Fan/tastic Voyage

A Journey Into the Wide, Wild World of Slash Fiction

The kiss was not at all like Kirk had expected... "Spock, wait... wait," he whispered desperately.... "I can't... We can't... You... God, Spock... I want you. Don't you understand? I want you so much!" Kirk still couldn't believe that the Vulcan knew what he was getting himself into. But Spock was pressed tightly against him and Kirk could feel the hardness. Spock's cock was pushing into his hip, hard as rock and insistent.... Spock smiled then, only a short, ghostly smile, but it was there. "Jim." "Yes?" "You talk excessively." —from "Christmas Gifts·or Blue Seduction," by kira-nerys

Don't worry, Star Trek fans—you didn't miss an episode. But if you haven't been poring over fanzines or trolling the web, you might not have come across the juicy encounters, gender play, and fiercely feminist theorizing found in the world of slash fiction. Named after the punctuation mark between the names of its lover-heroes (e.g., Kirk/Spock), slash fan fiction was born at the end of the '60s, when inventive viewers started penning steamy rendezvous between Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock in fanzines. But it wasn't until the '90s that slash fiction truly flourished, with the advent of the Internet and its discussion groups, where a growing subculture of writers, editors, and readers could share and critique each other's work. As the number of stories increased, so too did the range of potential pairings. Intrepid slash writers—primarily women writing for other women—gleefully found the love that dare not speak its name between just about everyone: Starsky and Hutch, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, even Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy. (HP/DM authors hasten to assure readers that their stories feature the characters in their late teens.) Slash attends to female/female pairings, too, but the vast majority of it focuses on men.

The relationship dynamics in slash have become just as varied as the couples. Initially steeped in first-time male love between two comrades-in-arms, slash has developed into a free-for-all, exploring s/m complexities, male pregnancy, and other flights of writerly fancy. Slash also attracts critical attention from social theorists, many of whom ponder one of the more interesting questions about the genre: Why do slash writers, who are predominantly straight women writing for other women, create fiction that focuses on male/male romantic relationships? Although theories abound—male relationships are truly egalitarian, women characters are too boring to write about—slash has become so diverse that it easily thwarts anyone trying to find one generalizing principle.

With slash's steamy combination of gender-bending plots and playful raunch, it's no surprise that cultural theorists, feminists, and everyday pop culture mavens have found it so intriguing. Like all fan fiction, slash turns pop culture consumers into creators and thrives on a sort of dialogue between fan and character. But it goes one step further than most fanfic by openly interrogating static pop culture notions of masculine and feminine—experimenting with, discarding, or reinventing ideas about gender.

In trying to untangle the theoretical complexities of slash, I found that to analyze it, I had to try to write it—I had to grapple with my particular experience with slash before I could get a sense of the general. In so doing, I discovered some of the feminist allure of the genre: Slash enables its writers to subvert TV's tired male/female relationships while interacting with and showing mastery over the original raw material of a show (key for all fanfic). Writing male characters as lovers allows a richer sense of possibility than duplicating the well-worn boy/girl romances coughed up by most TV shows.

In addition, slash is steeped in a community that amplifies the feminist qualities of much of the genre. While not all slash is self-consciously political, many slash writers identify as feminists and engage with one another in vigorous dialogues about gender. In writing about men and discussing the process, many women are taking that room of one's own to another level. They're not only laying claim to images of men but reconfiguring male behavior—a powerful way to make men their own, too.

Early slash relies on a familiar pattern. Two men serve together for a greater purpose—exploring the galaxy, perhaps, or investigating crime. The hazards of the job bring them closer; as macho discourse would have it, those who spill blood together become as close as those bound by it. With danger comes conflict, fevered words that can barely mask the slowly creeping awareness, the flush across the face at the other's nearness. Stammered confession, blissful reciprocation, ecstatic consummation! A delicious formula.

