Queer Advocacy and Slash Fandom: Then and Now

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Title: Queer Advocacy and Slash Fandom: Then and Now
Creator: lierdumoa
Date(s): first part in 2012, addition in 2013?
Medium: tumblr (online)
External Links: Queer Advocacy and Slash Fandom: Then and Now, Archived version
Click here for related articles on Fanlore.

Queer Advocacy and Slash Fandom: Then and Now is an essay by lierdumoa.

Contains the heartbreaking line: "At least we have Torchwood?"

Some Topics Discussed


NOTE: This post was written prior to the end of season 2 Teen Wolf. I more than anyone know that show devolved into a misogynist, racist, abuse apologist rape promoting piece of infected shit, so obviously anything good I might have said about the show in this post was from a place of innocence, not realizing how truly terrible the show would grow to become.

That said, I still stand by all my opinions regarding slash fans, and the purpose of slash in fan culture.

Most advocates for queer rights would agree that we suffer from a lack of positive representation in the media, and that prejudices within the media both reflect, and contribute to prejudices in society at large.

In order for people to hold prejudice against queerness they must first believe that queerness is abnormal/wrong/bad. In order for people to believe that, they must first assume that straightness is normal/right/good.

This bias, otherwise known as heteronormativity, is the foundation on which queer oppression is built.Homophobia and biphobia and and transphobia are all products of heteronormativity.

Therefore, when I argue for better queer representation in the media, I am fighting not merely for a greater quantity of queer representation. I am fighting mainstream media’s heteronormative and totally inaccurate conception of what constitutes/qualifies as queer.

Once upon a time all queerness was considered wrong, and all forms of queer advocacy were considered ridiculous. Now we have people within the queer community denigrating other people in the queer community for being the wrong kind of queer, or doing the wrong kind of advocacy.

Where does slash come in to this?

A lot of people seem to believe that slash is the wrong kind of advocacy. They say that slash fans are perverted, crazy, sexually deviant and unhealthily fixated. They say that slash fans are really just straight girls [1] appropriating queerness, and not part of the queer community at all. They say that slash itself contradicts and undermines the goals of the queer community at large.

I disagree.

I think slash is a valid and effective form of queer advocacy. Valid because subverting heteronormativity is the fundamental premise of slash. Effective due to slash fandom’s measurable influence on popular media (and therefore on culture and on society), which I will discuss further in the next segment of this essay.

Consider the damage that heteronormativity continues to wreak on popular culture via mainstream media.

Take, for example, the issue of bi-erasure.

According to the world of modern television, I do not qualify as queer. I’m neither white enough nor gay enough nor male enough to have my story told or my identity acknowledged. No one on television will even say the word bisexual outside the context of stereotyping, trivializing and denigrating bisexuality. Mainstream media would have me believe that my identity is a phase. And that goes double for supposedly progressive shows like Glee and Queer as Folk.[5]

The erasure doesn’t stop there. Entertainment periodicals, fandom journalists and even regular fan bloggers continually reinforce the idea that all characters are “straight until proven gay” and that gayness is the only valid form of queerness.

People refer to characters such as Kurt Hummel, Charlie Bradbury and Danny Mahealani as “real” queer characters, thereby implying that characters such as Stiles Stilinski, Dean Winchester or Xena are only “pretend” queer. Fans who invest emotional energy in these so called “pretend” queer characters and their “pretend” queer subtext are accused of being delusional (never mind that the “pretend” queer subtext is put in deliberately).

Heteronormativity in the media and in society hinders self-awareness in queer youth, which in turn hinders healthy social interaction, intimacy and the development of healthy relationships. Heteronormativity is the reason I didn’t figure out I was bisexual until age seventeen, when I should have realized at age seven 7 (trust me, it was obvious even then).

Slash, in contrast, is the reason I figured out I was bisexual at age 17, when I otherwise might not have realized until age 27. Slash undid a lot of the damage done to me by heteronormativity. As a multiracial queer female, slash has given me the acknowledgement I needed. Slash fandom has given me a home and a voice.

Anyone who has ever participated in slash fandom in any way, shape or form has done so out of a desire/appreciation for queer stories – stories that mainstream media has failed to provide due to its heteronormative bias. Slash takes the stories given to us by mainstream media and subverts them to fill a cultural niche. It doesn’t matter whether slash fans are looking for queer representation, or queer social commentary, or queer romantic escapism, or queer wank material. Slash combats heteronormativity by its very existence, regardless of the motivations of its creators or the desires of its audience.

