Another day, another “interviewer” trotting out fanfiction in public conversation with a star.
Today’s culprit, as you can see here, if you like, is the LA Times, who asked an actress from Downtown Abbey to, tee hee!, read erotic fanfiction about her character out loud.
This comes on the heels of the Sherlock debacle a week or so ago, wherein Caitlin Moran used the series’ season three premiere event as a venue for–you guessed it–pulling Johnlock out of a hat and, ha hah, shoving it in the actors’ faces.
In the forest of WTF? that this raises, the most pressing one for me is this:
Why the hell would you do this? From a rhetorical perspective, ok, what would you as an interviewer hope to gain?
Here’s my answer:
Look, I’m sure these cats go in thinking they’re Zaphod Beeblebrox hip because they know what fan fiction is. Hey, bloody good for you. You can read the internet! Well done.
The first time I heard about the Kinsey scale, I thought: Oh. That’s what’s wrong with me.
It was in this Resident Assistant training seminar thing–must have been one on gender and sexuality sensitivity, I guess–but what I remember is the woman heading the thing drawing the scale up on the board and explaining Kinsey’s concept of the spectrum of sexuality and it was like bam! a frying pan to the head and then this moment of complete clarity, of certainty: Oh. Oh hey. That’s me!
By that I mean, not by anyone else’s standards, I think.
This has always been a source of anxiety for my mom, at least as long as I can remember. When I was in high school, we had a fight–or she did; I was just a bystander–because I didn’t put on earrings before leaving the house. She was furious with me for reasons that she couldn’t articulate and that I could not understand. What difference did it make, I wondered? Who would even notice? But that, of course, wasn’t the point. The point was, my mom would know, would been painfully aware of the absence in my earlobes and thus be unable to function.
I don’t remember who won that one.
When I was in middle school, the boy band New Kids On The Block was the overwhelming teenage thing. We were middle school kids with one eye already on high school, on that great thundercloud that promised a kind of future that everyone was always telling us we should prepare for. Like adulthood was something that required waders and a hat. A flashlight with some extra batteries and we’d be all set. It was a worry in the future, one we were aware of but not consumed by.
We were just girls prone to sleepovers and lazy afternoons with bad movies. And, for a time, New Kids, too. But I didn’t care about them. I was no gender warrior, to be sure; I wasn’t consciously rejecting their kind of cool as some sort of feminist protest, I just–wasn’t interested.
Granted, this self-imposed limitation kept me out of some conversations among my friends, sure, and I couldn’t sing along to “Hangin’ Tough,” either. But my friends didn’t seem to care.
I don’t know that I ever fit in easily with them, anyway. At least that’s how I felt at the time. If I thought about this New Kids question at all, it fell into the well-established column of “how I am different,” so I paid the issue of Jordan and Jonathan and Joey and Donnie no extra mind.
But my mom, she was worried. She couldn’t understand why, if all my friends were into something, extolled its virtues in chorus kind, I did not. In her mind, I think, it was willful; I was stubborn, I was ostracizing myself. She thought this way, still does, I think, because that’s the way she operates, the only way she knows how to be.
So she mounted a sustained campaign, one designed to convert me into the teenage girl she knew I could be, if only I tried a little harder. If only I took some of the energy I devoted to reading or writing or whatever the hell it was I did that she chose not to understand and put it towards something worthwhile, then I could be fixed. Of this, she was sure.
While my friends’ mothers were rolling their eyes at the stupid New Kids phase, then, and resisting their daughters’ entreaties for more merchandise, more material proof of their undying devotion, my mom did the opposite: in the face of my not asking, not caring, she bought me New Kids tapes and a New Kids t-shirt and waited anxiously for my new self, my girl self, to be reborn.
An effort, I fear, all in vain.
I wonder what she wanted me to be, really.
A girl who liked pink, I think.
A girl who dated.
A girl who was at ease with her femininity in a way I don’t think my mom’s ever been.
