Slash Fiction: A Fantasy World in Which Male TV Characters Find Romance — With Each Other
ILLUSTRATION BY STEPHANIE HANS
Racked with pleasure, it was all Obi-Wan could do to keep his feet as he came, that large warm hand milking every drop of semen from his body. —Keelywolfe, "Sacred Flames Within"
Calysta Rose discovered slash fiction in 1998, when she was 23. In her office at an oil company, she followed a chain of links online and came upon a sexy short story involving characters Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn from Star Wars: Episode 1 — The Phantom Menace participating in a sort of "summer solstice" celebration.
"I knew what kind of happy, fun times happen at summer solstice, and Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor, they're attractive dudes," she says. "So I read it and I thought, 'Oh my God, I shouldn't have read it at work. Oh my God.' My face burning up. It was really, really hot. I thought, 'Oh my God, I can see the appeal of this.'" A 15-year obsession began.
You've probably heard of fan fiction — eager amateur writers using fictional characters from books, movies or TV shows to create stories of their own. Slash is a subset of fan fiction, sticking those characters in gay romances, regardless of their actual sexual preference.
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In slash stories, Starsky and Hutch might give each other blow jobs in their Ford Gran Torino, or Tony Stark of The Avengers might raise a child with Captain America. Or Clay Morrow, the murderous, arthritic, motorcycle-club president on Sons of Anarchy, might walk into a bakery and meet cute with Cookie Monster, before ending up in Cookie's apartment eating snickerdoodles. There's something for everyone.
Writers post their stories online, where the most user-friendly site is Archive of Our Own, run by a nonprofit intended to protect fan fiction writers commercially and legally. On the site, stories that involve male-male pairings are the most popular — around 430,000, more than double the number for "het," aka heterosexual pairs.
It was slash that brought Rose to Ventura this past February for Escapade, the oldest still-running slash fiction convention. Some at Escapade have written a few stories; some, hundreds. Rose hasn't written much recently, but she's a "beta reader" — an amateur editor — for others.
The sessions at Escapade, held annually since 1991, allow fans to discuss current trends, their passions and hang-ups, and even recruit others into their fandoms. "Can I get you interested in Clint/Coulson?" one attendee asks another, referring to Clint Barton and Phil Coulson from The Avengers.
For decades, slash stayed behind closed doors, at conventions, in Internet discussion groups or in secret zines. That's in part because it was taboo, and in part because writers feared legal retribution.
But in the last decade, the taboo and legal issues have started to fade. Homosexuality is more accepted, as is fan fiction as a whole. Fifty Shades of Grey started as "het" Twilight fan fiction, and Amazon is launching its own fan fiction site. Plus, as Japanese culture has made its way to the United States, some fans are influenced by yaoi — boy-boy Japanese anime, manga and fan fiction. People are increasingly comfortable with creating content for the sheer passion of it.
Slash has expanded beyond small, old-school communities like Escapade to younger, Internet fans, who are expressing themselves not only through stories but also via images and GIFs on Tumblr. Over Twitter, some share their obsession with the creators of the shows themselves, a breach that older slash fans used to view as unseemly.
Still, among the general public, slash remains little known and little understood. And many slashers at Escapade would prefer to keep it that way. One attendee says, "There are a lot of people who don't care what the outside thinks."
"Don't worry," Bond whispers, his lips brushing oh so teasingly against the back of Q's neck. "We're almost home." —DeathValleyQueen, "Touches"
Escapade doesn't look at all like Comic-Con. This year's event was held at the Crowne Plaza Ventura Beach, in a picturesque but sleepy spot next to a walking path along the ocean. Sessions took place in a few generic meeting rooms, with light brown carpet embedded with dark brown curlicues.
There were about 100 attendees, and almost all were female, most in their 30s through 50s. The attire was super-casual — mostly jeans and T-shirts, with the occasional fan flourish, like an Avengers logo. And, as some attendees will tell you directly, they tend to be bigger women. The official convention schedule includes a walk to Aphrodite's, a nearby lingerie shop that "specializes in bras that fit large women."
When Escapade first started, it was so female-dominated that they'd invite in male strippers. "They didn't realize we wanted them to be attracted to each other," one attendee recalls.
Slash dates to the 1970s, when Star Trek fans would write Kirk/Spock romances (hence the "slash") and continued through the decades with shows like Starsky and Hutch, the late-'70s British crime drama The Professionals and the '90s fantasy series Highlander.
