Tropes: The Subversive Power of Slash-Fic

Ana's Note: This article originally ran as a Slacktiverse Special. This is a repost in case you missed it the first time.

I've been thinking a lot about fan-fic and slash-fic lately.

Now, it's really difficult to write a post about fan-fic and slash-fic without defining the terms for the readers who aren't familiar with either. And it's really difficult to accurately define these terms because they mean different things for different people. So I'm going to try to define what the terms mean to me, but with the advance warning that I tend to define these terms more loosely and more broadly than many other people do. And, it's worth noting: I don't own the terms and I'm not the definitive guide for using them. So there's that!

But having said that, I use the term fan-fic to refer to stories written by fans of an existing fictional work. The fan-fic work utilizes some or all of the existing work's pre-established characters, world building, and possibly story arcs. I use the term slash-fic to refer to "fan-fic that contains romantic pairings between existing characters that is not directly supported by the established work", but it's important to note that a large body of slash-fic requires changing or modifying a character's established sexuality in order to make the pairing work.

Based on these very broad definitions, I've loved fan-fic for years. Some of my favorite novels are new retellings of old fairy tales or modern rewrites of Shakespearean plays. My favorite Greek plays are the ones that took pre-existing myths and reworked them into new interpretations. I've seen "The Divine Comedy" described in jest as "history's first recorded self-insert fan-fic", but by golly I like that Dante gets to meet Virgil and be Best Friends Forever. Fan-fic has always seemed to me to be a great platform for breathing modern concerns and issues into relevant older pieces, as well as for filling in plot holes or extrapolating what happens after The End.

Slash-fic, on the other hand, I've had a more changeable relationship with, and for that I blame Sherlock Holmes. You see, I like Sherlock Holmes stories, although I think I liked them more when I was a child and the logic trains seemed more clear-cut and less authorially-mandated. But I like them nonetheless, and I especially like that Sherlock Holmes is portrayed, in my opinion, as a rare asexual character in a genre that more often than not seems to center around the hero getting The Girl (if not lots and lots of girls) as a prize at the end of every solved mystery.

But Sherlock Holmes is also one of the most famous literary characters I can think of who is also regularly the subject of slash-fic romance with his sometimes live-in roommate Watson, despite Holmes' (in my opinion) carefully portrayed asexuality and Watson's romantic devotion to his wife. And if you'd asked me a few months ago what I thought about the tendency to slash-pair Holmes/Watson, I would have said it really isn't my thing. But then Melissa McEwan said something that made me reconsider my position.

A few days after I very badly communicated in a Slacktiverse thread that non-canon pairings weren't really my thing because of this hang-up I have with Sherlock Holmes, Melissa McEwan posted on her blog a trailer for the upcoming movie "The Hobbit". And because Shakesville is a feminist blog with a heavily female readership, a delightful conversation sprung up about Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" epic and the relative lack of female characters therein. In the ensuing discussion, I confessed that as a child I had accidentally read hobbit Merry and elf Legolas as females, because I had assumed that someone in an epic adventuring party needed to be female. I also offered that I had been so upset on the realization that there were no women in the LOTR adventuring party that I wrote a truly execrable fan-fic about "Gandalf's daughter". I pointed out that this character I had written was a silly and one-dimensional device intended simply to follow the party around and provide a 'hook' for me to sink into the narrative.

Melissa responded by saying:

It doesn't sound silly to me.

It sounds like building a room of one's own (so to speak, and with all due respect to Ms. Woolf) within a literary space.

If feminism is learning the cultural architecture to build rooms of one's own wherever one finds the need, and I believe that it is, then creating a character for an author who couldn't be arsed to create one for you is an act of feminism, not silliness.

"Creating a character for an author who couldn't be arsed to create one for you is an act of feminism." I'd never seen it that way before, and now that it had been said, I couldn't see it any other way.

We live in a world where popular fiction, if it wants to avoid being shoved into the "issues" section, frequently presents a world of monochromatic characters in hetero-normative relationships. Female characters, no matter how "strong" or competent, are more often than not shoved aside in favor of male protagonist pie. Minority characters -- people of color, people with disabilities, people with body fat -- are included rarely, if at all, and almost never as main characters and almost always with glowing neon "issue" signs over their heads. Non-neurotypical characters, including people with multiplicity, are rarely included and almost inevitably whodunit. QUILTBAG characters are frequently silenced or absent altogether.

