The social politics of 'slash shipping' and fanfiction

Do fangirls who ship male characters together fetishize homosexuality?

By Sheetal Reddy
[contributor]

This isn’t about mail. Shipping, in this context, is when fans of TV shows, movies and literature wish for certain characters to have a romantic relationship. Some fans think it’s harmless, but others say the social implications can be less than lovely.

In fandom world, “ship” is just a shorter form of “relationship.” Slash shipping is a term for non-conventional ships, such as homosexual ships. Websites like Tumblr, Livejournal, Fanfiction.net, and Archive of Our Own (AO3) serve as platforms for message board discussion, romantic fanfiction, and fanart for participants of all fandoms.

In the midst of all the fangirling and fanboying, conflicts inevitably arise within the different communities. Some of the more serious conflicts stem from sexism, misogyny and homophobia, and these can have real-life consequences.

The accusation has been made that female fans fetishize gay men through their depictions of gay relationships in their writing and fanart. The fact that many slash shippers are straight women is enough to fuel this dispute for many.

However, most shippers of any kind of pairing are women. Statistics on FF.net have found that 78 per cent of its members are female. As for the ships, currently the three most popular on AO3 are “Johnlock” (Sherlock Holmes/John Watson from Sherlock), “Destiel” (Dean Winchester/Castiel from Supernatural) and “Sterek” (Stiles/Derek from Teen Wolf). All of these are male/male ships — heterosexual and lesbian ships make their first appearances on the list at numbers 24 and 56, respectively.

Part of this may be due to an established male/male shipping culture that predated the internet. One of the earliest examples of slash shipping comes from Star Trek. The pairing of Captain Kirk and Spock made its debut way back in the 1960s in the form of fanfiction, which depicted them crossing the friendship threshold to varying levels of explicitness.

So how can shipping cross into fetishizing? According to Tumblr user Ghetto-astronauts, fans run the risk of fetishizing homosexuality when they start projecting on to people in real life, or when a character’s sexuality is used solely for entertainment and amusement.

The author of Sci-Fi blog Loving the Alien has confessed that she used to be a huge slash fangirl, but now sees how problematic her behaviour could be. She writes in a post, “I was fetishizing men together, and I don’t necessarily mean sexually. I was romantically fetishizing them as well. I made them into objects of my fantasy, which dehumanized them completely.”

She adds that, “slash suggests that men can’t have meaningful relationships with other men without compromising their own sexuality.”

Often, fanfiction and fanart are said to be created under the “female gaze,” much like how mainstream lesbian pornography is catered to the male gaze. Yet, catering to the female gaze may not necessarily be a bad thing. Criticism major and Tumblr user Rabidbehmoth says shipping communities can allow adolescent women to explore their own sexuality.

“It can be a safe space for teenage girls to explore their heterosexuality through the safe, unconventional lens of homosexuality, which can seem appealingly non-representative of their own sexuality,” she writes, “in a world that tends to deny women the right to express sexual feelings in general.”

Ultimately, it comes down to the fan. What fans ship isn’t as important as how they ship it. There will always be people writing explicit Avengers fanfiction, but what matters is how the writers themselves depict the characters and their relationships.

Many fans who are members of the LGBT community don’t think people should stop slash shipping altogether. One such fan, Tumblr user Sherlocked, says that instead of ignoring the LGBT community, fans should take care as to how they depict gay men in their work, and treat them as normal people.

She writes, “We as queer people shouldn’t have to choose between fetishism and erasure.”

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