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Star Wars, queer representation and the mainstreaming of slash

Suddenly, the media has woken up to something that fans have known for a long time: there is a whole world of explicit and implicit relationships beyond what we see on screen.

A few days before Christmas, I saw a headline that, to someone like me, felt like it came straight from the Onion. “Online Support Grows for Potential ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ Romance”, it read, and went on to report that the internet had been ensnared by the chemistry between Finn, John Boyega’s reluctant Storm Trooper, and Poe Dameron, Oscar Isaac’s most-charming-pilot-in-the-Resistance. “Some fans have – rather inevitably – interpreted its subtext and devised potential romantic pairings, known commonly as ‘shipping’,” the author writes, which is as good a definition of shipping as any, despite its faint tone of scepticism. Beneath some Finn/Poe fanart is a clip of Boyega, Isaac, and Daisy Ridley, who plays the film’s lead, Rey, on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. DeGeneres asks the trio if we will see any romance between the three in future installments, and Isaac replies: “I think it’s a very subtle relationship that’s happening…At least I was playing romance.”

Why did that feel like a satirical headline to me? Because for many fans, “Online Support Grows for Potential [insert media property here] Romance” is the story of our lives. There are a huge variety of ways to be a fan, and to identify as one: you can collect facts, for example, or experiences, or material objects, or a whole host of other things. But for a lot fans – and this corner of fandom tends to be pretty heavily female-dominated – being really into a book or film or television show is about collecting emotional capital, spending a lot of our time thinking about fictional characters, or fictional relationships, or, best of all, potential fictional relationships. That’s the act of shipping, and we’ve got it down to a science.

The notable thing about the aforementioned article wasn’t its existence, or any of the words it contained, or the inevitable idiocy in the comments about “Tumblrinas” signalling a death knell for culture. It’s notable because it was one of many: a media narrative brewing in the final days of 2015 that went something like, “People discover slash shipping via the biggest film of the year, and it is somehow news”. It was the capstone in a year that saw increasing mainstream attention for – and confusion over – slash shipping. A few months prior, when the Captain America: Civil War trailer was released, fan reaction generated a similar set of headlines, with a bit more hand-wringing about “making everything gay” or “making everything about emotions”. (I don’t know what trailer those guys saw, I watched a solid two minutes of a tortured angsty love triangle between three male characters with a couple of extraneous explosions tossed in.)

Slash, for anyone unfamiliar with the term, is about ships, short for relationship, between male characters. (Female-only ships are usually called “femslash”; heterosexual ships are shortened to “het”.) Though we often use the shorthand “pairing”, ships – much like their real-life counterparts – aren’t limited to two characters. Nor are they bound by the stated sexual and romantic preferences of those characters in the source material. Shipping runs the full gamut of human interaction, from gentle flirtation to full-on explicit sexual acts, and in practice, it’s what the shipper makes of it. Maybe it’s a desire to see characters kiss onscreen, or maybe it’s a desire to put that kiss down on the page yourself, in fanart or fanfiction. Shipping is as straightforward as rooting for Ross and Rachel to get together; it’s as complex as reading between the lines in Victorian literature, searching for the queer subtext and desire coded in that language.

Some outlets reported on the Finn/Poe romance; others speculated that Poe might be Star Wars’s first openly queer character, perhaps based on his lip bite and roguish once-over of Finn on the tarmac, or Isaac’s playful comments on Ellen or a combination thereof. If you’ve been a slash shipper for a long time – hell, if you’ve been any kind of shipper for a long time – this new sort of media attention might catch you off guard. Many of these articles are summaries, screenshots of search results at the fanfiction site Archive of Our Own, fanart embedded from Tumblr, and lists of the sort of subtextual clues that fuel most slash ships. They are on every mainstream entertainment website, from MTV to EW. Many are characterised by fumbling inaccuracies about the language of fanfiction (and more than a few attempt to mansplain the language of fanfiction, which is delightful). And they stand in stark contrast to only a few years ago, when the romantic side of fannish desire was the butt of every mainstream media joke. (And then, a few years before that, when slash was never spoken of in mainstream coverage.)

