The story of queer slash fanfiction is the story of women building a community of their own. But what happens when that story gets retold by a straight man?
The Kickstarter for the new film Slash is raising concerns within the very community it’s trying to celebrate. Slash is based on a 2012 short film of the same name. It focuses on a teen boy who discovers he identifies with the slash fanfiction community—writers who imagine that their favorite male characters are actually queer and in love. It’s a tale that intends to be a loving, fun look at the often-marginalized plethora of slash fans on the Internet. A few days into the Kickstarter campaign, the project, which features popular Teen Wolf actors Michael Johnston and Michael Ian Black, has raised $7,000 of its $45,000 goal to finish production on the film. Creator and director Clay Liford hopes to tell the story of Neil, whose friend Julia “leads him down a rabbit hole into the strange world of erotic fan fiction.”
Neil is obsessed with stories about a fictional superhero named Vanguard, but soon realizes he’s interested in slash fanfiction about the character once Julia, a feminist high school student and “femme-slash writer” introduces him to the genre. From there, he explores the fandom community, conventions, and other facets of geek culture that overlap with slash.
“Erotic fan fiction is not just a funny concept,” writes Liford on Kickstarter. “SLASH is a comedy that embraces the world of fan fiction and its writers. This is a film that will connect with anyone who has ever felt like an outsider, or struggled to figure out where they fit in.” The film intends to take a very open view of sexuality, and a best-friendship between two fans who bond over slash as a way of exploring their own identities.
But not everyone is celebrating.
“I can barely express how incredibly angry the short film… made me,” wrote Tumblr user naked-bee last month when word of the film first made the rounds. “The world of slash that he portrayed was one antithetical to everything I’ve experienced in slash fandom.”
Liford, the writer and director of Slash, is a noted director on the queer film circuit and a contributor to the anthology film ABCs of Death 2. He’s also a self-professed “token straight man” who has said before that he initially engaged with the pastime of slash “100% for the sake of mockery and comedy.” Yet while learning more about the slash community, he came to respect and admire its denizens. He is adamant that Slash is a film for everyone, and that it embraces and portrays fanfic writers accurately.
“I wanted to make a coming-of-age story for kids who don’t have coming-of-age stories. This is a film where slash writers are the heroes. “
“It’s a bit of a tightrope walk here,” he told the Daily Dot in an email, “with the core fans being very insular and us being relative outsiders, but hopefully we can show our intentions are sincere and that we’ve done our homework… Every attempt has been made to be both respectful and accurate to the community.”
The slash fanfiction community has become better known to outsiders thanks to the rise of the Internet, but slashers are still quite sensitive about how outsiders and mainstream culture sees them, and with good reason. The writing of explicit or queer-centric fiction including slash is an illegal practice in some countries, and even in the U.S. many slash fic writers face social ostracism or personal repercussions when their fictional pursuits become known.
Yet slash has a rich history in parts of fandom carved out by and for women as they were largely marginalized from fan communities like the male-dominated science fiction world. So Slash, a movie about a teen boy who identifies with popular slash fandom characters and decides to explore his own sexuality within a fanfic community that seems to be mostly male-dominated, has read to some fans as an inexplicable rewriting of history.
“[Y]our pitch looks like one more male indie auteur trying to make his name off of the backs of women,” wrote slasher and filmmaker Franzeska Dickson in response to the Kickstarter campaign.
“You had to go for [Kirk/Spock] and classic slash fandom, a female subculture by women and for women that is about women’s stories of self-discovery, even if those stories are performed through male media figures.”
The cultural pattern of erasing women from their own stories and histories they created for themselves is a long one, and fandom is no exception: An infamous episode of Supernatural—one of the most female-dominated fandoms around—once portrayed a Supernatural fan convention within the show as almost entirely male-centric, to the bafflement and disappointment of female fans who felt excluded and mocked. Although slash writers focus primarily on male characters and many actively advocate for queer representation in media, queer men don’t actually make up a large part of the slash community.
