Queer and Disturbing - A Dispatch from the Tolkien Fandom
|Title:||Queer and Disturbing - A Dispatch from the Tolkien Fandom|
|Date(s):||July 12, 2003|
|External Links:||Queer and Disturbing - A Dispatch from the Tolkien Fandom - Slash Philosophy, Archived version|
|Click here for related articles on Fanlore.|
Some Topics Discussed
- bisexuality and same sex fans in the Tolkien fandom
- gender preferences and sexuality
- different fandoms and their acceptance of differing sexualities
- J.R.R. Tolkien's Christianity and how that transfers to fanworks
I've just finished reading through many of the posts here, and may I say; I'm so relieved to not be the only one who mulls over issues of queerness and gender and politics relating to slash and fanfic. The post that follows discusses how my interest in my main fandom, Tolkien stuff, has vacillated based on my queer identity, and what it's like to be a queer-tinged fan in the rather straight Tolkien fandom.
I'm tyellas, and my web corner of Tolkien fandom loopiness is here. And I shall now inflict on you how my sexual identity and interest in Tolkien changed in tandem.
Once upon a time, I was a geeky young Tolkien fan - until about the time I came out as a lesbian, around age 16 to 18. My interest in Tolkien faded about this time: I'd re-read the books every year or so, but it lost the vividness it had for me as a younger teen. I read other things, such as Love and Rockets and the writings of Colette and even Lawrence Durrell, which had female characters I could identify with more as a young queer woman.
Later on, I came out again as bisexual. And the person who inspired this - another Tolkien fan - brought my Tolkien appreciation back to the surface, with flattering comparisons to Tolkien's romantic heroes and heroines. I've seen web evidence that other sappy Tolkien fans in love compare themselves to Arwen and Aragorn, or Beren and Luthien. And I'll admit I found these archetypes attractive once more - because I, like Arwen and Luthien, was giving something up, queer identity, with the choice of a primary heterosexual relationship. Once the fervor of first love had faded enough for me to find this embarrasing, Tolkien appreciation subsided into my psychic background once more, though I did read some additional Tolkien background materials at this time - the sort that brand you as a hard-core Tolkien geek.
My third wave of Tolkien appreciation, and my formal involvement in it on a fandom level, came about with the LOTR films. Personally, I was single by choice, having recently ended a relationship with a woman. I was mildly interested in the LOTR films - they are local news for me, I'm in New Zealand - until I heard that Ian McKellan, the actor who plays Gandalf, was gay. This warmed the cockles of my heart. In a way I couldn't put my finger on at the time, it brought things full circle. Intrigued, I did a web search for "Gandalf + gay" - and discovered Tolkien slash fanfiction. I just about fell off my chair. I had never imagined this OTHER queer interpretation of Tolkien - based on male homosexuality. Once I recovered from the shock, I decided to try my own hand at a piece of Tolkien slash fanfiction.
I feel like this alone shows some of the sociopolitical significance of slash; it opened the door for me, as a queer fan on the border of the fandom, to re-enter that realm of the imagination again. Ironically, on a personal level, even though I, a bisexual, read and write slash as a way of expressing part of my queer side via fandom, all this imagining male erotics brought my personal interests in real life back around to men. I also write het, occasionally. (As a side note, I've seen some readers present oddly homophobic reasons for disliking het stories - a fear of lesbianism in their reluctance to read about eroticized female bodies.) Whether what I write is good or not is up to the readers, but a great deal of my slash draws on my queer experiences.
It's a particular relief to find a space for queer fandom dialogue because (no offense to any Tolkien fen) most LJ and list posters for the Tolkien fandom seem to be quite straight. Many LOTR fans are very intelligent - but, as I said, very straight - and slash fanfiction is a hot button for many LOTR fans. Hence, one witnesses the phenomenon of straight people presenting detailed, articulate, historically based arguments for, or against, the presence/possibility of homosexuality in Tolkien's Middle-Earth. It's a very odd thing to see, not least because the way these discussions get phrased, in their purely historical/theoretical way, is so unrelated to how queer people live their lives and have lived them in history. I have come out in several of these discussions, but my activist burnout is still there, so I don't do it every time - yet I feel like I should.
The thing is, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans Tolkien fans are out there, for all that they're not in the discussion. I get feedback from them. They are lurking on some of the most rarefied Tolkien lists. In the Tolkien fandom, fans tend to break down by species; are you "into" Elves, Orcs, Hobbits, or Men? There are queer fans in every faction, all of them preferring the different gender presentations/masculinities imposed on each species by Peter Jackson and by fanon.I've inflicted a lot on you guys, and I hope it wasn't boring. A last tidbit: at one point a cross-dressing LOTR costumer and I were sending each other pictures of our respective elf gowns. And he was still the prettiest!
