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Synonyms: undertones
See also: Slashy, Shippy, Slash Goggles, Hoyay!, Slashnip
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Spectators come to the theater to hear the subtext. Constantin Stanislavski, the father of method acting

Subtext as defined by the Russian director Constantin Stanislavski is the underlying motivation, feelings and emotions behind a character's actions and speech. With a good actor, the audience can pick up on the subtext and interpret the character's thoughts and feelings. Stage "business" as well as speech contributes to the story behind the story. This is why people say of actors like Ethel Barrymore or Leonard Nimoy that a single gesture or word "spoke volumes".[1]

Sociologists have observed that the inclusion and placement of women, seniors and minorities in advertising, news media and graphic arts creates subtextual messages about the role of such people in society. If they are shown in a subservient posture (seated while others are standing, for example) or in the background behind the "main" characters), it creates a negative subtext for the audience, both about how they should think of these people, and what the sponsor thinks of them.[2] (See Misogyny in Fandom for more on the placement of female characters relative to their perceived value.)

In fandom, subtext is content in canon (or, sometimes, fanworks) that is meant to be understood by the audience without being explicitly stated.

An example of subtext: When Bodie and Doyle have a different set of rooms every time they are shown at home in The Professionals, the subtext might be, "CI5 agents have to move often for security reasons," or "These characters are so unstable that they can't keep the same apartment for long." The subtext intended by the show's creators, if any, can be intuited through dialogue, continuity, bits of stage business and so on. For example, a line about how much they're paid can help to determine if they're choosing to move that frequently (expensive) or if CI5 pays for their housing and/or assigns them to live in different places.

In the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "Journey to Babel", Spock volunteers to donate blood for his father's heart operation. Christine Chapel says Spock's blood "isn't true Vulcan blood either, it, ah -- has human -- blood elements in it." Spock replies, "It should be possible to filter out the human factors." Whether or not a viewer has been following the show and knows the characters, the theatrical subtext is clear: Chapel loves Spock, because he's a Vulcan he can't respond, but he's also part human and she wishes she could connect with that aspect of his nature (but knows she cannot). Filtering out the human factors is exactly what he's been doing with his entire life. These lines are significant to their characters and to this episode in particular (as a subsequent scene with Spock and his mother demonstrates). It's all conveyed in her regretful expression and slight stammer, and his matter-of-fact response.

Subtext and Authorial Intent

In dramatics, subtext does not necessarily have to be deliberate on the part of the author. There have been many debates over whether certain subtext exists in canon whether or not the writer intended to put it there. K.M. Weiland argues that subtext must be intentional in order to be subtext in the first place. [3] But in The Fanfic Symposium, fan author Shomeret argues that subtext is "a level of interpretation that is almost always unintended by the writer. When you write a story, you intend to communicate certain things. Being told about something you didn't intend may be alarming or infuriating." Shomeret continues:

In slash the anxiety about what you are subconsciously communicating also exists. Although I am bisexual, I have been unable to complete any f/f slash because I worry so much about the potential subtexts. Since there is so little f/f in the majority of fandoms (aside from Xena), I tend to feel very self-conscious about the sort of lesbian relationships that I would be portraying, and fear that I will misrepresent lesbians. I always ask myself what my f/f story might be saying about lesbians in general. Am I feeding into stereotypes? Am I being too negative? Am I being too positive? I don't want to over-romanticize lesbian relationships either. I have written lesbian characters into slash stories that are primarily m/m, but the idea of putting a story out there for other fans to read that focuses on an f/f relationship sets off a panic reaction in my brain. I have several uncompleted f/f stories in various fandoms, and one completed story that is in a state of eternal revision because it never satisfies me. Subtext is extremely subjective, and not all fans will agree on their validity or application to a particular relationship in a show or film.[4]

In fan discussions, subtext most commonly refers to canon that is felt to imply a romantic relationship or unresolved sexual tension/attraction between two same-sex characters, or to hint at a character's sexual orientation. Slash fans point out elements of art direction and photography as well as acting that they feel make the "obvious" point.[5] Sexual subtext, of course, also still exists between male and female characters, but these are not generally the focus of modern fan attention.

When the term subtext is used with regard to canon, an argument is often made that fans are seeing sexual relationships or attraction where they don't really exist. In film and television, especially in dramatic or suspense genres, just as in real life, two men or women looking intensely at each other or even touching does not mean they are sexually attracted to each other.[6] However, showrunners and producers who point this out, may be accused, rightly or wrongly, of Queer Baiting.