Much of early slash follows this "first-time love" schema, in which two men who have always identified as straight fall in love with each other. Why would slash writers dwell on such a theme? A lot of the good first-time pieces read like rapturous coming-of-age stories, with equal parts lust and self-discovery—a first time, too, perhaps, for many of the writers, who, being women, have likely never had boy-on-boy sex. Their heroes are just discovering their manly love, and the writers are learning right along with them. For many writers, slash is also a venue for sexual exploration and experimentation, and what better way to chart new territory than to use two unfamiliar bodies in search of love?

Other authors feature protagonists who are already gay, and they script stories that deal with specifically queer issues, such as coming out or coping with homophobia. Some of these stories develop interesting contexts for the treatment of gay relationships: Vulcans embrace same-sex relationships, say, or cultures of the future have set aside certain protections for queer people. Other writers pull out little tricks, like spores and alien abductions, to explain their characters' sudden change of heart. Both techniques reflect an inventiveness, one in service of a more reality-based piece and the other a more fanciful, whimsical story. With either approach, slash writers often show themselves to be much more thoughtful about gender issues than the run-of-the-mill TV shows they use as fodder—not surprising in a niche genre that's free from moneymaking and sponsor-appeasing concerns. Slash makes for a refreshing change, tackling homosexuality and gender issues head-on rather than referring to them subtextually or not at all.

Slash doesn't limit itself to vanilla man-love, however: Many pieces explore decidedly unegalitarian dynamics. The first slash piece I read was a multipart account of a very unusual X-Files relationship: the enslavement of Agent Mulder by his boss, Assistant Director Skinner. Graphics accompanying the story showed Skinner's bald head superimposed on some leather daddy's body, with a groveling Mulder clutching his boots. Other slash is infused with a hurt/comfort element: one character suffers some unspeakable pain or torture, and the other offers nurturing solace.

One subset of slash is the oft-scorned "Mary Sue" story, where the writer inserts a new player, often a thinly veiled version of herself, into a dalliance with a favorite character. Mary Sue fiction tends to feature simpering female characters flirting with a manly object of desire, missing many of the tantalizing possibilities of slash. Instead of reenvisioning TV stories, Mary Sue slash too often seems to settle for instant libido gratification for only one person—the writer. In recent years, the genre has expanded to include real-people slash (rps) and even boy-band slash (bbs). One writer, displaying a Spock-worthy command of logic, defends these latest offshoots, arguing that pro wrestlers, siliconed celebrities, and prefab boy-band members are largely manufactured personas designed for our amusement anyway—so why not just run with them? (Many writers of fictional-people slash, however, frown on the morally dubious rps genre.)

When they're not experimenting with the genre, slash authors—a very self-aware, self-analyzing community—are discussing gender, queerness, and feminism in all their different forms. Add this to a lively academic debate on slash, and you have a rich mélange that makes the idea of a grand unified theory of slash seem laughable. One critic may posit that slash is a space where female writers can create the "ideal" human in a misogynistic world: male body, male power, female ways of relating. Another will argue that slash provides a space for women to work out their gender issues, a place where they can dump the unwanted restrictions of "femininity." Slash is gay. Slash isn't gay. Slash is neither, or a little of both. Slash lets women assert power over men the way the patriarchy asserts power over women. Slash lets women humanize and redraft masculinity. Slash is about nooky. Slash isn't about sex at all. Slash allows women ways of writing (collaborative, participatory) that subvert male ways of writing (copyrighted, absolute, and closed).

Evolutionary psychologists Catherine Salmon and Donald Symons, coauthors of Warrior Lovers: Erotic Fiction, Evolution, and Female Sexuality, argue that the predominantly female-written genre speaks to differences in mating behavior between men and women. According to Darwinian psychology, our hunter-gatherer forebears had different needs—the men to impregnate as many women as possible; the women to find a nice, stable, dependable man to provide for them. Porn reflects the male desire, say Salmon and Symons, and romance novels reflect the female. As for slash, perhaps the erotic fanfic gives modern women a way to have their cake and eat it too. The genre illustrates how "some women prefer the fantasy of being a cowarrior to that of being a Mrs. Warrior," say Salmon and Symons, but the relationships' emphasis on friendship, loyalty, and fidelity also reflect Darwinian desires for a responsible guy who will stick around.

