Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Guest Post: Slash, the Male Default, and Female Enfranchisement

Ed. Teen Wolf (2011)
Today we have a guest article from Kyla Gorman. You can read her previous guest posts here and here.

There are many reasons to love slash fanfiction (and fandom in general), as I'm sure I've mentioned before. In a previous blog post on GamEstrogen I remember saying something to the effect of, "ask me why I like slash and I'm likely to give you a different answer on any given day of the week." Well, I've been thinking about it again, and the more I think about it the more reasons I come up with. I think a large part of it is tied up in feminism and femininity, and today's "theory-of-the-week" revolves around the idea of the male gender default.

If you're at all up on your feminism, you know that the default gender in this country is male. Women are expected to be able to relate to male protagonists, while men are not expected to be able to relate to female protagonists. (In many children's shows/movies in particular, if the main character is male it's a show for "all audiences" whereas if the main character is female it's for "little girls.") 

Ed. Star Trek (1966)
If you're writing something about a hypothetical person and use the male gender it seems neutral, whereas if you say "she" and "her" it seems like you're calling out the gender of the person specifically. This is a pretty well-known phenomenon and I'm sure if you look it up you'll find other people who explain it way better than I could. I just want to talk about how this relates to slash.

Working under the assumption that the male gender is neutral, slash becomes not a story about two men, but a story about two generalized people. It's almost like there's no gender involved at all, and the focus of the story becomes the emotions and characters and relationships and whatever other interesting stuff about the two characters - rather than the gender of said characters. You're exploring the people, in absence of the influence of gender.

Ed. Avengers (2012)
But if you throw a female character into that mix, suddenly you gender the whole story. Suddenly, whether you want it to or not, the narrative becomes at least in some subtle way the never-ending story of "men vs women" that we're all sick and tired of by now. Both characters become more defined by their genders and less defined by their personalities than they would have been otherwise. 

It's an inescapable trap caused by our culture's overwhelming perception of gender as a major (if not the defining) factor in the personality of any individual and particularly of women. If you don't put women in the story - or at least not as one of the focal characters, then you don't have to deal with this problem at all. The two characters automatically start on an equal footing regarding gender, and so the exploration can go further. If you do put a woman there, especially in contrast to a male character, then gender becomes a factor. It has to.

Taken this way, it might seem like writing stories about two men together and leaving women out of the picture is playing into a negative trend in our media landscape (the trend of accepting male as the default gender), and to some extent that might be true. But consider the nature of the stories being written: these male characters are under female control, and subject to the female gaze. 

These characters are being explored in a feminine context - characters in slash fiction are often explicitly put in scenarios our culture typically considers to be "female" in nature, such as dealing with the threat of rape or worrying about whether it's too forward to make the first move in a relationship. In this way, women use these male characters to explore their own lives and experiences, without the baggage of our cultural perception of femininity. You don't have to answer the question, "How would a woman react in this situation?" because you are instead considering the question "How would a person react in this situation?" or, even better, "How would this character react in this situation?" 

Ed. Sherlock (2011)
It allows us to read the nuances of individuals free of gender baggage, which I believe helps us to imagine and consider real people in the real world more complexly as individuals. It can help teach us to read those around us based on their character, rather than their gender.

Viewed this way, I think fandom and fanfiction, and particularly slash, are a major force for the enfranchisement of women in our culture. And I think the only reason male-focused mainstream media producers are not trying harder to stop us is because they don't understand fandom well enough to get that. Long may that last. 

Or perhaps they're just glad we're filling in our own media gaps so they don't have to. 


Ed. Also Teen Wolf. Because femslash is also a thing.
Kyla Gorman has her Master's in Interactive Media at USC.  You can visit her super-cool blog, GamEstrogen, here!


  1. I'm with you, not just in this but in so many areas of life - just think of unisex clothing, or women being called "feminazis" when they don't want to change their name (never mind that men aren't expected to when they marry)... the list goes on!

    1. Word. It's pretty ridiculous. Another good example of double standards I heard about recently is the trivialization of fashion. Women are given the standard that we should be beautiful and focus on our appearance, but when we do so, we are called frivolous and shallow.

  2. " not a story about two men, but a story about two generalized people."

