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What I Learned in My First Poll

I did a poll for the first time, on Subversion in Slash and What It Means. Here are some post-poll thoughts.

What I Learned About Poll Construction

The main thing I learned was to be much clearer on the purpose of the poll. I have often heard slash referred to as “subversive,” either as a genre or particular slash works. I’ve read and been involved in discussions about whether or not it truly is a subversive genre, is so in some cases, or not at all. I’ve always understood that subversion – if there is such a thing – to lie in the way the fiction can challenge ideas about sex roles, about compulsory heterosexuality, about the nature of masculinity and femininity, or even about the nature of romance.

In a discussion on lemurgrrrl’s journal, I saw people using “subversive” in a different way. Someone was talking about authorial acceptance of homoerotic subtext (or even text) in mainstream media, and saying that undermines slash as a subversive form of fanfiction. In effect, she was saying that what slash subverts is authorial intent, not social gender norms.

So, I wondered if that view of slash was shared by others and tried to construct a poll to see what folks reading my journal thought is subversive about slash (if they think it is subversive) or if they think it’s not subversive, what are they arguing against slash subverting. I think I was very unclear, though, that that was my aim. So I had people who don’t see slash as subversive either not participating or participating in order to say that they don’t see slash as subversive, or don’t see it as subversive in any way different from other fanfic. In a couple of cases (xtricks and thelastgoodname) they followed up by writing interesting essays on their own journals expanding on their individual views.

So, interesting discussion was had – on and off my journal – even with the confusion, but in future I will try to make the intent of the poll clearer. In this case I could have done so by posting more of a preamble. I also think I should have had a question at the start that said, “Do you think slash is subversive?” with a “Yes” “No” and “Sometimes” option. And I think I should have had two separate questions about what it means to say that slash is subversive. One would ask “If someone says that slash is subversive, do you think that s/he means...” with the choices given. The other would ask “When you say that slash is subversive, do you mean...” and it would have all those choices plus “I do not believe slash is subversive.”

Other poll-creation things I learned:

- Don’t put the question marks at the end of the answer :-). Make the question sufficient unto itself and end it with a question mark. The way I did it, when you look at people’s answers it looks like they are asking the question.

- Punctuate consistently.

- Use a cut.

A Summary of Poll Results
ETA: The following were the results when I wrote this post. The poll has since been picked up by metafandom (Thanks!) and a bunch more people responded. The overall results are about the same as what I wrote, but the actual numbers are different, of course.

Twenty-eight people answered the poll. Most are on my f-list. Of those who aren’t, I recognized all but a couple of names.

The largest group of people (20) thought that saying slash is subversive means it subverts compulsory heterosexuality, which is the definition I’d been most familiar with. But a majority (16) were thinking of slash as subversive in its challenging of authorial intent, with a number of people answering yes to both of those. Other views expressed (in the poll and in comments) included the idea that slash – if it is explicitly sexual – challenges societal norms about women not expressing their sexuality through creation and consumption of porn and the idea that slash as a subset of fanfic subverts established methods for production and consumption of media. This is a small sample, of course, but it suggests that the idea of slash as subversive is not limited to gender issues and that subversion of authorial intent is a concept shared by a number of people.

I also asked “Do you like your slash subversive?” and almost everyone does, at least some of the time. The only “No” came from my brother, who afaik doesn’t like slash at all and wouldn’t be commenting on this journal if not for that consanguinity thing.

I asked whether sexually explicit slash is more or less subversive than that with a PG fade, and got answers all over the map. I think it depends on what kind of subversion, if any, is going on.

I picked up on the contention of the commenter in lemurgrrrl’s journal that increasing appearance of gay characters in mainstream media make slash less subversive and asked if people found that to be so. Only 11 people agreed with that, with most saying that increasing gay presence does not make slash more or less subversive. Intriguingly, three people felt that increasing gay presence makes slash more subversive. I wish they would explain why.

