I have always felt that one of the biggest arguments against slash fanfiction is that it often takes gay romances and makes them heteronormative. In doing so, fanfic can become both degrading and homophobic.
There are a lot of issues to unpack here and for that reason this might end up being a topic I go back to again. Furthermore, this problem is tied to other issues I won’t touch on too much in this post because either I or one of the other authors have already addressed them in a different one.
So let’s attempt to deal with this complex issue by first explaining what heteronormative means. To put it simply, this term shows how people attempt to make heterosexuality the norm. In this context, it would mean having a gay couple act straight or reflect heterosexuality in some way. This is what’s happening when someone asks two gay men in a relationship who is the “woman” in the relationship. It assumes heterosexual gender norms on a gay couple (it’s also often sexist but I won’t discuss that here).
This is offensive for several reasons. One reason is that it erases any experience or identity of homosexuality by asserting that homosexuality must have male and female gender roles to be valid—basically claiming that homosexuality is really just heterosexuality with same sex partners. Secondly, it is offensive to the individuals in that relationship by potentially casting them in roles that they don’t feel comfortable with; for example, a woman who identifies strongly as female and prefers feminine gender roles might be told she is the “butch one” in the relationship. With gay couples, one of the two partners almost always has their gender identity taken from them, whether by casting one half of a gay couple in a female role or one half of a lesbian couple in a male role.
Another way something can become heteronormative is when, despite the source material depicting gay characters in a sexual relationship, it is written primarily with straight viewers in mind. This issue has been thoroughly discussed when it comes to the issue of lesbian porn. Lesbian porn is almost never made with lesbian audiences in mind. Rather, it is made for and marketed toward straight men. This reduces lesbianism from a legitimate sexuality to a fetish. By fetishizing lesbianism, the porn industry is basically saying that lesbians only exist for straight male pleasure.
Slash fanfiction is, similarly, often accused both of casting gay couples in straight roles and of fetishizing homosexuality.
For the rest of this post, I will largely focus on the idea that slash fanfiction is fetishizing gay relationships. I should also state that I will be focusing largely on slash fanfiction and not femslash partly because there is more slash fanfiction, but mostly because it is largely believed that most fanfiction is written by straight women for other straight women.
Let’s briefly address the first issues of making gay relationships heterosexual. I have briefly touched on this before, but that post mostly dealt with sex, which plays into fetishization, which I will get into in a second. So for now I am not going to mention sex at all. Rather, I will look at how relationships are portrayed in slash fanfiction. Many times when a pairing is collectively conceived by a fandom, there is often a debate over who is the man and who is the woman in the relationship. This plays out in a real way when fans debate who’s on top and who’s on bottom in sexual intercourse, which I have talked about before. But this debate also plays out in what gender roles the characters are cast in within fanfics. Captain Kirk is a big tough manly man, right? So of course in that AU domestic fanfic Kirk will be fulfilling the male gender roles and Spock will then get to fulfill the female ones, meaning Kirk will be protective and aggressive while Spock is loving and nurturing. Often one character is considered less “manly” by fans and is then cast in the female role, because obviously there has to be one, right?
(For the record, I am aware the Kirk/Spock usually doesn’t use these clearly defined gender roles, at least from what I have seen. Which is why I used them in this example to show how weird it can be to put stereotypical male and female gender roles onto two very male characters who are gay.)
Sometimes fandom pairings come along that aren’t portrayed this way. Or there is so much debate over the power dynamics and roles in a relationship that eventually the fandom produces a well-rounded and thought-out sense of the couple without confining them to heterosexual gender roles. But often these heteronormative stereotypes are used in fanfiction.
Now we have to get into the big question: is slash fanfiction fetishizing homosexuality?
One of the reasons that fanfiction is criticized for fetishizing homosexuality is that it is mostly written by straight women for straight women. However, there don’t seem to be any cohesive studies done on the demographics in the fanfiction community. In my own experience, most fanfic authors appeared to be women, but not all are straight. Many authors I know or have read are a part of the LGBTQ community. One of my favorite authors is asexual but predominantly writes fanfiction about gay male couples.
Now just because these fanfics are written by women who might not be straight, it doesn’t necessarily make things better. Just because an author is a homosexual woman it doesn’t mean she’ll have insight into what it’s like being a gay man and vice versa. Furthermore, despite the sexuality of the author, they could still be writing the fanfic with the intent to appeal to a straight audience. A lesbian woman could be directing a lesbian porno but if she is telling the women to do things she knows don’t really appeal to lesbians, but do appeal to straight men, she is still contributing to the fetishization of her own sexuality.
Authors’ intentions are much harder to decipher, unless of course an author openly states they added something to get audience attention. I have had several fanfic authors tell me that they added slash ships to their stories because they knew it would get them more views. And other authors have told me that despite having many gen, het, or femslash ideas for fanfics, they didn’t feel motivated to write them because they knew their fandom wouldn’t read them unless there was a well-known slash ship in the story.
There is also just a basic understanding of sex. There is an excellent video that shows lesbian reactions to lesbian porn and the women are just disgusted by how the porn actresses have sex. I often wonder if gay men read slash fanfiction and cringe at simply how unrealistically the sex is written. Now this can happen with any sex in fanfiction, whether it’s homosexual or not. Sex in any sort of porn is unrealistic, but the sex itself in slash fanfiction can be heterosexualized. I have already discussed how this works in the case of “who tops,” but another big issues is how some authors treat a man’s anus as if it works exactly the same as a vagina except without natural lubricant.
Lovers of slash fanfiction become very defensive in the face of these critiques, especially since fanfiction is seen as giving voice to those groups that are marginalized in the main stream media. And there are some fanfic authors who do that, but there are others that definitely heterosexualize and fetishize gay men. It is better to recognize when these problems occur rather than ignore them for fear of demonizing all of fanfiction.