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When it comes to showrunners interacting with fandom slash ships, we’ve heard this song a million times before.
How do you deal with a fandom that just won’t stop liking things you’d rather they didn’t?
If you’re one of the countless producers out there with unpopular shows, you might think having a loud fandom is a good thing. But over the years, we’ve seen behavior from both showrunners and fans of major slash pairings that would suggest that navigating a slash fandom is a complicated and incendiary mine field.
Slash pairings, or queer relationships, are generally the controversial ones, particularly in onscreen stories. While straight pairings between characters are typically fair game in Hollywood, queer relationships are still atypical, especially if they involve main characters. But that hasn’t stopped fans from rooting for queer pairings in slash fandoms. The increasing visibilty of slash fandom, and the popularity of slash shipping, often puts fandom squarely at odds with a century of the celluloid closet.
Prior to Tumblr, slash, much like fandom itself, flew under the radar, only surfacing in the occasional awkward question from fans at conventions. Tumblr changed all that. When Teen Wolf arrived on the scene in 2011, it enjoyed a healthy first two seasons with slash ship Sterek getting constant nods from showrunner Jeff Davis and the cast and crew. Later, thanks to the renewed boost that Tumblr gave to slash fan favorite Supernatural, the show saw ratings actually increase over Seasons 8 and 9. It’s almost unheard of for a show in its waning years, but slash fandom on Tumblr is a mighty vehicle. Last year, seven of the top 10 most-reblogged actors of 2013 played characters who are primarily associated with being one half of a major slash ship. And of the top 10 most-reblogged television shows, six are known for having at least one major slash pairing (or “bromance” in the case of Skins.) Coming in at No. 11 was Merlin, a show that went off the air at the end of 2012, but still continues to enjoy a major fandom following, solely because of the popularity of Arthur/Merlin as a slash pairing.
But with all of the new attention that Tumblr has brought to slash fandom, it’s also gotten easier to recognize recurring patterns in the way the showrunners and creatives—dubbed “The Powers That Be”, or TPTB by fandom—deal with slash fans and pairings. Tumblr users coined the word “queerbaiting” in large part to more concretely discuss the way that shows like Sherlock and Once Upon a Time often entice their massive slash fanbases by teasing queer relationships on and off the show despite having no intention of making those queer relationships come to fruition. Yet queerbaiting doesn’t quite explain the repeated full cycle of how these shows ultimately find themselves embroiled in tussles with a fandom that feels led on and betrayed by a show’s initial dalliance with and ultimate retreat from slash fans.
Teen Wolf once seemed like slash fandom’s best hope for a slash pairing to be integrated into the main storyline purely because the fandom loved it so much. Davis himself tweeted that it was a possibility, and welcomed overtures from the fandom like Cookies For Sterek, while MTV hosted a slash-friendly fanfic contest and named Sterek one of its nominees for Ship of the Year in its first annual Fandom Awards. But as the show kept going and pressure from the fandom to make Sterek happen grew greater, Stiles and Derek interacted less on the show, and members of the cast and crew began to speak out against Sterek and how not-gay Stiles and Derek are.
Last season, Derek got a female love interest; last month, fans were treated to an interview with actress Shelley Hennig where her recently introduced character Malia was discussed as a potential “mate for life” for Stiles. And earlier this month, Tyler Hoechlin, who plays Derek, tentatively dismissed the ship as irrelevant to anything happening on the show.
Inevitably, these developments have sent some fans heading for the hills. After the Hennig interview, Tumblr user raisesomehale comforted fellow broken-hearted Sterek fan with language that is, by now, universally familiar to anyone who’s ever shipped Sterek, or Swanqueen, or Johnlock, or Destiel, or Merthur, or…
Oh honey no, please don’t cry! I know exactly how you feel, cheated, am I right? Invalidated and manipulated and maybe even a little humiliated for having our hopes be raised and praised so many times by a crew who – in reality, wanted to erase what we love the moment it got too “big” for them?
I understand. I do.
But do you know what makes everything so much better?
The image raisesomehale references above shows a sample blacklist and whitelist for the popular Tumblr extension XKit, which helps Tumblr users filter out unwanted content—in this case, anything related to Teen Wolf that’s not also related to Sterek. It’s a snarky representation of how polarized the Sterek fandom is by now to the Teen Wolf fandom in general.
How did it come to this?
