Portrayals of Masculinity in Fanworks

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Related terms: Feminization, Slash Tropes
See also: Gender in Fandom, Height Rule, Big Guy, Little Guy, We're Not Gay, We Just Love Each Other
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Portrayals of Masculinity in Fanworks vary, and the issue is commonly a focus of slash fanworks. The discussion is most often an interrogation of the depiction of gay men, and men as depicted by women.

A fan, Thamiris, wrote in 2002:

There's a rant that comes around pretty frequently that's all about how men should be men, guys should be guys, hey these are guys we're writing about, stop feminizing them already. Someone sees too much curtainfic or mpreg or cosy nesting or crystalline tears falling from limpid blue eyes, and snaps, and goes on at length about how they're men, dammit, both of them, stop writing one or the other as a little girl.

And someone else says hey, hang on, stop calling this kind of thing feminization, I don't act like this and my women friends don't act like this and labeling all this wussy behavior as feminine is kinda misogynistic dontcha think, and there's a side discussion about what's feminine and what's female and social construction of gender.

And a bunch of other someones go into anecdotal vs statistical territory, discussing what Actual Guys do and don't do and why they know this for a fact, until another someone says that we're not talking about Any Two Actual Guys, it's about these two specific guys, so the point isn't what men in general do, including your boyfriend and/or yourself, but would, say, Jim and Blair do this, based on what we've seen of them, and the discussion veers off into characterization and and canon support and goes on and on and on, and a good time is had by all.

And sooner or later, someone says that slash is about guys and they should act like guys and if they don't what's the point and the writer could just as well write about a man and a woman or their original characters because come on, A and B would never. I used to belong to the "fanfic is about the characters and if they're not behaving like themselves, what's the point" school of thought, myself. Then I thought about it some more.

As far as I can tell, the point is that the writer likes it. Which is pretty much the point of all slash, het, gen, what have you. The writer wants to see these particular characters behave in this particular way. It's a fannish thing, I think. If the writer is feeling fannish about A and B, writing about C and D instead, or original characters E and F, is just not going to be the same thing, even if the readers' only clue that this is A and B is the names.[1]

Feminization or Infantilization?

Women in media and in everyday life are often depicted as oversensitive, overemotional, sentimental, impulsive, naive, needy, demanding, even flaky. They're often shown solving problems through intuition rather than reason and logic, and as calmer and more reasonable after having babies. When a woman doesn't act flighty but is sensible and mature, many people would not use those words to describe her but say she is manly or exhibits masculine traits. That's if they're being polite. A very good case has been made for so-called feminine traits as actually being those we associate with very young children[2][3]. So when male characters are portrayed with stereotypically feminine traits as part of a slash narrative, we may really be talking about infantilization.

"Gender was pretty fixed in these [older] stories, although it didn't always seem like it at the time. God knows there were plenty of awful stories in which Doyle or Illya or whoever cried crystal tears and whimpered and clung and trembled, and we generally criticized them as "feminizing" the character. After a few years someone pointed out that it was far more accurate to say that such stories infantilized the character, and I fell on that term with joy, because I'd never been entirely comfortable with saying that such character traits were feminine; but that was the language slash fandom generally used." [4]

I remember discussing this issue with fellow fans on a list time ago, and we ended up deciding that the term 'feminisation' is misguided, because it plays on the negative constructions of feminity in Western society (passivity, weakness physical and/or emotional, crying and so on)*, whereas 'infantilisation' seems more appropriate, it still covers all the relative traits of the character and it's gender neutral. [5]

All negative connotations of feminism and feminization aside, infantilism - to me - connotes a lack of evolution and an inability to function on an intellectual level above that of a child (simple wants, simple needs, inabiltiy to understand higher reasoning).

I do not see why the term infantilism would even be *considered* as an appropriate description of a male character exhibiting emotional vulnerability (even in a Daddy!kink fic).

I do not find it in any way appropriate for describing the emotional vulnerability of an interesting male character. Perhaps you like "infantilism" because it seems to avoid the negative connotations of feminization?

