Sherlock and Watson. Dean and Cas. Derek and Stiles. There’s no denying it. There is a lot of gay (male) shipping in fanfiction. In fact, a 2013 survey by Destination Toast suggests that M/M slash pairings make up a whopping 42.6% of all ship categories on AO3 as compared to 21.3% for Gen and 15.4% for Het (F/M). M/M shipping is not a new phenomenon. Slash, and particularly male slash, is as old as contemporary media fandom itself, with Star Trek’s Kirk and Spock largely cited as the first popular ship. Despite this, much of the ongoing meta discussion about why there is so much M/M slashfic in fandom involves placing blame on women fan writers who allegedly write gay ships because they fetishize gay male relationships. There are many articles that do a great job exploring this argument (try here, here, and here). However, in the interest of, well, not blaming women fans for everything, I’d like to point out some of the other reasons as to why M/M slash dominates online fanfiction.
As mentioned, some women do fetishize gay relationships.
Let’s get this one out of the way. Unfortunately, for some fanfiction writers, sexual relationships between men are seen as taboo. With so much emphasis placed on (toxic) masculinity in our culture — including the prevalence of homophobia, the glorification of aggression, and misogyny — romantic and sexual relationships between men are still considered abnormal or taboo by some. Much like the allure of a story featuring two star-crossed lovers, gay male relationships are often fetishized in fanfiction because of their forbidden-ness. In these stories, it is the relationship in itself, rather than the interpersonal relationship between the characters, that is eroticized. This can be a problem if this fetishization spills over into real life: when fans (intentionally or not) patronize or infantilize an actual gay couple. People’s real lives and relationships are not for the purpose of entertainment, so it’s important to separate fandom and the real world.
Most relationships on television (platonic or otherwise) are between men.
Boy meets girl. Boy falls for girl. They get together and live happily ever after. Stories, especially love stories, featuring the “happy ending” trope are extremely popular in our culture. Most of these fairytales end with the romantic promise of a happy and heterosexual relationship. However, when these types of stories feature two male characters, their relationship is almost always reconciled as friendship (see Buddy Films, or, more recently, Bromantic Comedies). But in these male bonding stories, the chemistry normally relegated to heterosexual pairings is still there. (Even when they’re brothers.)
Since men still make up 57% of series regulars on broadcast television (while only making up 49% of the actual U.S. population), it makes sense that most fandom pairings based on onscreen chemistry are M/M. Digging deeper, not only do men outnumber women on television, male characters are often given more fleshed out storylines and character development than female characters are. (This makes sense if we consider television writers’ rooms are filled with mostly men. Write what you know, I guess.) On the flip side, women, particularly in the superhero genre, are often only there to serve the male protagonist’s storyline. Because male characters are often more interesting in canon, it makes sense that fanon follows suit, hence why we get such an abundance of great slashfics.
In popular culture, close male friendships are one-dimensional.
Most models of male friendships we see on screen are between frat boys, drinking buddies, or lovable losers (I Love You, Man, etc.). Unlike female friendships, which are written as normal and even intimate, friendships between men are rarely portrayed with any emotional nuance. (And, if they are, the story often involves a “love triangle,” where the female love interest functions as the intermediary.) Indeed, the fragility of masculinity makes for boring stories. Because of the way toxic masculinity has been proverbially bashed over the heads of men in advertising and popular culture since birth, it can be argued that many women “see” M/M relationships and chemistry in a different way than male spectators do. For instance, woman may be more likely to pick up on a scene with homoerotic subtext, angst, and emotional intimacy (prolonged eye contact, professions of love/admiration) than men are. Since women make up the vast majority of fanfiction writers, it makes sense that this “reading” of M/M relationships in canon translates into fandom.
In fanfiction, there is more room to write male characters in intimate settings — showing vulnerability, talking about feelings, and exploring new types of sexual gratification. With so much of our mainstream male heroes fulfilling a hypermasculine role, it can be refreshing (and relieving) to write stories where a character’s masculinity is not called into question for pursuing a relationship with another man (and, by the same coin, where traditionally feminine attributes — sensitivity, empathy, softness — are not looked down upon).
Not everyone reads your precious male hero as straight.
Sexuality is nuanced, complex, and exists in shades of grey. (No, not that shades of grey.) Not everyone subscribes to the idea that every male television hero is “straight by default.” Fan writers often pick up on nuances, do close readings, and develop deeper understandings of their favourite characters than casual viewers. For example, many Supernatural fans reject Dean Winchester as canonically straight and, instead, read his bravado and masculine posturing as an indication that Dean is bisexual. This interpretation, coupled with the fact that one of his closest relationships in the series is with his guardian angel Castiel, allows for a wider variety of fanfiction based on Dean coming to terms with his sexuality and having romantic and sexual relationships with men.
LGBTQ pairings in mainstream media are rare.
Although the annual GLAAD Where We Are On TV report indicates the 2017-18 television media landscape is the highest ever in terms of LGBTQ representation, still only 58 (6.4%) of 901 regular characters were identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer. (The majority of these 58 LGBTQ characters are white, male, cisgender, and able-bodied.) Because there is still limited representation of diverse LGBTQ characters on television, marginalized fanfiction writers must continue to insert themselves into their favourite stories, worlds, and fandoms. Queer writers, by and large, focus on writing fic that reflect their own lived experiences. This results in a much higher percentage of LGBTQ content, including M/M slash, in online fanfiction than in mainstream media.
Do you have any other theories as to why there is so much gay shipping in fanfiction?
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