What is slash? (2003 essay)

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Title: What is slash?
Creator: The Brat Queen
Date(s): November 19, 2003
Medium: online
Topic: Fanfiction, Slash
External Links: What is Slash?, Archived version
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What is slash? is an essay by The Brat Queen.

It is part of the Fanfic Symposium series, where it has the slightly different title: What is Slash?.

The essay was posted simultaneously at the author's personal journal, a venue that garnered seven pages (215) comments. See: What is slash?; comments page 1; comments page 2, comments page 3, comments page 4, comments page 5, comments page 6, comments page 7

The essay is preceded by "The Ground Rules":

I'm going to begin this essay with a few caveats. First off, the following rules are in effect:

TBQ's Law: Anybody who attempts to justify anti-slash comments (e.g. "All slash is character-bashing." as opposed to "I personally don't like slash.") with the excuse that they know someone who is gay both loses the argument and is reminded that everyone knows someone who is gay so flashing your Queer Cred is redundant.

TBQ's Corollary: Anyone who attempts to defend slash by saying those who don't like slash are clearly homophobic not only loses the argument but is tarred and feathered for making the rest of us look bad.

Get it? Got it? Good.


...what I'm not going to talk about.

To begin with, I'm not going to talk about people who pair up random combinations of m/m or f/f. Reason being the phenomenon of "Any dick will do" isn't limited to slash. People in Buffyverse, for example, have been known to ship Wes/Dru just as people in the same fandom have been known to ship Wes/Oz. Putting together two characters who have had little to no screentime together for the purpose of seeing what would happen happens on all sides of the fanfic force. It's a phenomenon in and of itself. The answer to "Why do people do that?" essentially boils down to "Because they thought it would be interesting" with a possible side order of "Because they thought it would be hot." It's an interesting phenomenon to be certain, but it exists in its own right and therefore doesn't affect interpretations of slash one way or another.

Another thing that I won't be talking about is behind the scenes intent. Yes, there are multiple fandoms where the producers, directors, writers and/or actors (aka The Powers That Be or TPTB) were fully aware of the homoerotic content of their shows and deliberately played it up in the hope that the audience would get it (Due South, The Sentinel, Smallville, and all of Joss Whedon's TV shows, just to give some examples) but for the purpose of this essay I'm not going to address that. Reason being people have seen slash in books and shows where TPTB didn't intend it and therefore slash is not dependant upon this encouragement. It's nice when it's there but it's not required. So what I'll be talking about here is solely the slash fan's point of view in the wild, so to speak. (Besides, I think bringing up that intent leads to the slippery slope of arguing that slash is only okay to see in fandoms where it was put there deliberately and that therefore anything that was not endorsed by one of TPTB is therefore "wrong".)

Let's start off with some examples (and let's play try to guess the fandom while we're at it):

1) A manservant works for a rich, single woman for many years. She's often engaged but each and every time he secretly (and sometimes not so secretly) works to make sure the marriage never happens, thus ensuring that he can continue to work for her. His devotion to her is so strong that at one point he even violates the most sacred rules of conduct - something he lives his entire life by - in order to destroy something that would bring embarrassment to her should anyone find out about it. When telling her about it, he explains it was part and parcel of his hope to "remain permanently in [her] service". When she asks why on earth he would want such a thing, he merely replies "There is a tie that binds".

2) A woman's parents are killed when she is a child. She spends her life wishing she could get revenge on the man who did it. Years later, as a young woman, she discovers the location of the murderer. She does everything she can to track him down and destroy him, but the man she's lived her whole life with does everything he can to stop her. Finally they have a confrontation about it. She rails against him, decrying "You and your stone cold heart! You don't know how I feel! How could you!?" Later, after the murderer is taken care of, she says "You were right, y'know, not bringing me along. You knew I'd take it too personally." He quietly replies, "It wasn't that at all. [He's] taken so much, caused you so much pain. I couldn't stand the thought that he might… take you too."

3) A group of heroes are under attack. There's a way for them to save the day, but only if someone can manage to escape and get the information they need. The leader of the group, a woman, stands her ground, insisting that the others go. Her second in command, a man, comes to her side, says no and insists that it has to be her and her alone. She hesitates, locking eyes with him, unable to tear herself away. One of their group, watching this, nudges her to make a decision by reminding her "Hearts get in the way, right?" She finally leaves, never breaking that eye contact until she's thrust completely out of the room.