I am not trying to say that slash fiction is sacrosanct, or that slash fans are model citizens who never display problematic behavior. No community is free of problematic behavior. There are racist and sexist and abelist and homophobic people who consider themselves sports fans. But being a sports fan, as a concept, is none of these things.

Slash, as a concept, is none of these things.

Slash is good, and we should feel good.

Some Comments

[catladyinwaiting]:This is an excellent analysis, (and it footnotes Torchwood!) and pretty much in line with what i’m trying to say in that imaginary/imagined/prospective SWTX PCA/ACA 2014 paper – except this explains the OUTCOMES of the existence of slash / a slash fanbase… and my imagined paper looks to film theory / media studies to try to assess the ORIGINS of a slash fanbase (how the male gaze of the camera comes to be queered, as it were), specifically in dS (because it’s one of the first internet-enabled fandoms, and because it’s the friendliest fandom, and because due South is nerdily awesome and i have personal attachments that make it worth writing about).
bookshop: While I agree with the fundamental baseline argument that slash fanfiction, on a basic level, works to represent queer characters and make the world a queerer place, I have huge problems with the argument this post lays out.

For one thing, it is significantly rewriting slash fandom history to make the claim that “slash has shaped how modern media represents queerness,” or to imply that the existence of early slash fandom did anything to further out characters who already had an immense amount of homoerotic tension.

Slash fandom did not invent the concept of homoeroticism. Queer subtext without payoff is a fundamental part of the celluloid closet. (If you have not yet watched or read The Celluloid Closet, I strongly recommend doing both.)

Historically, slash fandom has only been groundbreaking for the people who have been in it. The lesbian relationships on Voyager and Xena were built organically from fan followings, but they also were never more than fully subtextual, much like Mulder/Krycek on the X-Files. Buffy’s groundbreaking lesbian relationship wasn’t a product of a fan following, and was actively resisted by a huge part of the Buffy fandom at first. As a subculture, an awareness of the existence of slash fandom did not directly impact the way shows portrayed queerness, until arguably the mid-2000s with the influence of Doris Egan on Smallville and House, and the rise of other shows with huge slash followings. And it’s only begun to significantly impact mainstream media representation in American and UK television within the last few years, with Merlin and SPN.

And honestly, I’d hesitate to say that any of these shows have actually been impacted by slash fandom. I won’t really be comfortable making that claim until Teen Wolf gives the world a Sterek makeout, because that, to me, will be “slash fandom shaping how the media represents queerness.”

Until then, look, we have a plethora of strong and solid queer characters popping up. We have Kurt and Sam and Blaine, we have Kalinda on the Good Wife, we have Nolan on Revenge, we have queer relationships in Spartacus and Vikings, we have Cooper on Southland, we have more and more queer characters popping up everywhere. It’s still not enough, and it’s still not diverse enough; but this argument that at this point we need slash fandom to ride in on its white horse and show mainstream media that we need more queer relationships doesn’t feel as urgent and as necessary to me in 2013 as it did when I made the basic argument you’re making four years ago, when Merlin was still in its heyday.

I also am, as a queer slash fan, really, really uncomfortable with the flat claim that “slash” automatically equals “subverting heteronormativity.”

“Slash” is a genre. It’s no more accurate to say that “slash” is the be-all/end-all of queer subversion of heteronormativity than it is to say that “romance” is the literary epitome of female empowerment.

You wouldn’t argue that the dead lesbian trope is a groundbreaking step for queer representation that challenges heteronormativity.

You wouldn’t argue that the gay serial killer is an important and meaningful contribution to the dialogue around the representation of gay men.

You wouldn’t argue that the ‘magical negro’ trope is a fundamentally good thing because it gives white people a character of color that they can relate to and feel good about.

So I honestly, genuinely, don’t understand why we, as slashers, are so adamant that a genre that *frequently* writes gay men into problematic gender tropes, equates those gender tropes with top/bottom dynamics, and quite often perpetuates misogyny along the way, is empowering by default.

It *can* be. It very often *is*. But when it’s empowering, it’s because people write empowering, thoughtful narratives using slash to further their explorations of characters and worlds and basically a) being amazing writers; b) working with the unique conventions and narrative tropes that fanfiction and slash fanfiction allows us as creators; and c) thinking about how queerness impacts these characters and their lives.

