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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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The reason chicken is a popular British food? Because we started factory farming

In the 1950s, chicken was seen as an elite food and was expensive.

Chlorine-washed chickens, hormone-fed beef and pork raised on growth-promoting antibiotics. It doesn’t sound very tasty – but this is what could be lining our supermarket shelves after Brexit. Trade deals could allow an influx of meat into Britain from the US, where lower animal welfare standards mean it can be produced more cheaply. A House of Lords report this week warned this could spark a change in our farming. The high animal welfare and environmental standards we have in the UK (set by EU law) could be eroded to allow British meat to compete with cheaper imports.

Last week, Michael Gove, Defra secretary, reassured parliament he was committed to maintaining current standards after Brexit. "One thing is clear: I do not want to see, and we will not have, US-style farming in this country," he said. Yet some argue US-style farms have already taken over British agriculture, largely under the radar and without a national debate.

Gove was reacting to last week’s report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism which revealed there are now 800 “mega-farms” in the UK, huge industrial units mimicking the feedlots of California or Texas. The biggest can house more than a million chickens, 20,000 pigs or 2,000 cattle. Their emergence is part of a 26 per cent rise in intensive farming in the UK in the last six years.

This rise is mainly due to Britain’s insatiable appetite for chicken. In the 1950s, it was seen as an elite food and was expensive. Just a million were produced a year. Then, intensive farming methods were imported from the US. In 1959, the first fast-processing "poultry factory" was opened in Aldershot. By 1965, the price of poultry had fallen by nearly a third, causing demand to soar. By 1990, almost a quarter of the meat eaten in Britain was chicken or turkey. As birds can be brought to slaughter much more quickly than cows or sheep, it remained cheaper than beef or lamb.

People also began to change their meat-eating habits for health reasons. From the 1970s, government campaigns advised people to eat less fatty red meat. Chicken was seen as a leaner, healthier, alternative.

Now, it is the nation’s favourite meat. Last year, nearly a billion birds were slaughtered and another 400 million imported. Five companies – two of which are owned by multinationals - control most of the poultry production in the UK. Industrial farms are clustered in pockets of the country near their abattoirs and factories. It is causing conflict in the countryside, as local people and campaign groups say they are a blight on the landscape and complain of the smells and disturbance of lorries bringing in grain or taking birds to the abattoir.

Professor Tim Lang of the Centre for Food Policy at City University believes the change to intensive farming has entrenched cheap chicken into our culture. "The more cheap meat these farms produce, the more people eat, the more cheap meat becomes part of the culture and lifestyle. We now have chicken and chips, chicken nuggets, chicken burgers. Chicken is the processed meat of choice," he says. Free range chicken accounts for 3 per cent of the market. Organic – which has the highest animal welfare standards – makes up just 1 per cent.

Yet the actual meat has changed since intensive farms arrived. Experts tested chicken from such farms in 2008 and found it had twice as much fat, a third less protein and a third more calories than in 1940. Gram for gram, it had as much fat as a Big Mac.

Chickens grown for meat are kept in computer-controlled warehouses, with up to 19 birds per square metre (roughly the same amount of space as an A4 piece of paper per bird). They are fed additive-filled, high protein food and the temperature and humidity is controlled so they gain weight. They are taken to be slaughtered when they are five to six weeks old.

Farmers and the food industry say this is the most efficient and green way to produce the meat people want. Inside sheds, the birds are protected from predators while disease and pollution can be controlled. Putting these birds out to pasture would use up more land – land which could be used for houses, parks or kept as countryside. Last June, a Defra survey counted 173 million poultry birds on the ground at that point – though as there are many "crops" of chicken many more are slaughtered in total. If we wanted to raise all those birds to organic conditions, we would take up the same amount of space as the whole of the island of Anglesey.

Animal welfare campaigners say the current "factory farming" system is cruel. Chickens want to feel the sun on their feathers, roll in dust and forage for seeds. Cramped inside a shed, they become stressed and start injuring or cannibalising one other. Food poisoning bugs such as E.coli or campylobacter, many of which are becoming resistant to antibiotics, can spread quickly through a herd. Some 63 per cent of supermarket chickens are now infected with campylobacter, the latest government testing shows, although this has decreased since last year.

The latest report, written by the House of Lords’ EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee, said polls show 80 per cent or more of the UK public want animal welfare standards to be maintained or improved post-Brexit. Yet many consumers are not aware of the difference between intensive and organic farming – and may not be willing to pay a price for premium welfare products, it said.

Lang believes debate should be opened again. People need to understand where their meat comes from and whether they are comfortable with the methods used to make it. The rise in intensive farming is driven by our choices, with food companies and supermarkets acting as our brokers. “If we don’t like it, we must vote with our purses, demand retailers change their contracts and specifications in our name," he says.

‘With Brexit looming, British consumers need to be very clear: do they want animal welfare standards to rise or get swept away in pursuit of cheaper food?’

Madlen Davies is a health and science reporter at The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. She tweets @madlendavies.