“StormPilot” – the wildly popular new slash ship from the new Star Wars: Force Awakens film – has taken both fandom and the mainstream media by storm. Articles abound in mainstream press outlets about the pairing, discussing with all seriousness its genuine popularity and the possibility of its canonization. While pieces like this historically were often a not so subtle dig at the strange, exotic customs of those subcultural oddities – the fangirls and boys and people of the world – press coverage for StormPilot (aka Finn x Poe) has been surprisingly respectful and earnest, treating the possibility as a serious proposition, and utterly consonant with the franchise canon so far. In other words, counter to much of history, it is not just being talked about as a means to take cheap shots at fandom or fangirls, nor as a way to set up a “joke” about their “bromance.”
Current AO3 stats confirm it is by far and away the most popular ship attached to the Star Wars revival, showing present numbers double to the next popular ship (Kylo/Rey). I cannot go a day on Tumblr without seeing several new pieces of fanart for the pairing, many easily garnering several thousand notes in the space of days or even hours. The number of blogs devoted specifically to the ship is considerable and growing. I’ve followed every one Tumblr has recommended, which is more than 30, and every day new ones pop up in my recommendation. (I have not by-passed one yet)
In some ways, it makes sense. Slash is an entrenched 40 year fandom tradition, and the StormPilot ship has a lot to recommend it. Although our heroes share relatively little screen time in Force Awakens, all things considered, their interactions onscreen bespeak an almost instant connection and a devout loyalty forged in the heat of battle. Poe gives Finn his name, a derivation from his assigned Stormtrooper identification: FN2187. Finn seems quite distraught by the seemingly loss of Poe when they initially crash on Jakku, retrieving his jacket and keeping it in apparent memorandum. Later it becomes Finn’s permanent possession when Poe reemerges and refuses to take it back. “It suits you,” he says, with the now infamous and widely GIF’ed lip-bite that arguably launched the ship into the stratosphere.
In many ways, their slash ship seems obvious, its popularity a natural outgrowth of the character’s scripted dynamic, actors John Boyega and Oscar Isaac’s chemistry, and the sheer inertia of fandom as a broader cultural force. However, despite all of this, the ship’s popularity is also immensely surprising, and arguably a historic step forward for fandom as a whole, because amazingly, neither character is white. While outsiders to fandom might not consider this fact particularly important or noteworthy, veteran fans will no doubt recognize what a tremendous leap forward it actually is.
It is not exactly a secret that fandom has a blatant and long-standing racial bias when it comes to slash ships, particularly M/M ones. In 2003, Livejournal/Dreamwidth user Jlh coined what has become tantamount to an ancient fandom proverb: “Slash is the sound of white men fucking.” Fandoms reaching back across the decades have consistently and devoutly refused to ship men of color. This bias can be documented across a huge array of different franchises and has basically never wavered, even in the face of obvious slash possibilities like Han/Lando from Star Wars, Jordi/Data from Star Trek: Next Generation, J.D./Turk from Scrubs, Dean/Seamus from Harry Potter, Shawn/Gus from Psych, Ryan/Esposito from Castle, Troy/Abed from Community, Nick/Hank from Grimm, Steve/Sam from Captain America, Tony/Rhodey from Iron Man, Fitz/Mack from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, Oliver/Diggle from Arrow, Barry/Cisco from The Flash, Scott/basically any of the dudes on Teen Wolf.
It’s not that NO slash exists of these pairings, or others including men of color, but often these pairing are dramatically overshadowed by white M/M pairings with far less canon basis (the MCU fandom’s preference for Clint/Coulson over Sam/Steve or Tony/Rhodey is particular embarrassing). Or there just is not nearly as much slash for them as there should be, or likely would be, if the characters were both white. Of course, counterfactuals are hard to prove with certainty, but still. The fact that I struggle to find slash content for a pairing that includes a canon moment like this is incredibly telling.
Why this bias exists and persists is a matter of much speculation and debate, and is probably attributable to many different overlapping factors. Fans have often argued that the underrepresentation and less nuanced writing of men of color in Hollywood is responsible for the lack of slash for such characters. I do not doubt this is true up to a point. However, as previously stated, sometimes fandoms create massive amounts of slash content for character pairs that only have a few fairly inconsequential interactions. So the amount or substance of the canon inspiration cannot possibly be the only thing sustaining this disparity.
Fans are often cagey about what exactly makes for a good slash pairing, and why some pairings just seem more appealing to them than others. Their frequent inclination when interrogated about this issue is to invoke the abstraction of “chemistry,” which is by its nature a je ne sais quoi that acts as a kind of self-justifying non-explanation. When asked why they would much rather ship Steve Rogers with Bucky than with Sam Wilson, fans en masse will say (re: Steve/Sam) “I just don’t see it.” Which is a very convenient way for individuals in fandom to by-pass the systematic race bias to which they regularly contribute.
