Slash Fiction: Creating inclusive media

3 April 2013

Joseph Brennan
PhD Candidate Joseph Brennan: "Slash fans are perhaps the best example of engaged, critically aware media producers."

In the current mediascape, everyday citizens are gaining increasing control of the creation of content. The recent success of E.L. James' erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey is one shining example. James, a British housewife, rose from obscurity when her novel, originally published as fan fiction, sold over 40 million copies.

This makes PhD candidate Joseph Brennan's thesis on Slash Fiction incredibly timely. A subset of fan fiction, slash queers the bonds between heterosexual male characters. Whilst it may be a more specific form of fan fiction than that articulated in Fifty Shades of Grey, it is no less influential. Starting out in the 1970s, with underground fan zines, slash eroticised the friendships between Star Trek's Kirk and Spock and The Lord of the Rings' Frodo and Sam among others. Now the practice takes place across all forms, and has paved the way for fans to become more influential in the creation of media content.

"[Media theorist] Henry Jenkins started off talking about fans as the 'peasants' of the cultural economy," Brennan explains, "[but] in 2006 he changed that. He now talks about fans playing a central role in the cultural economy. What we're seeing is that there is now the opportunity for actualisation of fannish interests within mainstream media texts. Slash is representative of a new era where there's a dialogue between media producers and fans."

It was as an undergraduate that Brennan realised he had an aptitude for media theory. Arriving at the University of Sydney inspired by academic work on active audiences and fan communities, Brennan decided to write his Honours Thesis on Slash Fiction. It went on to receive the University Medal.

"That was a really good endorsement," says Brennan of the award, "and it gave me the confidence to undertake my PhD in that research area."

Brennan believes slash is responsible for the increased visibility of homosexual characters and same-sex desire on our film and television screens. Many shows are now acutely aware of, and cater to, their slash followers.

"Slash fans are perhaps the best example of engaged, critically aware media producers," says Brennan.

Slash fiction may be a nuanced area of research, but it is also largely interdisciplinary, encompassing fields such as gender and sexuality studies, sociology and information technology. Brennan has uncovered that writing slash is a predominantly female practice, where an explicit critique of male sexuality and male desire subverts traditional patriarchal power structures. Whatever the impetus for writing slash fiction, it often "unhinges stereotypical depictions and leads to more variety." Brennan believes "that this can only be a good thing."

Brennan cites his proudest academic achievement as his Postgraduate Teaching Fellowship. Within the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, up to eight Fellowships are awarded each year to outstanding PhD candidates. The Fellowship, where candidates can co-ordinate units of study, allows for "an opportunity to find that nexus between research and teaching".

"As both a student and an academic I completely endorse the University of Sydney as a fantastic place," Brennan states. "Arts at Sydney has an incredible reputation the world over, and if you want to be in this area it really is the place to be."

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