edition of “OUT”. And I got really annoyed.
I’ve yet to read an article (outside fandom) on this topic that included anything approaching solid reporting on what is presumed to be a trend — that gay romance is the next thing in the romance publishing industry. (That sweeping statement is verbatim from another poorly researched article, this one from December 2009 in “LA Weekly”.)
The OUT article also makes some pretty sweeping and unsupported assertions about who writes gay romance, and who reads it.
If I were writing such an article? Here are some of the, you know, ACTUAL FACTS I’d try to nail down before publishing:
First of all, is gay romance really the Next Big Thing in romance publishing? The OUT article mentions one publishing house, and a very outdated study of slash writers and readers. And no statistics.
My cursory google search turns up, for example, the entry “Romance Novels” from GLBTQ.com. This gives a fascinating list of famous gay romance, lesbian romance, and other non-straight romance books going back years. Maybe talking to the authors of those books, or their publishers, about the trends they see might be a good place to start?
Or, what about the big name heterosexual romance publishers? They would know what’s trendy. This website, The Passionate Pen, lists dozens of romance publishers. Again — cursory google search by me. Took five seconds. All those companies have PR people. Who have phones and email.
Further things to check: What about the traditional GLBT niche publishers, like the well-known Alyson? How are they doing with romance lines? Real sales and circulation figures? Just a thought.
What about the blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books? They’ve written about gay romance and lesbian romance, I’ll bet.
The OUT article also annoyed me with its amateur psychologizing about why in the world straight women would want to write gay porn. Yes, the article included an interview with two authors, but are those authors typical? And what about the presumed connection to slash? No documentation. At all.
Anecdote posing as journalism does not do this “trend story” justice. At all.
In 2009 there was a rather heated controversy, which I followed from a distance, about the changes in the rules for the Lambda Awards, which are literary awards given to GLBT fiction. This online discussion was only the tip of a possible iceberg to be explored in terms of documenting the author pool for stories about queer people (whether romance or Some Other Genre), the markets for such stories, and who’s reading them and buying them.
Fascinating and important questions were raised during that controversy about authorial voice, authenticity, the degree of realism and research needed in fiction, and the ethical questions that arise when writing about a culture or subculture different from the author’s own.
I have more questions than answers at this point, obviously. What do I seek? Good solid fact-finding on this story, please. Actual evidence for trends, including statistics — not just the reporter’s anecdotes and the repetition of gossip.
When I started reading fan fiction, around 2002, I ran across fan fiction of all ratings right away. I had vaguely heard of fan fiction and ‘zines as far back as the seventies, but I had never read any or even seen any except in passing. When I got interested in fan fiction, I found it online, and I ran across missing scenes that could have been slotted right into the original shows or movies or books, and I also ran across triple-X rated, *fans self* porn that most emphatically rejected the fade to black — sexually explicit stories that could never have been included in the original books or movies, but showed the characters we knew and loved in bed.
When I first ran across the term “slash”, I wrongly assumed it meant any adult-rated romantic fan fiction story. Furthermore, I assumed that if fan fiction were grouped in any way, it would be divided into categories I knew from mainstream movies — the G, PG and PG13 stuff would be separate from the R and NC17 stuff.
I was completely surprised to learn, the more I explored list-based and Livejournal-based fan fiction, that in fact the groupings were based on other concerns completely. The categories I found were gen, slash, femslash and het, and the boundaries between them were less about ratings for explicit sex or violence than about the presence or absence of romance, and the presence or absence of same-sex relationships.
My preconceptions were, perhaps, a product of my 21st-century introduction to fan works.
A little history, drawn from articles on media fandom (meaning fan communities that grow up around TV, movies, and other forms of pop culture), on Fanlore, this article by Coppa in Transformative Works and Cultures, and her chapter in “Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet”. Fan fiction as written within media fandom seems to have been an outgrowth of science fiction fandom, and seems to date from the sixties and early seventies.
When fan writers began weaving their own tales about Kirk and Spock and Number One and the Alien Babe of the Week, the male/male slash was hidden away in boxes under the tables, while the straight romances, even the explicit stories and the explicit art, were displayed widely at conventions, along with the action-oriented, plot-oriented fan stories whose focus was not romance and which became known as gen. Based on my readings in fan history, it seems that the first widely written femslash came out of Xena, and that fandom seems to have a separate history. (Please correct me if you have different information!)
