Thursday, January 16, 2014

Ship's Log, Supplemental: A Fragment Out of Time

Slash fiction is a thread that's been with us for quite some time already, and it's been with Star Trek arguably since as early as “Where No Man Has Gone Before”. Although certain hardcore fans might not like to admit it, it is unquestionably one of the franchise's most defining and signature motifs: Although slash has existed for pretty much as long as people have been telling stories, the current manifestation of it, the interaction it has with late-20th and early-21st century fan culture, and thus the way it is commonly conceptualized today, can be directly traced back to Star Trek.

There are any number of possible opportunities to discuss slash over the course of the franchise's history, but the one that seems to most appropriate is here, with the first documented piece of Star Trek-inspired slash fiction, Diane Marchant's “A Fragment Out of Time” (Page 1, Page 2), dating to 1974. Marchant submitted it to one of the first (and at the time only) Star Trek zines targeted expressly towards adults, a publication somewhat wonderfully titled Grup. Given the zine's comparatively small audience and interviews she's given after the fact, Marchant never expected it to be the bombshell it ended up becoming.

However I think she really needn't be ashamed, because the piece itself is, perhaps contrary to what one might expect, really quite tame and laudably well-written, describing a night of passionate lovemaking between two parties of whom great care is taken to speak in vagaries (though an accompanying illustration, not to mention the fact it was published in a Star Trek zine, sort of makes it obvious who the two paramours are supposed to be). And “lovemaking” really is the proper term: Marchant is very clearly interested in the intimacy and tenderness shared by her protagonists, and the gentle, poetic tone that permeates the entire piece reflects this. Honestly, as far as slash fiction goes, or really erotica in general, you could do considerably worse for yourself than this.

Like so much fanfiction of its era, Marchant wrote “A Fragment Our of Time” largely as an experiment. However, she also always maintained that she didn't come up with the idea of shipping Kirk and Spock herself, she was merely responding to what she felt was blatant subtext in the original Star Trek and that everyone who watched the show recognised and acknowledged to one degree or another, regardless of whether or not they actually admitted it. Marchant was adamant that the only thing she contributed to the history of Star Trek and the broader fan culture was the first work that was bold enough to put it into words, and I'm more than reasonably convinced she was right.

There was, of course, (and still is, to some extent) some manner of controversy over this opinion. The popular consensus for what happened next (I mean as much as there can be consensus about something as understudied and undervalued as fanfiction) is that “A Fragment Out of Time” caused a great schism amongst Star Trek fans and a firestorm of a debate about how proper the fic itself was and whether Marchant's argument was convincing or not. It would be altogether too easy for me to draw the line between, well, not necessarily fanboys and fangirls, but let's say patriarchal proto-nerd culture and feminist fandom, but it's not quite as simple as that. Remember the vast majority of the invested parties here are still women, including some of Marchant's staunchest critics, like one Connie Faddis, who penned an extremely negative review of “A Fragment Out of Time” and who would go on to be a pioneering figure in the Kirk/Spock scene herself.

But perhaps the most damning evidence that slash fiction didn't cause a huge rift in Star Trek fandom circa 1974 or emerge with the uncomfortable connotations it maybe has nowadays comes from our friend Paula Smith. When questioned about her views on erotic Star Trek stories (or if you prefer straight-up Star Trek pornography) at a convention, Smith gave this sparkling reply (emphasis hers):

“I agree that ST pornography is a lousy thing -- it is so badly written. In search for titillating themes, good or even credible characterization is ignored, and plots degenerate to the simplest push-push gimmickry. A lousy Get-Together story is worse than a lousy Mary-Sue story, because the reader doesn't expect a Mary-Sue necessarily to be any good. If it is uneven, juvenile, or just plain silly, that is typical, and the reader is not disappointed. But when a reader takes up a story on an adult theme, she expects an adult treatment, or ought to. A simpering, or brutal treatment of sex is evil in a most fundamental sense, because such trivializes and degrades our greatest humanity -- love. But sex, and sexuality, per se are not dirty and disgusting.”

Furthermore, when asked specifically about slash during her tenure as editor of the zine S and H when it was at its absolute peak as a debate topic, Smith responded, at once guarded, cheekily and triumphantly

“Some folks are hobbits: they need to be aware there are wider vistas than that of Bag End. Some are wizards: they must take care not to strike and blast as forcibly as they feel like, because there is always some fuzz-footed clown out there just itching to swipe yer Ring. The most useful thing anyone can learn is when to shut up. Like now.”

which I think is just hilarious, as she has documented Starsky and Hutch BDSM slash fanfic to her name.