Discussion sessions at this year's Escapade were devoted to today's trendy fandoms like The Avengers, Supernatural, MTV's Teen Wolf and TNT's Leverage. One panel was called "The Bromance Network: USA Network and the Marketing of Homoeroticism," a reference to the cable channel's shows like Psych and Suits.
Person of Interest, a CBS crime-duo series, excited slash writers so much that Escapade gave it two panels. In the convention program, one seemed more high-minded ("How has the connection between Reese and Finch developed?") and the other more juicy ("When will they finally hook up??").
But slash goes beyond these shows, encompassing everything from the reality series Deadliest Catch to the guys from those PC-versus-Mac commercials. Some writers place the romances in high school, say, or in a coffee shop, with science fiction characters arguing over who makes the dark roast and who bakes the scones. At one point Stargate Atlantis fans kept turning the characters into amorous penguins.
Slash even stretches into RPF — Real Person Fic. More than 2,600 stories on Archive of Our Own pair Frank Iero and Gerard Way of the band My Chemical Romance. More than 100 pair Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
Female-female slash is a small segment. On Archive of Our Own, it has about a tenth as many stories as male-male. But it's there. An entire convention called Faberrycon celebrates the pairing of Rachel Berry and Quinn Fabray from Glee.
To an outsider, the first question about slash is: Why? The quick answer is that some women get turned on by imagining attractive guys going at each other, in the same way that heterosexual men ogle lesbian sex.
That's in part why many male-male romance novels are actually written and read by women, says Constance Penley, a UC Santa Barbara film and media studies professor, who attended Escapade.
Male-male pairings also can be appealingly transgressive to the writers. "They tried to write heterosexual stuff, but it turned into really bad romance novels, where the woman character was just needy or didn't know how to express her sexual feelings," Penley says. "It was just too boring."
Critics have spotted queer undertones in a wide variety of American fiction, going back to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Penley says. Slash takes these undertones and makes them more explicit.
Some slash is "sheer porn," which is what Emma Grant calls her story "A Cure for Boredom," the most popular male-male story on Archive of Our Own. Set in the BBC series Sherlock, it has almost 300,000 views, and more than 4,700 "kudos," which are similar to likes on Facebook.
It begins with Watson schooling a stressed-out Holmes in the art of masturbation. They eventually watch gay porn together, which brings out Watson's secret crush: "[H]e knew theoretically that Sherlock had a functional penis, but he was seized by a sudden urge to yank that fabric away and see for himself."
Holmes later takes Watson to a sex club and watches him in a threesome, studying his partner the way he normally studies a crime scene. The tension between them builds for 80,000 words. We won't give away the ending.
Grant, 42, a math professor in Austin, Texas, says that longer, pornier stories like hers typically get more traffic. Plus the story caught on in an online community for BDSM. Even among sex stories, sex sells.
BNFs, or big name fans, in the Sherlock fandom also include Mad_Lori, who wrote the hugely popular story "Performance in a Leading Role." It depicts Holmes and Watson as slumping Hollywood actors who try to revive their careers by co-starring in a film as gay lovers. But fandom is balkanized — only fans who follow Sherlock have likely heard of either Mad_Lori or Emma Grant.
In some cases, slash writers use sex as a way to get at character. Calysta Rose once paired Queer as Folk's Brian Kinney with Alex Krycek, Mulder's antagonist on The X-Files. "That was nice — a little bit of lighthearted fun for Krycek, who doesn't ever have much fun," Rose says. "I think I had him top Brian, so that was kind of a nice way of putting Brian in his place, because he was a toppy bastard."
But titillation isn't the only reason for slash. Especially since many slash writers are lesbians.
"Slash isn't always about the sex," one Escapade attendee says. "It's about [the characters] finding someone who you can let down your guard with, or who you know will see you when you're not saving the day and still love you." That's why many write "curtain fic," where characters have a house together, or "kid fic," where they raise a child.
One fan, FishieMishie, 27, says she enjoys "hurt/comfort," a trope in which one character gets injured and another heals, often leading to romance. "It involves an expression of pain, it involves a show of trust and vulnerability, it shows that there is a deeper connection," she says.
FishieMishie found her first slash at age 12, when she started reading a Lord of the Rings story involving Legolas and Gimli. One is an elf and one is a dwarf, and they're supposed to hate each other. Yet in the story, they started to get closer. The question became: How will they get past their differences? And what does a dwarf find attractive?
"I got kind of sucked into it," FishieMishie says. "I was like, 'I want to see what other people say about these two.' And off I went."
Fans also say that slash allows them to correct for Hollywood's short-sightedness on gender and romance. The stories purport to recognize the real emotional and sexual connections, which the creators of the show don't notice or aren't able to explore.
