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.
Gosh, writing up this part of my analysis was HARD since I am oh-so very biased about this.
See, if you had asked me ten years ago, I would have said: No, slash is a way for women to enjoy porn without societal norms and power imbalances inherent to m/f porn written on the bodies engaging in sexual acts. Well, 14-year-old me might have been less eloquent. What’s more, 14-year-old me identified as bisexual, whereas 24-year-old me has migrated onto the asexuality spectrum (grey-a, to be exact), and does not read slash for the porn anymore. 24-year-old me sees fan activity as subversive in general, given the grassroots nature of reclaiming popular culture from corporate enterprises that mostly filter narratives through heteronormative lenses.
About a third of my respondents agree. And yet there were a staggering number – approximately another third – who think differently (gasp You don’t say! waves-sarcasm-flag), negating slash any subversive potential. The remaining third argue that this potential depends. On what, I shall let the voices of my respondents show.
Long story short, the issue of writing this up posed a problem, seeing as I strive to make this analysis as transparent as possible. What I have decided on is this: given the threefold structure of responses (yes/depends/no), I will summarise the arguments brought forth by each fraction in the beginning, and then let the quotes speak for themselves, adding emphases for easier reading.
Here is what awaits you:
Question: Slashing characters who are straight in canon – do you see this as a form of critique of the source text?
- No. Slash is not subversive.
- Depends. Slash might or can be subversive.
- Yes. As to why slash is always a subversive act.
Before delving into the three categories and the grey areas in between, let’s consider why my turn of phrase “who are straight in canon” is problematic. This was intentionally not placed in quotation marks as to avoid turning this into a ‘leading question’. However, what is to say a character actually is straight?
“I think that there really are no ‘straight in canon’ characters,” argues Ged_the_Winged (female, heterosexual/biromantic, 15-18, South Korea). “If like, Dean [from Supernatural] is always with a female character, it doesn’t mean that he would have dated/fucked a man off screan, off script. If John [from Sherlock] says ‘I’m not gay’, it doesn’t mean he’s not bisexual. If someone says ‘I’m straight’, it could be so that they are just closeted. It’s the matter of adding on something that is not portrayed in canon and playing with both canon and non-canon.”
Other respondents echo this:
“Very rarely in most things is there any reason for a character to say I’m Straight out loud, which leaves the possibility of same gender attraction wide open, even if that character is in a “”hetero”” relationship. Bisexuality exists!!! People should not be assumed straight until proven otherwise.” (k, they/them, gay, 15-18, USA)
“Some characters are only ‘straight’ because the writers don’t want any controversy. Fandom can fix that.” (Annka, female, asexual, 25-30, Poland)
“I find a lot of canon characters are not ambiguously straight, so it falls on the audience to make sense of the hazy readings the show gives. Sexuality does not define my life, as it doesn’t of most people, so there is not only one answer for a lot of characters’ sexualities most of the time.” (Olivia, agender, they/them, panromantic asexual, 18-25, USA)
Keeping this in mind, let’s take a closer look at the replies I received from 441 fanfic readers.
- No. Slash is not subversive.
The overarching theme that all responses falling into this category shared was this: Slash is just one version, or an extension, of the characters shaped by the creator of a media text. This engagement, i.e. playing with characters someone else devised, equals a compliment to the source text and has no critical implications.
The following are almost all quotes pertaining to this side:
“No. It’s just a version. Most characters are heterosexual so people can take those same characters and give them another dimension. Not necessarily something political though. It’s all imagination.” (Babi, female, straight, 18-25, Italy)
“In larger fandoms, it’s likely that the character/s in question gave off some hints that made writers catch on. Whether Harry and Draco’s canon obsession with each other, or sexual tension between John and Sherlock etc. The canon work tends to promote the ambiguous nature of the characters’ friendships (‘queerbaiting’) because fans respond positively. I see it more as a derivation than a critique.” (Tara, female, 25-30, India)
“I don’t think I interpret very many characters as Kinsey-0 or Kinsey-1 straight anyway, so slash feels less like a critique of the source text, and more like the creation of alternative texts which represent the sides of the characters I wouldn’t otherwise get to see.” (Hayley, female, bi, 25-30, USA)
“No, I see fanfiction (including slashing straight characters) more as an extension of the original work. It explores different varieties of the characters and what else they could be, besides what they are in the source material. I don’t think that fanfiction is ever meant as critique, it’s more like a compliment.” (Julia, female, bi, 25-30, Germany)
“No. The ‘makers’ have created something, and put it out there, in public. It won’t be perfectly likeable for everybody. Every one has a scene or a fact they don’t want, and slash can fall into that. If I see that two male characters have a great chemistry and could pass as a couple if looked at with no context, or even when they haven’t even seen/heard about each other in canon, everybody’s free to imagine and write whatever they want, and change whichever facts they want. That doesn’t mean they’re criticizing the original.” (Arinalle, female, aro ace, 15-18, Brazil)
“I see it as a form of escape and fantasy. Personally I don’t write straight characters as queer to critique the shows, I just do it because its fun and I love the idea that my favourite characters have more in common with me.” (Erin, female, pansexual, 25-30, Germany)
“Not at all. My husband thinks this is strange but I love the fact that male characters are often written together. I think its a compliment to the source text that people care enough about the original characters to want them together, let alone to create worlds where they are together.” (Jennifer, female, straight, 40-50, USA)