So if slash is something Star Trek fandom at large circa 1974 seems on-the-whole comfortable with and the only real new ground Marchant is breaking is putting everyone's unspoken assumptions into textual form, the question then becomes, what was it about the original Star Trek that made it so easy for widespread and near-universal slashing to happen to the point a significant majority of fans seemingly took it for granted? We briefly talked about this back in the post on “And The Children Shall Lead”, but, to elaborate, Star Trek in general, though particularly the original series, exists at a unique junction of events and factors that make the evolution of slash an almost predictably logical outcome in retrospect. We've discussed at length one of the primary reasons why, which is that Star Trek was, even amongst the notoriously puritanical climate of US television, heavily sexually repressed and confused.

Gene Roddenberry never did quite manage to get a handle on how to handle writing women and approaching gender roles, even though he does get considerably better at it come Star Trek: The Next Generation. The closest he's gotten so far has been “Turnabout Intruder”, which was still ludicrously problematic and the fact it worked to the extent it did when it did was primarily due to William Shatner and Sandra Smith. Her employing Margaret Armen aside, D.C. Fontana gets it, though she prefers to demonstrate her feminism in far more subtle ways that work within the framework Star Trek already established for itself.

And yet Star Trek has proven to be wildly popular with women-So much so that literally none of the fan literature and history I've been able to dig up about this era even mentions the fact that men probably watched the show too, unless you count the most likely at-least-partially staged “Save Star Trek!” campaign and its strong technoscience undertones. This is self-evidently because, at least on the surface, Star Trek claims to envision a world where differences between genders no longer matter. That alone is an incredibly powerful declaration, and, in my opinion, may be the single most important thing about the entire franchise.

But even aside from its embrace of feminism (as tentative and clunky as it may often be), Star Trek has always been quite sexy and sexual, and I don't mean because the women wore miniskirts in the 1960s and 1970s and there are a lot of one-off alien ladies. Spock is simply way too easy to read this way, I mean “Amok Time” alone practically demands it. He's a very sexually repressed and conflicted character, and whether or not Roddenberry meant for his inner struggle between logic and sensuality to be a metaphor for that, it works too well to ignore (although it's also worth remembering D.C. Fontana has attempted to correct this not once, but twice: First in “Journey to Babel” and then, more blatantly and effectively, in “Yesteryear”). Either way, because of this conflict and repression, it's especially easy to see Spock as in some sense a closeted character, as the closet is all about keeping up appearances that are really a facade to disguise the way you truly view yourself.

Then there's Kirk, or perhaps I should say William Shatner. Kirk as written, at least early on, is flatly not terribly interesting. He's a generic leading man. But Shatner, being firstly an extremely talented theatre actor and secondly someone who immediately recognised how overstuffed and pretentious Roddenberry had made Star Trek, from the very beginning set about trying to knock the show down a few pegs and get it to loosen up. So Shatner deliberately overacts, playing Kirk not at all straight, but as a kind of subtly exaggerated caricature. Subtly exaggerated caricature, or in other words “playing a role and getting it ever-so-slightly-wrong”, is also something that is sometimes associated with gay male culture because, as best I understand it, calling attention to one's own artifice was something that, at least at one time, could be used as a kind of secret language with which members of an underground and oppressed culture could communicate with each other (in fact, the connection between gay male culture and theatrical performativity may even be where get “straight” a synonym for heterosexual).

Now this is not at all to suggest Shatner or Nimoy were playing their characters gay per se (although if I recall correctly there was a point I think in the third season of the original series where both actors have gone on record basically admitting they started to do precisely this and were stunned it took people decades to figure it out. I mean it sure is hard to read at least “And The Children Shall Lead”, “Spock's Brain” and “Turnabout Intruder” any other way), it's just that the way Nimoy wound up conceiving of Spock and the way Shatner played Kirk ended up paralleling very nicely with things that were also considered part of gay male culture at one point. That aside, another reason it became so easy to ship Kirk and Spock was because, well, they were really the only characters who were allowed to express their emotions to one another.

The primary reason for this was network standards and practices. Ostensibly the leading man, Kirk wasn't allowed to actually become emotionally intimate with any women (even Janice Rand, who was originally supposed to be Kirk's closest confidant) as there could be absolutely no implication of anything untoward going on off-camera, because this was still an era where sex was still largely seen as obscene by at least the people paying the salaries of the cast and crew. This is the real reason Kirk had to be “married to the ship and the job”, although some of that may have come from Roddenberry too (though I doubt too much of it, given his relationship with Majel Barrett). This is also why so many of the female guest stars seemed disposable and interchangeable because, well, they were. This meant that if the show wanted to have any actual character moments in between the stupid fight scenes, they had to be between the supposedly very heterosexual and virile close friends. Of course, given the way Nimoy and Shatner played their characters, this was not entirely successful in dissuading assumptions about the crew getting busy with each other in their off-hours.