To a feminist reader, this analysis has some clear flaws, especially the way it strains to explain the gender unconventionality of slash in such retrograde, traditional terms. Certainly some women prefer being cowarrior to Mrs. Warrior. And others may imbue their slash relationships with "womanly" qualities of loyalty and good communication. But it's frustrating that Salmon and Symons try to reduce the work of female slash writers down to an essentialist baby-making vs. gender-equality conflict, ignoring examples of fanfic that don't fit into that mold.

More palatable is the scholarship of Constance Penley, who takes a feminist approach to slash analysis. Penley argues that female slash authors focus on male/male relationships because they're the most egalitarian. Basing her theories on Kirk/Spock (K/S) slash, Penley critiques the flat characterization of female TV characters and the limitations of what TV and media culture depict as male/female relationships. But in real life, she also argues, women's bodies are too often layered with negative meanings—and therefore become the site for political, social, and moral struggle. K/S slash is a rejection of those problematic bodies and of TV's flat female characters, serving instead as a subversive rewriting of the script in which lovers can share love and work and still be equal. Penley's analysis does have its limitations, however, in that it doesn't cover slash other than K/S. The more slash—and slash theory—I read, the more convinced I became that no one analysis could explain the varieties of slash, the bent of all slash writers, the political leanings, the gender fuckings, the story rogerings that happen on a daily basis on the Internet.

By now, I had a keen appreciation for the time and dedication it takes both to write and to analyze slash. And I was developing a nagging little desire to read it, even when I was working on other things. It was time to try writing it. Whom would I pair up? What show did I know enough about? The X-Files, perhaps—it would be the perfect opportunity to right all of creator Chris Carter's wrongs. Which couple? Should I try a straight one? It wouldn't be slash, strictly speaking, but it could be fun. Scully and Mulder seemed the natural pick, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. When The X-Files was on the air, I was always hoping the pair would avoid the inevitable Moonlighting downfall of sexual denouement, and I was annoyed that, after all the near-kisses, Carter brought them together in an orgy of cheesiness in the series finale. I could attempt to redraft the past, but the idea of writing an alternate-universe story didn't appeal. What I wanted was to craft something original within the strictures and plot lines of the show. Was there anything new to explore with these two?

Mulder and his boss Skinner could be good, as my s/m slash reading had proved. Mulder and former nemesis Krycek could also be exciting—love overcoming hate. Or Scully's second partner, Doggett, paired with Mulder, their tussling over Scully a mere surrogate for the lust blooming within them.... And suddenly I had my own explanation for why slash-loving straight women might write male/male relationships: The relationships between male characters allow a writer to strike a harmonious balance between working within the framework of a show and spinning a tale of her own imagination. The best slash I've read captures the rhythm of the characters' speech, probes their psychology, and shows a mastery of complicated plots, all while taking the characters in new directions. And although a similar sense of possibility could await a writer delving into unexpected male/female pairings (Scully and Skinner, for instance) or trysts between two female characters (say, Buffy and Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer), male/male pairings add an extra dimension—the opportunity to recraft masculinity itself. And for women—straight or queer—who write slash fiction, this certainly seems to add an extra-enticing challenge, a sense of going where no woman has gone before.

Inherent in this sense of possibility with male characters is an embedded critique of the female ones. On The X-Files, for instance, Scully was a fascinating, complex woman, but she was just about the only steady female character on the show. Another female agent, Monica Reyes, was introduced in the last two seasons, but her character was far less complex—plus, she was irritating and unworthy of locking lips with Scully. Fleshing her out would take too darn long, and it might be seen as excessive rewriting by slash fans, who are sticklers for precedents. Creating a whole new female character, meanwhile, seemed too Mary Sue. I thought briefly about trying a different show, but, like Penley points out, the female characters in most shows are underdeveloped, and the dynamic of the female/male relationship is tired—I didn't want my story to wind up sounding like a bad Harlequin. The boy/girl text felt done—thoroughly chewed and worried over for years by sweaty TV writers.