Now take these scenes and ask yourself would you be surprised if you later found out that those characters were in love with each other? That they wanted to sleep together? Heck, that maybe these scenes were indications that they already do?

Fine. Now explain to me why it changes when we find out that 1) Is Jeeves and Wooster, from Jeeves and the Tie That Binds, 2) is Batman and Robin, from Batman: The Animated Series Robin's Reckoning and 3) Is Angel and Wesley, from Angel the Series Sacrifice.

Gender doesn't change the implications that those emotions have. No, really, it doesn't. No, really, it doesn't.

Perhaps one of the key differences between slashers and non-slashers is that slashers, other than being interested in reading and writing about same-sex relationships in the first place, don't approach their canon with the point of view that characters have one sexuality and one sexuality only. Non-slashers, on the other hand, tend to believe in "straight until proven gay."

That's a fine belief, but sadly it's an incorrect one.

With all due respect, you're forgetting the fact that we don't have a level playing field. Homosexuality, no matter how much we're currently in the middle of a Will & Grace, Queer As Folk and Queer Eye For The Straight Guy gaysplosion, is still not universally accepted. TV studios still shy away from it. Movies don't tend to star gay characters. Actors themselves are reluctant to commit themselves to a gay pigeonhole. There is more pressure to not show homosexual characters than there is to show them.

It's a false argument to suggest that "If character X was gay we would see that on the screen." because currently we still do not have the freedom to do so. Even characters who are gay, like Will on Will & Grace, aren't allowed to act gay in ways that involve actually touching members of the same sex. This is a hit TV show where one of the title characters has only kissed another man once as a joke. If this highly-rated, Emmy-winning, media darling of a show can't show its lead gay character as actually being gay, what makes you think that other network shows can? As Stephen Colbert of The Daily Show put it, right now according to popular culture being gay apparently means that you dress well and keep a neat apartment. But actually be attracted to members of the same sex? Pfft. Where'd you get a crazy idea like that from?

Now imagine what it's like on shows that don't have all those Emmys and all those ratings. How likely is it that a show that's currently on a ratings bubble is going to take a chance and out one of its characters? The media doesn't want characters that are actually gay. In point of fact it can barely stand admitting they're gay in the first place, current surges of popularity aside.

The "straight until proven queer" argument is also a false one because it's not one that's actually supported by the world we live in. Pride parades and Supreme Court rulings aside, gay people still have to deal with living in the actual closet. Just like on TV, they can't come out and act gay as much as they would like.

Moreover the assumption falls flat because it relies on the belief that sexuality is something that can be easily interpreted based on looking at someone.


"So and so isn't gay! He's never dated another man in his life!"

Are you sure? How do you know? How old is this character? Have you really heard about each and everything he's ever done ever? Is he the kind of character who'd be inclined to talk about his personal business? Is he in an environment where he could talk about dating another guy in the first place? (And before you answer that question with "Yeah, sure, he's constantly surrounded by his loving family and friends!" you may want to ask a gay person how nerve-wracking it was for them to come out to their family and friends. Go ahead and ask me if you'd like. I have the most supportive family in the world and it still gave me nervous butterflies.)

And, assuming that he hasn't ever dated another guy, who's to say for certain that he doesn't want to?

The subtext that The Celluloid Closet talks about is alive and well today, whether or not TPTB of our various fandoms intend it to be. Tolkein might be happy to stop spinning in his grave long enough to kill anyone who dared suggest that any of his characters were queer, but when (picking the movie here under the assumption that more people will recognize it) Frodo looks into Sam's eyes, tells Sam that he couldn't have gotten far without him, dubs him "Samwise the Brave" and Sam is both touched and shy and blushy about it… well you tell me how that scene would read to you if we did a search and replace and changed one of those names to "Samantha".

And then there are the scenes which seem to be not so much subtext but text. Faith lures Buffy out of school by drawing a heart on a window (albeit one with a stake inside of it). Wesley and Gunn look into one another's eyes and hold hands. Lex showers Clark with gifts and repeatedly asks his parents to understand how much Clark means to him. Harry participates in a contest where the other competitors have to save their respective boyfriends or girlfriends and Harry ends up having to save Ron. Fraser and Ray ride off into the sunset together.

While seeing The Two Towers for perhaps the thousandth time, I watched the scenes of Aragorn falling off the cliff, Legolas becoming upset, and then Legolas's later relief and tight embrace of Aragorn when he later shows up safe and sound at Helm's Deep.

