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What is Slash?
by The Brat Queen

The Ground Rules

I'm going to begin this essay with a few caveats. First off, the following rules are in effect:

TBQ's Law: Anybody who attempts to justify anti-slash comments (e.g. "All slash is character-bashing." as opposed to "I personally don't like slash.") with the excuse that they know someone who is gay both loses the argument and is reminded that everyone knows someone who is gay so flashing your Queer Cred is redundant.

TBQ's Corollary: Anyone who attempts to defend slash by saying those who don't like slash are clearly homophobic not only loses the argument but is tarred and feathered for making the rest of us look bad.

Get it? Got it? Good.


Second, I want to give fair warning that in this essay I'm only talking about my own experience, which by definition is limited. My skew is obviously going to be towards fandoms I'm familiar with and (possibly most importantly) cultures that I'm familiar with. What you see here are the ramblings of someone with arguably not that many fandoms and a mostly United States centric view of books, movies and television. If I ignore your particular fandom and/or culture it's not because I'm dismissing its importance, it's because I'm not familiar enough with it to try talking about it knowledgably.

I invite anyone who can fill in the gaps to please do so in the comments. For example, based on what little I know I've got to imagine there's a whole other ballgame going on in, say, Japanese culture and various anime/manga fandoms when compared to US culture and how it relates to a US produced TV show. So, please, I invite everyone to come on down and share.

Things Not Appearing In This Film

I'm also going to take a page from my Sociology 101 teacher and pause for a second to talk about what I'm not going to talk about.

To begin with, I'm not going to talk about people who pair up random combinations of m/m or f/f. Reason being the phenomenon of "Any dick will do" isn't limited to slash. People in Buffyverse, for example, have been known to ship Wes/Dru just as people in the same fandom have been known to ship Wes/Oz. Putting together two characters who have had little to no screentime together for the purpose of seeing what would happen happens on all sides of the fanfic force. It's a phenomenon in and of itself. The answer to "Why do people do that?" essentially boils down to "Because they thought it would be interesting" with a possible side order of "Because they thought it would be hot." It's an interesting phenomenon to be certain, but it exists in its own right and therefore doesn't affect interpretations of slash one way or another.

Another thing that I won't be talking about is behind the scenes intent. Yes, there are multiple fandoms where the producers, directors, writers and/or actors (aka The Powers That Be or TPTB) were fully aware of the homoerotic content of their shows and deliberately played it up in the hope that the audience would get it (Due South, The Sentinel, Smallville, and all of Joss Whedon's TV shows, just to give some examples) but for the purpose of this essay I'm not going to address that. Reason being people have seen slash in books and shows where TPTB didn't intend it and therefore slash is not dependant upon this encouragement. It's nice when it's there but it's not required. So what I'll be talking about here is solely the slash fan's point of view in the wild, so to speak. (Besides, I think bringing up that intent leads to the slippery slope of arguing that slash is only okay to see in fandoms where it was put there deliberately and that therefore anything that was not endorsed by one of TPTB is therefore "wrong".)

Thank you, Dictionary.dork

Finally, for the purpose of this essay I'm going to be defining "slash" as: "A same-sex romantic and/or sexual relationship between two characters who are not currently in such a relationship in the canon." The definition of slash can be a tricky thing to pin down, and my own personal definition might not fall under the umbrella of what I just described, but for now whenever I say "slash" that's what I'm referring to.

"Het" refers to opposite sex pairings. "Gen" refers to stories which don't focus on romantic relationships of any kind. "Non-slash" and those who are non-slashers refers to people who self-identify as not understanding and/or being interested in slash. (This is opposed to "anti-slash" which is people who self-identify as being violently against the concept of slash because they consider it to be wrong.)

Okay, all those disclaimers aside, let's get started…

Man This Essay's Going to be Shorter Than I Thought

"What is slash?" people ask, genuinely curious. "When you take two same-sex characters on a show or a book or a movie and put them together in a romantic relationship - what is that? Where does that even come from?"

Easy, I tell them (and now you): take any scene of those two characters together. Change the gender of one of them. Repeat the scene exactly as it was done before. Same dialogue, same blocking, same inflection to all the lines, same everything. Now ask yourself if you have any doubt that those two characters are meant to be fucking. There you go. That's where slash comes from. Thanks for reading! Drive home safe!

Oh, What? You Wanted More?

Okay, okay. You want more than a quick and dirty summary. Fine. I can do that.

