History of Femslash Fandom

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See Timeline of Femslash Fandom and Fanworks and Timeline of Femslash in Canon Sources.

Fandom: Femslash
Dates: 1970s - present
See also: Timeline of Femslash, History of Slash Fandom, Slash Controversies, Slash Tropes

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This article's focus is f/f slash in fandom and fanworks. See History of Slash Fandom for slash focused on m/m.

Femslash: An Invisible History

While homosexual, bisexual and transgender people have always existed, people in former times did not think of sexual orientation, identity, or gender the same way they do today. There are, however, far fewer historical mentions of lesbianism than male homosexuality, possibly due to many historical writings and records focusing primarily on men. Autostraddle noted the following:

Historically, female sexuality, specifically queer female sexuality, flies invisible within our culture. You’ve probably experienced this when you’ve held hands with your girlfriend and she is still referred to as your friend, your roommate, or even your sister. Two girls being affectionate to each other, physically and emotionally, is seen as relatively acceptable and not indicative of homosexuality, so long as neither girl looks like one of those queer deviants. Let’s call it “Gal Pal Syndrome,” since celebrity queer ladies can be making out with their current smooch in public, but they’re still just gal pals out on the town, right? Maybe the same thing is happening in the media we consume: physical, emotional, and even sexual tension between women is something that is supposedly very hard to read, so it’s possible we’re just not seeing it.[1]

Femslash and the 1970s

The history of femslash most likely dates to early Star Trek fandom around 1970, with two of the first known femslash fics being published at this time. Kismet, a Chapel/Uhura fic by Dani Morin was published the zine Obsc'zine.[2] And Then..., a story set on a Klingon ship featuring original characters, by C.M was published sometime between 1975 and 1977 in the zine Obsczine.

These two publications (Obsc'zine and Obsczine), despite their nearly identical names, were not connected in any way. One was published in the United States by a very well known BNF and was part of a series, and the other zine was an obscure one-shot published in the UK. It is likely that neither publisher had any idea the other fan's zine existed.

Femslash and the 1980s

In the 1980s, fandom's interaction with the properties they love was still mostly focused around fanzines.

As most fandom activity was still centered on "genre" properties, this left femslashers and queer women with few opportunities. However, there were still femslash stories being written within the Star Trek, Doctor Who and Blake's 7 fandoms. Shows like The Facts of Life also inspired queer readings.

Some of the first written femslash within their respective fandoms were Changing by Jane Carnall, published in 1985 in published in "touched" #4, which is believed to be first Blake's 7 femslash story. [3] Another early Blake's 7 example is Customs by Barbara T, published in The Unique Touch #2 in 1988. A 1989 Blake's 7 zine is Power.

An early, if not the first, published femslash fic in the Starsky & Hutch fandom is New Year by Paula Smith, published 1981 in the zine Storms. From a flyer for that zine: "Hutch falls in love with a lady enigma."

Cagney & Lacey, premiered in 1982 after a 1981 pilot, quickly gained a large and dedicated lesbian following, and is cited in Francesca Coppa's A Brief History of Media Fandom as the first lesbian slash fandom. Although, the fandom went to be lambasted by the press, being called “kamikaze lesbians”, after a woman broke into star Sharon Gless’s home.[4]

At the time Slash and Femslash was generally viewed with some scorn and fear within fandoms, likely born out of homophobic attitudes and a desire not to have their fannish material cracked down upon by The Powers That Be. It was not uncommon for homosexual fans to be threatened with outing by other members of their fandom, going so far as threatening to contact employers if someone wrote slash of femslash fanfiction.

As fannish terminology began to take shape, develop and gain universal fannish meaning, these female/female stories began to generally be called f/f slash.

Femslash and the Arrival of the Internet

During this same period of the mid to late 1980s, some fandoms began to move online. The rise of the internet, and particularly Usenet saw an explosion of creative output in mainstream fandoms. A lack of female characters in genre shows still left femslash fans with few opportunities, but writers working in existing fandoms were still producing and sharing femslash.

By 1996, a number of factors seemed to have come together and femslash became more visible. Femslash had began to show up at conventions such as Media West, helping to expose it to a larger audience. The internet continued to grow in popularity and America Online, CompuServe and Prodigy brought more users online for the first time.

Enter Xena

While femslash communities had remained small in the 70s and 80s, the 90s brought the premiered of Xena: Warrior Princess, and with it new wave of femslash related content. Afterellen summarizes Xena's impact on femslash as such:

The mother of all femslash is, without a doubt, Xena: Warrior Princess, which premiered in September 1995. Xena was unique in that it was a television program in which the hero and the hero’s sidekick were both women. That relationship, between former warlord-turned-heroine Xena and the initially innocent bard Gabrielle, was one of the most three-dimensional relationships between women seen on television. That relationship also involved them in a number of sexually suggestive situations, as the two famously bathed together, shared mystical kisses, and sang to each other in melodramatic musical episodes.

