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22 June 2003 @ 08:42 pm
The appeal of slash, with a side of QAF.  
This is just a long ramble that started out to be a rehash of why slash appeals to women, and then veered constantly into my QAF obsession, notably Brian Kinney, who *is* a superhero.




I was thinking earlier today about slash and it occurred to me for what felt like the first time--because I am slow, or because I've forgotten all the slash theory I once read--that slash began to emerge as a cultural phenomenon at the same time both the women's liberation movement and the gay liberation movement began taking off. I don't know what that could mean, but drawing facile correspondences is often the easiest way to begin thinking about a subject. So...

Why Some Women Hold a Slash Orientation: A Question Revisited (For the Ten Thousandth Time)

- There's the erotic element, but also the romantic element to keep in mind. Slash is as much about emotion as about sex; it's about friendship and a different identity. It's possible that there have always been women who find a Greek ideal of romantic male friendship attractive, imagining that men can be better with each other than they are with women. Men are more powerful, their lives more interesting--cleaner, somehow, when they're divested of familial obligations and allowed to pursue their own careers or missions, missions that are almost always noble. There's a reason that slash is a fannish thing, tied to media models of manliness. Because a lot of TV characters are deliberately cast into service professions that lend themselves to heroics, ensembles, and scenarios with rapidly changing casts of characters. Police work, the military, the FBI, medicine, etc. It's not just a masculine ideal we're often attracted to, it's the *uber* masculine ideal, the superhero, the supercop. And so we often hie to fandoms centered around a loner (or two) whose family is his friends, when he lets them in--and he can pick and choose when he does.

Brian Kinney is *the* ultimate slash character in most ways: he's successful, rich, sexy, aloof, detached from his rotten family. He takes what he needs from his friends and abandons them casually whenever he's done with them. He has the comfort of being able to take a lot of things for granted, including those friends. He has a huge loft that reeks of Architectural Digest porniness. He can have sex whenever he wants with whomever he wants. But he's also secretly sensitive and loving and needy. He takes care of everybody around him, once he's been guilted and prodded. He needs a lover in his life because he's lonely, and he's getting old, and he's afraid of being alone and past his prime--but he only lets Justin in just so far, and no further, upholding the model of independence that women cherish.

And though he's not in a heroic profession, he's been increasingly portrayed in heroic terms. It's obvious now with his whole sleuthing arc in season three, but it goes back to the beginning, takes off in the end of season one, gets played up hard in season two, and is always there, hidden cleverly in the subtext. He's *literally* the model for a superhero. He saves people all the time *and* his heroism is secret--it's a secret identity, disguised by his everyday assholery. He really is Rage, not just because he performs some of the more obvious heroic acts, but because he consistently hides all his helpful actions, to the point where people even *comment* on it when they do catch him. Like Debbie in the diner, after Brian walks away from Ted, whose ass he's just pulled from the fire: "Why does he always do that?" she asks, meaning, why does he always blow off his own generous actions? Because that's superheroes do; hide their identities. That's the whole point of Brian: to model the ultimate expression of the Fortress of Solitude. He's locked up, down, and away even when he's buried amid an orgy of flesh. He's cold, like Han Solo in carbonite. He's the living proof that every superhero needs a sidekick: it's not until Justin comes along to play that role, Justin with his super-hot blowjobs and his Robinlike effusiveness, that Brian really begins to fill out his cape.

Michael was the original sidekick, of course, but *Michael* is proof that superhero and sidekick aren't a platonic model. In the Queer as Folk universe, they say bullshit to that: Batman and Robin are not just gay, they're gay and they're *doing* it.

There's a reason Brian and Michael's friendship is so problematic. It's a tense thing, caught between traditional representations and new models. And Queer as Folk is a comic book universe, when you strip away the veneer of realism. It's built on that now familiar metaphor of superheroes and gayness, for one thing. It's about identies both secret and public, it's about closets, it's about heroism, and it's about *place*. Pittsburgh, the city, becomes more and more a character in itself as the show progresses, along with its representatives--cops and civic leaders. The law and order elements that rule the city would, in a traditional comic book universe, be the white hats. Here, the show inverts old terms of morality, and the city represents the dark side of family values. Even the gay leaders are consistently shown to be hypocrites, social-climbing toadies and tokens who mouth the city's moral platitudes. And Brian, our conflicted, reluctant, dark-suited hero, has used the system and been used by it, but when he really starts to show his true colors--reveal his identity--the system chews him up and spits him out. The city doesn't want a *real* gay superhero, one who speaks plainly, speaks the truth, represents the naked face of desire, etc. He's supposed to keep his identity in the closet.

Trying to wander back on topic, such as it is: usually, the most persistent beloved slash objects are heroes and their sidekicks and their enemies. Sometimes you slash two heroes, sometimes hero and sidekick, or hero and enemy, etc etc. Mulder and Krycek and Skinner. Fraser and his Rays. Spike and Xander--and that's a ship that took a while to take off, I think, because they're shifty characters, in the sense that they shift in and out of traditional roles. It seems to me that Angel/Xander was the first real slash ship of the show, and that's easier to grok, because Angel is the ultimate hero type.

