Femslash fan fiction's expansive erotic imaginary

Emily Coccia

University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, United States

[0.1] Abstract—As a genre largely unregulated by market trends and commercial interests, fan fiction can explore forms of bodily pleasure that might not otherwise be viewed as viable in mainstream pornography or romance. Fics from three significant but understudied femslash fandoms—Once Upon a Time (2011), Supergirl (2015), and The Devil Wears Prada (2006)—serve as case studies for analyzing the queer theoretical work fic writers do in interrogating dominant sexual scripts. These authors present an expansive queer erotic imaginary that untethers pleasure, desire, and intimacy from mainstream spaces and practices. In the fan works I examine, sexual connections are often routed through external objects like ink, fabric, and water. The canonical presence of magic, futuristic technology, and nonhuman characters also allows for the imagination of bodily morphologies and sexual practices untethered from both hetero- and homosexual norms, creating polymorphous pleasures that need not be tied to genital sexuality at all.

[0.2] Keywords—Eroticism; Fan studies; Queer studies; Once Upon a Time; Supergirl; The Devil Wears Prada

Coccia, Emily. 2022. "Femslash Fan Fiction's Expansive Erotic Imaginary." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 38.

1. Introduction

[1.1] "Everyone is so worried about fucking, when fucking is the least interesting thing you can do." —Alsike, "Sexual Education" (2020)

[1.2] What might it mean to assert that "fucking is the least interesting thing you can do" in fan fiction, which—at least in the popular imaginary—is a genre tethered to certain narrative arcs? Prominent among these arcs is the move from a slow burn romance filled with longing glances to the final fruition of all those chapters of pining with a smutty scene of, well, fucking. In that normatively oriented narrative, readers might delight in witnessing a kiss or a fleeting moment of intimacy early in the story, but they will find little to earn a mature or explicit rating until the penultimate chapter. Sex must be earned, the ultimate reward for thousands upon thousands of words of pining, misunderstanding, and angst finally resolved.

[1.3] Alsike's Supergirl fic "Sexual Education" (2020), however, interrogates the teleological scripts that underpin such an arc. Already, the title draws attention to the ways in which sex is learned rather than simply known, and the fic's scenes of queer sexual tutelage interrogate the notion of sex as a pregiven quantity. Within the work, Kara Danvers, at this moment still on the verge of an incipient queerness, describes the space of her sister's girlfriend's living room and the possibilities for pleasure it enlivens as "otherworldly": "Here, anything could happen, you could be anything, want anything" (Alsike 2020). Far from her own apartment and the boyfriend who expects her to follow sexual scripts that prioritize his pleasure, Kara is invited into a world of queer possibilities—a world of pleasure that traffics not in pregiven norms but instead "in novel possibility (will this part fit into that one? what's my gender if I do this or that to my body?)" (Freeman 2010, 14).

[1.4] In Alsike's work, as in the other fics I analyze, pleasure is relocated from its presumptive place in the bedroom and the conclusion of the narrative. Instead, it is found in surprising new locations: the image of a lesbian transformed into a handsome boy through his partner's caresses, the ink of an alien tattoo, the magic that intertwines itself with currents of desire. Through this process of sexual (re)education, characters and readers alike are reoriented toward a more capacious erotic imaginary, becoming attuned to registers of sex, pleasure, and relationality that fall outside the expected social scripts—a project characteristic, as well, of many works of queer theory that are not often read alongside fan fiction. My close reading of femslash fic with insights derived from queer theory opens new avenues for thinking about the kind of work that fan fiction—and, in particular, sexually explicit fan fiction—performs. Just as relocating pleasure in different sites hopes to deliver something far more "interesting" than fucking, I hope to demonstrate the utility of certain methods that fan studies scholars might use to best recognize that work.

2. Theory

[2.1] I frame my close readings of smutty scenes from works of femslash fan fiction by means of a larger queer theoretical conversation about the meaning, form, content, and location of sex. Fan authors contribute to this larger project in a different idiom, and I contextualize their fics within this larger frame to make the theoretical work they undertake more easily recognizable. In this section, I provide a brief overview of the ways certain scholars have applied analytic pressure to the concept of sex. One area in particular where scholars have brought queer theory's poststructuralist commitments to bear on sex itself is in defamiliarizing its contours—the kinds of acts that comprise it, the meanings they hold, and the ways we come to know them (if at all).

[2.2] In Janet Halley and Andrew Parker's provocatively titled collection After Sex? On Writing Since Queer Theory, Elizabeth Freeman (2011) asks, "Wasn't my being queer, in the first instance, about finding sex where it was not supposed to be, failing to find it where it was, finding that sex was not, after all, what I thought it was? As a model for doing queer theory, doesn't that rely on the capacity to be surprised[?]" (32). Queer studies scholars working in historical periods whose organizing regimes of sex, gender, and sexuality are quite different from "our" own—not that the present is ever quite so unified, coherent, or knowable to us as we might believe—have been at the forefront of practicing such a scholarly receptivity to surprise. Early modernists Will Stockton and James Bromley, for instance, frame Sex before Sex (2013) around a deceptively simple question: "what is sex?" (3). The knowingness of our reactions to such a question, they argue, is itself a problem, for it makes evident our assumptions about a transhistorical universality that fails to hold.

