By Sam Fleming
“Everything is about sex except sex: sex is about power” – Oscar Wilde.
When Random House signed E. L. James to a seven figure, multi-book deal for her Fifty Shades of Grey series in March 2012, it was a shot heard around the publishing world. Not only had fan fiction now become fair game as a method and expression of creativity, it had now become a lucrative vein of ore just sitting there waiting to mined by a myriad of publishing houses.
Although the story behind Fifty Shades is by now a familiar one of a forty-something mother of two becoming a worldwide sensation by writing Twilight fan fiction, the fever surrounding the series has still not died down. The trilogy spent an astonishing six months on top of the New York Times and Amazon best seller charts and, in turn, dominated the international and national consciousness. Undoubtedly, it is the erotic nature of the content that has drawn the most media attention to the series since its release. With one film adaptation already gracing our cinema screens – and two more in the pipeline – will this domination will be letting up any time soon?
The legacy of Fifty Shades of Grey – particularly in the adult entertainment industry – poses the question as to whether whether James’ best-seller is a positive and honest reflection of female sexuality and sexual experience. Particularly when taking into consideration its origins as fan fiction, and the narratives that these fan communities create.
The online community is acknowledged as a female-dominated space, and one of the primary activities in which females engage is the reading and writing of fan fiction. Whereas fan fiction can be explained as literary explorations and creative interpretations, its progressively popular subset of slash fiction – that is, homoerotic fan fiction – has raised the collective interest of both fans and academics from the get-go. When taking into account slash’s predominantly heterosexual female community of readers and writers and its same-sex narratives which subvert canonical media texts and characterisations, discussions relating to sex, gender and sexuality have become commonplace when the genre is discussed. At the same time, the genre invites scholars to engage with it: stories which address gender and sexuality and aggressively rewrite the source text provide quintessential examples of subversive and queered readings.
Discussions of slash have become central to fan studies scholarship, focusing on fan identity, feminism and the role of women within a creative community. Early slash fiction consciously utilises male protagonists and the male body to envision ‘ideal’ relationships and fantasise about sexual experimentations within the masquerade of a deeply committed relationship.
Joanna Russ’s essay “Pornography by Women for Women, with Love” (1985) encompasses the nature of its argument within the title itself. The provocative use of the word pornography is noteworthy in the context of passionate debates on pornography fought within the feminist movement. In addition to her overt pleasure within the text – ‘I love the stuff, I love the way it turns me on’ – Russ emphasises the empowering nature of sexual fantasy, particularly when coupled with a community of women – women as writers, editors and readers – free from the restrictions imposed by commercial culture.
For some women, fandom participation is credited with helping them to discover and learn about their own sexuality and gender beyond the confines of media and cultural representations of both. A study by Heather J. Meggers in Fan Culture: Theory and Practice (2012) offers an insight into the sexual liberation fandom participants have experienced through writing and reading these narratives:
‘I feel as though fandom has brought many things to my attention. It has allowed me to talk about/discuss things that maybe I wouldn’t talk to a person about face to face, but when shared through the common interest of the particular fandom are much easier to mention. […] I’ve found sexuality is much more fluid than I would have thought before I became active in fandom […] The internet allows people to talk about sensitive and difficult things.’
Feminist critics, such as Russ, are fascinated by slash stories because they offer an insight into female sexual fantasy; formulating a medium that contains elements of sexual experience that mainstream media – such as the male dominated industry of pornography – purposefully excludes. For example: the lovers demonstrate an interest in each other’s minds and emotional states, not solely each other’s bodies. In the present day, there still remains a glaring lack of queer representation within mainstream franchises in spite of fan-fiction increasingly becoming a known quantity in the public eye. One particular pairing gaining notoriety at the moment is that of Poe Dameron and Finn of the Star Wars canon, playing on rumours that Star Wars could introduce its first gay characters. J.J. Abrams is behind this, stating:
‘Of course! When I talk about inclusivity it’s not excluding gay characters. It’s about inclusivity. So of course. I would love it. To me, the fun of Star Wars is the glory of possibility. So it seems insanely narrow-minded and counterintuitive to say that there wouldn’t be a homosexual character in that world.’
Needless to say: fans have responded in droves. In turn, these fans have augmented the theories of Russ and her feminist counterparts by depicting Poe and Finn’s relationship as erotic but – above all else – a relationship of equals. Poedaaaayuremon writes:
“But Finn trusted Poe, trusted him with his life, mind and spirit. And as he stood there in the dim hallway, looking into the other man’s kind, warm eyes, he realised he completely trusted him with his body as well […] “You’re absolutely perfect,” Poe finally said, finally joining Finn on the bed, kneeling between his thighs […] “Absolutely beautiful, I mean it, Finn. You’re stunning”’.
Russ perceives slash as a response to the deeply felt desires of its female writers and its readers for ‘a sexual relationship that does not require their abandoning freedom, adventure and first class humanity […] sexual enjoyment that is intense, whole and satisfying […] and intense emotionally’ denied to women within commercial pornography, and further taken away from them as stories such as Fifty Shades of Grey are published as opposed to their slash fiction contemporaries. Poe/Finn once again serves as a leading example, as lillianwrites’ narrative Come Home details this particularly touching moment between the two:
‘They laid there, panting and gasping, eyes locked together, for what felt like hours before Poe’s face turned so unbearably tender, Finn could feel more tears coming. The pilot was kissing him […] a hand stroking Finn’s cheek […] “It’s okay, it’s fine, I understand, baby, it’s okay,” Poe murmured when Finn began to apologise […] “I love you, too, baby,” Poe finally responded, wiping away Finn’s tears. “Always have, and always will, okay?”’