Yet Liford emphasizes that while doing his research on slash communities, many of the most moving testaments to the genre came from queer men who had found and identified with the community.
While preparing for this film, we met a number of young people from the community that told us, very emotionally, their connections to slash fiction. How it helped them through some difficult times. It’s at the heart of what I wanted to speak about, artistically, in the movie. And the ones who really opened up, especially as outsiders in the deep south, happened to be male.
The question of how to most accurately represent and tell stories about a community is one that has plagued various subcultures for decades, from controversies over social documentaries like Paris Burning to media representations of more marginalized fandoms like furries.
“At its heart, this movie is about inclusiveness.”
But despite his outsider status, Liford is seeking the benefit of the doubt from slash fans. He was eager to respond to fans’ concerns about the film, as well as questions emailed from the Daily Dot:
DD: How did you first find out about slash? Did you have female friends who were
into it or did you come to it some other way?
I’ve been aware of slash since the early 80’s, when my dad used to drop me
off at comic conventions, which were the lifeblood of my preteen years.
There were always special rooms, off-limits to me, that I naturally found
fascinating. Some of those were Hentai [a form of Japanese erotica], and some featured erotic art and
literature. Of course, being a slightly resourceful kid, I managed to get my
hands on some old-school, xerox-printed Star Trek stories. I clearly wasn’t
ready for it at the time, but something about it stuck with me. And, well, here
It began with me reading a pretty big swath of slash
fiction on [Fanfiction.net], amongst other places. We also reached out to quite a
number of slash writers for interviews, several of which you’ll be able to see
in the coming weeks as we promote the film further. Every attempt has been
made to be both respectful and accurate to the community, within the
obvious bounds of dramatic storytelling.
While we don’t intend for the movie to be a treatise on slash, we do
understand that for many people, this might be their initial exposure to the
subject. For those people, I think the takeaway revolves around the universal
desire to define yourself. Sexually, artistically…it’s a quest we all go
through. It can be funny at times, but the humor is not of the low-hanging
fruit variety. This is a film where slash writers are the heroes. And the viewer,
I honestly feel, will be on board with them for the journey.
What is it about slash fandom that interests you? Have you read a lot of slashfic
yourself? (And do you have any favorites?)
Fandom in general interests me. It always has. Nerd culture, for lack of a
better term, has been somewhat co-opted by popular media. It’s hard to
remember the recent past, when “nerds” were ostracized or even bullied for
displaying an interest in anything genre-related.
And as far as my own genre
tastes, I tended to gravitate towards material with a primarily female
audience. “Elfquest” was my first love. But I was terrified of anyone, even
other nerds, discovering my own fandom. So I secretly joined the “Elfquest”
fan club and quickly began several meaningful correspondences (via snail
mail because I’m old) with likeminded peers. That was the first time I felt
anyone really “got” me. There was something special about feeling included
in a somewhat underground club with its own secret handshake. Not that I’d
ever want to return to the nerd closet, but I do feel like I sort of miss that
subterranean camaraderie in our increasingly genre-receptive culture. Slash
is certainly not as marginalized as it has been in the past, but there remains
a slight feeling of danger (of the exciting, subversive variety) when reading
it. It certainly scratches that itch for my youthful fan days.
And to answer the
second half of your question, I’m always going to be partial to Harry Potter
slash (Drarry!). It was my gateway as an adult reader.
Why was it important for you to make your main character a young boy,
especially given that slash fandom is so heavily dominated by women?
Two of my previous films have found their home in LGBTQ film festival
circuit, and in attending those festivals, I developed a close connection with
the community. It’s something that’s stuck with me, and then, while
preparing for this film, we met a number of young people from the
community that told us, very emotionally, their connections to slash fiction.
How it helped them through some difficult times. It’s at the heart of what I
wanted to speak about, artistically, in the movie. And the ones who really
opened up, especially as outsiders in the deep south, happened to be male. I
wanted to make a coming-of-age story for kids who don’t have coming-of-age stories. In this case, questioning teens.