Let's start off with some examples (and let's play try to guess the fandom while we're at it):

1) A manservant works for a rich, single woman for many years. She's often engaged but each and every time he secretly (and sometimes not so secretly) works to make sure the marriage never happens, thus ensuring that he can continue to work for her. His devotion to her is so strong that at one point he even violates the most sacred rules of conduct - something he lives his entire life by - in order to destroy something that would bring embarrassment to her should anyone find out about it. When telling her about it, he explains it was part and parcel of his hope to "remain permanently in [her] service". When she asks why on earth he would want such a thing, he merely replies "There is a tie that binds".

2) A woman's parents are killed when she is a child. She spends her life wishing she could get revenge on the man who did it. Years later, as a young woman, she discovers the location of the murderer. She does everything she can to track him down and destroy him, but the man she's lived her whole life with does everything he can to stop her. Finally they have a confrontation about it. She rails against him, decrying "You and your stone cold heart! You don't know how I feel! How could you!?" Later, after the murderer is taken care of, she says "You were right, y'know, not bringing me along. You knew I'd take it too personally." He quietly replies, "It wasn't that at all. [He's] taken so much, caused you so much pain. I couldn't stand the thought that he might… take you too."

3) A group of heroes are under attack. There's a way for them to save the day, but only if someone can manage to escape and get the information they need. The leader of the group, a woman, stands her ground, insisting that the others go. Her second in command, a man, comes to her side, says no and insists that it has to be her and her alone. She hesitates, locking eyes with him, unable to tear herself away. One of their group, watching this, nudges her to make a decision by reminding her "Hearts get in the way, right?" She finally leaves, never breaking that eye contact until she's thrust completely out of the room.

Now take these scenes and ask yourself would you be surprised if you later found out that those characters were in love with each other? That they wanted to sleep together? Heck, that maybe these scenes were indications that they already do?

Fine. Now explain to me why it changes when we find out that 1) Is Jeeves and Wooster, from Jeeves and the Tie That Binds, 2) is Batman and Robin, from Batman: The Animated Series Robin's Reckoning and 3) Is Angel and Wesley, from Angel the Series Sacrifice.

Gender doesn't change the implications that those emotions have. No, really, it doesn't. No, really, it doesn't.

Sex? Sure, I'd Love Some!

Perhaps one of the key differences between slashers and non-slashers is that slashers, other than being interested in reading and writing about same-sex relationships in the first place, don't approach their canon with the point of view that characters have one sexuality and one sexuality only. Non-slashers, on the other hand, tend to believe in "straight until proven gay."

That's a fine belief, but sadly it's an incorrect one.

With all due respect, you're forgetting the fact that we don't have a level playing field. Homosexuality, no matter how much we're currently in the middle of a Will & Grace, Queer As Folk and Queer Eye For The Straight Guy gaysplosion, is still not universally accepted. TV studios still shy away from it. Movies don't tend to star gay characters. Actors themselves are reluctant to commit themselves to a gay pigeonhole. There is more pressure to not show homosexual characters than there is to show them.

It's a false argument to suggest that "If character X was gay we would see that on the screen." because currently we still do not have the freedom to do so. Even characters who are gay, like Will on Will & Grace, aren't allowed to act gay in ways that involve actually touching members of the same sex. This is a hit TV show where one of the title characters has only kissed another man once as a joke. If this highly-rated, Emmy-winning, media darling of a show can't show its lead gay character as actually being gay, what makes you think that other network shows can? As Stephen Colbert of The Daily Show put it, right now according to popular culture being gay apparently means that you dress well and keep a neat apartment. But actually be attracted to members of the same sex? Pfft. Where'd you get a crazy idea like that from?

Now imagine what it's like on shows that don't have all those Emmys and all those ratings. How likely is it that a show that's currently on a ratings bubble is going to take a chance and out one of its characters? The media doesn't want characters that are actually gay. In point of fact it can barely stand admitting they're gay in the first place, current surges of popularity aside.

The book and documentary The Celluloid Closet goes into this concept in greater detail. To give the basic summary for those who don't want to follow the link to my slightly longer summary, the idea is that for decades Hollywood was forbidden to actually put gay characters onto the screen. So instead what it did was put characters onscreen who were gay but never openly admitted to be such. They were written to be gay, they were directed to be gay, they were strongly implied to be gay, but oh no, they weren't actually gay. No sirree.

The Celluloid Closet is alive and well, and here's where I have to briefly break my own rules to talk about intent. Paul Gross of Due South and Joss Whedon of Buffy, Angel and Firefly can be as fully aware and supportive of slash all they like but they didn't and don't have the freedom to actually say that in the canon as much as they might want to. Angel, the big, strong, handsome male lead of an action show primarily aimed at males aged 18-35, is never going to be allowed to be canonically admitted to be anything but straight.