Though it may sound extreme, what’s happening in the Teen Wolf fandom at the moment is all-too-familiar. Inevitably, the bait-and-switch of TPTB that get in over their heads courting a slash fan following before abandoning it leads to the crushed hopes of many fans. And it’s not just TV shows that fall into this game: Asian and European pop bands do it, too. From One Direction to J-pop bands, there’s been many wink-wink-nod publicity stunts. The result is an advance-and-retreat that leads to frustration for both creators and the fans.
So, for the uninitiated, here’s a step-by-step guide to the rise and inevitable fall of slash fandoms.
1) Introduce two characters (or bandmates) with especially compelling chemistry. Once you’ve realized that fans are really enjoying their character/bandmate interaction, film them interacting even more to generate interest.
At a glance, it’s pretty easy to see why fans ship Swanqueen:
Photo via n-e-v-e-r-n-e-v-e-r-land/Tumblr
Merlin fans will tell you: This is basically the entire show.
Gif via omggalina/Tumblr
Gif via luvemishacollins/Tumblr
“I like everything about Nino”— Satoshi Ohno, one half of the J-pop pairing Ohmiya from the popular, longrunning boy band ARASHI, from the May 2010 issue of Potato. Ohmiya is such a well-known boy band pairing in Japan that it’s frequently singled out in photoshoots like this one from the July 2014 issue of TV Life magazine:
Photoset via miyuki-arashi/Tumblr
Then there’s these two ‘we’re-not-gay-we’re-just-handcuffed-together-in-an-act-of-mutual-wordless-devotion’ prats:
Gif via i-am-john-lockedd/Tumblr
2) Recognizing that you’re sitting on a goldmine of potential fans for this one pairing, court the fandom by both acknowledging the existence of the ship and embracing the fans who ship it.
Here’s Jeff Davis, the showrunner of Teen Wolf, speaking to E-Online about Sterek’s popularity in the summer of 2012:
There’s always a lot of fun to be had with characters who seemingly despise each other and then have to work together to survive. In a funny way, that’s how a lot of romantic comedies begin. The two leads always start out absolutely hating each other until they find their common ground.
Gif via hungrybutterfly/Tumblr
Photo via castielryan/Tumblr
Photo via everything-nerdy27/Tumblr
The popular J-pop pairing Akame (Akanishi Jin and Kamenashi Kazuya) from the band KAT-TUN is rather infamous for the number of photoshoots they’ve done posed in bed together:
Photo via AsiaBeam
The burgeoning Hawaii Five O slash fandom seemed generally insulted by this cheeky CBS reference to their show’s popular slash “bromance.”
Gif via TeamTSD
In general, Misha Collins has remained less condemning than the rest of the cast and crew of Supernatural of the idea of fans shipping his character, Castiel, with Jensen Ackles’ character Dean Winchester:
Photo via weheartit
2.1: As a bonus, make in-show references to the ship for funsies:
“We’re one and the same. We’re Shassie now.” – a fifth-season episode of Psych, referencing the fandom name for the Shawn/Lassiter pairing.
Gif via shassie/Tumblr
There are too many examples of this on Supernatural to mention for both the Wincest and Destiel ships, but the show’s attitude toward Wincest fans has been especially derisive. In one episode that was inexplicably nominated for a GLAAD award for positive representation, two characters who are Sam/Dean fanboys are revealed in the final episode to be Sam/Dean shippers who roleplay as the brothers in a mirror of their own real-life queer relationship. Though the show attempts to paint the fanboys as noble heroes, the actual brothers Winchester are, of course, grossed out by the fact that their characters are being shipped together.
Screengrab via missyjack/LiveJournal
This is only a smattering of the endless, wearying canonical references to the slash ship of John/Sherlock in the BBC show Sherlock, which despite being only nine episodes long packs more instances of queerbaiting per capita than any other show we follow:
Photo via bookshop/Tumblr
With bands, this step is complicated, both because bandmates often interact with each other in ways that encourage the shipping, at least initially, and because fans—even without encouragement from deliberately staged photoshoots—read into everything anyway. Witness One Direction‘s Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson, who in the early days of the band frequently commented on their own close friendship, and occasionally on their popularity as a ship:
Illustration via rememberbravery/Tumblr
3) Once you realize that fans have latched on to the ship as the primary reason they’re watching the show or band, start to distance yourself from the pairing and issue denials.
