The Joy of Slash
Why do women want it?
As an occasional, casual reader of online fanfiction,
I was always fascinated and confused as to why male “slash” (gay
sex couplings) was preferred over “ship” (heterosexual
sex couplings) by women writers who were predominately straight,
lesbian or bisexual. I always imagined that gay women would be
more interested in female couplings, or straight women into het
couplings. I guess because since I’m straight myself, and
although I appreciate the aesthetic appeal of the female form,
I’ve never had the desire to have sex with a woman. And although
I can also see the appeal of two men in a sexual/romantic entanglement,
I couldn’t for the life of me understand why so many women
out there — lesbian women, mostly — not only preferred
to write m/m slash, but even considered it superior in nearly
every possible manner to m/f or even f/f fiction.
One of the most interesting things that I’ve
discovered was that many of these women weren’t even sure why they
write m/m slash — that it’s been something that’s
plagued their minds ever since they first became obsessed with
it. One gay woman even said that she was intensely aroused by m/m
fiction, the thought of beautiful men’s bodies in the throes
of passion, but she herself couldn’t stomach the idea of
even getting to second base with a man unless she made herself
very drunk or stoned first.
So what was the appeal of men for women who
normally don’t want anything to do with men in their own
sexual relationships? What about straight women who didn’t
even want an identifying female character in their stories to pair
with their males?
of the things I’ve learned that, as fanfiction is based primarily
on television shows, most television shows as a rule (until maybe
recently) have not had any really interesting female characters
for women to identify with. Most of the earliest fanfic dates back
to the ’70s, when “Star Trek” fanzines would publish heaps of Kirk/Spock
sex pairings. Some folks may say that straight women fell in love
with these characters and wrote about them being together sexually
or romantically with other men because they didn’t want the
threat of another female to come between the writer and the object
of her desires, but I think it goes deeper than that in most cases.
“Star Trek,” despite the fact that the show always featured women
in powerful, sometimes leadership positions, these characters were
rarely ever that interesting or dynamic. Lt. Uhura and Yeoman Rand
were often there specifically to look pretty, show their legs,
and run into the captain’s arms when they were in danger.
Captain Kirk, however, was a charismatic swashbuckler
who didn’t take no guff from anyone, and although he had
many sexual encounters with beautiful women all over the galaxy,
he was rarely able to connect emotionally with any of them. Spock
was a half-human half-Vulcan who was always struggling with his
detested emotions, and at the same time his deep friendship for
Kirk drove most of the more emotional moments in the programs’ series.
So, between the men and the women on “Star Trek,”
who appear to be the more interesting characters? Yes, suddenly
I could understand the appeal of writing for the male protagonists
in a television series.
But does the same television world that gave
us “Star Trek” still exist in the medium today? I use the modern
cult classic “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” as another example of a
program that inspires slash fiction from a largely female fan base.
Buffy is a show about women — strong, powerful, intelligent,
interesting, dynamic women. Nearly every female character on the
program, in contrast to “Star Trek,” is well written, creatively
constructed, and physically and mentally capable of handling themselves
without the men coming to the rescue at the end of every episode.
In fact, the men on the program are often more in the background
supporting the women, cheering them on or lending a hand when they
are capable. The men are still well-written characters, but they
often play the part of the female roles that are typically written
for women on most television shows, as the strong yet secondary
supporters to the lead characters.
The strange thing that I found, however, that
out of all the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” fanfiction I perused
online, a large percentage of the slash fiction was centered around
the male characters of the show. As lesbian writers, I had imagined
there would be thousands of opportunities to explore the relationship
of Buffy’s lesbian couple Tara and Willow (or Tara/Willow
in slash parlance), or perhaps connect two other females together
with their potential for sexual tension, such as Buffy/Faith or
Instead I saw hundreds of Spike/Angel couplings,
or Spike/Xander, or Xander/Andrew or Angel/Wesley, or just about
any variation of two men together that could possibly be done.
Why was it that gay women who were given a show full of interesting
active females still gravitating towards the slightly lesser male
characters? Again, I received mixed answers, but a large portion
of the gay women that spoke up about this topic commented that
they didn’t feel a connection with many of the female characters
in a way that some had determined with a term they referred to
as gender “coding.” Few connected with Buffy herself,
a blonde skinny Barbie-doll straight male fantasy girl. As for
resident gay couple Tara and Willow, some also mentioned that their “coding” was
off as well. They could easily accept Tara as a lesbian, since
she had been introduced to the show as a lesbian. Willow, however,
never felt “gay” to some of them, because she started
out as an aggressively straight girl mooning over boys to suddenly
dating one girl and bam — she’s full-on lesbian,
and men just don’t appeal to her any longer. This rang a
little false to a lot of women, and although they enjoyed watching
the characters and loved them all, they felt these women didn’t
really connect with them on a personal level as someone to identify
with. Many of the women, however, did agree that some of the male
characters like Xander and especially Spike were internally coded
more like females, and therefore they felt a stronger connection
to them than they did to the women on the show, and therefore they
enjoyed writing about the men in romantic/sexual situations more
often than they did with any of the creatively well-written females.
So what then do these women really look for
in the male characters that they love to write about? Are they
attracted to the active maleness of Captain Kirk on “Star Trek”?
