#3 – Slash: the Good, the Bad, and the Subversive

#1 – The Repsondents [on tumblr]

#2 – Discovering slash fanfic [on tumblr]

Note: All quotes are taken verbatim and will be attributed to the pseudonym specified by the participants. If provided, I will include age, pronouns, orientation, age and country.

In this third part of my survey results analysis, I will take a look at these three questions I posed in my survey:

  1. Why do you read slash? What do you like about slash?
  2. Is there anything about slash/slash conventions that you dislike?
  3. Slashing characters that are straight in canon – do you see this as a form of critique of the source text?

NOTE: If my anthropology minor has taught me anything, it is that “every view is a view from somewhere and ever act of speaking, a speaking from somewhere” (Lila Abu-Lughod). So this analysis is inherently biased, not only by the way the survey was disseminated, but also in the way I select examples and summarise responses. Thus I have posted my own responses to the survey questions above, in order to highlight my own positionality on these topics.

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THE GOOD

  1. Why do you read slash? What do you like about slash?

Everyone has subjective reasons for reading slash, though a number of points were cited quite often. Thus I feel safe to make generalisations while highlighting that they do not suffice to capture reality; however they do allow me to structure my analysis and are thus to be regarded as nothing more than tools.

In the following I will briefly delineate the reasons that were named most frequently. It is not a hierarchy; rather the sequence is inspired by what I think are popular clichés/assumptions re: why people read and write fic.

a) The smut is hot.

Since all fanfic is porn, as the cliché goes, the reason for reading it must be sexual gratification, right? Well, partially. For example, Steve (15-18) reads slash “because I like my ships getting together. the fluff and the good sex”. Of course people like the sex scenes, but it was not the answer that popped up most frequently in my survey, and if it did, then rarely on its own.

b) Fanfic (slash) gives me more stories about characters I care about.

Now this one, however, was VERY prevalent. This reason is kind of obvious, too, since reading about the same characters over and over again without having loved them in the first place does not make a lot of sense when you are reading for pleasure and not for your job/academically.

c) Fanfic (slash) is well written.

Additionally, the high literary quality of fic served as an essential reason for my respondents regarding why they keep coming back for more. Of course this is not specific to slash either, and what one person considers “quality fic” might cause others to shake their heads and close the tab.

Good thing there’s just so much out there, isn’t it? William Björkman (genderqueer, he/him, asexual, 15-18, Sweden) agrees, saying he gets “to read about my favourite characters again and again in various situations even though there is no more canon material. Most fanfics are also enjoyable as stand alone novels, with amazing plot lines, characters and settings. It’s pretty much fantastic and I’m saddened that it doesn’t get more appreciation.”

d) The fanfic-specific form of publishing; plus: it’s free!

Furthermore, he highlights “the fact that I can read it at any time without having to bring a physical book with me, so it’s much more portable”, which is not where the peculiarities about fanfiction end. “It’s also easier to share and get in touch with the author, sometimes even form a bond with them or simply show my appreciation for the work by leaving a comment”, something that conventionally published books rarely offer. Oh, and last but not least: “It’s also completely free so even I, a poor teenager, can read for days and not have to worry about it costing. I will forever be grateful for that.”

e) Slash (fanfic) is the only place where I can find queer/different stories.

A word that popped up a lot when respondents described mainstream media was ‘heteronormative’. That is, every character is straight by default, necessitating queer characters to ‘come out of the closet’ whereas heterosexual people never have to. Viewing everything through the lens of heteronormativity results in narratives dominated by male-female relationships.

For some, this becomes tedious after a while. As William (bi/pan/questioning, 18-25, Norway) explains, “I like slash because I’ve honestly gotten so bored with concept of a man and a woman being together. I mean, everywhere you see, around you, in the media etc. it’s always a man and a woman together.”

In addition, K (they/them, gay, 15-18, USA) writes, “I enjoy seeing people like myself represented in the works I love”, something that several queer-identified respondents highlighted as well, like William Björkman: “it’s very diverse. It’s difficult to find good stories with LGBTQIA characters in mainstream media and gay romcoms are pretty much non-existent. But with fanfiction it is amazingly easy to come by”.

Fanfic and slash are not only different in that they feature queer storylines – they also depict romance and intimacy in a way not commonly found in mainstream media, as ungodly (genderqueer, they/them, asexual demiromantic, 18-25, Argentina) points out: “Slash is not the main reason for which I read fanfic and it’s not what attracted me towards fandom in the first place. Through the years I realized that slash enabled me to experience different degrees of emotional and physical intimacy making it both an intellectually stimulating exercise and a powerful creative outlet, all this within a moderately safe environment.”

Also, when pairing two men together, “there is less stereotype than with heterosexual couples, for example, who is dominant and who is submissive,” writes Marion (female, queer, 18-25, France). This idea surfaced throughout the responses and echoes a long-standing theory regarding slash: filtering romance and sex through two male characters allows straight, female readers to break away from being the ‘submissive’, ‘passive’ part in bed. They can freely identify with both the penetrator and the penetratee, so to speak.

