A love poem of longing, inspired by [x].
A box of sand from Monterey.
A handful of leaves from Japan, ground to pieces at the bottom of an envelope marked fragile.
So I’ve been watching The Bachelorette this summer, in a red wine and sponge cake-fueled frenzy, and here’s the thing:
I kinda feel bad for the guys.
Not because there’s something wrong with Desiree, the eponymous unmarried star.
She’s pretty, she has great skill at enacting enthusiasm, she seems truly invested in some of the dudes.
No, my sympathy for the men–there are four of them left, after last night’s roses and tears–lies in the weird emotional churn in which they seem to be embroiled.
It’s reality TV, I know; so take it with a grain of salt, you say. But still. Nonetheless. It’s strange to watch these dudes push themselves to feel, damn it, on someone else’s timeline.
The show–if you’ve never seen it, and don’t pat yourself on the back too hard there, tiger–is pretty straight: 1 woman, 25 dudes, a slow/painfully accelerated series of ridiculous “dates” designed to help Des determine which of the guys might be her future husband.
And now they’re down to four. Next week, she meets their families, and their families meet her. Zounds!
What I’ve found interesting is the pressure that several of the boys seem to be putting on themselves to fall in love with Des already, like they’re sure all the other dudes have.
So my friend DarkCaustic and I started writing together well on a month ago, and next thing you know, we had 15,000 words of romantic smut to show for it.
In this story, you’ve got DarkCaustic on Sam, me on Cas, and oh, how we wish that were so.
So. If Dean’s going to leave Sam for an angel of the Lord—which he didn’t even believe in two years ago—he should at least have the decency to tell Sam to his face. And the high-end flirting routine Dean and Cas are staging in front of him right now? So does not count.
Maybe it really is all about the emotions.
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.
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. See discussions 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:
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.
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’; they make“ (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 this exchange.” (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.
In general, I’ve tried to stay out of the Fifty Shades of Gray debate, in part because I think others have covered the territory quite well (see the Smart Bitches’ awesome take, for example). And, well, after perusing three free chapters of the first book on Amazon, I have zero desire to read the damn things. Not my kind of (hot, same-sex, well-written) porn. Which is cool.
However, I have [and do] laud the books for starting a long-overdue (if often juvenile) conversation in the US about women, erotica, and desire.
That said, Ruth Marcus’ column in today’s Washington Post brought out what is, for me, a new and unpleasant wrinkle in this debate: women telling women what we, as good feminists, should REALLY be fantasizing about.
After blushing for several paragraphs over talking about BDSM sex (tee hee! she’s so naughty!), Marcus actually does a nice job of kicking down Katie Roiphe’s ridiculous claims in Newsweek that feminists want to be subs in the bedroom because they’re tired of being in charge, because they’re threatened by what Roiphe claims is the “shaky” nature of “male dominance” in contemporary society.
Marcus cuts Roiphe to the quick (hurray!) and observes that Gray may be difficult to discuss, in part, because to do so
requires acknowledging gender differences that we’ve been conditioned to deny.
That is: that women’s fantasies be different than men’s.
But then–alas–here’s Marcus’ kicker:
Ultimately, Leonard [EL James’ real name] makes the key distinction: between women’s fantasies and their realities. “In real life, I think it’s something very, very different,” she told NBC. “You want someone who does the dishes.”
Now that’s one hot fantasy.
See, women of America (who read the Post)! Here’s what you SHOULD lust after:
And not this:
And DEFINITELY not this:
Now, I’m all for acknowledging all kinds of desires, especially those that transcend the binary of male and female. If everyone’s legal and consenting, then hop to it.
But, damn it, I’m ANNOYED by Marcus’ choice here. It feels to me as though, with that kicker, she’s distancing herself from those naughty ladies who read Gray, who read erotica/porn so they can fantasize about fucking beautiful men (or women!).
In essence, Marcus’ closing statement feels like an act of imaginative policing, of telling us feminists what we should really want is not a hot sex partner(s) but a man who’ll happily soldier 50% of the housework. That we should get turned on not by this–
–but by the sight of our (presumably male) partner doing the goddamn dishes.
You know, to each her own. That’s cool. But please, middle-aged woman who writes op-ed columns for the Post: please do not presume to tell me, as a feminist (who writes porn) what my fantasies may or may not include. Thank you.