  • Please* don't tell me you're espousing the idea that feminine traits are infantile?
Finally, I don't mean to be the downer here, but have y'all considered that we might just like more emotional male slash characters because they're more interesting to write due to their wider range of emotional (and hence, sexual) responses? [6]

"Masculine" Women

"There does seem, however, to be a sense that these "feminized" versions of the (male) characters are somehow OOC. But nobody ever complains about "masculinizing" female characters, do they? Ever wonder why not?" [7]

Other fans would disagree, citing female characters that were popular, or unpopular, due to their masculine characteristics. Tasha Yar & Galadriel are characters that are polarizing in this way.

Aren't "Female" and "Male" Simply Artificial Constructs?

Hypersensitivity: a fan in 1980 complained that in Forever Autumn Starsky was a little feminized in the story as he ended up making the coffee. [8]

Big Guy, Little Guy/Butch and Femme/Seme and Uke/Guys Crying/Weepy Uke Syndrome

I also think that an important reason for the often-decried feminization of male slash characters is that a lot of people think gender polarity within a relationship is erotic. They aren't interested in a couple who are more or less equally masculine or equally feminine. So if they are drawn to a butch-femme aesthetic, and both the partners are of the same sex, somebody has to be the girl. A lot of people get much more squicked by the thought that a character they care about (especially one they Mary Sue) could be seen as, God forbid, acting like a girl, than that he's having sex with a man.[9]

In 2001, fan blogger Tom Hardings and his friend Buki Skylark of Realmangamoon hosted fanwriter Irk's raunchy Mystery Science Theater 3000 parody of a well-known screed by fanwriter Jeanne on the yaoi site aestheticism.net[10]. Using characters from the longrunning franchise Slayers, Irk took Jeanne to task for her enervating preoccupation with making yaoi out of every male friendship or acquaintance in anime, manga and games, and for making one of each pair a girlish uke even if he was not that in canon.

>>Mapping m/f roles onto two guys turns a lot of women on.

IRK: "What is 'a lot'? Like, ten? How do you know these things? ARE YOU A BUTT PSYCHIC? ARE YOU CLAIRANUSVOYANT?!"

>>Hence the fantasy sex also reproduces female physical sexual experience in a way that's familiar and congenial to women.

IRK: "So...what you're saying is, women can't masturbate to anything but mentally skewed male/male buttromp?"
XELLOSS: "Boy, do *I* feel lucky to be a man right now! I can wank off to anything I want! Free to jerk! Free to jer-"
FIRIA: *CLONG* "Jerk." -_-
>>I could see the tortured weepy uke in two lights.

IRK: "Yeah, but I can see the transgendered leather fetish league in Three Lights."
TX signs: "DEADLY PUN!"

>>One is as an epitome of Them, the guys, being made to act as We have to, a comedown for Them right there.

IRK: "Yeah, you know how us women are always taking it up the ass like there's no tommorrow? THE TABLES ARE BEING TURNED SIR."

>>They have to suffer because of a role imposed from the outside- passive, forbidden to act, weak- the way We do, except that the suffering is translated into physical as well as psychological terms. And other times it looked like an expression of rage at the role itself.

XELLOSS: "I'm sure if the radical feminists had it all to do over, they'd stop publishing propaganda and picketing and rallying and just write gay rape stories. After all, gay rape is an appropriate form of protest for any occassion!"
IRK: "Let's hear it for Yaoi Lib, and progress!"
XELLOSS: "Progress and COCKS!"

>>Sweet loving weepy trusting stupid ideal 'female', now you get yours.

FIRIA: "In the ASS!"[11]

Genderswitching in Fanworks

Tuppertrek and CurtainFic

Traditional Gender Roles: Het and Slash

If you have a scene in which Tom Paris storms into Chakotay's room, exposes Chakotay's agony and his dysfunctions, demands that he shape up and pull his life together, then in great emotional anguish declares that he's being torn apart by Chakotay's behavior, and concludes by stating passionately, "Damn it, I love you", with a brief but passionate terminal kiss and an exit in high dudgeon...

If Tom does this in a slash story he's "confrontational", he's "assertive", he's "strong but vulnerable." He's perceptive, he's sensitive, he's whatever...