[2.3] Valerie Traub similarly urges her readers to interrogate the "presumptive knowledge" that erotic categories and vocabularies sustain (2015, 15). Rather than taking sex as self-evident, she argues that "as a category of human thought, volition, behavior and representation" sex is "opaque, often inscrutable, and resistant to understanding" (3). For Traub, a "diligent compilation of sexual practices" would not adequately resolve the problem of sexual knowledge; instead, such opacity is rendered productive in her account—it is what makes sex particularly "good to think with" (1). Drawing on Traub's framework, Joseph Gamble returns to the specificity of sexual practices to interrogate the "sexual-logistical knowledge" their performances entail (2019, 94, emphasis in original). They argue that "attending simultaneously…to what bodies do, what they have to know to do it, and how they acquire this knowledge…will enable scholars to develop more nuanced analyses of the quotidian sexual relations of historical actors" (94).

[2.4] Again and again, these scholars undermine the idea that sex just is—is knowable, is unified, is innate. The historical and literary subjects they study express doubt, ask questions, make mistakes, learn, and teach one another about that supposedly self-evident category that is sexual behavior.

[2.5] Although twenty-first-century fan fiction does not present us with the same forms of historical alterity and unknowability as a seventeenth-century sonnet might, I argue that fic authors can nonetheless orient their readers toward the opacities at the heart of sex, encouraging them to take on a posture of receptivity to the "pleasures of unlikeliness, of errancy, and of surprise that follow from a readerly practice that takes seriously the idea that sex is not a pregiven quantity" (Coviello 2013, 12). In this article, I approach three femslash fandom archives from such a critical posture of openness: one that does not assume what forms sex will take in advance and remains open instead to the "pleasures of unlikeliness" that can emerge from a readerly immersion and willingness to find sex outside of its expected locations. Such a method is not meant to replicate earlier scholarly tendencies to view creative fan works as universally queer and progressive.

[2.6] As I alluded to in the introduction, a large percentage of fics follow rather (homo)normative trajectories in which characters meet, fall in love, and live happily ever after—an ending often characterized by white weddings, picket fences, and 2.5 children. At the level of sex and gender, there is a tendency in some fan works for certain tropes to coalesce into biological essentialism, reify the drive toward sexual reproduction, and fetishize trans bodies (note 1). Outside of specific tropes, the politics of desirability within fandom writ large tend to replicate systems of social exclusion, privileging thin, white, cis, able-bodied characters and affording them levels of attention, care, and nuance frequently denied to characters of color in particular (note 2). Even the very notion of an OTP (one true pairing) threatens to reinforce the monogamous, dyadic couple form at the expense of more varied forms of queerness (note 3).

[2.7] Although many authors actively interrogate and subvert these narrative and sexual tropes, they nonetheless hold the potential to reinscribe queer relationships back under strict regimes of normalization—a critique that has been an important counterpoint to earlier celebrations of fannish activity as radically queer. And yet where queer theory is so helpful is in reminding us that no sexual practice or identity escapes circuits of power. No one sexual act is inherently subversive, just like no one kind of smutty fic or kind of fic writer is necessarily queerer than another. I am therefore less interested in deeming the sexual scenes I analyze here as "subversive" or "antinormative" than I am in considering the ways they stretch the boundaries of the erotic and, in so doing, ask us to reevaluate the idea of sex as always already known.

[2.8] Three prominent twenty-first-century femslash fandoms—Once Upon a Time (Disney-ABC, 2011–18), Supergirl (CBS, CW, 2015–21), and The Devil Wears Prada (Fox 2000 Pictures, 2006)—draw upon their source texts' worlds to imagine forms of intimacy vectored outside of the body and pleasures mediated through flows of magic, alien technologies, and swaths of fabric. These fan works offer the possibility of upending what we think we know about sex by drawing our attention to the opacities and definitional uncertainty that cling to the very concept of the erotic and by exploring forms of pleasure that push beyond the boundaries of the human body and twenty-first-century notions of what sex should look like.

[2.9] I find particular value in drawing on a femslash archive as the site for such queer theorizing, in part because it is understudied and in part because it pressures what we mean by queer. Much like "femslash has remained largely a footnote to most studies on fan culture" (Pande and Moitra 2017, ¶ 2.3), so too has "the lesbian" been made expendable "from the domain of 'queer'" in much queer studies scholarship (Traub 2015, 285). Inclusion, let alone a foregrounding, of the "unsexed, domesticated" figure of the lesbian (Wiegman 2012, 102) has often seemed to put at risk the subversive, antinormalizing impulses of queer theoretical work. Similarly, femslash fan works have often been "seen as inherently less disruptive to patriarchal strictures," and such reasoning has at times led to the "conclusion that the most subversive thing queer women can do in fandom spaces is write about white male homosexual relationships" (Pande and Moitra 2017, ¶ 2.2, ¶ 2.5).