“I don’t necessarily, no. Take Holmes and Watson for example–and there have been arguments through the ages about their relationship. Whether intended to be straight in the canon or not, I think it’s another way to explore the characters and distribute them to a new audience. I’d be rather flattered if someone chose to dabble and play around with characters I’d written, whether I’d written them as straight in canon or not.” (Liam, 18-25, Canada)
“It’s form of escapism, mostly. Usually it’s just something new, fresh, lets me forget about all these boring, stilted romances in published bestsellers. It’s free, tells stories about characters I’m already invested in, plots can be mind-blowing, and there is a huge variety of topics to choose from. Gives the reader a chance to see the characters in different settings (domestic, for example) that aren’t very well explored in the show due to time limitations and various other reason, which do not exist in fanfiction and as a result there is room for exploration of personality traits often barely mentioned in canon or even buried under layers of subtext. Also usually in mainstream media men are portrayed as gruff and tough (with exception of “single man tear” sometimes) but in fanfiction we can see them at their most vulnerable without interference from tptb [The Powers That Be, the creators] or worrying about viewership (often presumed male). I’ve also read somewhere a post about (slash) fanfiction being an opportunity to explore a relationship without social-constructed imbalance (woman being submissive in the eyes of society) but I can’t seem to find it now.” (ii, female, asexual, 18-25, Poland) [see #3 on the last point]
“Sometimes it is just an AU, sometimes the character could be interpreted either way if he/she is considered “straight” in canon.” (Sadie, female, straight, 15-18, USA)
“No. Not remotely. Could there be more openly gay characters on telly? You bet! Could there be more female characters with better development? Sure! I’d love that! But- I think there would still be slash despite that and I think slash operates a little separate from canon. It’s doing it’s own thing. It’s not so much about what toy you get given in the form of the canon, it’s more about playing with the boxes that it came in.” (Alice, female, straight, 25-30, UK)
“No, I don’t think so. Although it is entirely fanmade, it is a form of creativity. The possibilities are endless. It is not critique. For me, it is more like a form of creation and appreciation, since by slashing characters, you can even find traits that you don’t think he/she has (No, not OOC), and it could make you fall in love more with the character. (It happened to me with Francis in Hetalia. I didn’t like him at first, because of his personality. But then I read fics write about him in the past, his feelings in history, his emotions and thoughts of his neighbor – UK…. I changed my view about him after that, especially after his story with Joan D’Arc – wait, did I type her name right?)” (Sakura, female, straight, 15-18, Vietnam)
“eh, it’s all just stories. I don’t feel that changing a person’s sexual orientation changes their character. If i’m a sensitive asshole with a bunch of manpain i’m still going to be that whether i’m straight, gay, or anywhere else on the map. I feel it’s no different that changing anything else about the canon that we do when we write fanfic.” (mscadee, female, probably bi, 25-30, USA)
“There is a much greater number of fictional characters that are straight than those who are of all other sexualities (numbers put together). I don’t believe it is a critique of the source of text unless heterosexuality was visibly forced onto the character (for example after fandom started playing with the idea of the character being a part of the LGBT+ community). I think slashing characters that are straight in canon is just an answer to the unfair lack of decent representation and a way of fighting with prejudice of our society.” (B., female, heteroromantic asexual, 18-25, Poland)
“Not a critique – or if it is, it’s a critique of having only interesting male characters and not enough female ones! Really, it’s just another form of AU. If you can do a non-canon pairing of, say, Harry Potter with Hermione Granger or Wednesday Addams or Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Supergirl, why not Draco Malfoy or Xander Harris or Mycroft Holmes?” (Ishtar, female, straight, 50+, USA)
“Not necessarily. I could see people slashing in an effort to create representation in a world where they are often denied it, but I just think of it as fun to be had by anyone who wants to participate in the culture. Slashfic is a celebration of love and sexuality. it’s a simple way of saying “I love these characters, I think that they would make each other happy, so I’m going to write a story where they fall in love because I want these characters to be happy.” We watch our favorite characters constantly suffer on screen or in a book. Personally, I just want to cut them a break. If I write John and Sherlock into a story, it’s my way of saying, “Alright guys, you’ve already been through so much loss and heartbreak, so please endure just a little bit more for me, and in the end you’ll both finally be happy. You two saved me when my life was dark, and you gave me so much happiness. Please take whatever small happiness I can give back, and be happy with each other.” It’s not anything more complicated than that, for me. I just want these two idiots to be happy.” (emptycel, female, bi, 18-25, USA)
“I see it as a way to comment on the source text, not necessarily to critique it. If all sexualities ought to be equal, then straight characters are fine too, but I view the fandom and fanfiction as the playground where a person can create anything using the elements in canon. This view leads me to believe that slashing canon straight characters is a comment on the quality of the characters themselves rather than a critique of the work.” (Ceilia C, female, bi, 18-25, USA)
“First of all, I feel that romance and sexuality are a sliding scale. Just because someone is nearly at the end of one side of the spectrum does not eliminate human curiosity. (For example, the straightest guys I know are obsessed with penises.) I said earlier in this survey that I ship based on chemistry. If one or two ‘straight’ characters give off sparks when they’re looking at each other, then how straight can they be? That said, I don’t really feel the need to critique source material. If I like something enough to join the fandom, then I embrace the flaws of the text along with all of the good parts of it.” (subtextme, female, asexual panromantic, 30-40, USA)