I feel that in our society, and I recognize that this is a loaded answer, there’s
still quite a bit of pressure on men to be ‘manly.’ So it seems even more
dangerous, or subversive even for our questioning character to be male. It
makes it that much less socially acceptable. And our male lead’s sexuality is
genuinely undefined in traditional terms. He’s not a wolf in sheep’s clothing,
so to speak.
What we haven’t really addressed is our second lead. This movie is a true
“two-hander.” It’s a platonic love story between two young souls who,
feeling that they were alone in the world, found each other. The questioning
teen boy and the slightly older teen girl who also writes slash fiction. And we
will be seeing more of her character in the coming days. The actual feature
film addresses, several times, the demographic breakdown of slash writers.
In fact, Missi Pyle plays the character of “Ronnie,” who is the senior editor of
the slash forum on which our characters post their stories.
In your Kickstarter video, a character self-identifies his community as being full
of “outsiders, weirdos, nerds, and sexual deviants.” And in your response to
Franzeska, you said: “We’re hoping to expand our audience to include people
who might not show up for something with [the GLBTQ] label.” Are these two
audiences in conflict?
Unfortunately, I would say that yes, I think there’s still some disconnect
between mainstream audiences and the queer community. It’s certainly
better than even a decade ago, and I’m excited that times seem to be
changing. However, there are people who would genuinely respond to our
story that won’t go anywhere near it if the movie is presented as niche.
I do think the modern inclusiveness of all fandom is really becoming a game
changer. That along with the massive strides within/without the LGBTQ
community. Gay marriage was legalized in the middle of our shoot. We had a
huge, on set, celebratory moment. At the end of the day, anyone who would
be offended by the subject matter, whether the queer content or the
seemingly subversive fandom, is probably not our audience. What I don’t
want is this to fall off the radar for people who might genuinely connect to it,
based solely upon the notion that it’s not an inclusive story. At its heart, this
movie is trying to talk about inclusiveness.
Fandom is an extremely diverse community, but I think that most of your main
cast members are white. Do you think that will hamper your attempts to
portray the fandom accurately, or will Slash address fandom diversity in
This is going to sound like “that answer,” but it’s the honest truth. We
literally just cast the best people for each individual role. Our casting
notices went out as open to all types and ethnicities. I was adamant
about that. It’s really how the chips fell. In doing my research, and
really understanding the demographics of the community, I made the
decision to add several more significant female roles to make it more
accurate. And, we haven’t completed the film yet. We are still casting
the remaining section, and every remaining role is very much open to
Will the movie explore any topics that are of interest to slash fans specifically—slash becoming canon, queerbaiting, certain kinds of popular slash tropes,
etc? Or will it generally be a boy’s coming-of-age story with slash as a
Oh yes! There are several fun scenes specifically addressing this. In
particular, a really great dinner scene between Missi Pyle, Michael Ian Black
and Michael Johnston (who plays Neil, the lead boy), where they talk about
“the mission” of being a conduit to slash writers. And indoctrination. And
queer baiting. It’s a really great moment. In fact, some of my favorite
moments in the film are relatively quiet conversations where we learn the
impetus behind the characters writing and motives. Why they slash. Why
they post on forums. Canon versus fan fic. What the social purpose of the
forum is. Things of that nature.
Though fans may still have misgivings about the film, Liford’s project highlights one truth that may be uncomfortable for female fanfiction writers who think of slash fandom as “their” space. Though it has long been cultivated and carefully guarded by women, queer men have always been a less-visible part of the slash community, clinging to slash’s depiction of gay male characters to help them explore vital parts of their own identities. If Slash does position the point of view of female slash fans in the role of secondary characters, perhaps it does so in service of representing the voices of queer men in slash fandom—a group very rarely heard from.
All in all, Slash might not be the standard overwriting of female-centric fandom that fans have justifiably come to expect. Instead, it might be something different: an important opportunity to think about fandom’s complexity and diversity in new ways—at a time when our voices are growing louder than ever.
Photo via Kickstarter