(And many, many thanks to siegeofangels and stellar_dust for readover and reassurance that I am not completely mad. I have learned why people rarely get meta betas: because they are smarter than you are, and won't stop thinking long enough to let you post!)
I've been thinking about the feminist concept of a "male gaze" (through girl-wonder) and about slash (through metafandom), and one day (almost exactly a month ago) the two collided in my head, and I realized that to me, slash is all about the male gaze. Or rather, as siegeofangels put it, it's about inverting the male gaze - about co-opting it for ourselves.
Pt 1: Slash and the inverted male gaze
The "male gaze" is a concept that comes out of feminist media theory. Not having ever formally studied either feminism or the media, I came to the idea mostly through fandom - through online comics fandom specifically, where it's an *extremely* self-evident and relevant idea. It's a kind of sticky concept, but for the purposes of this discussion let's define it as something along the lines of "the assumption that the most important members of any audience are straight males." As a result, everything that we see in the media is first passed through the filter of "would this be attractive to that hypothetical straight male?"
It came out of film theory, I believe, talking about where the camera points and how we choose what is shown on screen, but it's very easily extensible to real life: everyone who performs a female character on screen is expected to think, first, about what the straight male wants - well, so is everyone who performs a female identity in *real life*. In fact, once I started thinking along those pathways, I've had trouble turning it off. How much of what we see in the images around us, in advertising, books, movies, celebrities, fashion - is based on what we think that stereotyped default straight male wants? And as a result, how much do women have to always act in the awareness of their own sexual desirability, and the percieved importance of that desirability?
I first starting seriously thinking about slash in terms of this concept as the result of a post by strongplacebo that was linked on metafandom a while back; she writes about an experience she had wherein she saw a pliable young man bending over a counter, and her first thought was how sexy that would be if he were in slash - not how sexy *she* thought he was, but how closely that scene matched her idea, as a slash writer, of what a desirable young man should be. She saw it this way: "I was looking at him as a gay man might look at him. Clearly, this is a sign that I spend too much time inside a gay man's head trying to get his character right." Hence she spoke of 'implied gay male gaze', as congruent with the feminist concept of the 'implied male gaze'.
Frankly, I was immediately inclined to disagree here, because I'm over-sensitive to the idea that, as slashers, we are somehow co-opting the prerogative of gay males. How does she know what a hypothetical gay male likes? She only knows what *slashers* like, right?
At the same time, though, I've had this experience myself. These days, on TV or in RL, I'm just as likely to look at a male and think "he'd play really well in slash" (or even "I want to see him in leather pants! As a rentboy! Up against the wall!", or, in days of yore, "He's so bishie!") than I am to think he's attractive through the lens of my *own* sexuality, which skews somewhat different. And it's not just finding new types attractive - it's also about thinking about men in terms of cocksucking lips and wanting them on their knees; and in terms of 'pretty' and 'graceful' and 'totally asking for it' instead of the ways we've been trained to see men since childhood. I don't think this is an entirely unique experience, either - strongplacebo got plenty of agreement. And for another random voice, cathexys just linked to a four-year-old comment by aerye in which she says "I honestly don't think I will ever have sex with a man again but my sexuality now involves this thing, this production of sexual narrative by women that often focuses on men as sexual objects. Something I'm still trying to think through." Which is much less vivid in imagery, but I think likely describes a similar experience of finding a change in the way desirability is percieved - a shift in perspective from an overlaid default hetero male gaze to a default of ... something else. Is this fairly widespread? I'll admit I've never seen a survey (yet!)
It's not that there wasn't already an idea out there of the sort of ways I should see men as sexy. It just doesn't have much in common with the way I learned from reading fic, and slashy fic in particular; it had to do with men's own idea of themselves, and of who ought to deserve women. This new way of looking sees male as the *recipient* of desire - says "now you just stand there and look sexy for me - no, show a little more skin" - says "Who you are as a person is defined by who you're available to have sex with" - strips away the man's assumed initiative in sexual affairs.
