On LambdaFail, women writing m/m erotica, and the queerness and/or misogyny of slash fandom

2010 January 27

This won’t be news to anyone who moves in fannish meta circles, but I thought it warranted a post for those who might not have encountered the discussion before now.

Back in September, the Lambda Literary Foundation announced that henceforth their awards would be restricted to authors who identified as GLBT, rather than (as had previously been the case) anyone who was writing GLBT-oriented works. This excluded, in particular, a growing segment of the book market consisting of male/male erotica written by (presumably straight) women.

Discussion ensued as to whether such fiction was appropriating gay male culture and offensive to gay men, or whether the backlash against m/m erotica written by women was just another instance of women’s sexual expression being policed by men, as it so often is. A round of Oppression Olympics ensued, with women on one team and gay men on the other; both groups are in the right, being similarly subject to the kyriarchy and privileged (or not) on different axes, but few commentators approached the debate from this perspective in the early rounds.

Recently, the discussion has spread to slash fandom on Livejournal, Dreamwidth, and elsewhere, and this (IMHO) is where it gets really interesting, because that crowd is nothing if not introspective, verbose, smart, and well practiced in massively hypertext discussions of complicated issues.

Slash is m/m erotica written (usually) by women about (usually) male characters from TV, movies, books, etc. Many of the most popular slash fandoms are geek staples such as Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, Buffy, superhero comics, and so forth. Unlike the professional m/m erotica market, slash writers are generally working with existing characters, often from fandoms that don’t pass (or barely pass) Bechdel in the first place. Many slashers use their writing/reading to explore sex and gender in a relatively safe online environment that might not otherwise be available to them. And, it turns out, many or most slashers are themselves queer, despite stereotypes about “straight housewives” and the like.

So, fandom being fandom, and things being always more complicated, the discussion coming out of this is pretty crunchy. Some of the questions/themes I’ve seen covered include:

  • Does romance/erotica ignore or erase difficult issues (eg. discrimination, oppression), and should we care? Or does escapism get a free pass?
  • Do fanfic writers have a duty to write the other respectfully and realistically when the “other” in question is gay men/MSM? How do we do this?
  • Why do fanfic writers write about male characters so much more than female characters, anyway? Is this internalised misogyny?

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. If you’re interested in reading up on some of what’s been posted, take a look at the linkspam and metafandom communities, which have been collecting links to interesting posts on the subject.

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This post was written by skud.


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15 Responses
  1. anatsuno permalink
    January 28, 2010

    Just linkdropping, because I think this post, in all its unpacking, is very important. I know it says things I was confusedly thinking about.

    • Skud permalink*
      January 28, 2010

      Thank you so much for that link! I hadn’t read that one til now, but this bit really struck me:

      The waters are further muddied by the fact that, to some degree, queer women have been forced to adopt and identify with the culture and experiences of queer men because male privilege has dictated that cis queer men get the lion’s share of the attention and representation in the queer community. We are asked to accept queer (mostly gay, almost always cis) men as our avatars in pop culture, government, the “gay rights” debate, etc. So, to what degree can queer women appropriate a culture with which we have been forced to identify and whose members hold institutional privilege over us?

      • marrog permalink
        January 28, 2010

        Good quote – this fact of life rankles with me on a regular basis, and I think it’s the reason that so many (certainly educated/’cultured’/insert loaded term here) gay women where I live (Scotland) basically hit the ‘scene’ only long enough to pair off, and promptly disappear from it again – there’s nothing for them there.

        I think the ‘lambdafail’ debate is a little silly – I mean, aside from the degeneration into the question of whether straight women writing m/m erotica/slash is objectifying/appropriating/tokenising/fetishising (and whether it’s a problem if it is, necessarily), the actual seed of the problem doesn’t seem to me to be anything to do with what the award itself does.

        Namely, do they say anywhere that all women writing m/m fiction are disqualified, or just straight women? One of these things is not like the other. I can’t find it saying anywhere on the site that women writing m/m fiction are no longer able to qualify, only that the writing should be queer, and the writer also needs to self-identify as queer – they even specifically say that your self-identification is what they go on, not some arbitrary concept – but I can’t see where it says that you must be writing the ‘same type of queer’ as you are personally in your fiction or whatever…

        I wonder if we’d be having this debate if they were getting submissions from straight dudes writing books with chicks together in them. Oh John Ringo no.