For her, being a girl isn’t a social construct, a pattern of public behaviors that mark a particular gender, an easily recognizable version of “woman.” It’s who I was supposed to be, someone who got it, got girlhood, and thus (went my mom’s thinking) would reap the benefits that the world heaps on somebody who’s good at being a girl.
My father’s the feminist in the family, the one who always told me that I could be and do whatever I wanted to, that the only limitations were my will and my willingness to convert what’s in my head into action.
She feels cowed by the world, by people she’s decided are smarter than she is, better in some undefinable way, and she deals with this anxiety by inexorably pushing everyone else away.
My dad’s the only one who’s refused to go. Loyal to a fault, he is.
I’ve done a lot to disappoint my mother, but I think this is the most fundamental of them all: I’ve never been good at being a girl.
And more to the point: I’ve never wanted to learn how.
I don’t know that she’ll ever forgive me for that.
So as an academic, as somebody that studies slash fic, I’ve been pretty committed to the idea that our attraction to slash, as women, goes beyond the traditional understanding: that we like the emotional attachment we have with the characters, that they have for each other, and we feed off of that, use it to construct our narratives of [emotional] desire. That we read and write sex for the intimacy, for the connection between these male partners whom we adore, whom we construct as adoring each other.
As a reader, as a writer, that always felt like bullshit to me.
I mean, yeah, I want to read stories where the characterizations are right on, where Sam and Dean or Kirk and Spock act like themselves. And part of that characterization for me is each man’s great love for the other, their incredible affection and devotion that goes beyond the bedroom, yes–but almost always ends up there, too.
But yeah: I also read it for the sex. Well-constructed, physically plausible, scorching hot and loving (sometimes) or not (sometimes), hard and quick or slow and gentle: but yeah, sex is a big part [heh] of why I love slash fiction.
And in reading all of this academic commentary–much of it grounded in feminist theory, at least in part–I kept running into this notion that slash is girly, that’s teenage girl emotional, that we read for intimacy and not (most explicitly not) for Sam fucking Dean into oblivion. No no. Sex may happen, these theories often go, but, as women, we’re reading for the connection, just as we do when we read traditional, happily-ever-after heterosexual romance novels.
Again: bullshit. Because we read, we write, at least in part, to get off. To get each other off, yes? As Anna Feigenbaum argues in her brilliant and hilarious essay, “If Adorno Could Hear Us Now: Female Fans [Re]writing the Romance/Porn Divide in ‘Boy Band’ Slash Fiction”:
For every [slash] story that maps out a fairly conventional conflict-resoution, there are others that bare little resemblance to the ‘romance novel’ trajectory…For example, in Mel’s story Going Up?, *NSYNC members Chris and Justin share an X-rated ride in a hotel elevator…I doubt the reader is meant to interpret Chris’ demand, ‘I want your fucking mouth sucking my cock,’ as an eroticization of nuturance. Given the explicit depictions of sex and the lack of a developed emotional relationship in this story, I am inclined to argue that it in no way resembles a conventional, heterosexual romance.
Exactly. We read slash, we write it at least in part because the sex, the bodies within it, are fucking hot.
But I’ve read a couple of stories lately that reminded me that it’s not a simple choice of A-or-B, that there’s a sliding scale of sex and romance and emotion, a Kinsey scale of erotic/pornographic fiction. Sometimes, these stories whispered– even as I turned my head and tried to pull away–it’s the emotion, the angst behind it, that make the sex so hot.
And here’s the really fucked up part: both of these stories are Real Person Fiction. One AU [alternative universe], the other straight-up J2. Maybe that’s how they got me: I didn’t expect to find gut-wrenching, heart-breaking angst in the middle of an AU J2. Much less two.
The first story is Ygrawn’s “Private,” a J2 inspired by this incident at an SPN convention. Misha gets a little handsy with Jared onstage and damn, does Jensen not like that. But here’s the thing: Jared’s not his, not really. Not anymore. He should be with Danni. He knows this. But there’s something that reminds him of how it used to be, with him and Jared, gets the jealousy and the grief and the lust all mixed up in one, and, well.