    You take something about gay and bi men and TOTALLY remove them for it - just using gay men as a tool, an object and dismissing them as both people and as a marginalised group. To present male/male relationships as GENERALISATION completely ignores homophobia and the fact that gay men are marginalised, it erases gay men's existence and experiences

    "these male characters are under female control, and subject to the female gaze."

    AKA, gay men are used as sexual tools by fetishistic straight women appropriating the Other and a marginalised identity

    "characters in slash fiction are often explicitly put in scenarios our culture typically considers to be "female" in nature"

    That's a really nice, avoidant way of denying how many slash writers apply anti-gay stereotypes

    "such as dealing with the threat of rape"

    As well as homophobic victimisation. It's not like gay men aren't disproportionatly attacked with rape compared to straight men... oh, wait.

    "explore their own lives and experiences, without the baggage of our cultural perception of femininity."

    I can see the need for that - but you are appropriating and using the identity of another marginalised group to do this - and in doing so furthering homophobia and dismissing and erasing an actual prejudice. Gay men are not just hypothetical tools you can use to examine your own issues. And your homophobia isn't justified because you're using it to examine or avoid sexism.

    This piece is so utterly erasing of actual gay men that exist - and not just as tools, sex toys and fetishised eye-candy. To take the lives of marginalised people - without even a nod to them as people - and use them and their experiences for your own issues is beyond disrespectful - it's homophobic and its laden with contempt.

    1. Hey, thanks for your comment! You do have a valid point, so let me try and address what I mean a bit more specifically. My first and less useful reaction would be to simply say, "Welcome to a woman's world; we routinely face the appropriation of our gender, bodies, and sexuality for the pleasure of male audiences." But you're correct that two wrongs don't make a right - so let me attempt to explain myself.

      The thing is - and here I'm speaking entirely for myself, so it may not be possible to generalize this view to other fangirls - slash is not meant to appropriate the gay male identity in any way, and resemblance to that identity is something of a superficial coincidence. Slash seeks to create a romance story between two people on equal footing by as much as possible ERASING gender altogether. The reason males are usually chosen for this process is because the male gender identity is more neutral than the female one (as I tried to argue above).

      It's unfortunate if readers apply the things they read in fiction too closely to reality, but that's not a problem unique to slash or even to fanfiction. But if anyone is meant to relate to the characters in slash fiction - to be reflected in them - it's usually straight women and not gay men. I think most female readers of fanfiction understand this, at least on some implicit level, although of course there are all sorts within the community from the most level-headed to the looniest fringes.

      The characters within fanfiction are not meant to appropriate or imitate gay culture or a gay identity. By using masculine characters, my belief is that the authors are actually trying to push past the problems of dealing with a gendered identity at all. To some extent that's impossible of course, and there can be unintended implications or resemblances because of that. But I don't believe the intention is to be homophobic or marginalizing. We are not trying to make gay men more relatable to women; we are trying to drill down to the core of what a human experience is like outside of gender and sexuality baggage. (Even events within a story related to sexuality, as mentioned, are meant to be reflective of an individual experience of personal sexuality, rather than the sexuality of an entire group.) We just happen to be doing so from our own perspectives.

      I hope that answers your concerns, at least a little. I'm not trying to be hostile or homophobic - just expressive. I hope we can continue this conversation in the same tone.

    2. The problem is intention doesn't miraculously change anything. People not intending to appropriate our identity doesn't mean they're not doing so. People not trying to be homophobic doesn't mean they aren't being. The fact straight people don't intend to be homophobic and marginalising doesn't mean they aren't being.

      It's actually really insulting to take a story about two men in a relationship and saying it erases gender. Two gay men are still men. Just because we're gay doesn't mean we're not men. You may be trying to erase gender but you're not doing it - you're using gay men, not creating genderless beings. And your argument presents gay men and gay sexuality as some kind of societal, neutral default which is really dismissive of the actual issues gay men face

      "to be reflected in them - it's usually straight women and not gay men"

      Yes, and that's a problem. You objectify us, you reduce us to objects, to things and tools for you to use. If a group of white people took depictions of POC - frequently highly stereotyped and offensive depictions - and said "no, POC, this is not for you. We're just using you" we would call it appropriative and offensive.

      "The characters within fanfiction are not meant to appropriate or imitate gay culture or a gay identity."