That slash dialogue we’ve seen in the media in recent years – one that’s part mockery, part confusion, part revulsion, underscored above all by anxiety – hasn’t gone away. Talk show hosts still offer up fanart for actors to gawk at, and comments sections are still full of angry people disparaging slash fans for “making everyone gay”. (I won’t go near the erotic fanfiction that was written about the Oregon “militia” over the past few days – I’m still learning to take a joke, OK?) But somehow along the way, slash has become something for news outlets to bank on. This is partly the result of huge strides in the culture in a relatively short space of time. The Force Awakens, with its multi-racial, female-led cast, has been at the epicentre of a new skirmish in the culture war in the past month. Its fictional universe still has an abysmally poor record with explicit queer representation – but why shouldn’t we talk about what’s implicit?

Representation and shipping is tricky, though. And for all of those basic Star Wars explainers, there were dozens more articles that made efforts at wading into the sort of dialogues that slash shipping communities have been having for years, about queer representation in the media, and whether a ship might become “canon” – when desires are reflected back and affirmed by the source material, something rare for slash ships but not unheard of. (The most famous example is probably The Legend of Korra, which ended with its popular ship, Korrasami, coming to canonical fruition in 2014.) When I first started reading and writing slash a decade and a half ago, the idea of my fanfiction coming true, of my favourite male characters shrugging off their default heteronormativity and embracing in the halls of Hogwarts in the books, was laughable. But as a culture, we’ve moved on. We finally have a black Hermione; why not a gay one? It’s 2016: there’s no reason she can’t sneak off with Luna Lovegood to the Room of Requirement.

This is a hard conversation to join even when you’re deep in slash fandom, because the desire for queer representation and the urge to ship same-sex characters is sometimes connected, but sometimes not. There are plenty of shippers out there who want to see their characters in an officially-sanctioned relationship, to be sure – and for many queer fans, the personal stake in representation is vitally important. And plenty of shippers don’t engage with fanfiction or fanart at all – shipping for them is purely about looking directly onscreen, and hoping for more.

But for a lot of people, shipping and transformative works like fanfiction and fanart aren’t about seeing your desires reflected back in the source material – it’s about making them your own. The best thing I read on the subject in the past few months was in the wake of the Captain America backlash, in response to a frustrating article that encapsulated this confusion over shipping, and what that desire means. “We never expect our ships to become canon,” Charlotte Geater’s response begins, speaking from the place that I and many other fans occupy, in which slash fanfiction is a way to wrest control of a media narrative, fracture it, and rebuild it in the image of our desire. We actively resist any validation from creators of the source material, because a ship is ours, and ours alone. There is a power in the gaps in the story, particularly the emotional and romantic ones, and in filling them in yourself. “The subtext doesn’t stop being there if the couple doesn’t get together at the end,” Geater writes. “If the loop doesn’t close.”

There are, of course, plenty of people who want both: many more canonically queer characters and relationships, and the right to queer your own reads on characters, regardless of what you’re given on the page or the screen. And it’s in this dichotomy that we see the trouble with conflating shipping and representation: they are separate acts, and we need them both in equal measure. The world that I joined when I started reading slash was one built on decades, perhaps even centuries of subtext and coded readings; our media is slowly – and at times, it feels painfully slow – making that subtext text, and allowing characters to be queer from the start.

Earlier this week, a journalist tweeted about a forthcoming interview with John Boyega, in which the actor says that any Finn/Poe romance that was played onscreen was entirely one-sided, the choices of Oscar Isaac alone. I’m bracing for the inevitable “sorry fans, there goes your ship” responses from the same media outlets that seem to have newly discovered slash. But Boyega’s read on these characters doesn’t have to affect Isaac’s, nor does it have any effect on whether Poe Dameron will be made canonically queer – despite doubts at Hollywood’s ability to catch up to the general populace, we have another pair of films to wait for.