What I love about this fic–what surprised me–is the emotion in it. The genuine sadness mixed in with the scorching, toppy!Jensen sex. Yeah, the sex is great, but it’s great because it stings; everybody’s hurting in this one, especially Jensen, but it’s that angst which makes the brief respite of sex, the momentary return to what was and what will never be, all the sweeter.
The second is an AU J2 called “Half of Your Heart” by jojothecr. This one broke my heart with a hammer and came back for the scraps. Jensen should be with her. Jared knows this. And this time, every time, it’s supposed to be the last. But they keep coming back to each other, a few times a year, and she knows. She tolerates. And Jared will, too. Because even a few hours with Jensen are better than none. That’s good enough, for now.
I’ve never cried over fan fic before–any fan fic, much less RPF–but “Heart” had me weeping. Again, what makes it extraordinary in my book is the emotion: the pain and unhappiness that’s so tightly intertwined with the sex that the two feed each other, thrive off one another. And I didn’t know quite what to do with that, as a reader, except let myself get lost in the story and cry like an idiot when it was over.
Maybe it is all about the emotion, sometimes. Maybe what I need to remember as a reader, as a writer of this stuff, is to embrace the Kinsey of it all, to avoid the easy, critical binary of it’s either porn or romance, A or B. It’s human. It’s messy. And sometimes, it’s beautiful.
We need somebody to give us permission to ogle, to turn the unabashed gaze on male beauty and just go with it.
Most of the time, we need permission from ourselves. As the authors of A Billion Wicked Thoughtspoint out, our brain chemistry demands that we give ourselves a mental go-ahead before the brain lust meets the body and those Wonder Twin powers activate into something wonderful.
But there’s also a lot of cultural and social crap that gets into our heads and gums up the works even more.
I wish this weren’t the case. I wish I didn’t feel a twinge of guilt when I look “too long” at the pretty. It’s a twinge born of feminism (you should not want what the heterosexist patriarchy tells you to, goddamn it.) and a childhood spent in church (thou shalt not want, well, anything. Ever. That’s not God.).
The church thing you’d think would be gone by now; hell, even as a kid, I resisted. The feminism? Well, again, I push back when my well-meaning colleagues attempt to regulate, to school me in the power of not-want, but those little twin voices, those towering thou shalt nots, are still there, still perched on my shoulder and tsking when I stare too hard at Padelecki or cross my eyes over the angel, yes.
But now I know they’re there, those voices, now I know enough to acknowledge and then ignore. Because I’m trying to give myself permission to take pleasure in the gaze.
That’s why, to me, the movie Magic Mike is so freaking genius. It’s a permission slip of a film, sculpted as an invitation, a way of saying: yes, you women so inclined (and gay men), come and pay your money for two hours of dominant discourse-sponsored gazing. No guilt, no shame, just two hours of looking that’s been sanctioned by the powers that be.
Because those boys on the screen?
They know you’re coming only for them, that their agressive lack of clothing is what’s gonna drive you to the theater. And that’s OK, hell, it’s more than ok: it’s awesome. Cough up the cash, ladies (and gents), and bask in sex with little fear of being mocked or even noted. Because you’ll be among friends.
So this is what I love, what I wish weren’t quite so culturally necessary: an excuse for communal lust, for a public performance of female desire in which we as the audience can feel safe in participating. It’s like a natural evolutionary step from the Fifty Shades phenomenon, the motion picture equivalent of reading a novel with a very sexy cover in public.
And yeah, it’s the commodification of female desire, and ok, it’s a little heteronormative in its approach (though the outreach to the gay press has been great), and in some ways it’s just as prescriptive in terms of what I (the female audience) should want as my feminist colleagues and the church, but.
If they’re marketing to us–the “us” that’s not white, heterosexual, and male–honey, let’s jump on it and give them reason to do it to us, for us all over again.
A question that keeps coming up [heh] in my research is one that annoys me: what’s the difference between erotica and pornography?
[My addendum: who the bloody hell says that there IS one?]