Of the 100+ books I read last year, only two of them even mentioned gays and lesbians, let alone the other letters in the alphabet soup. One of those books was a non-fiction book with the word 'gay' in the title. The other was a history book about U.S. presidents. The last fictional book I read with a bisexual character was Steig Larsson's "The Millenium Trilogy", and the bisexual female protagonist largely prefers men. I cannot remember reading a fictional book with undecided, intersex, transgender, or asexual characters that wasn't explicitly an "issue" book. I can't remember recently watching a movie or television show with QUILTBAG characters where the issue wasn't largely included to drive ratings or to serve in place of actual characterization except maybe, maybe, True Blood's Lafayette. Who, in addition to being gay, is also a drug dealer and a prostitute (and a perfect example of why television writers need to read up on Wicca before throwing it into a show with Vampires and Werewolves and Fairies as though all of those things is just like the others). Well-adjusted, happy QUILTBAG characters seem to be as rare in mainstream fiction as unicorns.

If creating a character with an identity similar to yours, for an author who couldn't (for whatever reason, because I fully recognize that It's Very Complicated) create one for you, is an act of positive subversion, does it matter if the character is a new one a la Gandalf's Daughter or a new interpretation of an existing one a la Sherlock Holmes?

I'm not sure that it does matter, at least as far as fan-fic goes. Possibly the full power and finance of Hollywood does not need to be directed into turning Hamlet gay for a Hamlet/Horatio pairing, or Mary Bennet lesbian for a Mary Bennet/Charlotte Lucas interpretation, or Odysseus transgender and his classic odyssey through space-time reinterpreted as a modern odyssey through self-identification. With great power comes great responsibility, and with the power that big-budget movie makers wield to create definitive renditions of text, possibly they have a greater responsibility to cleave to the author's perceived intent.

But fan-fic is written largely by the powerless and shared widely among those who are not looking to permanently change the original work. The goal of fan-fic is almost always to enjoy and savor the original piece, but with a few tweaks here and there to make the story more approachable for the fan and their readers. And with that in mind, I now have to think that fan-fic and slash-fic can be positive acts, acts that take an existing work and say, "I know you couldn't include a person of my gender, a person with body fat, a person of color, a person who identifies as QUILTBAG, a person of my religion, or a person of non-neurotypicalness in your narrative. But I love your narrative enough that I'm going to write a fan-fic to fix that for me. And I'll share it with anyone else who has the same needs as I."

I now think that can be a good thing, a positive subversive act meant to signal to the larger world that we -- the non-white, the non-male, the non-heterosexual, the non-neurotypical, the non-body conforming -- are here and we are not going away any time soon. I think it can be an act that signals that we are not only building rooms of our own in new houses that we build from scratch, but we are also building additions to the older, existing houses that we've been given to inhabit.

It's More Complicated Than That, of course. Fan writers aren't always automatically on the side of angels, and things become more muddied when the author of the original work is still alive and the work is still under copyright. (This is one of many reasons why the examples in this post are all works in the public domain.) There's the question of author intent to consider, and how much that author's intent should weigh on the interpretation of the work in question. There's the question of how the fan-fic is written, and whether the newly added elements are 'merely' subversive or actively harmful. (As with, for example, fan-fic that portrays intensely triggering, disturbing, or illegal elements.) Like almost every issue there are shades of gray, and reasonable people are going to disagree here and there.

But considering all that, and purely as my personal opinion, I think that when crafted with love and respect and when shared with the intent to expand and embrace, fan-fic and slash-fic can be positive subversive acts. And I am mostly in favor of that.


Joanne said...

I know this isn't really the main point of your post, but on the subject of non-"issue" books with queer characters in them, I really have to recommend Malinda Lo's two YA novels, 'Ash' and 'Huntress.' Lo writes the kind of books I want to write someday: romantic fantasy adventures for teenagers where the romance just happens to be between women. Plus she's Chinese American, and although when I read 'Ash' (which is a retelling of Cinderella) I imagined it as your basic European-style fantasy setting, now that I've read 'Huntress' (which is a distant prequel), I think I was wrong and should have been imagining everything as way more Chinese. Race is ambiguous in her books, is what I'm saying. They're neat books, especially if you like YA fantasy- and I know I can't be the only one here who does.

valarltd said...

