Julad's little indulgence in obscure words and vague concepts.

Women and Slash - Why, why, why?



It's a funny, tangled issue, that of why women read and write slash.  The only definitive answer I've come up with so far is, "there's lots of reasons".

Jane Mortimer discusses the writing of fanfiction and erotica as an art form, and offers some convincing explanations for the advantages for writers in writing fanfic, erotic and otherwise.  Miriam has approached the issue of through feminism, pornography and consumerism, and Helen views slash as the assertion of an active female sexuality.  I agree with these views, and recommend all of the above essays.

I have been thinking about it rather differently - I've completely ignored the writing process in fanfic, and I also play down the eroticism of slash in favour of the emotional pleasure gained from it.  I'm interested in the distinction between masculine texts and feminine texts; masculine values and feminine values; and how slash works as a translation between them. I suspect a lot of this could also apply to smarm-type gen, although I have read so little gen that I won't be referring to it.

I was introduced to slash in a university lecture, so first confronted it on the net in some recommended reading material for the subject: Pass the Crisco, Spock.*  Although I disagree with large parts of this article, at one point it is suggested that slash is the feminisation of male relationships, and a conversion of male-oriented mass culture into feminine values.

Slash writers, the argument goes, take the goal-oriented male friendships presented within the original text and turn them into relationships which have intrinsic and a priori value rather than existing to serve an external purpose.

I've always been quite taken with this vision of slash, and it's been in the back of my mind ever since I started reading it.  Whether the differences are genetic or cultural, good or bad, the fact remains that men generally focus more on goals and results, while women tend to give a higher priority to the interpersonal and the emotional.  These differing values can be seen in what are traditionally masculine texts and feminine texts - the action tv show versus the drama/soap opera; the western versus the romance novel.

Conflict in masculine texts is largely external; the disequilibrium of the plot is a failed regulation or restriction of violence, destruction or harm.  In feminine texts, conflict is internal, interpersonal; the crisis emotional; it has been argued that feminine texts are concerned with the regulation and restriction of emotion and sexuality rather than violence.

I don't suggest that there is a black and white distinction between masculine values and feminine values or masculine texts and feminine texts.  Nor do I claim that women can't have traditionally male values and enjoy masculine texts, or that one set of values is better than the other.  I do argue that - for whatever reason - a spectrum exists between masculine and feminine values in society, and that feminine values dominate in feminine mass culture.  Texts will reflect the values of the intended audience, and in shows produced by men and for men, masculine values dominate.  Slash produced mostly by women for women will strongly reflect the values of the feminine mass culture from whence they came.

The type of shows which are frequently and prolifically slashed are masculine texts. Cop shows, science fiction, and adventure are all genres which focus on worldly tasks, goals, missions, crises, and wars.  Conflict is conflict of law and order, the conclusion is the restriction and regulation of violence and harm.  The primary characters of slashed shows are two males who, in some way, work together to achieve a common goal or mission in life.  Kirk and Spock, Starsky and Hutch, and Bodie and Doyle are common examples of this.  There are, of course, variations - characters who oppose one another in achieving opposing goals (Mulder and Krycek), or who work together to achieve individual but compatible goals (Jim and Blair).  The interacting goals of the men bring them together and/or keep them together.

In all of these shows, there are episodes where the relationship is given an emotional aspect and intrinsic value; in fact, those episodes which acknowledge the importance of the relationship and the emotional bonds between men are the cornerstones of slash.  But no matter how the goals of the characters bring them together, or the depth of emotion which results, the primary reason for the onscreen relationship between the two men is *always* something external to the relationship itself.

In the majority of slash, that situation is reversed.  The relationship between the characters (no matter what the nature of that relationship is) is moved to the foreground, and the external function of the relationship does not necessarily even exist in the narrative.  When it does feature, the practical purpose (ie, to fight crime, complete missions) is usually a background or catalyst to the foregrounded emotional/interpersonal conflicts and bonds between men.  In fact, the achievement of goals in the primary text is not infrequently portrayed as a secondary function or beneficial side-effect of the relationship itself.

In taking the predominantly male-oriented primary texts and adjusting the focus from the practical to the interpersonal, slash would seem to cater to a need which is not satisfied by the original texts, and a need felt almost exclusively by women.  That is, slash rewrites a text catering for male values into scenarios women can directly relate to and instinctively understand.