For my part, I never have been able to "slash for slash's sake." I don't and can't "see slashy subtext" everywhere I look. Evidence of emotional and/or physical intimacy (same gender or opposite) demonstrates only that characters are emotionally and/or physically intimate. Emotional/physical intimacy exists between people who are friends and among family members and is, by itself, insufficient to suggest, much less prove, that there is or should be sexual relationship.

I remember one of the original "incest slash" fandoms, from the early-to-mid-80s--"Simon and Simon" fandom. My friends and I were *so* bewildered by that and, when it was explained to us by proponents that "of course they're having sex, look at how much they love each other," it was (in modern 'net vernacular) a real *headdesk* moment for us.

It's the Vulcan in me--I need to see a logical extrapolation from the media source product to the suggested extra-textual relationship (slash or het). Connect all the dots for me--explain what is in canon (the characterizations, backgrounds, history, specific relationships, physical setting, time period, larger culture and worldview, etc.) that makes it possible (or even likely) and also rationally explain away whatever there is in canon that mitigates against it. [7]

It certainly isn't that the creators of a show don't add subtext to imply specific things. In a February 1992 interview, Bob Justman confirmed that the subtextual message in the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "The City on the Edge of Forever" (1966) concerning the 1960s' massive anti-war protest movement was intentional.[8]

Xena Fandom

In Xena fandom, "subtext" refers to the implication that Xena and Gabrielle are meant to be understood as a lesbian couple.[9] A "subtexter" in Xena fandom is someone who is a fan of lesbian subtext. Here, references to subtext links, subtext fanfiction, subtext virtual seasons, etc. are usually referring to a lesbian interpretation of the source, like for example in CN Winters Xena Subtext Reports.



  1. ^ At least this is true of neurotypical audiences. This is an area where autistics can have difficulty eliciting meaning, and may need to have some things spelled out in more detail.
  2. ^ Laura R. Oswald in Marketing Semiotics: Signs, Strategies, and Brand Value (Oxford University Press, 2012) gives as examples the male and female images on the Pioneer 10 spacecraft and a McDonald's commercial showing two men standing and shaking hands while a woman sits behind them, looking up. She also analyzes the coding of insurance commercials aimed toward "baby boomers" for whom the 1950s-1960s youth culture is still a living, vibrant reality and who would not react well to images of nursing homes and rocking chairs.
  3. ^ The Only 5 Ingredients You Need for Story Subtext, Sept. 12, 2016.
  4. ^ Shomeret, The Subtext Anxiety. The Fanfic Symposium, November 21, 1999.
  5. ^ One of the most famous citations of possible slash subtext is made by Dr. Frederic Wertham in his analysis of the original Batman in Seduction of the Innocent: "They constantly rescue each other from violent attacks by an unending number of enemies. The feeling is conveyed that we men must stick together because there are so many villainous creatures who have to be exterminated. Sometimes Batman ends up in bed injured and young Robin is shown sitting next to him. At home they lead an idyllic life. They are Bruce Wayne and 'Dick' Grayson. Bruce Wayne is described as a 'socialite' and the official relationship is that Dick is Bruce's ward. They live in sumptuous quarters, with beautiful flowers in large vases. Batman is sometimes shown in a dressing gown... Sometimes they are shown on a couch, Bruce reclining and Dick sitting next to him, jacket off, collar open, and his hand on his friend’s arm. As they sit by the fire the young boy sometimes worries about his partner: 'Something’s wrong with Bruce. He hasn’t been himself these last few days.' It is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together." Wertham believed that not only did Batman and Robin's adventures contain gay cues, but that their relationship was obviously homosexual even to child readers and would encourage boys to "become" gay. Cultural reviewer Will Brooker revealed in his book Batman Unmasked that gay men had told Wertham in interviews that they saw Batman as gay; he did not make it up. Cultural reviewer A. David Lewis puts Wertham's work in context at Seduction of the Insolent (or, Retraction of the Innocent) at Sequential Tart, vol 6, issue 1, January 2003.
  6. ^ Early Star Trek fans saw James Kirk and Cmdr. Spock's wordless exchanges as evidence that they were developing a kind of intuition or telepathy common to people who work closely together, rather than a sexual connection. Kirk's becoming telepathic was a subplot in Claire Gabriel's The Thousandth Man and a major plot point in later episodes of Jacqueline Lichtenberg's Kraith series.
  7. ^ comment from klangley56 in the subject of slash, dated June 1, 2008, accessed Feb. 11, 2011; WebCite.
  8. ^ H. Bruce Franklin, Star Trek in the Vietnam War Era.
  9. ^ Xena - The Subtext FAQ for, Version 1.08, updated 1998. (Accessed 26 December 2008)