|Trope · Genre|
|Related:||Hurt/Comfort, schmoop, WAFF (Warm and fuzzy feelings)|
|Tropes · Slash Tropes · Tropes by Fandom|
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Definition of Smarm
In fandom, smarm refers to a fanwork genre in which two or more characters are emotionally expressive, warm, and caring with each other. Smarm, in its purest form, has no sexual content; it is particular to what are more commonly known as gen fanworks. This is not to say that the characters in a smarm fic will not touch; a declaration of smarm is a indication of the author's intent for the touching not to be interpreted as sexual. It's possible that schmoop is used as the equivalent of smarm in slash stories. The "emotionally expressive, warm, and caring" parts are the main literary feature of smarm, as opposed to the will-they-or-won't-they and actual sex parts that are more likely in romantic first time stories.
History of Smarm in Fandom
One very early use of the term in fandom was in the Starsky and Hutch letterzine S and H. In 1979, in response to the lack of explicit het stories in the fandom, a writer speculates that these stories are in people's drawers at home. She goes on to say the stories may also be unwritten, "because the authors are too embarrassed to put them in writing. Or they're not printed because there's no zine specifically soliciting smarmy S&H, and the author doesn't know where to send one." A Star Wars fan in 1981 comments on "smarm":
One fan's comment shows a 1982 awareness of the changing fannish use of the term:In case you hadn't guessed by now, I am a big Han Solo fan. What can I say but "Whew!" The characterization of Solo was the best I have ever read. There's definitely more to our beloved Corellian smuggler than meets the eye. Luke was also well done, even if a little saccharin in places, but then, I'm not well versed on Skywalker... I wouldn't call "Satisfaction Guaranteed" smarmy (in the current fannish sense of the word). I call it highly erotic and filled with sensual imagery.
Another fan explains in 1982:I've been bothered for a long time by the fannish use of the term "smarm/smarmy" to mean sexual contents, from teasing on up, and very occasionally heavy emotional content. That just didn't sound right, but... I'm congenitally lazy and never bothered to check the dictionary. But a few days ago cage got rattled once too often by what I considered an incorrect use of the term and I actually looked it up. According to the Random House Dictionary, "smarm" (British informal) means "trite, cloying sentimentality"; "smarmy" (British informal) means "excessively or unctuously flattering, ingratiating, servile, affectionate, etc." Defense rests.
A fan in 1983 complains about the use:I can venture an explanation of how 'smarmy' came to have sexual overtones in reference to fan fiction. As I recall , it was first used in fandom to apply to a certain type of story in which not only was sex the main theme, but it was a particularly cloying, sentimental sort of sex, usually occurring in K/S stories. I think the early users of the word (notably Paula Smith) knew what they were referring to -- not the sex, but the sickeningly sweet emotional content -- but that it was taken by who didn't exactly know the meaning of the word to apply to the sexual content itself, and thereafter misused.
... her use of "smarm." "Smarmy" means sniggling, back-of-the-barn attitudes toward sex, which doesn't fit here. 
A fan in 1989 uses "smarm" in a modern sense: "Ohboyohboy do I love a good smarmy story. Let's face it, there has been a lot of "buddy" series' on TV, and a lot of them had the potential for an enormous amount of smarm, am I right? Simon & Simon, for example, or even the perennial favorite, Star Trek. Sure, we see great relationships between the characters but how much of that openness - that wonderful caring - do we really see?  Another fan immediately questions this term, though: "...just a niggling point... "Smarm" in my dictionary is defined as "to gush or slobber.' Is this really what you meant?" 
Kitty Woldow's Explanation
It was about 1983 when I first used the term and it was based on a Star Wars zine I had been reading, where I came upon the word in a LoC column describing some nicely gooey scenes in a story from the previous issue. There had been all sorts of terrible torture and then extended bits of lovely comfort, and the letter writer said she thought those comfort scenes were a bit smarmy. I had never heard the word before and thought, gee, is that what zine pubbing fandom (to which I was just being introduced) calls that stuff I liked in the story, the gooey bits that gave me the spike in the stomach? Nice to finally know there is a word for it. It was not, of course, intended that way, but when I asked the person who'd loaned me the zine, she, apparently not willing to admit her own ignorance of the word, assured me that my interpretation was correct. Since she'd been buying and reading zines for a couple years before I even knew they existed, I had no reason not to assume she was right about this part of the whole fannish vocabulary I was just learning.