        I haven’t read around this much yet, so I realise I may be repeating something someone else has said/asked/answered/addressed elsewhere, sorry if I am, but this was my instant thought.

  2. takingitoutside permalink
    January 28, 2010

    As for why fanfic writers don’t write about female characters, I would blame the characters, not internalised misogyny. Female characters – particularly in anime, which is what I’m thinking of as I write this – tend to be excruciatingly bland. Miaka, the heroine of Fushigi Yuugi (popular anime from the late nineties) is a perfect example. Her distinguishing feature: her love of food. I kid you not.

    Heroes, in contrast, tend to have distinguishing characteristics. Naruto (of Naruto) is an overly energetic, naive moron who loves ramen, is exasperated by having people look down on him, et cetera.

    Given the general disrespect for Mary Sues in fanfiction, I think it's only natural that authors avoid writing stories about that sort of bland female character, and indeed, most of the fanfiction about Fushigi Yuugi revolves around the boys. But look what happens to Naruto, which, while problematic, does a pretty good job of fully characterizing female characters: there’s a ton of fanfiction about Sakura (female lead) and the various major male characters. After Sakura, Tsunade is the new most fully fleshed-out female character, and there’s a fair bit about her. But after the two of them we get a bunch of more minor characters that aren’t described too well, and they barely show up in fanfiction.

    For that particular problem, I think the fanfic authors are actually writing about the more interesting characters, and they just happen to be male more often than not. (For another angle on that, consider all of the mpreg, or male pregnancy, stories. Why write male characters pregnant? Couldn’t it be because the male characters are being used as stand-ins for female fans who can’t equate themselves with patheticly nondescript female characters?)

    • JakiChan permalink
      January 28, 2010

      When you get a chance, check out Seiri no Moribito. Balsa is one of the best female leads I’ve seen in a long time.

      • takingitoutside permalink
        January 29, 2010

        I’ve read the first two volumes, and you are so right. I’m so happy that Levine Books gave it such a beautiful English package, too. It’s just a wonderful product overall.

    • koipond permalink
      January 29, 2010

      For that particular problem, I think the fanfic authors are actually writing about the more interesting characters, and they just happen to be male more often than not. (For another angle on that, consider all of the mpreg, or male pregnancy, stories. Why write male characters pregnant? Couldn’t it be because the male characters are being used as stand-ins for female fans who can’t equate themselves with patheticly nondescript female characters?)

      Wait, that’s not misogyny how? I can see dropping the internalized part, but let’s put the blame right smack dab on the patriarchy on that one.

      If we’re talking Anime I would second the Seiri No Moribito, the bits I’ve seen anyway, as an awesome female lead. Dennō Coil is another really good one with Amasawa being this complete kick ass hacker. Even Aoi Hana, a yuri anime based off of the manga, was all women character full of personality even if the whole show was ridiculously sweet.

      • takingitoutside permalink
        January 29, 2010

        Oh, definitely a reflection of misogyny, just not internalized misogyny. I’d say it’s a bit more transgressive than I think you’re implying – sort of “If you won’t write interesting characters for people like me, I’ll just use your characters!”

        Another good series is “Twelve Kingdoms” by Fuyumi Ono. It’s a fantasy set in a world where, basically, both men’s options and women’s options are in some ways heavily restricted. However, options are restricted by role (i.e. a king can be either female or male, but the same restrictions apply). The restrictions that the characters accept as normal bug me, but the author is pretty even-handed in doling them out.