Some Comments to the Post[aleph 0]:
[tyellas]:The Tolkein fandom does sound like a much harder fandom to be queer in than the HP one, which most members of this LJ community are involved in. I'm curious if anyone's tried arguing a somewhat Foucaultian (?) line for the lack of homosexuals in Tolkein-dom. In the West, IIRC, people weren't really defined by their sexual orientation until about the mid 19th century. Differentiation wasn't really made between those who had sex with their own sex, and those who slept with the opposite one. The Tolkein universe seems to have a broadly 'historic' feel, rather than a modern one, so perhaps it could be argued that the same holds true for Middle Earth. Same-sex sex would have occured, but it'd be somewhat of an anachronism to write about self-identified gay or lesbian or bisexual characters. Your point that 'As a side note, I've seen some readers present oddly homophobic reasons for disliking het stories - a fear of lesbianism in their reluctance to read about eroticized female bodies' is also fascinating, and I'm going to have to do a lot more thinking about it.
[riverflame]:but it'd be somewhat of an anachronism to write about self-identified gay or lesbian or bisexual characters. That is one valid argument - but Tolkien's mythos deals with thousand-year swathes of time. Modern homosexuality, as we know it, evolved into an identity over the past 400 years. It's one of the interesting things about the Tolkien fandom, seeing how people construct homosexual possibilities. A handful of authors do try and deal with the complex side of gender and sexuality in Middle-Earth, with commendable results.
[fabularasa]:Considering that in more ancient cultures (and here I'm building off the "thousand-year swathes of time") reproduction and popluation would be more important than it is today, where there are issues of overpopulation in some areas. Homosexuality may have just not occurred as much, and if it did, it wouldn't have been mentioned because it was such a minor part. Also, it wouldn't have been an issue of personal identity, it would have been an issue in the smaller community. The fact that the community was now one person shorter of it supply of reproducers would have triggered something in the subconcious and therefore igniting a less-than-positive veiw of the situation. So anybody who was homosexual would most likely have feared being alienated by their community and sent out on their own (community being a very important part of the cultures portrayed in Tolkien's mythos, i.e. Rohan, the Shire, Gondor, the Dwarves vs. the Elves), and therefore kept their orientation a secret or similar. If I've restated anything or gotten something completely wrong, sorry. This is all just theory/idea; I'm pretty new to it all :)
[tyellas]:Hence, one witnesses the phenomenon of straight people presenting detailed, articulate, historically based arguments for, or against, the presence/possibility of homosexuality in Tolkien's Middle-Earth.
In many way, Tolkien's Middle Earth is reminiscent of Tolkiens' earth -- that is, mid-century Oxford. Tolkien moved in an academic social system that was male dominated, and rife with homosexual undercurrents. For all its fantasy, I don't think that socially speaking Middle Earth strays very far from Exeter College in that respect: the primary connections are male, and while from one point of view that's normal and natural and simply "the way things are," from another it's the gayest thing imaginable. There's a reason the French called homosexuality "le vice anglais," after all.
I am interested by what you say about wariness of het masking a deep unease with eroticisation of the female. I think you could be spot on there, in many cases, but I think it probably has much to do with not wanting to bring one's own erotic experience to the table in writing what is basically fantasy. Slashers tend to be pretty allergic to projectionism, and the presence of a female character in a sexual situation can act almost like a constraint upon the imagination of the female reader. In my corner of the Harry Potter fandom, femslash tends to be pretty popular, however. For those of us reluctant to write het, I think it has more to do with distaste for the heterosexual archetype of relationships than anything else. At any rate, probably a good fifty to sixty percent of the circle of slash writers I move in are as bi as I am, so it's really not much of an issue.Fanfic about Orcsex? You know, I think I would enjoy LOTR slash a lot more if it contained a little less hobbitsex.
[executrix]:Really? There are Orc sympathisers out there? Fanfic about Orcsex? You know, I think I would enjoy LOTR slash a lot more if it contained a little less hobbitsex. By Elbereth, yes. The orc stories are totally fascinating if you analyze them from a gender-studies point of view. Many of them are about something I'm inclined to describe as hypermasculinity - all the grotesque parts of masculine strength and sexuality are either a) raunchily exulted in or b) transcended and reformed. There's a stronger-than-usual male component among orc admirers and they tend to pick Option A. Women tend to write Option B, with the orcs giving up their wicked ways for the sake of an elvish love. Then there's the orc rape subgenre.
[malsperanza]:As for feeling isolated in a fandom, I think it's worth it to establish a bridgehead, if only because the next queer or queer-friendly fan will say, "Aha, there are people like me here."
