Help! My slash goggles are stuck!

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Title: Help! My slash goggles are stuck!
Creator: melannen
Date(s): February 24, 2007
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External Links: Help! My slash goggles are stuck!; archive link page 1; archive link page 2
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Help! My slash goggles are stuck! is a 2007 essay by melannen.

The essay has 81 comments.

For additional context, see Timeline of Slash Meta and Slash Meta.

Some Topics Discussed in the Essay and Comments

Excerpts from the Essay

Pt 1: Slash and the inverted male gaze:

The "male gaze" is a concept that comes out of feminist media theory. Not having ever formally studied either feminism or the media, I came to the idea mostly through fandom - through online comics fandom specifically, where it's an *extremely* self-evident and relevant idea. It's a kind of sticky concept, but for the purposes of this discussion let's define it as something along the lines of "the assumption that the most important members of any audience are straight males." As a result, everything that we see in the media is first passed through the filter of "would this be attractive to that hypothetical straight male?"

It came out of film theory, I believe, talking about where the camera points and how we choose what is shown on screen, but it's very easily extensible to real life: everyone who performs a female character on screen is expected to think, first, about what the straight male wants - well, so is everyone who performs a female identity in *real life*. In fact, once I started thinking along those pathways, I've had trouble turning it off. How much of what we see in the images around us, in advertising, books, movies, celebrities, fashion - is based on what we think that stereotyped default straight male wants? And as a result, how much do women have to always act in the awareness of their own sexual desirability, and the percieved importance of that desirability?

I'd love to call this way of seeing "woman's gaze". I'd love to live in a world where I could, and where woman's gaze was as default as man's. But the fact that we still so often have to borrow a man's gaze in order to see this way - well, says a lot about the strides that feminism still needs to take. Instead, I'm going to call it "slasher's gaze". Because I think, in a real way, through the female-controlled space we've created in slash, that's how we've found that way of looking at men -- with the assumption that *we* (as slashers) are the important ones, *we* are the ones who are doing the looking, *our* gaze has power and *our* desire is what's important, and the *men* are the ones who ought to worry about what we're thinking.

I think that slasher's gaze is a fundamental element of what I think of as the "slash aesthetic". Yes, I'm one of those weird people who believes in a slash aesthetic, and I define myself as a slasher because I like that aesthetic even if I tend to read and write at least as much other stuff as I do m/m. A few years ago, if you'd asked me what that entailed, I would have said "I know it when I see it!" Because it's more than who's having sex with who - there are m/m stories that don't have that feel to me, and f/m and f/f and gen stories that do (Note: I'm not saying that m/m stories that don't have that aesthetic to me aren't "real slash", or making any quality judgements; I'm just saying that they're different, in a noticeable way, and that when we talk about slash as a sexual identity or as a kink or as a culture we often aren't talking about those stories.) I think, for me, what defines the slash aesthetic is the slash gaze. In a story that reads as 'slashy' to me, men are desired and displayed in more-or-less the same way that women are in most of the rest of our culture. It doesn't really have anything to do with the way the writer might see the world, or whether she has ever used that 'slasher's gaze' in a real-life situation - but within the slashy story itself, men view themselves as people who are looked at, rather than as the ones who do the looking.
Pt 2. Applying the Slasher's Gaze to Fantexts:

I want to say here, very explicitly, in the context of re-reading all those old meta posts, that by "created a space" I mean a *fictional* space - it's easy to go from talking about what slash is to talking about the people who write and read it and the communities they've formed, and the values of those communities, and that is a fruitful place for discussion to go own its own. But by linking the concept of slasher's gaze back to the idea of a slash aesthetic, I'm trying to establish something that's intrinsic to slash regardless of the community around us, or if we're even aware that there are other women looking with us. Something that we see in a text and grab hold of for dear life, and *that's* what makes us slashers.

