Romance and Gender-roles

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Title: Romance and Gender-roles
Creator: fans at alt.startrek.creative
Date(s): late January 1998
Medium: online
Fandom: slash, with an emphasis on Star Trek
External Links: the thread is here, scroll down for the sub-thread "Romance and Gender-roles" at alt.startrek.creative; Archive
Click here for related articles on Fanlore.

Romance and Gender-roles is a sub-thread of a larger thread (called "Best Stories About People You Don't Like"). The two main commenters are Alara Rogers and Peg Robinson.

The post generated 68 replies before breaking off into separate threads regarding feedback on the mailing list called Peg's Question: yes, Peg's Question: no, and Peg's Question: maybe.

Some Topics Discussed

  • slash and het fanfiction
  • gender and fiction
  • the role of feedback
  • BNFs and their power
  • genre/formula writing vs literary writing
  • one fan's observation that alt.startrek.creative fans were thin-skinned and didn't like to talk about serious literary criticism
  • did slash ruin fandom with lazy expectations and generalizations?
  • was slash very daring or simply the same-old, or "Slash is exciting and non-traditional. Het is boring and traditional"?

Some Excerpts

  • comments by Peg:
    In all but a very few works I've read--and I do read slash even though it isn't my first-choice trip, as I find it interesting--anyway, in all but a few peices the classic strong/weak, contained/vulnerable, emotionally needy/nurturing maternal-paternal, yadda, yadda, yadda exist, as do the traditional "Romance formula" motifs including most of those of hurt-comfort, seduction, passionate conquest...all the old warhorses are there in slash, as they are in het. You don't buy it? You know when you read slash none of it looks the same? Tell you what: try two experiments. First see if, in the first few pages of a slash work, you can detach yourself from the text and quickly identify which character is playing a "traditional" male role, and which is playing a traditional "female" role. Then read the rest of the work and see if *on average* the role plays out consistently over the work. Unless "wobbles" are a major element of the work, you have to play fair, though, and go by the averages, as minor fluctuations occur even in the most mind-dulling formula het Romance. In most instances I've been able to nail the "fem-fella" roles in slash pieces--and then seen them hold together over the duration of the piece. If you're having trouble with that, try another experiment: take one of the two characters, and do a gender bender on them: for He-him-Picard, insert She-her-Felicity. Then try it with the other character--in most instances you *quickly* find that one character will flip roles, and instantly fall into a "Traditional Romance" female role pattern as soon as identified as female...and the other will resist it in the face of all efforts to make the switch, demanding the right to play a "Traditional Romance" male role. In short, I think most (though not all) slash falls back on classic Romance formula and dramatic roles and functions. The names and genders change--the formula remains intact. So why doesn't it read that way? Because, as you said, the shift in character paradigm eliminates a familiar context, and makes old tricks look new, and old roles look radically innovative. I had an interesting exchange with Macedon on this subject a few years back, and one of the more useful observations I came up with was this: If you have a scene in which Tom Paris storms into Chakotay's room, exposes Chakotay's agony and his dysfunctions, demands that he shape up and pull his life together, then in great emotional anguish declares that he's being torn apart by Chakotay's behavior, and concludes by stating passionately, "Damn it, I love you", with a brief but passionate terminal kiss and an exit in high dudgeon... If Tom does this in a slash story he's "confrontational", he's "assertive", he's "strong but vulnerable." He's perceptive, he's sensitive, he's whatever...