Having at last discovered the term for that thing I had enjoyed so much my whole life without realizing other people also did, I happily proceeded onward into writing fic and doing my own zines, labeling what I wrote and wanted to see as smarm. It was through Riptide initially, where I put out a letterzine (King Harbor Tourist Information) and two story collections (The Pilot's Prayer), then my Lethal Weapon (Doin' the Job) and Quantum Leap (The Imaging Chamber, Accelerator Accidents) zines, that the term began to filter outward among the general zine reading public, most especially those who were also smarm devotées. Once I got online and taught the term to TS fandom, it spread along the net and reached its present state of untraceable ubiquity. No doubt by the time the OED picks it up, I won't be able to convince anyone at all that it was I who coined the usage, but this article can at least provide those future compilers with some small measure of etymological authenticity.
How Smarm Differs from SlashFrom Kitty Woldow,
From Martha:Slash is about sexual desire, and therefore about personal gratification. For a story to be slash, at least one character must want to have sex with another. That may not be all that's going on, there can be love and smarm and friendship and angst and hurt/comfort and all the rest, but without somebody feeling lust for a person of their own gender, you don't have slash. Whether it's ever revealed, requited, or consumated is utterly irrelevant; the important factor, as in some criminal law, is intent... Smarm is about the love between friends that does not have a component of sexual desire. It is the type of relationship where either person would die for the other, where the single greatest motivation of each is the welfare of the other rather than himself. It is, in this way, completely opposite to slash. It doesn't matter if the characters hug, or kiss, or even touch each other in ways that can be construed as sexual, so long as the one factor of their intent remains unchanged, focussed outward rather than inward.
In 1998, hobbes, explained how she and another fan added "romantic friendship" to the Xena fandom:There *are* a lot of similarities, since both genres exist primarily -- I think -- because writers and readers waant to see characters express love more openly than they're allowed to do in the aired episodes. (At least TS slash, which tends to be more tender than some other fandoms.)
All the same, even though both genres are writing primarily about love, I really would argue that there's a difference between smarm and slash, and I think it has something to do with the surprise of smarm. Take smarm's favorite chestnut, Jim and Blair sharing a bed. Well, if Jim and Blair are lovers, then there's nothing very unexpected going on when they crawl in bed together. It's sort of the whole point. But when two straight men share a bed, and are comfortable with that degree of intimacy and that degree of trust -- you're never more vulnerable than when you're asleep, after all -- then that is something unexpected. And that's the kick of smarm for me. That "oh, my" moment when the walls come down, and two friends nakedly express their love for each other without reservation or fear, even though they're "just friends."Why I crave that moment, and obsessively look for it, and try to write it, I can't imagine, anymore than I understand why seeing that preview for Second Chance with all the Blair bonks (I didn't even know the character's name at that point!) was absolutely riveting. It's a kink, a sick fetish. Maybe something in the water? 
A fan in 2012 talks about smarm:The "Romantic Friendship" category was created by chemmy (chem 1) and I after we began talking about Sherrie's article for Whoosh!. It had touched something within both of us. Neither simple friendship or alternative fit our viewpoints for the show's main characters. The idea that two friends could be as intimate as lovers without ever wanting to cross that line made so much more sense to us. Romantic friends can be comfortable with displaying affections, snuggling on cold nights, bathing together, etc. They share their thoughts and feelings without fear and have a bond akin to the definition of 'soulmates'. Once we talked it out, we approached Linda and Kathy (LynKa) about creating this new category and they accepted the idea. Unfortunately, people still have trouble grasping the idea of a RF [Romantic Friendship] story. Because of the word 'romantic' they assume that it means this is some sort of pre-warm up for becoming lovers, which isn't the case in this new category. There isn't any subtext in RF -- just deeply felt love and devotion.