[2.10] Smutty femslash fic has been further haunted by the question, "Just what do lesbians do in bed?" Yet in responding with explicit fics that detail the how, the why, and the when of lesbian sex, these writers all too often find themselves in a double bind: accused either of repeating a normative performance of lesbian sexuality or of leaving their works open to cooptation by the straight male gaze. This double gesture of dismissal—either the sex isn't interesting enough to write (home) about, or it is so exciting it risks titillating the "wrong" readers—mirrors the move by which lesbians, in contrast to queers, "seem overburdened by the weight of both identity and corporeality" (Traub 2015, 289). That is, in being tied to a gendered "recalcitrant…materiality" (Traub 2015, 289) and the specter of "essentialized bodies" and "normative visions of women's sexuality" (Freeman 2010, 62), the concept of the lesbian has seemed "less transferable, less scalable" and therefore less amenable to theory's abstractions (Traub 2015, 289). Without disputing both the normative and the potentially titillating energies of fan works—femslash and otherwise—I argue that it is worth exploring the pleasures and intimacies these understudied femslash fictions imagine outside of the often straight-washed gaze of mainstream media representation.

3. Fandom selection

[3.1] Each of the three femslash fandoms I analyze represents a different point in the recent media landscape. All three of the chosen fandoms have appeared in toastystats's annual rankings of the most popular femslash ships on Archive of Our Own (AO3), and ships from Supergirl and Once Upon a Time currently occupy the top two spots (toastystats 2021). Although The Devil Wears Prada has not kept pace in recent years with the exponential growth of the other two fandoms, it represents an important earlier point in femslash history that is better represented on AO3 than most other media from the period. Further, it offers an opportunity to consider the ways fans think capaciously about eroticism in a nonfantastical canon universe, unlike the magical world of Once Upon a Time or the interplanetary superhero universe of Supergirl. Although these three media differ in genre, form, and content, they occupy a similar trajectory in what has jokingly been termed the "great gay migration" in femslash spaces. That is, a relatively large number of popular authors from each of the three fandoms migrated from one to the next, bringing with them other fan creators and consumers—a phenomenon that allows for consideration of both changes and continuities across fandoms over time.

[3.2] One element remains relatively constant across them, however: whiteness. These fandoms' most frequently femslashed characters, like fandom in general, are overwhelmingly white, with the notable exception of Once Upon a Time's Regina Mills, who is Latina—a fact fandom acknowledges sometimes and the show almost never (note 4). Mel Stanfill's "Where the Femslashers Are" (2017) develops the concept of "structurally lesbian media," which are characterized by "primary homosocial intensity, transient heterosexuality, and homosocial-homosexual slippage" (4). To "locate structurally lesbian media," Stanfill argues, "is to locate femslash fandoms" (2). I would argue, however, that the inverse of this proposition might be more apt, for not all structurally lesbian media gives rise to active femslash fandoms—at least, not equally. Instead, whiteness is all too often the fourth necessary characteristic to locate most large femslash fandoms. Shows like Black Lightning (2018) and Batwoman (2019), which feature leading queer women of color, have reached only 193 and 1,306 femslash fics, respectively, on AO3, standing in sharp contrast to the CW's other DC Universe shows. And even within popular fandoms like Supergirl, main cast characters like Kelly Olsen, a Black lesbian paired with white co-lead Alex Danvers, are rarely afforded the same levels of fannish attention as straight white series regulars (note 5).

[3.3] This disparity should not, however, be taken to mean that the kinds of expansive erotic possibilities I analyze here are available only to white characters and ships. Rather, I follow Alexis Lothian's lead in taking up a method of critique that "embraces the potentiality of utopias, forward-looking timelines, and possibilities of radically different and better elsewheres," while at the same time acknowledging "the embeddedness of such imagination in the often dismal logics of the present's inequalities" (21–22). Much like fandom writ large has been most eager to explore and write about white characters, so too has this form of sexual speculation most frequently been extended to white ships and characters. Queer studies, fan studies, and left criticism more generally have frequently fallen prey to what Kadji Amin terms the "romance of the alternative," which idealizes queerer-than-queer figures and texts by overlooking all the ways they spoil their own ideals by reinvesting in other structures of domination and replicating patterns of social exclusion (2017, 9). Rather than glossing over fandom's ongoing investment in whiteness, I aim to "inhabit [the] unease" of recognizing "queer possibility as inextricable from relations of power, queer deviance as intertwined with normativity" (Amin 2017, 9, 10, emphasis in original). To provide an adequately textured account of what much of fandom offers—the interesting questions it raises, and the queer worlds it imagines and prompts us to imagine in our own—requires simultaneously acknowledging the exclusions on which such possibilities are scaffolded.

4. Methods

[4.1] Drawing on Abigail De Kosnik's description of fan fiction's "archontic" property, "that drive within an archive that seeks to always produce more archive, to enlarge itself" (2016, 64), I argue that the drive toward replication and expansion also applies to the writing of sex and intimacy, creating space for ongoing erotic innovation and invention. As a genre that is largely unregulated by market trends and commercial interests, fan fiction holds open the possibility of exploring forms of bodily pleasure that are less frequently depicted in mainstream media. Yet such moments—often single scenes in significantly longer fics—can be difficult to find through typical practices such as distant reading or broad surveys of fandoms. Instead, these examples are best identified through close reading, a method that mimics the very fannish practice of tracking those moments of sustained eye contact suggestive of an unnamed more, of counting touches that have no reason to linger for quite as long as they do, of pursuing those subtextual hints of queerness that are fleshed out, analyzed, and brought to the textual level in creative fan works. Affording fan fiction the same level of close attention its creators afford to the source texts allows scholars to better recognize the theoretical work that fic can do.

