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.

Love! Frat Boys! and Visualizing [Female] Desire

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.

You can see a slide show of the images that I reference here and learn more about the book from the publisher here–which you should because this novel? Is awesome.

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”