A slash gaze is something inherent to the way a story is shaped that will color it regardless of wider context, if it's there - something that called out to me, sitting alone in my room with no fandom contacts, the minute I opened that googled link to the Draco Trilogy. Or even years and years before that, reading one of Marshak&Culbreath's Star Trek stories with no idea what I'd stumbled on but knowing it was something new and something strange and maybe dangerous and oh, I wanted more. Neither of those examples are even m/m, mind, but they read as 'slashy' almost universally, I think, because the male characters are kept so aware of their own forced passivity, and potential desirability, and the ways in which that limits them. But the vast majority of slashy fantexts are explicitly m/m, I think, because borrowing and reworking that 'gay man's gaze', and all the power and freedom of action and assumptions that comes with the 'male' part, is the simplest way to find the slasher's gaze that looks at men from a position of power, and makes them react to the fact that it's looking.

Even in the least conscious, smarmiest old WNGWJLEO stories, where all repercussions in the wider world are cut out of the central pairing, that slasher's gaze is still there in the way that the central friendship becomes eroticized, because the characters are forced to confront (explicitly or not) the way in which the other person's sexual desire for them has shaped their friendship; they're forced to look back and analyze their own behavior, and the other party's reactions to it, seeing themselves not as a person in a friendship, but as passive vessel for sexual desire. Which is something most women have to do, with some friendship, sooner or later (usually sooner) in their lives.
Whew! Long essay. And I made it all the way to the end without ever using the terms 'patriarchy', 'privilege', 'subversion' or 'objectification'! Go me. There's a lot in there and a *lot* of places I could take it from there - I keep coming up with ways to answer old fannish questions in terms of this theory, which if I were an astrophycist at least would be a point in my favor. And more importantly, maybe, I need to think some more about the ethical implications of using, and glorifying, that particular way of seeing.

Excerpts from Comments

[seige of angels]:

... you mention that one can be the existence of bad guys who want to take/use men's bodies, and I TOTALLY JUST REALIZED that there are good guys who do this too, namely military/law enforcement. Because John Sheppard is required by someone else to look and dress a certain way, to go where they tell him to go, to follow orders, to be conscious that he will *always be viewed* as a representative of the USAF/US/Earth/Atlantis. So he's already in a position that makes him the recipient of the male gaze.

Same thing with Benton Fraser, part of whose job, iirc, is to *stand outside the Canadian Consulate and look nice*.

Ray Kowalski has the cop thing on top of the undercover thing, where he's again *explicitly playing a part*.

So I think that that situation--characters in the military or law enforcement or . . . prison, maybe. Any situation with uniforms, basically--is going to be inherently slashy or more *easily* slashed, because the characters are already the objects of the gaze.
[melannen]: Sheppard is his own thing. Sheppard is basically a treatise on the inverted male gaze *all by himself*. He's just ... so totally concious of being looked at, while at the same time so totally passive with it. In the canon he is also a lot less *competent* at it - and at realizing exactly what messages he's sending - than he often is in fic, but that 'John-you-are-not-the-sexetary' thing is still so fundamental to his character. Possibly because it's hard for most women to imagine being as clumsy as he is at negotiating it? It's just ... John! Oh you and your issues! And then you add in Rodney's equal-but-opposite self-image issues and it's the slashiest pairing ever *despite* comparatively little onscreen schmoop. Anyway. Um. Enough about John. I think .. maybe there are shows where there are men who just happen to carry badges and/or wear uniforms, and then you have shows where the uniforms are vitally important to the way they ... survive walking out the door in the morning. Does that make sense? Maybe the partners thing is part of this, too, the us-against-the-world thing which is so slashy and which requires that the world is out to get you...
[elspethdixon]: more often, it means canon that's already got the idea built in that no, it's not safe to walk outside alone at night just because you're a man. Because there's something out there that's watching, and it might get you if you do. I'm pretty sure I'm attracted to those fandoms because the potential for action/violence/hurt-comfort/seeing-peop​le-get-beat-up-real-good is so much higher, but I also think there might be something to your theory that placing male characters in peril/making them vulnerable to some outside threat makes it easier for viewers to see them as sexual objects. I'm making this up as I go along here, but putting the male lead in physical danger might encourage female viewer identification (the way having the "last girl" in a slasher flick fight back against the monster apparently encourages male identification), which might make it easier for fans to transfer that female sense of being a potential sex object onto him.
[stellar dust]:

I think you have a pretty valid point with the concept of an inverted male gaze as as a conduit to a shifted worldview (more powerful vantage point?) on the part of slashers. And I think you make very good arguments. (But then, I always find your writing easy to read and persuasive.)