So we have two characters who are built out of theatrical tropes that were also associated with at least a part of gay male culture at one point and the only people they can be emotional, honest and intimate with is each other. Kirk said she was closer to Spock than anyone else in the universe in “Turnabout Intruder” for a reason, because, from a narrative standpoint, that's literally, actually the case. That's the exact logic the show works by. I mean, you do the math: How do you think fans were going to read that? Believe it or not, they tend to be a rather savvy bunch. Savvier, I daresay, then studio and network executives. But that said, there's another side to this: In spite of all the overtures we can make to gay male culture, slash fiction remains if not the exclusive domain of, at least very strongly associated with, straight women.

It is an unspoken, though widely held, belief in the pop consciousness that straight women are overwhelmingly interested in gay male erotica. That's not to say gay men don't indulge in it themselves, but so do straight women, and enthusiastically so. And the thing about a lot of slash, including “A Fragment Out of Time”, is that it is, counterintuitively, actually very strongly heteronormative, or at least heterosexual and heteroerotc. There was a Tumblr post making the rounds awhile back as of this writing that summarised the phenomenon quite well: The author made the point that the vast majority of the most famous and beloved slash pairings consisted of a light-haired, gregarious, outgoing “badass” character and a quieter, more reserved dark-haired character who frequently plays the support role to his partner. Most recently, you can see this manifest in Dean Winchester and Castiel in Supernatural and Merlin and Arthur in the 2005 BBC Merlin, and in fact it seems to have become so ubiquitous it seems to have been a deliberate casting choice on the part of the latter show specifically to encourage the slashers. Others, like Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss' Sherlock and Weda's The Hobbit trilogy, seem to invert and play with this archetype for a variety of reasons. The author then goes on to trace this trend all the way back to what's seen as the pioneering, archetypical slash pairing: Kirk and Spock.

Now, this makes going back and re-reading “A Fragment Out of Time” interesting, because Kirk is very clearly portrayed as the dominant, “masculine” sexual partner, and Spock the submissive, “feminine” one, as it's his reactions that are depicted in the most flowery and voyeuristic detail. Even if you extrapolate this out to non-sexual slash, this pattern holds: There always tends to be an energetic “masculine” half of the pairing and a reserved, demure, supportive, “feminine” half. The whole idea of dominant and submissive power structures in sexual relationships, and the further conflation of this with “male” and “female” poles is extremely heteronormative. Yes, Western society is *so* patriarchal and misogynistic that even a power structure this heteronormative is paradoxically only acceptable if it's shown being acted out by two gay men because it conveniently cuts the bothersome woman out of the picture.

Now this is not to say that slash isn't just as much about storytelling as it is sexuality: After a point, it just starts to make strong narrative sense to ship Kirk and Spock given a lot of the textual evidence on display and the inarguably talented writing pool in the K/S scene were right to point that out in my view. Even Marchant herself recognised this. But I do think a portion of the appeal of slash, at least as far as I can tell, lies within the very traditionally and stereotypical Western heterosexual (albeit traditionally stereotypically Western heterosexual female) fantasy of one person coming in and, through doting support, rehabilitating and healing another, or at least being swept up by a powerful masculine force. It's the exact same reason Twilight was so wildly successful, as this is precisely the way Bella and Edward's relationship worked. Slash isn't so much GLBTQ detournement as much as it is detournement by straight cis women who are trying to find ways to be emotionally validated in an overwhelmingly patriarchal culture whose media artefacts have an unsettling tendency to pretend they don't exist.

This is not, of course, to dismiss slash as necessarily retrograde. I think it serves a very important purpose and as long as Westernism continues to hold such backwards and convoluted attitudes towards gender and sexuality, and so long as Westernism continues to be the dominant intellectual framework for popular discourse, stuff like slash is bound to crop up. I'm just not entirely convinced it's quite as radically queer as I sometimes see it made out to be. It's just like what we learned in “Amok Time”: Everyone has a sexual side (even if for some that sexual side is “null and void”), and trying to pretend it doesn't exist is unhealthy and counterproductive. It's going to manifest somewhere in some form. And we live in a culture where any sexuality other than that of the stereotypically virile heterosexual cis male dom is considered shocking and forced underground. Maybe it's best, and fitting, for us to learn from and share with each other and use our shared marginal positionalities to recognise this.