Am I full of shit?  Half-right?  Dead-on?  Stating the bleeding obvious?  Let me know.


A very lengthy postscript on romance fiction and slash

Any examination of slash as a translation of popular texts from male to female values should probably also examine the similarity between slash and the genre which is the distillation of the female text - the harlequin-type romance fiction.

Although as a feminist I deplore harlequin romance, I don't happen to think that romance and slash are fundamentally different genre.  The reason for my abhorrence of romance is that it repeatedly reinforces to the female reader that happiness is found with a man, in a traditional domestic situation.  In slash, this objection is defused because happiness in slash cannot be rigidly and repeatedly defined as a permanent, monogamous, heterosexual and reproductive domestic relationship.

Both romance and slash are written by women for women, with powerful similarities in subject matter and typical plot progression.  This similarity is based the strong focus on the emotional in a sexual relationship.  In both slash and romance, the introduction is an introduction to the state of the relationship more than to the state of the characters' world, the climax is told through the peaking emotions of the protagonists, and the conclusion is a resolution of feelings more than of events.

Although the mood and message of a slash story can vary, and although the emotional can be made more or less explicit, the story is still the story of a sexual relationship, told through the emotions of the characters.  A slash story with a worldly betrayal between men, for instance, is primarily about the feelings a betrayal provokes and the changed relationship which ensues, rather than the worldly consequences of the act.

The most interesting facet for me is the closure of many pieces of slash with a "happy ever after" - a declaration of love and/or the onset of a permantant, monogamous relationship.  This kind of closure is absolutely imperative in romance fiction, and variations on this ending are not tolerated by romance readers.

Although it is widespread in slash, and almost certainly the most common, the happy ending is far from universal.  Slash stories can just as easily conclude with the protagonists apart than together, or with the relationship in a state of uncertainty or crisis.

Given the strict formula of romance fiction, and the difficulty readers have accepting variations from the formula, it is fascinating that slash readers enjoy the happy-ever-after but equally enjoy PWP's, angsty conclusions, struggles for power, buddy fucks, and ambivalent pleasures.

I think the reason for this distinction is in the commercial forces which govern romance but not slash.  Both slash and romance reflect the priority women give to the emotional and interpersonal, but where slash has never been centralised or regulated in any way, harlequin romance is emotional fiction mass produced cheaply to the most successful (profitable) formula.  That formula, as mentioned before, revolves around the heroine finding happiness in a permanent, monogamous, heterosexual domestic relationship.

In harlequin romance, variations from this are nil, and not only because variety is more costly to produce.  Once the formula has been repeatedly consumed, readers develop solid expectations of a harlequin romance - they know exactly what will happen and how that will make them feel.  Any book which deviates from the formula will be met with anger and dismay by the readers, who will express their displeasure by halting consumption of the product which disappointed them.  Publishers cannot afford to risk alienating romance readers by straying from the commercially successful romance formula.

Slash, however, is a fringe activity, and no infrastructure exists which can regulate the content or control the production of it.  As slash cannot be profitable, there are no forces at work which necessitate efficient production or repeated consumption.  The nature, quality, content and mood of slash stories can thus vary wildly without damaging the means of production.  The romantic plot and happy-ever-after ending dominate, but do not preclude other plots or other endings.

I argue that as well in translating male texts into feminine values, slash is a parallel of romance fiction (ie relationship- and emotion-centred fiction written by women for women) which hasn't been controlled and formulated in order to become mass marketable.  It satisfies the feminine need which is also catered to by romance, but does not confine portrayals of relationships to traditional heterosexuality, permanence, monagamy and childraising.


Am I right?  Wrong?  An offense to slashfen worldwide?  Out of my fucking tree?  Or just totally incoherent?
It's okay, you can tell me.


For a great look at slash as romance fiction rather than as a co-genre of sorts, see Romancing the Slash by S.E. Thomson.  Based on Blakes7, but easily applied to other pairings for great amusement and no small amount of enlightenment.


Coming soon to this corner of cyberspace:
Triangulation for Dummies: A closer look at the Babe of the Week.
(Okay, "soon" is a total lie but I might write it eventually. )


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*Besides this link, I've not included any references, because this particular bit o' muck was rattled off from knowledge accumulated over several years of study.  If you want further material, write me and I'll happily send the bibliographies and reference lists I have from papers on the topics of romance, feminism, and popular culture.  (back to *)