[4.2] In selecting specific texts, I read broadly within each of the three fandoms to understand overarching trends in their representations of eroticism and intimacy. With an archive of tens of thousands of works, I focused my initial reading on works deemed popular or high quality by AO3 metrics such as kudos and bookmarks or by inclusion in fandomwide fic recommendation lists. Although these are imperfect means for identifying everything that might be represented in a given fandom, I have found, from tracking the evolution of fandoms from their inception through their growth, that certain tropes, linguistic patterns, narrative arcs, and fanon characterizations from popular fan works often trickle down into the broader fandom. I then shifted to searching for tags or phrases, such as "alien technology" or "magic lessons," that were often associated with works that maintained a more capacious understanding of erotic desire and practice. Particularly within the large Once Upon a Time and Supergirl fandoms, this second step allowed me to identify authors and individual works that might not appear when fics were filtered by kudos, for instance. That being said, many of the works I discuss here are also quite popular, suggesting that readers have found something of value in works that treat queerness, eroticism, and pleasure as open questions.

[4.3] When approaching individual fics, I read them carefully in their entirety, though my analysis here is limited to a close reading of salient scenes, dialogue, and lines. I have provided context for the media and, when necessary, the fics, but I move quickly through most of the works. Cruising through the archives, as it were, my analysis hurries through long chapters of worldbuilding only to stop and luxuriate in erotically charged moments and smutty scenes. Of course, this mode of reading is not radically different from the way fic is often consumed. In mimicking the rhythms of those one-handed, recursive readers, I follow Tyler Bradway's invitation to take up a "hermeneutics of pleasure" that embraces such "bad" affective readerly relations as "perverse titillation, masturbatory fantasy, [and] exuberant sentimentality" (2017, v, 79). Because the "modes of reading" invited by certain queer narratives often exceed "those traditionally sanctioned by and rewarded in academic spaces," Bradway argues that we as scholars "lack hermeneutic tools to contend with reading sex as, at once, titillating and political, erotic and epistemological" (2017, 91, emphasis in original).

[4.4] In identifying scenes suffused with pleasure and eroticism as moments of sexual knowledge-making made visible, I invite readers to recognize themselves as partaking in such a queer hermeneutics when they find themselves swept up in those bad affective relations that may seem incompatible with the loftier world of theory and its tendency toward abstraction and away from the body. Although fandom convention might call for smut-centric fic to be tagged as PWP ("porn without plot" or "Plot? What plot?"), a hermeneutics of pleasure recognizes that tarrying with smutty scenes might just provide access to PWT—porn with theory.

5. Magical moments

[5.1] Once Upon a Time brings its viewers into a magical world in which well-known fairytale characters have been whisked out of the Enchanted Forest and into the small town of Storybrooke, Maine, by the dark curse cast by the "Evil Queen" Regina Mills in her quest for revenge after the murder of her first love. By the end of the first season, the fated "Savior," Emma Swan, who is both the child of Snow White and Prince Charming and the birth mother of Henry, Regina's son, has broken Regina's curse. As early as the first episode, fans found something queer in Storybrooke and in Emma and Regina's relationship, not only in the unscripted chemistry between the two leads but also in the nontraditional family structure—or "Henry has two mommies," as fans jokingly referred to it. Despite the promising start and the enticing enemies-to-friends-to-lovers redemption arc the show seemed poised to take, fans found themselves disappointed. The showrunners laughed off the possibility of a relationship between Emma and Regina, and male love interests for both women were soon introduced. Even though it remains one of the best-known examples of queerbaiting, Once Upon a Time is still one of the most prolific femslash fandoms even years after the end of the series.

[5.2] In the fairytale world the show constructs, magic frequently functions as a marker and even an authenticator of romantic connections. The show's most popular pairing, Regina and Emma ("Swan Queen"), features two of the universe's magic users who have canonically been depicted sparking one another's magic and, when working together, creating significantly stronger magic than should be possible. Although the show writers and producers maintained that there was no romantic or sexual connection between them, a number of fic authors have written extensively about what it might have looked like had the show explored the erotic dimensions to Emma and Regina's magical connection. In some works that hew closer to canon, fic writers invoke the magic of True Love, which the show depicts as powerful enough to break curses and create pure light magic. What is Emma and Regina's magical connection proof of, these fans ask, if not the much-vaunted True Love shared by Snow White and Prince Charming?

[5.3] The fan works I focus on push beyond seeing magic as something that emerges from existing romantic relationships and instead ask what it might mean to take up magic as a potential agent in forging intimate ties and producing new kinds of pleasure. "Magic," Regina tells Emma in one such fic, "is about desire, about that moment when your body reaches a crescendo and falls forward. There needs to be…friction. Your spirit surging against your fury, and only then can you find a release" (coalitiongirl 2013b). Such a "release" is frequently described as orgasmic: magic is a "rush that moves through [Regina's] whole body, electrifying every part of her" (baylorrific 2014); it "envelop[s]" Emma, reaching "deep in places where nerve endings are sensitized" (coalitiongirl 2013a); it is "the weightless comfort of a high, the seductive pull of sleep after good sex" (harper_m 2013). At times it is a pleasure that threatens to overwhelm, experienced as "heat and darkness and seductive promises…like there was pleasure untold to be had if only she'd let go of herself and let it take over" (harper_m 2013). In one fic that is more self-conscious about interrogating what readers (and characters) think they know about sex and all it entails, Emma names her experience of combining her magic with Regina's to move the moon and create an eclipse as "the best sex I've ever had, only with no touching and all my clothes on" (devje 2014).

