Batman loves Robin

By Brigid Delaney

What if the caped crusader fancied his boy wonder? Joseph Brennan is researching the rise of ‘slash fiction’, a literary genre where fans recast straight male heroes as gay lovers.
Image of Joseph Brennan

Credit: Ted Sealey

Imagine if the hero, at the end of the story didn’t get the girl, but turned to his male sidekick and said, “Actually Robin, I think I fancy you instead.”

Welcome to the world of slash fiction, where fans imagine different, gayer relationships for the leading men. ‘Slash’ is a kinky relative of fan fiction, where followers of a text (such as a television series) rewrite scripts and stories, but twist the relationship of the characters. One of the earliest examples of slash fiction is Star Trek, where some fans in the 1970s imagined a sexual relationship between Captain Kirk and Mr Spock, which they wrote as K/S. From the slash in the middle, the genre derives its name.

Joseph Brennan is in the 4th and final year of his PhD at the University of Sydney. His Honours thesis on slash fiction received the University Medal, which encouraged him to move on to a PhD. He was also awarded a Postgraduate Teaching Fellowship, given annually to eight outstanding PhD candidates, which allows him to coordinate units of study, and combines research with teaching.

While he had intended to complete his PhD research overseas, he says the positive experience he had working with his Honours supervisor, Dr Fiona Giles, ultimately persuaded him to stay at Sydney and do his PhD here under her supervision. “The small Honours cohort and coursework components at Sydney prepared me well for life as a researcher,” Joseph adds.

As for a basic definition of the ‘slash’ genre, Joseph explains: “it is fan fiction that looks at homoeroticism of otherwise heterosexual character.” The 27-year-old has been writing slash fiction since he wasa teenager and says the leap required to re-imagine characters comes easily tohim. “For a long time I had my own slash reading – as a gay man I’ll read it from my own perspective. I do that anyway when I watch a text (eg television). That’s why it’s so thrilling to see a change in the text (in the form of slash fiction published on the internet.)”

"The interesting question is why a lot of heterosexual women write slash."

Brennan believes the act of writing slash can be political. “Readers might see a text that is homophobic and heteronormative (making heterosexuality a given rather than a choice) and slash challenges that. It’s quite liberating. Readers look at the ways of allowing characters happiness.”

Brennan has discovered in his research that the authors of slash fiction are predominantly women. “The interesting question is why a lot of heterosexual women write slash. Some women are arguing it’s an opportunity to play with desire. Some women just say ‘I like man and two men are better than one.’ Slash in many ways is a sort of fantasy. What’s really interesting is the range you find – older fans mentoring younger fans for example. Slash can be a way of exploring your own sexuality by playing with a character’s sexuality. The central drive of slash is imagining egalitarian romances. For example women can be co-warriors rather than damsels, and there are instances where the male characters are feminised. There is a certain pleasure in taking a male character off a podium and pairing him with another man.”

Most slash fiction is not created for mass publication. “They are made to be circulated within the community. For a lot of fans it’s a personal practice – it’s driven by community and supported by the Internet.”

Blogs on Livejournal host the bulk of slash and fan fiction – where popular texts such as the Harry Potter series can inspire “hundreds of thousands of stories”, says Brennan.

But the genre is also potentially lucrative. Mass market romance publisher Harlequin is developing imprints for women that feature two men as the romantic leads. Gay romances that women enjoy reading include “slash stories that focus on the first time as well as someone being coerced into gay sex and they find they like it.”

“There are various genres,” says Brennan. “The supernatural is common, as are super-heroes. Male superhero characters exist in worlds that are male dominated. These are strongly homoeroticised worlds anyway. And there’s a really strong tradition of slash that focuses on rugby players and rugby bad boys. There’s a lot of slash that looks at the locker room.”

While it sounds like a very steamy area of research – it’s not all Batman and Robin ripping off each other’s capes. Brennan is also researching the fans themselves. Who are they? And where do they fit in the cultural economy? “The key drive of Fan Studies is to move away from ‘fan as a fanatic.’ We are moving away from the fan as someone under-socialised, over-invested and over-reading text in their parent’s basement. I would resist fans as being over-readers of text. Many fans who write slash will be gesturing for latent eroticism in the text, and a latent preference to homosexual sex. We need to get away from this notion that fans are the ‘powerless elite’. There was a view that fans are the peasants of the cultural economy.”

That’s now changing, says Brennan, with the success of 50 Shades of Grey, which started as an internet published piece of fan fiction.
As for Brennan, when he finishes his PhD, he hopes to move into an academic career to continue tracking this fascinating and growing genre.