Contrast Jeff Davis’ upbeat attitude and tone toward Sterek shippers in 2012 to his drastically different attitude and tone just a year later:
[I]f you don’t feel it’s worth watching anymore all you have to do is stop… I know that there are a lot of fans out there who have their own ideas of where the story should go, but the truth is no show is written by the fans.
SPN shippers have fared little better. This was Jensen Ackles’ controversial response last year to a fan’s attempts to ask about Dean possibly being bisexual:
I’m gonna pretend like I don’t know what the question was. — Jensen Ackles, NJ Con, 2013
The writers of Once Upon a Time have issued similar distancing statements about their show’s major femslash pairing, Regina/Emma, better known as “Swanqueen.” This happened most notably at last year’s San Diego Comic-Con, where they swore the subtext was purely unintentional and seemed to dismiss it as a serious possibility based on the characters’ respective backstories.
And then there was that time Louis Tomlinson, one half of the One Direction pairing “Larry Stylinson,” called the millions of zealotous fans who believe he’s in a relationship with bandmate Harry Styles “delusional.” Because their belief affects his real life instead of just his character, he’s certainly within his rights to clarify the reality of the situation, but his efforts backfired. The disbelieving fanbase refused to accept his declaration and decided that One Direction’s much-loathed “Management” must have made the tweet to throw the fandom off the scent of Harry and Louis’ epic love.
— lou (@ridelarryd) July 16, 2014
4) Divide and Conquer, Part 1.
Desperate to quash the interest in the pairing, split up the two people in it, hoping that by giving them other romantic interests, the shipping enthusiasm will die down.
Larry Stylinson is unfortunately a familiar scenario within bandom. As shipping bandmates gets out of control, often bands will physically separate the two focal point band members to dissuade fans from shipping them. A frequent complaint within the One Direction fandom is that Harry and Louis, who used to be positioned next to each other in nearly every photo op, are hardly ever framed together anymore, either onstage or off. This is a tactic routinely used when shipping gets out of control in Asian boy bands.
TV producers often don’t react much better. Supernatural, Once Upon a Time, and Teen Wolf have all followed similar tactics in their most recent seasons, with the two halves of each of their respective slash ships spending less and less time onscreen together.
Stargate: Atlantis enjoyed decent ratings and a stolidly middle-aged fanbase that had supported the franchise for over a decade. It also had a major cult following within slash fandom because of the popularity of the slash pairing of John Shepard and Rodney McKay, a.k.a. McShep. McShep fans helped give the series a longer life and solid DVD sales into its fifth season. But unexpectedly, the show was canceled, not because ratings were poor, but because producers wanted to “broaden” the franchise’s “core fanbase.”
In other words, since the fanbase was too middle-aged, too female, and too prone to writing slashfic, the whole show had to go. The fanbase was so upset at SGA’s cancellation that Stargate: Universe, intended to be its younger, hotter sibling, crashed and burned in its first season. The franchise hasn’t been back on the air since.
Photo via destinyrko/Tumblr
And Destiel and Sterek fans have seen the two halves of their OTP getting less and less screen time together in recent seasons as a result of their respective show’s ambivalence about the pairings.
At this year’s JibCon, Ackles spoke at length about how refreshing he found the lack of a Dean-and-Castiel storyline, solely because he felt the Destiel ship had “gotten a little out of proportion.”
“They didn’t have much of a friendship in Season 9,” he said. It’s all part of the pattern.
#AskSupernatural Do you keep Dean and Cas apart without it making any sense because you can’t deal with their chemistry?
— Alene (@batalene) July 16, 2014
Divide and Conquer, Part 2
When this tactic of separation only seems to make the shippers in the fandom that much more united in opposition to the narrative, introduce a new, blindingly heteronormative romantic relationship for one or both members of the gay ship in question. Have the narrative insist that this new person is the real OTP of that person, the one true soulmate they were meant to be with.
Teen Wolf isn’t the only show trying desperately to distract shippers with a new romantic “mate for life.” Last month, Once Upon a Time‘s Lana Parilla, who plays the Queen (one half of Swanqueen) called new character Robin Hood her “soulmate,” to the chagrin of loyal Swanqueen shippers, who have always gotten a tremendous amount of support from both Parilla and Jennifer Morrison, who plays Emma, the other half of the pairing. The show has spent much of the last season hammering home the idea that the two halves of Swanqueen each have found their true love in other, male characters.