You can have the dishwashing husbands of America all to yourself, darlin. I’ll take the boy with the stupid hat and the stuffed bird.
Another of my Goodwill romance finds. This one warrented a dollar just on the title alone–and then I saw the cover, which. Wow.
“The news clip from Thailand lasted only a moment. But what Meg Devlin saw was enough to convince her that her father–missing in action for nineteen years–was alive. Meg’s best hope…lay with Conor Tremayne, the reporter who had shot the film. But could she trust Tremayne–a man who would sell his soul for a story?”
Rupert Murdock IS Connor Tremayne IN a Fox News production OF…Ghost Tiger!
Random sample sentence:
“She [Meg] curled into the warm body at her side, giving in to the memory of Conor’s hands and lips at the irrigation pond.”
Because nothing says romance like an irrigation pond. I hope it’s not the one where the fish lives.
What I love about this cover:
I picked this romance novel up at Goodwill today simply because of the cover. Its beauty struck me among the sea of Danielle Steele novels in which it was encased.
“For Jessica Banbridge, it begins with a heartbreaking tragedy and a new friend…No sooner have her eyes adapted to the shimmering island sun, [sic] than two men block the light from view–forceful, charming Kyle Tarkington and volatile, mysterious Winston St. James.”
So, an NFL quarterback and an heir to a cigarette fortune? Sure.
Random sample sentence:
“The dress was worth it; the fear was worth it; everything was worth the look on his face.”
Huh. I kind of like that one, despite the weird use of semi-colons.
What I love about this cover:
Now, will its text live up to its packaging? We shall see.
One of my projects of late has taken me into the world of romance novel covers. I went into the work thinking I’d talk about the covers of het romances—and then I stumbled across Anne Tenino’s Frat Boy and Toppy. And that discovery led to the presentation below.
Covering Up to Strip Down:
Remixing Anne Tenino’s Frat Boy and Toppy
I began this project with a general interest in the covers of romance novels (slide 1), in these too-familiar renderings [rendings] (slide 2) of female garments by well-muscled, occasionally well-meaning masculine overlords.
And then I came across this (slide 3): Anne Tenino’s terribly titled but oh so very excellent novel Frat Boy and Toppy—a male/male erotic romance.
Now on the one hand, this cover is stereotypical, a close cousin of the now-familiar images plastered on heterosexual romance novels—featuring two naked male torsos for the price of one. But on the other, the cover is just bizarre. Its assemblage-like quality comes off as an artist’s fever dream: over-thought, over-designed, and, worst of all [to my mind] a poor representation of the content [and the pleasures] the text presents. My goal, then, has been to redesign Toppy’s cover so that it might more effectively reflect both the book’s content and the current cultural conversation surrounding women and the consumption of popular [erotic] romance, a discussion sparked by the runaway success of this novel, (slide 4) Fifty Shades of Grey.
Perhaps the busy nature of Toppy’s cover (slide 5) is due, in part, to the many different kinds of stories that the novel manages to tell within the generic constraints of an erotic romance; that is, a romance in which sexual encounters are used as the building blocks of a mutually satisfying and emotionally supportive love match and one which concludes with the characters living “happily ever after.” Toppy manages to do this while performing several other kinds of stories within the same text. First, the novel is a coming-out story in which Brad [the titular frat boy] recognizes that he’s gay, that he’s attracted to other men: specifically, to Sebastian, the TA for Brad’s “Classical Greece” history course.
Early in the book, Brad comes out to his family, who are relaxed and groovy about the whole thing, as, it seems, is Brad himself. Indeed, he is pretty angst free about the whole thing: he accepts who he is—and who he is wants Sebastian. That said, Brad is reluctant to come out to his frat, many of whom aren’t homophobic, per say, but are pretty happily ensconced in their belief that Brad’s straight [given that he’s been dating—but not sleeping with—women] and show little interest in discussing the potential fluidities of male sexual desire.
But this is also a romance, a story about two people falling in love and using hot sex as a means by which to discover that their attraction goes beyond the physical. After getting Sebastian’s attention by turning in a paper he purchased online as his own [like you do], Brad confesses his desire. The two men immediately sleep together [in that Yankee Candle- infested living room on the front cover] and it’s all happily uphill from there. Continue reading “Love! Frat Boys! and Visualizing [Female] Desire”