  • comments by Alara:
    I do genderbending, Peg. It's basically one of my Big Things, like BDSM is Ruth's. And from early childhood, before I had ever *heard* of slash, I picked up on a neat trick-- turn one of two male characters who have an intense relationship into a woman, and write them having a relationship. Basically, it's slash with a different twist-- instead of saying "What if our boys were gay?" or "What if they were able to transcend gender to admit to their love for each other?", I would say "What if one of them was a woman, but nothing else changed?" And I found that the stories thus created (where I would work hard to make the now-female character stay in character for the man-that-was) were far more fascinating than any stories about *actual* female characters. The reason for this seemed to be that the male characters were more fully realized people to begin with. Make one of them a woman, and suddenly you have a fully realized woman, rare in media fandom.... I really don't think my problem with het romance has to do with the fact that I would like the exact same dynamic if it were two men. I usually wouldn't. My problem with het romance is that it rarely explores female power. In a hurt/comfort where the man is the comforter, he rescues the woman from the bad guys with derring-do and then comforts her. In a hurt/comfort where the woman is the comforter, usually the man dropped onto her doorstep injured, and while she may have used her wits, and yes, her spunk to keep his foes from finding him, she didn't lead a small squadron of elite troops into the base to rescue him. (If she did, I give that story high points!) Sexually repressed Janeway swoons into the arms of manly Chakotay, rather than Janeway making a conscious decision and approaching Chakotay like a mature adult. (I gotta read more K/O stuff; if I'm going to find het romance I like, that's probably where it will be, as I like both Kira and Odo.)
  • comments by Peg:
    See that's where we differ. I still feel that unless a het writer does one *hell* of a job with the writing, the scene I created would set off "cliched scene, cliched role, cliched motivation" alarms going in most of us who *have* ventured very often into the turgid world of Trashy Romance. The *only* bloody way to save that one from being trite is to have carefully and painstakingly devepled a situation in which the reaction was not only justified in full--but was indicative of a clear and substantial character development *that has more function than to just whip up emotion and get the characters into bed.*... The Good but not Great, in both slash and het, fall back on shortcuts...and the slash writers can get away with it more easily because the optical illusion of the gender switch makes it far less obvious that the shortcut was formula...the het writers don't have that advantage, because the assumptions actively work *against* them slipping it past as very new or very well fleshed out. We're so familiar with the cliches in that context that we catch on immediately, and grumble.... Folks who want non-traditional gender roles...seem to end up writing slash, rather than making the effort to see if they *can* make het as interesting as slash is. I really don't see many of the folks writing even *attempting* to develop either old characters or new "original" characters as fully realized female roles. Instead it occasionally feels like the first thing a liberated, passionate, independant female writer takes it into her head to do... Is to write slash. At which she's likely to succeed, for the very "novel paradigm" reasons I've been examining. Further, my own experience is that, if she does try het, she ends up frustrated...the characters "aren't as interesting" as they were in slash, the drama is harder to sell, the chemistry isn't there...
  • comments by Alara:
    Boring romances don't bore me because the males and females are in stereotyped roles; they bore me because that's *all* they're doing. You can't take the average het romance and change the sexes of both characters and have anything that makes sense. (Imagine Chakotay swooning into janeway's arms... as the characters appear in the *show*, tihs might make a certain sense, except that Chakotay, while he is the ultimate Sensitive New-Age Guy, does not swoon, and no one would *ever* think he does.) Basically, swooning characters are boring. Characters who are 100% femmy and nothing but are boring, as are characters who are 100% Manly Male Strength. *All* characters work best as a mix of amsculine and feminine traits. when you write them as such, it doesn't matter how stereotyped the storyline is; an open-minded reader (that is to say, someone who doesn't go *looking* for cliches in het, with a kind of "oh, yuck, it's het, it must be cliched" attitude) will respond to good writing (not necessarily Great Writing, just good) and characters who are more complex than The Tempestuous, Feminine Woman and the Strong, Unemotional Man.