That does not, however, mean he can't still be gay from inside the comfort of that Celluloid Closet. And that's where slash comes in.

To repeat: in a playing field where characters who are admitted to be gay still aren't allowed to touch people of the same gender, you can't argue that characters who haven't admitted to be gay are straight because they too have never touched someone of the same sex. Get us into a world where we can put up all the gay characters that we like and show them actually being gay and then we can talk. In the meanwhile we slashers are going to notice the subtext and we're going to write about it.

Speaking Of The World, Let's Add In Reality

The "straight until proven queer" argument is also a false one because it's not one that's actually supported by the world we live in. Pride parades and Supreme Court rulings aside, gay people still have to deal with living in the actual closet. Just like on TV, they can't come out and act gay as much as they would like.

Moreover the assumption falls flat because it relies on the belief that sexuality is something that can be easily interpreted based on looking at someone.

Case in point, yours truly.

I'm bisexual. You know that because I just told you. You would not, however, know that if I didn't tell you. You know how I can be so sure? Because my two closest friends in college didn't know that either. Not because I was in the closet, or because they were close-minded and therefore predisposed to want me not to be gay, but because I don't talk about my private life.

I don't. I don't talk about who I date, I rarely talk about people I'd be interested in dating (people I could actually date, that is, as opposed to drooling over movie stars and the like). Instead I talk about politics and fandom and family and other things that I'm interested in. The same things that all people talk about. And if I happen to say that I find Alyson Hannigan as much of a tasty dish to set before the king as I do Alexis Denisof who's to say that I mean that sexually as much as I mean that I'm not blind and can therefore recognize that the two of them are both beautiful people?

You can't assume.

Knowing me, meeting me on a day to day basis, seeing me in my work environment where I most definitely don't talk about my private life because it's nobody's damn business, you could not definitively say that you knew that I was gay.

But likewise you couldn't - and shouldn't - definitively assume that I'm straight.

Let's haul this back to the characters.

"So and so isn't gay! He's never dated another man in his life!"

Are you sure? How do you know? How old is this character? Have you really heard about each and everything he's ever done ever? Is he the kind of character who'd be inclined to talk about his personal business? Is he in an environment where he could talk about dating another guy in the first place? (And before you answer that question with "Yeah, sure, he's constantly surrounded by his loving family and friends!" you may want to ask a gay person how nerve-wracking it was for them to come out to their family and friends. Go ahead and ask me if you'd like. I have the most supportive family in the world and it still gave me nervous butterflies.)

And, assuming that he hasn't ever dated another guy, who's to say for certain that he doesn't want to?

You Mean They Don't Hand You The Manual At Birth?

"No, seriously. He's only dated women, he's only talked about being attracted to women, all his deep and important relationships have been with women. He's not gay."

All members of the Buffy and Homicide fandoms who have put forth this argument need to take a step back because I think Willow and Bayliss would like to have a word with you.

Sexuality isn't cut and dry. Not everyone is born knowing they're queer. Many people don't figure this out until much later. It's not unheard of for someone to reach their twenties, thirties or even sixties and not realize that they were gay. Again you've got to remember that our society doesn't encourage homosexuality. It's very much a "Heterosexuality, yay!" kind of place. Try taking a day, or even an hour, to watch TV or read the paper and see how often heterosexual concepts are put forth. How many ads aimed at men feature sexy women? How many TV shows are about husbands and wives and their families? How many Seventeen type magazines put forth advice about snagging the perfect boyfriend?

The easiest path in our society is to be straight. Is it any wonder that a lot of gay people try to follow that path regardless of whether or not it ever felt like a perfect fit for them? After all, plenty of people are in unhappy marriages who aren't gay, who's to say that they're not adding to those ranks?

(For more reading on the subject, you might want to check out fabu's post on Human Sexuality 101 and Slash Fanfiction)

Even a character who is Straighty McBreederson in the canon could still discover later that he or she is gay. Willow didn't come off like much of a lesbian while she was dating Oz, but she sure as heck fell into that side of the Force when Tara came around. You just don't know.

Plus who says it's 100% gay, gay, gay? The word "bisexual" can have a nice ring to it. Fraser can have loved Victoria and want to sleep with Ray. Clark can have a crush on Lana and get a flutter in his stomach when he's around Lex. It's not necessary to deny the canon in order to support a slash-related theory.

(And yes, there is a flip side. Brian on Queer As Folk could, in fact, possibly discover one day that maybe he doesn't mind sleeping with girls as much as he thought he did. Stranger things have happened.)