Although I may reject the premise of the question, that does pretty much no good, for it’s one that’s been around at least as long as first-wave feminism and continues to pop up pretty prominately in contemporary culture. Seediscussions of Fifty Shades of Gray or the presence/absence of the “PWP” [Porn Without Plot] tag in slash communities, for example. As a culture, we keep acting like there’s a distinction here, so I’m spending some time trying to figure out why.
For the record: In my own work, I don’t see a meaningful distinction between erotica and porn. It’s all about sex and emotion and getting the fuck off. All of the gendered bullshit that’s bundled into these debates just pisses me off and I’m veering wildly off track. Let me table the Rage Cat for a later discussion.
Last week, I read a terrific (apparently foundational) article in romance studies called “Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different” by Ann Barr Snitow, published in 1979. Snitow’s work [which deserves its own post. Or four.] pointed me in the direction of the November 1978 issue of Ms. magazine, then at the height of its cultural powers (the cover’s posted above).
There are three articles devoted to the erotica vs. pornography question in that issue, but I’m going to focus for now on Gloria Steinem’s “Erotica and Pornography: A Clear and Present Difference.”
In the article, after a long and confusing introduction about humans’ capacities as a species (??), Steinem lays out what’s essentially a entomological distinction between erotica and porn. She argues that erotica “is rooted in eros or passionate love, and thus in the idea of positive choice, free will, the yearning for a particular person” (75). By contrast, she posits, pornography:
“begins with a root meaning ‘prostitution’ or ‘female captives,’ thus letting us [who is “us”?] know that the subject is not mutual love, or love at all, but domination and violence against women…It ends with a root meaning ‘writing about’ or ‘description of’ which puts still more distance between subject and object, and replaces spontaneous yearning for closeness with objectification and a voyeur.” (54)
She then sketches this difference in several other ways, including:
“Perhaps one could simply say that erotica is about sexuality, but pornography is about power and sex-as-weapon” (54)
Erotica is “a mutually pleasurable, sexual expression between people who have enough power to be there by positive choice”; while pornography, on the other hand, carries a “message…[of] violence, dominance, and conquest” (54).
Ultimately, the vision of sex she presents here reads as a naive, almost romantically-idealized, view of sex. It feels as though 1978 Steinem is invoking the spirits of two (or more) imaginary partners who are wholly decontextualized from the wider world.
Love isn’t always fucking in a bed of roses–and anyway, those bitches have thorns.
Despite her desire for lovers to be fully embodied–to be in bed by choice made in both body and mind–the kind of sex that Steinem describes, to which she aspires, is one outside of time. Status is elemental to our interactions with other humans; whether we are conscious of them or not, we’re engaged in constant negotiations of status with all of the people whom we meet in a given day. Even our virtual interactions are marked by the back-and-forth of status games. While gender can and does affect those interactions, our sense and performance of our own always-shifting statuses, it’s not the sole determining factor, nor is it the only exigence for status exchanges.
Frankly, I don’t buy Steinem’s morpheme-based argument. To me, it feels that she reads the “textbook” definitions of erotica and pornography, of their entomological roots, far beyond what the text itself actually says, and actively avoids engaging with how those linguistics elements compare/contrast with the practical use and understanding of those concepts in modern (as of 1978) life.
To be blunt: her implicit assertion seems to be that erotica is good because it’s more “feminine” in nature–deals with feelings and love and all that shit–while pornography is bad because it’s used by men, created by men, espoused by men, in order to maintain the patriarchy. I’m essentializing here, and I realize. However, her assertions that erotica has a “sensuality and touch and warmth” and concerns itself with “shared pleasure,” while pornography uses sex to “reinforce some inequality, or to create one,” sounds pretty fucking gendered in its construction to me (53).
I’m also struck by her resistance to pleasure in this piece, to discussing erotica–if one accepts her argument that erotica is good–as a means through which a woman might gain some getting off, if you know what I mean.