      It depicts men in relationship with other men. They are GBQ men. These are us being depicted - gay men being appropriated and used as objects

      " By using masculine characters, my belief is that the authors are actually trying to push past the problems of dealing with a gendered identity at all"

      Which sounds a lot like "we're using you as tools to deal with our issues." And no matter how important it is to address those issues, using and ignoring the issues of another margianlised group isn't acceptable.

      "we are trying to drill down to the core of what a human experience is like outside of gender and sexuality baggage"

      Implying that gay men's relationships are free from sexuality baggage? This is insulting and erasing.

      "We just happen to be doing so from our own perspectives."

      Using GBQ men's identities to do so. We're a tool to you. Things to use. It's very dehumanising; despite your intent, that's really homophobic

    3. Reply in two parts, because apparently it's too long for one...

      I have a number of responses to this, on a variety of topics. But instead of going into those, I'd rather just focus on what I think of as sort of the bottom-line of this discussion, which is the question of what harm is being done.

      You use the term "appropriating," which I feel is rather harsh. You say that your identity is being "used," but used to do what? These authors are aiming to create stories about complex individuals based on their characters. In fact they subvert many of the common stereotypes about gay men, and focus much more on the characters as deep, complex individuals. Even news coverage of actual gay men often falls more into stereotypes than the presentations of these characters in fanfiction. For an author, they're not going to change the nature of a character to fit shallow stereotypes of gay men just because they happen to be examining the potential of that character's sexuality. You would never (or almost never; again, I can't speak for the whole of fandom) see an author write a character as suddenly and out of nowhere interested in, say, fashion, just because he's gay. Which is more than I can say for a lot mainstream pop-media.

      So we're not perpetuating pre-existing stereotypes - nor are we creating new ones of our own. I can't think of any gross generalizations that apply to all or even nearly all gay male characters across all fandoms. There are cliches to be sure, but those are mostly related to plot elements, not character, except for those perpetrated by the youngest and most inexperienced authors (and those are not confined to slash). So okay. If we're not guilty of stereotyping or generalizing, then perhaps we are generally guilty of inaccuracy?

    4. When you say that we are "appropriating" the gay male identity, my understanding of what you mean is that female authors are writing these characters from a perspective that they can never truly understand or identify with, because it's an identity that they haven't lived themselves. And that's true; we'll never understand it from the inside out. But if that means that we can't write these characters, then no one would ever be able to write anything other than characters exactly like themselves. Men could never be allowed to write female characters. (Which, in fact, we'd like more of them to do! As long as they try and be deep and nuanced about it.) Black authors could never write anything from the perspective of white characters. Straight authors could never include gay characters in their works, while gay authors couldn't write straight characters. And no one would ever be able to write any fantasy, sci-fi, or historical fiction. You wouldn't accuse someone of "appropriating" the identity of a dragonrider, because they don't understand the true nuances and experiences of being bonded to a dragon.

      The beauty of being a writer is being able to practice empathy - to be able to imagine yourself in someone else's shoes and ask yourself what they might feel. To apply the essential truth of your own experiences in whatever ways they apply to the experiences of others, and recognize when those experiences are different. Writing a character is about writing them complexly. In the case of fanfiction, writing an exploration of sexuality and human experience using the more complex and nuanced characters usually presented to us (the male characters) while making an attempt to free ourselves from common stereotypes associated with gender politics.

      I think what you're saying is that because I am not a gay male, I am not qualified to write from a gay male perspective. What I am saying is that I am human, and that qualifies me to write from a human perspective.

      Perhaps this discussion would be helped by specific examples. Can you point out to me specific fics in which you felt your identity was unfairly appropriated, or gross inaccuracies or stereotypes were committed? I am always looking to write my characters in a more nuanced and true-to-life manner. I would welcome another viewpoint on the world that would increase the complexity with which I can write.

    5. As for examples – scroll up and look at your own article.

      Here you have a straight woman decide that gay men exist for straight women to explore gender roles. Dismissal of gay men as people, as people with their own issues, as people in their own life. Using gay men as tools.

      Here you have a straight woman presenting gay men as “default.” Ignoring homophobia. Dismissing homophobia. Outright denial of straight privilege, heternormativity and the effect on gay people’s lives.

      Here you have a straight woman referring to a story about 2 men – and because we’re talking slash we’re talking a love story – and saying it’s not ABOUT 2 GBQ men, it’s about 2 generalised people. Complete removal of the identities, of the humanity of gay men. Denial of our personhood. Use of us as “blank slate tools” for your own exploration.