  • comments by Alara:
    Most of us get into fanfic because we've read fanfic. We start out with Mary Sue when we're writing our own stuff, and Mary Sue tends to get involved with a man because usually the men are portrayed as more interesting and they grab us in faster. If we pick up on a really powerful, intense friendship, it's usually between men because that's what it *is*-- I love most of the DS9 and Voy women, but with the exception possibly of a Janeway/Seven dynamic developing, none of the women relate powerfully *to each other*. Some of them relate powerfully to the men, but the only woman who's sexually powerful, knows what she wants and is happy to pursue it, and is involved with a man on the show rather than being entagled in a silly will-they-won't-they tease or being in love with a man who's not a regular and therefore is never around... is Dax. And she's with Worf, who irritates the crap out of most of the women *I* know. :-) By the time we're experienced fanfic writers, we've read a *lot* of this stuff. And most of the het is boring, because it isn't being written by the people particularly interested in challenging the paradigm, because that's what *we* want to do; however, slash is being written in such ways. So we gravitate to slash, and it's a self-perpetuating cycle.... On the slashpoint mailing list, I once called myself "the loyal opposition" in reference to slash, because I think it did kill good het. In X-Men fandom, which has a lot more strong female characters to begin with, and has for some reason no slash tradition (the few slash pieces are very occasional), male/female romance tends to be much more powerful and interesting. I do think that we're so used to having to work within a system where there *are* no good female characters that even when there are some, we've been subtly inculcalted to believe that het is boring and slash is exciting, because slash is written by people who are interested in exploring the issues we are, and het isn't-- and so we perpetuate. (Again, variable by fandom. Blake's 7 het can be incredible-- it started with strong female characters. But Trek comes from a long tradition of women who are presented as such non-entities, we need to make up everything valuable about them, and why do that when you've got such great men to play with? If we wanted to reinvent characters, we wouldn't be writing fanfic....But I really feel the larger part is that het and slash have become self-perpetuating communities, at least in Trekfandom. Het is the bastion of people who like traditional romance (and mind you, I don't think Peg *or* I are saying there's anything *wrong* with that-- to all their own tastes; just that neither of us, nor the people the original thread was aimed at, *do* like that stuff. Not a flame against those who do.) Slash becomes the preferred playground of everyone who *does* want to push the boundaries. So even if they were not falling back on established romance cliches and relying on the kick of the gender-switch to hide it, would it matter? They think het is boring, so they don't write it, so new people who are interested in the stuff they are come in, see that no one who shares their interests is writing het, conclude that het is boring, they don't write it... repeat ad nauseam...I'd just like to reiterate that not only do I not really quite agree with Peg that slash is getting away with stuff that wouldn't play if it were het-- I genuinely think slash, for the most part, really *is* more transgressive of gender-role cliches, that you can't just cast one character as The Woman and one as The Man in good slash-- but that I also don't want to sound like I'm ragging on het writers. I don't like a lot of het because I can't stand traditional romance. There is nothing wrong with you if you *do* like that, but I don't and Peg doesn't and the original thread (Best Het Stories Chosen By People Who Don't Like Het) was specifically aimed at those who don't like het, which usually translates into "doesn't like traditional romance" because that's most of what het is in Trekfandom. So we, the non-likers of traditional romance, are having a conversation with one another in which we take for granted that traditional romance is a Bad Thing because we're talking to people who think that. it doesn't mean any of us believe it objectively *is* bad, only that we don't like it.)
