Silly little girls: Slash Fanfiction and Female Sexuality

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Academic Commentary
Title: Silly little girls: Slash Fanfiction and Female Sexuality
Commentator: teresa-dances-in-sequins
Date(s): May 2005
Medium: online
Fandom:
External Links: [1];WebCite
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Silly little girls: Slash Fanfiction and Female Sexuality is an academic paper written by teresa-dances-in-sequins and posted to their Tumblr.

Introduction

Here it is you guys! The essay I wrote on slash fanfiction for a WGS course at university.

I’m not saying everything I’ve written holds true for every slash fan - or for every slash fandom, for that matter. These are just the observations I’ve gleaned from intense academic research, from my own analysis, and from what other folks in the slash community have kindly shared with me. I wrote this because I care a lot about slash, and frankly, I’m tired of feeling like it’s something to be ashamed of. I have no idea what my prof thinks of me now (that girl in the bear t-shirt that reads explicit m/m mpreg pornography) but she gave me a stupidly good mark on this paper, so whatever.

I’d love for people to read and share it, but the TL;DR is:

Slash is, first and foremost, a reaction against the sexual and gendered stereotypes that follow women in real life. It is also a direct result of the dearth of female representation in media. Using two male bodies offers an escape from forced identification and subverts the heterosexual male viewpoint taken in film, television, video games, and advertisements. Slash fiction is a world wherein women, for once, are not the ones who are “on display”.

I’m super keen to hear what people think about this, so reblog! let me know!

Some Topics Discussed

  • statistics
  • women and slash
  • lack of f/f fiction
  • derision and hatred for some female media characters
  • true equality and gender
  • the physical impossibility of women being able to measure up to how they are portrayed in the media
  • the appeal of the emotional man
  • slash as an alternate universe
  • mpreg
  • heterosexualization of slash
  • slash as romantic pornography
  • omegaverse
  • Mary Sue
  • fanworks and anal penetration
  • differences between slash and mainstream porn
  • hurt/comfort
  • much, much more

Excerpts

Alright, I’ll admit it: I like slash.

I’ve read it, written it, commented on it, collaborated with others on it, shared it and “fangirled” over it. It has played a huge part in my life ever since I was a teen, even though I’ve never dared to reveal my passion to anyone outside my safe little internet niche. Not that most people would know what slash is anyway; it remains an underground phenomenon, tucked away on the fringes of mainstream fan culture. For the uninitiated, slash is a type of erotic and romance fanfiction featuring an expropriated media pairing in which both lovers are male. Its origins can be traced back to the fan-run magazines (“zines”) being produced from the mid-70s onwards, with the most popular pairing (or “ship”) being Kirk and Spock from the original Star Trek (Salmon and Symon 94). In the years following the advent of the internet, slash has blossomed on communities such as LiveJournal and Tumblr, and is now a staple in the Harry Potter, Teen Wolf, Supernatural, Sherlock, and Marvel “fandoms” (fan kingdoms), to name but a few. In fact, slash fanfiction takes up vast swaths of online real estate……if one knows where to look for it.