But writing a tale of men's love made the possibilities sizzle. It would be like crafting a sonnet, a villanelle, something with meter, method, and my own madness. There was also the satisfaction of teasing out a subtext. Those long glances and the tense, fraught moments could all mean something quite different if I looked at them in the right way. Finding that subtext between men and women was no fun—it was a given. In any case, a male/female relationship didn't feel as if it could be mine. Male/male relationships provided just the right balance: the room for both allegiance to and independence from the original material.

It is precisely that quality of ordered freedom that explains why science fiction has become such fertile ground for slash. Science fiction is deeply concerned with utopias, dystopias, possibilities, alternatives, and fantasies, but it is also deeply bound to the order and logic of science (however fancifully constructed it may be). For all its whimsy and strangeness, science fiction also mirrors our own reality. And slash seems to reflect that combination.

Many slash writers are compelled to redraft male characters so they are a bit more communicative and tender—qualities stereotypically associated with women. But there are pitfalls if one goes too far. Some slash stories have lantern-jawed guys coming home with flowers every day, tying on pink aprons, weeping over lost football games. These stereotypes, "feminine" or no, are boring despite the genders involved. But more than that, these tales are not sexy. There is just too much sameness to the characters—both men so soft and squishy—that one has no sense of how their differences could be complementary, or how they are different characters at all.

And there's another reason not to push a masculine character into unbelievable heights of femininity—it violates that delicate balance in fanfic between precedent and imagination. A writer who frills up a butch male character may earn the wrath of someone like Jane at the website Citizens Against Bad Slash, who writes: "There seems to be an overwhelming tendency in the slash community to make masculine characters so feminine that you could change one of the names to 'Mary' and it wouldn't make a difference.... Even if we're writing stories about an alternate universe, it's always more interesting when the dialogue and actions of the character are somewhat true to life. The neat thing about slash is that you get to see characters act out what you don't see onscreen, but it loses its appeal when the character is so 'feminized' that you can't recognize him."

While Jane does seem to buy into static masculine and feminine codes of behavior, in the world of stereotypical TV gender roles, her critique makes sense. For this reason, exaggerated feminine characteristics stick out just as much as masculine ones. Sometimes slash writers err in the other direction, writing reams about stoic, uncommunicative hot men having sex. And while that can be fun for a while, the stories that have received the most acclaim in the slash world are ones that show why these men are with each other and what's behind the sex. They also flesh out their heroes with qualities that are a combination of traditionally male behaviors (assertive, confident) and female characteristics (nurturing, communicative). In other words, the best pieces feature players who are more like real people than the characters you find on TV.

Interestingly, unexplored female/female TV relationships seem to hold a similar sense of possibility and limitation. The acknowledged lesbian relationship of Buffy's Willow and Tara, like the overt and obvious male/female relationships, did nothing for me, and indeed there doesn't seem to be as much slash about that couple as there is about other pairings left subtextual by the show (like Buffy/Willow). With a relationship that airs in real TV time, there's just not enough negative space for a writer's imagination to fill in. The tension between two women who aren't already in a relationship is much more promising, however—Star Trek Voyager's Seven of Nine and Captain Janeway, for example, have proved quite enticing to many slash writers.

Sadly, despite the rich promise of Sapphic slash, there isn't much of it out there. Few TV shows have more than one strong, sharply drawn female character, which may be one reason why female/female slash is still relatively limited. But there may be another. Straight female slash writers, who are used to desiring male bodies, may feel that women's pairings lack a necessary sexual frisson.

