Here’s a newsflash for you my fellow slash shippers: Your male/male ships that focus almost exclusively on white men aren’t as progressive or as rebellious as you think they are.
Especially when (not ‘if’) they come at the expense of women and characters of color who have significant intimate relationships with one or both of the two white guys you’re shipping.
Let’s look at a recent and rather galling example: James Bond and the 00q subfandom.
Outside of fandom spaces it is absolutely subversive to queer the patriarchal male power fantasy inherent in Fleming’s Bond and interpretations of it. By shipping him with Q or C or whatever letters of the alphabet you can think of when they’re assigned to a male agent or operative, there’s definitely a sense of getting one over Bond. After all, male power fantasies tend to be overwhelmingly heterosexual and women in relationships with these characters are frequently pushed aside in canon for action or they are treated as spoils of war.
Bond has always been a very heterosexual character (and part of a heterocentric canon – few examples of positive LGBTQUIA representation exists in the films and none exists in the books) so I understand the desire to queer him and his canon.
But at the same time, fandom isn’t doing nearly enough. Most of fandom’s stories focus on the Bond/Q ship and it comes at the direct expense of Bond’s relationships with women in the canon – in particular, his relationship with Naomie Harris’ Eve Moneypenny. Fandom is so busy trying to believe that their rebellion against Fleming’s misogynistic and heterosexist canon is reaching into fandom that they’re not seeing the way that they’re only hitting one level by queering Bond and Q.
(And even still, they’re still absolutely sticking to established patriarchal norms by framing one character (Bond) as the protector/masculine one while the other (Q) is written and drawn as “softer” in a way that the other never is while being locked into caring for the home and child-bearing/rearing.)
Very often, queering characters the only way that these fans can see themselves in media is by making their own fan media and writing characters who have different sexual identities or who are trans. And fanworks do make a difference.
Despite the fact that the powers that be do tend to mock fan fiction as a less worthy enterprise, every article out there that draws reader attention to the fact that there are people out there that really do think that this character isn’t cis or that this other character is bisexual changes people. It creates a sense of community and these often awful articles still do bring people to the table and allow them to explore gender and sexual identity from a relatively safe space.
That’s actually not the issue. I’m one hundred percent behind any movement that gets us diverse fanworks. The issue though, is that at the fannish level, you’re not really subverting anything. At the fannish level, slash-shipping Bond with a nearly endless line of white guys (some of whom he hates, others who hate him) might be bucking against the yoke of the heterocentric parts of the patriarchal canon, but that’s about it.
Because within fandom, slash ships that prioritize white guys are the norm. More than that, they make up most of what fandom produces and consumes in terms of that subcategory. Within fandom, nearly every single popular slash ship is centered on two white men.
This so-called subversion kind of looks like an excuse to erase women from the narrative – to say nothing about the characters of color that get crushed underneath the well-greased wheels of the slash shipping machine. (Seriously, out of the first 40 stories in her own tag on AO3, Eve Moneypenny is maybe a focus in four of them. Maybe. Everything else has her as backup to 00Q.)
The thing is that what’s progressive and what is an actual subversion of tropes to the world outside of fandom spaces isn’t remotely progressive or subversive in fandom itself. The most popular ships in fandom all strongly center white men in positions of fannish attention to the detriment of female characters and characters of color.
You have the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Stony (Steve Rogers and Tony Stark). Shippers of this pairing tend to erase James “Rhodey” Rhodes and Sam Wilson from the two male characters’ lives. They erase Peggy Carter and Pepper Potts as canon romantic relationships.
With Supernatural’s Destiel (Dean Winchester and Castiel) much of the erasure comes at the expense of women. Sadly, with regard to Supernatural a lot of the issues start in the female-unfriendly canon and trickle their way down to fanon. As for POC-erasure in the ship? I don’t even think that there are any characters of color left on the show in a regular role.
And then we have Teen Wolf‘s Sterek (Stiles and Derek). This is actually a fandom issue I’ve been here for and I’m saying that as a Sterek shipper.
The erasure of the main character (who is a man of color as is the star of the show Tyler Posey) was so thorough that for many people, they thought that Stiles was the main character of the show. He barely exists in fanart. Many fan writers decentralize him in his deep friendship with Stiles or erase it entirely. Their characterization of him seems biased towards putting him down so that other (white) characters can shine. The disproportionate amount of fan fiction about Scott versus stories about Stiles (and Derek) sends a serious message towards fans of color.
You have to be this white to get fandom’s attention.
The thing is that the patriarchy isn’t just heterocentric.
It’s misogynistic and it’s racist.