But perhaps most importantly, it means nothing for the ship itself: ships are fictional, and rest in the hands of the shipper, and sail on no matter what creators do or say, even when half your pairing gets married to someone else, or is tragically killed (and then the other half gets tragically killed as well – yes, I am speaking from personal experience and no, I am not over it close to a decade later). The joy of shipping is that it’s an act that rests in the hands of fandom, or the individual fan. But despite all the misunderstandings I’ve seen in the past month, it’s undeniable that the changing perceptions of slash – and what we’re seeing, one might even argue, is the mainstreaming of slash – is an incredible thing: we are working towards a place where the full spectrum of human desire and expression is validated.

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.

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Mother of all bloodlusts: Sexual politics and Greek tragedy

New interpreteations of ancient stories show the deep roots of our thinking about sex and gender

During the 1960s Pier Paolo Pasolini made two films based on ancient Greek tragedy, Oedipus Rex and Medea. In the latter, Maria Callas played the heroine with predictably operatic bravura – dark eyes flashing out dark emotions, thrilling voice conveying ferocity and pain. Pasolini’s Oedipus, by contrast, was almost silent (there was dialogue, but very little of it) and unmitigated by consoling theatricality. Distant figures crept across a scrubby desert. Thebes’s mud walls rose, like an organic growth, from the bare ground. The leading actor’s face was thuggish and inexpressive. The soundtrack was dominated by the soughing of the wind. Pasolini used barely a line of Sophocles’s verse, but I remember the film as having a desolate grandeur unmatched by any of the theatrical productions I have seen since. It was nothing like the tragedies acted out by masked performers in 5th-century Athens, but its harsh beauty felt appropriate to the Bronze Age legends on which those tragedies were based.

Those legends are still attracting new interpreters. “The finest tragedies are always on the story of some few families,” wrote Aristotle. He was thinking of the House of Atreus, whose terrible sequence of internecine killings provides the material for Colm Tóibín’s latest novel; of Oedipus’s incest-entangled web of relationships, now unravelled by Natalie Haynes; of Medea, the heroine of David Vann’s Bright Air Black, a sorceress whose royal status, adventurous spirit and unearthly powers have all been eclipsed in the collective memory by her shocking transgression against family values – the slaying of her own children.

Sexual politics has been intrinsic to these tales since the Greek tragedians first explored them: 21st-century gender politics isn’t going beyond, merely keeping pace with, the thinking of the ancients here. ­Aeschylus framed the Oresteia as a conflict between mother-right and father-right and concluded with a judgement from Athena. The motherless goddess, born from her father’s head – woman but also all-man – ordains that humanity must find a way to reconcile the male and female principles. When Robert Icke, in his recent adaptation of the Oresteia, located the origin of the family’s trouble in Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter – the killing of a girl child for the sake of her father’s manly honour – he wasn’t making an anachronistically feminist point: he was faithfully following Euripides.

So there is nothing new about the way modern reinterpretations zoom in on the women. Colm Tóibín gives the husband-killing Clytemnestra a voice; Natalie Haynes does the same for Jocasta, the mother of her son’s children, and for one of her daughters. As for David Vann, he allows Medea to devour him and his readers: to read his book is to be swallowed down into her mad mind.

In House of Names Clytemnestra is the initial narrator. Tóibín has written about many mothers, including, in The Testament of Mary, the mother of Christ. None of them conforms to any sentimental ideal of the maternal. This one is particularly problematic. Clytemnestra was duped into delivering her daughter Iphigenia to a horrible death. She was an adulteress who took a lover while her husband, Agamemnon, was away at war, and subsequently murdered that husband. She killed the enslaved Trojan princess Cassandra out of jealousy. She so signally failed to win the love of her surviving children, Electra and Orestes, that they killed her.

Tóibín, writing in grandly simple, declaratory prose, gives her a raging energy and a bitter intelligence. The unfolding of the story she tells – that he tells through her – will surprise few readers, but he structures it subtly enough to maintain its tension. Clytemnestra speaks at first in flashback, recounting the ghastly tale of Iphigenia’s sacrifice from a much later point in time, while Agamemnon’s and Cassandra’s bodies lie exposed outside the palace walls. The violence is gruesome and Tóibín doesn’t spare us any horror, but the folding of chronology creates a kind of decorous formality.

