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reposted at Slash Philosophy: If you're interested...; archive link (April 8, 2003)
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Fan/tastic Voyage is an 2003 essay by Noy Thrupkaew at "Bitch Media."
It has the subtitle: "A Journey Into the Wide, Wild World of Slash Fiction."
With slash's steamy combination of gender-bending plots and playful raunch, it's no surprise that cultural theorists, feminists, and everyday pop culture mavens have found it so intriguing. Like all fan fiction, slash turns pop culture consumers into creators and thrives on a sort of dialogue between fan and character. But it goes one step further than most fanfic by openly interrogating static pop culture notions of masculine and feminine—experimenting with, discarding, or reinventing ideas about gender. In trying to untangle the theoretical complexities of slash, I found that to analyze it, I had to try to write it—I had to grapple with my particular experience with slash before I could get a sense of the general. In so doing, I discovered some of the feminist allure of the genre: Slash enables its writers to subvert TV's tired male/female relationships while interacting with and showing mastery over the original raw material of a show (key for all fanfic). Writing male characters as lovers allows a richer sense of possibility than duplicating the well-worn boy/girl romances coughed up by most TV shows.
In addition, slash is steeped in a community that amplifies the feminist qualities of much of the genre. While not all slash is self-consciously political, many slash writers identify as feminists and engage with one another in vigorous dialogues about gender. In writing about men and discussing the process, many women are taking that room of one's own to another level. They're not only laying claim to images of men but reconfiguring male behavior—a powerful way to make men their own, too.
Early slash relies on a familiar pattern. Two men serve together for a greater purpose—exploring the galaxy, perhaps, or investigating crime. The hazards of the job bring them closer; as macho discourse would have it, those who spill blood together become as close as those bound by it. With danger comes conflict, fevered words that can barely mask the slowly creeping awareness, the flush across the face at the other's nearness. Stammered confession, blissful reciprocation, ecstatic consummation! A delicious formula. Much of early slash follows this "first-time love" schema, in which two men who have always identified as straight fall in love with each other. Why would slash writers dwell on such a theme? A lot of the good first-time pieces read like rapturous coming-of-age stories, with equal parts lust and self-discovery—a first time, too, perhaps, for many of the writers, who, being women, have likely never had boy-on-boy sex. Their heroes are just discovering their manly love, and the writers are learning right along with them. For many writers, slash is also a venue for sexual exploration and experimentation, and what better way to chart new territory than to use two unfamiliar bodies in search of love?
When they're not experimenting with the genre, slash authors—a very self-aware, self-analyzing community—are discussing gender, queerness, and feminism in all their different forms. Add this to a lively academic debate on slash, and you have a rich mélange that makes the idea of a grand unified theory of slash seem laughable. One critic may posit that slash is a space where female writers can create the "ideal" human in a misogynistic world: male body, male power, female ways of relating. Another will argue that slash provides a space for women to work out their gender issues, a place where they can dump the unwanted restrictions of "femininity." Slash is gay. Slash isn't gay. Slash is neither, or a little of both. Slash lets women assert power over men the way the patriarchy asserts power over women. Slash lets women humanize and redraft masculinity. Slash is about nooky. Slash isn't about sex at all. Slash allows women ways of writing (collaborative, participatory) that subvert male ways of writing (copyrighted, absolute, and closed).
Evolutionary psychologists Catherine Salmon and Donald Symons, coauthors of Warrior Lovers: Erotic Fiction, Evolution, and Female Sexuality, argue that the predominantly female-written genre speaks to differences in mating behavior between men and women. According to Darwinian psychology, our hunter-gatherer forebears had different needs—the men to impregnate as many women as possible; the women to find a nice, stable, dependable man to provide for them. Porn reflects the male desire, say Salmon and Symons, and romance novels reflect the female. As for slash, perhaps the erotic fanfic gives modern women a way to have their cake and eat it too. The genre illustrates how "some women prefer the fantasy of being a cowarrior to that of being a Mrs. Warrior," say Salmon and Symons, but the relationships' emphasis on friendship, loyalty, and fidelity also reflect Darwinian desires for a responsible guy who will stick around. To a feminist reader, this analysis has some clear flaws, especially the way it strains to explain the gender unconventionality of slash in such retrograde, traditional terms. Certainly some women prefer being cowarrior to Mrs. Warrior. And others may imbue their slash relationships with "womanly" qualities of loyalty and good communication. But it's frustrating that Salmon and Symons try to reduce the work of female slash writers down to an essentialist baby-making vs. gender-equality conflict, ignoring examples of fanfic that don't fit into that mold.
But writing a tale of men's love made the possibilities sizzle. It would be like crafting a sonnet, a villanelle, something with meter, method, and my own madness. There was also the satisfaction of teasing out a subtext. Those long glances and the tense, fraught moments could all mean something quite different if I looked at them in the right way. Finding that subtext between men and women was no fun—it was a given. In any case, a male/female relationship didn't feel as if it could be mine. Male/male relationships provided just the right balance: the room for both allegiance to and independence from the original material. It is precisely that quality of ordered freedom that explains why science fiction has become such fertile ground for slash. Science fiction is deeply concerned with utopias, dystopias, possibilities, alternatives, and fantasies, but it is also deeply bound to the order and logic of science (however fancifully constructed it may be). For all its whimsy and strangeness, science fiction also mirrors our own reality. And slash seems to reflect that combination.
Many slash writers are compelled to redraft male characters so they are a bit more communicative and tender—qualities stereotypically associated with women. But there are pitfalls if one goes too far. Some slash stories have lantern-jawed guys coming home with flowers every day, tying on pink aprons, weeping over lost football games. These stereotypes, "feminine" or no, are boring despite the genders involved. But more than that, these tales are not sexy. There is just too much sameness to the characters—both men so soft and squishy—that one has no sense of how their differences could be complementary, or how they are different characters at all.
For many, slash has become a potent way to personalize interactions with a show, to lay claim to it by infusing it with sexual fantasy, gender role-playing, and power dynamics. And for those who are politically inclined, writing slash is a creative endeavor with feminist overtones—one that allows people to ponder gender issues in a creative, supportive environment. The world of slash, after all, is populated predominantly by women who are not mere consumers of culture but who have become producers in their own right. Slash writers, along with authors of other fanfic, have changed TV- and movie-watching from a passive act into one that is participatory, allowing the deciphering and creation of meaning. That a slash writer can grapple with gender and power issues adds extra richness to the already subversive practice of writing fanfic. Luckily, there's no shortage of material. Television leaves a lot to be desired—which means more room for slash writers to fill with their imaginations. Even if TV changes dramatically for the better—with more programs that highlight deep, complex characters and show a broader range of social issues, loves, and sexual orientations—I'm sure that slash writers will find their space. They're too ornery, too independent, and too ingenious to let even the best TV prevent them from finding ways to improve it.