U.N.C.L.E. the Show
Background and History
Contributors Behind the Scene
The Return Movie
IN DEFENSE OF SLASH
IN DEFENSE OF SLASH
A discussion of fanfic in general, and slash in particular, must of necessity begin with a look at fandom at large. Fandom is not a passive reception of televised images and words, but rather an active process.
Fans bring their own interpretations to the material, transforming it through the process of "textual poaching." (de Certeau 1984). As he notes
"Every reading modifies its object.... The reader takes neither the position of the author nor an author's position. He invents in the text something different then from their (lost or accessory) origin. He combines their fragments and creates something unknown. (169)"
Rather than a destructive process, this is a creative process, wherein the love of the fan for the material breathes life into it and, similar to the toys in the following famous passage (Williams 1983:4-5), makes is real:
"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day... "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick out handle?" "Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real." "Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit. "Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt." "Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?" "It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand." "I suppose you are Real?" asked the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled. "The Boy's Uncle made me Real," he said. "That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can't become unreal again. It lasts for always."
Thus the inherent value of the show lies not in its creation and production, but in how it is ‘reworked’ by the fans. As Jenkins states (1992:51) the fan, like the boy in the story
"has the power to bring the toy to life and only the boy grieves its loss. Only the boy can make it 'Real'..... Seen from the perspective of the toymaker, who has an interest in preserving the stuffed animal just as it was made, the Velveteen Rabbit's loose joints and missing eyes represent vandalism, the signs of misuse and rough treatment; yet for the boy, they are traces of fondly remembered experiences, evidence of his having held the toy too closely and pet it too often; in short, marks of its loving use."
Similarly, although the creators and producers of a TV show may intend for their product to be interpreted in one way, it is the reworking by its loyal fans, which perhaps may be in diametrical opposition to the original intent of the material, which gives deeper meaning to the work. It is this tension between the creator and the user which motivates fan textual poaching. The fans struggle with the material, "to articulate to themselves and others unrealized possibilities within the original works.... In the process, fans cease to be simply an audience for popular texts; instead they become active participants in the construction and accumulation of textual meanings." (Jenkins 1992:23-4)
Similarly, Jenkins (1992:162) notes that fanfic writers "do not so much reproduce the primary text as they rework and rewrite it, repairing or dismissing unsatisfying aspects, developing interests not sufficiently explored." He finds that fanfic can be divided into ten basic categories:
(1) Recontextualization (filling in gaps between episodes.)
(2) Expanding the Series Timeline (either to the past or future.)
(3) Refocalization (shifting attention away from the main protagonist and towards secondary characters.)
(4) Moral Realignment (for example, transforming villains into protagonists.)
(5) Genre Shifting (for example, shifting the balance between action and character interaction.)
(6) Cross Overs (mixing different fandoms within a single story, such as X-Files/Highlander)
(7) Character Dislocation (for example, resituating a character in a time and place before their birth.)
(8) Personalization (The dreaded ‘Mary Sue’ complex)
(9) Emotional Intensification (which includes the ‘hurt/comfort’ genre)
Jenkins (1992:176) quotes fanfic writer Jane Land in explaining that "all writers alter and transform the basic Trek universe to some extent, filtering the characters and concepts through own perceptions. This is perfectly legitimate creative license."
One of the most controversial of all fanfic sub-genres is of course slash -- stories which feature homoerotic relationships between what are perceived to be traditionally heterosexual characters. These stories vary widely, from admittedly frivolous ‘Plot, what plot’ (PWP) stories, to lengthy series centering around stable, committed relationships. The degree to which sexual contact between characters is described in a slash story varies as much as the amount of sexual contact varies in ‘het’ stories. There are some ‘slash stories’ which do not contain ANY sexual contact at all -- they are considered ‘slash’ simply because they presuppose a sexual relationship between two male characters.
