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Pocket Watches, Acoustic Guitars, and M/M Slash - some thoughts on back formations - Mo's Journal
January 10th, 2008
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Pocket Watches, Acoustic Guitars, and M/M Slash - some thoughts on back formations
This post will be about terminology. I generally define slash in what I think of as the classic sense: fanfiction in which two male characters who are presented as heterosexual in the source text (or whose sexuality isn't discussed but are assumed to be heterosexual) are shown as having a romantic and/or sexual connection in the fic. That's what I write (mostly X-Men, mostly Scott/Logan); that's most of what I read (although I also like to read gen and het fic). I call what I write "slash" and call myself a slasher or a slash fan. I generally refer to the lesbian counterpart - two women presented as heterosexual in canon but sexually and/or romantically involved in fanfic - as femmeslash. But I don't often read it; I don't write it; and I don't talk about it that much.

emily_shore responded to this piece, in her journal, asking "Slash: Do We Need a Gender-Neutral Term?" She suggests using "slash" as the generic term for homoerotic fanfic, with gender specifiers when one is trying to talk about only m/m or f/f fic. This post expands on my response on her journal.



I do understand why emily_shore and others see the use of "slash" to mean only fiction about sexual/romantic connections between men as making women kind of invisible. I don't really agree, though. I want a specific term for what I call "slash" because I think it's a very specific sub-genre and it has some things in common with femmeslash but it also has a lot of differences.

I think fanfic about Storm/Jean is very different from fanfic about Scott/Logan (to cite my home fandom) for a variety of reasons. It's not just different because there's less of it, although there is. It's different because of how masculinity and femininity are presented in canon and in society; it's different because of the Scott/Logan/Jean triangle in canon; it's different because of differences between male and female sexuality (one of my pet peeves is slash where the writer doesn't understand male sexuality and the sex scenes sound like the bottom is a woman); it's different because of how m/m and f/f sex exist in the world and are presented in media. It's also different because writing about women is clearly and obviously a feminist concern, but it's not as obvious that writing about male homoeroticism can be. That was the subject of the essay that started this discussion: slash as a feminist undertaking. I'm specifically trying to explain why these stories about men interacting sexually fit into my view of feminism, so I need a word that refers to them.

I think we do need to talk about women. I think we need to write about women. When I say that writing about men can be a feminist activity and try to support that, I don't mean to suggest at all that writing about women is not, but rather that it's not as obvious why writing about men having sex with each other can be a feminist pastime so I feel a need to explain and defend.

I'm comfortable with using "slash" for what I do because it's the classic definition, I believe, and I'm a bit of a language traditionalist (don't get me started on the misuse of the word "hopefully.") I want a different word for f/f pairings, but I'm not very comfortable with the one I've got: femmeslash. We live in a sexist society with sexist language and male terms dominate and dominant terms are deemed male and that has to be part of it, too. And that's the part that makes me uncomfortable about my own practice, and uncomfortable about using a term that's derivative of "slash" for stories about women: femmeslash. I really don't want to be using the fanfic equivalent of "lady doctor."

FWIW I also say "lesbians and gay men" as opposed to just "gay people" and I think that most lesbians and gay men :-) do. Women do get lost linguistically if we don't have our own terms. A great example of this is the whole issue of "gay marriage." Pretty much any article with an illustration shows two men getting married, and surveys show that when people are asked about gay marriage, about gay rights, etc. the picture that comes to them is two men together. But in practice, there are three lesbian marriages for every gay male one when equal marriage rights are legalized.

Which brings us to the whole back formation thing. "Watch" used to mean a small clock that one could keep in one's pocket. Then the idea emerged of making one that could strap onto a wrist, so it was always visible. It was called a "wrist watch." And when it became more common than the original kind, well we needed a word for those, and the back formation "pocket watch" was coined. Similarly, it's only because of "electric guitars" that there's the back formation of "acoustic guitar." We can call them all guitars and we can call them all watches because they are, and just use the specific terms - including the back formation - when we need to disambiguate.

"Lady doctor" is a little different. It was a term for something new, when the assumption was that doctors were men. But we haven't added "gentleman doctor" as a back formation - we've dropped the term altogether. And that makes sense to me. I'm totally on board with "doctor" for everyone and it's actually decades since I've heard anyone say "lady doctor" or "male nurse" and I think that's a very good thing (My father was a country doctor in ND when I was a small child and for a while he had a partner who was a "lady doctor" BID). But, although I think the construction is analogous, I don't think the situation is. A doctor's training and responsibilities are the same regardless of gender. Of course gender affects all aspects of a person's life, including professional, but there's nothing in the person's "doctorhood" :-) that is constrained by being a woman, so there should be nothing in the language to differentiate. I don't think that's true for "slashhood."