The slash fiction genre embraces the possibilities of ‘a fluidity of erotic identification’: a notion at the heart of the theoretical discipline of queer theory. The community of writers of straight, lesbian and bisexual women actively and self-reflectively discuss queerness, the social constructions of gender and the politics surrounding sexuality. Noy Thrupkaew notions in Media Reception Studies that ‘Slash enables its writers to subvert TV’s tired male/female relationships while interacting with and showing mastery over the original raw material of the show.’ Thrupkaew claims that such fiction produces a ‘richer sense of possibility than duplicating the well-worn boy/girl romances coughed up by most TV shows.’
As opposed to interpreting the absence of romantic entanglements as heteronormativity, fans recurrently appropriate the empty spaces within the source text and redefine it against its social context. Female slash writers use and subvert the traditional gender paradigms, thus enabling female readers and writers to identify with both characters as they are writing a pairing of equals, rather than only finding familiarity with the stereotypical subversive female recurrently found in narratives.
‘“Hey, can I…?” It takes a moment for Poe to realise Finn is asking permission to move lower. Finn’s hands smooth over the cut of his hips […] “Yeah,” Poe breathes, too fast not to be desperate. He feels dizzy watching the open delight on Finn’s face, the slight knot of concentration between his eyebrows. “Yes, please.”’
Generally, in the public eye, heterosexual romance can only occur between individuals who are, inherently, not equal: with the woman as the weaker and more submissive partner. Slash fiction focuses on two men of equal power, with narratives exhibiting a fluidity between the two genders and traits which could be commonly associated to both. As heterosexual women can rarely have a truly equal relationship with a man, they write their desires onto their chosen slash fiction pairing.
Slash fiction, like romance, is commonly represented outside its reading communities as immature because of its undiscriminating and excessive investment in popular culture by women: a polar opposite to bro geek culture which is celebrated. Yet fan fiction is also represented as a secret substitute for real and romantic relationships. Culturally, women are socialised to view sex in terms of relational intimacy, romanticism, commitment and – above all – private: posing the question as to whether slash fiction is private due to its participants or its content. Designating some norms, behaviours and characters as normal and others as abnormal – and, in turn deviant, is connected to systems of power.
The notion of power is of particular interest to French philosopher Michel Foucault, who claimed that power ‘traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms knowledge, produces discourse.’ To control, punish and repress behaviours and identities, they must be identified in contrast to the supposed norm: in this instance, slash fiction is juxtaposed to commercial pornography and, in turn, the pleasures of women are placed under scrutiny. Foucault argues that ‘power is essentially what dictates its law to sex. Sex is placed by power in a binary system: licit and illicit, permitted and forbidden.’
Slash writers have traditionally been understood as embarking on subversions of the dominant hierarchy, challenging gender norms and exploring both masculine and feminine experience. In turn, slash fiction (as a writing practice) and its corresponding female community has successfully carved out a discursive space that enables a freedom of sexual expression outside the reaches of hegemony, yet sadly occupying the illicit position in Foucault’s binary.
These overriding concerns of pleasure, power and their relationship to one another are central to academic readings of fan fiction and slash fiction in particular as narratives which demonstrate a more equal sexual relationship remain in the private sphere of fan fiction, whilst Fifty Shades of Grey gains publishing rights and popularity in part due to its saucy – and dominant-subversive – content. New York University professor, Katie Roiphe, suggests that Fifty Shades has become ‘the modern woman’s bedroom fantasy’, in spite of the wealth of slash fiction stories on the internet clearly suggesting otherwise.
The bottom line is, slash fiction enables its readers to fill in the gaps and bring to light the queer subtext: an act that hegemony and power prevents. The fact that slash fiction continues to be theorised as “resistant” and – in some cases – “deviant” is testament to a notion of reader/text engagements as interpretative as opposed to interactive, and to an overriding refusal to acknowledge where and when queerness manifests itself. Slash fiction has been valorised as a rebellion against the canonical text. It is a medium through which its writers can scavenge for textual crumbs that become the raw materials for creative reworking. The only governing body in slash fiction are the female writers and the readers who choose to join them for the ride.
 Joanna Russ, ‘Pornography by Women for Women, With Love’ in The Fan Fiction Studies Reader ed. by Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2014) pp.82-96.
 Heather J. Meggers, ‘Discovering the Authentic Sexual Self: The Role of Fandom in the Transformation of Fans’ Sexual Attitudes’ in Fan Culture: Theory and Practice ed. by Katherine Larsen and Lynne Zubernis (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012) pp.57-81.
 Benjamin Lee, ‘Gay Star Wars characters? I’d love it, says JJ Abrams’ Guardian, 2016 < http://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/mar/01/jj-abram-gay-characters-in-star-wars-welcome> [accessed 1st March 2016]
 Russ, pp.82-96.
 Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (New York: Routledge, 1992)
 Noy Thrupkaew, ‘Fans and Fan Behaviours’ in Media Reception Studies ed. by Janet Staiger (New York: New York University Press, 2005) pp.95-115
 Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: The Will to Knowledge (London: Penguin, 1998)
 Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: The Will to Knowledge (London: Penguin, 1998)
 Katie Roiphe, ‘At the End of the Day, She Wants to Be… Spanked?’ Newsweek, April 23rd, 2012.
Sam Fleming is a part-time PhD student at the University of Wolverhampton, UK, whose research interests include gender, fandom, critical theory and popular culture.