If "he's" named Felicity Tempest, and he does *exactly* the same thing, the reader can and does instantly identify "her" as "tempestuous, overwrought, and (shudder) spunky." A classic bodice ripper heroine behaving precisely and frustratingly as expected. Pure formula, pure gender-role cliche.

A male slash character is never doomed to being spunky unless the writer is *abysmally* dreadful, or is a fairly good comic writer camping up the routine on purpose. Why? Because our own cultural and literary assumptions do cut in with cross-gender material, and don't cut in with same-sex, particularly m/m same sex...or not to anything like the same degree. You have to put your brain in analysis mode to realize that the change in gender *did not* alter the formula or the traditional role functions. The dancers have changed--the footwork is the same, though.

By altering the gender pairing, even a fairly new writer can get away with using very traditional material, and have it look fresh, uncliched, honest and perceptive...

I'm not trying to insult slash writers, or their works. But when they choose slash, they come in with a powerful advantage that het writers *do not have.*

They can use old formula material, and have it look totally and startlingly new and complex. Where a het writer will *instantly* be nailed for trotting out old cliches, the slash writer can use those cliches in the way they probably *first* appeared to readers when they showed up in het-romances...as passionate, vivid, meaningful material dealing with relationship and life-choice. [12]

Taking gay couples, and then forcing them into heteronormative roles is offensive in two ways. Firstly, it assumes that gay couples are the same as heterosexual couples (though they do definitely deserve the same rights). And secondly, it assumes that all hetero couples have typified male and female roles.

Essentially, writing male couples as a commonplace male/female couples not only damages perception of LGTBQ and their representation in media and culture, it highlights how deeply rooted misogynistic thinking in our society is; that there is always a dominate (male) role and a submissive (female) one.

Now, it’s easy to say that that’s just Mpreg, but it’s really not. Read fanfiction. See how often one is cast in a typically female role, and the other in a male. If all else fails, let’s not forget the cadres of writers who spin stories about which character in a pairing would wear a wedding dress when (not if) they get married.[13]

Case Studies

Ray Doyle

Some fans enjoyed the characterization of Ray Doyle in The Professionals as the more "feminine" of the duo. Others, not so much -- one common complaint is that Doyle is often portrayed as fragile and needy.

One fan in 1987 wrote: "I am becoming increasingly aggravated by the portrayal of Doyle as childlike, female, fragile, too beautiful for his own good. I'm guilty in that I cannot depict him in my writing.as the tough man I see him to be in the series, but I hope I haven't yet turned him into the equivalent of a Barbara Cartland heroine. I certainly don't recognise the waiflike creature who is loaded down with jewellery and weeps every five minutes and who is into organic food/vegetarianism that I keep reading about. I agree ... Bodie is tough, probably tougher than Doyle in terms of physical strength but Doyle is the dominant half of the partnership. When it comes to character, he can run rings round his partner." [14]

From 1997: "It's not necessarily A/U stories that girlify Doyle. There are more than enough CIS-based stories that have Doyle as a fragile flower who weeps down big butch Bodie's shirt front at the slightest opportunity. I don't recognise that view of Doyle at all." [15]

In 1998: "...I cannot understand the feminisation of characters. Why do writers do that? Is it because they identify most strongly with that character and, being female, see him as feminine also? Or maybe they really fancy the other half of the partnership and feel they are wasted on a 'real' man? Maybe they're ashamed of their liking for slash so they .. er .. hetero-ize it? You ask how the individual is chosen. I think the character to be feminised is the smaller of the two - simple as that. Daft, really." [16]

Another view: "[The feminization]... by which I mean writers creating 'nice' versions of Bodie and Doyle, The two men talk, think, and behave in ways that women do, perhaps because the writers (invariably women) are putting their own attitudes into their characters. Such writers seem unable to get beyond this to present the characters in a way that is masculine but will still appeal to a feminine readership." [17]

Tasha Yar

Tasha Yar of Star Trek: TNG.