And back to the appeal of slash...

- It's about power, and about the appeal of a masculine or androgynous identity, as we envision it: the desire for men, in a man's liberated form. We either want men to be like they are in slash, or we ourselves--women--want to exist in a better, more humanized form, similar to what slashed men inhabit. Or both. In slash, "being a man" doesn't mean keeping up an emotionless front, or indulging in apelike male rituals that drive women crazy; it means being sensitive, understanding, and strong, it means you get respect, it means that you're righteous when tortured, etc. And when intensely masculine men who get slashed--the stoic, grim, repressed ones--it's usually for the pleasure of turning them inside out and showing their marshmallow centers.

Or, if we harbor a secret identity of our own, if we're dark bitches with a lot of rage, we revel in avatars of evil whose gooey centers have been blackened and burnt. Heh.

And we like slash because...

- From a position within a hetero relationship, women only see its mundane aspects. Financial interdependencies related to a legal marital contract, childrearing, the dark dull side of domesticity. What appears utterly alien--a relationship between men who can't marry, who are equals--might start to seem romantic because it doesn't come with traditional expectations and obligations.

As women became liberated from traditional marital bonds, as divorce rose, the few remaining scraps of romance surrounding marriage began drying up and blowing away. The myth of marriage was stripped of its romantic power; if you can divorce, then the marriage bond is just a legal convenience that can be put aside at any time. Where is romance, then? It's somewhere else, where the grass is greener, over there where the gay men are dancing.

And yet sometimes we write about incredibly domesticated relationships--incredibly domesticated men--maybe because we want to reinvest the marital paradigm with the myth of romance.

Ramble, ramble, blah. I'm talked out and hungry, and as I look back at what I've just written, half of it seems like empty theory, and the rest tangent. Oh well. I wonder what's on TV....




 
 
 
Anna S.eliade on June 23rd, 2003 04:48 pm (UTC)
So we value 'feminine' qualities ("it means being sensitive, understanding...") in gay males but not in females? This just seems odd to me. It's only a good/noble/exciting quality if it exists in men, since maintaining that quality (or any quality, really) as a female banishes you to a mundane existence?

I'm not sure where you're getting an either/or here. Slash is just one aspect of people's lives. Sensitivity is a quality I value in women, too, in my friends, in myself, etc. But it becomes framed--eroticized, aestheticized--in fantasy. For whatever reasons. But when I say that men in slash have a "humanized form," I'm talking about humanity as something that transcends gender, that blends gender; I think that's attractive to women. I think (a) that women would like men to be like they are in slash, rather than the oblivious jackasses they often are in real life, and I think (b) women would like to be seen as more human themselves--not just as women. That many of us would like to be granted, or adopt, certain characteristics that men own--even something as simple as the ability to "walk like a man" down a street and not feel vulnerable. Men's bodies, to me, seem like safer, sturdier vehicles; the model is the default one for humanity, I think, and--at least to my own perception as a woman--it seems like men are less likely to be "marked" by the male gaze for that reason.

That men will tolerate or actively enjoy those qualities with other men but not with women signifies that something vague and altogether undefinable is 'wrong' with women, i.e. the writer/reader, particularly since it is usually straigh males who are slashed.

I don't agree, but it's interesting to think about, because it occurs to me that when women write themselves out of the picture, it allows them to focus fully on men's roles--in slash, women don't figure, so they don't have to think about what it might mean to be more like men (the reverse of how we might want men to be like women), or think about their own responsibilities or behavior or characteristics. They can focus fully on "building the better man."

Which made me wonder why the myth of domestic romance could only be acted out by two men together, and not a man and a woman, especialy if the inherent frustration of domesticity as it exists for women (as I understand your theory) is the root of / one part of the motivation to seek out male slash.

It seems to me that you're suggesting it would be more natural to write or read about scenarios that have models of our female selves in them--and that's fine. I like female protagonists in novels. I love Sex and the City. But I think that slash lets us step outside the box and look at relationships in a way that doesn't engage our own troublesome female self-image(s). It's just a different focus.

Right. However, based on the concept/fantasy that women cannot find fulfilling (or indeed any) romance from men, and feel obligated to create it between gay males (as a "cuter", or "hotter", "better" or "more senstive" alternative) implies disatisfaction.

My own feeling is that satisfaction and dissatisfaction are just two halves of one apple. The apple of ambivalence. We're never wholly pleased or displeased with our lives, our relationships. Slash might just be a place where we rework dissatisfactions into pleasures.
kjdraft on June 23rd, 2003 06:23 pm (UTC)
Thanks for playing along.
Anna S.eliade on June 23rd, 2003 06:36 pm (UTC)
Um. Okay. I'm not sure if I've pissed you off or what, but I get the feeling I have. It wasn't intended. I usually avoid any debate-styled discussion for reasons just like this.