We even kind of have a name for it - I think this inverted way of looking at is similar (though not completely congruent, and much less relationship-focused) with what we call 'slash goggles'. It's *not* the 'gay man's gaze' though - at least, I don't think so; from my occasional forays into what gay men produce in the spaces they control, the output is somewhat different, though in places it shares a lot with slash. Although I find it interesting that in order to create for ourselves a space where men face the same desiring gaze as women do, many of us have chosen to co-opt, to some extent, that gay man's gaze - through slash.
I'd love to call this way of seeing "woman's gaze". I'd love to live in a world where I could, and where woman's gaze was as default as man's. But the fact that we still so often have to borrow a man's gaze in order to see this way - well, says a lot about the strides that feminism still needs to take. Instead, I'm going to call it "slasher's gaze". Because I think, in a real way, through the female-controlled space we've created in slash, that's how we've found that way of looking at men -- with the assumption that *we* (as slashers) are the important ones, *we* are the ones who are doing the looking, *our* gaze has power and *our* desire is what's important, and the *men* are the ones who ought to worry about what we're thinking.
I think that slasher's gaze is a fundamental element of what I think of as the "slash aesthetic". Yes, I'm one of those weird people who believes in a slash aesthetic, and I define myself as a slasher because I like that aesthetic even if I tend to read and write at least as much other stuff as I do m/m. A few years ago, if you'd asked me what that entailed, I would have said "I know it when I see it!" Because it's more than who's having sex with who - there are m/m stories that don't have that feel to me, and f/m and f/f and gen stories that do (Note: I'm not saying that m/m stories that don't have that aesthetic to me aren't "real slash", or making any quality judgements; I'm just saying that they're different, in a noticeable way, and that when we talk about slash as a sexual identity or as a kink or as a culture we often aren't talking about those stories.) I think, for me, what defines the slash aesthetic is the slash gaze. In a story that reads as 'slashy' to me, men are desired and displayed in more-or-less the same way that women are in most of the rest of our culture. It doesn't really have anything to do with the way the writer might see the world, or whether she has ever used that 'slasher's gaze' in a real-life situation - but within the slashy story itself, men view themselves as people who are looked at, rather than as the ones who do the looking.
I think this was pointed up to me, first, years ago when the Regenderizer first made the rounds. It's a nifty internet widget that lets you change pronouns and proper names in a text in order to either reverse or flatten gender markers. What I noticed, though, in running various bits of random text through it (and by that I mean not just stories, but messageboard posts and nonfiction articles) was not "Wow, this is a really new way of looking at the world!" but "Wow, this makes the whole internet read like a slashfic!" By removing the gender markers that make it simple to define "okay, he's the one who desires, and she's the one who is desired" - turning it into "Okay, sie's the one who desires, and sie's the one who is desired" - slasher's gaze and male gaze become indistinguishable.
And, okay, it's very easy to slip from this idea into that old canard "slash feminizes male characters!" Which is hard, of course, to talk about without somehow defining "feminize" - and in some ways and in some places, it could be seen as feminizing, as making a man take a woman's part. But a good slash fic does *not* do this by taking its players out of character or forcing them into constricted roles (though, of course, some of them do that as well) - rather, it takes the characters we always have known, and puts them in a situation where they're forced to see and react to the world in some of the same ways that women are forced to react - ways that have less to do with what gender is inherently and more to do with what culture has made of it.
Sure, genderswitch often does this most obviously, but there's an element of it in nearly every slash story. In slash men find themselves in the position of being *desired* in the way that women are usually assumed to be desired - that is to say, by a man. Which is to say, someone powerful, someone *important*, someone who *matters*. Someone who could really screw things up for you on a number of levels if you handle this wrong, because society assumes he's in the right. Someone who's accustomed to being in charge, especially in sexual contexts. And suddenly - because of the mere existence of the fact that "the male gaze" can be turned back on *men* - something fundamental in the feel of the world changes. Suddenly the man who leans over the counter has to be concious of that strip of skin that's showing under his t-shirt, and the way his jeans fit, because someone could be seeing that, and wanting him - someone who is free to act on that desire. Maybe beyond his ability to stop them, if he's not careful. And the male character can no longer afford to overlook that fact.