[5.4] Flitting along the border of ecstasy, magic acts as a third party to Emma and Regina's relationship, overriding their ambivalences toward one another and opening the former rivals up to forms of mediated intimacy and connection that they don't yet trust one another to provide. Within the worlds these authors create, learning, teaching, and practicing magic are reconstituted and experienced as novel sexual acts—not merely a preface for something more to come, but forms of sex in their own right.

[5.5] Although many writers in the fandom recognize that magic is not inherently about connection and pleasure—and have put pressure on the nonagentic, potentially nonconsensual elements of soulmate magic (note 6)—they seize on the powerful emotions that magic canonically requires to consider how it might function as a conduit for deep-rooted desires, making them felt even before they are known or acknowledged as such. In chilly_flame's "A Dark Ocean" (2013), Emma's magic lessons with Regina become the site where their incipient feelings for one another are made manifest: "Regina's eyes grew very wide, and where their hands were connected, Emma felt a little flare of…well, sex. It was like she could feel Regina's desire for her through the magic." This female-centric tutelage, so unlike the canonical flashbacks in which Rumpelstiltskin is shown teaching Regina dark magic through emotional and physical suffering, serves as a scene of education not only in magic but also in the desire that fuels it and the pleasure it promises to produce. Reflecting on this dynamic, theoldfoxbones (2016) writes, "Regina was brought up in the magic of pain, destruction, annihilation, and this Savior, this woman who still can't control a flame in her hand, she conjures in pleasures." Such moments of intimacy seem untethered from the characters' preexisting notions of what sex is and how it operates; magic draws forth pleasures that take both Emma and Regina by surprise. And in remaining open to experiences of unexpected and unintentional eroticism, to the possibility of learning new modes of relating sexually to themselves and to one another, these characters make space for the kind of "extravagant imagining" (Coviello 2013, 7) that a more capacious understanding of sex allows for.

6. Alien intimacies

[6.1] Based on DC's Supergirl comics, Supergirl follows the journey of Kara Zor-El (known as Kara Danvers on Earth) as she comes out as Supergirl and navigates balancing her job at CatCo Media, her personal life, and her new public identity. During the lead up to the second season, the writers teased a coming out arc for a major character, and fan speculation ran rampant. Soon enough, Kara's adoptive sister Alex Danvers came out as a lesbian—a storyline that garnered the show critical acclaim. Even before its formal introduction of canonically gay characters, Supergirl already had emerged as a femslash juggernaut thanks both to the prevalence of queer conventions in the superhero genre and to the large number of main cast female characters whose stories rarely revolved around male love interests.

[6.2] Within the fandom, the canonical presence of alien characters has also allowed for a reimagination of bodily morphologies and sexual practices untethered from hetero- and homosexual norms. In pushing past the binaristic logic of sexual dimorphism and shattering the boundaries of the flesh, some authors create bodies far outside the realm of the human and imagine polymorphous pleasures that need not be tied to genital sexuality. From tattoos capable of cementing affective bonds whose ink constitutes an erogenous zone layered on but not reducible to the skin, to alien sex toys that re-form the wearer's bodily morphology, pleasure is made manifest in the body but vectored through third-party objects. As fic authors imagine modes of intimate contact that coalesce around futuristic possibilities, they undermine the presumptive knowledge about what bodies, pleasure, eroticism, and sex itself might look like.

[6.3] SpaceshipsAreCool's "Understanding Desire" (2016), which focuses on the "Supercat" pairing of Kara with her then-boss Cat Grant, speculates about the tattoos Supergirl has in certain DC comics. In "Understanding Desire" the tattoo becomes a Kryptonian mark meant to promote "compatible matches" in a society that had canonically encouraged marriage by rank and used advanced technology for the reproduction of future generations. This interplanetary difference becomes a means of highlighting the opacities of sex that Traub (2015) argues "remain surprisingly unarticulated and…subject to a presumptive, tacit form of knowing" (14). SpaceshipsAreCool foregrounds this opacity through the repeated invocation of the phrase "Cat couldn't know that…," which operates as the starting clause of eight paragraphs in a row, each one building on the ones before it. This anaphoric sequence amasses a vast archive of all the things Cat couldn't know about a people, a culture, and a system of sex and relationality so far removed from her own. In the culminating paragraph of this section, the author shifts from declarations to a single question: "Cat couldn't know, because how could she know?"

[6.4] This tautological circle hinges, I argue, not only on Kara's literally being an alien, but also on the alienation inherent in the coming together of two distinct bodies. Thus, even as Cat, a former investigative journalist with a near-compulsive need to know, begins to figure out the tattoo by means of touch, drawing out pleasurable sensations for Kara, she remains unable to articulate the "why" and "how" behind this moment of embodied knowledge-making. In an instance of free indirect discourse, Cat demands, "What had triggered this change? What had Cat done this time that was so different?" It is only when she shifts from a form of knowledge housed in the brain—in facts and explanations offered in words—to one housed in the body—in touches that are responsive to Kara's pleasures, regardless of whether Cat understands them—that the tattoo itself responds to Cat, marking her as a suitable partner by shifting from stark red to the exact shade of green of Cat's eyes.