Can we just use "slash" for all same-sex fanfic? I fear we lose the specific meaning that is there to slash as I define it at the outset, and that specific sub-genre is the one I'm most interested in, as a reader and a writer, so I don't want to lose the meaning. Can we create a back formation ("guyslash" "boyslash" or "m/m slash" get used from time to time) to parallel femmeslash? Well, we could but I think we lose meaning there, too. I don't think they're all guitars or all watches, with a minor difference. I do think there's something essentially different about taking male characters who, because of societal views of masculinity, could never be sexually involved in the source text and slashing them. I think a mutant superhero who leads a paramilitary team into combat but wants to be fucked by another guy in private is not really comparable to a female character who's in love with or having sex with a female friend, although there certainly are points of similarity. I don't want to suggest greater similarity than is there by using the same word for both.

I'm all for having a word for f/f pairings in fanfic that doesn't sound derivative of "slash" but I don't have one. So for now I'm going with "femmeslash."



Footnote: when I first discovered slash the first question I asked myself is: how is slash written for a female heterosexual audience the same and how is it different from pseudo-lesbian porn produced for a straight male audience? And I realize that's a somewhat different question from whether m/m and f/f fanfic are the same or different, but I think the areas of commonality and of difference are pretty enlightening. I should probably do a meta post about that sometime...

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From:tarchannon
Date:January 10th, 2008 11:55 pm (UTC)
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I've always used slash as geneder non-specific. If required, I'll add m/m or f/f. I thought that was pretty standard, but maybe that's just in the fandoms that I participate in.
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From:mofic
Date:January 11th, 2008 02:23 am (UTC)
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I don't think there is a standard. Some people use it like you do, some use it like I do, some for any non-canonical relationships, including m/f ones. I think it's good when people define their terms.
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From:davidfcooper
Date:January 11th, 2008 12:30 am (UTC)
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how is slash written for a female heterosexual audience the same and how is it different from pseudo-lesbian porn produced for a straight male audience?

I've been wondering the same thing since I started reading your LJ. I suppose the feminist answer would be that since women are the injured or underprivileged party women objectifying men is less objectionable than men objectifying women.
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From:mofic
Date:January 11th, 2008 02:28 am (UTC)
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I actually meant something much less theoretical. Questions like: what are the differences in how it's produced? What are the differences in the treatment of sex? Of relationships? How does the viewer/reader interact with the text/video the same or differently? How do women who produce and consume slash think of themselves and this pastime and how is that the same or different from how men think of themselves as consumers of pseudo-lesbian porn? How does it affect their sex lives? What makes slash "hot" or not to different women and how does that compare to what makes pseudo-lesbian porn hot to men? How realistic are the depictions in each genre?

When I first started writing slash I used the opportunity of women writing to me about the stories to get lots of info on how a variety of women experience slash. I do think there are some points of commonality (e.g. the "two is twice is good as one" rationale) but there are also some really significant differences.
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From:mofic
Date:January 11th, 2008 03:37 am (UTC)
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And I'll add that those questions - and attempting to answer them - would be the basis of the essay, if I write it. So thanks for giving me my outline, David :-)!
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From:lilacsigil
Date:January 11th, 2008 12:43 am (UTC)
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I don't know when the term "femslash" came about - I prefer that term to "femmeslash" because then it looks like "fem-ale" rather than "femme" in the lesbian sense. When I was writing slash in the early-mid 90s, slash seemed to be non-gender-specific, although there was a lot more m/m than f/f. It also specifically referred to non-canon pairings, though this was starting to change as canon gay and lesbian pairings started to be more common. I was out of fandom for a few years, came back around 2000 and surprise! "Femslash" had appeared! It probably had been around earlier, but I hadn't seen it in my fannish circles. I think there was a good deal of fandom separation at the time, too - terminology from one fandom (like "noromo" in X-Files) didn't leak into other fandoms so much as it does now, and while I saw "slash" as non-specific in my fandoms, there could have been huge wars over it elsewhere for all I know. I wonder what term Xena fandom was using at the time?