However, it would be a fallacy to reduce this idea, namely that slash offers a better pornographic experience for readers, to heterosexual women only. SergeiSilence, for example, who identifies as asexual and poly (18-25, France), also values slash for the way it excludes women, yet for another reason. What she likes about this genre is “the fact that I don’t have to associate myself to characters, that I can read sexual scenes without it having to be about me, that I can read stories without having to read (always) about sexism and inequality, that I find slash romances often less cliché than heterosexual fiction because there isn’t the same expectation that a man and a woman talking to each other will end up together and/or having sex, that any relationship needs to be explained and allowed to grow into something believable, that gender and sexuality are in my experience more research or experimented with in that type of writing…”

f) In fandom, being queer is something positive.

What is more: for queer readers, (slash) fanfic offers a world where being queer is a positive thing, which is invaluable given how much stigma is still attached to anything deviating from the norm all over the world.

Katastrophi, a trans male and panromantic bisexual (18-25, USA), exemplifies this point: “I’m from the south of the US. Same sex relationships, especially male/male are seen as something not great or some kind of circus act to mock; more so when I was younger, but still quite prevalent now. Slash helped me apply a sense of normalcy to lgbtqia culture. The stories were written by real people, about people doing things that the media or small town propoganda never want you to see. It helped me form my own opinions and feelings on issues as most stories battled with the concept of gendered love and homophobia.

“Quite frankly, in the long run, it helped me discover my own gender identity and preferences. Living in a small town with literally no resources for lgbt+ youth, the Internet and other people’s discoveries are really all you have to go by. I’m in no way saying that I happen to be Trans or gay because of fanfic, that is [absurd]; but it gave me something to work off of. It gave me a branch to hold on to so that I could discover my likes and dislikes or quirks that I didn’t have names for without getting into a pool of over-opinionated advice or social justice blogs.”

Further examples of the multi-facetted motivation of slash readers

To recap, my respondents have provided a long list of things they like about slash which motivate them to seek out more stories. There have been many, many complex replies that focus on more aspects that I have named here. Thus I want to cite a few more to highlight both how individual people’s reasons are, how much the different reasons are intertwined, and how many more sides there are to this topic:

“I enjoy fanfiction in general, and all the pairings I care about happens to be slash/femslash. I prefer slash-pairings because heterosexual pairings usually don’t intrigue me, and homosexual relationships don’t get much representation in media. It’s thrilling to explore the potential sexual/romantic tension between two characters you think belong together, it adds an extra dimension to their dynamics.”(Emmie, she/agender, aro ace, 18-25, Sweden)

“I like the fact it turns subtext into believable text (which is true for all fic, not just slash fic, I guess. The wish fulfilment part of it). I like the smut. I’m also mostly into it for just the writing- fandom has some crazy talented members. The range of imagination and skill is astounding (and fandom does all this for free, which never fails to humble me).” (yanking-awry female, straight, 15-18, India)

“Different, queer-inclusive, take on canon. and porn” (ren, male, 18-25, USA)

“I read slash because it allows me to experience and read about people I more closely identify with, it is also in a lot of ways the only opportunity I have to experience couples that I think would be beautiful but might never happen [in canon] because they are a gay couple.” (Avery, biromantic asexual)

“I don’t get off on it sexually, personally, but I think it’s wonderful and I love reading it. This is because I already love the source material, most of it is well written, and that is the story I want to hear. I want to read a story about two characters I ship falling in love, so I go find some. It also probably has something to do with my personality: I’m more of a rereader than a reader, so I like the fact that in slash, I know the basic idea of what will happen (two characters fall in love, the type of story/ending it has is mentioned in the tags) but it is still new material. I also like that, especially with bigger pairings, there are hundreds of thousands of docs out there to read. You can never run out! On a more socio-political note, being gay myself, I love the fact that there is an endless supply of positive/multidimensional queer literature on the Internet: and I already know I love the characters, settings, etc. In so much of media, queerness is seen as a deviation from the norm, and us our stories are told one dimensionally, made into tragedies, tokenized, or dismissed. This isn’t how it is in fanfic, where a queer relationship is the expectation from the outset. Also, I’m underage, in the closet, and in a very conservative family and community. I’m not able to get my hands on anything queer positive or “inappropriate” unless it’s online and free. Mostly, I just love reading the stories, it’s fun, romantic, sad, sexy, and there isn’t anything else like it!” (You’re-the-bees-knees-John, female, lesbian/grey-a, 15-18, USA)

“There are a lot of amazing writers in fandom. I love the stories that are being told and the ability to give the sides of things that aren’t as represented in mainstream media. Both as a writer and as a reader, it is an opportunity to see representation that isn’t common. There is also a freedom in taking characters that are already known and putting them in an alternate setting. Sometimes it is fun to read beloved characters doing things that wouldn’t be possible in the original material, while other times it seems to be an extension of the original media I love. With slash in particular, we can take the characters into the spaces a traditional narrative won’t (for instance the bedroom) and see the parts the story is missing. However, there is often a focus in the media on sex when fanfic comes up and I think that does a disservice to the amazing character growth and stories that are being written. I love E rated stories, but particularly as it relates to slash, there is a sense that gay or bisexual characters are somehow more sexual or more focused on sex. In addition to queer characters being excluded from pop culture, when they are there, they are usually hypersexualized, so I think it is important to note that in many slash fics there is a lot more going on. Sex is great, but it isn’t all about the sex.”(Bel, genderqueer, she/her, polyamorous, pansexual/panromantic, demisexual, 30-40, USA)