Here’s the closest Steinem comes to acknowledging why a woman might want to use erotica:
“It [erotica] may or may not strike a sense-memory in the viewer, or be creative enough to make the unknown seem real; but it doesn’t require us to identify with a conquerer or victim [as she does porn, she argues]. It is truly sensuous, and may give us a contagion of pleasure.” (54)
It’s that last phrase that struck me: what’s a “contagion” of pleasure, exactly? Why not straight-up pleasure? What’s the virus that’s being transmitted? Why does Steinem seem to associate [physical] pleasure gained from a “photo or a film of people making love; really making love” as an infection, as something external that invades the viewer’s body from the outside?
The cynic in me wonders if this passage suggests a deeper resistance to heavily sexualized texts, if there’s not an implicit assumption here that getting off from the outside in isn’t as “good” or “right” as getting off with an imaginary, egalitarian lover.
There’s a whiff here of policing here, I think, of telling feminists of 1978 what they should want, what they should desire. And you know how I feel about that. Sad to say, such conversations, such attempts at community policing, are still ongoing, not just in explicitly feminist communities, I’d argue, but in many places where women gather around a shared ideology.
I found this Trojan ad in an issue of Ms. from 1978.
And I’m confused.
How is having control over your own reproductive system akin to disobeying God and casting humanity out of Eden, exactly?
Does this mean that Trojan itself is akin to Lucifer? That the promise of sex without reproduction is itself a temptation that, by all Judeo-Christian rights, should be avoided? That the “big decision” in Eve’s life = your choice of lubricated or ribbed?
Does this mean the apple is her vagina? If so, why is she so smug about being able to hold the damn thing in her hand?
How in the hell is this ad meant to appeal to women?!
My friend and collaborator fanspired kicked a lovely and complicated question at me yesterday, and as a) the answer to her question is sort of fundamental to this blog; and b) my response spun out into a 20-page dissertation, I decided to post my response here.
I’m puzzled about the relationship between these two [feminism and slash], given that we’re reading a genre of porn that specifically excludes us…Why do feminists read/write male/male slash?
I can answer that question only in terms of my own thinking and experiences. There’s been much written on this subject, and I suspect that there are probably as many answers to your question as there are feminists in slash fandom. Know, then, that my response pivots around my own beliefs, and makes no attempt to speak for feminists in slash as a whole.
The simplest answer, for me, is that such practices are a means through which, by which, to resist the way that female sexual desire and expression is coded, understood, and controlled within the dominant discourse.
In Textual Poachers, Henry Jenkins, scholar of fan practices in general and one of the first to write about slash practice specifically, puts it this way:
“Slash confronts the most repressive forms of sexual identity and provides utopian alternatives to current configurations of gender; slash does not, however, provide a politically stable or even consistently coherent response to these concerns.” (189-190).
As a feminist, I see slash practices as active, resistant, and women-centered.
Active in that writing and reading slash fiction allows women [and some men] to re-author their own sexuality outside of the constraints of heternormativity. Hell, I’d argue that having to select any kind of label for one’s sexual identity, be it hetero or gay or bi or whatever, is more constraining than constructive. Indeed, the Kinsey scale suggests to me that there are very few of us who fit neatly and with no ragged edges into any of these categories.
I think sexual identity for many people isn’t “stable” or consistant over the course of our entire lives, although the dominant discourse is loathe to acknowledge or explore this idea–in part, I think, because these identities are too freaking complicated and individual to be easily narrativized. It’s much easier to say: you’re gay or you’re straight. Maybe bi. But that’s it! More than three and it gets confusing, damn it.
So, for me, reading and writing slash gives me a chance to run around in many different kinds of sexual expressions, performances of desire, and sex acts outside of the binaries that dominate Western discourse around sexuality: gay and straight/male and female. In doing so, I can actively write, rewrite, and write again my own sexual identity, rather than serving as a passive receptor of male [eh] sexual desire, as the dominant discourse tells me I do every damn day. Indeed, the dd still tells us, I’d argue, that, as women, we “should” be good and wait for the men to come to us; that we should be content, as John Berger might say, to be the object of the gaze, rather than its master.