None of this is entirely a new idea - there's *nothing* new under the heading of "why we slash" - but it's a way of organizing the idea that hasn't let go of me since the first time I found it. It touches on a lot of fundamental slash issues - many of which are brought up in the links in cathexys's excellent flashback post on slash as queer and/or feminist - and many of them say more or less the same thing, and well enough that I *almost* managed to talk myself out of writing this - but for me, at least, organizing it under the principle of a slasher's gaze brings everything together in an interesting new way. Slash as freed female desire, as tranference to unmarked bodies, as female-only space, feminist and queer subversion both - I think, for me, it all comes down to: we have created a space where the default male gaze is inverted, and turned on men. And we're the people looking.
Pt 2. Applying the Slasher's Gaze to Fantexts
I want to say here, very explicitly, in the context of re-reading all those old meta posts, that by "created a space" I mean a *fictional* space - it's easy to go from talking about what slash is to talking about the people who write and read it and the communities they've formed, and the values of those communities, and that is a fruitful place for discussion to go own its own. But by linking the concept of slasher's gaze back to the idea of a slash aesthetic, I'm trying to establish something that's intrinsic to slash regardless of the community around us, or if we're even aware that there are other women looking with us. Something that we see in a text and grab hold of for dear life, and *that's* what makes us slashers.
A slash gaze is something inherent to the way a story is shaped that will color it regardless of wider context, if it's there - something that called out to me, sitting alone in my room with no fandom contacts, the minute I opened that googled link to the Draco Trilogy. Or even years and years before that, reading one of Marshak&Culbreath's Star Trek stories with no idea what I'd stumbled on but knowing it was something new and something strange and maybe dangerous and oh, I wanted more. Neither of those examples are even m/m, mind, but they read as 'slashy' almost universally, I think, because the male characters are kept so aware of their own forced passivity, and potential desirability, and the ways in which that limits them. But the vast majority of slashy fantexts are explicitly m/m, I think, because borrowing and reworking that 'gay man's gaze', and all the power and freedom of action and assumptions that comes with the 'male' part, is the simplest way to find the slasher's gaze that looks at men from a position of power, and makes them react to the fact that it's looking.
Even in the least conscious, smarmiest old WNGWJLEO stories, where all repercussions in the wider world are cut out of the central pairing, that slasher's gaze is still there in the way that the central friendship becomes eroticized, because the characters are forced to confront (explicitly or not) the way in which the other person's sexual desire for them has shaped their friendship; they're forced to look back and analyze their own behavior, and the other party's reactions to it, seeing themselves not as a person in a friendship, but as passive vessel for sexual desire. Which is something most women have to do, with some friendship, sooner or later (usually sooner) in their lives.
And then you get more modern stories like Torchwood where that erotic possibility is always there and all slash does is pull it more to the foreground. And you get crossgen, where the power differential is played up with age as the factor in sexual power rather than gender. And you get het stories that have the slashy feel anyway because the female character knows how to put the same power behind her desire that a man does and doesn't hesitate to do so. And f/f stories, which often work by sidelining the male gaze entirely and putting all the power into woman's desire, assigning the supposed 'male gaze' explicitly to a woman looking at a woman - and the opposite sort of slash story, which sidelines the heterosexual male gaze by removing all female sexuality from within the story and leaving us only with the slasher's gaze as a result.
And I think that this idea of inverting the male gaze might also apply to why certain canon texts gather a huge slash following when others don't. A slashy fandom seems be one where the slasher's gaze has a way *in* - where there's something about the way the canon is set up that makes it friendlier to the idea of men being looked at by someone who actively and aggressively desires. That doesn't necessarily mean a canon with strong female characters or even one that's open to the possibility of gay; more often, it means canon that's already got the idea built in that no, it's not safe to walk outside alone at night just because you're a man. Because there's something out there that's watching, and it might get you if you do.
