This is an essay I wrote for Off Our Backs, the feminist newsjournal. It's in the current special issue on Feminism and Culture, on page 51, and featured on the cover, too (yay!)
I'm considerably more excited than this warrants :-). I imagine only a handful of people read OOB but it was the first feminist periodical I ever read, or heard of, and it has a special place in my heart.
The material is basically the kind of meta I often write in this journal, but with a little Fanfic and Slash 101 thrown in, since the readership would likely not know what I'm talking about otherwise. The essay itself is behind the cut.
Confessions of a Lesbian Feminist Slasher
By Dale Rosenberg
Yeah, that’s me. I’m a lesbian feminist, a mother, a long-time, sometime queer activist and AIDS activist. And I’m a slasher – someone who writes slash fan fiction in my spare time.
What’s that, I hear you cry? Fan fiction is a wonderfully creative hobby engaged in by people (the vast majority are women) all over the world. We write stories using characters and situations from books, movies, television programs, or comic books. We publish them freely on the internet, with carefully worded disclaimers making clear that we know that the characters aren’t ours and we are making no money on this. We work hard at our craft, revising our stories and editing one another’s and making them every bit as good as we can.
Those of us who identify as slashers write a subset of fan fiction known as slash. It consists of stories in which male characters shown as heterosexual in the source text are depicted as having a sexual and/or romantic relationship in the story. It’s called “slash” for the / character that’s used to put the characters’ names together. The original slash fiction was fiction about Kirk and Spock from the old Star Trek television series. These stories were called “Kirk/Spock” stories or “K/S” (pronounced “kay slash ess”) and eventually all such stories were called slash.
I write slash fiction set in the world of the X-Men movies, with some comic book elements. The primary “pairing” or couple in my stories is Scott/Logan. Scott “Cyclops” Summers is the field leader of the X-Men – a paramilitary team consisting of mutant superheroes. In the movies and comics he is in love with a fellow superhero, a woman named Jean Grey. His rival for Jean’s affections in the movie is Logan, also known as Wolverine. In my stories, it’s Cyclops and Wolverine who are depicted sexually (and sometimes romantically) involved. The stories include explicit descriptions of them having sex and are read by women (and a few men) all over the world.
Why would a feminist be interested in writing stories about mutant superheroes who have sex with each other? Particularly male mutant superheroes? Lots of reasons. Although sometimes I joke that I write “mutant porn,” I really think what I write is complex, character-driven fiction. It’s sexually explicit, but so much of mainstream published fiction is, as well. And this seems to me the right vehicle to explore a lot of issues that matter to me.
Slash challenges gender assumptions and social ideas about masculinity and femininity, both in its content and in its distribution. It’s a sexually explicit form of fiction written primarily by and for women and depicting men. It’s a way for women to relate to one another sexually while objectifying the male body without objectifying actual people. No one is coerced to engage in sex acts, no pictures are taken, no real people are involved. It’s a fictional appropriation of male sexuality for women’s enjoyment, and as such it presents a feminist form of sexual material.
Slash also fills a need because it’s something we can't get from the source text, be it television, books or movies. Much of popular media depicts relationships between men that have an intensity that could be interpreted as sexual but for the presumption of heterosexuality. The presumption is such a strong one that it guides much of our interpretation, as famously expounded upon in Leslie Fiedler's essay "Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey!" Slash takes away that presumption and allows for interesting possibilities it prevented.
In addition, slash provides an opportunity to explore the power dynamics in sexual relationships through a gender-neutral lens. I sometimes see it argued that there is an absence of power games with same sex couples, and that's why slash is appealing. I don't think that's true at all. On the other hand, I think it’s true that among same-sex couples – fictional or real - there is an absence of gender roles, an absence of gender-related power. So it's up to the two men (or two women) to work out power dynamics between themselves, without a set gender power dynamic to accept or reject.
Power is complex and multi-layered and changes over time and that's a lot of what I explore in my fiction. I don't think power dynamics in couples are at all limited to sex, but I think sex is a very good venue for exploring power. Who does what to whom and who decides that can be illuminating of power in the relationship and is something often explored in slash. I do, however, think that power sometimes gets confused with penetration in slash and they aren't the same thing.
Another reason I write slash is I like to explore how sex affects friendship and vice versa. I think opposite sex relationships can be friendship-based, but same-sex ones more often are. I have a fairly non-romantic view of sex and love and I think that slash gives an opportunity to explore relationships outside of the conventions of romance.
Slash also affords an opportunity to explore issues about being gay and coming out. What attracted me to X-Men in the first place was, in large part, the queer subtext. The mutants depicted in the X-Men comics and movies are often written in such a way that they can stand for gay men and lesbians in our society. By writing about a gay and deeply closeted Cyclops, I can deal with issues surrounding coming out and internalized homophobia more directly.
And, ultimately, I write slash because I'm a lesbian and I like turning women on. I quite like fan letters that say things like "give me more sex like that and I'm yours" even if they don't really mean it. Relating to women – intellectually and sexually – is a huge turn on. Slash is a means to that end.
There's a really nice illustration (totally unrelated to the piece :-)) and then a large font italicized thingie quoting this bit: Power is complex and multi-layered and changes over time and that's a lot of what I explore in my fiction. I don't think power dynamics in couples are at all limited to sex, but I think sex is a very good venue for exploring power.
The About Our Authors note at the back says:
Dale Rosenberg lives in New York City with her three children and works in public health. She writes fanfiction under the pseudonym “Mo.” Her stories can be found at http://mo.fandomnation.com/fic.