It’s NOT because the minute you stick two dudes in a fanfic and have them make out, you suddenly enter a magical problem-free land of empowerment and equality and positive representation that allows you to “combat heteronormativity by its very existence.”

This is like saying that lesbian porn where two girls frequently look at the camera is combating heteronormativity.

When really, slash has just as much potential as crappy girl-on-girl to reinforce heteronormativity, gender stereotypes, and the marginalization of women; and it very frequently does reinforce those things. Often all at once.

I’m so far from okay with the idea that anyone who tries to criticize the workings of slash fandom just doesn’t understand the history of slash fandom. I’ve spent 15 years in fandom and 12 years in slash fandom, and I know my history. I’ve advocated for slash as an empowering phenomenon for over a decade, and I always will. I once told Professor Henry Jenkins that I believed slash fundamentally opens minds because it confronts outsiders with the possibility that their favorite characters could be gay.

But that’s a fucking low bar to aim for, and if that’s what we’re staking our claims of empowerment on then I don’t want any part of it.

Because I love slash, but I’m fucking tired of reading slashfics where women are only there to coo over how cute the main two dudes are, or where the main female character is a matchmaker or someone’s mom or sister, or where the ex-girlfriend or ex-wife is an evil heinous bitch, or where pansexuality gets erased because no woman has ever been as perfect for male character X as male character Y is, and I’m tired of being able to predict which shows and films will get huge slash fanbases from the amount of a) heated archrivalry b) pasty british dudes c) buddy cop-style homoerotic banter in them.

And I’m not saying that banter and archrivalry and pasty british dudes (ooh, mr. hardy) are automatically bad; but when you have lived through years of slash fandom cycling through the same tropes with the same character types over and over again, while perpetuating the same kinds of problematic treatment of women and continual erasure of most of the POC ships you could ship, it gets really hard to see how slash, with its myriad list of problems, will significantly alter the world for the better.

And it’s especially hard not to react with bitter cynicism when any time you try to talk about all these issues, someone accuses you of trolling or hypocrisy or having changed your worldview or something.

Honestly? I love slash. I want slash to change the world. But before we talk about changing the world, or even just mass media, for the better, I’d really fucking just like it if slash fandom could get its head out of its own ass and start writing better narratives and telling more diverse stories. Any way we can.

That’s my priority, anyway.

[poesizing]: I was going to reblog the OP via Teen Wolf Meta, but this person has articulated a lot of my problems with the post.

basically, I agree with the OP that “slash” as a shorthand for “fanfiction featuring queer themes and romances” has the potential to be subversive, but “slash”, at least for me, equals slash fandom as an institution, and frankly I would be down to scrap that and start over from scratch.

if your idea of “empowerment” (as a slash fan) is a fic that tells me it “doesn’t even matter” that I’m interested in guys, you can just leave; I’ve seen that far too many times to not be wary of slash as she is wrote currently.

I’m all for good porn, but don’t try to tell me that in and of itself is subversive.

[fralusans-ana-marein]: this grates me so much because we have modern queer representation not because of the fetishizing straight people in fandoms but because of brave queer people who put their necks on the line and came out publicly and wrote queer characters and played queer characters and talked openly about queerness - please stop crediting your porn for what queer people fought tooth and nail to get
[ureshiiichigo]: I love reading these sorts of commentary. :3 Also, I agree wholeheartedly with her comments on the invisibility of bisexuality. I’d love to see more atypical sexualities in media and popular culture. Sexuality, like gender, is not binary.
[genufa]: 1) Bechdel – i.e. not just interesting female characters, but the portrayal of significant relationships between interesting female characters. While people do come up with ships out of nigh-nowhere, most of the time for a ship to become popular, it has to be, well, shippy/slashy.

2) One reason the slash fantasy is attractive to a lot of women is because it allows for exploration of sexuality without having to deal with the variously fraught experience of their own sexuality (anything from social expectations to power dynamics to triggers to in-reality-does-this-feel-good-for-me). In this sense, should it be considered an intermediary step toward the full understanding and acceptance of one’s own sexuality? Perhaps, when you consider how many fandom ppl are queer or alternatively sexual. I wouldn’t call it a rule (and it’s not “intermediate” in the sense that ppl then give it up, as far as I can tell). But it’s worth noting that f/f (not to mention m/m/f, poly ships in general, various kinks) has actually become way more prevalent, in tandem with third wave feminism. As society liberalizes so does fandom; there used to be a lot of things that ppl would judge you loudly for writing.