Lastly, I asked how much of a doofus I was in creating this poll, and most people were very kind.

My Own Thoughts on the Subject

I mentioned in comments that I’m a little reluctant to talk about writing/reading slash as subversive activity because there’s the danger of sounding like I take this activity (and myself) too seriously. Fanfic is a hobby – it’s the most fun, most intellectually challenging, most creative, and most rewarding one I’ve ever had – but it’s just a hobby. I do it because it’s fun. I really don’t want to sound like I’m out to change the world through slash. I don’t want to sound like I believe that I can have some sort of huge impact on society through writing stories about mutant superheroes who have sex with one another. On the other hand, I think it’s possible to consider, analyze and discuss what might be subversive, what might be political, what might even be feminist in this activity without falling over the edge into that belief.

One of the cornerstones of feminist theory is that the personal is political. All of our activities can be subjected to a feminist analysis and we can learn from that analysis. If I can look for political meaning in housework, in family structure, in clothing, in naming conventions, why not in hobbies? Do I sound defensive? I think I am a bit, but I’ll try to get over it.

I see slash as potentially subversive in a few ways (and thanks to those who commented on the poll and wrote in your own journals on the subject – you all helped me to clarify my thinking):

- By taking a strongly gendered trope (male “buddy” movies, stories, etc) and introducing the possibility of homoerotic attraction and behavior, we see the effects of removing the presumption of heterosexuality. Since 1948, when Leslie Fiedler famously argued that homoerotic tension between men was an unacknowledged yet pervasive theme in American literature (See “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey”) the imperative to keep that presumption to make the text accessible has been largely unchallenged. Slash takes away the presumption and sees what might have happened. As such it subverts the literary presumption of heterosexuality. As talktooloose said in comments on the poll, “If you do the classic slashing of het buddies, you are part of a tradition of questioning meanings of love and the interactions of love and sex in ways that break the code of ‘manliness’."

- Realistically depicting the lives of people who do not conform to societal heterosexual norms subverts the idea that everyone is – or ought to be – heterosexual. And yes, I realize that much of slash does not realistically depict gay men’s lives in North America, even when that is nominally the subject matter. But if it does, and if it’s set in a world much like our own, then in a small way slash can subvert the everyday (as opposed to literary or media) presumption of heterosexuality, particularly for those readers who don’t encounter same-sex lovers in their own lives, or don’t know them well.

- thelastgoodname says that, by definition, activity between two men cannot be subversive of patriarchy, but I disagree. I think that male/male sex and relationships are very threatening to patriarchy, sometime more so than lesbian sex and relationships. The patriarchal system is one of men on top, and in the case of lesbians, the women are viewed as attempting to be upwardly mobile (or at least the one viewed as the butch is). Male homoeroticism, if viewed through a patriarchic lens, is a case of a man voluntarily giving up power to be used as a woman is, and that’s a very threatening idea. It opens up the possibility that power dynamics are not exactly what they seem and that they are more complex than just power=penetration. I do think that the reality of gay men’s lives – with all the variety, both sexual and social that they entail – is extraordinarily threatening to the patriarchic system. To the extent that slash reflects that reality (and yes, I still know it often doesn’t) it can threaten and subvert in its own small way, as well.

- Slash can subvert conventional notions of romance and how relationships develop and are conducted. I write – and tend to prefer to read, as well – what I consider very unromantic slash. Slash does not have to be a classic boy-meets-girl-boy-gets-girl-boy-loses-girl story, only with the girl having a penis. As in real life, the fact that both partners are of the same sex means that there are not expected gender roles to conform to or rebel against in the relationship. It opens up the possibilities of more ways to interact and more ways for a relationship to develop.