Slash often brings a more feminine take on male-created entertainment. For FishieMishie, the female characterization on many TV shows "feels like, 'Wow, guys wrote this,' " she says. In slash, "I lose that sense of apprehension in myself, anticipating that the person is going to write it wrong."
Slash, Grant says, "is a way to say I'm going to take this story, which is about this guy and his buddy, and I'm going to make it into something I want to read about."
A handful of the Escapade attendees are men. One, known as Jetpack Monkey, lives in downtown L.A. and works in tech support. He first attended Escapade in 2012. "The first year was difficult because I really did feel untrusted," he says later, in a phone interview. His second year, however, he was welcomed with open arms.
In general, his outlook on life is gender-neutral. "I want to celebrate the fact that they have great chemistry," he says of his favorite characters. "I don't care if it's two dudes or a guy and a woman or a guy and an alien. ... Human relationships are messy and complex, and they don't always fit into 45 minutes."
Another male attendee, Matt, discovered slash while growing up in a small New Jersey town, where gay books and magazines weren't available.
"As an adult, out, gay man, what I find more accessible about the slash than I get from mainstream kind of gay lit written by men is the romance and the characterization," he says. "It's not about people hooking up, it's about people getting together, building a life."
He pulls Mark's pants off right against the door, and it's kind of disturbing how the best sex of Eduardo's life is with his backstabbing ex-best friend who also invented Facebook and is also sort of stupid. —jibrailis, "Throw Your Back Into It"
Many slash writers are very protective of their privacy and, as a result, L.A. Weekly was not allowed into the panels at Escapade. Instead, fans could voluntarily come to a separate meeting room to be interviewed. Many did not use their real names, preferring only the pseudonyms they use in fannish circles.
One fan who dropped by, Nadine, loves a Canadian show about father-son private investigators called Republic of Doyle. But she doesn't write about it. "That show is just not slashy," she says.
What makes a show slashy? Attractive men, and typically young ones, as in Supernatural and Teen Wolf.
Skyfall begat a lot of slash that paired Bond and Q. In this particular Bond film, one Escapade attendee says, "Q is the 26-year-old geek who, you know, wears paisley and vests, and wears glasses and stuff like that. It's like catnip."
Mulder, of The X-Files, has a lot of slashy qualities. "Soulfulness. Vulnerability. A bit of self-doubt," Nadine says. Qualities that make you want to help him.
Antagonism is slashy. When Inception came out, its slash explosion didn't involve the Leonardo DiCaprio role. Instead, it focused on two minor characters, played by Tom Hardy and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. They exchange only a few lines, but they're argumentative — with, theoretically, a flirtatious subtext.
Within Real Person Fic, hockey players are particular slashy. L.A. Kings players Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, good friends and former Philadelphia Flyers teammates, are a particularly popular pair. "Even in the dim room, Mike can see the angry red line of [Jeff's] cut, bisected by black stitches," goes one story at Archive of our Own, called "Stitched Together." "Mike runs his tongue curiously along it and imagines he can taste iodine."
(An L.A. Kings press rep declined comment on behalf of the players, saying, "We have no interest.")
Comedies are not slashy: Unlike professional hockey, with its earnest teamwork, fighting and bloody eyebrows, sitcoms don't indulge in the kinds of big emotions that make people want characters to fall in love. Prestige shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men also don't get slashed much. Some theorize that mediocre shows are more easily slashed, as they allow writers to fill in details to make them better.
Female love interests can make a show less slashy. The CBS show Numbers started with lots of slash possibilities, but, as one attendee noted, "As the show went along, they threw in other female characters and the slash quota went down a lot."
The sexual politics can get complicated. On Person of Interest mailing lists, for instance, fans became angry that a new female character threatened to get in the middle of their two guys, recalls fan Melina. "It comes across as anti-woman."
One corrective? Gender swapping is becoming more popular. Slash writers used to, say, have a character take a potion to change genders; now you just write a story where Harry Styles from One Direction is a woman.
"I just got bummed out by the number of stories in which the women had to be evil or dead or both," says a fan who goes by the name Stewardess. She's wearing a Bert and Ernie T-shirt and green glasses, discussing Lord of the Rings stories. "Then I wrote, you know, a huge amount of porn based on that premise, that men could be gay without women being evil or dead."
The slashier the pair, the more its fans will claim that it's the "one true pairing," aka the OTP. Most of them realize that the pair will never get together.But some still hold out hope, as gay characters on television become more common. They're "a small minority," Melina says. "I'm not sure what they're on or where I can get it."