[6.5] Even in the face of Cat's ongoing uncertainty, the act reads as unambiguously erotic, resulting in an outpouring of pleasure analogous to orgasm despite the fact that nothing traditionally classified as an erogenous zone has been touched or even uncovered. It is Kara's upper back—specifically the ink, not even her skin—that responds to Cat's touch, "glowing," "radiat[ing] light around the point" of contact, and producing pleasurable sensations for Kara. Like the alien sex toys of other fics—whether they be Alsike's "Daxamian dildo," which literally re-forms the wearer's bodily morphology and reroutes their nervous system, or twtd's "Daxonian sex orb" (twtd 2016), which allows for the users to inhabit and explore their fantasy life together without moving or even joining their physical bodies—pleasure is untethered from its typical locations, undermining the presumptive knowledge about the where of intimacy.

[6.6] Other Supergirl fic authors have imagined intimate practices from alien cultures that reflect forms of relationality not wholly or easily comprehensible to the humans in their lives. Alsike, who delves deeply throughout their fan fiction oeuvre into the intricacies of human-alien relationships and the ways such a model of relationality might fit within a broader queer community, offers one such example in the practice of shemash'la, an ancient Kryptonian bathing ritual of connection and affirmation that sustains a mode of intimacy that straddles familial, romantic, and sexual domains. It involves tight embraces, skin-to-skin contact, and the submerging and holding under the water of one person by another, sometimes including the delivery of air by mouth. On Earth, isolated without anyone to bear the memories of a lost culture, Kara struggles to articulate the importance of this ritual to Alex, the daughter of Jeremiah and Eliza Danvers, who took Kara in when she crash-landed as a teenager. It's described in various works as "intimate" but not necessarily "sexy," as something done "when you needed to be close to someone" (Alsike 2017) and as a ceremony of "affirmation" and "reconnection" (Alsike 2018).

[6.7] These cultural differences at times prove too much, and Alex is initially resistant to a practice that seems to defy categorization as neatly familial or sexual. Yet over time it is Alex who grows to crave the promise of connection and closeness that shemash'la offers. It is Alex who becomes the human that "did understand" (Alsike 2018)—the same Alex who, after admitting that most forms of sex do nothing for her, tells Kara, "You don't have to, you know, fuck, to have it count as sex…My best time was just a couple hours curled up with this girl. It was just touching. I don't even know if either of us got off, but it felt good and it was enough" (Alsike 2017). In this way, Alex, embarrassed as she is by what she understands as her own failure to fit into the standard models of human sexuality, is queered less through her same-gendered object choice than by her embrace of alien practices of intimacy (note 7). When she and Kara partake in the full, uninterrupted ritual of shemash'la, Alex finds she can finally relax, recognizing that "in Kara's hands, she was always where she belonged. Whatever fate Kara had in store [for Alex], it was the one she deserved and the one she desired" (Alsike 2018). Despite the language of submission, this practice goes beyond the transference of power, shattering the boundaries of any clearly delineated self in the insistent pull of the water that surrounds them. Not only does it become "hard to tell where [one] ended and [the other] began" (Alsike 2017), but Kara, drawing on her Kryptonian heritage, explains, "The water it—it carries us, and links us to everything it touches. Not just connections to other people, but to the world, to ourselves" (Alsike 2018). These sentiments bring queer ecocriticism to life in embodied ways through Kryptonian erotic practices that offer diffuse sensations of pleasure and sexual connection through the play of skin and water, caresses and currents.

7. Flesh and fabric

[7.1] Even in fandoms focused on human characters without any supernatural abilities, one finds fic authors expanding the boundaries of sex and eroticism. Although such moments may be subtler than the magical or alien pleasures found in speculative fandoms, they work within the confines of their universes to generate quotidian queer logics that nonetheless sustain a capacious erotic imaginary. The Devil Wears Prada fandom and its object-mediated intimacies serve as one such case study (note 8).

[7.2] The 2006 film, based on Lauren Weisberger's 2003 novel, tells the story of Andrea "Andy" Sachs, a would-be journalist who winds up as the second assistant to Miranda Priestly, the exacting editor-in-chief of Runway, a famous fashion magazine. After a disastrous first few weeks working for a magazine and an industry she disdains, Andrea commits to succeeding in the job she has, rather than hoping for a different one. She transforms herself aesthetically into one of the Runway "clackers" and succeeds so thoroughly in impressing her boss that Miranda insists on bringing Andrea with her to Paris for Fashion Week. After seeing how far Miranda is willing to go to protect her own interests and realizing that she is beginning to do the same, Andrea walks out on Miranda and the job in the middle of Fashion Week, and the movie ends with Andrea's receiving a reporting job thanks in large part to a surprising recommendation letter from Miranda herself. Fans of the movie have seized on small moments in canon to build a world in which the lingering gazes and animosity-turned-grudging-respect between Miranda and Andrea might give way to something more than a working relationship.