Well, I call bullshit.
Slash, for me, is also a form of resistance. The dominant discourse instructs us that what we should want, as women, is nice, safe, straight, vanilla sex with a man –unless we want to sleep with other women in front of/for the pleasure of men. That’s ok, too, but only if we recognize that what we really want at the end of the day is to be on the receiving end of a dick. Because, yeah.
Now, some would say (to me, at the last conference I went to) that writing/reading M/M slash is NOT a practice of resistance because it’s essentially women lusting after men. That is, the dominant discourse tells us we should desire beautiful men, and thus engaging in slash wherein we deify the male body is, in effect, doing exactly what the patriarchy wants.
This scholar then reminded the audience and I that the producers of SPN have learned to aim their program at women, in so far as having the boys in various states of undress and using the pretty as a selling point (all true). Therefore, she posited, by agreeing that yes, these men are hot (and trading on that in our fic), we’re giving into the dominant discourse, rather than scorning its advances.
Again, I call bullshit.
To embrace the pretty, to happily consume this, this, and this, and then to use that pretty to our own devices–to write/read Sam and Dean or Dean and Cas or Sam and Dean and Cas into hot sex–is, I think, pretty fucking feminist in nature.
Slavoj Zizek–who is an idiot on a lot of things, in my opinion–wisely suggested that the purest form of resistance against the dominant ideology is to embrace the ideology with open arms. So, ok PTB, you want to keep our eyeballs on SPN by dropping images like this into our laps? Awesome. We’re gonna take those–thank you–and do with them what we will: some of which you’ll be ok with, because it’ll make you money, and some of which you’ll have no fucking control over, no matter how meta you try to get on us, baby.
As feminst scholar Constance Penley puts it in NASA/TREK, her brilliant examination of Kirk/Spock slash:
“slash fans do more than ‘make do’; theymake“ (106).
Penley also notes Joanna Russ’ notion that slash writing is, essentially,
pornography by women, for women, with love (qtd. 103).
This is the last key piece of the puzzle, for me. Slash fiction is a space that dominated by women. Period. At some level, we’re women writing for, and to, other women. Sometimes, we’re an audience of one. Other times, the stories that we shape and kick out into the world are consumed by women whom we will never meet–but who will use our stories in their own way, make and remake them, hate them or love them, say “that’s not my Sam and Dean!” or “oh, god, that’s what my boys look like, too.”
This isn’t to say that a discursive space that’s dominated by women is inherently feminist in nature. It’s not. But, for me, spaces like the Sam/Dean Slash Archive or Archive of Our Own or any of the thousands of relevant LiveJournal pages allow for conversation and exchange between women that the dominant discourse discourages if not outright denies. We can talk, in these spaces, about sex and desire and character and narrative and incest and wingfic and curtains and emotion and trauma in ways that we can’t do in our everyday lives. If anything, SPN has become a feminized space because the characters are vehicles that make such conversations possible, even desirable, and provide the means through which, by which, we as women (primarily) can have them.
It’s not just about female appropriation of the male form–the most frequent academic criticism I’ve read and heard against slash. Hell, we might have a little penis envy, but so what? Reading and writing slash fic lets us try on the cock for awhile, put it to its best (most enthusiastic?) possible usage, and then reap the benefits of that textual world as only women can.
So you’re right, fanspired: on the surface, slash fic can look misogynistic. It’s women playing with men, navigating, negotiating, exploring, fuck, enjoying their sexuality via the male body. But I’d argue that the lack of gender constraints, the opportunity to resist the dominant discourse’s expectations of female sexuality, and the highly feminized communities that slash offers make reading and writing slash conducive to feminist participation, study, and interpretation.
As my boy Henry Jenkins points out:
“not all of slash is feminist; yet one cannot totally ignore the progressive potential of thisexchange.” (221)
As a feminist, it’s that “progressive potential,” the opportunity to repeat with difference, as Judith Butler might say, that keeps me coming back–yes–to slash.