For many, slash has become a potent way to personalize interactions with a show, to lay claim to it by infusing it with sexual fantasy, gender role-playing, and power dynamics. And for those who are politically inclined, writing slash is a creative endeavor with feminist overtones—one that allows people to ponder gender issues in a creative, supportive environment. The world of slash, after all, is populated predominantly by women who are not mere consumers of culture but who have become producers in their own right. Slash writers, along with authors of other fanfic, have changed TV- and movie-watching from a passive act into one that is participatory, allowing the deciphering and creation of meaning. That a slash writer can grapple with gender and power issues adds extra richness to the already subversive practice of writing fanfic.

Luckily, there's no shortage of material. Television leaves a lot to be desired—which means more room for slash writers to fill with their imaginations. Even if TV changes dramatically for the better—with more programs that highlight deep, complex characters and show a broader range of social issues, loves, and sexual orientations—I'm sure that slash writers will find their space. They're too ornery, too independent, and too ingenious to let even the best TV prevent them from finding ways to improve it.

Noy Thrupkaew is a freelance writer who lives near Washington, D.C. She never did wind up writing any slash—once she had her epiphany, she stopped trying, mostly out of fear that the results would be horrible.

Comments

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Oh, very interesting! I've

Oh, very interesting! I've often been fascinated by slash myself, and I agree with your assessment that there's no single motivating factor that draws writers and readers to it. With such a large community, it seems unlikely that there would be to begin with. Although you didn't really touch on some of the slash fanfic which presents an almost vitriolic view of women. I find a lot of that in anime fanfiction, actually - the male characters are depicted as human, genuine, honest, etc., while the females are put down and often exaggerated in their negative qualities - i.e., jealousy, pettiness, whining, and so on. I'm often curious as to whether that stems from a certain level of self-hatred on the author's part (a manifestation of the social 'negative female body' issue you mentioned) or a lashing out at the one-dimensional female characters modern media typically provides. Or both. Either way it's an interesting contrast that a certain vein of the stories with such a feminist author base actually have somewhat masogynistic content.

Also, I tend take it as a indicator of how difficult the majority of female characters in mainstream media are to actually relate to. It's nearly impossible to find a connection with someone who is A - Hollywood good-looking, B - Generally comes in either third or fourth in list of character importance (but appears on all the promotional material anyway), and C - Exists solely to get frisky with one of the male characters. When I myself write slash it's usually because I find it easier to relate to someone with a developed personality and a different gender than the same gender and no personality. While Salmon and Symons definitely had a limited view of the topic, their best point probably was the co-warrior thing - only I don't think it's 'co-warrior' so much as the author imagining herself as the hero of the story, whether the hero is male or female.

Think of all the media we are presented with which is told from a strictly or largely masculine perspective, for example. There are countless television shows and blockbuster films which star 'Mr. Random White Dude', and get big bugets, thrilling adventures, and tons of merchandising so that we see it all everywhere. Video games are big on that list, too, and actually probably the best example - for instance, all of the promotional material for Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2, a game in which the player can design their characters gender, race, even eye-colour, scars, and wrinkles, all feature a big, bald, white man as that character. In a similar game series by Bioware a character that was equally customizable in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was later made 'officially male'. The message is clear. Marketing is terrified of alienating male audiences, but the female fans are expected to be able to deal with it. We're supposed to be less bothered by the prospect of putting ourselves in a masculine body than the reverse - and because we're bombarded with it, most women are. If you present an average man with a pair of women's jeans and an average woman with a pair of men's jeans, guess who will put up the least amount of complaint about wearing the opposite gender's pants? A reprecussion of this, of course, is that a lot of female consumers find themselves weighing the external of media (i.e. characters who are physically female) versus the internal (i.e. characters with three-dimensional personalities) and while some go in one direction, others go in another. Heck, some of us go in both depending on whatever mood strikes.

Of course, as you said, there's no one key motivator for slash. It's a lot of little things. But that's my main reason - male characters, tragically, remain far better written than female ones in the vast majority of media. I'm human before I'm female, and frankly good characterization = humanity.

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