Where the femslashers are: Media on the lesbian continuum

Mel Stanfill

University of Central Florida, Orlando, Florida, United States

[0.1] Abstract—Some texts are femslashier than others. Drawing on Alexander Doty's argument that television shows with primary relationships between women are "lesbian sitcoms," I argue that media driven by relationships between women are "structurally lesbian media" that generate femslash fandoms.

[0.2] Keywords—Homosociality; Lesbian potential energy; Structurally lesbian media

Stanfill, Mel. 2017. "Where the Femslashers Are: Media on the Lesbian Continuum." In "Queer Female Fandom," edited by Julie Levin Russo and Eve Ng, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 24.

[1] It is widely acknowledged that femslash is a minoritarian form of shipping, outnumbered in fandom at large by heterosexual pairings and m/m slash, though there are some fandoms where femslash holds its own with these other forms of shipping or even dominates (note 1). Some scholars have gestured toward the early lack of compelling women characters as driving m/m slash (Jenkins 1992), and others have identified the subsequent increase of well-rounded women in media as enabling femslash (Russo 2010). At this end of history, there are many complex women characters (though fewer after the rash of women characters killed off in spring 2016), but despite some change, the overall pattern, in which only certain, specific fandoms are femslash-dominant, remains.

[2] Here, I argue that there is something about these texts that, as Rosalind Hanmer (2003, 86) argues about Xena: Warrior Princess (1995–2001), "hails" queer women: something about these texts makes them femslashier than others. This is not the variety of defense of slash that might be shorthanded as "one, two, three, four, it's really there; we're keeping score"—the argument made by slash shippers that they are simply uncovering actual homoerotic subtext really in the text (note 2). Neither is my point here an instantiation of its counterpart, the very worthy argument that might be summarized as, "five, six, seven, eight, don't assume the text is straight" that inveighs against default heterosexuality (note 3). Instead, drawing on Alexander Doty's (1993) argument that Laverne and Shirley (1976–1983), The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970–1977), Designing Women (1986–1993), and The Golden Girls (1985–1992) should be understood as "lesbian sitcoms" because the primary relationships in them are between women, and men as love interests are generally transient and not central to the ongoing development of the story or characters, I argue that all media (not just sitcoms) that center on or are driven by a relationship between women are structurally lesbian media, and that to locate structurally lesbian media after the Internet is to locate femslash fandoms.

[3] The concept of structurally lesbian media, as Doty's "lesbian sitcom" before it, relies on Adrienne Rich's (1993, 239) concept of the "lesbian continuum": "a range—through each woman's life and throughout history—of woman-identified experience, not simply the fact that a woman has had or consciously desired genital sexual experience with another woman." In her 1980 essay "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence," Rich (1993, 239) proposed that we use lesbian continuum "to embrace many more forms of primary intensity between and among women, including the sharing of a rich inner life, the bonding against male tyranny, the giving and receiving of practical and political support," and other woman-to-woman relationships (note 4). This is not the same as saying the characters in these shows really are lesbians (or any other identity), nor that their interactions really are intended to be perceived as sexual, nor that these relationships really are queer representation—any of that would move into the sexual lesbianism Rich termed "lesbian existence." It is, rather, a description of the mechanics of these texts and the ways they are centered on relationships between and among women. Thus, Doty (1993, 42) argues, "in mass culture reception, at least, the idea of a lesbian continuum might be adapted and expanded to include those situations in which anyone identifies with or takes pleasure in the 'many…forms of primary intensity between and among women.'" Doty describes the shows he discusses as "lesbian sitcoms" because they are structured around, and audiences "identify with" or "take pleasure in," the centrality of women to each other's lives, and I argue that the texts that generate large femslash fandoms are those that produce this identification and pleasure.