As we all know, societal attitudes toward same-sex relationships were harsh in the sixties in the USA — and still are, in many places.
Because the Hollywood TV and movie canons we write about are so, so, so heteronormative, fan fiction that tells stories about intimate relationships between men or between women is usually pairing off people who aren’t presented as queer in the original shows or movies. (As an aside, the range of sexualities explored in fan fiction is limitless and often sets aside entirely the idea of sexual binaries.) So the objection to the earliest slash fan fiction often took the tack of: “Oh no! Don’t make that character gay!”
Gay, lesbian or queer characters in mainstream Hollywood productions are very, very rare to this day. So if you hold out for only the romantic relationships that are present in the original canon, that means het (unless your fandom is Torchwood or one of the non-Western fandoms….). Of course, we’ll always have subtext, and certainly we are all watching different shows in our heads, and Hollywood is getting less reluctant to show us non-straight characters, but…. Let’s just say the lavender revolution is not yet in Hollywood.
So my exploration of the history of fan fiction showed me a het+gen versus slash+femslash divide (and femslash is still by far the rarest category — all that history deserves a post of its own. In the meantime, I direct you to the Fanlore entry on Femslash, which is just fascinating.).
But it’s my impression, and cryptoxin has written about this as well, that the het+gen/femslash+slash split is not as pronounced these days, two generations into what’s become known as media fandom. The lines that delineate the camps are blurring.
Why is this? I’d love to hear your answers.
I think it’s because movies and TV now include more female characters in roles other than Babe of the Week, and even occasionally pass the Bechdel Test. One reason that is sometimes advanced for the emergence of slash was the lack of strong female characters in television and movies in the sixties. I don’t know that I buy that, but it is true that fan writers now have a broader range of strong characters of both sexes from which to draw for our stories.
So, my question is this: Do we have one fan fiction community now, instead of two or three or four? Or maybe we still have two, but a different two than slash+femslash and gen+het — maybe now we really do have the two categories I wrongly assumed almost a decade ago: Adult Rated, and Everything Else?
And if these category lines have blurred, is it because society changed in terms of accepting queers? Or is it the shows that changed? Have vehicles like Buffy and Leverage and Stargate Atlantis and Queer as Folk and Torchwood, shows that have queer characters and female protagonists, driven the shift I see — the blurring of fan fiction genre lines and the lessening of negative judgments against each genre? For example, I rarely see today’s slash fans asserting that “there’s no good het” — and honestly, I always have a hard time understanding how bad het fanfic could be any worse than the badfic of any other genre!
Another question: Did the internet accelerate the boundary crossing among fan fiction genres after, say, 1995?
And, am I wrong in my additional impression that the fan enterprise of writing romances involving two people who are not traditional male/female, perhaps doesn’t horrify The Powers That Be as it once did?
I do know that it was slash which captured the attention of the academic researchers, moreso than erotica of any other type, because it seemed “strange” that women would be interested in porn about two men. (Fan fiction is overwhelmingly written by women.) There’s a terrific discussion of this in Driscoll’s chapter in “Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet.” But surely, such an interest is not strange anymore to academics? Or to Hollywood? Or is my personal comfort level with this type of fanfic — and with GLBT lit in general, for that matter — obscuring for me a colder reality?
There will never be an end to ‘ship wars, of course, and probably never an end to gen-only fans ruefully noting what they see as a fan fiction community preoccupied with romance and sex at the expense of other kinds of stories, but at least within media fandom, it seems to me that the het and the slash and femslash and poly and noromo and bob fans coexist much more peaceably than in earlier days.
The most recent issue of Transformative Works and Cultures (the link is at your right) was a special issue about the show Supernatural. Many of the articles examine the way that show has “broken the fourth wall.” The idea of the “fourth wall” comes from live theater — the action of a play happens inside a sort of cube that is the stage, except the front wall of the cube doesn’t exist, so that the audience can see the action. But the wall is undeniably there, separating the actors and their imaginary world of story from the audience, which exists in the real world of time and matter.
Supernatural reached out through that wall and, in a very self-aware way, involved the audience in its narrative. From what I could see at the time in various online communities, fan opinions were mixed as to whether, on the whole, this was a good thing or a bad thing.
