Why the Femslash Gap?

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The question of why m/m slash holds such a predominating and prolific place in fandom relative to f/f slash is one that has been circulating in fandom for decades, and understandably so. The disparity is quite significant, and although the gap has been decreasing a bit in recent years, “dudeslash” definitely still reigns supreme in fandom OTP rankings. So really, what gives?

This article is a tentative effort to lay out, and think through some of the potential reasons why this gap persists with such fervor. My aim is most definitely not to come to a single unilateral explanation because I do not believe there is one. Rather I am going to suggest that the femslash gap is a product of many overlapping, interlocking forces, some of them likely related to questionable fandom biases (internalized misogyny, queer female phobia), but many of them also likely about subverting and excising patriarchal cultural constructions of gender and of sexuality.

Therefore, think of this as rather like a substantive “brainstorm,” a list of possibilities and suggestions which is certainly not exhaustive, and which probably all deserve to be examined in greater individual depth than is viable in this article alone. Two more caveats before the main event. First, understand that I must speak here about trends in very broad strokes terms, with full awareness that there are always exceptions, and that not all points will be applicable to every single slash fan in every single circumstance. Some of my points, for instance, address the issue of bodily sexual arousal and fantasy related specifically to anatomy; while it would certainly be incorrect to assume all women have the same anatomy, or that all fans are cisgender, or identify as women, cis women do make up by far the largest chunk of slash fans, and this is a significant factor in understanding slash fandom trends in aggregate.

Second addendum, highly related to the first, is that while I understand slash is not remotely reducible to the pornographic or the explicitly sexual – who doesn’t love a good fluff fest every now and then? – this essay operates on the premise that explicit sexual fantasy is often a highly relevant factor in which characters get slashed by whom. For most slash fans, explicit erotics are a primary (if not singular) force guiding a fair amount of their fandom practices and proclivities, and this is treated as axiomatic in much of what follows.

Finally, a warning. This rest of this article will address certain sexual topics explicitly. It is not G-rated going forward.

Working Theories on the Femslash Gap

  1. Not as many interesting, multifaceted female characters, and fewer substantial female/female relationships to draw from in pop-culture. Fanworks are by definition derivative works, and fans are somewhat limited by the offerings of mainstream culture. Granted, fans sometimes create huge, substantial fanworks and communities around very minor characters and pairings with very little canon to work from (*cough*ClintCoulson*cough*) Therefore this cannot be a singularly definitive explanation. Nevertheless, most of the ‘top-tier’ dudeslash pairings are about main characters who typically have a lot of canon text underlying them. So women’s continuing marginalization in mainstream media probably remains a factor here.
  1. Audience bias against female characters/internalized misogyny. While mainstream media sometimes is to blame for creating less substantial, interesting, well-rounded, sympathetic, multifaceted female characters, fans and audiences are also sometimes to blame for being too hard on female characters. Although most slash fans are women, women in patriarchal societies can still have internalized misogyny, and we are often less forgiving of female characters and much more likely to dismiss them as “boring,” “annoying,” “bitches,” pick your epithet as preferred. There does seem to be a general fandom and audience propensity to be more sympathetic to male characters, give them more leeway, accord more nuance to their motivations and perspectives, and just generally treat them as deeper and more interesting (especially if they are white).

Of course, it is often hard to know in any given circumstance whether a female character really is written as less deep/interesting/complex (option 1) or whether audiences are simply treating her that way (option 2). I would wager it is six to five and pick ‘em on any given day, and there’s nothing that says both cannot be true to some degree at the same time, either.