So again, you can't assume straight until proven queer, and even if a character is straight you can't assume they'll never ever in a billion years think of sleeping with someone of the same gender. Real life has proven these concepts wrong, so why not fiction?

No, We're Not Making It Up

The subtext that The Celluloid Closet talks about is alive and well today, whether or not TPTB of our various fandoms intend it to be. Tolkein might be happy to stop spinning in his grave long enough to kill anyone who dared suggest that any of his characters were queer, but when (picking the movie here under the assumption that more people will recognize it) Frodo looks into Sam's eyes, tells Sam that he couldn't have gotten far without him, dubs him "Samwise the Brave" and Sam is both touched and shy and blushy about it… well you tell me how that scene would read to you if we did a search and replace and changed one of those names to "Samantha".

And then there are the scenes which seem to be not so much subtext but text. Faith lures Buffy out of school by drawing a heart on a window (albeit one with a stake inside of it). Wesley and Gunn look into one another's eyes and hold hands. Lex showers Clark with gifts and repeatedly asks his parents to understand how much Clark means to him. Harry participates in a contest where the other competitors have to save their respective boyfriends or girlfriends and Harry ends up having to save Ron. Fraser and Ray ride off into the sunset together.

thete gave another example of textual subtext in her comments about an episode of Justice League. To quote just a part of it:

    This is key, as [Green Lantern] will fly right past his *other* teammates when *they* go down, and just keep fighting. Even Hawkgirl -- who I'm pretty sure is supposed to be the one he canonically wants -- gets left to take care of herself when the fight is on.

    But dude, as soon as Flash takes a hit, or does something silly, or is in trouble, it's all "Flash!" and "I must know stop fighting this giant whateverthefuck and save your ass!"

    Again, there's no *reason* for GL to behave that way. I mean, *all* of these guys have their weaknesses when it comes to teammates being injured. Hell, Superman ignores a friggin' *meteor* when he has an injured Batman in his arms. But they all do lose it at one time or another, and usually for the person we're textually or subtextually, sexually or not, supposed to be pairing them with. (See the Batman/Wonder Woman moment in "The Brave and the Bold")

At the risk of BDSMing an ex-equine, I repeat: Would you doubt the ship if we changed the gender?

Our Glasses Are Slash-Colored, Not Opaque

While seeing The Two Towers for perhaps the thousandth time, I watched the scenes of Aragorn falling off the cliff, Legolas becoming upset, and then Legolas's later relief and tight embrace of Aragorn when he later shows up safe and sound at Helm's Deep.

I turned to a friend of mine and remarked "You can see why the slash fans love this part."

To which she, trying to gently nudge me back towards the canon, replied, "Or the two of them could just be good friends."

Well duh.

Slash fans don't deny platonic friendships. We're not trying to say that those don't exist. Nor do we, as a rule, believe that slash is the only interpretation. We're just saying it's an interpretation.

Non-slashers often ask for proof of the subtext. To which we can say okay, let's talk about the scenes of blatant chemistry where changing the gender would make the ship abundantly clear. Then once we have that, let's talk about all the incidentals that drive the point home.

A newbie slash fan once came bouncing up to me and said "In Soulless Wesley talks to Angelus and he's got his hand down by his crotch while he does it! That's slash!" No, that's body proportions. If you've got your arm at rest then, barring unknown mutant powers, your hand is going to be somewhere near your groin.

However, make up a list of meaningful moments which suggest that Wes might be attracted to guys who look just like Angel and then point out that Wes is feeling mighty comfortable with Angelus's near-constant flirting with him to the point where here he is choosing to fall into a posture which draws attention to a body part he might want the sexy bastard touching? Then yeah, we've got slash.

In the two-step theory of fanfic slash has, to a slasher's mind, less steps than you'd think. We don't necessarily require proof of homosexuality. To us the subtext was enough. This is why we often have stories which don't deal with the sturm und drang of characters - gasp! - coming to terms with the realization that they might actually be gay. Reason being we're on board. Preaching to the choir. Read the book, saw the movie, bought the T-shirt and surfed the website. Stick a fork in us we're done. We don't need to cover that ground again (though some of us do anyway). This leaves us free to take our steps from the rest of the canon, which is everything that suggests, however weakly or strongly, that our two chosen characters might have the hots for each other.

We're not trying to argue that in all instances "zero plus zero equals fag". We get friendship. We get jokes about characters possibly being gay for the sake of being jokes and not huge hints of character development. We get that not everything in the world is there for the sole purpose of supporting our slashy cause.

We're just saying the canon, much like sexuality, is flexible.