      Straight woman who points out that gender is a major definiting factor of any individual but completely ignores the defining aspect of sexuality and how society regards sexual orientation. Prioritising one oppression over another, erasure of identity. Again, dismissal of heteronormativity and homophobia.

      Here is a straight woman being happy about male characters under the female gaze and completely ignoring the fact we have gay characters under a straight gaze, that we have gay characters under straight control. Again, dismissal of heteronormativity, of homophobia and actually presenting straight people fetishizing and controlling gay people as positive and even revolutionary.

      Here is a straight woman presenting putting gay men into traditionally “feminine” experiences as somehow laudable, completely and utterly dismissing how often this furthers anti-gay stereotypes and tropes. And even invokes rape – because the huge prevalence of gay men being raped in both fiction AND the fact we’re far more likely to be victims of rape than straight men (and it’s also used as a hate crime against us) – is irrelevant to the story fodder

      Taking this blasé exploration of gay rape, here is a straight woman going on to yet again dehumanise GBQ men and GBQ identity and talk about using them, again, as some kind of blank slate or default. Here we have a straight female author who sees gender baggage – and is willing to use that as an excuse to be homophobicly dismissive – but doesn’t seem to realise that our society has a whole load of sexuality baggage as well.

      Your article is a CLASSIC example of appropriation, heternormativity and dehumanisation that we see so often in slash fandom

  3. This whole article is an example of using GBQ men. You write a long article about how straight women can use GBQ men as tools to examine issues separate from GBQ men and don't even give the slightest nod to GBQ men's existence once in the whole thing? That's a text book example of using us disrespectfully - and it's appropriation that is not harsh, it's accurate. To use marginalised people as tools to your own ends, our identities, our lives, our purpose and not even give a nod to the actual people you use? Pure appropriation.

    And you must see a vastly different fandom from what I’ve seen – or, perhaps, like many people who don’t share a marginalisation you don’t see the prejudice. Because fetishisation, blatant dehumanisation, stereotyping, generalisations and trope are rampant in slash. You yourself have even written non-critical article about the gross, offensive stereotypes common with “ukes” and “semes” that have bled into yaoi and slash – but then you say you haven’t seen stereotypes and tropes in slash?

    “You wouldn't accuse someone of "appropriating" the identity of a dragonrider, because they don't understand the true nuances and experiences of being bonded to a dragon.”

    Did you actually just equate writing about a REAL marginalised body with writing about a DRAGONRIDER? Really?

    To write non-appropriatively takes respect, research and understanding. No, you don’t have to live it, but you have to at least acknowledge these are actual people you are talking about (and, for example, not compare them to completely fictional concepts) and an actual marginalisations you are talking about. That is a vital step – one you have shown yourself extremely unwilling to do in this article and in these comments following it.

    I am saying that because you are not a gay male, you may want to actually look at us as people rather than as tools. You might want to look at us AS humans, rather than as convenient fuel for you to transplant your own issues onto. I think you might want to look at the actual human lives of the real, human gay men and their lives rather than just grabbing the identity and using it as a vessel for your own purposes

    In short, if you’re going to have GBQ male characters, you need to respect actual GBQ men.

  4. Some of these comments are saying that GBQ males are being appropriated but I think that fan fiction, bromances, and slash have vastly improved the level of genuine understanding, tolerance, and acceptance of GBQ males and GLBTQI in general and opens the stage for having more characters that are out from the very beginning and it not being the deciding factor on how those characters are going to be thought of.

    A lot of people do not realize that they have subconscious levels of homophobia or Othering and do end up forming opinions on certain characters simply by their sexuality. Slash helps end that by taking characters that those people see as having depth, qualities that they share, and just being fully formed individuals and then adding in that they are GBQ. When they do that it is impossible for the person that would've judged them if they had known from the beginning to now judge them or add in their bigotry from before. It is now too late. They see them as people. They already saw substance in the character and now realize after reading slash of the character that they would still see substance and love the character and not ignore the substance in favor of just seeing the character as a "gay character". Suddenly it is just a really great and fascinating character that just happens to also be gay and for the fact that they are gay to just undercover more depths about the character and see all of their fears and faults and desires better.

    And it's not just straight women that love m/m slash. GBQ women love it too.

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