[7.3] In "Truth and Measure" (2013), a nearly 300,000-word epic, Telanu imagines a postcanon world in which Andrea did not quit in Paris but rather stayed to prove to Miranda that one could be "successful and happy" while "staying a halfway-decent person the whole time." Telanu lingers on the details of their budding relationship, tracking minute shifts as a working relationship turns to friendship and then into a good old fashioned "Boston marriage," before finally giving way to something more immediately recognizable as a sexual relationship (note 9). Several weeks into their hazily defined partnership, Andrea reflects while kissing Miranda, "They might not be having sex, but they were definitely fucking each other right now. Andy…thought about long looks, and accidental hand-brushings, and countless tiny moments. She and Miranda had been fucking each other for a very, very long time." Although a more normative definition of sex may remain intact here, the idea of fucking—of eroticism and pleasure—is expanded far beyond its usual boundaries to include those minor gestures that, in Juana María Rodríguez's account, encompass a whole world of sexuality, "register[ing] what cannot or should not be expressed in words," even as they refuse to coalesce into identity formations (2014, 4, 24). Unlike the not-that-interesting fucking of Alsike's "Sexual Education," within Telanu's work fucking is constituted by the affective dimensions of an act and the extent to which it does (or does not) satisfy a desire—even those as seemingly banal as the desire for a hot-enough coffee or for an approving head nod.

[7.4] Other authors expand this capacious erotic logic, taking up the prominence of visual and aesthetic pleasures in the film's universe to create a world of object-mediated intimacy in which sumptuous fabrics, operating in a metonymic relationship to the body, act as sexual surrogates. In janewestin's "this isn’t over yet (this isn’t half of what you’ll get)" (2020), Andrea fantasizes about Miranda's "hands moving over Hermès scarves, the silk slipping between her fingers" as she stood in the store choosing one to gift to Andrea. Swept up in the image, Andy "reached for the scarf and wrapped it around her neck. Sank down on the bed. Silk at her throat." The designer clothing that marks the film's recognizable aesthetic is reconstituted here and in other fics as a mediator for queer desires and pleasures.

[7.5] Although such clothing certainly functions as an object of desire itself within the halls and pages of Runway as well as in fic, the works I analyze push beyond the logic of clothing as fetish object. The thigh-high Chanel boots Andrea wears in the scene of her transformation from unfashionable outsider to glamorous "clacker" serve as one prominent example: it is not simply the fact of the shoes or even their decadent luxury that eroticizes them, but rather everything they signify. They represent Andrea's choice to fashion herself into the embodiment of Miranda's desires and to make herself a willing recipient of the sartorial tutelage Miranda's magazine offers. In recognition of this moment's erotic significance, the boots repeatedly function in fic as a sexual breaking point for the tightly controlled Miranda. And in Telanu's "Truth and Measure" (2013), Miranda deems the boots "no longer for public wear…Those boots are for me," relocating fashion from the public back into the private, even as fucking and pleasure seep out into the public-facing world.

[7.6] Although the boots of Telanu's fic act as a catalyst and an eroticized object all in one, in other works clothing becomes a more obvious sexual prosthesis, allowing the authors to navigate thorny questions of workplace power dynamics and consent without sacrificing erotic pleasure. In one of Vixanator's postcanon fics, formal gowns become the mediator for an intimacy neither woman can yet give voice to when Miranda offers to dress Andrea for a gala she has to attend for her new job. "They do not touch, their fingertips do not even graze when [Miranda] hands [Andrea] outfit after outfit," Vixanator (2017) writes. "Instead it was for [Miranda's] eyes, for her mind to reconfigure itself and reimagine herself as a sleeve caressing an elbow, a cinch of material clinging to a waist, she is fabric and stitching wrapped up all over Andrea." In the act of watching—not "with her cool, detached, editor's eye," but with a gaze that seeks to "devour"—Miranda imaginatively reconstitutes herself as that which does touch Andrea's body, culminating in a frisson of desire "sparking white hot" within her (Vixanator 2017).

[7.7] Rather than modes of queerness or sexuality solely defined by or reducible to same-gender object choice, here, as in the Supergirl fics featuring alien technologies, objects themselves step in to mediate new modes of relationality, intimacy, and pleasure. Under expansive affective and aesthetic rubrics of eroticism, a whole host of canonical moments—when Andrea hands Miranda her coffee and their hands brush together, when Andrea's fingers graze Miranda's shoulders as she helps the woman into her coat, or even when Miranda assesses Andrea's outfit each morning—are reconstituted as erotically charged acts that should not be minimized as merely foreplay or precursors to sex.

8. Conclusion

[8.1] Fics from these three fandoms help us recognize the ways that fan authors partake in a larger queer theoretical project that interrogates and undermines the supposed universal, self-evident nature of sex. Whether in fantastical universes where aliens and magic abound or in those earthly worlds of the everyday, smutty fan fiction holds open the possibility of reimagining what bodily pleasures and eroticism could look like untethered from heteronormative sexual scripts that elevate only a small number of acts to the status of "sex." As Rodríguez (2007) reasons, because queer desires fall athwart the norm, "queer sex…makes possible a new lived imaginary of sexual bodies and bodily practices" (290). In the specific femslash scenes analyzed here, this more capacious imaginary includes orgasmic magic that serves as an agent for re-envisioning sex, alien inks that can draw forth pleasure, and designer clothing that mediates new forms of intimacy. These are hardly the only examples of such a phenomenon available in a larger fan fiction archive. To see and recognize the work they are doing, however, requires not only reading closely enough to catch hold of fleeting moments in much longer works but also maintaining a critical posture that is receptive to finding sex, pleasure, and eroticism outside their expected locations.