That's a long-winded way of saying that every time I write the word "slash", I do include both the male and female versions, though the idea of canon/non-canon has long fled my brain. If I'm saying what I will write in a fic exchange, I *always* have to go back and add "femslash" to the "will write gen, het or slash" list, because I forget that a lot of people view it differently!
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From:mofic
Date:January 11th, 2008 02:29 am (UTC)
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That's a good question on Xena! I wonder if they did call that slash. What does "noromo" mean?
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From:blonde_cecile
Date:January 12th, 2008 03:51 am (UTC)
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I didn't read a lot of Xena fanfic, but I do remember the word "subtext" being used all the time. Every time someone mentions subtext, fans generally know they're talking about Xena/Gabrielle. I'm not sure what term they used for other f/f pairings, though.
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From:alchemia
Date:January 11th, 2008 01:13 am (UTC)
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FWIW I also say "lesbians and gay men" as opposed to just "gay people" and I think that most lesbians and gay men :-) do.

Really? I almost always see "gay" meaning both female and male homosexuals.

Pretty much any article with an illustration shows two men getting married, and surveys show that when people are asked about gay marriage, about gay rights, etc. the picture that comes to them is two men together.

I don't follow such news stories religiously so to say, but when i have looked at such stories, i've seen about equal lesbian and gay male couples represented.

But in practice, there are three lesbian marriages for every gay male one when equal marriage rights are legalized.

where do you get these stats from?

Can we just use "slash" for all same-sex fanfic?

personally I like that. and since we list the characters, it is obvious if it is m/m or f/f.

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From:mofic
Date:January 11th, 2008 02:30 am (UTC)
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But in practice, there are three lesbian marriages for every gay male one when equal marriage rights are legalized.

where do you get these stats from?


Most recently from a NY Times article about MA, but I've seen similar stats for Canada as well.

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From:tarchannon
Date:January 11th, 2008 04:22 am (UTC)
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I'm also a terminology reductionist (and picky, being a scientist) about terminology. Is a term useful or redundant? Like you, I use gay as a synonym for homosexuals, particularly since they fact a very similar set of obstacles in life. If I need to qualify, I will use gay men or gay women (or interchangably, lesbians, though this choice is fading with time). Because 'slash' originally was coined to denote an unusual or 'non-traditional' pairing (and as far as I can remember, the woman that coined the term did NOT say specifically m/m, though that was her preference of fanfic), I qualify slash with m/m or f/f if required, or just look for the reader to look at the pairing notes. :D I think the commonly used het/gen/slash categorziation of fanfic works beautifully.
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From:were_lemur
Date:January 11th, 2008 01:37 am (UTC)
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and uncomfortable about using a term that's derivative of "slash" for stories about women: femmeslash. I really don't want to be using the fanfic equivalent of "lady doctor."

I use "saffic" to describe it. Which I admit is not the most aesthetically pleasing of words, but I use it despite that because it is a standalone term.
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From:mofic
Date:January 11th, 2008 02:31 am (UTC)
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It is a pretty good term. And parallel to a preference for saying "lesbian" rather than "gay woman" - not just taking the male term and adding a female identifier.

LOL on your icon.
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From:tarchannon
Date:January 11th, 2008 04:56 am (UTC)
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Oooh! I also found reference to saffic, which I assumed was a mispelling of sapphic (and may have originally been). :D http://www.fanhistory.com/index.php?title=Slash
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From:ringthebells
Date:January 11th, 2008 02:14 pm (UTC)

data point

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In my first fandom, slash described both the m/m and f/f pairings. I didn't encounter the word femslash until much later, and always assumed it was meant to be more specific (as opposed to disjoint).
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From:mofic
Date:January 11th, 2008 03:48 pm (UTC)

Re: data point

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Was that Once a Thief?
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From:tarchannon
Date:January 11th, 2008 08:17 pm (UTC)

Re: data point

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Yup. That was the way it was done for the longest time. Slash was any non-standard pairing (almost invariably homosexual), and one qualified by using m/m or f/f. Especially the last five years or so, many people (especially the new and younbg folks) are using the terminology seemingly randomly. *sighs* I find that really annoying.
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From:nike_victory
Date:January 12th, 2008 04:20 am (UTC)
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My introduction to the term "slash" was very much like yours. As a bit of a fandom butterfly, I've seen it used the other way as well. Since I'm spent some time in the anime fandoms, a part of me wonders if the growing use of the terms "yaoi" and "yuri", which essentially mean m/m and f/f respectively, might be a subconscious response to your subject, especially as people from anime fandoms join non-anime fandoms.
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From:mofic
Date:January 12th, 2008 02:27 pm (UTC)
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The thing about yaoi and yuri is that they have all sorts of connotations from their original fandoms that might not apply. I have a strong preference (as a writer and a reader) for realistic slash and against feminized male characters, so using an anime term doesn't feel like it fits for me. Still, as I said elsewhere, language evolves and those terms may become general enough to use for my kind of fanfic, too.
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From:velvet_mace
Date:January 12th, 2008 05:32 am (UTC)
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Here from metafandom.