One last quote, which also provides a perfect transition for question #2:

“I tend to like slash when the creator manages to turn a status quo upside down or when a particular pairing twists an otherwise common or well-known story into something completely different and challenging. I sometimes feel like slash fic/art/anything is basically a big eff you to social norms that (queer) fans as a whole grew tired of. I certainly am tired of watching the same old hetero nonsense play out whenever I switch on the TV or go to the cinema or even pick up a book. Which doesn’t happen as often as it used to, actually. There’s this tumblr post about how slash fic warped our perception of regular/straight literature and how it now seems dull in comparison to queer stories, and that’s exactly how I feel about it. Being queer myself, I have to constantly keep myself from rolling my eyes when faced with yet another bland boy-meets-girl-story. Those can be fun, I know they can and I do ship some straight couples, but in my experience, more often than not, those stories just aren’t that fleshed out and believable. I guess that’s because straight relationships are kind of expected to happen at the end of a story and are therefore not given as much thought and warmth and actual substance then, say, the friendship of two men or women. (Let’s be real, it’s mostly men.) And that’s why I mostly read slash – it’s more entertaining, it’s more provoking, it’s more thought out. Well, not all the time, there’s exceptions. Which leads us to the next question.”(Lena, female, demisexual/biromantic, 18-25, Germany)

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THE BAD

  1. Is there anything about slash/slash conventions that you dislike?

[Note: In wording this question I failed to realise that ‘slash conventions’ might be misunderstood as referring to meet-ups like ComicCon. This caused some confusion and I dearly apologise for my oversight! Thankfully, the majority of my respondents understood that I was referring to tropes and narrative traditions within slash fanfic.]

The replies I received for this question were fascinating. For one, there were huge common denominators with a handful of voice speaking out in opposition, and for another, several replies went very deep regarding the societal circumstances that caused certain conventions.

What’s more, a majority of respondents also divulged personal preferences and dislikes, which exemplified very well that one person’s dislike might be another person’s like. The same goes for moral boundaries and what constitutes “romanticising” when it comes to things like rape, mental illness, child abuse, etc.

“Slash is so varied because there is such a large amount of people who contribute to it in some way. No story can ever be the same because each author is different and brings their own perspective to the table, which is why I think fanfic is so uniquely brilliant. No matter what you enjoy reading or creating, there’s always someone else who likes it too.” (Abby, female, bi, 18-25, UK)

And if a reader comes across something they don’t like, they can just stop, as several respondents highlight. “My biggest complaint is abandoned works-in-progress,” adds thedepthsofmyshame (female, bi/pan, 40-50, USA). “Given that fanfiction is written and distributed for free, I don’t actually feel like I have the right to complain.”

a) Writing style specifics

Many aspects that were named pertained to the specific writing styles or tropes, including characters. For instance, OreruionielEruan (female, pansexual, 18-25, Slovenia) writes, “Idk if this counts, but I really hate Victor Trevor. I know the poor guy didn’t really do anything to deserve it, but he’s getting on my nerves since he’s almost always some kind of Sherlock’s ex.” And emilycountess (female, straight, 18-35, Aus) explains, “I’m totally over coffee shop AUs. The bar is set much higher for kid fic than other stuff. I don’t like heavy angst. Interestingly, for Teen Wolf I prefer AUs, for Harry Potter, I prefer post epilogue (often non-epilogue compliant) but otherwise largely canon-compliant. I read some RPF as well (shame on me), and in RPF fics, I tend to prefer non AU.”

For Anni (female, asexual, 15-18, Protugal) “Grammar mistakes and not enough paragraphs. Also 1st pov” are a no-go. And yes, I mostly included this quote since I share the aversion to 1st person POV and was happy to find a kindred spirit.

The author’s bias aside, OOC (out of character) portrayals, bad grammar and spelling, as well as ‘bad plot’ seem to be things the overwhelming majority of my respondents collectively dislike, whereby the latter is a highly subjective point. As subtextme (female, asexual/panromantic, 30-40, USA) says, “Everyone has their own tastes. What I don’t like could be something someone else likes a lot. I tend to steer clear from the fics that are plotless porn because it isn’t my cup of tea.”

