The Joy of Slash: Why do women want it?

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Title: The Joy of Slash: Why do women want it?
Creator: Melissa Pittman
Date(s): Spring 2005
Medium: online in The High Hat
External Links: THE HIGH HAT -- MARGINALIA: The Joy of Slash, Archived version
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The Joy of Slash: Why do women want it? is an essay by Melissa Pittman in "The High Hat" about Women and Slash.

For additional context, see Timeline of Slash Meta and Slash Meta.

Some Excerpts

As an occasional, casual reader of online fanfiction, I was always fascinated and confused as to why male “slash” (gay sex couplings) was preferred over “ship” (heterosexual sex couplings) by women writers who were predominately straight, lesbian or bisexual. I always imagined that gay women would be more interested in female couplings, or straight women into het couplings. I guess because since I’m straight myself, and although I appreciate the aesthetic appeal of the female form, I’ve never had the desire to have sex with a woman. And although I can also see the appeal of two men in a sexual/romantic entanglement, I couldn’t for the life of me understand why so many women out there — lesbian women, mostly — not only preferred to write m/m slash, but even considered it superior in nearly every possible manner to m/f or even f/f fiction.

The strange thing that I found, however, that out of all the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” fanfiction I perused online, a large percentage of the slash fiction was centered around the male characters of the show. As lesbian writers, I had imagined there would be thousands of opportunities to explore the relationship of Buffy’s lesbian couple Tara and Willow (or Tara/Willow in slash parlance), or perhaps connect two other females together with their potential for sexual tension, such as Buffy/Faith or Willow/Anya perhaps.

Instead I saw hundreds of Spike/Angel couplings, or Spike/Xander, or Xander/Andrew or Angel/Wesley, or just about any variation of two men together that could possibly be done. Why was it that gay women who were given a show full of interesting active females still gravitating towards the slightly lesser male characters? Again, I received mixed answers, but a large portion of the gay women that spoke up about this topic commented that they didn’t feel a connection with many of the female characters in a way that some had determined with a term they referred to as gender “coding.” Few connected with Buffy herself, a blonde skinny Barbie-doll straight male fantasy girl. As for resident gay couple Tara and Willow, some also mentioned that their “coding” was off as well. They could easily accept Tara as a lesbian, since she had been introduced to the show as a lesbian. Willow, however, never felt “gay” to some of them, because she started out as an aggressively straight girl mooning over boys to suddenly dating one girl and bam — she’s full-on lesbian, and men just don’t appeal to her any longer. This rang a little false to a lot of women, and although they enjoyed watching the characters and loved them all, they felt these women didn’t really connect with them on a personal level as someone to identify with. Many of the women, however, did agree that some of the male characters like Xander and especially Spike were internally coded more like females, and therefore they felt a stronger connection to them than they did to the women on the show, and therefore they enjoyed writing about the men in romantic/sexual situations more often than they did with any of the creatively well-written females.
And then it hit me, for the first time, what the appeal of writing men is for a woman. I was reminded of my childhood, when all I ever dreamed of being was a boy. I wanted to be a boy so badly, I even used to beg my mom to let me have a sex change (“Maybe when you’re older, dear,” she used to say offhandedly). It wasn’t that I was gay, or identified as a male, or was attracted to girls (I was about 8 years old at the time, and I was blissfully ignorant of All Things Sex). I wanted to be a boy because boys got to do things. Boys got to have adventures, get dirty, be capital-A Active. Active became synonymous to me with being male, whereas girls were expected not to do anything that might undermine their serene femininity, so they remained as motionless as possible. Don’t get dirty and ruin your new dress, Melissa. You can’t race Matchbox cars with us, Melissa, because you are a girl. Go sit in the corner quietly and comb your doll’s hair. I wanted to be Active, and only boys were allowed to be Active without having to explain themselves or fill out the proper forms in advance. And in my mind, that’s how it was, that boys are Active, girls are Sedentary.

Suddenly I think I understood the appeal of male characters to women writers. It struck me dumb to realize that all this time that I was trying to understand, I had been basically doing the very same thing creatively for as far back as I can remember. I spoke to a few of my own close female friends, none of whom are fanfic writers, and they gave me their own examples of how at some point in their lives they longed to be male, even if they had only dreamt it just for a moment, and how they had used that desire as either fuel or as an impetus for their art. And the reasons they gave me were often for the same reasons I desired to be a boy as a child: To wear the loose red tunic instead of the cumbersome blue gown, to be physical without having to compromise my feminine serenity. We all wanted to be the Dragonslayer. To be the Hero. To be Active.

Perhaps that is what these women slash fiction writers are searching for — to have the freedom of being male in their female bodies. To feel physically and sexually liberated yet still be the women that they are.

Perhaps I am reading too much into the entire issue. Maybe the aesthetic appeal of two attractive men in a sexual situation is universal to women both straight and gay, and to question that is to question the very issue of what makes us the sexually focused creatures that we are. As long as there are good writers out there doing good work, I don’t care who’s nailing who. A good writer can make anything enticing, and this fellow sexually focused creature is merely a sucker for excellence.