“No. A person writes a story for itself, in terms of their life experiences. Therefore, I do not see anything strange in the fact that some characters may be completely reworked.” (Zev, female, demisexual, 30-40, Russia)
“Not really. Fanfiction in itself disregards some aspect of canon in every circumstance. I don’t think it matters since it doesn’t [a]ffect canon at all.” (Tia, female, grey-a, 15-18, USA)
“I don’t mind if the fandom headcanons someone as bisexual or pansexual or flexible or whatever. The thing I hate is trying to ship the only two male characters in the show just for the sake of slash when they have absolutely no sense, just not to ship a het ship. That is fetishizing.” (Arthur rubrum, xe/xyr, aro ace, 15-18, UK)
“No. This is the evidence of fertile (and sometimes febrile) imagination – which is utterly human. As erotic fantasies go I know I find male:male fiction much more of a turn-on than Herero-normative erotic fiction… without wanting to sound uncouth, I like penises – a lot. By extension, if I read about a human with a penis, playing with another human with a penis… well that’s effectively penis-squared-fun in my book. I know I’m not unusual by any standards, in my demographic.” (LongDayAtTheOffice, female, straight, 40-50, UK)
“Not necessarily a critique but an expansion of topics that mainstream media is unfortunately not usually “allowed” to explore. For example, most characters in a TV show or book do not ever explicitly say they are straight. What’s to say they’re not bicurious, bisexual, gay but repressed, demisexual, pansexual, asexual, etc.? In fact, many characters appear to really be at least homoromantic (for example, if they’re a man and all their close, meaningful, loving relationships are with men), but we’re then suddenly introduced to a woman and told he adores her? So often canon relationships feel hollow and unfulfilling. But slashing two characters who we know and who have been working together for years is more fulfilling as a reader than reading about the main character and a “love interest” who just entered the picture.” (Dalia, female, straight, 25-30, USA)
“Well, there’s some debate as to whether Sherlock and John are actually straight in canon, so … In general, I can see how some could/do use it as a critique. But I tend to approach it less critically, more from a “fun” standpoint. And, for example, with my hockey RPF OTP, I know one of the two is straight. (He is living with his girlfriend.) There is not enough evidence available on the other’s relationship preferences to reach a definitive conclusion. So enjoying reading fic about them as a couple isn’t a critique of these real people’s sexuality. I know it’s not real. There’s nothing to critique. But their friendship is close enough that imaging it being romantic isn’t a stretch. It’s fun.” (Ann, female, straight, 40-50, USA)
“Not necessarily. Assuming we are creating these stories from something that is already a work of fiction rather than from real life, then I think the source is doing its job. Fiction books are meant to intrigue the imagination of the reader and particularly books are meant to leave much to the individual creation. This is expressed through fanfiction. In a way, the creation of fanfiction proves that the source text is doing its job well. It does cross a line when people start making up stories about real people.” (Cate, female, Kinsey scale 2, 18-25, Canada)
“From my limited experience, it seems that most of the slash OTP’s that are popular are also very good friends in the canon. Often canon’s are very limited time frames so who is to say what would happen if the source had continued to write for many years. Perhaps that friendship would have become something more. Often times the most successful marriages are between friends who have developed their relationship over many years. Sometimes we don’t see things until we are ready and perhaps the author intended these pairings but because of social norms at the time did not want to make it too obvious and now that we are a much more open minded society, we are simply ready to see those relationships as they were intended. Honestly, men have been fantasizing about women together forever. Women are just more comfortable acting that out in video format. Perhaps since (straight) men can still be a little squidgy about putting on that kind of a show, slash fics are the best we can do. My imagination is sometimes better than what’s out there in visual formats. Some days I wish I could write it all down as well as some of these writers do. No matter what was written/intended, everyone will interpret/see things the way they want. If an author didn’t want their characters to be seen in other ways, they should have kept their thoughts to themselves.” (Elisabeth, female, mostly straight, 30-40, Canada)
Now, there were several quotes that I found very hard matching up with, mostly given my bias regarding this issue. A prime example:
“Critique? No. I see it as making the source more satisfying by bypassing whatever cultural restrictions the showrunners are subject (or subjected) to.” (Serabander, female, straight, 50+, USA)
Technically, this counts as a “no”. However, this bypassing of cultural restrictions constitutes an act of subversion/resistance to cultural norms for me, so I would put it into the “Yes” column.
Please keep these ambiguities in mind – it is likely that you might find some quotes misattributed because you define critique/subversion/etc. different from me.
- Depends. Slash might or can be subversive.
Those who argue that the subversive power of slash depends on the fic/fandom/pairing/writer’s intention/etc. made up the smaller third of replies compared to the “yes” and “no” fractions, though the gaps in numbers were not particularly wide as far as I am to judge. (I might derive a statistic at one point to back this up!)
The reasons provided are eclectic, sometimes conflicting, and sometimes mirror those given by supporters of the “yes” or “no” fraction, thus summarising them proves a challenge and I hope to do the diverse replies justice by mostly just quoting verbatim without mediating the replies too much.
“I think it very much depends on the fandom, or tv show or movie. Each are written differently, so slashing straight characters can really be a form or critique.” (enigma-kar, female, bi, 18-25, Australia)
a) The ship in question / queerbaiting
The amount of chemistry a ship shares on screen seems to be a major aspect of whether or not slashing these characters criticises the source material. For example, if a show is perceived to the queerbaiting its audiences, then writing slash is more likely to be a form of critique.