I got my start writing fanfiction back in 83, in Star Trek fandom. I discovered slash in 98, with Buffy. I eventually ended up writing in over a dozen different fandoms, including rarities like Captain Blood, K 19 The Widow Maker and Space Cowboys.

Fanfiction is inherently subversive on many levels. It takes what should be ephemera and makes it permanent. It takes the writer out of passive watcher role and into a creator role. It is a primarily female pursuit, which is subversive in itself. It takes a story that is dictated to us, sold to us as a consumer commodity and says "no, we are going to play with this and make a place for ourselves and our ideas in it."

I very seldom wrote female characters, even the canon ones. Every now and then, a Princess Leia Point-of-view fic would slip through, but I was all about the boys. I noticed a long time ago that Han Solo does everything Luke wants him to, and nothing at all the Princess asks. (don't get me started, I was list mom, fanfic writer, vidder etc.)

I moved out of fanfic and into original same-sex romance. I find both of these subversive because they go against the narrative "Gay people die young and must die by the end of the movie." I show mostly well-adjusted people, or at least ordinary people (only a few of them are depraved monsters) getting into relationships, regardless of physical ability, race, religion or social mores. I've written eunuchs and legless phone psychics, PTSD war vets and wet-behind-the-ears journalism graduates, Muslim pirates, Jewish cyberwarriors and Asatruar mechanics.

Jessewave did a post on diverse m/m books, to counter the "straight acting, pretty gay white atheist seeks same" mentality so common in the genre.

Will Wildman said...

It takes a story that is dictated to us, sold to us as a consumer commodity and says "no, we are going to play with this and make a place for ourselves and our ideas in it."

valarltd, I think you make a lot of good points, and maybe I'm misreading this, but it seems like an oddly adversarial framing of the writer/reader relationship - casting the writer as intentionally pushing a restrictive worldview on their audience, rather than, say, creating a story they think others might enjoy and offering it for perusal. There are times when I do get something of that impression and it causes me to want to kick back, but those would be exceptional.

(Example: someone brought up a country song in a discussion and basically said (with good reason) "Could this possibly be a more gross gender-role-enforcing heteronormative mess?" And I listened to it and they were quite right - unless the presumed singers were recast: if it was turned into a duet, then it could become a guy trying to prescribe gender roles and a woman basically saying "I'll be wearing pants and fighting my own battles, thanks". Eventually I ended up having a guy sing it to his prospective boyfriend in an apocalyptic scenario, where it just kind of became a chorus of "To hell with gender roles, we're both more complicated than that".)


When you've got the background set up by the canon show/movie/book/poem, that's twenty pages you can cut out right at the beginning, so your piece can be a whole lot tighter without sacrificing your readers' understanding of what's going on.

I loved that about writing fanfiction as well - it caused me to think about how the same thing could be achieved in original fiction, and maybe the best thing George Lucas ever did for me was talk about why he felt the same way. He said in an interview that he wanted Star Wars (Ep 4, the original) to have that 'thrown into the action' feeling like you've walked into the theatre five minutes late, which is why he opened with the Star Destroyer and Vader chasing Leia. Thus began my adoration of in medias res techniques, and I'm always trying to find or think of new ways to provide backstory without breaking the flow of the narrative and without opening with The Opening, either. (Or, as Vonnegut's rule went, "Begin as close to the end as possible".)

The apex of my efforts so far is my latest story, which by normal fantasy novel standards should be 'book two of three' except that I decided book one didn't actually need to be written. It's a bit choppy, but I haven't gotten into the rewriting yet; my hopes remain high.

valarltd said...

It's more about a relationship with mass media. A book is a more intimate thing, bnut Tv or mvies are bundled and sold, basically interchangeably and treated like popcorn.