Blair Sandburg

"Take a character like Blair from The Sentinel for example, writers feminize him an appalling amount. I mean they have the guy bursting into tears at the drop of a damn hat. He cries over every damn thing they can come up with. It gets to the point where you just go 'Jeez, I'm a chick and I don't break out into water works that much.' Have these writers actually seen the show. I'll admit Blair is a new age hippie, somewhat in touch with his feelings, kind of guy. He doesn't cry on a dime though." [18]

"I think Blair has a lot of aspects that make him easier to feminize: he's got long curly hair and he's short and he's got a gender-ambiguous name and he wears jewelry and he's, like, *sensitive*, man. But I also think there's a general trend in slash to feminize one of the characters in a pairing. Why this is, I don't know. I've got theories about Beloved Slash Objects and authorial identification and the reconstruction of social roles and internalized ideas about homosexual culture and behavior, but I don't really *like* any of my theories. So the young guy, the blond guy, the skinny guy, the shorter guy, the pretty guy, the [insert vaguely possibly just barely non-butch characteristic here] guy turns into the girly guy." [19]

Also see: Real Men Don't Act That Way (1999).

Cecil Gershwin Palmer

In May 2014, tumblr user honeygirl tried to start a discussion about stereotypical male-female portrayal of gay male couples. Her case in point was Cecil Gershwin Palmer of Welcome to Night Vale. Although canon never describes Cecil, so listeners can imagine his appearance any way they like, much fan art depicts him and his love interest Carlos as a stereotypical Binary OTP -- Cecil as a slender blond man, often delicately built and much smaller than Carlos (who is canonically tall, dark and exceedingly attractive). Cecil's voice actor, Cecil Baldwin, has a notably deep, rich voice that is practically a character in its own right (the "Voice Of Night Vale") and he never sounds womanly or femme. But early episodes had had Cecil initially react to Carlos in a "fangirly, gushy kind of way"[20] and listeners picked up on that.

Honeygirl did not believe that Cecil's initial Squeeing over Carlos in these early episodes did not explain a tendency she had seen for fan art and writing to portray the pair as a binary OTP, especially showing Cecil as an uke type, femme, "girly" or physically smaller and weaker than Carlos. Feeling that this was an attempt to reinvent the pair as a straight couple, and not having the background vocabulary to explain what she meant, she attempted to distinguish these "Cecil as 'the woman' and Carlos as 'the man' in the relationship" portrayals from gender-switching or other legitimate creative experiments.

I really, really hate girly Cecils. I just dislike them. Very much. They seem so, so so very out of character to me...[21]

She received a fair amount of backlash, along with more reasoned comments that plenty of gay, transgender and even straight men have traits society associates with "female": "But why would you dislike effeminate Cecil’s? I totally understand disliking the stereotype yes, but to imagine him as effeminate is hardly stereotyping. It’s a reasonable conclusion to draw."[22] She attempted to clarify:

Yep, that’s exactly what I meant. I really hate that stereotype! I feel like Cecil is an interesting and complex character. He likes kittens and sports! He likes cars and homemaking with his boyfriend! He likes bowling and goes to PTA meetings and cares deeply about his community.

I seem to have upset some people, so if I could be allowed to clarify what I was saying: What I dislike is when people make him girly. I don’t mean effeminate, I believe that most people have both masculine and feminine traits because we are people. But I don’t like it when Cecil is portrayed as slender with wide hips and pastels and long hair all at the same time, because I feel like if you have to make your Cecil into a girl in order to comfortably pair him with another man, you’re not really getting why it’s so important to have a canonly same-gendered couple.

And once again, this is just my opinion, and I respect other opinions.If you like him portrayed as a girl, I’m okay with you liking that. All I was saying is that I don’t, and so I’ll be making some art this summer now that the semester from hell is over. I respect anyone who wants to make him as ladylike as they want. No problem. I just don’t personally headcanon him that way, and won’t be drawing him that way.

perhaps I am not articulating what I mean very well. Cecil with feminine traits is fine. Cecil as a woman is not fine. I have a problem with people making him into a cisgendered female woman and along that vein I have a problem with people making him into a transwoman. I’m not saying that these types of people do not exist (???) I’m saying I find that it’s problematic to take a canonly gay couple and do whatever you can to make it straight. And for me that includes genderswap (unless you also genderswap Carlos but that’s a whole other thing), and also changing Cecil to make his relationship with Carlos a straight one. When I say “out of character” I mean Cecil is a gay man with a boyfriend and a complex personality. When I say girly Cecil I mean I don’t like it when people make him as ladylike as possible because I think that is homophobic at its root. It seems like when this happens people are basically trying to make the pairing as straight as they can so that they are more comfortable with it. Which is not good representation and defeats the whole appeal of why WTNV deserves praise for being inclusive and representative.