  3. Carmarthen permalink
    January 28, 2010

    # Why don’t fanfic writers write about female characters, anyway? Is this internalised misogyny?

    I have problems with the phrasing of this question, since it’s kind of a “How often do you beat your wife?” question. There are a LOT of fanfic writers who DO write about female characters; huge areas of fandom. Honestly, I’m pretty sure that het still outnumbers m/m slash, and het + gen (which in many fandoms is frequently about female characters) certainly do. And phrasing the question like that instantly gets those fans grumpy and defensive about erasure. Part of my problem with this discussion is that it seems to be conflating average age 20s-40s m/m slash fic fandom (and specific fandoms within that) with all fandom, which is wildly inaccurate. FF.net is part of fandom; so are other areas of fandom with greater percentages of young women and greater percentages of men writing fic. So are het and gen and femslash fandoms.

    Perhaps “Why don’t fanfic writers write about female characters more often?” or “Why is m/m slash so much more popular than f/f slash?” or “Why do some (many?) m/m slash writers prefer to write exclusively or almost exclusively about men?”

    • Skud permalink*
      January 28, 2010

      Fair enough — thanks for calling me out on this. I will update the post.

    • Bene permalink
      January 28, 2010

      A big question in my mind is ‘why does m/m slash and the community around it have more cultural cachet in fandom’, to a certain extent. I don’t think it’s solely because of predominance; there’s something there that I think we’re all trying to get at but can’t quite define.

      • pfctdayelise permalink
        January 28, 2010

        Bene, I was thinking it’s mostly historical, because genre shows tend to have great male characters. “modern” fanfic mainly grew out of Star Trek, didn’t it? now I have never actually watched Star Trek but pop culture has not given me the impression that it was overflowing with great women characters.

        X-Files, my first fandom of choice, was rather the same. There is pretty much precisely one interesting female character, so doing femslash within the existing character set is really a stretch.

      • elz permalink
        January 29, 2010

        My guess:

        Popular het fandoms/couples, from The X-Files to Twilight, tend to attract a lot of fans who are younger or newer to fandom or less invested in it as part of their identity. Because it’s more likely to be about a relationship that’s explicitly romantic to begin with, you can wind up pulling in a lot more fans, who write a lot more fic, a lot of which is bad, just by the law of averages. There’s no sense that by writing Bella/Edward, you’re joining or participating in ‘het fandom’ or that you necessarily have anything in common with someone writing Harry Potter/Ginny Weasley, except that you both like to write. When you lose interest in Twilight, you may just wander right on out again.

        With slash, there’s more of a sense that what people are doing is non-mainstream and that it may look weird or ridiculous to heteronormative eyes, which I think fosters stronger community bonds. For a lot of people, it’s an expression of their sexuality or identity. Fans often think of themselves as slashers and feel like they belong to a larger slash fandom, above and beyond whatever canon or pairing they’re into at the moment. Most of the fans I know who were into slash 10 years ago are still into slash, just in a different fandom; most (but not all) of the fans I know who were into het 10 years ago drifted away when their primary fandom became less active.

        Now these are all horrible anecdotal generalizations – I found fandom via mainstream het and I’m still here, and plenty of people are interested in both. But I think to some extent, the perception of the two communities is affected by their different levels of cohesion and the way they do or don’t retain the same people, who become recognizable names and thus increase the perceived cachet of the community.

        (I’ll stop before I start illustrating weak vs. strong fannish bonds in Photoshop.)

    • tsukinofaerii permalink
      February 4, 2010

      I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, mostly with my mouth shut, but I think what it might come down to is that slash tends to attract many people who don’t fit under “umbrellas”. So people who aren’t normative cisgendered heterosexual who don’t feel welcome in LGBT circles for whatever reason tend to group together in slashy areas, because it’s *expected* to be not-normative. (So this would include everyone from cisgendered heterosexual women who like porn “more than they should”, to bisexuals who feel erased, to transgendered persons, to infinity and beyond.) No one will raise an eyebrow, and if they do there’s almost always a sub-group to retreat to for community.

      I think that’s why we’re seeing so much fragmentation in this discussion, because a lot of people see slash as “our space” in a very unique way, and having that challenged by the people who in some ways forced us out of “their space” is not fun, even if the criticism is potentially valid. $0.02

  4. linkspam_mod permalink
    January 30, 2010

    Your post has been included in a Linkspam Roundup:

    http://linkspam.dreamwidth.org/21188.html

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