A couple of years ago, I sat in on the first class of a seminar on cyberculture at Columbia, taught by Brenda Silver, which I sort of knew I wasn’t going to be able to take due to an over-full schedule, but wanted to check out anyway. In this first, massively overpacked, section, she asked her students what they thought “slash” was. Everyone, the male students in particular, immediately began to look incredibly uncomfortable. “Um,” one of the boys said tentatively, “isn’t it, like…porn?”
“Oh, dear,” I muttered to my friend, and my hand shot up, Hermione Granger-style, because I just couldn’t help myself.
Slash, according to Wikipedia, “is a genre of fan fiction that focuses on interpersonal attraction and sexual relationships between fictional characters of the same sex.” Conventional wisdom goes that slash as we know it began with Star Trek – specifically, with Kirk/Spock, about which little, really, need be said. Since then, it has been a force in Harry Potter fandom, in X-Men fandom, and has reached a kind of hilarious (to me, anyway) zenith amongst fans of the television show Supernatural. I like to believe, though, that this is a phenomenon that has been going on for quite some time now – I mean, do you really think all those crazy Victorian Sherlock Holmes fans were so desperate for the good detective to come back from the dead for any reason other than poor Watson’s emotional health, or that the teenage girls who got their hands on A Separate Peace in the sixties didn’t titter themselves about Finny making Gene strip his dirty, sweaty clothes while watching? (If any of you had to read that book as a fourteen-year-old and found it dull, I highly recommend a reread.) I can’t prove that either of these hypotheses is true, of course, but they can’t really be disproven, either, so I’ll carry on believing what I’d like to believe.
Still, the explosion of slash as a substantial subculture can be tied directly to two cultural phenomena: the birth of the internet and the rapidly shifting public attitude toward homosexuality. Unlike the pre-Wildean Victorians, we have very clear definitions of what it means to be gay or bisexual, though the ever-expanding umbrella of queer sexuality now includes a wide array of terms whose meanings have yet to penetrate the mainstream. And unlike the Star Trek slash fans who used to pass around zines at fan conventions, we have the entire expansive reach of the internet, where everything exists and everything is Google-able.
Fanfiction and fandom culture is not driven exclusively by slash pairings – Twilight, anyone? – but slash is certainly a dominating force, at least in most mainstream Western media fandom: my friend Gavia Baker-Whitelaw of the Daily Dot reported on Tumblr user destinationtoast’s breakdown of fanfic stories currently hosted at the Archive of Our Own – not the largest fic site out there, but certainly the most reputable. (It’s run by the Organization for Transformative Works, self-styled as a “nonprofit organization run by and for fans to provide access to and preserve the history of fanworks and fan cultures,” and was named one of Time Magazine’s Best Fifty Websites of 2012.)
According to destinationtoast’s statistics, 45.5% of stories hosted on the Archive are M/M (i.e. slash), while 24.3% are classified as “Gen” (i.e. non-romantic), 20.2% are F/M, while F/F takes up only a sliver of the pie chart. (More recently, the same user posted more statistics about the composition of the Archive; the top twenty-four most popular pairings are all M/M, and only eleven of the top fifty-one are M/F. [None were F/F.]) While other archives are somewhat less homogenous than this – Fanfiction.net, the most popular fanfic site, hosts huge numbers of stories about Star Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean, and The Hunger Games, to name only a few, alongside expected slash standards like Supernatural and Sherlock – the Archive of Our Own nevertheless represents a major subset of fandom, and is notably much more welcoming of sexually explicit content than Fanfiction.net, which does not accept stories with explicit content.