[zana16]:The baseline point about Tolkien is that there is very little sex of any kind in his story. He doesn't just happen to ignore a sexual orientation with which he was perhaps not very comfortable (being conservative and Catholic); he leaves sexual desire out of his narrative entirely.
But there is love; and here he does not discriminate, either by omission or commission. In Tolkien love is as strong between two men (e.g., Frodo and Sam, Aragorn and Eomer) as between man and woman. (True: there are no strong pairs of women in his books, but then, there is a shortage of women in general in them.)
In fact, the ease with which Tolkien writes of (nonerotic) love between men makes modern readers uncomfortable. We have a hard time reading that Sam kisses Frodo's hand while he sleeps without reading sexual subtext into it. After which, unfortunately, we giggle and snicker. (Or if we are veryverywitty, we write hilarious Secret Diaries.) But Tolkien takes love seriously as an idea independent of sexual desire. And we should respect that, I think, as a valuable thing, not a deficit.
However important we think sex may be to identity, I think it was not important to Tolkien's sense of how identity is constructed within the world of Middle-earth. (I decline to speculate about the author himself.)
But what is interesting about fandoms in general is that they are all a lively arena for slash--whether it's Harry Potter or Tolkien or Star Trek. And the audiences for slash are broad--gay, straight, bi, male, female, other. That the original books or stories have no slashiness in them only makes the slash more energetic and fascinating. Indeed, the books that have no sex whatever in them are the most open to slash-games.
Tolkien avoids sexual discourse in LOTR; in Harry Potter canon (up til recently), sex would be inappropriate--and untrue to the reality of preteen kids (for the most part). Now that the kids in HP are teenagers in full adolescence, and are living in a coed boarding school, sex is beginning to be visible, and that may affect HP slash in future.
I mean, there will always be straight people who can't cope with the idea of gayness, and who therefore are invested in rejecting slash as uncanonical. Well, duh. Slash is by definition uncanonical; that's the point of it. And books like Tolkien and HP that are themselves Alternate Universes, fantasy worlds in which different rules apply, are the natural spaces into which slash can insert itself easily, whimsically.
You can't let yourself get too bent out of shape about humorless fans (straight or otherwise) who can't bear parody, satire, or irreverence toward the books they love. LOTR was a formative book for me as for you (and for many fans); I reread it almost yearly, and have done since childhood. I'm straight, and I think slash is fascinating (though mostly cringingly ill-written). But I can understand that for many readers the fantasy of fanfic has to match canon, or it will violate a private rule. You just have to find a conversation with people who don't see that as a problem--whether it's about the gay or about the intrusion of a noncanon character or whatever.
I suspect that the resistance to discussion of gay threads or possibilities in Tolkien that you are encountering mostly comes not from discrimination, but from the old debate about what is and is not canon. Canon purists are not interested in rewrites of canon. They are as irked by, say, an alternate ending in which Aragorn marries Eowyn as one in which Elves are gay.But in the privacy of the passionate love affair between book and reader, there are no restrictions; love whom you will and how you will.
[elenbarathi]:Interesting. Granted, I only read in the LotR fandom, and do not exactly participate, but I was under the impression that there was more slash fiction than het, and that writers tended to identify as bi. Perhaps I am wrong, as slash was all I ever actively went looking for. But I found, like you've said, that bi writers and readers tend to be low-profile. Many I arrived at through reading their stories in other fandoms. But then, I can't claim to say that I know who or what is high-profile in the fandom.
[teaforme]:I've been a Tolkien geek for over 30 years, definitely in the "into Elves" category - just discovered LoTR/Silmarillion slash about a year ago, and I love it.
I don't know what, if anything, that says about my sexuality. I identify as heterosexual because I'm attracted to men, but in my younger days I slept with some women - hey, how do you know what you like, until you try it? They were women I cared for, and we had fun together, but... female bodies, however lovely, just don't light the spark for me, either in person or in erotica. Still, there are those who would hold that I count as "bi" because I have slept with women. I dunno. Does it really matter?
In my view, the Elves just don't have the intense gender-identity thing that humans are prone to, because what purpose would it serve in their society? People who live so long don't need to be so focused on sex in the first place, and certainly not on reproduction. Tolkien tells us that sex-differences were not so marked among the Elves as among humans, and it seems to me that general androgyny would naturally make it less feasible to base one's identity on one's gender.
So... why should there be "gay" or "straight" at all? Why shouldn't people just love whomever they love? The differences between male and female only make a difference when the goal is to have babies, and that's only an occasional goal in a lifetime of thousands of years, so... why should there be marked differentation of dress and mannerisms for men and women?For that matter, why do WE have to have all these labels and distinctions? Some days I'm into boots and jeans, some days I'm into flowy silk... if someone male feels the same way, why should that be remarkable? I don't usually think of that as being "political", but maybe it is... because what I'd like is a society in which people don't say "Edward is gay", but merely "Edward's with Jim", and where it isn't "cross-dressing" for Tom to be the prettiest in pink.
