Mini Slash Track: GeekGirlCon ’14 Panel Recap

Written by GeekGirlCon Copywriter Winter Downs.

One of my favorite things about panels at GeekGirlCon is the way that common threads can emerge from different conversations; it gives me something to think about for months after the convention. If that sounds like the kind of thing that interests you, don’t forget to grab your passes for GeekGirlCon ‘15.

Slash fans were in for a treat on Saturday afternoon, in what panelist Aja Romano jokingly referred to as the “mini slash track”–back-to-back panels on “21st Century Boys: Slash in the Mainstream” and “Queerbaiting in Genre Television: Representation or Exploitation?”

The panels touched on different aspects of the push-pull between fandom and creators over queer characters, relationships, and representation. What happens when fans, desperate to see queerness represented in their beloved films, shows, and comics, co-opt those media to tell their own stories in fanfic, fanart, fan vids, gifsets, and so on–and what happens when creators are aware of those trends?

slash panelists

Panelists Cathy Yang and Mike Cooper at “21st Century Boys: Slash in the Mainstream.”
Image source: GeekGirlCon flickr

“21st Century Boys” began by defining some key terms:

  • Slash: Definitions have changed over the years, but the word is currently most often used to mean any same-sex pairing, whether canon or not.
  • Canon: The “official” story as depicted in the TV show, movie, comics (and sometimes the associated tie-in media as well). Compare with fanon, the popular fandom version of events.
  • Canonicity: When fanon becomes canon.
  • The Fourth Wall: Used slightly differently in fandom than in traditional media criticism, it means the barrier between the creators and the fans–a barrier that is becoming increasingly permeable.
  • Slashtivism: Fans actively campaigning the creators of their favorite media (usually on social media) to include popular slash pairings.
  • Tinhatting: Conspiracy theories among some RPS (real-person slash) fans that their favorite actors are really gay, and prevented from coming out by “the Management.”
  • Queerbaiting: When creators, realizing that queer pairings are popular, depict things that hint at those pairings, while simultaneously denying that the pairing is ever going to happen–often while mocking the fans for wanting to see it.

Traditionally, slashers have been on the outside of canon, with no expectation of ever seeing their pairings become canon. There used to be a Fight Club mentality of, “The first rule of slash fandom is Don’t Talk About Slash Fandom.” This opened up avenues of immense creativity, from ‘crack pairings’ of characters who have never spoken to people who ship a pairing despite never having seen the source material. Panelist Amanda Brennan said that she ships Swan Queen (Regina/Emma) from Once Upon a Time, just from having seen gifsets on Tumblr of their interactions. She asked the audience how many of us had read fanfiction for a canon we’d never seen, and around 60% of us raised our hands.

Shipping and fandom can be so separate that shippers can give up on a show and still follow their favorite ship.

Lauren Orsini, panelist and anime fan, said that crack pairings are particularly common in anime, where fans often had no direct line to the creators due to the language gap.

That brings us to the fourth wall, and the increasing dialogue across it between creators and fans.

In previous decades, fans had few ways to communicate their likes and dislikes, and almost never got an official response. For instance, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, years after the show ended, responded to fans in a footnote in a book saying that Kirk and Spock would never be a couple. Now, as networks, studios, and publishers clue in to where fandom is active, they utilize social media as a marketing tool, often to mixed results. When TV network The CW asked fans to chime in on their Twitter hashtag, they were flooded with requests from Supernatural fans for more female characters, for more characters of color, and for their favorite slash pairings to become canon. They weren’t prepared for the fact that the floodgates of fan-creator interaction, once opened, can never be closed.

Mike Cooper, panelist and Sterek (Derek/Stiles from Teen Wolf) shipper, asked whether canonicity is really a goal of many fans. TV, movies, and published media often follow different rules and conventions than fanfic, and many of the things that fanfic indulges in–like fluffy domestic stories–aren’t seen as interesting enough to show on TV. Klaine (Kurt/Blaine from Glee) fans were disappointed in the direction that the characters’ story took when it became canon, and many found it more satisfying to stick to the fanfiction.

He also suggested that the laser-focus of many fans on their fantasy slash pairings takes away from discussion of canon same-sex couples and queer characters. While fandom obsesses over Derek/Stiles, there’s relatively little discussion of the potential disappearance of canonically queer Danny.

There is a definite trend, especially in indie media where the financial stakes are lower, for creators to make fan ships canon; one good example is Cecil/Carlos in Welcome to Night Vale.

destiel

Supernatural’s Dean and Castiel. Six seasons of this with a male/female couple, and it wouldn’t still be just subtext.
Image source: DecisivelyChallenged

In big-money media, however, it’s more common to indulge in queerbaiting. The panel briefly discussed the difference between fanservice and queerbaiting, but left most of that for the follow-up panel in the second hour. Mike gave us a good litmus test for whether or not something is queerbaiting: replace one of the characters in a male/male ship with a female character (or vice versa). If it then reads as a love story, that’s queerbaiting.