- Slash can subvert conventional notions of power in a relationship. I play with this one a lot. My main pairing is Scott and Logan and I portray their relationship as a dom/sub one in some aspects. Cyclops is a powerful guy – he’s Field Leader of the X-Men. He tells people what to do and expects them to comply. But in sexual situations, my Scott voluntarily gives up power and finds that submission erotic. What that submission means to both him and his lover – and how it changes over time – is one of the themes that I explore in the fiction. I think it is a subversive one.

- Slash can subvert the idea that sexual orientation, sexual identity and sexual behavior are consistent within an individual. Our society has a strong preference for viewing these as all one thing – you’re gay or you’re straight. But truly they are three different elements of personality and they interact in each individual differently. Slash gives us the opportunity to see lots of different ways they can interact. I say more about this in Identity, Orientation, Behavior and Slash

- Slash can subvert the idea that women are not creators of sexual material and that women are sexually passive. There are men in slash (and I learn a lot from the guys who correspond with me and believe me, I love it when gay men tell me the sex in my stories sounds real) but it is largely a female activity, and overwhelmingly one of women who (however they identify) are living heterosexual lives. That I, a lesbian, can write sexually explicit material that straight women find arousing and that has an impact on the sex they have with their husbands seems like a very subversive activity to me. And, judging by my email, it happens with some frequency.

- Slash can subvert conventional ideas about how to interact with media, about consumption and production, about whose characters these are, and that’s what I was hearing in the poll from folks who see “subversion” differently from the way I had been. I think this is also true, but it’s largely true of fanfic as a whole, and not just about slash in particular. One thing I absolutely love about the whole fanfic enterprise is that there are all these people working so hard at writing, editing, betaing, perfecting and publishing material that they are creating just for the pure joy of creation and the related and equally pure joy of sharing their creations. We’re not making any money doing this; we’re not “getting ahead” in any real world sense. We do it – and we work hard to do it as well as we can – just because we love to. And that subverts deeply and widely held ideas about everything from creative ownership to the purpose of hard work.

Okay, so I do feel that slash can and sometimes is subversive. I like my slash subversive – both as a reader and a writer – in a variety of ways. As a writer, I try for a story line and a relationship between the characters and between each of them and society that subverts in several ways. At the same time, I'm also trying to reflect the subversive elements of change from within that so many of us are living when we live openly queer lives yet conform to societal norms in lots of other ways (conventional jobs, raise children, community involvement).

I particularly like realistic slash – realism in the sex scenes, realism in the way people speak and interact, realism in the plots and in the details. Much of the dialogue in my stories is drawn from real life (not the dialogue during sex, I always hasten to add). Many of the plot elements are things that have happened to me or that I have observed happening to others. Like Scott and Oliver, I was kicked out of my home and needed to make my own way financially and otherwise while still in my teens (I always feel I should add that I supported myself by working in a university library, lest anyone get the wrong idea). Scott’s long and painful coming out process is an amalgamation of many I’ve watched and been privy to – both from the Scott position and the Jean one. The discussions that Scott and Jean-Paul have about whether or not to be out at work are ones I’ve had over and over again (I’m always in the Jean-Paul position). Adam’s and Jean-Paul’s parenting issues are largely ones I’ve experienced or watched. I want my slash subversive, but I want it realistic.

And that brings me back to my worry that talking about this stuff sounds like I’m taking both the fanfic enterprise and myself too seriously. One thing that always brings me back to realizing how ridiculous - on some level - all this discussion is is my insistence on "realism." It's very important to me - both as a reader and a writer - that the real world details be accurate. I think it's a kind of overarching realism that makes me as a reader (and writer, for that matter) believe in the outlandish comic-book world of the X-Men. OTOH, I really am aware that there's something bordering on the absurd in stamping my foot and insisting on realism when what I'm doing is writing stories about a guy who can kill people with his eyes. I will remind myself (and anyone who has read this far) that I really do know that optic blasts (which I cheerfully accept as real) are much less realistic than someone coming from Westchester to NYC and ending up in Penn Station instead of Grand Central (which would make me stop reading in disgust).
Tags: meta, slash theory
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