  1. Women being more predisposed to identify with male characters. While second-wave feminism unilaterally derided being “male-identified,” this is probably a more complicated dynamic than simple internalized misogyny. First, texts typically invite everyone to identify most heavily with the protagonist(s) of the story, and male characters still make up the majority of protagonists in our pop culture. Second, in cases where female characters really are less well-written, it arguably is a sign of self-worth for women to identify more with the substantial male character over the one-dimensional, cardboard cut-out female ones.  While always disidentifying with female characters might be a sign of internalized misogyny, it might also be a recognition that a lot of female characters (as currently written) do not do justice to the complexity of real women, and well-written male characters actually make for better reflections of our full humanity than badly written female ones.
  1. Women-as-love-interest fatigue. Pop-culture narratives about women are far more likely to make romance a foundational premise – rom-coms, soap operas, chicklit – and women in stories about men are often put there primarily to be wives, girlfriends, one-night stands, unattainable crushes, etc. Woman-as-love-interest is currently one of the most exhausted gender norms in mainstream culture, and femslash debatably doubles down on that trend. Granted, women are not typically playing love interests to other women, so there is some novelty to femslash relative to your standard Bond-girl or manic pixie scenario. But still, I can see why many women might have an all-around love-interest fatigue when it comes to female characters that would make them want to avoid it in their fanworks.
  1. Femslash still has the whiff of the male-gaze hovering over it, unfortunately. Stipulated, femslash is not the equivalent of male-oriented ‘lesbian’ porn, not even close. Femslash often accords its female protagonists a great deal of inner depth, and is often about exploring feelings of intense love between women, and not just purely sexual exchange. However, even when that is the case, it still falls much more easily in line with a hetero-male fantasy scenario than does m/m slash. No matter how much depth and nuance and broad-ranging emotional gravitas femslash protagonists are given, they can still be much more easily appropriated by straight men, and that prospect can sour the experience for a lot of female fans (be they queer women or straight).
  2. “Conceal don’t feel” is more of a cultural norm for men/male characters. Fanfiction and fanworks are often about exploring the inner-lives of characters and particularly their potentially concealed feelings, thoughts and desires. Men and male characters arguably make for better targets of this because, in accordance with certain gender norms, they are more often written with a propensity to hide or deny their emotions. See Eric Kripke’s famous comment about loving to write about straight men because they are never honest about their feelings.
    Eric Kripke

    Eric Kripke

    Repression and denial of feelings is more commonly depicted through male characters, and audiences are more likely to suspect male characters of concealing their emotions, both of which makes exploring their inner thoughts and feelings more compelling from a fan stand-point. (Also note the female character who sang that famous line is part of a very popular femslash pairing herself)

  1. Fanfiction (and writing more generally) is an act of control. Yes, fans often make fanworks about characters because we like them; affection sometimes bordering on all-out worship can be an aspect of why we choose to appropriate certain characters in our fan doings. But writing, and fan-production more broadly, are also undeniably about exercising power over characters as well. Arguably it makes sense why women in a patriarchal society would display more desire to control male characters than female ones, and why they might garner more satisfaction in dictating what male characters do and think and feel. Yes, the preference for dudeslash might be indicative of the fact that women are trained to like men and male characters more than other women. But it could just as easily be about the fact that women get more satisfaction out of controlling men/male characters because it is a complete inversion of the power dynamic under which they live normally.
  2. Many women feel less bound by ‘reality’ when representing (cis) male bodies. Fanfic often creates sexualized renderings of cis male bodies that are quite dramatic and almost otherworldly in their experiences of things like arousal, sexual intercourse, orgasm, etc. Large amounts of cis women perhaps find it more appealing to write about sexual bodily experiences that are ‘foreign’ to their own because unfamiliar bodies can often sustain a great deal more sexual hyperbole and suspension of disbelief. Because I don’t know what an erection, or prostate stimulation feels like, my mind can inflate and dramatize the experience with a lot less reservation. Women writing about cis female bodies probably feel a lot more constrained by “realism,” in other words. Exploration of cis male bodies enables a lot more freedom to imagine and hyperbolize sexual experiences for the sake of fantasy. (This dynamic might also be relevant to understanding A/B/O dynamics, and the sexual fetishization of non-human anatomy in many fics and pairings)
  1. Wanting the inaccessible/novel experience. In addition to the above, it is also possible that female fans are simply looking to experience in fanfic what they cannot experience in real life. People approach fiction in a multiplicity of ways, sometimes via things like identification and representation – wanting to see our world and experiences reflected in media. But fiction is also often a site of exploration for experiences we can’t have in real life or would not want to have in real life, but which we enjoy fantasizing about from a ‘safe-distance’ (e.g. disaster movies). It is possible many cis women enjoy dudeslash as a vicarious kind of sexual experience that is totally inaccessible to them in the real world, unlike femslash. Exploration of sex through fiction can be about exploring experiences that are simply unattainable to us in reality, thus men are a much heavier site of exploration for women, not because men are better or superior, but because they are simply Other.
  2. There’s a difference between who is a text is ‘about’ and who a text is about. Although it is worth examining who we include and exclude from our cultural productions (fan-made and otherwise), it is equally important to remember that just because a text depicts a group of people, that text still is not necessarily about that group of people. No one thinks because Hustler magazine is full to the brim with depictions of naked women that it is about  women. Clearly it is about the presumed straight male reader, even when male bodies are totally absent from the textual content. Just because dudeslash is ‘about’ men that does not always mean it is about men. Texts can completely exclude a group of people, while also being entirely about them as audience members.
  1. Wanting what is harder to get. Granted there are not enough queer love stories or characters in popular culture full stop. But even with femslash being far less popular relative to dudeslash, femslash pairings are still WAY more likely to go canon than are dudeslash pairings. Xena/Gabrielle. Korra/Asami. Root/Shaw. Brittany/Santana. Mulan/Aurora. And female characters are also far more likely to be written as queer later on in a story, without having been introduced as such at the outset. Willow Rosenberg. Clarke Griffin. Annalise Keating. Callie Torres. Alana Bloom. Marissa Cooper. Tara Thornton. The list goes on. My thesis here is not necessarily that queer women unilaterally have it “better” than queer men, but that female characters are demonstrably far more likely to (narratively) transition to being queer, than are male characters, even with the far greater fandom advocacy that exists for male characters and pairings. As such, there may be an element of simply wanting what remains most withheld.