Something that I find really interesting in all this is that there seem to be several different types (degrees, if you will) of slash aesthetic. I'm assuming that your audience at Notcapade pretty much shares your views and perspective. I seem to be somewhat different in my approach, and I'm not really sure ... why, I guess. For one thing, you rattle off all these slash 'ships you like, and the main reason I don't read them is that canonically, they hate each other! Do you see *that* sort of tension as an essential part of your aesthetic? Is the male gaze more easily or satisfyingly inverted, maybe, when the guys are already set into roles wherein they both seek power over the other, and is it easier to subvert that canonical power-play (be it political, or military, or a personal vendetta, or whatever) into a sexual power-play through the slasher's gaze? That actually sounds kinda fucked up, when I put it that way...! Do I really see slash so differently from the mainstream? Is it so odd to see it mostly in existing *friendships*? I don't think so, but ... maybe?

I think of myself as ... a fic-reader who likes slash. The main reasons why I don't define myself as a "slasher" are 1) I've never written any and 2) I don't really participate at all in the fandom beyond the occasional feedback or one-off comment on a meta post, so I don't feel like I'm a part of the community that self-identifies as slashers, and I feel like the label is something that should be at least marginally earned. The fact that I also enjoy gen and het has no bearing. But you seem to have different reasons for not labeling me a slasher, or not primarily a slasher, which seems mostly influenced by the pairings I prefer, and I'm very interested in seeing you analyze that!

In your first draft of the essay, you emphasized a little more clearly than you meant to, I think, a separation between finding a man attractive as a man, and finding him attractive as someone with slash potential. You rephrased it and I got your intent a little better - not seeing them exactly as a woman would, or exactly as a man would, or exactly as a gay man, or exactly as a slasher - but from a position of power, which in our culture and media is represented by the "male gaze." Which I totally get, after thinking about it for awhile, because the guys that I like to slash, I tend to see from ALL of those perspectives, all at the same time. Although, here's an interesting thought: it isn't so much about power, or that they should be afraid of what I'm thinking when I look at them: it's that they shouldn't be afraid to admit they *like* what I'm thinking. Eh? Eh? (*looks down* y hello thar, Stephen!) So in liberating our pretty pretty men, we liberate ourselves? Does that make sense?

[snipped]

Does this mean that the slash I like is just het where both the participants are male (where the guys are feminized, I guess)? I hope not! And I don't *think* so. There's been a lot of metafandoms (that I've mostly skipped over) recently about top vs. bottom and what that implies in terms of femininization, and honestly, I don't see that kind of characterization toward set sexual roles in the fic I like. I like fic that's true to the characters no matter who's doing what to who .. and yes, fic where both the woman *and* the men are strong *and* good-looking. d-: And .. I think that what I like, within the bounds of good story, good characters, and people who are *people* first and *gendered* second ... is influenced *first* by the fact that *I* think they're hot, and only second by the fact that *I* think *they* should think they're hot.

Does that even touch on your point at all? I'm not sure anymore. d-:

But, the part where you say slash dethrones the male myth by making men vulnerable to men in some of the same ways that women are - yes, yes, and also yes. And your points about why some fandoms are larger than others is very relevant to at least Boston Legal, I think. Also *word* on the slasher's space being more important in our *heads* than in the community of slashers.