Or the relatively sensitive femaleness of background (male) character
Xander on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”? Frankly I was more confused
But what really hit home for me was something
that one particular writer — a straight woman — said
as to why she writes m/m: “The joy of being in a body that
does what it wants to do, when it wants to do it, no holds barred
— just seems intrinsically male to me.”
then it hit me, for the first time, what the appeal of writing
men is for a woman. I was reminded of my childhood, when all I
ever dreamed of being was a boy. I wanted to be a boy so badly,
I even used to beg my mom to let me have a sex change (“Maybe
when you’re older, dear,” she used to say offhandedly).
It wasn’t that I was gay, or identified as a male, or was
attracted to girls (I was about 8 years old at the time, and I
was blissfully ignorant of All Things Sex). I wanted to be a boy
because boys got to do things. Boys got to have adventures,
get dirty, be capital-A Active. Active became synonymous
to me with being male, whereas girls were expected not to do anything
that might undermine their serene femininity, so they remained
as motionless as possible. Don’t get dirty and ruin your
new dress, Melissa. You can’t race Matchbox cars with us,
Melissa, because you are a girl. Go sit in the corner quietly and
comb your doll’s hair. I wanted to be Active, and
only boys were allowed to be Active without having to explain
themselves or fill out the proper forms in advance. And in my mind,
that’s how it was, that boys are Active, girls are Sedentary.
And women’s bodies, unlike men’s,
come with so many real and invisible shackles. Most of us as women
looked in the mirror and despised something about our physical
appearance. These bodies are also prone to hindrances in their
sexual liberty like pregnancy and the ability to more easily catch
an STD, due to the nature of the vaginal design.
And then there is the universal desire to control
women’s bodies for their own purposes or agendas. To quote
another fanfic writer:
Women’s bodies are baggage. Battlegrounds
for every political yahoo that comes along, property of the state
or your ethnicity or religion. Every institution in the world has
a say on what gets into your cunt — are you marrying an Italian,
is he Catholic, you’re going to have babies for your religion
and your country, right? Pro-choice! Anti-choice! Keep your rosaries
off my ovaries! Life begins at birth! Hey baby, wanna ride?
Even gay women aren’t completely liberated
from the restrictions of the female body. No matter if you are
straight or lesbian, we all get those changes in our bodies every
Men, as far as I can see, have been spared from
this stigma that women from all cultures appear to identify with
in terms of their bodies. Women, including myself, can identify
the liberty that must come from having that kind of freedom of “body
baggage” that men must have, and that freedom certainly reflects
on the way men indulge in their entitlement to be Active, especially
sexually, but also in pretty much everything else they do.
But getting back to identifying with male characters.
When I was little I once created a dance routine for me and my
friend Sheryl. A ballet of sorts, with a prince and a princess.
I played the prince, wearing a bright, vibrant red tunic. Sheryl,
the princess, wore a delicate powder blue robe that reached the
floor like a long gown. My dance steps required me to jump, kick,
spin and leap in the air and assert myself in front of the princess,
whose only steps required that she walk quietly and serenely back
and forth across the stage, careful not to trip over her long cumbersome
gown. In my mind, as it was in all fairy tales, the male character
was always Active. My friend Sheryl was giving to the job of only
looking beautiful and being the object of affection for the prince.
And even as a girl myself, the whole time that I was playing the
prince I remember I kept thinking to myself, “Glad I’m
not the princess in this ballet.”
But even later in life, in my early teens as
I started writing and drawing my own comic books, I looked back
and discovered that every last one of my stories had male
protagonists. Granted, I knew where that all came from, in a sense.
When I was 12 I fell in love with a comic book character and became
so obsessed with him that I ended up sublimating my love for him
in every male character I created. That was one reason for it.
But was there another reason? Was it the fact that, again, I identified
with men in the sense that they have always been the more interesting
characters in the history of western-world fiction? My own desire
to be Active? Because I envied men’s bodies and longed to
have the freedom that automatically comes with having the unrestricted,
unfettered male form?
Suddenly I think I understood the appeal of
male characters to women writers. It struck me dumb to realize
that all this time that I was trying to understand, I had been
basically doing the very same thing creatively for as far back
as I can remember. I spoke to a few of my own close female friends,
none of whom are fanfic writers, and they gave me their own examples
of how at some point in their lives they longed to be male, even
if they had only dreamt it just for a moment, and how they had
used that desire as either fuel or as an impetus for their art.
And the reasons they gave me were often for the same reasons I
desired to be a boy as a child: To wear the loose red tunic instead
of the cumbersome blue gown, to be physical without having to compromise
my feminine serenity. We all wanted to be the Dragonslayer. To
be the Hero. To be Active.
Perhaps that is what these women slash fiction
writers are searching for — to have the freedom of being
male in their female bodies. To feel physically and sexually liberated
yet still be the women that they are.
Perhaps I am reading too much into the entire
issue. Maybe the aesthetic appeal of two attractive men in a sexual
situation is universal to women both straight and gay, and to question
that is to question the very issue of what makes us the sexually
focused creatures that we are. As long as there are good writers
out there doing good work, I don’t care who’s nailing
who. A good writer can make anything enticing, and this fellow
sexually focused creature is merely a sucker for excellence.