You Could Come in Straddling Him, They Still Wouldn't Believe It

On the flip side, we've got this example of actual conversations that I've had multiple times on alt.books.anne-rice back in the day:

TBQ: So Lestat and Nicolas run away to Paris together.
Other Person: Uh-huh.
TBQ: And get an apartment together.
OP: Uh-huh.
TBQ: And sleep together.
OP: Uh-huh.
TBQ: And talk about how they love each other.
OP: Uh-huh.
TBQ: And kiss each other before they go to bed at night - in the same bed, mind you.
OP: Uh-huh.
TBQ: And then in later books Lestat talks about how much he loved Louis. And then he tries to sleep with David. And in Tale of the Body Thief he repeatedly talks about how he loves men as much as he loves women.
OP: Uh-huh.
TBQ: So you see what I'm saying?
OP: Sure. But, he's not gay. He's French.
TBQ: [bangs forehead into desk]

Look, if some of us are a little too inclined to read slash into places where it might not be intended, some of you guys are a little too inclined to want to believe that everybody is straight. Argue for pure heterosexuality all you like but don't come to us scratching your heads over how say, Angel, a character who in canon is frequently mistaken for gay by other characters on the show and wonder where the Hell we got this wacky "Angel acts gay" idea from. If you can't meet us at least halfway I'm not sure we can help you.

Which isn't to say you're not allowed to see the characters as totally straight. Because here's the thing - it's how you see them. I can't argue how you see the characters because you know you better than I do. But that's the catch. "Jim Ellison comes off as gay to me." is a statement you can't dispute because the point is that's how I see him. Likewise I can't dispute "Jim Ellison comes off as straight to you." because that's how you see him. At that point we're still in the realm of opinions, and all opinions are valid.

What I'm talking about here is when we try to have these little confabs about slash and where it comes from. At that point we need a little compromise, because if I sit down and outline all the times that Justin Taylor has expressed interest in the beauty of men's bodies and having sex with men and add in the part where he actually does have sex with men and you reply "Yeah but he's just artistic." then I'm going to have to suggest that maybe understanding slash in and of itself shouldn't be your first step here. It's okay, it happens. Come back to us when you're ready. We'll still be here.

Not So Snappy Answers To Other Frequently Asked Questions

Those two characters hate each other and fight all the time! How on earth do you think they want to sleep together?

I dunno. Ask fans of Elizabeth and Darcy, Scarlett and Rhett, Sam and Diane, Maddy and David, Buffy and Spike - the list goes on. Our culture has a long history of het pairings which start out with the two protagonists hating each other. Why should slash pairings be any different?

Male character Y and female character X were canonically in love! How can you deny that relationship?

With bad writing? Look, I'm not denying that we have ex-lover bashing over here in the slashverse. We do and if you ask me it sucks. Shoring up slash by trying to put down a canonical het relationship that to all appearances was fine is, IMO, a lazy way of making your point.

But this isn't specific to slash. There are Buffy/Spike shippers who bash Angel just as there are Angel/Spike shippers that bash Buffy. Sadly, nobody's got an exclusive claim on this.

You say it's okay to make a canonically straight character gay, but wouldn't you freak if I made a canonically gay character straight?

It depends. Why are you doing it? Are you doing it to make a political point that straight is the "correct" answer? Then I'd find that obnoxious. But I'd find it similarly obnoxious if somebody was trying to do that when writing stories about the characters being gay.

If, on the other hand, you're doing it because you saw chemistry between the two characters in question and wanted to write about it - go nuts. It's as good an idea for a story as any.

But what about those stories that involve sex with underage characters? Or incest?

Those aren't exclusive to slash.

They already have a gay character on that show. How could another character be gay too?

I agree that canonically it's not too likely for a show with one gay character (esp one who belatedly discovered their homosexuality) to add in another. Reason being we still have that Celluloid Closet. But in the world of fanfic we don't have any such limits. And in the real world one gay person doesn't act as some kind of queer diffusion repellant for the other gays. Just because Bayliss came out late doesn't mean Kellerman couldn't too.

Final Thoughts

Non-slashers out there have from time to time geniunely asked where on earth the slash comes from, and I hope that maybe this gave them the start of an idea. It comes from enjoying the picture of same-sex characters together, seeing the subtext, and not believing in characters that are straight until proven queer.

Beyond that it's all a matter of personal opinion and what we like. One person's best slash/het/gen story EVAH is another person's out of character squick fic. We can't determine what's going to make another person happy. But we can at least try to understand it a little bit, and I hope maybe some of what I wrote here helps.

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