Early in Season 9, SPN fans similarly balked at news that the angel Castiel was about to lose his virginity (sort of; it’s complicated) with a random female love interest, a move that alarmed fans who saw the episode as a wasted opportunity for more queer representation. Now, in Season 10, we have spoilers indicating that Dean will have a new love interest on the show as well. (And no, it’s not Cas.) While Dean has always been a ladies’ man, he’s spent recent seasons with other things on his mind. The timing is striking many fans as suspect, and related to the show’s efforts to downplay Destiel:
#AskSupernatural why does Dean get a love interest NOW after so many seasons of celibacy? Are the heterosexual writers panicking bc destiel?
— Multifandom Madnesss (@mad_fangrl) July 15, 2014
5) Watch the sizeable chunk of the fandom you once tried to court walk away in droves.
Last year, after the controversial Comic-Con dismissal of Swanqueen as a pairing, the podqueen fandom podcast on Tumblr decided to close up shop:
While the canon status of a ship is no barrier to shipping it, we mostly don’t feel comfortable promoting and supporting a show whose cast and actors can’t treat a f/f ship as just one of many options for the show – they hold up every interaction between m/f characters as canon intent of potential romance, but not the far richer material between Regina & Emma. [Showrunner Adam Horowitz] has shown on twitter that their idea of catering to the LGBTQ audience will (by implication) be no more than a token character at some nebulous point in the future. All these things in conjunction make it problematic to endorse the show any longer.
Once Upon a Time isn’t the only show to lose viewers because of its refusal to give the slashers what they wanted. As it progressed from teasing the bromance to giving its main characters other romantic relationships, Hawaii Five O lost ratings from a record 20 million viewers in its first season and was ultimately moved to the Friday night death slot for its fourth and fifth seasons. Slash fandom was in all likelihood only a tiny part of the show’s viewership, but losing all those fans after they walked away during Season 2 certainly didn’t help.
Currently, Teen Wolf fandom is undergoing a similar mass walk-out. “I’m no longer watching the show and I’m not recommending it to anyone anymore,” an anonymous ex-viewer wrote to Tumblr user sterekallaround near the end of Season 3, prompted by sterekallaround’s own rant about the show’s refusal to acknowledge Sterek as a serious pairing. “I can’t support a show that queerbaits the mess out of people for ratings.”
As for Supernatural, well…
#AskSupernatural Are you going to continue pushing Cas out of the bros’ story until all of us Misha fans finally bail on the show?
— nerdyangel (@momo_tratch) July 15, 2014
Ultimately, not all of the steps in this ongoing pattern apply to every show with a popular queer pairing. Some shows with deliberate subtext, like Smallville, House, and Merlin, arguably ran with their respective queer subtexts until the very end, and benefited accordingly from strong slash fandoms throughout their life on air. In Merlin‘s case, the fandom has given the show a second life on Tumblr well after its final season. None of these shows engaged in the deliberate tease-and-repudiation of slash shipping that has come to be associated with claims of queerbaiting.
On the flip side, there are a host of emerging narratives that have given characters complex sexualities and courted fandoms in the process: Spartacus had a main queer pairing that felt very much informed by slash tropes, while the recent Penny Dreadful has won fandom acclaim in part because of its laidback approach to sexuality. Despite being two very different kinds of stories, Welcome to Night Vale and House of Cards both queered their main characters gradually, even relatively late into the narrative—in Night Vale‘s case, well after it had an established fandom.
Night Vale, so far, is the only series with a major fandom whose creators recognized the developing popularity of a slash pairing and then decided to make that pairing happen on the show. That it did so without much fanfare is perhaps a testament to its ability to function, as a podcast, independent of the rules of Hollywood, where gay characters are still controversial and often censored.
Once Upon a Time writer Jane Espenson, who created the popular gay web series Husbands, spoke at New York Comic Con in 2012 about the difficulty of getting studio approval to create queer characters on shows she’s worked on in the past, namely Buffy. Until Hollywood is less inclined to censor queer relationships, fandom’s eagerness to campaign for slash ships becoming canon seems likely to continue.
In the meantime, all we can do is hope that the next creators who find themselves with a hit slash ship on their hands take some time to learn from the mistakes of all those who came before them—and wound up alienating fans they initially wanted to embrace.
Aja Romano is a geek culture reporter and fandom expert. Their reporting at the Daily Dot covered everything from Harry Potter and anime to Tumblr and Gamergate. Romano joined Vox as a staff reporter in 2016.