I turned to a friend of mine and remarked "You can see why the slash fans love this part."

To which she, trying to gently nudge me back towards the canon, replied, "Or the two of them could just be good friends."

Well duh.

Slash fans don't deny platonic friendships. We're not trying to say that those don't exist. Nor do we, as a rule, believe that slash is the only interpretation. We're just saying it's an interpretation.

You Could Come in Straddling Him, They Still Wouldn't Believe It

On the flip side, we've got this example of actual conversations that I've had multiple times on alt.books.anne-rice back in the day:

TBQ: So Lestat and Nicolas run away to Paris together.

Other Person: Uh-huh.

TBQ: And get an apartment together.

OP: Uh-huh.

TBQ: And sleep together.

OP: Uh-huh.

TBQ: And talk about how they love each other.

OP: Uh-huh.

TBQ: And kiss each other before they go to bed at night - in the same bed, mind you.

OP: Uh-huh.

TBQ: And then in later books Lestat talks about how much he loved Louis. And then he tries to sleep with David. And in Tale of the Body Thief he repeatedly talks about how he loves men as much as he loves women.

OP: Uh-huh.

TBQ: So you see what I'm saying?

OP: Sure. But, he's not gay. He's French.

TBQ: [bangs forehead into desk]

Look, if some of us are a little too inclined to read slash into places where it might not be intended, some of you guys are a little too inclined to want to believe that everybody is straight. Argue for pure heterosexuality all you like but don't come to us scratching your heads over how say, Angel, a character who in canon is frequently mistaken for gay by other characters on the show and wonder where the Hell we got this wacky "Angel acts gay" idea from. If you can't meet us at least halfway I'm not sure we can help you.

Which isn't to say you're not allowed to see the characters as totally straight. Because here's the thing - it's how you see them. I can't argue how you see the characters because you know you better than I do. But that's the catch. "Jim Ellison comes off as gay to me." is a statement you can't dispute because the point is that's how I see him. Likewise I can't dispute "Jim Ellison comes off as straight to you." because that's how you see him. At that point we're still in the realm of opinions, and all opinions are valid.

What I'm talking about here is when we try to have these little confabs about slash and where it comes from. At that point we need a little compromise, because if I sit down and outline all the times that Justin Taylor has expressed interest in the beauty of men's bodies and having sex with men and add in the part where he actually does have sex with men and you reply "Yeah but he's just artistic." then I'm going to have to suggest that maybe understanding slash in and of itself shouldn't be your first step here. It's okay, it happens. Come back to us when you're ready. We'll still be here.

{{Quotation2| Not So Snappy Answers To Other Frequently Asked Questions

Those two characters hate each other and fight all the time! How on earth do you think they want to sleep together?

I dunno. Ask fans of Elizabeth and Darcy, Scarlett and Rhett, Sam and Diane, Maddy and David, Buffy and Spike - the list goes on. Our culture has a long history of het pairings which start out with the two protagonists hating each other. Why should slash pairings be any different?

Male character Y and female character X were canonically in love! How can you deny that relationship?

With bad writing? Look, I'm not denying that we have ex-lover bashing over here in the slashverse. We do and if you ask me it sucks. Shoring up slash by trying to put down a canonical het relationship that to all appearances was fine is, IMO, a lazy way of making your point.

But this isn't specific to slash. There are Buffy/Spike shippers who bash Angel just as there are Angel/Spike shippers that bash Buffy. Sadly, nobody's got an exclusive claim on this.

You say it's okay to make a canonically straight character gay, but wouldn't you freak if I made a canonically gay character straight?

It depends. Why are you doing it? Are you doing it to make a political point that straight is the "correct" answer? Then I'd find that obnoxious. But I'd find it similarly obnoxious if somebody was trying to do that when writing stories about the characters being gay.

If, on the other hand, you're doing it because you saw chemistry between the two characters in question and wanted to write about it - go nuts. It's as good an idea for a story as any.

But what about those stories that involve sex with underage characters? Or incest?

Those aren't exclusive to slash.

They already have a gay character on that show. How could another character be gay too?

I agree that canonically it's not too likely for a show with one gay character (esp one who belatedly discovered their homosexuality) to add in another. Reason being we still have that Celluloid Closet. But in the world of fanfic we don't have any such limits. And in the real world one gay person doesn't act as some kind of queer diffusion repellant for the other gays. Just because Bayliss came out late doesn't mean Kellerman couldn't too.

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