(Queerbaiting = “a term used to describe the perceived attempt by canon creators […] to woo queer fans, but with no intention of actually showing a gay relationship being consummated on screen [..] either by introducing a character whose sexuality seems, early on, to be coded as something other than one hundred percent heterosexual, or by indicating that two same-sex characters are attracted to each other” (fanlore)
“In general, I don’t see it as critiquing as much as making the characters and the universe they inhabit your own. In some instances, for example media that utilizes queerbaiting, it is definitely a critique. But in most cases, slash shipping is a way for people to explore their sexual preferences in a safe way… Besides, Sherlock and John are just to yummy not to ship. ;)” (Ashley, 25-30, USA)
“I mean, most of my otps are character who are at least straight but most of my pairings are based on ‘they have really good chemistry and this could actually work’ so I kinda see them as a ‘what if’ or ‘this character deserved a better story arc and that the writers decided to pair him with this woman in such a rush is unforgivable’. Take Derek from Teen Wolf, I’ve always thought that him hooking up with Braeden was kinda ooc. I mean she’s a hunter more or less and he told Scott a lot of times to not mingle with Allison because she was a huntress. Come on writers, at least write things that make sense. About him and Jennifer Blake I can’t really say a lot because afaik she put a spell on him?? So I ship Sterek mostly because of the good chemistry the actors have and because I can really see it happening and it would not really be too weird. It’s not like if suddenly Scott decided to start dating Peter Hale. I don’t know if I’m making a lot of sense it’s too early in the morning.” (blasy, male, gay, 18-25, Spain)
“Interesting question. When two characters who appear to be straight in canon have so much chemistry with each other almost everyone wants to see them together but the writers refuse to make them a couple because, ‘it’s not that kind of a show’ then it could be seen as a form of critique. A lot of slash fiction is written in order to “fix” something that happened in canon. But personally I see it as a compliment, the writers created such in depth characters with an incredibly strong bond that a lot of people couldn’t help but pick up in it and see them as a romantic/sexual couple.” (mex, female, bisexual biromantic, 15-18, UK)
“I see it as fans exploring chemistry they see in canon. Sometimes that can be a critique of canon (I see a lot of Sterek potential in canon, and both actors involved support it, but for some reason it was never explored. It seems like an ideal show to incorporate a slash ship, as MTV has a more LGBT friendly demo) but not always (In terms of Suits, Mike and Harvey have chemistry that could lead to something beyond friendship, but there’s a lot of canon evidence to suggest they’re not attracted to each other. I’d be surprised if it happened but I wouldn’t think it came out of nowhere).” (Charlie, female, pretty gay, 18-25, Canada)
“Not always. Slash fandom is wide and varied in motive. There are plenty of people who write slashfic who think ‘it shouldn’t happen on the show, it should be just kept ambiguous like it is.’ And there are people who write crackship slash, and crackfic is often just written for fun, with no relationship to what the writer actually wants from the text. So I don’t think slash is /inherently/ a form of critique. I do think it ends up being a critique, more often than not though. There are way more people whose slash ends up being more of a ‘if the executives weren’t so homophobic this would already be canon,’ and I think that added element, that the source text is homophobic, makes it a critique.” (H. Wang, female, bisexual aromantic, 18-25, USA)
“It might be. I don’t think it always is (though I can understand, for example, Drarry shippers, I never did see it for myself), but often slashing characters is a way of recognising and acknowledging explicitly romantic relationships in canon that are disguised as bromance for example (Sedgwick’s Homosocial Love is an awesome exploration of this!). In Merlin, everybody saw it was a romantic love story between Merlin and Arthur but the producers liked to write it off as bro love. I think in these cases slashing is a valid and even necessary form of critique that recognises what is there, the stuff that heteronormativity and gender essentialism deny to be there. In these cases slashing makes the subtext the text and sheds light on what most viewers don’t want to see because they’re more comfy in their known ways and fear the “Other.” So yes, slashing can definitely be a form of critiquing the source text! (E.g. if Sherlock doesnt turn out to our John and Sherlock in a romantic relationship our society is so severely screwed and ridiculously fucked up. Like. Seriously. See the TJLC thing. “Gay or trash”)” (Angel, genderqueer, they/them, bisexual, 25-30, UK)
“Sometimes. Sometimes I think that it’s just, you know, these people seem like they would work well together, or even, well, I’m attracted to both of them so how about I pretend they’re attracted to each other? But sometimes I think it’s not so much a critique as picking up on something that is there or could be there, and bringing it into fulfilment. That might turn into a critique on the source if the source has been queerbaiting (see: Sterek) or is otherwise not LGBT friendly.” (Kady, genderqueer, she/her, likes men, 25-30, USA)
“Yes, I do. For me to really get behind into a ship, beyond just the sage of ‘lol what if,’ I need to find some pieces of canon I can analyze that support it. It doesn’t have to be much, but I really need to have that foundation of subtext to build off of. So when I read fanfiction, I’m looking for stories that have taken the canonical subtext and built it into something real, and I think that slashing like that fits exactly as critique for the source. (Of course, most of the characters I slash, I think of more as canonically “straight” nod nod wink wink than canonically straight, but that is partially because of my analysis of the text). I do realize that some slash ships are not built on ~deep subtextual foundations~ and those I tend to see as …understandable in some since, but approaching from the perspective of ‘hey fun with characters!’ rather than ‘oh god the gay angst why don’t the networks admit they’re in love already and give us our representation’. Which I’m not saying is a bad way to ship, (I certainly believe it would be less painful), but I do think does approach the text without critiquing it. tl;dr: Yes, but only with instances in canon that could be interpreted as subtext.” (Peyton, 15-18, USA)
b) The reader’s interpretation
Other quantifying arguments set forth concerned the reader’s interpretation of a fanfic’s message/intention:
“I think some writers have that intention though it may not matter to the reader. Some writers are obviously playing to expand the world of characters they already adore. The same reader can take it as coming from either extreme at different times. I’m 60 now, and I know that my mood about what I want to read and how I will like it changes a lot. I assume I may see things from an angry writer’s perspective another time even if I don’t get it today.” (LJ, female, butch heterosexual, 50+, USA)
c) Intended as critique but transformed into fetishization?