I do think, though - and I'm sure this has been dissected time and again and again ... and again - that there's a trend in media today towards including the idea of a female gaze, starting to give it camera time, maybe not quite equal, but certainly catching up to the male gaze. At least in the fandoms that I gravitate to. There's tight pants and bare chests and vulnerability, and just *inviting* the female audience to lust. I mean, you've got Mulder as the needy one, Angel and his hot pants, Daniel the intergalactic slut, *every* bloody guy on Battlestar Galactica. It's not quite as empowering as the slasher's gaze you've described, in that the men-slash-characters don't necessarily feel looked at, or do it for the purpose of being looked at (it's more fanservice, really), but I don't think there's any denying it exists.
[executrix]:I think it was Ruth Benedict (but possibly Margaret Mead?) who said that the thing about cultures is that whatever men do in that culture, whether it's schlepping huge rocks or hunting hummingbirds, *that's* considered a big deal. I find the whole concept of the Male Gaze to be a prime example of this. Whoot, men are gazing! So that makes gazing active and powerful and necessitous of huge plenteously secreting testicles! Dude, you're sitting in a movie theater or on the living room couch looking at pictures.
[melannen]: I think for me the point of the male gaze is asking *why* gazing, in this culture, is a Thing Men Do. As opposed to a Thing People Do, like driving or eating take-out. (I have read statistics which make a very good case that it's because Men are Stupid - which is to say, men are apparently much more easily influenced by advertising than women are, so in the media their gazes are, quantitatively monetarily, more valuable. Which is why, for example, SpikeTV started showing stupid game shows with scantily-clad women instead of Highlander reruns and I had to go elsewhere for my sweaty half-naked men. Yet one more reason why an advertising-supported culture is bad.)
[executrix]: and yet another reason why fandom is a Beautiful Community where not only do we have woman-controlled smut, but NONCOMMERCIAL COOPERATIVE woman-controlled smut.
[strongplacebo] I'm just as likely to look at a male and think "he'd play really well in slash" (or even "I want to see him in leather pants! As a rentboy! Up against the wall!", or, in days of yore, "He's so bishie!") than I am to think he's attractive through the lens of my *own* sexuality, which skews somewhat different.

I find this interesting, purely for the amount that we're willing to accept as sexy in slash that we wouldn't find sexy ourselves. I read plenty of fic centred around BDSM, but if someone came anywhere near my with a studded panel in real life, I'd be out of the door faster than you could say sadomasochism.

I think in some ways, the 'slasher's gaze' is a stepping stone in this feminist bid to reclaim the 'male gaze'. Before we can see men as being recipients to sexual desire when seen by women, we have to have this transition - the man is pursuing as well as being pursued, and then he can relinquish the role of the hunter, so to speak.
[cathexys]: What we're often looking at is not just the imagined male character looking at/desiring another male character but a WOMAN writing this male character looking at/desiring another male character, i.e., all of it is filtered through and construed within our female fantasy space, right?
[rushin doll]: It strikes me that girls are socialized to think of themselves as objects of sexual desire. This is in part due to the whole gaze thing, and in part due to general cultural assumptions. The result is that girls tend to be aware of their status as sexually desirable at a pretty fundamental level of their identity. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, though there is a lot of cultural baggage involving conforming to societal standards of sexual desirability.

This is not the case with boys. They're not socialized to be as aware of their sexual desirability, and that desirability isn't generally a part of their core identity. (I've heard from guys, on more than one occasion, that the biggest thing they learned about themselves when they started dating was that they were desirable.)

These differences arise, I think, primarily from the fact that society has this default viewer, and that default viewer sees women as sexually desirable, but not men. This makes me think that the "slash gaze" may be defaulting to a consideration of men as sexually desirable without necessarily involving desire. Sort of in the way that someone might note that someone else is "sexy" without actually feeling attracted to that person.

Assuming I'm not just making crazy stuff up, this is an incredibly interesting new perspective on slash for me. It implies that at least some people involved in slash culture adopt a viewpoint of the world around them which is subversive in that it views all men, in part, through a lens of sexual desirability.

References