  • comments by Peg:
    You commented on my idea of "shortcutting" using slash, mentioning the charge that slash can have, and het can never have. I think you've got it. But I have to argue the idea that het can't be as charged as slash can. It has to work harder at it-but then, that's part of what I've been grumbling and moaningabout all along. Slash comes with a built in cultural advantage: it's novel, it's culturally unexpected, and it's 'naughty non-standard erotic." As anytabloid will tell you, these elements are sure-fire attention grabbers and emotion generators regardless of how well or badly they're done. So: "It's men! They Love each other! They Express it! They have Sex!" is an "easy sell." It's "Man bites Dog," it's "SexSexSex," it's "Oooh, naughty-naughty,didn't your mother tell you that was bad," t's "Real Men Do Eat Quiche." It does not have to be well done to be provocative and compelling. It's nice when it is well done-but it is very easy to make it as fascinating as a streaker in a convent just because it is slash, not because the writing was all thatexceptional when removed from the slash setting. That's why I feel the het writer, if she is going to succeed, has to be resoundingly good: either resoundingly and knowingly good at High Formula, or at Literary writing. She doesn't get the free tabloid ride of naughty Jim and Spock boffing away in pon far. It's not even a matter of whether she chooses High Formula, or Lit-she has to do it well....Slash makes it too easy for both the readers, and worse, the writers, to fail to realize when the writing is sloppy, the assumptions are poorly played out, and so on. All the hot and steamy tabloid sex sensationalism stands in the way. Now, please, understand, I don't want to get rid of slash-I do read it, I do find some of it delightful, and even if I despised it, I'd hate to see it go away. But I do think that if it isn't examined carefully and thoughtfully, it does some damaging things to fan fic, to readers, and perhaps most especially to writers.
  • comment by Peg:
    Slash makes it too easy for both the readers, and worse, the writers, to fail to realize when the writing is sloppy, the assumptions are poorly played out,and so on. All the hot and steamy tabloid sex sensationalism stands in the way. Now, please, understand, I don't want to get rid of slash-I do read it, I do find some of it delightful, and even if I despised it, I'd hate to see it go away. But I do think that if it isn't examined carefully and thoughtfully, it does some damaging things to fan fic, to readers, and perhaps most especially to writers. First, as we've both theorized, it appears to "hog" all the folks who might otherwise put in some effort to write female characters as mature adults with lives that include romance, but are not limited to romance or to the most boringly traditional of romance roles and assumptions. The only people left are the newbies Mary-Sue-ing, and the hard-core Traditional Romance lovers, and the occasional rare Laura Bowen and the occasional rare Kira/Odo writer with a commitment to dealing with Kira as a strong woman, and the occasional Peg Robinson with a hive of bees up her shorts because the PTB keep betraying my own belief in the worth, dignity, and power of the average het female. But we're drowned by the traditional formulaic stuff, because all our potential allies are off writing slash and feeling daring and provocative and radical. It's damaging to fandom, because it makes it too easy for "outsiders" viewing fanfic to assume that the reason all those slash writers exists is because they don't really care about female roles-what they really want is the rush of "kinky" sex. That's all. Forget the ethics, forget the philosophy, quit kidding us that you want to see a Janeway as a three dimensional woman, we know what you really want-kinky sex. How about some Klingon S/M? How about some salamanders. Quit jivin' us about that female dignity bull-we know what you really want. It's damaging to the general fan fic readership because, except in the hands of fairly rigorous and attentive readers, it's too easy to simply say, "Slash is exciting and non-traditional. Het is boring and traditional. Therefore it must be that slash is Inherently better, and inherently attracts 'better' writers and is inherently going to be non-formulaic-and het will inherently be dull, formulaic, trite, and unchallenging: an insult to the characters, an insult to the readers. Leave it to the boring, stodgy, unimaginative old farts who think sex began and ended with Lohengrin and orange blossom and swooning." It honestly takes a fairly sharp mind to realize that none of that is inherent and inevitable, but is the result of slash on the one hand disguising a lot of writing flaws, on the other hand attracting a lot of the less conformist writers before they ever really attempt more than a Mary Sue, and on the OTHER hand (I'm into Hindu Gods today), riding on a fairly easy and cheap wave of sensationalism. Unless the reader really puzzles over the whole thing, and takes the time to know the field, to know the writers, and to study the patterns, it's just too damned easy for the superficial elements to make it look like het is dull and fluffy and saccharine-and can only be so….and that slash is vivid, and exciting, and full of challenging and atypical material-and that it must be because it's a "better" form, and the writers who create it must, of course, be better writers. It ain't that easy. But too often I've seen it wrapped up that way, and tied