Melissa Gray writes about this phenomenon in her TWC article ”From Canon to Fanon and Back Again”.
She starts out by noting that to be part of the audience for a storyteller (in any medium) is to extend trust, and to willingly suspend disbelief, to enter the imaginary world, as long as the story lasts. She goes on to describe the elements of Supernatural, what is familiar about the show and what is fantastic, and how the writers have cemented the audience’s involvement by creating emotionally compelling characters, especially the Winchester brothers.
She also describes how the things fans love about the show can help them negotiate its problematic aspects — the gender politics, the separation of the brothers and their conflict, and the racism. And she also presents what to me was a fascinating description of why, in her opinion, Supernatural has changed from being classifiable as horror, to classifiable as fantasy. She writes, “Layered revelations are created [and] they are important in integrating the horror and fantasy episodes and forming them into a seamless myth arc.”
And, fans who love the show have actively engaged with its material and added to it, creating, as she notes, “print, vids, comics, dolls, and other media.” She spends some time explaining what an active, engaged, creative fandom looks like — and Supernatural has this in spades. Fan-produced material, and the fan interpretations known as fanon, enrich the viewing experience while often skewing that experience away from the writers’ intentions.
Unlike some shows that preserve the wall between audience and story, the show runners of Supernatural have introduced characters who are fans of Sam and Dean. Gray describes the fan characters who are featured, and evaluates them in terms of what the writers might have been trying to say about their perceived audience as well as how the fans received them.
In her judgment, the plotlines that featured fan characters were not gratuitous and were well integrated into the main story. She says three of the four fan characters received a positive response from the audience.
Also, the show writers included a reference to the thousands of fan stories about an incestuous relationship between Sam and Dean, and Gray says, “Many slash fans were happy to be immersed in their own world away from the mainstream [audience] and really did not want have to discuss the concept of slash fan fiction, especially incestuous slash, with their ‘mundane’ friends and family.” In short, they felt outed.
Gray explains the mass media’s reporting on this turn in the Supernatural narrative: “With male/male romance being the next big thing on the romance novel front, along with the lure of the forbidden and the thrill of reporting sensational news, the media attention is not surprising.”
I was disappointed that her consideration of the mass media reports on this show included a link to an L.A. Weekly article on gay romance novels. That article was poorly researched, poorly reported, shallow, and completely inadequate. It was basically very bad journalism and was not a good basis for any sort of evaluation of the market category of gay romance novels.
Gray’s article was one of several in this issue that explored the breaking of the fourth wall by the writers of Supernatural, and fan reaction to those events. It was definitely a major topic of interest among the acafans who contributed to the special issue.
Other Supernatural topics featured included examinations of the religious themes and icons in the show, as well as the range of plots and themes of its fan fiction.
Science fiction author John Scalzi and TV star Wil Wheaton are getting a lot of blogospherical mileage out of their commissioning of a piece of art by painter Jeff Zugale featuring them as cracktastic SF or fantasy characters, and their asking for “fan fiction” based on the painting. You can read about their event on Scalzi’s blog, Whatever.
It’s for a good cause, the Lupus Alliance, and they are going to pay the winner of their fiction contest.
But they made a mistake that a lot of not-inside-fandom people do. They conflated slash (romantic or intimate stories about two male characters) with porn, and then when commenters objected, they realized the mistake and corrected their terminology, and also linked to the Wikipedia entry on slash.
I see this mistake in mainstream culture all the time — anything with a gay or lesbian or queer theme is automatically assumed to be Adults Only. Which is very limiting and also not true.
One antidote to this attitude is, of course, reminders like the ficathon community known as queerlygen on Dreamwidth.org, which features fan fiction about queer characters doing stuff that doesn’t involve an intensely romantic or sexual plot. Characters who happen to be queer, having adventures, being in a relationships, fighting aliens, caring for aging parents, having a bike wreck, whatever.
Its user profile page states, “We want to create a space where people can tap into the rich range of experiences that queer and genderqueer people have, which extend far beyond simply who we fall in love with or who we take to bed. We want to challenge the idea that works featuring people who aren’t heteronormative or cisgendered are automatically ‘adult’ or unsuitable for some audiences.”
Not that erotic fiction isn’t a big part of fandom. Of course it is. But it can be slash or femmeslash and G rated, and not about romance. In 2010, this shouldn’t be news.