While slash might add to representation, non-queer readers might have different intentions:
“In some ways yes- mostly because usually the straight characters would be involved in a relationship like a ‘bromance’ or they’d be ‘gal-pals’. Same-sex romantic and sexual relationships are usually ignored, so it makes sense that frustration would arise within creative fandom. Creative fandom, from what I’ve seen, has a massive LGBT+ population who seek representation in fanworks where they cannot in canon. There is another side to it of course. There is the problem of fetishisation, usually among cishet fans, but also sometimes LGBT+ fans too. It’s not really critique, but it makes the characters and same-sex relationships seem like sexual fantasy. Objectification, essentially.” (Ailbhe, female, bi, 18-25, Ireland) [for more on slash and fetishizing, see #3]
d) Slash can be subversive if it is used to improve representation
If slash is used as a means to provide portrayals of queer characters and storylines, then it is seen as having subversive potential:
“I think yes maybe? But I also think that it’s also a way for queer people to add something that represents them in a canon? And also I think sometimes creators won’t see the possibility of a queer romance where the fans can? Like, for real though? The eye-sex between Derek and Stiles is so obvious it’s seen from space and yet my OTP isn’t canon….sigh” (Heather, female, prolly some flavour of bisexual, 25-30, USA)
“Not necessarily. It can be a critique in that there’s more than just straight and gay, what if this character could be bi/pan/ace/etc.? But I think it’s more of we’re playing with what we’re given since the lack of queer representation is really frustrating. I don’t know. Sometimes I think this is taken a bit too seriously by people.” (Ally Palumbo, female, biromantic grey ace, 25-30, USA)
e) Pairings and chemistry, revisited
A lot really hinges on the pairing we are talking about:
“Depends on the characters/interpretations/context. I do not object to headcanoning traditionally straight characters as gay/bi, though I prefer to ship the confirmed canon sexualities. (Except when it comes to subtext).” (Shanimal, female, aro ace, 18-25, USA)
“Mostly no. In some fandoms the canon is so-nearly-there and so obvious though (Kirk/Spock, Sherlock/John), that I guess I could probably see it as a critique? But that’s not why I start or continue to ship a pairing, and I don’t feel a need to have my headcanon become real canon. I’m quite happy having canon and slash shipping separate and stay away from debates and drama. I’m perhaps an old-fashioned shipper in that way as I also dislike having the 4th wall broken. However, a lot depends on the pairing that’s in question: I find people arguing for and citing evidence for Kirk/Spock very reasonable and believable, but when it comes to 00Q, becoming angry because James Bond has relations with women and rides into the sunset with them instead of Q, I find it just completely ridiculous and ignorant (I chalk it up to fandom folk’s young age).” (M, female, 95% straight, 25-30, Finland)
“I don’t care if the character is presented as straight. A lot of characters are straight. In a way, it is a critique, depending on who is shipping this character with the same gender. Like, if it’s a yaoi hungry fangirl, probably not. We have SO MANY straight characters. Some franchises don’t have lgbt+ characters AT ALL. lgbt+ people want to see people like them. Plus, I mean, c’mon… If the creators are gonna write two same sex characters in the type of relationship that would turn into romance if they were opposite sex, of course they’re gonna be shipped.” (Sirius, male, 15-18, USA)
“Not really. I mean, it can be, but I think generally it’s more about ‘these people are hot, and they looked at each other that one time, therefore slash’. I see f/f slash as slightly more of a critique of a source text, at least when it’s engagement with source texts that contain few female characters or rarely show female characters interacting with each other. Or treat female characters are purely decoration for the male characters. In that context, imagining female characters whose sexuality is for each other can be a critique. But generally, no; or at least not for most people.” (kutubiyya, female, bi, 30-40, UK)
f) Fanfic as an act of reclaiming texts
The idea of reclaiming cultural material popped up, too, but was not seen as a form of critique in these examples:
“Not necessarily, it can be just a way of reclaiming the material or just as you said. It is all based on the individual.” (Sherlockforgetshispants, female, questioning, 25-30, USA)
“Not always. I think that slash pairings are so popular because there’s a real void in the media when it comes to same sex pairings. Obviously this is because we live in a rather intolerant culture…. but one which is slowly changing. Slash pairings exist for almost every single fandom related franchise that I’ve ever seen. Gay people have existed for all of time, also. I think for a lot of us, it’s our way of taking back stories that are owned by corporations, and making them more folk-friendly (Yes, I’m referencing the quote by Henry Jenkins) A story becomes a lot more personal through its relatability, and seeing personal diversities represented in fanfics is fulfilling and validating for people. But do I see it as a direct crit of the source? Not necessarily. Slash fics that I’ve written were never intended to say ‘hey, you should’ve done it THIS way’ to the creator of the source. It’s just another way of telling the story, which I think can be said of fanfic in general.” (SK, female, 18-25, USA)
“Possibly critique, in that writers are rewriting characters with the kind of representation that is woefully lacking in current media (or writing on what they’re picking up as queerbaiting). Which I completely empathise with- why wait for someone else to write what you want to see? Or maybe augmentation of the source text, as in the case of ACD’s Holmes and Watson, who many readers and academics (still) assume to be straight in canon. Modern fic writers who can see through the subtext and translate what ACD could never have written himself, given the time period- I think this is a form of evolution/upgrading.” (yanking-awry, female, straight, 15-18, India)
“Yes it could be, or maybe just a critique against heteronomativity and the lack of queer characters in media overall.” (Emmie, agender, she, aro ace, 18-25, Sweden)
“No, mostly I see it as (bisexual) representation. Or development of characters. Sometimes it can be critique, but more of the characterisation I think.” (Eliza, female, bi, 40-50, Sweden)
“I see this more as an implicit critique that an explicit one, against the lack of representation of LGBT+ people. But I think it depends on the writer’s intentions and motives.” (Arsenic, female, aromantic/acespec, 15-18, France)
“I find it sad that straight pairings are taken more seriously than queer pairings, especially when there is more than enough context and story for the latter. It’s frustrating that queer readings have to be so heavily justified and subtly introduced when straight readings can come into being with a fleeting glance. You don’t have to justify romantic or sexual orientation–it just is. There is a lack of representation of queer relationships in canon, and slash pairings address that and make representation where it is otherwise lacking. Many times it is a critique, but it’s also making art and beauty out of something that may otherwise be exclusive. I’m a bit hypocritical, though. I’m still biased towards friendships-turned-romance because that is my experience. Slash pairings do that beautifully, and I find myself wanting straight pairings in canon to be as high in caliber, though they seldom are. But I think greater representation of queer relationships and the evolution of slash pairings from fiction to canon would make television romances so much more inclusive and beautiful.” (KRB, female, demisexual, 18-25, USA)
“I think it could be a critique or wishful thinking. I see myself in a lot of characters that I truly enjoy. I am queer so I think ‘oh, they are a lot like me! They validate so much for me, I wish they could validate my preferred orientation too!’ But on the other end of the stick, I do see a lot of relationships that are shoved off as “deep friendship” when they truly have the potential and subtext to go so much farther. Healthy same sex representation is far from adequate in media. For a lot of people, slash fanfic is their only source of validation and that is horrific.” (Katastrophi, trans male, panromantic bisexual, 18-25, USA)
Two additional highlights:
“Anything can be a form of critique, and I appreciate authors who express their critiques using hot gay porn. But for me personally, it’s not a form of critique.” (Mink, panromantic pansexual polyamorous, 25-30, Netherlands)
“It could be. Sometimes it definitely is or should be. But for the most part I personally have never taken fandom/fanfic that seriously. I see it more as playing around with stories, characters, and unexplored possibilities. I know that’s not really the prevailing attitude these days.” (piepeloe, female, straight, 30-40, Belgium)
Why? Fanfic in itself is an act of reclaiming narratives from powerful media corporations. Slash shows the heteronormative bias and the exclusion of queerness in mainstream media and society as a whole, thus lending a voice to the queer community and creating representation where it is denied. Transforming a text is always a critique, since there was something about the source that made you want to rework it.