She is not alone – PWP (porn without porn/plot what plot) fics do divide readers. “I avoid the PWP fics, because I’m in it for the emotional connection between the characters, not the sex,” says Beth (female, asexual, 25-30, USA) for example, which several other participants echo in their replies:

“I’m not sure how this stands in comparison to other readers but I can’t stand not having a plot of any kind in what I read. To each their own, but I tend to stay clear of those.” (Trish, female, 18-25, Mexico)

For comparative purposes, when asked to rate the ratio of plot/porn they read on a scale from 0 (no smut) to 5 (mostly smut), 2,5% of the 441 respondents selected 5.

porn plot ratio

Another response related to the porn/plot topic comes from Lena (female, demisexual/biromantic, 18-25, Germany): “This is gonna make me sound like an ass, but the thing is, I try to look for pairings that actually have some merit in them. I tend to avoid stories that pair two characters who are never depicted as having a connection at all or who never even exchange a single line on screen. I don’t see it in the text, so I can’t emphasize with it in the subtext. Then there’s PWP fics. Maybe it’s because of me being demi, but as a general rule, I get slightly uncomfortable and annoyed whenever I come across these stories. Again, there are exceptions, and those usually occur when it’s about a pairing I’m used to and very comfortable with.”

On the subject of smut, several respondents also raised objections to the emphasis that fic places on sex scene:

“It’s sometimes difficult to find lengthy fanfics without too much sex is something that irks me a bit. Somehow fanfiction has started to equal porn and the fact that it’s so centred around sex and oftentimes kinky sex makes it very difficult for me, both as a reader and a writer, to enjoy more popular stories and not be bothered with comments like ‘I wish you had more sex in your story’ and stuff like that, especially for me as an asexual as it seems more and more that sex=love.” (William, genderqueer, he/him, asexual, 15-18, Sweden)

The overt focus on sex is also something I have witnessed as a reader/writer of fanfic, yet as a grey-a reader who currently feels closer to the asexual end of the spectrum, my attitude towards this is utterly different from those who gain sexual gratification from sex scenes. (If the emphasis on smut actually is a trend and not just an impression of a few readers, it might be considered ironic that the stereotype of “fanfiction = porn” seems to be fulfilling itself. Though this just as a cynical and not serious side note.)

Related to the emphasis on sex is the emphasis on penetration:

“When there is a sex scene (if applicable) I don’t like it when the characters act as if the only sex they can have is penetrative, or it’s the only ‘real’ type of sex. Especially if it’s the first time for the characters…seriously, you don’t need to penetrate each other right away.” (Beth, female, asexual, 25-30, USA)

“Some ideas about how m/m or f/f sex works – it’s evident people have no idea what actual queer sex is like and they copy specific patterns of how sex is supposedly like. […] In f/f sex there’s an incredible amount of fisting, as if penetration is once more the goal and fingers are not enough.” (nondeducible, female, lesbian, 25-30, Poland)

b) Society’s view on slash

One topic that a few respondents highlight is society’s negative view on slash, and fanfic in general.

“I dislike the view people have on it,” says Maria (female, bi/homoromantic, 18-25, Germany). “People, who don’t know a thing about it, who actually never read it. I hate this cliché, that slash is just bad porn, written by hormone driven teenage girls. But this is actually not true.”

After all, if fanfic = porn, then talking about it equals talking about sex, which is still widely considered a taboo: “I feel like a real weirdo being into that stuff. Like I can hardly talk about it. Almost nobody talks about their porn preference so I don’t feel comfortable admitting I’m into guys kissing/having sex.” (Judy, female, bi, 25-30, Germany)

c) Research specifics, including the mechanics of sex

Before expanding on the one thing that dominated the replies, let me talk about this first. A handful of respondents criticised an obvious lack of research on the author’s part, for example:

“I think the thing that annoys me the most is inadequate preparation and lubrication, especially in more intense sex scenes.” (Celia C., female, bi, 18-25, USA)

“I hate it when you are reading a fic and bam: sex. For god’s sake lube and prep are important. If you wan your fic to be somewhat realistic maybe spend 10 lines about how they prep and use lube.” (blasy, male, gay, 18-25, Spain)

“Weeell… The sex scenes often paint a false and overly pink picture about anal sex. E.g. too little preparation, surprise sex in an alley (or anywhere else) without a condom etc. As a biology/anathomy-entusiastic, these things make me cringe.” (Agatha, female, probably hetero, 25-30, Hungary)

“Yes, badly written fics with no research done. Like when I am reading a fic that is situated in UK, I hope not to find Walmart as main food chain store. Do your BLOODY research!” (Tsuyu, female, asexual, 30-40, Lithuania)

Obviously, not everyone gets this intense about research. As an author, I personally do my best to research the *** out of things, though I’m a tad perfectionist that way, and given that fic is free and anyone can simply stop reading, I also understand when authors don’t invest much time in research.

I believe this issue boils down to the individual reader’s conception of what art should be. How closely do you want art to mirror reality? Does fiction have to be realistic in order to be enjoyable? Or is it possible to regard ‘unrealistic’ sex scenes as something that transcends reality in its literary status?

d) Ship wars

A large number of respondents explicitly criticised the ship wars that still dominate fandoms from time to time:

“There can be “ship wars” within a fandom where two different popular slash pairings fight amongst each other feeling that the other is invalid or stupid. Personally, slash fanfiction is there for anyone’s enjoyment and there is no right or wrong pairing.” (Searafina, female, heterodemisexual, 18-25, USA)

“People that don’t like a certain ship or trope should just stay away from that ship/trope. Instead, they continue shame them/it as much as (if not worse than) everyone outside the slash country does. We’re in a hated group, so why hate each other? In-fighting ruins things.” (Tia, female, grey-a, 15-18, USA)