Am I saying, then, that all fangirls secretly want to be the Celine demon? Well. Um. Sometimes? But no, not really - it's simply that the existence of this outsider POV that does not respect the security that comes with mere maleness gives us the first crack that we can use to pry our way in and overturn all of those assumptions. Sometimes it's a predatory force that explicitly wants to take and use men's bodies (see: Vampires, Wraith, demons, Goa'uld, Voldemort, Black Oil, Quickenings, the One Ring); sometimes it's an SF milieu where traditional gender roles are supposedly erased, and the degree to which they are gives us our leg in, and the degree to which they *aren't* gives us the need for slash (see: Star Trek, Phantom Menace, and why the heck is Mal so upset by Inara anyway?), which is probably much of the reason why sf/paranormal settings tend to be so dominant in slash.
Even the other main category of large slash fandoms, law enforcement shows - the ones that gather the big slash fandoms seem to be the ones where the people outside the law are presented as this subversive society that doesn't accept normal rules of behavior, and are therefore a constant threat to all of our cultural underpinnings, rather than as just criminals (see: THRUSH, um. Admittedly this is my weakest point because I've never closely followed any of these fandoms. Do Jim and Blair do anything but snuggle? And I know nothing about the CSIs except that they don't have Angel in them...) And sometimes all you need to get in is one viewpoint character who sees the world in a way that's sufficiently bent to be conducive to inverting that default gaze (see: Captain Jack Sparrow, Dorian red Gloria, Ben Fraser, anyone with the surname Wayne or Luthor.) Or there are the RPS fandoms, where the way in which celebrity focuses on bodies that are looked at provides the pathway for slashers to look at them too.
It seems like the more obvious, numerous, and fundamental those pathways in are, the faster and larger the slash fandom grows - whereas you have shows which by any rights (emo-porn, setting, gaygaygay male friendships, quality of writing, hot guys in leather, whatever) ought to have massive slash fandoms but never really quite made it over the threshhold - and in many cases, I think, it's because the het male perspective is simply so entrenched, and pervasive, in the wordview of those canon that there's no friendly way in for a slasher's gaze. Those shows might have a small, dedicated fandom, or a medium-sized not-so-dedicated one, based simply on how good they are or how much the two hot guys love each other, but they never really seem to take off into fannish conciousness the way it will happen with a show that has that outsider's gaze built in to blaze the trail.
Whew! Long essay. And I made it all the way to the end without ever using the terms 'patriarchy', 'privilege', 'subversion' or 'objectification'! Go me. There's a lot in there and a *lot* of places I could take it from there - I keep coming up with ways to answer old fannish questions in terms of this theory, which if I were an astrophycist at least would be a point in my favor. And more importantly, maybe, I need to think some more about the ethical implications of using, and glorifying, that particular way of seeing.
But I've been unable to stop thinking about things in terms of slasher's gaze ever since I first found it - which is probably part of the reason I've been quiet on the meta front; I was waiting for a way to talk about what I've been thinking effectively, and to figure out whether it works at all outside my own head. I'm not entirely sure I've succeeded, but I'm desperate for any sort of answer back from the void on this. So, please, feedback, discuss, tell me I'm off my rocker, tell me somebody else came up with all this ten years ago! Or just go off and ponder it all in your hearts for awhile, like I did. I'm just tired of not having anyone else who knows what I'm talking about.
And that's really what fandom's for, after all.
3/10, ETA: Okay, two weeks later, I think I'm finally caught up on comments here - I'll do my best to be better to keep up with new ones coming in. I'm really sorry it took so long. I have issues, which is neither an apology or an excuse, but at least believe me it wasn't personal. (Except with stellar_dust. That was totally personal, that was :P)