As I mentioned in the introduction, I vehemently subscribe to this fraction of fandom (yet like I have sketched out in the introduction, this has not always been the case). To avoid colouring this part of my analysis even more, I have simply grouped the quotes in this category into clusters to highlight similar arguments, whereby the replies referencing heteronormativity and issues of representation (or lack thereof) make up the bulk of the data I have gathered.
Again, some of you might find my classification flawed. For instance, this respondent says “no”, but digs ever deeper, thus – in my opinion – proving that the subversive power of slash and fanfic goes beyond critique of its source text:
“Not really, I see it as creating something that should exist in the mainstream with what’s available and that’s a criticism of media in general, not a specific text or film or TV show that’s been made within considerable restraints and constraints.” (Space fruit, them, bi, 30-40, UK)
a) The case of James Bond
“Totally. I’m not into 00q per se, but I love that people write about it cause James Bond is the most heterosexual franchise that ever existed.” (fangirlingisveryhard, female, pan, 18-25, Italy)
“But how do we really know that they’re straight? They’re fictional characters who we are allowed to think about however we want, but at the same time sometimes it feels like people pair two people together just because they can, and this happens with both slash and het. And if it’s a critique of the source text? Well, that depends on what ship it is I suppose. Since most queer ships are fanon, in a way it is. Because people keep asking why we always have to make everything gay? My question back is, but why does everything have to be straight?” (queerdraco, female, queer, 18-25, Sweden)
b) No homo
“Absolutely. The amount of hetero characters in the media is overwhelming. It’s starting to present more queer characters, but it has a ways to go. What I really like is that it criticizes the ‘no homo’ that permeates television shows. Very little is needed to take two “bros” in a TV show and make them gay. It doesn’t change the dynamic of the show (often it makes it better). It shows that so many want gay characters in media.” (Sam, female, asexual, 18-25, USA)
“Yes, especially when the source text seems like adamantly against it. When fiction creators (of the source text) use romantic tropes and the only thing that is supposed to make them not romantic is that the genders of the character, as if the audience is supposed to all go ‘oh, yeah, of course no homo’, then it just seems like those things can’t exist for romantically involved people of the same gender, like they don’t get to have meet cutes or spend all their time together or have really dramatic intertwined character arcs. It also is a way of just asking the source text, sometimes, like, ‘why are there only heterosexual couples here, see how this works just as well if not better if this character wasn’t straight?’” (Cleo, they/them, bi, 18-25, USA)
“There are very few characters that are straight in canon, simply because in our heteronormative society, everyone is considered straight until proven otherwise. Notable exception: James Bond, but he was originally written when sodomy was a hanging offense. I see no problem in re-imagining Bond as bisexual in this day and age. So to me, it feels more like a critique of the society we live in than the text.”
“To some extent yes. But to some extent l think all fanfic is and that’s great. We get to start thinking critically about characters and subtext and it’s such a good way to get into writing. Fanfic is honestly amazing. And I love how some people would laugh at the idea of ‘straight in canon’ in regards to some of my OTPs. I think fanfic helped me realize that straight isn’t the default. If we don’t have canonical proof of straightness that doesn’t make it so.” (Hedwig, female, straight, 30-40, Netherlands)
“My gut reaction is yes. Though there are random fan fiction stories for pretty much every pairing you could think of and many you don’t even want to think about, the huge bulk of slash fan fiction is-if not of a canon queer couple-of straight men who are clearly queerbaited. Dean/Cas, John/Sherlock, Merlin/Arthur, Steve/Bucky ect… And then beyond that, if you can’t get your audience to ship any canon/endgame heterosexual couples, it is probably because your female characters are boring and mary-sueish, or barely there at all. Slash readers and writers are often accused of hating women, but it’s the writers of the original content who hate women, not their mostly female audience. I remember reading somewhere once a phrase that really summed this up, something along the lines of, “I will never understand how writers write a story entirely full of men, then look at their fandom and are surprised when it’s all gay porn.” (Anna, female, straight, 18-25, USA)
“It can be a critique, it can be a case of bringing something to the surface (I do believe that there are seemingly-straight characters that aren’t really straight, no matter what the text or the readily apparent subtext state) or it can be a critique not of the source text but of society or of the intended readership.” (queerjawn, she/her or they/them, panromantic demisexual, 30-40, Spain)
“I think that there is something very subversive and, frankly, empowering about taking a character that is for all appearances heterosexual and writing them into slash pairings. To me, it is a form of breaking down heteronormativity and allowing minority communities a way to connect to a work and with each other. In a culture that does not give much representation to LGBTQIAP+ relationships, these connections are vitally important to people from all walks of life.” (PositiveThinking, female, panromantic asexual, 15-18, USA)
“Always! It’s amazing how fandom engages creatively with the source text, fixing problems in the source: cliffhangers are resolved, unhappy endings changed into happy endings, characters that barely get any screentime are brought into the light, and heteronormative and sexist tropes are broken. I recently read a post about how it’s actually statistically not at all strange for fandom to slash male characters with each other, since the overwhelming majority of well-written characters are male. Female characters are still few in number and poorly characterized. On the other hand, in some fandoms where the canon barely has any female characters at all (like The Hobbit), there are great efforts among fic writers to bring out the few female characters that are mentioned and write stories about them.” (magpieinthemorning, female, bi, 30-40, Germany)
“In many cases it is! Many characters are not even stated as explicitly straight in the canon, either. It’s just an assumption made by the majority audience. It’s giving alternatives that, in some cases, seem to make more sense character-wise than the ones offered by the official writers.” (Hagzissa, female, bi, 18-25, Germany)