Outsiders are pretty routinely baffled by the popularity of slash fic amongst women, even if they haven’t been presented with the cold, hard, numerical truth, given fandom’s (accurate) reputation as a primarily female community. Though there are, of course, no statistics to confirm exactly how few men participate in fandom, they are certainly a minority. Though fandom and fanfiction are technically public – once again, you can find anything on Google, and to quote a movie I don’t otherwise like much, “The internet’s not written in pencil, Mark, it’s written in ink” – fandom spaces can give the illusion of privacy, of a sort of gated community that isn’t actually gated at all, but simply not of interest to those not in the know. In much the same way that, hundreds of years ago, many women wrote extensively but typically only for private circulation amongst friends and acquaintances, fanfiction is part of an informal, communal cultural exchange, functioning not as a capitalistic enterprise but as a kind of gift economy: I’ll write you this story, a fanfic writer might say, e-mailing her friend snippets of prose; you write me something back.
Like most things, fandom and fanfiction are neither inherently good nor bad; they simply are. In many ways the communal vibe of fandom writing spaces is warm, encouraging, and rewarding; fanfiction’s general refusal to play by the rules of capitalism can be refreshing, rendering it a form of pure play and expression rather than work. From another angle, though, the tendency of young women writers to funnel their efforts into this sphere can be seen as a preemptive act of isolation, of self-protection, of avoidance of the much more brutal world of publishing.
The communal creativity of fandom may enrich the souls of young women across the globe–not at all an insignificant achievement–but while that’s going on, all the sad young literary men who would surely look down their noses at fandom culture and fanfiction writing are busy hacking away at novels they will one day send into publishers and get in the windows of independent bookstores. Those sad young literary men are baby Jonathan Franzens in training and I likely will find them equally intolerable (N.B. I actually love Jonathan Franzen’s writing, but find his public persona is regrettable in the extreme), but they’ll penetrate mainstream literary culture a whole lot faster than girls and women sending each other stories online, and be able to live off their writing, at least in part, which a woman writing only fanfiction will never be able to do. Whether or not individual authors care about achieving Fame and Fortune through writing is, of course, up to them; on the whole, though, the trend is troubling. (Whatever would Virginia Woolf, she of the five hundred a year and a room of one’s own, think of this?)
But slash fiction serves a whole range of functions outside of the purely literary, and, like fanfiction itself, it is neither good nor bad: it is, quite simply, fulfilling a need. The first thing those not in-the-know tend to ask is something along the lines of, but why do you like that? The most facile response to this question is to point out that straight men quite famously get off on watching lesbians make out and have sex; why, then, should women attracted to men not find the inverse arousing? But while this answer is hardly incorrect, it is an oversimplification. Slash as a cultural construct and force goes beyond sheer titillation and gets at much deeper and complex aspects of female sexuality.
As many other people have pointed out before, slash is much more about women and female sexuality than it is about men or male sexuality, for all that the characters on the page (or, well, screen) are male, and in possession of biologically male genitalia. As my friend Caitlin wrote in a Tumblr post on the subject, “any understanding that slash is only meant to or required to depict real world relationships is a false understanding of what slash is.” The psychological attractions of same-sex pairings are myriad, many of them fairly straightforward: when the players in your romantic drama are both men, or both women, the necessary societal complexities that manifest in male/female relationships need never come up. Though slash in the past focused more often on issues of gay oppression and homophobia, internalized and externalized, that trend has mostly been supplanted by a kind of fantasy world in which characters rarely struggle with their sexualities and sexual identities, in which two men falling in love is a remarkably straightforward phenomenon, typically unquestioned not only by the characters in question but also by the world surrounding them.
For, as the statistics above show, these stories are almost always stories about men, and many of them conform to fairly standard romance plot tropes. But though the characters may be male, in many ways they are mere stand-ins for their (female) writers. Caitlin, again: “many women and girls writing slash fanfiction are writing a fictionalized form of maleness, sexuality, and romantic relationship that picks and chooses the elements of our heteronormative society they are comfortable with in their fantasy.” She goes on to point out that many women have some kind of sexual fantasy relating to rape or dubious consent, in which the subject, standing in for the female reader (or writer) is devoid of control, and adds, “Fandom is one space where women, especially young women, can explore this fantasy and other fantasies considered taboo in a space where they’re safe from many of the images of violence against women that are found in mainstream media.” Reading rape fantasy smut wherein a woman is degraded is likely to be massively uncomfortable for many women, including young women; reading an equivalent story with male characters allows the reader to negotiate (however consciously or unconsciously) her own fantasies and desires, imaginary or real, without being presented with the societally problematic image of her own degradation.