For me the primary objective of labeling, and in fact words in general, is to convey important information to the reader. To the extent that the label delivers that information, it succeeds. Quite frankly, labeling both f/f and m/m "slash" maybe making rather subtle statement for feminism, but it's doing so at the expense of giving the audience the basic information it wants. Put plainly, many who love femmeslash do not love slash and vice versa, and don't appreciate clicking a link to one and being handed the other.

Since I'm lazy I haven't read the rest of your responses, but if no one else mentioned this there is a way of indicating f/f without using the word "slash." It's "yuri" and while it's rare to see that outside of the anime part of fandom, it is available. (The m/m equivilant of yuri is yaoi, and neither comes from the other.)
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From:mofic
Date:January 12th, 2008 02:17 pm (UTC)
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I think that's the core of it for me - that if we call both the m/m and f/f stories "slash" we aren't communicating as well as we could be. There are lots of ways around that and if you do read comments you'll see some suggestions.

And then, of course, there's the whole issue of evolving language - as "slash" comes to mean both then it becomes important to distinguish. So I'll probably make more of an effort to say "m/m slash" or something along those lines...
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From:jane_somebody
Date:January 12th, 2008 09:42 pm (UTC)
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Here from emily_shore's link.

Some thoughts, in no particular order. I was going to mention 'saffic' as an alternative term to femmeslash/femslash, but I see others already have; I'm not enamoured of the term myself, though I am sneakily appreciative of the word-play.

I have a friend called Alex, who is gay. Both the name-contraction and the sexuality descriptor are her preferred choice of terms. I appreciate that one exception does not an argument make, but there it is.

You make some interesting points about wanting to keep m/m and f/f distinct as being different kinds of thing, and I do very much agree with some of them. One of the points that stood out for me, though, was where you move from the general differences about men and women etc to say "it's different because of the Scott/Logan/Jean triangle in canon". Obviously, there is a lot of m/m slash where there is no such triangle within the canon text; the tensions and the subtext vary hugely from pairing to pairing. The thing is, the 'umbrella' m/m slash, or just 'slash' if you prefer, covers a huge range of different things itself, from the buddy-romance, to the 'enemies so forcefully it must lead to sex' trope, and embracing some chan and incest pairings on the way. It seems to me that if such diverse range of things are being called by the same terminology, then is it really possible to say that there is something essentially the same about all m/m fic and that at the same time all m/m fic is essentially different from all f/f fic?

As you can doubtless tell, my preference is to use 'slash' as the more embracing term, with 'm/m slash' and 'f/f slash' as the modifiers when necessary. My preference is partly 'political' for want of a better term, in the same way that as a bi woman I want to see myself as rowing in the same boat as gay men and women, tg folk, and others who identify as queer - I feel that while of course the differences are important and interesting, the similarity or common ground is ultimately more important. But I admit it is also because my fannish background and experience, like that of others of your commenters, is one where 'slash' has always[*] meant 'same-sex (non-canon) pairing' rather than only referring to men. I can understand that if the word has meant something else to you, it might be harder to accept what feels like a shift in meaning (and, hey, I'm a language traditionalist myself - the mongrel word television gives me the shivers if I let it, not to mention the -oholic and -gate coinages...)

[*] That is, always since I worked out that this 'slash' people were referring to wasn't some bloodplay-kink or murder-fic or something (my first fandom, oh those many years ago, was Buffy, which made that a less unlikely possibility.) Now if it were possible to coin a new newbie-friendly term for subtext-based homosexual-relationship fanfiction, language tradition or not, that's something I could get behind!

Pardon long comment, I am feeling sick and not at my most coherent ;-(
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From:msilverstar
Date:January 13th, 2008 01:41 am (UTC)
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I dislike "femmeslash" because it seems like "actress", making the female the less-important subset of the male version. I use slash, het and f/f, because that's my personal comfort level.
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From:joanne_c
Date:January 13th, 2008 08:59 am (UTC)
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I've been in fandom since 1999 and back then slash was m/m and f/f - it's more recent that has been a change. To me slash is all same-sex fic. The old Star Trek Slash archive never differentiated between Chakotay/Paris and Janeway/Torres, it accepted it all. So to me, slash meaning m/m by default is the back formation.

Edited at 2008-01-13 09:00 am (UTC)
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From:mofic
Date:January 13th, 2008 04:55 pm (UTC)
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It's interesting how our different fandom experiences lead to different conclusions about terminology.

I'm still thinking that when writing for a naive audience it's too much to explain that "slash" can also mean f/f to some, but for general use I've been pretty much convinced that it's worth specifying gender when talking about slash.
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