[8.2] In this way, readers and critics must become students to the particular vision of sexual (re)education each fic presents, allowing themselves to partake in a queer hermeneutics of pleasure, to borrow Bradway's (2017) term, that does not preemptively foreclose certain kinds of affective responses. "When we fuck," Rodríguez (2007) argues—and, I would add, when we write and read scenes of queer fucking—"our languages come together; they commingle and collide in acts of illicit translation, interpretation, and reinscription. Cumming across differences always occasions new opportunities for the production of erotic meaning" (287). Against the current of mainstream sex ed, which often seeks to fix the meaning of sex—its demarcated boundaries, its acceptable temporal and spatial locations, its intended purposes—queer theorists offer a radically open vision of queer eroticism that we can catch glimpses of and even partake in through readerly immersion in a fan fiction archive. There, readers might, like the characters in fan fiction, find themselves immersed in a new world "where anything seemed possible, where what [fic authors were] teaching…wasn't sex but was metamorphosis" (Alsike 2020, emphasis in original).

9. Acknowledgments

I'm grateful to the many people who welcomed me into their fandoms and the fic authors who so graciously agreed to let me quote their works here. Thanks are due to the organizers of FSN-NA 2019, where I first presented this research, and to Drs. Valerie Traub, Sara McClelland, and Alice Kelly as well as to the anonymous reviewers for their generosity, feedback, and support.

10. Notes

1. A focus on cross-fandom trends and fandom's potential to perpetuate harm and larger patterns of social exclusion should not, however, obscure individual-level moments of pleasure and empowerment found within fan spaces and, at times, even within a reclamation of these tropes. Shelly Jay Shore (2021), for instance, reflects on finding fan fiction as something lifesaving and dysphoria-alleviating: "I wrote myself a sexual body…I wrote myself love stories until I could see myself inside them, until every fluid, transient expression of my body and gender and self has space to be seen."

2. For further reading, see Ashton Spacey's edited volume The Darker Side of Slash Fan Fiction (2018); Rukmini Pande's Squee from the Margins (2018) and "How (Not) to Talk about Race" (2020); Stanfill's "The Unbearable Whiteness of Fandom and Fan Studies" (2018); and Stitch's "Who Actually Gets to 'Escape' Into Fandom?" (2021b) and "'iCarly' Fan Misogynoir Is Part of a Larger Fandom Pattern" (2021a).

3. See Gayle Rubin's (2011) "Thinking Sex," specifically her discussion of the hierarchical valuation of sex acts, for a discussion of the mechanism by which a small number of previously devalued sexual acts—such as vanilla, same-gender sex in the context of a monogamous relationship—might gain access to the charmed circle at the expense of other forms of erotic variation. For a fandom-specific exploration of the ways in which fan works might become more conservative than their source texts, see Kyra Hunting's "Queer as Folk and the Trouble with Slash" (2012).

4. See Pande and Moitra's (2017) "Yes, the Evil Queen Is Latina!" for an analysis of the show and its fandom's treatment of Regina's racial identity. For an exploration of colorism and racism in fandom more generally, see centrumlumina's "What Does a 'Person of Colour' Look Like in the AO3 Ship Stats?" (2019) and "Fandom's Race Problem and the AO3 Ship Stats" (2016).

5. On AO3, there are fewer than 600 works featuring Alex Danvers/Kelly Olsen as the primary pairing, whereas there are over 18,000 for Kara Danvers/Lena Luthor, a popular fan ship, and over 6,000 for Alex Danvers/Maggie Sawyer, an earlier canon relationship that lasted only one season in contrast to the three-season arc given to Alex and Kelly. Although the writers did include references to Maggie's being nonwhite in two episodes, she is played by a white actress, and most fan works treat her as white.

6. Fans have drawn parallels between Regina's being forced into a marriage with King Leopold, a man she does not love, and her being told that her only chance at a "happy ending" is with Robin Hood, a man she has never met. In both situations, her personal desires are denied, and her attempts at choosing otherwise are canonically met with punishment.

7. A number of fans head-canoned Alex Danvers as asexual after she explained that she "never liked being intimate…I thought maybe that's just not the way I was built…it's just not my thing" (2.5 "Crossfire"). The show shifts the narrative after her coming out to depict Alex's discovering pleasure and fulfillment in sex and relationships with women, but some fans continue to explore how her relationships might have played out had she also realized she was asexual (ace). Although Alsike's fic is not one of the explicitly ace!Alex works, and exploring that larger fic canon in depth would exceed the scope of this article, future work on a more capacious understanding of eroticism in fan fiction would benefit from an analysis of ace characters read alongside queer theoretical scholarship such as Ela Przybylo's Asexual Erotics (2019) and Benjamin Kahan's Celibacies (2013).

8. The section title is drawn from chainofclovers's "Clean Rooms and Dirty Light" (2009), in which Andrea realizes that Miranda "delighted simultaneously in the flesh and the fabric"—a delight that is just as markedly sexual during mornings spent dressing herself alone as it is during nights spent undressing her partner.

9. "Boston marriage," a term frequently associated with Henry James's The Bostonians, is one name for the lifelong partnerships between two independent, unmarried women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The relationships were romantic, but scholarship has been divided on the question of whether they were sexual. In Telanu's "Truth and Measure" (2013), Miranda initially proposes that she and Andrea pursue a lifelong, exclusive relationship but keep things "platonic," and Andrea wonders to herself "if someone had recently whacked Miranda unconscious with a copy of The Bostonians or something."

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