“I think in a way it’s a form of critique. Some ships are just like ‘oh they’d never meet in canon but if they ever did there’d either hit of off or hate each other….oohhh hate sex’. Some of them however are the writers going ‘no, what you did there is out of character. If it was a girl and a guy doing this they would be fucking by now.’” (Sidy, female, asexual, 18-25, USA)
“Well I don’t know if any of the characters I read about have ever been declared as strictly heterosexual so I wouldn’t know what my reaction to that would be but yeah I mean it would be a good way to protest to the heteronormativity in the media. Of course not making any of our ships canon it’s a big part of that so I believe that everything we do is as slash fans it’s a way to go against what we see and express that we do not agree with everything.” (Lex Evans, female, demisexual panromantic, 18-25, Mexico)
“Yes. I usually find myself shipping pairings that are strongly suggested in the text. I don’t usually throw characters together randomly for the sake of it. In most cases, TPTB are basically writing these two male characters as perfect for each other in every way, and then calling you crazy for saying that they should be together (I’m going to leave Johnlock specifically out of it, since I am of the opinion that they are going to end up together in canon). For example, I refuse to watch SPN because I refuse to be queerbaited. So basically, slashing is a way of taking things where they should be, and then a bit further, because why not.” (Helena C.R., female, straight, 30-40, Catalonia)
“In some ways it is – being queer/non-heteronormative, it makes sense for me to see characters like that. It’s my worldview – me and people like me fall in love with people of the same gender. Of course I would see characters who act like they’re attracted to someone of the same gender as actually being attracted to them. In many cases, I believe the only reason they’re not together canonically is heteronormativity. Also, as someone who is in the closet herself, I’m not always going to believe someone who says they’re straight, especially when they act gay. I’ve called myself straight many times, but it doesn’t make it true.” (You’re-the-bees-knees-John, female, lesbian gray-asexual, 15-18, USA)
d) Furthering representation:
“Whoo, okay… My gut reaction is yes. As I alluded to in an earlier response, queering the text is very important to me. A form of reclaiming characters to celebrate our marginalised identities and creating something beautiful to share with the world. Saying ‘fuck you, we do what we want’ to the original creators who disrespect us (looking at you, queerbaiting SPN) or fixing what should have been made canon (looking at JKR wrt Wolfstar). Not only wrt to queer identities, but other marginalised identities too. ‘Racebending’, writing characters to have disabilities or mental illnesses, putting them in AUs that change their class dynamics, etc. All incredibly important for putting ourselves in the text and telling our own stories.” (Micky, genderfluid, she/her/hers, bisexual demi/aromantic, 18-25, Australia)
“YES. Especially mainstream writers tend to ignore that there are a lot of people who are not straight. They completely ignore that bisexuality exists, so there is no need for so many characters to be straight in canon. They’re straight by default although there is usually nothing in the narrative that speaks against them being not straight. LGBTQIAP+ people need representation, and if we don’t get it from the authors of canon, we have no other choice than to write our own pairings.” (Jehanna, female, biromantic asexual, 18-25, Germany)
“Yeah pretty much. I mean there’s very little LGBTQIA representation in most fandoms as it is, so writing slash fanfic is the only way to fill the void in some cases. But I think it’s worth noting that people automatically assume a character is straight in most fandoms when really there’s very little (or nothing at all) to actually confirm it.” (Katachi, female, straight, 15-18, USA)
“In a lot of cases yes, because it shows how little representation we can get” (Avery, biromantic asexual, 15-18, USA)
“The straight assumption puts me off more, to be quite honest. We saw character A kiss a woman once! Great! Obviously he’s straight. It’s not like there’s bisexuals, pansexuals, etc. I headcanon most of my characters bi or similar just to keep the options open. (Especially since in fandom, headcanoning a character as straight is often related with racism, ageism, and other internalized prejudices.) Back to topic, it certainly is. Representation is vital, and there’s a reason why creative fandom consists predominantly of queer women. We’re not represented in TV often, so we take our favourite characters and make them more relatable to us – let them live through our kind of experiences. This loops back to my argument re: abo fic. There’s statistics out there that proof that once you enter multiple female main characters, the fandom reacts by pairing them of with the men more often, and the percentage of femslash goes up. We need fleshed out characters that represent minorities, who get screen time and lines. Representation matters.” (missingnolovefic, female, queer, 18-25, Germany)
“Yes, I see it as a critique on media and text in a wider sense. I think that a lot of slashing characters happens because of the lack of gay characters in media. We wouldn’t need to slash explicitly straight characters if there were more gay/bi/pan characters in the source text. And in source text with no representation of queer characters at all, yes it’s definitely a form of critique and maybe an outlet for that frustration as well.” (Melda, female, biromantic asexual, 18-25, Turkey born in the US)
“A good fanfiction for me is always a critique, an interpretation of the source and that is why I love it. There are very few characters that state explicitly that they are straight – because straight is assumed to be the “norm”. As if a man cannot be interested in men but only sleep with women because of his image. Or because he mostly prefers them. Or because he doesn’t like penises. And even when or if they announce in the source that they are straight, well – there are enough people who that works better than being out and being homeless. Or without job. Or both. Or dead. There are a lot of reasons not to be out and proud, just as many as there are for being out and proud. I do see no harm in playing out scenarios in a fictional world, that do not match the canon. I do indeed think, that slashing characters (or probably more like pan-ing/bi-ing characters in this context) is a healthy response to a society that denies us as a non-hetero people positive non-tragic role models; superhero, villain, agent, lawyer, scientist, soldier, secretary, space engineer – you may be evil or uber-developed or magic or just plain made of stone, but heaven forbid you are ever not hetero. You will die tragically and never be happy. I am sick and tired of it. Let them die for all I care, but let them live as well. Happily.” (dracaenia, female, asexual greyromantic, 18-25, Germany)