There are, of course, many reasons why women like slash, and I would never claim to have found some kind of skeleton key solution explaining every individual person’s involvement in the phenomenon. For queer women in particular, for instance, the notion of “queering” mainstream media (and mainstream romance narratives) is a powerful act of subversion. But the fact remains that M/M slash dominates the online discourse, even amongst queer female fans. Part of that, to be sure, derives from the fact that most mainstream media is regrettably devoid of strong, dynamic female characters, but that can hardly be held up as the only explanation for the rampant dominance of slash in fan culture.
Slash can be understood most simply and potently as an indirect dialogue between women and their bodies. Many fans have historically been eager to categorize this dialogue as inherently sexist, as resulting purely from an internalized misogynistic disgust with female sexuality and specifically with female genitalia. Particularly amongst younger fans, the existence of this trend is undeniable: while researching for a paper I gave this past spring on One Direction fandom, I stumbled across a Tumblr post that exemplified this tendency with breathtaking ignorance:
So I found out that people write Elounor [Louis Tomlinson/Eleanor Calder] smut, and decided to check it out. UHM IM KINDA AN IDIOT!? That was horrible and desgusting and just, ew. If you haven’t read Heterosexual smut, save yourself the trouble and don’t. DONT DO IT. Its horrific. Pray for me. Oh. And they have bad writers tooo. I mean, our larry [Louis Tomlinson/Harry Styles] smut writers are so much better.
This journal was deleted not long after I found the post, though I have a screenshot of the page (explicit handle redacted for purposes of dignity), and while I of course can’t be entirely certain, all signs point to this blog having been maintained by a young female fan. Many (though certainly not all) “Larry” fans I ran across over the course of doing research for that project were young women who fetishized what they saw as the purity of male homosexuality at the expense of their own sexual experience: Eleanor Calder along with other women were routinely derided and presented as objects of disgust. It’s hard not to laugh while reading the above post, but it is really kind of heart-wrenching, too: if this young woman ever wants to have sex herself (as she very likely does), she is going to have to have sex with her own genitalia, which of course aren’t nearly as repulsive as she seems to think they are.
But it is also an oversimplification to pin the popularity of slash purely on internalized misogyny, or to criticize it for being an outlet of women’s – particularly young women’s – complex relationships with their own sexualities. I’ll quote Caitlin one final time: “For many women, particularly young women […] it’s a way of working out ideas about sexuality and romance without worrying about their own position as women.” I like, particularly, the use of the phrase “without worrying” here. No matter how women want to engage with sex and romance – and that may, indeed, be “not at all” – we all must engage in that complex dialogue with our bodies as sexual (or asexual) objects, and understand ourselves as sexual (or asexual) beings precisely because the prevailing cultural narrative around female sexuality is so dominated by men. It is difficult to be a woman with a body, no matter what kind of body you have, and it is difficult to be a woman with any kind of sexual or erotic identity that does not match up to the narrow – perhaps impossibly so – category the male-dominated culture has deemed suitable for us to inhabit.
Slash, then, is not merely women expending their literary energy on romantic stories: it is also the site of enormous anxiety, and while it is not somehow immune to problematic undercurrents or tendencies, it is also a way of processing that almost impossibly weighty anxiety and turning it into something else, into an act of play, of subversion, of uncomplicated erotic arousal and romantic satisfaction. If the culture were free of misogyny – if the patriarchy, that is, did not exist – it would not be necessary, or would be the simple equivalent of men getting off on watching lesbians get off. But right now that culture is an unattainable dream: all of us women, for the foreseeable future, will have fraught relationships with our bodies. So we have to talk to them, and if we have to do that through the shadows of ourselves we’ve transformed into men – well, as far as I’m concerned, we could be doing a whole lot worse.