It's not about an adversarial relationship with a writer (I am a writer). It's about claiming ownership of cultural myths in a copyright society. King Arthur belongs to no one (and Lancelot is the first Mary Sue). OTOH, King Arthur starring Kiera Knightly is owned by Touchstone Pictures. George Lucas owns Star Wars. We fans have taken hold of the movie that shaped our generation and made it our own. We said, "This is not to be passed over for next week's release. This is ours. It has affected us and we claim it. You can have the money, but we are free to dream the dreams it inspires in us." And for some of us, those dreams are outside what the creator approves of.

Fluffy_goddess said...

Oddly enough, starting right in the middle of things doesn't work for me as much when I'm working on original fiction, in part because I tend to do a huge amount of worldbuilding and that stuff just has to be in there. It doesn't have to be near the beginning, and most of it can be worked in here and there in little phrases and implications, but it's gotta be somewhere.

Whereas if you have a strong desire to, say, write a tough but friendly warrior type wearing leather pants and have someone lust after him for a kinkmeme, Stargate Atlantis has your characters lined up neatly for you, and it gives you an automatic audience that's really, really hard to build up as a new author. Fanfiction in general gives you the option of saying "ok, I just want to do this one scene, so just remember that it's these guys and you're fine," whether you're doing it because that's what's fun for you, or because you feel you need practice writing action/erotica/dialogue/scenery/whatever.

(That's a whole other argument, really: fanfiction has its audience built in, and it's a very companionable audience. If you're wide-ranging in the kind of fic you write and end up publishing, that's also an audience who will already know your name and your writing style. It's not a huge boost, but any kind of boost at all can help get a new book noticed.)

Fluffy_goddess said...

It's about claiming ownership of cultural myths in a copyright society.

This. I spent my early teenaged years watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. My friends and I rehashed the latest episodes over birthday cakes and retold summaries to those who'd missed them, debated favourite characters, and mused about being part of that universe. We even picked up slang from it. Heck, we used it as a launchpad to argue definitions of virginity and sexual morality. For us, that show was part of our culture just as much as classical mythology, and we played with it.

valarltd said...

I feel old. I was debating the bigger things like "how are the monsters representative of Joyce's fears as well as common teen fears?" And "Do you think Giles and Ethan got anything accomplished or did they just shag 24/7?" I came at Buffy from a Joyce/Giles-aged perspective (My daughter was a tween when it started) which is a very different place. And I did some academic work on fanfic around that time, read all the classics (was shocked to find a section on a person I actually KNEW in one book), wrote a paper on female-coding in Star Wars slash. But I'm one of those tiresome people who will host panels titled "Werewolves and mutants: gay-coding for modern society." at science fiction conventions

Jenna Moran said...

It feels to me like people should have as much right to publicly talk about the world of dreams (given flesh in words) as any other sort of ideas. It feels like moral constraints are more like "don't pretend you created property you didn't" and "don't be a stalker and twist people's ideas to make them uncomfortable or silence them," which doesn't have anything to do with copyright qua copyright.

It's like modern IP law exists to own _us,_ we the people of the united nations of the world as it were, and on the occasions where it actually helps the artists---it's a bit more useful for authors than for musicians these days, AFAICT, for instance---that's only to get them to falsely believe themselves dependent upon it, or to create an actual dependence.

I think that on some deep level there's a false idea grab going on, where the idea that "artists who work, are doing work, and work gets paid" and the idea that "artists create something from nothing, and the rest of the world consumes" became conflated, boiled down to a single concept, and they're not. Artists don't create from nothing; they feed from a wild land, and the concrete and steel city of owned things, factories and warehouses of content, that spreads across it, choking off its rivers, smoking up its skies, covering the forests of it---that isn't really helping the artists, even if now and then one builds a little house in the city for their own. Nor is there a clean line between artist and reader---I mean, that's obvious these days to everyone who'd be reading a blog thread, but it wasn't 100% clear when I was growing up, you know? We're all out there, it's just that there are other lands to ruin or live from stacked in parallel-universe piles and people spend different levels of time in the art one.

