The Cost of the Erection: Slash and Gayness
When we mean to build,
We first survey the plot, then draw the model;
And when we see the figure of the house,
Then must we rate the cost of the erection.
(Henry IV, Part 2)
O, there be players that I have seen play, and heard others praise, and that
highly (not to speak it profanely), that neither having th'accent of
Christians, nor the gait of Christian, pagan, nor man, have so strutted and
bellowed that I have thought some of Nature's journeymen had made men, and
not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably. (Hamlet)
Acknowledgments: Thanks to Cathexys and the crew at Virgule, and Pinkdormouse, DocVM the Onlie Begetter, Msmanna, Spacefall, Ivyblossom, Acadine, Lasultrix and too many others to name for inspiring me with their intelligence and insights. And to various people who Shall Remain Nameless for making me formulate more precisely why I think they're idiots.
TRAGEDY TOMORROW, COMEDY TONIGHT
By and large, slash is not a realistic genre. It's really a version of the pastoral eclogue, where the frisky creatures that are innocently frolicking beneath the kindly shepherd's eye... ain't sheep. So no one should be surprised by the conventionality of stanza form, the re-occurrence of Homeric epithets, or depictions of characters whom the writer genuinely idolizes and/or identifies with.
I'm pretty sure that, although the proportion of lesbians and bisexual women is higher in the slash community than in the general community, it's still true that the majority of slashers are straight women. I don't think that a desire to use writing to understand The Other is contemptible--whether The Other is an alien race, your gay co-workers, your straight family members, or elements within your own personality. As cesperanza memorably phrased it, slash characters are "like men--only better."
Nevertheless, I have trouble with the often-repeated concern that male slash characters are unrealistic because they are sensitive and spend a lot of time talking about their feelings. In my experience, it doesn't take "years of therapy" (or hurt/comfort plots) to get men to open up and talk about themselves. It takes "general anaesthesia" to shut them up.
Slash also an amateur genre, with no entry barriers at all. As a leftist, I applaud this. As a reader, sometimes not so much. In every fandom, there are writers whose talent and standards of craftsmanship are absolutely of professional standard. And then there's everybody else. I cheerfully confess that one of the reasons I write fanfic instead of profic is that I can get away with doing anything I want, and I can just decide that a story is finished when I'm tired of playing with it.
One should never assume that a slashwriter who has godawful stereotyped gay characters then places them in the context of a consistently imagined, well-described world otherwise peopled by credible three-dimensional characters. Very often, the writer will be incapable of depicting a marriage, a homicide investigation, a fistfight (or anything else involving fists), a space battle, a heterosexual seduction, or a tunafish sandwich. My first fencing teacher was An AcTOR, and he couldn't drink a cup of coffee as himself without indicating.
Slash characters can be same-sex oriented counterparts of Harlequin heroes, or steely-jawed All About the Mission military types (except when the warrior's recreation is a quickie in the shower), or hard-bitten detectives who take the whole concept of "partner" very seriously. But they won't necessarily be any closer to three-dimensional, credible human beings than their heterosexual counterparts in other kinds of category fiction.
Stereotypes recur or many reasons--because the writer doesn't know any better, or thinks the audience won't; because the writer is new to the genre and hasn't read any of the hundred versions of the same idea. Pointing out reliance on stereotypes doesn't tell us whether the stereotype is positive or negative, or whether it occurs from inside or outside the community (something like "The Boys in the Band" or "The Ladies' Almanack."). We don't live in a world in which people are viewed entirely as individuals, without prejudgment based on various extraneous factors. Yes, there is still bias in the workplace, and educational opportunity is not equal--but it is no longer startling to encounter, for example, a black doctor, Hispanic lawyer, or Asian stockbroker. In many milieux, interracial couples are no longer cause for comment, far less commission of major felonies. The Unthinkable became the Outrageous became the Did You See That? and, in the fullness of time, became the So What.
Much of Europe in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries was embroiled in religious wars. If they'd ever heard of the concept of Judaeo-Christian Values, they would have been rolling on the floor laughing. And Christians were far from agreeing that there was such a thing as "Christianity" that had "values." Not only did Protestants and Catholics think of each other as hell-bound spawn of Satan, they devoted considerable energy to sending each other there before God got around to it. However, they were not particularly worried about whether their neighbors chose to fornicate with boys instead of or in addition to women; the cultural anxiety was about cuckoldry instead. I mean, if you saw your next-door neighbor on his knees with his mouth open in front of another man, you'd be really upset...if you thought he might be taking Communion.
And I say that one step towards a society in which everyone just gets over themselves is a period of fascination with The Other, for example, the white fascination with the Harlem Renaissance. Considering The Other to be "cool" and "fabulous," a source of all the best trends in fashion and entertainment, doesn't represent the whole story of a large populace, but it does assign proper value (or excessive value) to some genuinely worthwhile elements within a culture. TIP: If you have to choose between a lynch mob and a bunch of squeeing wannabes, opt for the latter.
Robert Townsend's deeply flawed but interesting movie, "Hollywood Shuffle," sums up black media representation with "We won't get to play the Rambos until we stop playing the Sambos." Unfortunately, 21st century Western culture values violence, and considers violence and masculinity to be intimately related. There's only one letter dividing machismo from masochism, after all.
I don't think it's "disrespectful" to slash action heroes, because from my perspective being attracted to one's own sex is neither better or worse than being attracted to the other. And I also think that even though florists contribute more to society than SWAT Teams, nevertheless SWAT Teams get a lot more respect. So I think it's important to check out the subtext in media products about soldiers, or space missions, or District Attorneys, or detectives, or...