Clytemnestra’s story is one we know. When Tóibín shifts his attention to her son Orestes the book becomes stranger, its narrative more original and its tone more hallucinatory. None of the canonical texts tells us much of what Orestes was up to in the interim between his father’s murder and his own return, years later, to avenge it. The ancient sources speak of him growing up in a foreign court. Tóibín ignores that tradition and has him marched off instead, along with a column of other boy hostages, and imprisoned in an infernal complex of caves. He escapes with a charismatic older boy, a teenaged guerrilla named Leander. They wander through a landscape of poisoned wells and killer-infested groves as inhospitable as Pasolini’s imagined desert.

The journey makes for a haunting story, largely because Tóibín tells it in spare, resonant prose, from Orestes’s point of view. He is a child and then a bewildered, emotionally stunted adolescent. Filtered through his consciousness, his dangerous exile and even more dangerous return to his mother’s court are at once materially vivid and bafflingly vague. He just doesn’t understand the political and sexual currents eddying around him, and his incomprehension makes them all the more potently alarming.

Tóibín’s other addition to the story is a reimagining of the usually opaque Aegisthus, Clytemnestra’s lover and accomplice. Here he is not just Agamemnon’s rival in love and power: he is his shadow and counter-image, a king of darkness. Confined in a dungeon beneath the palace, he commands a hidden, irregular army. Once released he becomes a sexual predator, roaming the palace corridors by night in search of men or women to suit his appetites. After Electra’s coup d’état Aegisthus’s legs are broken to prevent him from leaving to establish a rival power base. Immobile in his chair, he still dominates the council meetings.

It is probably too simple-minded to ­suppose, just because Tóibín is Irish, that we should read into this a reworking of Ireland’s history of clandestine armies and generation-spanning revenges. Yet the tentative hopefulness of his book’s ending, involving the fading of a grim ghost, a benign forgetting and a baby’s birth, does seem to speak (albeit quietly) of better times.

“Can you name another man who has ever done what you have done?” Thus Tóibín’s Leander to Orestes. A son’s killing of his mother is an unheard-of transgression. Orestes realises that he is being kept at hand by the ruthless new regime as a
potentially useful tool, because he “had proved to them that he was someone who would do anything”. Medea’s crime – a mother’s killing of her sons – is the mirror image of his own, and breaches an equally powerful taboo.

In Tóibín’s Mycenae, a culture defined by its gods is giving way to a secular society. Clytemnestra has stopped praying: “The gods have their own unearthly concerns, unimagined by us. They barely know we are alive.” By the end, her consciousness fading, the only deity she can remember is the inhuman rapist who defiled her mother – Zeus, in the form of a swan. Her daughter Electra laments that as obfuscating superstition dwindles, the world is increasingly exposed to the light of day. That enlightenment, Electra thinks, is a blight. “Soon it will be a world barely worth inhabiting.” The world David Vann’s Medea inhabits is subject to no such diminishing daylight. We are in a dark age.

Rachel Cusk recently updated Euripides to present Medea as a modern wronged wife. Vann does the reverse. He is not interested in drawing parallels with banal, latter-day domestic upsets: he is conjuring up a pre-classical sorceress cloaked in darkness, fornicating on the deck of the Argo amidst the decomposing remains of her dead brother’s body and opening her mouth to show the vile worm that lies where her tongue should be.

His Medea has doubts about the myths that supposedly explain her world. If the sun is her grandfather, how come the human race, which should be only two generations old, is so numerous? But she has no understanding to put in its place. Her eye is innocent, not in the judgemental moral sense but literally. She knows what the golden fleece is – one of the sheepskins used to pan for gold in the rivers of Thrace and left glittering with gold dust – yet she knows almost nothing else. Her wonder at the sea, and the way its water buoys her up, prompts a beautiful passage. Her freedom from guilt verges on the absurd. She is a kind of Martian, travelling to us not from outer space but from the deep past.