Deciding that you’re striking a blow against it by writing stories and doing fan art that focuses nearly exclusively on white men is not helping. In fact, you’re reaffirming the patriarchy and tightening its insidious stranglehold by actively pushing women and characters of color out of the narrative spotlight.
From and to the outside, what fandom does in queering “canonically straight” characters” is progressive. It forces outsiders and newcomers to fandom spaces to reevaluate their beliefs because anyone can be bisexual, aromantic, or gender-queer in fandom. It’s one of the best aspects.
At the heart of it though, fandom is still a part of the real world. We’re still benefiting from or buried by institutionalized injustices like racism or misogyny. Fandom mirrors the world around us and that goes right down to internalized attitudes about race and gender.
To be clear: fandom is looking at women and characters of color (especially in the case of women of color like Eve Moneypenny or Abigail Mills or Joan Watson) and deciding that they’re not good enough to be shipped with male characters. Or my favorite thing – “[female character/character of color] is too good for [one half of popular white dude slash ship]”. Let’s be real here, if that half of the slash dude ship is so terrible, why exactly are you shipping anyone with him?
You think that you’re striking a blow against the heterocentric patriarchy by shipping Bond and Q or Steve and Tony or any number of white guy slash ships like the ones that are pervasive within fandom but honestly, what you’re probably doing is removing women and characters of color from the equation entirely.
When you write Eve Moneypenny as a matchmaker instead of acknowledging that she and Bond have canon chemistry, you’re saying (however tacitly) that women of color exist to put white guys together. When you draw every white character that has been Captain America hanging out except for Sam Wilson, you’re saying that Black men exist in a permanent sidekick status for you. When you kill off or malign women in fanworks so that your slash ship can exist without pesky women, you’re sending a message about your internalized misogyny.
Let’s be real here: the fanwide reaction to “your white dude slash ship isn’t as progressive as you think it is” leans to the abusive and insulting (especially towards women of color who call it out). The posts that pick up steam wind up the butt of insults, with the original poster able to look forward to anonymous hate in their inbox.
When I first watched Skyfall and spoke about how disappointed I was in the fandom for gravitating towards Bond/Q as a ship, I got so much shit.
I’m talking passive aggressive reblogs, sub-tumbling posts in the Eve Moneypenny and Skyfall tags on tumblr. Rude messages and comments on my post and in my inbox. I got called homophobic just on the grounds that I believe that that there’s a very obvious level of internalized and racialized misogyny to the way that Eve Moneypenny was treated in fandom.
Because that’s what “progressive” in fandom looks like.
This is actually what happens to many WOC who dare to talk about how fandom has let them down. Their experiences are minimized and their stories reduced to causing “drama” and they get so much hatred in a direct response to them trying to get fandom to do better.
To many people outside of fandom and within it, this push to get fandom to look critically at why they ship the things they do and what happens to characters of color and female characters is met with such an intensely negative reaction that it’s scary.
It’s not just fandom.
It’s not just shipping.
It’s not just a preference.
These aren’t just fictional characters.
You can’t defeat the patriarchy by reinforcing it. And erasing women and people of color in order to prop up relationships between white men is absolutely reinforcing the patriarchy within fandom.
Instead of reacting with anger or disbelief, just do better.
Don’t just tell me that you love a female character or a character of color when you’re explaining why you exclusively focus on white guy slash ships: actively challenge yourself to produce works where women and characters of color are on an equal playing field. For every fanwork that you write or draw focusing on white guys, challenge yourself to create two more about female characters and/or characters of color.
Seriously, if you think that fandom exists in a vacuum where racism and misogyny don’t exist in every single pixel we create and in the absence of discussions that fandom isn’t a safe enough space to maintain, think again. Try again. Because while queering characters is absolutely amazing and integral to representation, it shouldn’t stop there. It needs to go further and fandom needs to actively interrogate their biases when it comes to women and people of color in their media and in their fandom spaces.
Because right now?
I’m seeing far more reinforcement than subversion when it comes to slash shipping and people are still so very focused on mistaking the former for the latter within fandom spaces. If you absolutely refuse to own up to the fact that slash shipping has this reliance on white guys and you don’t want to look critically at what you ship or how you ship it, that’s fine.
Go for it.
But let’s be very clear here: 90% of the time your white dude slash ship isn’t progressive in the slightest within fan spaces (and barely so outside of it) so please, quit trying to act like it is. Nothing that continuously comes at the expense of female characters, characters of color, and fans of color (female and otherwise) can actually be progressive enough to excuse that.
Edited 2/25/2016: Internalized Misogyny and that Damned Slash Shipping Post: A Response. I posed this on the eleventh as a response to a message about essentially policing teenage girls in fandom spaces. It addresses several misconceptions not only about my post, but about the idea that marginalized people can’t internalize negative perceptions about similarly marginalized people.