Slash has been denigrated in many quarters, more so than other types of fanfic. The terms ‘mental masturbation,’ ‘the obvious projection of sexual fantasies on characters,’ and similar dismissing observations have been applied to it. Jenkins (1992: 202) warns that in focusing on the erotic underpinnings of slash, "we ignore its larger narrative content and its complex relationship to the primary text. Slash, like other genres of fan fiction, represents a mode of textual commentary." There is an inherent sexual undertone to the genre (as it supposes a sexual relationship as background material if not part of the active plot); however, Bacon-Smith (1992:239-40) explains that "the sexual response to the genre, while its most obvious characteristic to an outsider, represents but a single one of the many complexly interwoven reasons why women write homoerotic fiction." Further, Jenkins (1992:188) asserts that slash "may be fandom’s most original contribution to the field of popular literature." He adds that slash is "not so much a genre about sex as it is a genre about the limitations of traditional masculinity ...." (191)
The reasons for writing slash may be as varied as the authors themselves; however, some scholars have attempted to identify fundamental underlying foundations for the genre. Jenkins (1992:189) posits that slash "represents a reaction against the construction of male sexuality on television and in pornography; slash invites us to imagine something akin to the liberating transgression of gender hierarchy John Stoltenberg describes -- a refusal of fixed-object choices in favor of a fluidity of erotic identification...."
Bacon-Smith (1992:249) reveals that "many slash fans declare they write about men together because men, holding power, can relate to each other as powerful equals." This argument deserves serious consideration. Since these shows tend to be dominated by strong male protagonists, and have very few recurring female characters, it is with these male characters that the viewer must identify. The revolving bedroom syndrome of the main characters (the "girlfriend of the week") is unsatisfactory to those viewers who wish for stable romantic relationships involving the protagonists. In addition, as was stated above, it is a relationship between *equals* that is sought -- not the "damsel in distress." Given the dearth of strong recurring female characters AND the lack of meaningful romantic relationships involving the male protagonists, fanfic authors who wish to write such true sexual ‘partnerships’ have three choices:
(1) Rework weaker female characters already in the canon universe;
(2) Invent original female characters and hand craft those desired types of relationships;
(3) Pair up two male protagonists in the show.
This is a lose-lose situation for the fan. The reworking of any character is an opening for criticism from other fans (although as has already been discussed, all fanfic is a reworking to some degree), while an original female character is always suspected of being a ‘Mary Sue.’ Thus, the fanfic writer who seeks to describe a ‘meeting of equals’ and transcend the sexist stereotypes of the original program is forced to select what they consider to be what is essentially the lesser of three evils, or, alternately, what appeals most strongly to the individual writer. As Jenkins (1992:194-6) describes:
"The media simply does not provide the autonomous female characters needed to create a heterosexual romance between equals: fan writers have chosen the path of least resistance in borrowing ready-made figures, such as Kirk and Spock, to express their utopian visions of romantic bliss .... Forced to work within generic traditions created by and for men and already codified with patriarchal assumptions, female writers have often found it easier to rework or invert those assumptions than to create a totally alternative set of conventions or to find appropriate models for autonomous female characters."
Two arguments are typically used by fans and others who claim slash is ‘wrong.’ One popular misconception is that all slash writers somehow by necessity make one (if not both) characters inherently feminine in the classic sense of the word. Jenkins (1992:193) dismisses this notion:
"Slash depends not simply on a mapping of conventional male and female roles onto the relations between two male characters, not in creating consistently femme or butch versions of Kirk and Spock. Rather, slash explores the possibility of existing outside of these categories, of combining elements of masculinity and femininity into a satisfactory whole...."