"Me glad Clay like. New recipe." Cookie's speech is simple, but Clay likes that, and his scratchy voice is enough to make Clay hard. —Calacious, "Cookies Like Crack"
A few years after Calysta Rose found that Phantom Menace slash, she printed out a few stories to read while visiting her dad in San Antonio. Her father asked what she was reading. She told him that it was fan fiction about two guys. "That's when he started talking to me about my immortal soul," she says.
Rose lives with her mom in Garland, Texas. Her sister used to live with them — she had a brain injury that led to behavioral issues, and had to give up her child to their brother. When Rose tried to help her sister see the child more, their brother's wife fought back, using Rose's interest in slash as a threat during the legal process.
"My sister-in-law used my fannish stuff to try to show that I was not fit for my niece to be around," Rose says.
It can get worse. Rose knows people who have been kicked out of their house when their parents found out about their slash fiction. Similar stories abound.
Fear of retribution is one reason some slash writers are so secretive. But as homosexuality and fannish tendencies have become more accepted, the slash community has started to open up. "The first, like, 10 years online I spent working to keep my site out of search engines, and now I'm having to turn it around," one fan says.
Escapade has something of an age divide on this issue. Franzeska Dickson, 32, is part of its younger contingent. She uses her real name online and doesn't care who finds out what she does.
Dickson used to work at a hedge fund in Northern California but is transitioning into video editing. She's a veteran of the young-skewing Harry Potter fandom, where the difference between slash and het is not that significant. People don't see any difference between writing Harry/Draco and Harry/Hermione.
In the past, identifying as liking slash meant you were a part of a particular, insular community. Now, slash is just one of the many things you're into. "These days people say, 'I like slash' the way people say, 'I like hot dogs more than I like burgers,' " she says. "I don't feel a special kinship with people who like hot dogs more than burgers."
The stories themselves have responded to changing norms. The "going away" story, where characters must flee together to protect their love, is on the decline — it's less believable.
Even the coming-out story has gone by the wayside. These days, you wouldn't write a coming-out story about, say, Sherlock Holmes on Elementary. Says one attendee, "If he came out as gay, his Watson would go, 'And...?' "
It was right around this time that Draco found out he was pregnant. Harry was ecstatic with the news... —HPFangirl71, "The Bride Whore"
John Rogers, a creator of the TNT drama Leverage, which ended its run in December, remembers sitting in an editing room in an old dog hospital on Highland Avenue. He'd been schooling his co-creator, Chris Downey, a veteran of sitcoms like The King of Queens, on what it's like to work on a show that sparks slash fiction. "At first he was like, 'Oh my God!' and he got around to 'This is cool,' " Rogers recalls.
In the editing room, they saw a scene in which one female character stumbles into another's arms. That's when Downey realized just how slashy his show was.
"That's hurt/comfort," he said, referring to the slash trope.
"That's right!" Rogers responded.
After a pause, Downey added, "Why do I know that?"
He knows that, of course, because slash is slowly seeping into Hollywood's consciousness, as a new generation of creators, raised in the Internet and Comic-Con era, has become aware of fans' proclivities.
Clark Gregg, who plays Phil Coulson from The Avengers and ABC's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., told a British newspaper of his character, "I'm told there's erotic fiction involving him and various members of the Avengers. ... It is disturbing, but it's also flattering."
Even the dean of Hollywood geekdom, Joss Whedon, has played to slash fantasies, reportedly saying of his iconic characters, Spike and Angel, "They were hanging out for years and years and years and years. They were all kinds of deviant, they were vampires. Are we thinking they never...? Come on, people, I'm just saying."
Stories aren't the only way slash has spread. The Internet has allowed easy access to slash "vids" — the video version of slash stories, featuring clips from the actual show pieced together. (Escapade hosts a screening series.) Vids that have gone viral include "Vogue/300," a montage of 300's sweaty Spartan bodies set to the Madonna song, and "Closer," which plays that Nine Inch Nails song over a series of Star Trek clips put together to show Spock violating Kirk.
One milestone came in 2012, when Entertainment Weekly held a poll on the "Couple You're 'Shipping' Like Crazy." The magazine intended the cheeky fan-fiction term to refer to regular old Ross-and-Rachel sorts of pairs — as-yet-unconsummated TV show flirtations. They were overwhelmed by votes for Derek and Stiles of MTV's Teen Wolf — even though they are in no way a couple, or even gay.
"Teen Wolf 'Sterek' fans, we've read your (hundreds and hundreds of) comments and admire your passion," EW.com responded. "The reason Sterek didn't make the category is because it's not an acknowledged will-they-or-won't-they storyline."