Smarm was basically extreme hurt/comfort. But it was the comfort aspect. It didn’t have to be--it was almost always Blair, but Jim got his fair share too, where something would happen to one of the characters, something horrific, whether it was mental or physical, even a cold. You know? It didn’t actually have to be horrific, it just had to be--something happens. They’re having a bad day, they’d get blinded, I don’t know, it was something like that and then, it was the comfort aspect. Then that comfort was the smarm and it was just about (how) the other would take care of the one who had the problem. And it was that sort of close relationship. It was brothers, not by blood, but by heart, if you will. I just remembered, oh my God, I remember this one fic that never ended. It was the smarm that never ended, it was called “Beach” and it was by Kitty and Martha, I think. I think the website’s still up, it’s called Smarm Sanctuary. It got up to, I think, eighty parts. It was this never-ending smarm-like, fest... this story, I don’t even remember everything that happened--I think they spent thirty chapters just in the shower where Blair is cleaning Jim from this horrible thing that happened. I don’t even think we ever found out what it was-- I don’t remember! And I would read and be like: this is amazing! Because, you know, I’m in my hormonal teenage angst phase, so the smarm really worked for me because it was that--you know, I want a friend like that. I want someone who would do that for me. It was the emotional connect. [It's not porn.] There was no sex.... They were friends, and they were brothers. They were not lovers, but they were like--not mind lovers, but you know. It was that emotion--they had that emotional connection... It was absolutely the platonic soul mates, it really was. And that’s a great way to describe smarm, which is now h/c. I think you only see some of the old school, like, Sentinel fans call it smarm, because smarm means something completely different, it’s actually... I didn’t even know what the word meant, I thought it was a made up word and then I looked it up, because I think I saw it in one of the SAT books or something and I was like, I don’t think this means what I think it means!...So I looked it up and I’m like--this is actually a really derogatory word! You know, like smarm has a negative connotation to it. And I always associated it with positive things, you know that emotional... I mean horrible things happen to the person usually. I can still name off some of the big smarm writers that I remember reading, you know, like... [laughs] oh my God, [laughs] I can’t believe I remember that! You know, that was big for me in high school. It was really big! 
Some Fans Like It
Some Fans Don't Like It
I just started reading Sentinel gen awhile ago, since (let's face it), J/B friendship is basically slash without the sex. (Heck, *some* Sentinel gen *has* sex. It's called smarm, and I find it very freaky.) You have to be careful (to avoid the smarm).
Smarm in Different Fandoms
The Sentinel: Romantic expression in smarm grew to the point that it was difficult to separate a gen story from a slash one in The Sentinel fandom, where smarm stories could include heavy petting, and french kissing, but would assert that this was meant in a non-sexual way. Smarm became the equivalent of a PWP, complete with romantic language, but always ostensibly gen.In 1999, a fan wrote:
It *is* a funny little genre. In fact, it's difficult to talk about as a genre at all, because with some notable (all right, notorious) exceptions, smarm is most effective as a single moment or a scene in a longer piece. For me, smarm is that instant when, pressed by circumstances -- in this fandom, as in most, usually a nasty bonk -- two men who love each other but who don't happen to be lovers -- are driven to touch, or speak, as intimately and gently to each other as lovers would. So it's not merely an expression of friendship, or even a nice buddy moment. Which doesn't mean I don't I treasure those friendship moments all on their own, because I do, and I know how difficult they are to write well. It's just that they're not smarm.
Smarm, on the other hand, is that extraordinary moment when all considerations of personal dignity, pride, and societal expectations are cast aside, and two friends express their love for each other in a way that society-- especially late 20th Century, homophobic, American society -- doesn't sanction as fitting within the approved and narrow boundaries of male friendship. Jim cradling Blair on the floor of the parking garage in Blind's Man Bluff, in the midst of all his colleagues and superiors, stroking Blair's hair and whispering that everything is going to be all right is a hell of a smarmy moment -- whereas Jim grabbing Blair into a headlock and giving him a noogie at the end of The Sentinel by Blair Sandburg isn't smarm at all...I think the fact that smarmy expressions aren't "safe" and by definition fall outside accepted norms of het male behavior is the reason some fans despise the genre so much. Fine, to each his own. All the same, I never quite know what to say in response to the criticism most often leveled at smarm -- that real men "just don't act that way." (Leaving aside the unexamined heterosexism of a remark like that in the first place) The observation is usually bolstered by the incontrovertible proof that the person objecting to smarm is married, has five brothers, sixteen uncles and untold thousands of nephews, and none of THEM act the way Jim and Blair act in, say, one of Ann Brown's Moonglow stories, or Michalina Pilcher's Cypher missing scene. But the whole point of smarm is that American men at this point in the millennium don't often express their friendship with other men with a noticeable degree of tenderness. That's why a smarm aficionado is driven to seek it out -- or write it herself, if none is forthcoming.
Examples of Smarm from The Sentinel
Note: These are all excerpts from gen stories.