What often comes as a surprise, however, is that it is predominantly women who create and enjoy slash fiction. There are a few theories as to why this would be so. Some slashers say they like it because it’s hot, as if reading gay porn is somehow analogous to the satisfaction men derive from watching lesbian porn. I do not find this explanation convincing, because slashers do not seem to enjoy watching gay porn, and surely that would be easier than spending long hours reading detailed, plot-driven fanfics. Nor does the slash phenomenon appear to be a part of a radical inclusionary agenda to insert queer characters into overwhelmingly heteronormative media franchises. If that were so, one would expect femmeslash pairings (female/female pairings) to be far more popular than they actually are. Rather, I argue that slash’s sweeping popularity has to do with women’s shared experience. No woman, gay, straight, bi, demi, pan, queer or ace, can completely escape the narrow paradigms of female sexuality that are imposed on her. Our sexualities are reflected to us through the lens of gendered stereotypes, with its assumptions of female passivity to the man’s agency, of woman as conquered, dominated, objectified and demeaned by the heterosexual sex act. By using two male bodies, slash does away with these paradigms and offers women a chance to explore their sexual desires freely. In addition, it gives women the means to escape from the “forced identification” that necessarily follows from using a heterosexual pairing, and allows them to identify into the sex scene as much or as little as they are comfortable. And lastly, the world of slash is one that is completely free of female sexual objectification. Taken together, this is why slash is so popular, and will only continue to grow and flourish.
Physical beauty, I suspect, plays a key role in understanding why many female characters are so unappealing to slashers. Kustriz observes that “[their] overwhelming perfection is a reproduction of the romance system that is already in place in our culture, namely that a woman deserves the love of a desirable partner for achieving a culturally predetermined ideal of beauty.” (380). While Kustriz was referring to Mary Sues, (a much-maligned female “wish fulfillment” character trope), her observation holds true for almost any representation of women in media. Women are taught over and over that true love, true happiness, and by extension true sexual fulfillment, is the purview of the young, the thin, the white, the beautiful. Anyone who falls outside these narrow parameters is undeserving. Why else would makeovers feature so prominently in rom-coms? With little exception, the only female characters who ever “get the guy” are the ones who embody this unrealistic ideal. As blogger poluciernagas points out, their appearance serves as an identificatory barrier that discourages ordinary women from relating to them. To be required to identify with this kind of feminine ideal is to offer oneself up to an unfortunate comparison and invariably fall short. After all, why would the hero want someone with body hair and cellulite when he could have a woman who looks like she just stepped off the cover of Vogue? In order to ease this discomfort, slashers create romances between male characters, whose very maleness invalidates any comparison to the viewer’s female self. I think that the resentment of these female love interests stems not from hatred of the characters themselves (nor of the actresses who portray them), but because the constant reiteration of the feminine beauty ideal fosters a profound state of unworthiness in female viewers. And what could be more unpleasant than that? In the real world, women are constantly barraged with images of female perfection. The world of slash is one wherein women do not have to compare themselves to anyone, and I think this is part of what makes slash so appealing.
Having done away with heterosexual pairings and all the baggage that goes with them, a new world of sexual exploration is opened up to female slashers. Shipping two male characters gives slashers a way of exploring a fantasy relationship in which the two partners can be construed as fully equal, since slash does not “invoke institutions of gender inequality” the way traditional heterosexual romance does (Jung). That is, heterosexual relationships by their very nature seem to invoke a sense of intrinsic inequality between the two partners: of the woman as conquered, of the man as conqueror. For some women, then, true equality can only be achieved when both partners are of the same gender. This is precisely what Lamb and Veith found in their study of early Kirk/Spock zine fanfiction. For our slasher foremothers, it seems, “authentic intimacy” was only possible when built on a foundation of true equality and compatibility. Lamb and Veith therefore concluded that the fantasy of perfect egalitarian love is what draws women to slash (238). There is no question that the foundation of any ship is the characters’ love (or love-hate) for each other, and that their emotional bond is hugely attractive to female readers. Tumblr user everythingactivist states, “What I value in slash fiction is the vulnerability of two men showing emotion […] I get immense satisfaction from the “happy ending” of two male figures having intense emotional connections.” Slash pornography, for the most part, is created within the context of this emotional bond. If women are supposed to derive pleasure from romance, and men from pornography, slash can be called a “romantic pornography” where sex is only a single part in the much larger narrative (Jung). Indeed, although some fics are unapologetically pornographic with little to no plot, the advantage of a slash ship is that the characters come with a pre-existing shared history. An author doesn’t need to world-build, nor is she required to establish the characters’ attraction for each other. She can enter the story at any point, diverge, or completely rebuild the world to suit her desires. The material is there, either in the media franchise “canon” or the fan-made “fanon”, ripe for the picking. The constant, even in radically uncanonical “alternate universe” stories, is that the characters’ love for each other always brings them together in the end.
Suppose, however, that a fanfiction writer were to create a whole new original love interest for her favorite male hero. Starting from scratch, an original female character could very well avoid the pitfalls of the Mary Sue and be as rounded, flawed, and emotionally complex as any of the male characters in canon. And yet, even when one has the option of creating a heterosexual pairing, the draw of gay pairings is often irresistible. I would argue that slash is not used simply because it is the alternative to heterosexual pairings. Rather, using two male bodies holds its own intrinsic appeal: that is, it offers an escape from forced identification. If one were to use a heterosexual pairing, a female reader would feel obliged to identify with woman. Two male bodies gives her the option of identify with one, the other, both or neither, and lets her explore her sexuality “at a distance”, safely, without necessarily having to implicate herself in the sex act. Tumblr user jomk writes, “Reading M/M is safe for me. I don’t want to identify as the sexual person involved […]. Fictional men having sex lets me relax and enjoy because I have no part in it.” For many women, even heterosexual women, relationships with men are simultaneously attractive and yet threatening, so slash permits them to receive sexual stimulation while distancing themselves from “the risk sexual relationships with men represent” (Bacon-Smith 246). This might be particularly true for asexual women, for women who have suffered sexual trauma, or for women who have difficulty overcoming the cultural dictum of female sexual passivity (Lamb and Veith 241). Male bodies also allow female slashers to explore sexual fantasies that are perhaps appealing on some unconscious level, but are much too disquieting when they are acted upon a female body. As Jung states, slash allows for an exploration of submission and dominance in a safe environment, “over equal, preferably male bodies, as these have ever been constructed as sites of subordination the way female bodies have.” In a slash pairing, kinks like non-con (non-consensual/dubiously-consensual), heavy BDSM, and even underage, incest and bestiality become fair game. The overwhelming use of third person point-of-view in fanfic, as well as the general contempt for first-person, seems to enhance this distanced, voyeuristic pleasure.

Some have argued that slash is a whole new way of imagining masculinity, one that incorporates and balances both feminine and masculine traits, but that is hardly a slasher’s express aim. The queering of media is a by-product, not the objective, of gay fanfiction. Nor do I believe that slash is a fetishization of gay relationships, although I can understand why someone would make that critique. Slash is, first and foremost, women’s response to the gender and sexual stereotypes put forth by media and society. It is an outlet for their frustrations just as much as their desires, made possible by the online communities in which fics and fanart are shared, gifted, collaboratively created and exchanged. As Busse states, the community aspect of these online fandom networks is central to its appeal, as it provides women with a safe fantasy space to “explore and negotiate issues of sexuality by reading and writing their desires, and by acknowledging and sharing sexual preferences.” (208) Accordingly, Hayes and Ball found that slashers’ online communities allow them “to develop different perceptions or understandings of sexuality [and] provide a non-threatening space for exploring and expressing sexuality in self and others” (220). Given all that slash has to offer women, it is unfortunate that it is regarded with such scorn. Women are shamed into keeping it secret, and are often mocked as being little more than silly fangirls, pathetically obsessing over fantasy couples. Any kind of sexual expression not within the bounds of heteronormative androcentricity, it seems, is to be held in vicious contempt. This is truly a shame, since fandom is such a creative, participatory and inclusionary culture. Slash offers women something traditional media does not: freedom from constraint, from objectification, from limiting gendered stereotypes. Its popularity is a testament to the dissatisfaction many women feel with regards to the socially-constructed paradigms of female sexuality and desire. And that is why I think slash will continue to flourish, if only in these little online havens. Slash may revolve around men, but it is about women.

And I couldn’t give it up if I tried.