Again, I concede that this brainstorm is likely incomplete, so please, feel free to use the comments section to add to it as you see fit. This issue is multifaceted and immensely complicated and I doubt it could be fully encapsulated in the likes of a PhD thesis, much less an online editorial.

Nancy Hartsock once suggested that feminism is “a method of approaching politics, a way of asking questions and searching for answers, rather than a set of political conclusions about the oppression of women.” I often return to this quote when I think about the question of dudeslash versus femslash and how we ought to understand gender disparities in various fandom practices. None of this is simple, or easily understood, and although the patriarchy is operational in all domains of public life, the preference for dudeslash cannot simply be reduced to the power of The Patriarchy™ given how intensely rebuked and reviled it is often is by hetero-men and mainstream culture.

We should ask questions about fandom biases of all kinds, and we should try to understand how things like sexism, misogyny, racism, certain brands of homophobia and biphobia, and ableism manifest in our subculture. We have an obligation to ask such question and to seriously consider all possible explanations. The femslash gap needs further discussion and address, unequivocally. But in pursuing this aim, I would argue it is particularly imperative to approach the question with every ounce of nuance and complexity of which we are capable, and to avidly resist the impulse to fall back on reductive, pat answers like it’s just internalized misogyny, or most women in fandom are straight and primarily attracted to men. To do that is to fail to engage with the current (and longtime) messiness of both fandom, and gendered reality. Which it to say, it is to not take the question seriously.

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About Author

Rachel is a PhD drop-out and fangirl extraordinaire (at least on her better days). She is painfully addicted to genre TV and follows too many shows to list. But some of her current favorites include Supernatural, Lucifer and Bob's Burgers. She also has a deep-seated love of kittens and red wine.

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2 Comments on "Why the Femslash Gap?"

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Member
October 20, 2015 7:06 am

I really admire how you’ve explored the issue here!

Guest
October 21, 2015 5:04 am
Very well thought-out write-up, bravo! As a person who started out with reading smut pretty indiscriminately and then quickly narrowed down to slash, let me add my perspective. I stopped reading het after a particularly hard episode of post-orgasm blues. One minute i was reading this dubiously consensual yet explosively pleasurable story and the next I lay there with the printout slightly creased on my chest and the feelings of emptiness inside me. The contrast between the protagonist, who was desired, coveted and pleasured and me – who felt really undesirable for years was too much to bear. When I… Read more »
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