[4] Structurally lesbian media has three main, interrelated characteristics: primary homosocial intensity, transient heterosexuality, and homosocial-homosexual slippage. Henry Jenkins (1992, 187) explains that "slash originated as a genre of fan writing within Star Trek fandom in the early 1970s as writers began to suggest, however timidly, that Kirk and Spock cared more deeply for each other than for any of the many female secondary characters who brush past them in the original episodes." This idea that the ostensibly homosocial bond is the most important in characters' lives, and more so than explicitly heterosexual ones, is also shown in more contemporary texts such as Supernatural (2005–), but it hasn't been taken seriously that there is a reason that "'classic male-male buddy series'…have often produced slash fandoms (Tosenberger 2008, 1.2). Where the most important relationship in the text is same-sex, I argue, there shall you find slash in volume, and in the very few media objects where the primary intensity is between women, this is femslash.

[5] Homosocial primary intensity takes various forms. In Xena, for example, the Xena-Gabrielle dyad was the core of the show. Other characters came and went, but the two ladies were what it was about, and I argue that this is why Xena-Gabrielle shipping vastly drowned out any other pairing: Xena was a structurally lesbian show in its focus on relationships between women as primary. Similarly, Rizzoli and Isles (2010–2016) was a structurally lesbian text because it centered on the titular characters and their relationship. To take perhaps unexpected examples, recent Disney films Frozen (2013) and Maleficent (2014) have central relationships between women, and there is substantial femslash about those relationships; this is despite the respectively literally and figuratively incestuous nature of those woman–woman pairs that might otherwise be expected to dampen interest, which may speak to a shortage of structurally lesbian media to choose from. Despite its otherwise conservative gender and sexual politics, ABC fairytale drama Once Upon a Time (2011–) has, for most of its run, been a structurally lesbian television show, driven by the developing relationships between and among its three lead women, Emma Swan, Snow White, and Regina Mills, from strangers to enemies to allies to family—and indeed "Swan Queen," the relationship between Emma Swan and Regina, the Evil Queen, has, at various points in the last six years, been the largest femslash fan base on the Internet.

[6] In accordance with the primary intensity in these texts being same-sex, heterosexual relationships may exist in structurally lesbian media, but they are not the most important ones. As Christine Scodari (2012, 343) argues, "if canonical homosociality between men is a catalyst for traditional slash, it is not threatened merely by male/female romance but by a female character's centrality in the narrative." Because love interests are peripheral to the narrative in these homosocial-bond frameworks, they're also produced as peripheral to the characters, and so such heterosexuality does not threaten the centrality of homosociality. This was certainly true of Xena—men came and went in both of the women's lives. As much as Anna of Frozen is marriage-crazy at the outset, she immediately tosses aside her new fiancé when she needs to go in search of her sister. Similarly, Emma and Regina have had men as love interests during substantial portions of Once Upon a Time, but the big plot and emotional beats have often been with each other (though this has changed in the fifth and sixth seasons), and so it is unsurprising that at AO3, Swan Queen stories outnumber those for any of the show's heterosexual pairings, and nearly both of the women's canonical heterosexual pairings put together (note 5).

[7] This core homosocial bond and merely perfunctory heterosexuality mean there's always a potential for homosexual-homosocial slippage that must be managed. As Jenkins (1992, 203) describes it in the case of m/m slash he examines, texts "must also repress the specifically sexual dimension of these relationships." Julie Levin Russo (2010, 46) contends that "tropes like sudden onscreen boyfriends may function as overdetermined markers of the places where lesbian desire most threatens to erupt." Indeed, it's quite possible to be both a structurally lesbian text and a homophobic, gay-panicked one. The need to push lesbian existence back into the lesbian continuum—to desexualize and deemphasize the relationships between women—can drive an almost hysterical insistence that such women are merely close friends. This is so common as to be a meme: just gals being pals (note 6). The impulse also manifests in what Doty (1993, 42, n. 9) identifies in an endnote as "straight culture's careful maintenance of the line between homosociality and homosexuality." There is much extolling of the value of platonic love between women, and routine demands of "Why do you have to sexualize things?" The existence of a continuum—that these two forms of woman-to-woman relationship exist in relation to one another, and can slide into one another—is terrifying for homophobes but vital to femslashers.