I remember the day that I realized that the modern concept of romantic love is a portmanteau of abuse and love itself---that the reason that people have such a hard time finding the line between them is that they've been hegemonized. That it's not some _natural_ connection, not exactly, it's just that when you only talk about two things together, when you only talk about the Reese's Cups of love and power, you never get the chance to know what the individual pieces (love and abuse, peanut butter and chocolate) taste like on their own. All you know is that it's more chocolatey when you nibble on the edges, and more peanut buttery when you gnaw out the insides.

I think that respect for copyright and IP is a lot that way. There's something important and good there, but it's been all muddled up with a poison. "You got your engine of soul-destruction in my engine of soul-creation!" "You got your engine of soul-creation in my engine of soul-destruction!" ". . . huh."

Brin Bellway said...

I may never look at a peanut butter cup the same way again.

Fluffy_goddess said...

"Werewolves and mutants: gay-coding for modern society." sounds like an awesome panel for a science fiction convention.

And now I feel very young, but oh well. I was a little younger than the main cast of characters on Buffy back when it aired on YTV, and I know it concerned my mother that I was watching something so violent. But for me and my friends, it was... very real. We were watching scenes where girls actually talked to each other about wanting to have sex but not being sure, and how the other person involved influenced that, and that was huge. Sure, the sex was with a vampire, but we had no trouble extrapolating to human-only relationships, and it gave us great jumping-off points to talk about our own (lack of) sex lives. We looked at sex-and-relationship sides of the Buffy verse quite closely because that's what we were obsessing about in our own lives, I think. And I think that's a healthy arena to talk about sex in -- easily accessible, not too personal, but not too far off personal, either.

Of course, it helped that a few of my friends loved slash -- and came at it with the influence of anime culture and doujinshi in the background, too. So we were pretty much primed to say "Ok, I am most like Willow, and the guy I'm crushing on is really more of a male Cordelia, so let us now go read Willow/Cordelia fic." Or Xander/Spike. Or Xander/Angelus (oh dear god the issues). Fanfiction gave us that, or at least the tools to contemplate that, and certainly the confidence to talk about things most of us would never have brought up if we hadn't read about them beforehand.

(And for the record: I think Giles and Ethan shagged 24/7 until they broke up, shagged off and on over the years, and will shag again. Probably they also had threesomes.)

Brin Bellway said...

And now I feel very young, but oh well. I was a little younger than the main cast of characters on Buffy back when it aired on YTV

If it helps, I've been watching Buffy for as long as I can remember. (For some reason it feels like the entire series has been out as long as I can remember, but IMDB tells me this is not true: I was nine when it ended. I don't remember ever watching an episode for the first time, though, just rewatches.)

and I know it concerned my mother that I was watching something so violent.

Mom never realised just how much sex there was until Brother (4.5 years younger than me) got old enough to start asking questions about it. I guess I was content to study in silence?

EdinburghEye said...

"I use the term slash-fic to refer to "fan-fic that contains romantic pairings between existing characters that is not directly supported by the established work""

Yeah, and that kind of heterosexual appropriation of queer readings of mainstream media doesn't bother me at all.

Well, yes, it does.

Slash got invented because no one was acknowledging that the intensity of feeling between two men (and on occasion two women) looked sexual but that sexuality just wasn't going to be acknowledged because in the mainstream media, heterosexuals are the only sexual orientation that's allowed to exist. It's like House is never going to actually kiss Wilson. Because omg that would be queer.

Now people who were never into slash are coming along and naturally enough, because heterosexual privilege is what it is, they're looking uncomfortably away at all the queer stuff and saying oh no, slash doesn't mean gay, it means romantic pairings not directly supported

Ana Mardoll said...

For myself, personally, I'm coming from an anime background where a good many canon pairings *are* gay or lesbian pairings and a lot of the random pair-the-spares ABC-slash-XYZ pairings are heterosexual, so it makes sense for me to use the term 'slash' that way, since that's what I'm used to. I'm young enough to have missed the Kirk/Spock origins of the term, but I certainly do not intend to use the term in a way that erases gay and lesbian experiences.

Fluffy_goddess said...

Yeah, I think Mom had bad luck about wandering through the room during fight scenes and missing all the rest. Plus Dad once tried to watch an episode with me and got fed up halfway through, albeit for different reasons.

It was always very carefully done sex and violence, but a lot of it, yes.

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