Vann’s novel shares with Tóibín’s book an interest in power: how to get and keep it, how legitimacy is trumped by assertiveness. Just as Orestes, returning to Mycenae, is baffled to find that, king’s son though he is, no one sees him as a potential ruler, so Medea and Jason share a naive belief that when they return with the sparkly sheepskin the old king will abdicate the kingdom to them. He doesn’t. The novel’s narrative swings round on the shocking passage in which it dawns on Medea that her betrayals and outrages aren’t to be rewarded with a throne, but have delivered her into slavery.

Vann’s title is borrowed from Robin Robertson’s version of Euripides’s Medea. Vann is indebted to poets, and he grants himself great poetic licence in his handling of syntax. His prose is as hacked and chopped as the corpse of poor King Pelias after Medea has bewitched his daughters into jointing him for a stew. It is as though Medea, barbarian from an immeasurably ancient world, has yet to reach the evolutionary moment when the human mind comprehended that causes had consequences, and sentences have main verbs. Vann writes always from her point of view. The resulting narrative can be wearisome, like spending time with someone too stoned to think connectedly, but it is also vivid, often appalling, sometimes piercingly
sad and frequently striking. This Medea is all sensory perception, no reflection. “The men wet and shining, skin burnt dark. Medea’s skin far whiter, turning red now, painful.” And so it goes on, right down to the final horror. “Hot blood on her hands, Aeson [her little son] jerking against her side.”

If Vann drags the reader with him into chaos and old night, Natalie Haynes seems intent on illuminating and rationalising the cluster of legends about Oedipus and his family. Haynes is an expert populariser. Her story is enriched by archaeological know-how. She gives us a clear account of the layout of the palace at Thebes. She describes markets and dresses, pots and meals. In its physical details, her story is a plausible reconstruction of urban life in a Greek palace-state – complete with obsidian mirrors and wax writing-tablets, dark rooms and sacrificial fires.

She has two narratives, arranged in orderly fashion in alternating chapters. The story of Jocasta’s marriage, widowhood and remarriage to a good-looking young stranger (who turns out to be her own son) is told in the third person, simply and realistically. Ismene, one of her daughter/grand-daughters, narrates the chapters that deal with her experience. She is attacked by an assassin. She looks on as her brothers compete for power in Thebes. She distrusts her uncle Creon. She doesn’t reveal, until the very end, when she is about to be reunited with him, that she knows why her father is a blind wanderer, and why her mother is dead.

The bipartite structure is efficient. The narrative progresses satisfyingly. But Haynes not only demystifies, she demythologises, stripping the story of its ­numinous charge. King Laius is homosexual: he orders a slave to take his place in the marriage-bed and impregnate his young wife (which means that Oedipus’s inadvertent killing of him is not actually a parricide). The sphinx is neither a fabulous monster nor a riddler: it is a predatory tribe. Jocasta kills herself not because she is shamed by the revelation of her incest, but because she has been infected with the plague and doesn’t want to pass it on to her children.

There are horrors certainly, but they are mundane ones. Eteocles’s corpse lies rotting in the sun when Creon denies it burial, but it is ghastly for its smell, and the circling vultures, rather than the offence against ­human dignity and divine decree. Even the characters’ names have been deprived of the resonance two and a half millennia of remembering have given them. Antigone and Ismene become here “Ani” and “Isy” – two ordinary girls in a tricky situation. The book is entertaining, but Pasolini it most certainly is not. Aristotle, who expected these stories to purge their audiences’ minds by overwhelming them with pity and terror, would have been sorely disappointed. 

House of Names 
Colm Tóibín
Viking, 263pp, £14.99

Bright Air Black 
David Vann
William Heinemann, 252pp, £18.99

The Children of Jocasta 
Natalie Haynes
Mantle, 336pp, £16.99

Lucy Hughes-Hallett is the author of “Heroes: Saviours, Traitors and Supermen” (Harper Perennial). Her latest novel, “Peculiar Ground”, is newly published by Fourth Estate

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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