There has been a recent and unfortunate trend on late-night talk shows whereby hosts force sexually explicit fanart upon their celebrity guests to embarrass them and to provoke laughter from the audience. Mocking and ridiculing fan works on national television has led fans to restrict access to their works, remove them from the Internet, or in some cases, stop making fanart altogether. An even more insidious side of this trend, however, is the undercurrent of homophobia during these segments, particularly in response to slash art.
On an episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live that featured the cast of The Avengers, a fanart segment began with some beautifully drawn images of Tony Stark and Bruce Banner “palling around,” which elicited sitcom-style “aws” from the audience. Unfortunately, the celebratory tone of the segment quickly changed to mockery when a fan drawing of Stark kissing Banner on the head and holding his hand was displayed, prompting bouts of raucous laughter. Next, a picture of Banner sitting on Stark’s lap got a disgusted “ohh!” from the Avengers cast and shrieks from the audience. A drawing of the “Science Bros” cuddling shirtless received sustained, contemptuous groans.
It is understandable why celebrities might react to slash art with shock and distaste, considering many fan artists model characters’ facial features on the actors themselves. Having sexually explicit images based on your likeness shoved into your face would be an uncomfortable, even traumatic, experience. However, consider also how a gay teenager might feel when they flip on Jimmy Kimmel Live to see this same artwork, perhaps their artwork, featuring two men embracing each other being played for laughs and groans. Regardless of intent, it sends the message that a gay relationship is something to be laughed at, mocked, and ridiculed.
The Hobbit actor Martin Freeman’s casual response to slash fanart on The Graham Norton Show is a great example of how celebrities can, and should, refuse to play ball during these awkward segments. When host Graham Norton held up a series of cards displaying Johnlock slash art in increasingly explicit sexual positions, Freeman was unfazed. He simply repeated, “That’s fine. That’s fine.” Conversely, Norton, who is openly gay himself, cackled and said of a piece depicting oral sex, “That’s wrong!” which was followed by groans and hisses from the audience. After getting through the familiar pattern of sequential artworks that ramped up the sexual content, Norton hyped up the final work’s explicit nature for comedic effect: “The final one, I really can’t show.” Then, he revealed the artwork, which depicted penetrative sex between Sherlock and Watson. The audience cackled madly, Freeman did not. When Norton didn’t get the reaction he had intended from Freeman, he quickly moved on to one of the other stunned celebrity guests: “Richard Curtis looks appalled! Richard’s gone into a catatonic shock! He’s rocking and crying now!” Freeman, keeping his composure, simply smiled and said of the artwork, “I know it. I’ve seen it.”
Freeman gave the reason why he tempers his response to slash art in a 2013 interview with Time Out Mumbai:
I’ve always seen it as a point of principle not to be offended if people imply you’re gay – so now, I’ve never given a [damn]. If I was [offended], I’d kind of think, well what does that make me? I wouldn’t want a 15-year-old kid thinking I’m ashamed of it. I’m not.
I can understand how a casual observer who has never seen slash art or doesn’t know what “shipping” is might find these late-night segments shocking or amusing. (These are comedy shows, after all.) I can also attest that many fans have a sense of humor about the often outlandish creative works that flourish in fandom. However, for young people especially, queer fanart can be a way to come to terms with non-mainstream sexualities and identities. Fandom provides a safe space to explore sexual desires and behaviors that may not be openly accepted in their families or communities. Knowing this, it is difficult to regard talk show segments that rely on homophobic mockery of slash art as funny.