It seems almost inevitable that fans would pick up on the lingering glances and interpret those declarations of unending “friendship” as a lesbian romance in the making. Xena producers even caught on to the fans’ interpretation of the subtext and obliged them by inserting more and more subtext into the show as the seasons passed.[5]

While Xena was airing, fans moved away from labeling their fannish works f/f slash or female-female slash, instead calling the material Alternative. This term would be the defining one for the material in several other fandoms as Xena fan brought their terminology with them when enter other fannish spaces.

Bongo Bear, writing in a meta at Whoosh!, surmised that alternative works can be described as:

“an adult fairy tale through which the [writer] expresses her own beliefs and ideals about loving relationships. One of these ideals is that lesbian lovers are as unremarkable as any heterosexual couple. This is an unspoken premise of almost all Altfic, romantic or not, and it is the significant differentiator from traditional heterosexual romance.”[6]

An active altfic community quickly developed around the show and was helped by the large lesbian audience for the show who had become interested in a show that focused almost solely on the relationship between two women. By 1997, this community had begun archiving their material on websites, some of which contained only femslash material.

In the Season 2 episode "The Xena Scrolls" alternate universe versions of the principle characters appeared. This led to a whole subgenre of Xena fanfiction known as uber, a term coined in 1997 by Kym Taborn, owner of the Xena fansite Whoosh!.[7] It was one of the first incidents of a fandom embracing the AU and is especially notable as many of these AUs/uber fics were later converted into original works that were then published as lesbian romance novels.

On the effect of uber in femslash, io9 wrote:

They had a lot of creativity too, and immediately started churning out fanfic and fanart that even straight fans could enjoy. Then, late in the second season, the show aired an episode that would not only alter the Xena fandom—but fandom at large—forever
Cover of Tropical Storm (1999 JHP) an alt uber novel by Melissa Good. It became the first commercially released Uber-Xena novel, starting a trend of Uber-Xena print publications.

“The Xena Scrolls” was a “clip” show designed to be cheap and help fulfill the episode order. It just happened to be a damn clever clip show. Set in the 1930s, it was a major role reversal for the primary women of the cast. Lucy Lawless wasn’t a flinty-eyed warrior princess, but a Southern debutant out to reclaim her father’s reputation, and Renee O’Connor wasn’t the bubbly sidekick, but a hard-nosed adventurer out to restore her family name after her father sullied it. The episode was so popular it inspired its own fandom. It also inspired the creation of a whole new genre of fanfiction, which started out being called “uberfic” before being renamed “AU,” for “alternate universe.”

AUs had existed before Xena, but they’ve been rare and frequently unpopular. Xena romanticized the AU. It wasn’t just about putting good looking people in new situations. There was something distinctly canonical about it. These were soulmates meeting again and again throughout time, living the same stories over and over again, with little tweaks here and there.

The Xena fandom took the opportunity presented by “The Xena Scrolls” and ran with it—changing the characters but always keeping some element, however small, the same. And as they produced more and more uberfic, the scenarios presented in the stories moved further and further away from the original conceits of the show. Writers were spending months—even years—on their fanfic. After a point a question was naturally asked: why not just sell it?

Almost fifteen years before E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Gray the Xena fandom was "scrubbing the serial numbers" off their uberfic and turning fanfic writers into lesbian lit superstars. And they’re still doing it today. Check out the top ten best selling lesbian romance novels on Amazon. They’re almost all either former fanfics, or the work of authors who started as uberfic writers.[4]

Anime, Manga and Yuri

While femslash communities were developing at this period of time, they were generally separate from anime and manga fandoms. Anime fans were in their own separate space, with their own terminology and fannish practices. By 1995, the femslash contingent was defined enough that Yuri was the term of choice for the femslash equivalent in that culture. Yuri can focus either on the sexual or the emotional aspects of the relationship, the latter sometimes being called shoujo ai by western fans. The terms yuri and shoujo ai came into use early in the history of English speaking animanga fandom. These parallel the usage of yaoi and shounen ai in those fandoms.

As Xena: The Warrior Princess took off, Sailor Moon’s femslash period rose as the other large community of the day. Femslash is very popular in Sailor Moon, with the main cast being practically all females. The Inner (Moon, Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, & Venus) and Outer (Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, & Saturn) Senshi are often shipped together, Chibiusa (Sailor Chibi-Moon/Mini-Moon) is often shipped with Sailor Saturn. However the most popular canon femslash pairing is Haruka/Michiru (Uranus/Neptune) - although the English dub of Sailor Moon garnered negative comments for destroying their established relationship - first leaving it unsaid before eventually getting the two to refer to each other as cousins.