with a ribbon made out of a strangle-cord, so that no one ever gets out of that box of assumptions. Nubile Starlet syndrome: The writers get drooling, enthusiastic readers, they get hot and easy scenes that just jump off the page, they get a star on their door. And they never realize how much the flat belly, the tight dress, and the high heels were making it easy to ignore the fact that their only acting training was a one week section in summer camp. It also makes it too easy for them never to question even their slash-writing skills enough to ever improve. So long as that easy ride is there, why change? If it ain't obviously broke, why fix it? But it means that, unless they can and will accept the really depressing challenge of examining their own work, and learning to pick it apart for flaws, ALL they'll ever be able to get that power-rush from is slash. If they try het, or non-Trek fan fic, or non-sex/romance, the crutches they've gotten used to relying on drop away, and suddenly they're left in the same boat as the aging Starlet who never realized that the only selling point she had was being twenty, nubile and underdressed. (sigh) At least if you're a slash writer nothing can force you to leave slash…you don't have to face the cold world with your wrinkles showing, and I suspect that for a reasonably competent slash writer there will always be an audience. But unless the writer is willing to push beyond that, the slash world will be the limit of her environment. If that's all the writer ever wanted anyway, cool. No problem. The world needs more forums for folks with narrow target interest and amateur passion to have fun and play. And even amateur forums with limited scope can and do produce some masterpiece level work. Neato-kean. Nifty. Everyone is happy… Except those of us who dream of seeing something more varied than the current polarized slash-het dichotomy. Except for those of us who are disturbed because the blanket answer keeps seeming to be a rather offensive "hey, slash is good, cool, and well written, and het is just the old Harlequin stuff tricked out in Starfleet uniforms." Except for those of us who resent being in a situation where the rest of fandom gets away with dismissing fan fic as nothing more than a bunch of crazed dirty old ladies who talk a good feminist line-but really just want all that trashy kink, just like any moron buying the Star or the Enquirer, or sneaking a copy of "Scandalous Sex Studs." Hey, I'm not against indulging openly and happily in sensational erotica…I just kind of hate it that it's so damned easy to reduce all fan fic to slash erotica and sad-eyed heroines who Swoon while invoking the great Goddess Mary Sue. I think we're all of us more interesting than that, and it frustrates me that we so seldom show it.
  • comments by Alara:
    I think, about the common run of stuff. Sturgeon's Law states that 90% of anything is crap; I wouldn't go that far, but I would cheerfully state that the average fan story is, well, average. A lot of newbies produce Mary Sues (I've never met anyone new to *writing* who didn't commit at least one; I've known many people new to Trek fandom who didn't, but they usually had years of writing under their belt, even if they were only 16.) A lot of slash *is* cheap thrills. Certainly not all, and this is something i disagree midly on with Peg, who thinks that most slash has The Guy and The Girl from traditional romance cliches, thinly disguised by making The Girl into a man; I think slash is usually genuinely more transgressive than that, and frequently you can cast either character as The Girl easily enough. But yeah, we both agree that most of the het romance *we* see looks to us like formulaic dreck, in part because we don't like the formula. I mean, if you *like* the romance formula, you will cut romances much more slack than if you inherently don't, or don't much. And this whole thread started as a discussion of "people who don't like het, and what het *do* you like?" I actually think Peg likes a lot more het than I do (well, she's a J/C fan, and Chakotay bores me, so I'm not.) Now, if you like a formula, you are more likely to forgive it a lot of things. Maybe I really *am* overlooking a lot of the faults of slash because most of my favorite pairings are slash. Maybe, if you like het romance, most het romances seem great to you because they explore your favorite pairing. To someone who doesn't like Q, much of my favorite stuff probably looks like dreck. The point is that there are some very, very rare stories which are inherently Quality, which many people, including those who don't like that genre, think are wonderful. Then there are the stories, and there are far more of these, that are great if you like the genre, but range from "just okay" to "godawfully boring" if you don't. And part of the *reason* we choose what genre we like or don't like, I theorized (and Peg agreed), is that the people working in that genre are doing something or other that fulfills what we want to read about. If we enjoy traditional romantic roles, it seems that we mostly go into het romance. If we enjoy more transgressive stuff, it seems that we go into slash. This means that people who enjoy watching strong women in non-traditional relationships can't find much to read, because most of the people who want to write about strong people in non-traditional relationships are doing it in slash, in my opinion (Peg thinks that even the slash isn't as non-traditional as I think it is, and there's probably a grain of truth to that, too.)