A more vehemently used argument is that the slash writers are guilty of imagining a subtext which clearly does not exist in the broadcast canon. It has already been shown that *all* fans bring their own interpretations to the work -- one is no more ‘wrong’ than the other. However, it is instructional to explore this accusation in greater detail. Jenkins (1992:202) writes that slash writers do indeed see the genre as
"reflecting something they have found within the broadcast material. Slash allows for a more thorough exploration of issues of intimacy, power, commitment, partnership, competition and attraction apparent both in the scripted actions of the characters and also in the nuances of the actors’ performances (ways they look at each other, ways the actors move in relation to each other). What fans have discovered in these programs is a subtext of male homosocial desire."
The term "homosocial desire" was first coined in 1985 by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick to describe the "representation of masculinity -- especially friendship and competition -- within classic literary works." (Jenkins 1992:202) Sedgwick claims that there is "a continuum between homosocial and homosexual -- a continuum whose visibility, for men, in our society, is radically disrupted." (Jenkins 1992:202). These themes are the hallmark of many popular television programs in the form of the ‘great friendship’ of Kirk and Spock, Starsky and Hutch, Bodie and Doyle, and other famous pairs of male protagonists. Jenkins (1992:203) makes the point that
"If these programs evoke an ideal of male bonding, they must also repress the specifically sexual dimension of these relationships; the male characters are inscribed into short-lived relations of heterosexual desire (the romantic guest of the week) lacking the depth and intensity that binds the two men together. While Kirk loves many women in the course of the series, he loves none so dearly as he loves Spock; Kirk consistently renounces romantic ties that might interfere with his professional duties, while he has just as persistently been prepared to disobey orders and put his job at risk to protect his ‘friend.’ "
As Bacon-Smith (1992:234) succinctly puts it, "Many women perceive a deep and loving relationship between characters on the screen because series creators put it there."
An interesting anecdote is a footnote in the late Gene Roddenberry’s novelization of the first Star Trek movie,
"one which members of the female fan writing community have long read as the producer’s wink towards Kirk/Spock fiction. ‘Because t’hy’la [a term Spock used to refer to Kirk] can be used to mean lover, and since Kirk’s and Spock’s friendship was unusually close, this has led some to speculate over whether they had actually indeed becomes lovers.’ " (Jenkins 1995:251)
Much of the argument against slash hinges on the lack of ‘obvious’ homosexual contact between male protagonists on screen -- if we never *saw* Kirk take a male lover, and only saw him with woman, he therefore must be exclusively heterosexual. Fan writer Barbara Tennison exposes the fault of this logic:
"From the screen, a goodly number of media characters have no definite sexual orientation; the assumption that they are straight is made because that is the recognized norm in our culture. A good many other characters demonstrate heterosexuality on occasion, but don’t establish a committed relationship of the sort which might exclude other sexual activity. Again, the assumption is that ALL their activity would be hetero is implied by the culture, not inherent in their screen behavior .... This doesn’t mean that the character is straight, or that we the viewers must assume he/she is." (Jenkins: 1992:204)
In conclusion, is slash truly more of a violation of the primary text than other forms of fanfic? Should it be dismissed outright as a radical fringe element with no connection to mainstream fandom? The evidence seems to suggest "no" on both counts. Jenkins (1992:219-20) maintains that slash "like most of fan culture, represents a negotiation rather than a radical break with the ideological construction of mass culture; slash, like other forms of fan writing, strives for a balance between reworking the series material and remaining true to the original characterizations." Finally, Jenkins (1992:190) notes that the ultimate importance of slash may be in its "questioning of sexuality and popular culture [rather] than for its specific answers."
Bacon-Smith, Camille (1992) Enterprising Women (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press)
DeCerteau, Michel (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of Calif. Press)
Jenkins, Henry (1992) Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (NY: Routledge)
Jenkins, Henry (1995) "Gender and Star Trek fan fiction," in John Tulloch and Henry Jenkins, Science Fiction Audiences: Watching Dr. Who and Star Trek. (NY: Routledge)
Williams, Margery (1983) The Velveteen Rabbit (NY: Henry Holt & Co.)
Back to INTRODUCTION TO FAN FICTION Index Page.