Of course, ship wars can happen between any pairing, whether het or slash or OT3s (though I have never come across one for the latter). Even after years in fandom and witnessing several different wars, I am still as baffled as Searafina and Tia as to why they happen.

e) Top vs. bottom, and the weakening of characters

Something that ties in with both d) and f), what feels like 50% of replies to this question cited the top-bottom-debate for slash pairings. An example that popped up was top!lock and bottom!lock in the Sherlock fandom:

“I mean seriously?! sure, some men like to bottom more than others but that extreme fixation on those roles in fandom is a little too over the top. ..switch!lock, my friends. This goes hand-in-hand with those old uke/seme tropes where the uke is a fragile crybaby and the seme a hypermasculine asshole (props to the femslash corner on this one. it’s a lot more balanced there)” (varvox, female, asexual panromantic, 18-25, Germany)

For Anonymous (female, lesbian, 30-40, USA) this is a case of OOC portrayals: “For example the ‘gay baby Sherlock’ thing – that’s not what he’s like in the show at all. I don’t like it when the character is made weaker for the sake of drama. The fic shouldn’t have them go around crying all the time if they don’t do that in canon.”

The insistence on who is “seme” (top) and who is “uke” (bottom) tends to go hand in hand with what I called ‘weakening’ of characters:

“Most queers aren’t Top or Bottom, this is a weird argument to be having, especially with respect to fictional characters where you can justify literally any headcanon about sexual preference. There seems to be this overwhelming concept that who is on top or on bottom is tied to who is in power or who is the Man in the relationship, which is gross. The concept of power relations being played out like that is gross to me. that’s already what hetero relationships are supposed to be like and it’s terrible and people in those relationship have to constantly fight against gendered expectations that unfairly constrict both parties. also none of the queers I know actually enact this at all?” (Em, female, bi, 25-30, USA)

Julie (female, biromantic grey-a, 18-25, Norway) emphasises this lack of basis in reality, too: “I hate the seme/uke or top/bottom stereotypes with a passion. I want the couple to be realistic.” Then again, as dominatrixeditrix (female, 40-50, USA) points out: “but hey, I don’t honestly know what goes on in m/m relationships, so that’s on me and my thinking about power dynamics.”

“[…] while I know this applies to straight pairings as well, I do think that the temptation of forcing one person into a traditionally feminine role while boosting the other person’s masculinity is more prominent in slash fics then in, well, duh, fics with straight pairings. I will never understand how people can be so anal (hehe… I’m pathetic) about who tops or who bottoms. What’s the big deal? Like, how is this something people actually argue about?”(Lena, female, demisexual/biromantic, 18-25, Germany)

It ties into a larger issue, which Bekha (nonbinary, she/her, queer, 18-25, USA) sums up as “simplistic views of gender identities and gender roles” that have her clicking away quickly. “But often I’d be closing those tabs anyway because of the quality of writing or plot,” she adds.

However, the existence of the top/bottom discussion is predicated on preference that some readers actually do have, like Ambrosia (female, straight, 25-30, USA), who writes: “I really, really dislike “versatile” pairings (as in, either one can top in a sexual relationship).”

Patricia (female, quoiromantic demisexual, 18-25, Philippines) also actually has “a preference regarding who tops and who bottoms,” though she qualifies this, “but I really don’t like it if they become ‘girly/helpless/cute/small/lithe’ because they’re ‘the girl in the relationship’.”

Now, if you view this as nothing but a preference or a kink, then a laissez-faire attitude won’t be hard to come by. After all, as Bekha says, “there’s plenty of the kind of slash I like, and it’s not terribly hard to avoid the offensive portrayals.”

f) Squeezing m/m relationships into m/f boxes (aka let’s talk about gender roles)

Yet I personally think this ties into a larger issue. Even more prevalent than references to ship wars or top/bottom discussions, which sometimes were called “mischaracterisations” (Lena, from above) or OOC portrayals, were the critique of writing slash pairings in ways that mirror stereotypes about gender roles.

“I really dislike when slash fanfic writers do either consciously or subconsciously place the two characters into gender role stereotypes for example, the person who is the “bottom” (the one generally being serviced/taken care of) is often soft, insecure, or overly vulnerable and tends to be assumed to be the “mother” if children are involved. Whereas the “top” has the control, the protectiveness, the macho ego and is rarely seen as vulnerable.” (K.H., female, demisexual, 18-25, USA)

“I don’t like it when writers or readers get caught up on penetrative sex or who tops/who bottoms. That is (usually) less present in the fic than in the discussions that go on in fandom. People don’t fit in neat little boxes and I am more interested in moving towards more inclusive thinking rather than getting caught in gendered heteronormative roles.” (Bel, genderqueer, she/her, polyamorous, pansexual/panromantic, demisexual, 30-40, USA)

I could cite several more quotes that say exactly the same thing. For these respondents, writing one half of a pairing in a way that has a ‘feminine’ connotation, according to social conventions, is not a matter of OOCness but of characters being forced into boxes and categories. These boxes, for example that the man is the aggressor when courting a female, asking her out, etc., are seen as social “truths”, but as several disciplines have shown, gender and thus gender roles are nothing but constructs. The only name I’m going to drop is Judith Butler, who was one of the first to unveil how gender roles are not something fixed. Not even a person’s sex, i.e. female or male, is fixed, since there is no ‘real woman’ or ‘real man’in terms of genitalia. There is too much variation in the way gender is expressed alone (not only in different shapes and sizes of ‘male’ and ‘female’ reproductive organs, but also in the variations of non-binary gender identities). The myth that one chromosome makes someone male or female has also been dismantled. And yet, the notions of what makes someone a ‘real’ man or woman still prevail in society and thus colours fanfic in the way it portrays characters.