From The Sentinel story Last Request by Carole, "Simon tried unsuccessfully to stifle his grin as he noticed the contact between the two men even in their sleep. Jim's hand was buried in the younger man's curls. Blair's hand tightly clutched the bottom edge of Jim's sweater. Was it a partner thing? A friendship thing? A Sentinel/Guide thing? Simon smiled. Whatever it was... it was a good thing."
From "The Sentinel" story Sentinel 101 by Susan Foster: "Blair started to pull away, but his sentinel was not about to let him do that. Jim pulled his guide into his arms; for a moment the younger man struggled against his hold; then his body went limp and he began to sob as if his very heart would break. Nestled against his sentinel's chest, face pushed into the older man's neck, Blair began to speak; his words so quiet only a sentinel could hear. Jim made himself keep calm and whispered soft words of encouragement when the voice faltered, made reassuring sounds as he was told about the harrowing ordeal the man in his arms had suffered."
From Crash and Burn by Audrey Lynne: "I love you, too, Blair. And that isn't going to change. Whatever else changes -- that's gonna be the same. You're my compass. You guide me, in more ways than one. And, Chief? I want to be your safe harbor -- the place you go when things get bad."
In Sentinel Con. by Shedoc, Jim has bad dreams, and Blair makes him hot chocolate, tucks him into bed, tells him a story, and then there is some gen bed sharing. "Blair wondered why he hadn't woken and stilled as he realized his Sentinel was lying beside him, head resting up against Blair's shoulder, hand on Blair's arm. Jim had turned his body in to Blair's and Blair sighed. Obviously the subconscious had taken over and Jim had climbed into bed for protection last night."
In Sculptor of Souls by JET: "He burrows his head under my chin and snuggles close, his arms winding around my waist, his hands gently rubbing my back in soothing circles of warmth. I rest my face on his soft curls, savoring the precious life pressing tightly against me. My heart lurches with overwhelming emotion. When did I grow to love this young man so much? Finally, I respond to Blair's unanswered question, an uncontrollable catch in my voice. 'No, Chief, no regrets. Never.' His arms tighten around me, and Blair's head nestles even closer over my heart. Exactly where he has always belonged."
- Smarm, Warm Fuzzies, and Friendship: A Somewhat Irreverent and Rambling Essay by Becky (1999)
- The Death of Smarm by Lucy Gillam at The Fanfic Symposium (1999)
- Fanfic Content Intensity Ratings: Rating the Pain and Smarm in a Story, Archived version by Kitty Woldow (late 1990s? early 2000s?)
- Cry, the Beloved Smarm by Renae at The Fanfic Symposium (2000)
- The Origin, History, and Correct Definition and Use of the Fannish Term "Smarm" by Kitty Woldow (2002)
- Evolution (or lack there of) of the definition of smarm by partly bouncy (2007)
- I wanna know what love is; I want you to show me., thefourthvine (2007)
- Fannish Definitions, by Kitty at KatSpace, 2007. (Accessed August 2008)
- In S and H #2 (August/September 1979)
- from a LoC in Pegasus #6
- no, the defense doesn't rest, but it is another view from Jundland Wastes #11, September 1982
- from Jundland Wastes #12
- from a LoC in Skywalker #6
- from Frienz #3 (1989)
- from Frienz #4
- from The Origin, History, and Correct Definition and Use of the Fannish Term "Smarm"
- The Origin, History, and Correct Definition and Use of the Fannish Term "Smarm" (2002)
- The Origin, History, and Correct Definition and Use of the Fannish Term "Smarm"
- from the Cascade Library
- from Twenty-Seven Grilled Bards and One Reviewer: hobbes
- Media Fandom Oral History Project Interview with Chi1013
- 2009 comments at Epic Recs
- The Death of Smarm, by Lucy Gillam (accessed October 2008)
- How French kissing in a non-sexual way is accomplished is as yet unknown.
- by Martha at Cascade Library
- The Romantic Friendship Index defined it as a friendship so close that it resembles a romantic liason. The friends are both affectionate and attentive to one another and much rather spend time with each other than others. But this is not a sexual relationship. (Accessed 17 October 2008)
- Smarm :: Stories containing schmoozy comfort and/or gratuitous character bonding." --as defined on the Versaphile SG-1 Rec-Å-Thon (now defunct; present reference links to the Internet Archive, accessed 1/2009)