[fanyism]: what i got after reading this is just this fascination that with queer females (bi or lesbian) shipping slash, it just seems remarkably male-centric. even the main examples used within this essay and many of the slash demographic surveys are primarily m/m slash couples and relationships and just barely mentioning an f/f relationship (xena/gabrielle). it’s weird.

why is slash preferred over femslash, when the fans are predominantly female (and queer)? for that matter, the rankings in most fandoms for most popular pairings probably go this way: m/m -> f/m -> f/f

i’m probably wording this wrongly but i guess my main reaction is that yes ok, the predominantly female fans are mostly queer, but shipping itself is basically fangirls (whether straight, bi, or lesbian) going crazy over male couples, which is still rather heteronormative and male-centric? am i using the term right? ARE MY RANDOM THOUGHTS EVEN VALID?

(man i hope i don’t get reblogged like a thousand times with people shouting down their Opinions at me i’m just curious, really >_>)


I’m going to agree with Lady on this one, and say that I haven’t really related well to the female characters in most shows. The ships I have that involve females (and I have them, I promise) are typically because I find I actually can relate to them. To grab two of my favorite pairings that have females, I’d point to Buffy/Spike and Jo/Zane (from Eureka). These were both very strong, sassy, I’m-not-taking-your-nonsense females with a soft spot for boys they shouldn’t probably have had soft spots for.

And that type of pairing is the type of pairing most of my favorite slash pairings are, personality wise. I’m not saying at all that I don’t go for other sorts of pairings (because let’s face it, I will literally ship almost anything), that’s just the sort I like, the sort I relate to.

So, perhaps it’s not so much a question of why do girls (of any orientation) ship slash so much as why aren’t there more females that females (of any orientation) can relate to?

And on a last note, I may as well add- there’s a good chance a lot of people (of any gender) just like seeing a side of guys that we don’t typically see a lot of in real life, where men are ‘expected’ by society (by who I don’t even know, because it always seems to me like everyone I know wants it to be different!) to act… hm, I guess 'macho’? Not allowed to express any of the good, deep, painful, happy, vulnerable (etc) emotions that we see in a lot of slash and… well, sometimes it’s just great to see guys fall apart a little. I think, in part, it’s easy to believe that a guy could find it easier to let go of society’s expectations with another guy that’s also willing to let go, and get on that boat (ship?) with them. I believe the phrasing a friend of mine used was “I just want to see guys open up with one another okay”. And maybe that’s part of it, too.

[notomys]: See, I’ve always been wondering a little about the argument that so many female characters are difficult to relate to, and that’s why even queer fangirls drift to male/male pairings in shipping. Without being a shipper myself - I find myself interested in characters first, familial relationships and friendships second, and after that all other forms of relationships including romantic and sexual ones - I’ve read my fair share of slash over the years, and most of the time the characters are significantly different than what is presented on screen. If this works for male characters, why not for female ones, too? I’m wondering, sometimes, if that is a sign that we’ve internalised the ideas about the insignificance of women that are prevailent in at least Western cultures a little too well.

That said, there is one very intriguing counter example, namely Once Upon a Time, which has at least two major and one minor f/f pairing, IIRC. You have strong het pairings here as well, but the f/f couples are at least equal, if not more important (I don’t know if there are any significant m/m pairings? Anyone?). So, more, possibly better written female characters maybe do play a role after all.

[julestorres]: add in: women are taught from childhood to empathize with male characters, to read the male experience that is so common in our media as the human experience. add in: sometimes women are also taught NOT to empathize with other women, to internalize the objectification that is so common in our media and see female characters as Other.

so yeah partly it’s there’s not enough women characters to sail a ship (seriously: what’s the rate on Bechdel passes for popular fannish television these days?) but partly it’s as women, we’re trained to relate to men’s stories.

which i wouldn’t say is heteronormative, because (as I experience it anyway) that is rarely about heterosexual attraction to male characters i view as different from myself, that is about empathizing with male characters I view as SIMILAR to myself.

no, what it is more closely tied to is internalized misogyny

which is still problematic, but in a different way, and about a different thing.

[saysno]: While slash fanfiction didn’t reshape my landscape in major ways, the fandom communities that came with it did. I went from a straight, strictly cis male/female environment to being surrounded by a community that was predominantly queer to the point where I was no longer thinking of myself, people online, people irl, and yes fictional characters - in terms of “straight until proven otherwise” and was able to chuck a lot of gender assumptions along the way as well.