[elenbarathi]:Interesting idea! Not just that Elves lack our preoccupation with gender-identity, but that it's their immortality that allows for this view. It would seem that Elves, with certain exceptions *coughFeanor* don't have lots of children. Where would we humans be without the belief that sex for reproduction is the only morally correct way to do it? Heh, possibly happier and more tolerant. Do you think that most of us would be more or less "bi" if there were no stigma attached? An old question, but still good.
I'm not sure that my interest in slash has anything to do with my sexual orientation. A friend of mine tells me I'm a gay man trapped in a woman's body. And a part of me really would love to have sex with men as a man. So, could that be at the root of my love of slash? I don't think so. I love sex with men as a woman, and sex with women as a woman. I really don't have the answer, except to say that if one (sexy Elf-man) is good, two must be better. And sexier!What a great community this is--all of my favorite things to talk about (slash, Tolkien, gender-identity) rolled into one!
[yonmei]:"I'm not sure that my interest in slash has anything to do with my sexual orientation. A friend of mine tells me I'm a gay man trapped in a woman's body. And a part of me really would love to have sex with men as a man. So, could that be at the root of my love of slash? I don't think so. I love sex with men as a woman, and sex with women as a woman. I really don't have the answer, except to say that if one (sexy Elf-man) is good, two must be better. And sexier!"
LOL, that's how I feel about it too... I like male bodies, and if I'm just watching (or reading and imagining), I'd rather watch two male bodies than a male and a female. If there was a non-fictional way to find myself in between wild, doomed Maedhros and innocent young Elrond, I would like that very much, but I don't think there is such a way.
I too have heard that "gay man in a female body" thing, but I'm not sure it is very accurate in my case. I think I'm just not that definitively "gendered" - don't base much, if any, of my personal sense of identity on traditional femininity - and I tend to be annoyed by the macho posturings of traditional masculinity. The really attractive thing about Elvenlords is that they are definitely male, yet graceful, beautiful and quiet; they don't hulk about being all hairy and crude.LOL, not to diss the tastes of anyone here who's into Orcs. There are times when I'm in the mood for a bit of Orc-slash too. I guess I just don't see why anyone has to be limited to any category of preference or orientation, or even gender... except for identifying people with whom one could make babies, the categories seem to serve no good purpose. *grins* I'm all done making babies anyway, so it sure doesn't matter to me.
[vulgarweed]:I remember - just in passing - noting that "if we get what we believe, Tolkien is now in Heaven and knows he was wrong to believe that God is homophobic".
It wasn't even on a LotR list. (This was pre-Jackson movies, so there wasn't such a thing as a LotR list, as far as I know.)But an ardent Christian responded, quite sharply, that I was calling her God a liar, and we got into quite a lot of dialogue before I got tired of communicating with a hypocritical homophobe and quit it.
Well, not necessarily - there are certainly slash-safe zones in the fandom, but I agree that the anti contingent in Tolkien fandom seems more virulent than in others.
I think a lot of it is due to Tolkien's overt Christianity (in his life and letters, that is - non-Christian readings of his books are certainly possible). Certainly the slash-flamers like to invoke that, as though The Lord of the Rings is actually an apocryphal text of the Bible or at least something St. Augustine tossed off in his spare time.
Though obviously I don't subscribe to that reading, I find I do waver wildly on how much canon-deviation I find acceptable.It's easy to look at a badfic and decide that what's wrong with it is canon-abuse, but what I think I really mean by that is that the particular magic of Tolkien isn't there. And for me, a lot of the particular magic of Tolkien is that his mythology is SO vast, so ancient, so full of half-told tales and hints and shadowy corners and half-forgotten lore, that no matter how much of the notes and rough drafts I read, I still feel that it's the tip of the iceberg, that there is so much more untold than told. That's what makes it a slasher's paradise, that it is so rich that of course there must be reams and reams (no pun intended) of Secret History just waiting to be brought out into the light. That's also my favorite defence against the "this never happened in canon!" wail; how do you know it never happened? Tolkien's own premise supports this: all of the Silm and The Hobbit and LOTR he claimed were histories, written by varyingly reliable narrators, translated more or less as accurately as possible by your humble scholar. Why is the Silmarillion so Noldo-centric? Because it was "written" by Noldor scholars, of course! Naturally they played up some things, played down others, and left whole Ages of events out entirely! I know the discussions you're talking about, and I don't see how anyone can think to discuss history, fictional or otherwise, without acknowledging that the majority of it is never recorded. And that silent majority includes queerness....you know, the mirror shows Many Things.