She followed this up with these words:

I want to make it clear that I have no problem with actual effeminate gay men. I have no problem with queer representation.

However, I’ve seen how making Cecil more femme than he is canonly portrayed plays into the heteronormative idea that one of the men in a gay relationship has to “be the woman”. My opinion is that making Cecil more feminine than he’s shown to be in canon is deliberately making Cecilos more heteronormative than it should be.

I also want to make it clear that I’m not objecting to real people and their lives or behaviors but rather to characterization of a fictional character. It’s like when female characters are hypersexualized. In real life, women have the right to wear whatever they want, but a character in a video game designed by men for men with straight men in mind isn’t really representing them.

Similarly, the feminine Cecils I’m talking about are designed by straight people who find straight relationships more palatable and therefore make Carlos The Man and make Cecil The Woman.

Now, I realize that some of the more feminine or “girly” Cecils are headcanons from nonbinary or queer people who defy traditional gender roles themselves and want to see that reflected, not straight people trying to force heteronormativity into the fandom, and it’s only the latter that I object to.

This has nothing to do with race (genuinely, what??)[23]. I like some Cecils with long hair. I like some Cecils who dress in more traditionally feminine ways. I like some Cecils that are very queer. But I’ve ALSO seen Cecils that are 100% saturated in the “uke” trope IN ORDER TO and WITH THE PURPOSE OF making them more feminine to make the dynamic more heteronormative and I don’t like that and I’m not going to apologize for thinking it’s gross I guess.

At this point however I’m worried that no matter what I say or how I say it someone/some group is going to find something about my words to willfully misinterpret and choose to be offended, and then make that my responsibility. The fact that people are making brand new posts just to bitch about me without bringing the issue up with me directly or asking for an open dialogue is pretty disheartening. I’m open to discussing this if I’m wrong. But if you want to be offended and you don’t want to talk to me about it then that’s all yours.[24]

Meanwhile, tumblr user djclawson agreed with her, saying: "No I have seen Cecil Baldwin too many times in person not to agree with you, even though my Cecil headcanon looks different than him." Unpopular opinion alert, post dated May 8, 2014 (8:41 am).

Is Backlash Against "Feminine Men" a Form of Misogyny?

"I like my men masculine. The characters I like to read slashed, on the shows are tough, strong, intelligent,and just a little wild. I want to see them just as they are on screen in stories. I don't want them remade in our own feminine images. I want them exactly like they are on the show. I want to see what is there and I want the writers to delve in and find all those mysteries that lie within them. I want to see those hidden aspects brought forth. Not for a minute do I think they are hiding this weepy chick inside them waiting to get out. Sometimes a writer can make them so feminine you think you ought to offer them a sex change operation." [25]

"Otoh, if "feminizing" mean corrupting the character, then I tend to see it as weak writing - bordering "Mary Sue" in this respect: that it's contorting the character into a form that the writer particularly wants to see." [26]

"There have been many times that I have read a story and practically heard Fox Mulder, Fraser from Due South or some other typically masculine character scream "we're not girls, so don't treat us like it!" There seems to be an overwhelming tendency in the slash community to make masculine characters so feminine that you could change one of the names to "Mary" and it wouldn't make a difference.

Maybe it's because it fits the story better. Maybe it's because it's the easiest way for female writers to relate to them. Maybe it goes back to the old anime thing, where women like to read about feminine men because they are venting their pent-up sexual fantasies. But even Vincent Valentine has a gun fetish and even Sailor Moon's boyfriend pees standing up.