The audience Q&A touched on the condescension often aimed at female-led fandom, of which slash is a big part, and the dismissal of slash as led by straight cis women who just want to see hot men kissing. The demographic of both panel and audience put the lie to that. (In fact, a recent survey of users of fanwork website Archive of Our Own shows a disproportionate queer participation in slash.)

Finally, an audience member shared her story of 40 years of Spock/Kirk shipping, and how amazing she found it to be in a panel at a convention about this topic, out in the open.

Then, the panel room cleared and, I think it’s safe to say, most of the same people filed back in for the second hour of our slashfest, in which we delved into the topic of queerbaiting in more detail.

Romano, who wrote an article for the Daily Dot about queerbaiting in Teen Wolf, defined the practice as when the creators tease the audience with the idea of queer relationships, with no intention of bringing them to fruition.

Xena

Xena and Gabrielle: Yup, definitely straight. Nothing to see here. Move along.
Image source: Wikipedia

Subtext has been common in genre fiction forever, often using code that only people attuned to queer themes would see it. A key example of this is in the 1990s show Xena: Warrior Princess, where Xena and Gabrielle’s relationship was undeniably homoerotic, with the two characters frequently bathing together. The show even ended with a symbolic marriage between the pair. This could be written off as pandering to the male gaze, but for queer viewers the subtext was clear.

What is the difference, asked the panel, between that, and the current TV series accused most often of queerbaiting: Teen Wolf, Sherlock, Once Upon a Time, and so on? The creators’ intentions and track record, their comments outside the show (in interviews and so on), and the audience’s expectations must all be weighed. For example, on Sherlock, other characters tease the two leads, John and Sherlock, about being a couple, and that tension is played up, but Steven Mofatt, the show’s creator, accuses fans of making the relationship “weirdly sexualised” when they read into what’s presented onscreen. Michael Coleman, who plays Happy on Once Upon a Time, disparaged Swan Queen shippers on Twitter, but the actors playing the characters in question, along with the show’s co-creator, rallied in support of all their fans–including shippers. Then, the show turned around and gave Regina a male “soul mate” in the form of Robin Hood, which felt to many fans like a slap in the face. One long-running podcast even ended because of it. These kinds of mixed messages lead queer fans to be very wary of shows, even when they seem to be supportive of queer relationships and characters.

Another thing to take into consideration is that when the creators themselves are queer, as with Jeff Davis (Teen Wolf) and Bryan Fuller (Hannibal), they have to contend with queerphobia in real life, and have less leeway with networks and advertisers than their straight counterparts.

Other queerbaiting tropes include the “camp straight”–for example, Raj on The Big Bang Theory–and queer erasure. The TV adaptation of Constantine has straight-washed its main character, and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D glossed over the (comics canon) relationship between Victoria Hand and Isabelle Hartley, before killing them off entirely.

Audiences who were once willing to accept subtext and hints no longer view that as enough, but many creators have yet to catch up. As panelist Diana Michelle put it, expectations have changed, but many creators haven’t, and audiences don’t accept it any more. Jessica Mason brought up the topic of canonicity for the panelists’ favorite ships–would they want it if they could get it? On the one hand, it would be great to see in mainstream TV. On the other hand, slash has always been about taking power from creators and putting it into the hands of fans.

Sometimes, seeing a fan ship become canon has backfired: when the Glee characters Brittany and Santana got together, it was done in a cutesy jokey way. Other times, making a ship canon would play into a negative queer stereotype. In the context of fandom, where there are all kinds of different queer characters, it’s fine for the cannibal serial killer Hannibal Lecter (of the show Hannibal) to be bisexual, but in Hollywood, where queerness has traditionally been used to amplify a villain’s threat (for example the original Silence of the Lambs villain Buffalo Bill, who might be gay or trans). Given this context, do fans really want to see Hannibal as one of the few examples of representation?

The panel didn’t seek to answer this question, but did leave us with a few examples of shows that they think are doing it right: Arrow, Gotham, Orphan Black, In the Flesh, Spartacus: Blood and Sand, and Orange is the New Black. What do you think? Do you have any more to add to this list? Let us know in the comments.

Panelist Jessica Mason has made available some of the slides used for the “Queerbaiting” panel on her blog.

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Winter Downs
“Rock On!”

Winter Downs

Manager of Editorial Services at GeekGirlCon.

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