I could go on and on about this (seeing as it’s part of my essay topic and I’m very argumentative about it and personally don’t see it as mere OOCness, which is not meant to devalue anyone’s opinion here!), but I’ll concede the floor to Angel (genderqueer, bisexual, 25-30, UK), whose response to what they dislike about slash conventions sums this up better than I ever could:

“The reinforcement of gender roles in typical heteronormative understanding (see Butlers’ argument of sex already being gendered because we have no other ground of comprehension other than reinforced heteronormativity). I believe that the understanding of queer relationships is also largely influenced by these, i.e. that het people understand the majority of homosexual relationships to be based in an oppositional relation, e.g. someone always has to be the butch and the other the femme etc., there exist no other possibilities. I think a great number of queer people also operate on these beliefs simply because we’ve never learnt how to be ourselves because everything is steeped in heteronormativity and gender essentialism, our entire society and understanding of biology etc.. For example, in Merlin, many people cast Merlin (because of his skinniness, ‘elfin’ looks) as the ‘feminine’ part and make him the traditional stereotypical blushing, trembling, fragile, submissive ‘mewling’ etc. part, especially when it comes to sex. I think especially in sex this is noticeable. While stereotypes etc. are helpful, they also sometimes cause harm and in slash fic this is quite often the case.”

g) The erasure of POC characters

As ren (male, 18-25, USA) puts it: “the tendencies to erase female/poc characters in favor of making two white cis boys get together” is another negative aspect of slash fic.

Em (female, bi, 25-30, USA) is more vocal, and as a Tony/Rhodey fan myself, I’ll allow my bias to quote her in full: “There’s also a lot of unfair preferencing of white dudes. No one ships Tony/Rhodey (Iron Man) even though they’re BFF and have great banter and Rhodey CARRIED TONY OUT OF THE DESERT, but everyone loves Steve/Tony because of their thirty seconds of arguing. I’m not trying to bash anyone’s ships but I think there’s probably a reason for that.”

The “reason for that” pertains not only to the marginalisation of POC characters but also of women, which was a topic that received a lot of attention throughout the responses. (I could have combined these two categories seeing as they share similarities, yet there is a huge difference between the questions, “Why are there so few POC characters in fic?” and “What’s with the lack of women in slash?” after all, that must not be simplified.)

h) Female characters in slash – demonised, erased

Em continues, “Also, I assume this is mostly about m/m ships, but I just wish there was more femslash! I think there are a lot of good reasons why more of it doesn’t exist, but it still makes me sad.”

Other respondents take this further:

“I often feel like that in some m/m slash fiction there is an underlying tone of misogyny. I think that’s probably due to the fact that many female characters are disliked by the viewers. There are different reasons for that but I believe that the biggest reason is that minor female characters tend to be flat characters, mere plot devices or eye candy, and as such are neither relatable nor attractive (especially) to female viewers.” (Hagzissa, female, bi, 18-25, Germany)

“That there is so little f/f fic (which is not the fic authors’ fault but due to the lack of interesting female characters in mainstream television/movies/literature) and that what is there tend to be overlooked due to the way more popular m/m ships.”

“The lack of women or the vilification of women in some fanfics.” (Jehanna, female, biromantic asexual, 18-25, Germany)

“There sure is an unfortunately unsurprising amount of misogyny going on in slash fandoms – there’s a lot of ‘oh here’s the lady that canonically gets in the way of my slash pairing, let’s get rid of her or have her act like a terrible person to get her out of the way’ and such. Character assassination, I believe it’s called?” (resplendeo, female, bi, 18-25, USA)

One quote I’d also like to add, if not discuss at length since I have yet to come to a conclusion on this issue personally, concerns genderswapping fics, aka when one member of a same-sex ship is written as the opposite sex. Tiggs (female, gay, 30-40, UK), argues: “Want to read about a ‘straight’ couple? Read Gen fic them! Stop playing with our boys!”

I have never personally liked genderswapping, though I do see the transformative quality and potential for critique of the male dominance of especially YA fiction by, for instance, rewriting HP canon through fem!Harry. However, I have not yet formed an opinion on, for instance, writing fem!Stiles/Derek fics. I’d like to simply label it as a “if people like it, let them write and read it” situation. Yet for me, slashing characters perceived as straight in canon has subversive potential (more on that later). What happens if I take the, in my opinion, subversive act of claiming media text produced by powerful, heteronormative media creators and turning into slash, and then un-transform it into just another het pairing?