“YEEEEESSS I really do. […]. It queers the heteronormative narrative of most media. It allows often-silenced minorities to find their voices and insert their own experiences or identities into a world where millions of people already know the basic characters, plot (unless it’s AU), and background information. I think it’s especially obvious in the Supernatural fandom that fan-works (specifically pairing Dean and Castiel) are critiquing the source material. Supernatural has been called out by fans repeatedly for it’s queerbaiting. People in the fandom work hard to respect the actors while simultaneously pushing for a canon relationship, because they see it as obvious and necessary. People have compiled reasons Dean should be bisexual based on canon material -from gifs to background lights to the actual writing. And if the Supernatural writers actually did it… I would 100% believe that it would be due, in large part, to the fans pushing for it in so many ways.” (Jess, female, bi, 25-30, USA)
“Often, yes. It’s certainly why I started shipping John and Sherlock. (Then I found TJLC, realized it was actually possible, and started shipping them even harder, but anyway.) Some slash fans may just be in it for the smut, sure, but I think slash is also an outlet for people like me, who yearn for greater queer representation in the stories they read/watch, and since they can’t find it in mainstream media, they’re creating it for themselves. Sometimes I don’t see slashing straight characters as necessarily a critique of the portrayal of those specific characters, but a critique of the lack of queer representation generally. Example: MCU Steve Rogers/Tony Stark is a fairly popular pairing, but I think you have to wear pretty thick shipping goggles to see any romantic potential between the two of them in canon. (Steve/Bucky, on the other hand…ahem. Anyway.) Which is not to say that there aren’t people who do see it (I try not to judge), but what I personally appreciate about Steve/Tony fics is the general implication of “Wouldn’t it be awesome if there were gay superheroes?” Slashing is fun, and slash shippers pick characters who they think would be fun to pair together, but ultimately I think a lot of it has an undercurrent of “Damn it, there are so few gay people in the stories I read and I wish there were more.” Like, if we had an actual gay couple in the MCU, both of whom were heavily featured and were characters people liked just as much as Steve and Tony, would people bother to slash Steve and Tony? I don’t know, but I have a feeling there would be a lot less of it. The above is not to be taken as true for Sherlock, though, since if Mofftiss came out tomorrow and said “Oh yeah, Mystrade is totally canon,” people would still ship Johnlock. John and Sherlock have actual romantic chemistry, and if this doesn’t get actualized on screen at some point, a lot of us are going to feel very, very cheated.” (Wild Song, female, grey-a panromantic, 25-30, USA)
“Yes. There are so many characters who seem to show non-straight tendencies who are portrayed as straight because of heteronormativity, and plotlessness that are not explored because the characters were supposed to be straight. […] This can be important not just for gay men seeing themselves represented, but for the queer community as a whole.” (Realms, genderfluid, she/her, bi, 18-25, USA)
“Given that 99% of media in general is heterosexual, fanworks are a way for the queer community to, not so much critique the source text, but almost /correct/ it. it’s a way to create our own representation in a world that refuses to give us any.” (esplanade, misc queer, 18-25, USA)
e) More meta:
“Absolutely. Putting a character in any situation outside of what is canon is a critique of the source text, in a positive way. It’s critique in that it is engaging with a body of work and transforming it and manipulating it to continue to inspire and be something that is provocative. Such an action in and of itself is a critique.” (Maura, female, pansexual, 18-25, USA)
“Simply ‘slashing’ is a fairly simplistic form of critique — perhaps more reaction than critique as such; an indication that there is something there to be reacted to or against. The best fanfics also incorporate elements of thought-out critique: of plot, characterisation, context etc; but this doesn’t have to be done via slash.” (ladyoftheskulls, female, straightish queer, 30-40, UK)
“Yes, even if the person doing the slashing isn’t intentionally critiquing the source text. Nothing is created in a vacuum, not even fan works. If you read/watch something that you found amazing but walk away with the thought “but wouldn’t it be better if..” you’re finding a way to improve the source text. So many of my favorite things are disappointingly heteronormative, and there’s all this chemistry between two straight characters of the same gender, and the hetero romances are forced and awkward. Slashing characters with good chemistry is just natural.” (sirnotappearinginthisblog, female, bi, 25-30, USA)
“Yes, certainly. See Fiske’s theory of popukar culture ;)” (Christine, female, mostly interested in men, 25-30, Germany)
“Yes, after all there is nothing more rebellious than refusing to allow media to go past you without observing and taking care of how it’s look at.” (Kaitlyn_Allake, female, asexual, 15-18, USA)
“Yes, absolutely. And not just a critique of the source text, but a critique of the larger sociocultural context in which that text was made and/or how it is read and received by popular audiences. I like the way slashfic forces you to reconsider what “straight” and “not straight” even mean; so Writer 1 creates characters that are “straight,” then Fan Writer 2 writes a story in which the same characters that are “not straight” – so what is the characters’ orientation, who can say, who decides? I think it’s also subversive in the sense that it changes stories from one-way (creator -> fans) to multidirectional.” (rosep, female, straight, 30-40, USA)
I’m aware that starting with “No” and closing with “Yes” is a tad manipulative of me (since in argumentative essays when presenting different sides, citing the one closest to the author’s opinion last is suggested). I’d be lying if I said that I am not hoping to convince readers of this analysis of the merit of my side. Yet I know that fandom is full of diverse people who hold their own views, so I am not going to patronise anyone by pretending they are unable to withstand me arguing a certain case winks.
To conclude, then, I ask you only to consider all sides to this issue before making up your mind and reaching an informed decision on where you stand on this. I hope I was able to provide some impulses =)
#5 – Kinks, squicks, and the porn/plot ratio (coming soon-ish)
#6 – Omegaverse (coming soon-ish)
Certain conventions of slash bug me. The Alpha/Omega ones CAN be incredibly interesting and well-thought out, or they could be very cookie-cutter and boring. Sometimes I read a Alpha/Omega story and I become disheartened because it reads almost exactly the same as another. The vampire ones are much this way too.” (Emily Goldstein, female, bi, 18-25, USA)