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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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“Minoan pendant”: a new poem by Mark Granier

“Yes – I press my nose / to the pleasantly warm glass – / it’s a copy of one I saw / cased in the cool museum”

Yes – I press my nose
to the pleasantly warm glass –
it’s a copy of one I saw
cased in the cool museum –
gold beaten to honey, a grainy
oval dollop, flanked by two
slim symmetrical bees –

garland for a civilisation’s
rise and collapse, eye-dropped
five thousand years: a flash
of evening sun on a windscreen
or wing mirror – Heraklion’s
scooter-life buzzing and humming –

as I step in to browse, become
mesmerised by the warm
dark eyes of the woman
who gives her spiel and moves
softly and with such grace,
that, after leaving, I hesitate

a moment on the pavement
then re-enter with a question
I know not to ask, but ask
anyway, to hear her voice
soften even more as she smiles
and shakes her hair – no.

Mark Granier is an Irish poet and photographer. He is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Haunt (Salmon).

This article first appeared in the 16 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Britain on the brink