Just something to think about for y’all. (I’d love some thoughts, though?)

The dominance of pairings featuring white men

Anyway, the problems of the absence of POC characters and issues has been named in one breath along with eclipsing issues of other minorities as well as women, so I have a lot of intersectional quotes that I don’t want to rip apart:

“I dislike the racial and lesbian issues that get put under the rug.” (Kaitlyn_Allake, female, asexual, 15-18, USA)

“The lack of fic with nonsexual homoromantic relationships, the tendency to bash or demonise female characters, and the tendency to write out the possibility of bisexuality, and asexuality.” (Madeline Hunter, female, aro ace, 25-30, Canada)

Yet sirnotappearinginthisblog (female, bi, 25-30, USA) sees improvement concerning the latter: “Bisexual and asexual erasure are also sometimes a problem, but that’s getting better too!”

And one more, since it highlights the power that fanfic as a cultural agent does have, no matter how much society tends to ridicule us:

“Sure, fanfic writers and readers are a lot less powerful than mainstream media, but fanfic is still public speech, out there, on the Internet, for everyone to read. And it’s definitely communicating /something/ to the people who read it (including, increasingly, media corporations) about how the most enthusiastic, supportive, and energetic elements of media audiences value nonwhite and female characters.” (H. Wang, female, bisexual aromantic, 18-25, USA)

i) The “Gay for you” trope

Another facet of heteronormativity is the binary of gay/straight, meaning that there is no in-between, leading to things like the “We’re Not Gay, We Just Love Each Other” trope (see Fanlore).

“I dislike the trope of gay-for-one-person,” says Evelyn (female, asexual/biromantic, 18-25, USA). “It erases bisexuality and generally invalidates a lot of gay/bi people.”

Serabander (female, straight, 50+, USA) goes into more detail: “As a cis/het reader, I feel I don’t have much say in the matter. I understood (and agree) that the theme of ‘I’m not gay, I’m just gay for you’ that was prevalent in the 90s and early 00s was/is offensive. (And it’s still present, mutated into the “we’re gay but not that kind of gay” trope.) I do wonder if the current ‘secretly bi’ or similar discovering-I’m-gay-but-it’s-not-a-big-deal themes will eventually be seen as problematic as authors adapt more subtle understanding of the experience of personal and cultural sexuality.”

j) The depiction of controversial topics in fic: rape, power dynamics, paedophilia, and the issue of romanticising anything

Oh myyy, I’m really throwing the hottest points of contention in fandom into one pot here. While ship wars might polarise, these things DIVIDE. A lot of it has to do with where to draw a line, for example at which point consent turns dubious, or whether there is such a thing as dub-con in the first place, where underage stops and paedophilia starts, as well as an entire cosmos of aspects regarding the depiction of rape and non-con, to name but a few.

After long contemplation, I have decided to not mediate this point at all since anything in that vein would be very biased and run the risk of colouring the views of my respondents too much. Thus all I shall do here is list quotes surrounding this topic, grouped according to content when I deemed it appropriate with headings so you are free to avoid certain topics, and leave you to reflect on how you feel about each on your own.

Romanticising:

“Wildly incorrect characterization, sadness, morally wrong subjects, like NON CON AND MANIPULATION that are being excused and even smiled upon, this is not always the case obviously.”

“Again, romantisizing. Not just mental illness, but self-harm, substance abuse, or even abusive relationships and rape. Myself having an adjustment disorder with depression and having self-harmed before, this isn’t triggering as much as maddening.” (Vanessa, genderqueer, they/them, greyromantic asexual, under 15, USA)

“There are a lot of fanfic tropes that I dislike and most of them have to do with portraying abusive situations, especially if they are romanticised or make ‘sexy’ (noncon or dubcon aka rape, bad bdsm practices, omegaverse, shotacon or lolicon aka pedophilia, etc. etc.). Luckily it is easy to avoid those fics since they tend to be centred in a particular subset of fandom I stay far away from and there are so many more fics that are good (and there are so many more tropes that are good).” (Twin, she/her, 18-25, Netherlands)

“Not something specific to slash, but I don’t like when people apply stereotypic and harmful heteronomative dynamics to any pairing, slash or het. I also hate glorified so called ‘non-con’, that is, rape. Again, this is not something specific to slash but can be found too often.” (Emmie, she/agender, aro ace, 18-25, Sweden)

Age and consent:

“However, especially in the Sherlock fandom, there was an entire discussion on pedophilia within the fandom. Look, I try very hard not to judge, but when people fantasize and make porn with a character that is underage (and not like, 17 years old, but YOUNGER) and another that is way above legal limit (25+) it worries me. I don’t like that, I don’t like how THAT specific situation turns people on. daddy!John is fine if they’re role playing (what happens between two consenting adults is none of my business), but when the other person is truly a minor? No. Even if they’re fictional, they represent ideas. Literature is powerful. It gives voices to communities, and most of the times that’s good. A survivor can work through their own situation by writing a fic about how Sherlock was raped in college and how that feeds into his character, and how he tries to grow. But giving voices to the truly sick… It’s a double-edged sword.” (Emily Goldstein, female, bi, 18-25, USA)

“Consent issues, i.e. the huge amount of rape in fics which is often mislabelled as ‘dubious consent’.” (nondeducible, female, lesbian, 25-30, Poland)

Fetishizing:

“A lot of it is highly sexualizing lesbians/gays in ways that does not respectfully reflect the nature of the ship. Slash fics for the sake of heterosexual entertainment is not fun.” (Shanimal, female, ace/aro, 18-25, USA)

“The way some people uses hurtful misconceptions about being queer or having a mental disorder just for fun. I’m not talking about portrayals of dark themes or investigation and trial of representation of something we didn’t go through.”

