And Sometimes, It’s Beautiful.

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.

Exactly.

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.

Yeah.

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.

So.

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.

Right Next To The KY

A few weeks ago, I wrote this impassioned, angsty post about my squick points in SPN fandom. I was very specific. I was very serious. I was very delusional to think that everything would stay so neatly within the proper boundaries.

Especially since past me wrote, then:

But I guess I see the whole notion of squick in slash as generative, as a way of delimiting one’s imaginative [sexual] boundaries and then shifting those borders as needed.

Which, at the time, I thought applied to other people. That my “imaginative boundaries” were firmly planted; once negotiated, now settled.

And I was pretty freaking certain about the Stonehenge of my squick: real world. As I said then:

So I actively avoid learning anything about the real world side of SPN.

Enter Tumblr. And Stonehenge falls.

Still, it seems that past me was at least aware of this possibility, though I tried to couch it in terms of my scholarship, ’cause that’s the shell I run to when I’m freaked:

Maybe it’s just temporary. Maybe it’ll be like my once avowed opposition to J2… a taboo that flew by the wayside thanks to my research on meta slash fic.

Right. RESEARCH.

Sam loves research. He does. He keeps it under his mattress, right next to the KY.

Shut up, Dean.

So this week, when I found myself happily reading J2 and liking it, for gods’ sakes! and it wasn’t even anything I could vaguely point to as being useful in this paper or the next one, I had a moment of: oh shit. Who am I? What have I become?

Well, that goes without saying by now.

Then I self-flagellated myself to a friend, someone I can count on to slap me down if necessary, and this person said:

Dude. There’s good stuff in every genre. If you’re reading it and you like it, it makes you happy, then do it. If you don’t and it’s not, then stop.

Basically: stop angst-ing about reading porn. Jesus.

Now, I still don’t want to know about anyone’s kids, or people’s marriages or ways of working or dogs or whatever–see? I’ve already said too much. But I’m less terrified of what will happen if I do, accidently. I still don’t seek this shit out, this kind of real world knowledge, but if I pick some up through an AU J2, really. My brain will not explode. And I’m not, therefore, a terrible person.

I can be amused by stuff like this and not forfit my professional fangirl card, not lose the illusion that I can summon cool detachment in the middle of Wincest and go “hey, yeah, I can use that. For RESEARCH.”

Because I totally can.

This is a long way of saying, I guess, that the fences are still flexible in my corner of fandom. Which I knew, but. I guess I wasn’t ready for the pastures to move so soon, you know?

I guess what worries me is that I have a tendency, once I drift into a particular subgenre as a reader to want to go there as a writer. But I’m sure that won’t happen here.

No freaking way.

We Make It. With Love.

No, no, I’m listening. Not just staring at your beautiful face.

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.

Fanspired asked:

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.

We’re watching you, too, babe.

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.

K/S, the granddaddy of them all.

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.

Don’t worry, baby: we usually play nice.

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.

Know Your Squick

In which a post that started off quick and funny ends up long and angsty. 

One of the great things about slash fic is that it forces you to get to know your squick, those points at which the fic does something [to someone] that goes a step beyond what your personal fanon is willing to tolerate.

Sometimes, squick points are specific sex acts. Or they can be certain character pairings that to you, the reader, border on the unholy. In a bad way. Other times, it’s a particular trope that makes you nervous, like wing!fic, or curtain!fic or bottom!sammy in SPN slash.

What I appreciate about the squick factor is that it is, in my experience, a constant site of negotiation. When I started reading Wincest, for example, I was horrified by the notion of Castiel/Dean. Then it kind of slid from horrified to indifferent. Then from indifferent to oh, okay, maybe I could see it. And so on.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t some squick rubicons that I still will not cross. Any slash fic featuring John Winchester, for example? Forget it. No freaking way.

But I guess I see the whole notion of squick in slash as generative, as a way of delimiting one’s imaginative [sexual] boundaries and then shifting those borders as needed. It’s like Henry Jenkins says in Textual Poachers:

“Not all of slash is politically conscious; not all of slash is progressive; not all of slash is feminist; yet one cannot totally ignore the progressive potential of this exchange and the degree to which slash may be one of the few places in popular culture where questions of sexual identity can be explored outside of the polarization that increasingly surrounds this debate.” (Jenkins 221)

So, for me, wrestling with the squick is one way that I as a reader [and a writer] do this kind of work, monkey around with “questions of sexual identity” for myself and for my own readers via slash fic.

Notice how I’ve gotten this far without saying what my SPN squick points are? As I’ve said before: repression–it’s a talent.

Now these are mine and mine alone: I sure as hell make no judgements about other readers and writers who go places I don’t want, or who avoid locations that I hang out in all the time. [I’m thinking of one of my readers who is lovely about my Wincest fic but vaguely disgusted by my Cas/Dean stuff. Heh.]

  1. Anything with John Winchester. Period. Dude creeps me out in the main narrative and I sure as hell don’t want him hovering over my slash fic.
  2. Non-con, in general. There are times when I’m ok with dubious con–because it usually works out for the best, in a not-terribly-feminist sort of way–but non-con? No thanks.
  3. Extreme violence. Yes, “extreme” is a wiggle word, but it’s like Justice Stewart said: I know it when I see it.
  4. Fic set before the boys are in high school. Just–ack.

But my biggest squick point as a fan has nothing to do with the fic. It has to do with the real world.