Sailor Moon helped to create more femslash/yuri audience for other anime shows which would become big in the United States, shows such as Card Captor Sakura and Revolutionary Girl Utena. These audiences would begin crossing over with western fandoms, helping to change both cultures.

Femslash Growth Across Fandoms

By the late 90s, the femslash community had become bigger with more fandoms started joining in. Babylon 5, Roswell and X-Files had small communities with participants actively plugging their material and relationships. The premiere of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 1997 soon led to a large fannish following, including many femslash shippers who saw chemistry between Buffy and fellow slayer Faith. Willow began a canon relationship with Tara in late 1999/early 2000, giving rise to a large and enthusiastic fandom.

Buffy: The Vampire Slayer has also had a significant impact on femslash because the show features several three-dimensional female characters, and because one of the characters, Willow, came out as a lesbian in Season 4. For the first few seasons of the series, Buffy fan fiction was largely heterosexual and not terribly explicit, but as the characters matured, so did the fan fiction. A favorite slash pairing was the violent and moody Angel/Spike couple, while femslash inspired by Buffy includes Buffy/Faith, Buffy/Willow, Buffy/Cordelia, and any number of other female/female couplings. But the largest amount of femslash in the Buffyverse centers on Willow/Tara, the show's first openly lesbian couple.

The characters of Willow and Tara quickly developed their own group of fans within the broader Buffy fandom, and in comparison to other slash fandoms that were largely comprised of straight women, Willow/Tara fans are often lesbians.[5]

As fandoms such as Xena and Buffy grew and gained more attention, new shows started airing and it became more acceptable to write femslash material. Fandoms migrating brought writer from older fandoms to new ones that had well defined female characters. Battlestar Galactica, Firefly, Harry Potter, The L Word, Smallville and Queen of Swords quickly found themselves with their own communities.

The femslash community also began another terminology shift as creators such as Kate Bolin started using femslash and saffic instead of f/f slash. Much of the growth across femslash fandoms was aided by the ability to quickly, easily and cheaply create mailing lists, many of which were started in 1999. Star Trek and Buffy: The Vampire Slayer were popular amongst such mailing lists. This move toward mailing lists was one of the many factors pushing the centralization of both fandoms away from Usenet and into new mediums such as Yahoo! Groups, LiveJournal and Fanfiction.net.

Femslash Finds its Voice

In the late 2000s femslash started to strike a chord within fandoms as more canon lesbian and bisexual women were shown in a variety of media. Brittana became the first femslash couple ever willed into canon by the activism of fans.

In 2009 femslash exploded rapidly. Glee was on the air, and was promising lots of queer representation—only it was primarily guys getting their gay on. The Brittany and Santana relationship, that would come to dominate much of the Glee fandom conversation, was born out of one throwaway line about two featured extras and a group of women’s yearning to see themselves on TV.

It was fandom willing a pairing into canon.

And fandom’s reason? Queer women deserve representation.

The cry for representation wasn’t new, but Glee fans had, at the time, unprecedented access to the creators of their show. They didn’t have to mount letter campaigns, or ship hot sauce to a studio. They could bombard Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk directly via Twitter, and they could bombard them constantly.

It wasn’t a campaign, as much as an irate and well-meaning mob shouting through the ethers. And it worked. Murphy and Falchuk saw the the Twitter trends and the Tumblr hashtags, and acquiesced. “Brittana” went from a “crack” ship to a major narrative driving force of the show.

A key reason, besides young fans’ ability to bombard the Glee cast and crew with tweets, was that they had a very noble cause beyond wanting to see some genital grinding. For the first time, the majority of the fans begging for a couple to be canon were actual members of the community they wanted represented. Their call for expanded LBGTQ representation carried with it not just fans’ desire to see fictional people get together, but sincere social activism.

This set a precedent that quickly became thorny in the community itself. Now any queer gal pairing was the right pairing to have on a show, because of representation. Fans of male slash glommed onto the idea as well—and suddenly Sherlock had to be gay for Watson, and Dean had to love Castiel because gay guys need to be on TV too (which is, you know, a totally valid concern). And if a showrunner failed to meet their demands? Then their show was a homophobic monstrosity, best consigned to the cancellation column.

Femslash fans remained in the forefront of these campaigns to push same-sex romantic pairings. But this marriage of activism and romance was about to implode spectacularly. All thanks to a show about fairytales coming true.[4]

The decade of the 2010s saw more and more canon lesbian and bisexual women characters appear in a variety of media, often in canon relationships with other women, such as Callie/Arizona, Korrasami, Ruby/Sapphire, Tracer/Emily, and Bubbline.

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