“I’m sometimes uncomfortable with the power dynamics of straight writers and readers fetishizing gay sexuality in general, and young gay men in particular.” (Ged_the_Winged, female, heterosexual biromantic, 15-18, South Korea)

“In general, I believe that children are deified in society and as someone who is childless, I’m inundated with a lot of various cultural expectations surrounding them. Therefore, I don’t like Parent Fic or mpreg. This is my escape from the cultural fetishization of children, I don’t want the end-all, be-all of my fantasy characters’ lives to be being parents there, too.” (hobbit-feels, she, 40-50, US)

“The overwhelming focus on m/m pairings, whereas f/f pairings are much rarer. A lot of the times, if younger people are reading slash fics and looking at slash fanart (I was 14, and I consider that rather young) it gives them the idea that fetishizing same sex pairings is okay, even in the context of fiction.” (SK, she/her, 18-25, USA)

Omegaverse (to be continued in later instalments of my survey result analysis):

“The idea of omegaverse is also inherently transphobic – instead of ‘ass babies’ why not write about trans or intersex people who do exist in real life.” (nondeducible, female, lesbian, 25-30, Poland)

“I also dislike when authors decide to replace sexism and inequality by creating alternate universes where a part of the population is inferior because of their sex instead of exploring mysogynia and homophobia.” (SergeiSilence, asexual and poly, 18-25, France)

The effect of these on readers:

“I can’t speak for other fandoms, but I have seen things in mine [BBC Sherlock] that I would rather never have been able to see. But I guess that’s not a problem of slash conventions, it is a problem of what people are able to put in the internet, in sites that everyone, including underage teens and kids can see.” (Ink Feathers, female, bi and bi, 15-18, Columbia)

“I also think that people start reading explicit slash fic at a very young age, and I don’t think that’s the healthiest way to explore or learn about one’s sexuality. (Much like I don’t think it’s healthy for young cis-het men to watch so much porn. It is acknowledged and understood that such porn consumption is already causing problems for young men when they have sexual contact with a real life partner, and I think fanfic actually can have some of the same harmful effects.)” (hiddensymposiarch, female, bi, 30-40, Canada)

Other:

“When suddenly all characters in a fic are gay/part of a slash couple; when the slash couple is written too obviously from a female POV or is acting like a het couple in disguise.” (merlenhiver, female, 30-40, Germany)

“I’ve noticed a disturbing trend towards censoring fics and art that people don’t like. That these issues get treated as black and white when they are anything but.” (justacookieofcumberbatch, female, bi, 30-40, USA)

*

Conclusion

Well, I never said I’m writing about easy topics here. In addition, every reader has their own preferences, not to forget subjective ideas about morality and such, which render a simple question into almost 8,000 words worth of quotes.

Originally I wanted to continue with question #3 and investigate what my respondents say about the subversive power of slash, but this part is already rather lengthy. In that, this question shall be the sole focus of #4 of my survey result analysis.

Before I come to an end, here is one more ‘bad’ thing about slash:

“[I don’t like] that it raises my expectations too high. I don’t know how to put it into words, but I think that if I watch the show or whatever I’ll be disappointed because I won’t find what I can find on fanfics, not nearly half of it.” (Camila, female, straight, 15-18, Colombia)

And last but not least, let’s not forget this:

“There are lots of things that don’t work for me personally (e.g. ageplay kink), but in some ways that’s what fic is about – it’s a world big enough to cater to multiple different tastes, whether clashing or complementary, and just because something doesn’t work for me doesn’t mean a whole lot of other people don’t love it. It’s easy enough to find the things that work for me and avoid the things that don’t.”

*

Next up:

  • #4 – Is slash subversive? (coming soon)
  • #5 – Kinks, squicks, and the porn/plot ratio (coming soon-ish)
  • #6 – Omegaverse (coming soon-ish)

[MASTERPOST]

 

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5 thoughts on “#3 – Slash: the Good, the Bad, and the Subversive

  1. Pingback: #2 – Discovering slash fanfiction | Multifandom-Madnesss

  2. Pingback: #4 – Is slash subversive? | Multifandom-Madnesss

  3. Pingback: #5 – Smut, kinks, and squicks | Multifandom-Madnesss

  4. Pingback: #6 – Omegaverse, volume I | Multifandom-Madnesss

  5. Pingback: #7: Omegaverse – social commentary or abhorrent misogyny? | Multifandom-Madnesss

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