WHICH GAY LIVES?
Truth to gay lives would be good for slash (cf. Gandhi's "Western civilization? Yes, that would be a good idea") but then, to which ones? True, Oscar Wilde and Roy Cohn are both dead and were both carbon-based lifeforms, but shared few other characteristics.
At least until the advent of Reality TV, it was assumed that entertainment would be about intense experiences; there would be no point in being truly realistic, because people can get all the commonplace reality they want without getting the media involved. Furthermore, adventure stories are generally about Purple Cow experiences such as getting shot at, being in a plane crash, or being stalked by famished leopards. By and large, anything figured as entertainment is going to be larger than life, and sometimes that means abandonment of everyday reality.
Two important trends that I see in gay culture are the desire of the (Wo)man in the Gay Flannel Suit to be, and be accepted as, perfectly normal and just like any other Dockers-clad, SUV-driving, 2.2-child-rearing suburbanite, and the countervailing desire to be utterly separate, different, divinely decadent, and fabulous. Some people want to be monogamous, some to have multiple partners--and sometimes it works out as intended, sometimes it doesn't.
I can really understand it if someone in RL says that her brother Fred has to stay in the closet because otherwise he'd lose his job and their Mom would have a heart attack. I don't see why our fictional characters can't be out, loud, and proud--I mean, we can kill 'em in one story and bring them back for an encore the next day.
In a slash story with a contemporary setting, two male characters or two female characters who become sexually involved would need a high level of denial to avoid thinking of themselves as involved in a homosexual relationship. Quite often, they do manage that level--or their authors manage it for them. And in fact even real people can do it, often with tragic consequences.
However, to sidestep the essentialism/constructionism debate, there are also slash stories set in historical contexts or future worlds where some kinds of same-sex sexual expression are accepted, or favored, or disfavored but it's not considered a major issue. There may not be a homosexual identity for them to adopt, or a gay community for them to join. So I'd like to phrase this discussion in terms of SSSE (same-sex sexual expression) and SSEE (same-sex emotional expression). That copes with characters who have canonical past or present other-sex partners, or who have erotic response that they don't recognize as sexual or that they can't act out with their desired partner.
OK, a certain amount of slashing comes about simply because of an interest in adding a particular hot fudge to your favorite scoop of ice cream, but the real impulse is seeing things that, consciously or unconsciously, were put there by the writers, actors, and directors.
In one sense, any fanfic provides a resistant reading simply because of the removal of the fourth wall. In another sense, what draws a slasher to a particular fandom is credence in the romantic and/or sexual connection between some of the same-sex characters.
Until recently, there couldn't be canon gay characters. Even now, you can't always tell which canon characters are gay--even in RL, gay people do date members of the opposite sex; sometimes marry them; and sometimes the reason a marriage breaks up is that someone can no longer maintain the pretense of exclusive heterosexuality.
My original interest in slash was as a non-commercial, instant-response, woman-controlled body of erotica. This is not always what I've found, but I still think it's a worthwhile ideal. However, my own practice has changed, and I have a greater interest in Clean Slash--where SSSE and SSEE are part of the story, but in wider contexts, and where I cut away to the fireplace fairly early on in such sex scenes as do appear.
A lot of people say that they know that canon characters who have no canonical relationships are heterosexual because they're not faggy or dykey. See what I mean? They're looking at the gender performance, not the potential or lack of potential for SSSE. You can't engage in sex 24/7 (although God knows some people try) but you do have gender all the time, and more people get to see your gender performance because it is inherently more public.
Which is not to say that a person's intentions or beliefs about her/his own gender performance will necessarily be accepted at face value by others. One of my favorite things about my fandom (Blakes7) is that one of the main characters always feels compelled to walk Butch Realness. And always loses.
I also think that an important reason for the often-decried feminization of male slash characters is that a lot of people think gender polarity within a relationship is erotic. They aren't interested in a couple who are more or less equally masculine or equally feminine. So if they are drawn to a butch-femme aesthetic, and both the partners are of the same sex, somebody has to be the girl. A lot of people get much more squicked by the thought that a character they care about (especially one they MarySue) could be seen as, God forbid, acting like a girl, than that he's having sex with a man.
WALK LIKE A MAN, MY SON
Throughout history, men have been pretty impressed with their own performance of masculinity, but the terms of that performance change. Sometimes it's quite acceptable for men to have long hair, make-up, wear satin and high heels, or collapse in swoons of Romantic sensitivity. In fact, in current Anglo-American society, even though most of the consumers of romance as a commercial product are women, the entities that sell the stuff are controlled by men. There's no reason why a man can't be tender, sensitive, given to producing breakfast trays in bed, or a rushing river of nauseating nicknames, whether the partner is male or female.
In "Tea and Sympathy," the hero--a New Age Sensitive Man stranded in the 1950s--gets lessons from his roommate in how to walk like a man. In "La Cage Aux Folles" Zaza resolves to learn to walk like John Wayne, although his lover tells him that even his best effort is "John Wayne Jeune Fille" ("That's Miss John Wayne.") The interesting thing to note is that an attractive older woman finds the "Tea and Sympathy" character attractive even pre-butched-up. And when Riley wants to feel sorry for himself, he says that Angel has "that whole long coat, King of Pain thing--girls really dig that!" Probably the only time I ever agreed with Riley about anything.
What I learned from "Paris Is Burning" is that the same person can be a thug and a princess; it all depends on who's got the ball gown.