There is an old saying that no snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible. The nearly ubiquitous reticence of fans toward slashing men of color is a fandom-wide problem which is everybody’s fault and also no one’s in particular. However, in an era where slash fandom is in the process of being overtly commercialized, and when having a large/active internet fanbase is part of what networks and movie studios take into account when they make decisions about renewals and cancellations and casting, there are actual substantive, material stakes now as to who gets slashed and who does not.
Case in point: Hannibal was incredibly lucky to get 3 seasons at NBC while posting extremely low ratings for the entirety of its run (about 2 million viewers total per episode). Many credit its very large and active fanbase – made up primarily of Hannibal/Will shippers – for keeping NBC invested in it at all. No doubt its status as artistically superlative high-brow entertainment was a factor in keeping it around as well. But the fact that it could make Twitter go wild indubitably played a substantial role in keeping Bryan Singer and Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen and everyone else involved in its production employed for 3 seasons.
Conversely, Fox’s 2014 sci-fi buddy-cop drama Almost Human only managed 1 truncated season, despite having better ratings at its lowest point than Hannibal had at its highest point (5.2 million live vs. 4.3 million). Almost Human was only ever a blip on the fandom radar despite having all the right ingredients to be a fan favorite including, most significantly, a very homoerotic dynamic between its two very attractive leads. Take a gander at this scene from episode 2 “Skin” and tell me this isn’t prime slash fodder.
Exchanges like this between leads Dorian (Michael Ealy) and John (Karl Urban) were something of a staple of the short-lived show, and yet its slash fanbase was nowhere to be found. It got canceled while averaging 9 million viewers (after its 7-day DVR ratings were factored in) and the fans of the world could not have possibly cared less.
My point is, which shows fans will go to bat for, which ones they choose to talk about on Twitter and Tumblr and Instagram, which ones they create fanart, and vids and meta and fanfic and GIFs for now has substantial ripple effects within major institutions in Hollywood. I do not think it is exactly an accident that Dylan O’Brien has gotten way more career traction out of his stint on Teen Wolf than Tyler Posey has. While O’Brien is a substantial talent in his own right, and I would not want to suggest his popularity entirely derives from his attachment to the popular Sterek slash ship, it would be naïve to suggest that he has not at least partially ridden those coattails toward his ever expanding list of career opportunities. Same for Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, whose joint Sherlock slash fandom popularity helped catapult both men’s careers into the stratosphere virtually overnight.
Entertainment franchises now get heightened visibility just from their engagement with slash fandoms which is no doubt the primary reason major producers like Joe Russo at Marvel are suddenly all about being cordial and inviting and magnanimous to the numerous Stucky shippers of the world. In the era of social media, it’s incredibly smart business to cultivate an active slash fanbase. Careers can be built off it, shows renewed because of it, box office numbers substantially heightened by it. What happens in fandom does not stay in fandom anymore. Which makes this entrenched racial bias in slash all the more important to address.
It is likely that Star Wars: The Force Awakens would have done incredibly well at the box office no matter what its actual substance. The brand of Star Wars is still a juggernaut in its own right, irrespective of general content quality, or slash potentials. But the fact that it has managed to garner the slash fandom that it has can only add to its profitability and visibility, and will probably make both Oscar Isaac and John Boyega attractive talent to casting directors in the years to come. Moreover, the revival franchise still has at least 2 more movies in the works. StormPilot will likely factor into both the content and the market strategies of those sequels in the forthcoming years, especially given how much enthusiasm for it seems to exist in mainstream entertainment media.
Media producers and consumers are living in a brave new world where slash fandom is an ever lessening prurient punchline and is rapidly transforming into a serious business model. Hollywood institutions are beginning to understand that slash moves money and makes careers, not to mention serving as one of the best sources of click-bait in the currently known universe. Star Wars: The Force Awakens may take place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, but its audience in the here and now are catapulting it into a future with a slash pairing that breaks a 40-year mold and represents a monumental crack in the chronic racism demonstrated by slash fandoms up until this point.
Slash is no longer solely a reflection of its fan’s politics (if it ever was). It now has the substantial power to shape the media landscape in its own right. Who really knows why StormPilot has managed to override the racist historical trend that ought to have made it a footnote rather than a headline. But a headline it continues to be, and I can only hope that whatever je ne sais quoi has been keeping fans out of the slash game where men of color are concerned has reached its critical mass and experienced irreparable system failure. Only time will tell, of course, but with a pilot like Poe Dameron at the helm, our race to the future of slash looks immensely promising indeed, not to mention much more colorful.