See, as a fan, I’ve never really been into the “real world” side of whatever it was I was fanning over. Take Star Trek, the foundation of my life as a fan. I’ve never been to a convention, or stood in line to hear the actors speak, or gone to Gene Roddenberry’s grave, because, fundamentally, what I love about ST is the fiction, are the characters and the stories. I don’t ‘ship Nimoy and Shatner, I don’t follow the actors around on Twitter, I’ve never watched the show’s blooper reels because, it’s just like, I know that it’s all pretend. All made up and crafted out of styrofoam and velour and monsters of the week: I know that.

But there’s part of me that’s cognitively dissonant enough to hang on to the fiction, to be invested in Dr. McCoy rather than DeForest Kelley, in Khan rather than Montelban, in Chapel rather than Majel Barrett. And I want to keep it so, to keep pretending at least in that tiny region of my brain that the Enterprise exists, that these people are truly tangling with all the weird shit that Kirk’s ego gets them into.

And in ST fandom, this is actually pretty easy to do, for me. Because the actors are old enough–hell, the show was old enough, when I stumbled across it–that I can fashion that dissonant space without too much trouble. Can maintain it without installing a watcher at the gate.

But in SPN fandom? Those borders are much, much more difficult to enforce, given the primary narrative’s obsession with pointing back at its real world fans and the real-time nature of the show’s production [relatively] and my consumption of the product.

And yes, talk about dissonance, right? Given that my research on this stupid show had centered on fandom, on the show’s portrayal of its female fans. But I don’t care about who’s producing, at some level. At who’s doing the writing, what the network is saying about next season, what the actors [god forbid] think about the current story arc. [This may explain why I broke up with SPN for like two weeks over “The French Mistake.” Grrr.]

So I actively avoid learning anything about the real world side of SPN. Like Ned Seagoon used to say on the Goon Show: I don’t wish to know that!

Now granted, this IS going to cause problems for my scholarship, this desire to hold the borders fast between the world of the show and the real life logistics that make the show happen, the real people who engage with the fans [whether we want them to or not]. I know this. It’s problematic. I’m not an “informed fan,” as a  fellow scholar put it once at an SPN panel.

Maybe it’s just temporary. Maybe it’ll be like my once avowed opposition to J2 [Real Person Slash for SPN], a taboo that flew by the wayside thanks to my research on meta slash fic. [Hey, I had to read those stories! It was part of my research. I swear.]

But. We shall see.

[more] Feels Like The First Time

The sixth chapter of Feels Like The First Time by my friend fanspired and I is up over on the Sam/Dean Slash Archive. In this chapter: mini-golf! unfortunate wagers! and a little light bondage.

In this story, the first time was just a fluke. The second first time? A big misunderstanding. But the third first time? Now wait just a damn minute…

He’s Best When He’s Bound and Gagged


I’ve spent a lot of quality time with Becky Rosen lately. And this is a piece that’s come out of our communion.

I’ve been working with Becky since last November, when I watched episode 7.8, “It’s Time For A Wedding!” for the first time.

My first reaction to what I saw as the episode’s, uh, problems? Was to write my first S/D story, “Hot Blooded.”

My second? Was to start work on this piece, which has moved  from a presentation [of which this is version 2.0] to a lengthier academic essay.

The reaction that I’ve received to this work at the two conferences at which I’ve presented it has been generally positive, but it’s also stirred up some hornets’ nests for some folks, which is kind of awesome. 

This presentation relies pretty heavily on images [which is part of why I’m so fond of it, I think]; if you wish, you can download the associated slide show here

While Supernatural doesn’t belong to me, this work does. And, as Becky might say, everything may be a fic of everything else, but don’t try to slash this slasher, to represent this work as your own.

He’s Best When He’s Bound and Gagged:
Deleting Female Desire in “Season 7: It’s Time For A Wedding!”

Soon after its premiere in 2005, the television show Supernatural—the story of Sam and Dean Winchester, two brothers who’ve committed their lives to protecting people from supernatural creatures—spawned an online fandom dedicated to “slashing” Sam and Dean; that is, to writing stories in which the brothers are portrayed as lovers. Indeed, over the course of seven seasons, the existence of these narratives—affectionately dubbed “Wincest” by the show’s fans—has become a defining feature of Supernatural‘s primarily female fandom.

By introducing a meta-textual version of the show—a series of books also called Supernatural—into the primary narrative, the program’s producers have allowed Sam and Dean [and, by extension, the producers themselves] to comment upon the productive and consumptive practices of Wincest fans. However, the subsequent introduction of the character of Becky Rosen—dedicated Wincest writer and devoted fan of the Supernatural book series—has allowed the producers to take this commentary one step further: to illustrate the monstrous potential of the female fan, particularly one who actively engages in the construction, consumption, and distribution of Wincest narrative.

In this paper, I will argue that a central image in Becky’s most recent appearance in season seven, episode eight exemplifies the danger that the show’s producers see her [and the female fans for whom she stands, in their minds] posing to the show’s carefully maintained masculine order: the image (slide 1) of a semi-clothed Sam bound to a bed, his body and the text which it represents at the mercy of his female captor. The transgressive nature of this image lies in its reversal of what Laura Mulvey calls “the symbolic order” of gender in the visual, one in which “the silent image of woman [is] still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.” That is, the threat that Becky poses to Sam, to Supernatural, lies in her status as a woman and as a fan writer, as a figure who can upend the central narrative by affixing the masculine to her “rightful” place as the signifier of meaning while claiming the role of producer for herself. Continue reading “He’s Best When He’s Bound and Gagged”