[8] By contrast, queerbaiting arises when show production personnel recognize the homosocial-homosexual slippage and give it a helping nudge rather than suppressing it. This is a situation in which they have no interest in actually letting the relationship in question between women reach lesbian existence—sexual lesbianism—rather than staying on the lesbian continuum—women's primary relations to women—but they will write and direct and act and edit in such a way as to push toward lesbian desire in order to attempt capture of fan attention, affective attachment, and labor. Rizzoli and Isles was notorious for this, from scripting to blocking to promotion, and open about the intent behind having the two actors touch and express care for each other. Queerbaiting, then, attempts to edge closer to lesbian existence while remaining plausibly deniable, exploitatively mining the lesbian continuum's affective resources.

[9] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1985, 2) famously theorized "male homosocial desire," "using 'desire' in a way analogous to the psychoanalytic use of 'libido'—not for a particular, affective state or emotion, but for the affective or social force, the glue, even when its manifestation is hostility or hatred or something less emotively charged, that has shaped an important relationship." The structural lesbianism of the media I describe here is the libidinal glue that holds them together, and as in Sedgwick's (1985, 2) case, "how far this force is properly sexual…will be an active question." How sexual these relationships are indeed varies from text to text, but they mostly stay on the nonsexual side of the lesbian continuum rather than passing into lesbian existence. There is, however, the potential at every moment for affect to break through into desire, for subtext to become text, to go from implicit to explicit, becoming lesbian existence and actuality. The text carries that lesbian potential energy like a compressed spring. It may or may not ever become kinetic in the media object itself, but fans can run their communities on it either way.


1. See destinationtoast (2016) and Tumblr staff (2015) for quantification of the most shipped and fic-ed couples of 2015, as an example.

2. For descriptions of this argument, see Jenkins (1992) and Allington (2007).

3. See, for example, Åström (2010), Jones (2002), and Tosenberger (2008).

4. In saying that all "primary intensity" between women should be framed as lesbian, Rich (1993, 240) was making a political move, calling on ostensibly heterosexual women to recognize their kinship to lesbians on the basis of their deep emotional ties to other women, asking them to "consider the possibility that all women…exist on a lesbian continuum," because this would let women "see ourselves as moving in and out of this continuum, whether we identify ourselves as lesbian or not," in order to band together more effectively toward feminist causes rather than being divided by the specter of lesbianism.

5. As of March 26, 2017.

6. Rundowns of the meme can be found at Meme Documentation (2015) and Buzzfeed (Karlan 2015).

Works cited

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Åström, Berit. 2010. "'Let's Get Those Winchesters Pregnant': Male Pregnancy in Supernatural Fan Fiction." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 4.

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Doty, Alexander. 1993. Making Things Perfectly Queer: Interpreting Mass Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Hanmer, Rosalind. 2003. "Lesbian Subtext Talk: Experiences of the Internet Chat." International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy 23 (1–2): 80–106.

Jenkins, Henry. 1992. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York, NY: Routledge.

Jones, Sara Gwenllian. 2002. "The Sex Lives of Cult Television Characters." Screen 43 (1): 79–90.

Karlan, Sarah. 2015. "An Important Look at Gal Pals throughout History." BuzzFeed, July 31.

Meme Documentation. 2015. "Explained: Gal Pal Meme." Meme Documentation, May 1.

Rich, Adrienne. 1993. "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence." In The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, edited by Henry Abelove, Michèle Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin, 227–54. New York: Routledge.

Russo, Julie Levin. 2010. "Indiscrete Media: Television/Digital Convergence and Economies of Online Lesbian Fan Communities." Dissertation, Brown University.

Scodari, Christine. 2012. "'Nyota Uhura Is Not a White Girl': Gender, Intersectionality, and Star Trek 2009's Alternate Romantic Universes." Feminist Media Studies 12 (3): 335–51.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 1985. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. Revised ed. Columbia University Press.

Tosenberger, Catherine. 2008. "'The Epic Love Story of Sam and Dean': Supernatural, Queer Readings, and the Romance of Incestuous Fan Fiction." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 1.

Tumblr staff. 2015. "Tumblr 2015 Year in Review—Most Reblogged Ships." Tumblr 2015 Year in Review, December 4.