  • comments by Ariana Lilcamp:
    All I can say is we'd all do well to experiment a little. :) One big thing I think Peg missed (my biases show) is that there _ARE_ f/f slash writers. Shells, I just posted one such story. I will not claim it as good formula-free writing (explanation later) but Peg really seemed to write off all slash as m/m. Sorry... I've done het romance, f/f romance, and f/f smut, but not m/m anything. I can't be the only one. And, because I've been trying to experiment with everything, I'm planning to try an m/m or two... but only where the characters in the episodes were *begging* for an interlude or follow-up, before anyone thinks I'm doing it just for the novelty of doing slash. (The same voice that says, Ariana Lilcamp, WHY are you ignoring perfectly good m/m pairings? should be asking others the same question about f/f or het... and if they answer "There aren't any"... then they are welcome to disagree with me. That may well be the perspective here. But I thought K/I held a *lot* of promise, more than most of the m/m pairings.)
  • comments by Hazelnut:
    Some time ago I read a story by Kate Wilhelm which was called "Forever Yours, Anna." I really liked the story. It's about a man who receives a set of letters. Through the letters he reads about a woman named Anna, who is having an affair with a mysterious man. The protagonist falls in love with her through her letters. Throug various events, we realize this is a time travel story. The protagonist meets Anna and pursues a relationship with her, despite knowing the future from her letters, and knowing she will leave him. There's more to the story than I can easily describe in this short paragraph. As I said, I really liked the story. But, at some point a few days after I read the story, it hit me that I probably would *not* have liked the story as much if the genders had been reversed. If the genders were reversed, I would have likely seen the protagonist's acceptance of betrayal as weakness rather than love and generosity. Why? Because in real life, my perception is that more women put up with being cheated on or used than men do, and that affected how I saw the story. It was actually quite a shock to me to realize how much gender stereotypes determined my reaction to the story. Now for a trek example. In a previous post, I named "A la Q" as a favorite het romance. I tried to imagine if the story would still work for me if the genders of Picard and Rena Taylor. I'd like to emphasize that this is a *highly* subjective test, and I certainly don't expect everyone to reach the same conclusions. But, what I found was that for me, this story didn't work with the genders flipped. Rena is a great original character. She's intelligent, capable, educated, extremely artistically talented, funny, and sexy. But, she has a lot of insecurity which prevents her from following her dream of being an artist. In a story which is overall incredibly rich in detail, the reasons for this insecurity don't really get developed very much. I personally didn't find that odd for a *female* character, but I would have required more justification for that type of insecurity in a male character. YMMV. OK, so what's my point? My point is that I react differently to the same behavior depending on the sex of the person performing that behavior. I think of myself as egalitarian, but there are times when cultural assumptions affect me in ways I don't realize, and gender *does* make a big difference in my response. Now back to slash. Because I respond differently to the same behavior depending on gender, there may be cases where a slash story seems new and original simply by being slash. But, Peg, I honestly think you're exaggerating the degree to which this happens. I have seen horribly cliched het and slash, and I have seen truly excellent het and slash. Furthermore, I think you're exaggerating the degree to which "familiar overall pattern" equals "cliche." I also don't think gender perceptions always make slash easier. There are cases where gender perceptions work in favor of het fiction, and cases where they work in favor of slash fiction. It depends on the specific themes being addressed.