I find it a little annoying when I see perfectly masculine men, like the aforementioned Fraser, acting like women. Even if we're writing stories about an alternate universe, it's always more interesting when the dialogue and actions of the character are somewhat true to life. The neat thing about slash is that you get to see characters act out what you don't see onscreen but it loses its appeal when the character is so "feminized" that you can't recognize him." [27]

A photoshopped image of James Kirk and Cmdr. Spock from Star Trek: The Original Series standing before a wedding cake. Spock is noticeably shorter and wearing a pink gown. Probably created by Alison Baumgartner for an entry in her Loving the Alien blog. The original picture had Cmdr. Riker and Counselor Troi from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

"...I cannot understand the feminisation of characters. Why do writers do that? Is it because they identify most strongly with that character and, being female, see him as feminine also? Or maybe they really fancy the other half of the partnership and feel they are wasted on a 'real' man? Maybe they're ashamed of their liking for slash so they .. er .. hetero-ize it? You ask how the individual is chosen. I think the character to be feminised is the smaller of the two - simple as that. Daft, really." [28][29]

Is This a Topic That Has Changed Over Time?

People who think this is a relatively new phenomenon, or only limited to fanworks, should read the aesthetic romances of the mid-1800s, particularly the novels of Ouida[30] Her powerful action heroes -- and villains, too -- are often also delicate, poetic guys, explicitly described as having many positive "womanly" traits. They weep crystal tears and have warm, loving hearts, able to feel deeply for animals as well as people.

Meta/Further Reading


  1. ^ Slash and the Ethics of Voice ; archive link (September 2, 2002)
  2. ^ Charles R. Huot, "Language as a social reality: The effects of the infantilization of women". University of Northern Iowa, 2013.
  3. ^ William E. Snell, Jr., The beliefs about women scale. Department of Psychology, SE Missouri State University, 1997.
  4. ^ Sexuality and slash fandom (2007 post)
  5. ^ feminization, July 22, 2004
  6. ^ feminization, July 22, 2004
  7. ^ alixtii: Why Femslash Is Different, Part 1,001, Archived version (2007)
  8. ^ S and H #13. Well, somebody has to!
  9. ^ Executrix, The Cost of the Erection: Slash and Gayness. September 2, 2003. Entire text online at The Fanfic Symposium.
  10. ^ not to be confused with the other "Top 10 Things I Love About Yaoi", which originally appeared at rec.arts.anime.misc and was written by "Saturn"
  11. ^ Tom Hardings and Buki Skylark, The Top Ten Things I Love About Yaoi MST, by Irk.
  12. ^ comments by Peg Robinson at Romance and Gender-roles (see that thread for many, many comments), January 26, 1998
  13. ^ Alison "Boom" Baumgartner, "The Downside of Slash, Or: When Slash Isn't Sexy, It's Sexist". Loving the Alien, 2013-08-28.
  14. ^ from The Hatstand Express #14
  15. ^ from Discovered In A Letterbox #3
  16. ^ from Discovered In A Letterbox #6
  17. ^ from Discovered In A Letterbox #7
  18. ^ Feminizing vs Effeminate
  19. ^ De-butchify
  20. ^ Alex Townsend, "Cecil Baldwin on the Origins of Night Vale, Cecil’s Love for Carlos, and Playing Someone Delightfully Imperfect". The Mary Sue, September 9, 2015.
  21. ^ https://www.tumblr.com/magicalgirlmycologist/85112225954/unpopular-opinion-alert available reblog.
  22. ^ tumblr user hufflepuffsquee in the same discussion at you're not saying what you think you're saying
  23. ^ A reference to a derailer making the unsubstantiated claim that most feminized Cecil depictions had him as nonwhite, concluding that honeygirl's objections were racist.
  24. ^ All these posts were from honeygirl's now deleted blog, dated May 8, 2014.
  25. ^ Feminizing vs Effeminate
  26. ^ The Ad's Office Interview: The Boys Night Out: Some Members of the Male Slash Fans Mailing List (1998)
  27. ^ Girly Men (1998)
  28. ^ Discovered In A Letterbox #6 (1998)
  29. ^ For a perfect example of what this writer is talking about, see any Star Trek novel by Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath. Many fan critics comment that James Kirk is notably feminized in these stories, while Spock is hypermasculinized to the point of giving him an extra Y chromosome in one story.
  30. ^ Ouida at the Online Books Page. Suggested works: Held in Bondage, Chandos, Strathmore, and Under Two Flags .