This controversy led the gay entertainment news site AfterElton.com to start an annual "slash madness" tournament. Sterek won the first. The second — which got more than 9 million online votes and 25,000 comments — was won by "Destiel," featuring Dean and Castiel of Supernatural.
Voters tend to be female Tumblr users, age 18 to 30, says Dennis Ayers, editor of the site (now called The Backlot). "There's definitely a pent-up interest out there, and it's not really being served by the mainstream media outlets," he says.
Shows often try to distance themselves from slashiness. "They want to use it for the attention it brings, but the actors involved don't really want to be feeding that beast," Ayers says, adding that PR folks will ask interviewers not to bring up slash.
These days, fans can just ask the creators themselves. Teen Wolf creator Jeff Davis says that many fans have tweeted at him to make Sterek happen. But he's never tempted to satisfy their desire.
"Fan desire rarely comes into play in the writers room," Davis says via email. "We always start with pleasing ourselves as writers. I can't say for sure, however, if the desires of the fans weave their way into our subconscious. The fact is, we enjoy the Stiles/Derek relationship as well. Whether we actually want it to become a romantic relationship is entirely different."
He adds, "I absolutely believe it's boosted the popularity" of the show. But still, slash-obsessed fans are a minority. "Most fans that I've spoken with have no idea what Sterek is."
Some creators go one step further and fan the flame. Right after the last episode of Leverage, which showed three of its main characters holding hands and, later, all together in the final scene, a fan asked on Twitter, "Um. Did John Rogers just use his series finale to make the OT3 basically canon?" — OT3 meaning "one true threesome."
Rogers replied, "You're welcome."
Ten months later, Rogers notes that he didn't necessarily mean the trio would actually have a sexual threesome; the ending was more about acknowledging fans' love for these characters' emotional connection. Plus, the show is over — it's the slashers' show now. Let them do what they will.
Rogers echoes Davis: TV writers don't change big parts of the show for the slash fans. But that doesn't preclude hiding the occasional Easter egg. "There's nothing wrong with saying thank you to the people who think a lot about our show. Here's something for you — here's a look that takes a bit too long and will send everyone aflutter."
Perhaps no show toys with slash fans more than The CW's long-running drama Supernatural. For instance, the show created a minor character, Becky, who is a fan of the show's two ghost-hunting brothers and has written slash stories about them.
But Maygra, who has written some Supernatural slash stories, says such ploys can backfire. "A lot of the slash community in Supernatural are really offended by it, because they think they're being kind of dissed."
Jim grins, then looks up as he presses against Spock's side. "I'll
keep you warm." —waldorph, "Love Story"
In a meeting room at the Crowne Plaza Ventura Beach, several dozen people sit in a semicircle of chairs. Posters plaster the walls, showing brainstorms from the Escapade discussions. One, titled "shared traits/tropes," lists items like "screwed up backgrounds" and "fans love snark." Another poster is titled "robot love."
Convention organizers allowed L.A. Weekly to sit in on one discussion, about slash's relationship to the outside world. Fans argued about the benefits and costs of privacy. Some compared slash with the "proletariat" and hacktivists. One asked whether slashers want to influence Hollywood or just "play with our toys." Someone answers, "Play with our toys!"
Calysta Rose leads the discussion along with Charlotte C. Hill, who co-organizes Escapade. Hill, a consultant in Santa Barbara, discovered slash at a science fiction convention when she looked under the table and found a zine where Kirk and Spock have sex. ("I was 14 and went, 'Holy crap, they should,' " she tells the Weekly.)
She sees discussions like these as empowering for women, and says the slash community has even helped certain women gain the strength to leave abusive relationships.
"We gave them a more emancipated sense of themselves," Hill says. "The sense of support for exactly who we were — that was not available with our neighbors necessarily, or our church, or our co-workers."
For Rose, Escapade is, as its name implies, an escape. She considers herself queer — although in the past she has dated men and is sexually attracted to them, they don't interest her romantically anymore. She has depression and anxiety and spends much of her time taking care of rescue cats. "Pretty much the only reason to go out of my house is to get cats and get cats their food," she says. "Fandom brings out the social butterfly in me."
Early on, she liked the naughtiness of slash. But now it's about the emotions.
She doesn't like tragic stories. She doesn't like infidelity. She wants sex and emotion to happen together, in perfect tandem. It doesn't happen enough in the real world. But in slash, she says, "It's like a completely and utterly unrealistic happily ever after."
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