  1. We're in agreement regarding slash. In a much shallower sense, switching genders for a moment, slash is actually a constant presence in a lot of heterosexual male lives, as evidenced not just by let's say all-female porn popularity, but frankly the commonality of watching any kind of fiction or non-fiction media and your archetypal friend verbalizing how swell he would find it that two female characters "start making out". Male friends certainly aren't opposed to saying it out loud. (It's testament to the progress made that I've on a handful occasions heard heteronormative guys dismiss melodrama and request two male characters just "kiss and get it over with" as well. At least the common public is starting to get pretty savvy about tropish writing and manufactured sexual tension.)

    So slash really seems to speak to the creativity of predominantly female fandom. Because guys may vocalize a desire to see two characters (or actors, or whatever) shipped, but women seem to go out and make art or write about it. But that speaks to the talent and creativity of female humans as a whole, which is hardly surprising. At art school I think our proportionate ratio was something like 10:1 female to male, and I knew many, many girls (primarily in the Communication Design department) who actually submitted and were paid for illustrating slash-fiction on whichever fan-forums and erotica sites they were associated with. Sexuality and art have always been symbiotic needs, and frankly they tend to express themselves in people the same way, so it's no surprise something that existed in the context of the late sixties should be so steeped in it.

    Wrapping up, that comment about "nothing untoward occurring off-camera" is interesting, because it also means we don't get to see as basic a human notion as Kirk say, talking to his guy friends about his love-life. Even if Shatner/Kirk is genuinely connecting with women week by week as opposed to "conquering" notches for his bedpost, even if he's a Casanova rather than a ladykiller, men talk to their friends. But it won't be until Star Trek VI, with Bones at Rura Penthe, that we finally see this happen (though there are hints of it from Gary Mitchell all the way up to Spock and Bones hearing the name "Carol Marcus" and raising a few choice eyebrows.)

  2. Both this and your last article have been brilliant. Subjects I'm mostly or wholly unfamiliar with and given engaging, thought provoking treatments. Some of your best stuff yet, well done.

  3. Are you going to write about "The Procrustean Petard"?

    1. I was planning to look at the New Voyages series all together. Looking it up that one will probably deserve special mention.

    2. That plus the Marshak/Culbreath novels is an odd set of readings. Knowing they were into Rand helps, but only a little.

  4. Yes Josh I like and agree with your conclusion here. Sexuality in many ways is indeed an experience that is generally controlled to travel down one safe channel. So then it is natural for the desires represented by slash to burst out and find expression. And in the end it still kind of feels that slash itself follows also quite narrow channels - I would like to see the day when there is ease with the possibility of a more varied and polymorphous expression of sexuality, where all of our positionalities are no longer 'marginal'. That's something to travel across the seas and stars for eh?

    1. Couldn't have put it better myself.

    2. Thanks man - that's why I am loving your blog, you are touching on subjects important to me. I look forwards to the journey ahead.

  5. It's interesting to compare discussion of slash with its equivalent across the Pacific. Japanese fandoms (and, as a consequence, Anglophone anime fandom) divides fanfic about gay relationships and sex into two categories, yaoi and bara. Yaoi is written primarily by and for an audience of heterosexual women, while bara is written primarily by and for an audience of gay men.

    Notably, yaoi falls *exactly* into the stereotypes you discuss here. Couples are typically comrpised of a seme ("attacker"), who is taller, has more "masculine" physique, features, and speech patterns, is more dominant and aggressive, and if there's explicit anal sex, does the penetrating. By contrast the uke ("defender") is shorter, less masculine, more submissive and passive, and is penetrated.

    In other words, they re-enact stereotypical gender roles in which one is "the woman" and the other "the man"--the whole thing is spectacularly heteronormative and gender essentialist, just like the equivalent structures in by-women for-women slashfic.

    (As an aside, I'm *just* old enough to remember when slash meant *any* non-canon pairing, not just gay men. I wonder when the shift occurred--it definitely hadn't fully taken hold in the early 90s, but definitely had a decade later.)

    1. "(As an aside, I'm *just* old enough to remember when slash meant *any* non-canon pairing, not just gay men. I wonder when the shift occurred--it definitely hadn't fully taken hold in the early 90s, but definitely had a decade later.)"

      So am I. I'm a bit put off by terms like "femslash" as a result, but I'll use them to keep up with linguistic evolution. I'm probably not as careful in my use of the term "slash" in lieu of this as I should be, but I try.

      I'm unsure when the changeover happened myself, but just thinking now I wonder if it had something to do with the increased gender divide over the past twenty years (something that's most pronounced in, incidentally, Japan).