The History Of Femslash, The Tiny Fandom That’s Taking Over The Universe

The History Of Femslash, The Tiny Fandom That’s Taking Over The Universe

The death of a minor supporting character on a tiny CW show set of a huge discussion about the representation of the LBGTQ community on TV, and this caught most people by surprise. Yet here we are, a month after The 100 aired the inciting incident, still talking about it. What’s keeping this discussion going? In part, it’s thanks to a little-noticed fandom that has become a major player online. The story of the Lexa protest is in part the coming to prominence of “femslash” fandom.

Illustration: Jim Cooke/io9. Etching of Jupiter and Callisto, Pierre Milan, 1537-40

Femslash was, for the longest time, one of the most isolated corners of fandom. If you were looking for two attractive guys finding solace in one another, there was a wealth of male/male “slash” content. And if you were looking for a man and a woman solving crimes and pursuing love, then hetero fanfic was there for you.

But if you wanted to see two women in a romantic, consensual relationship? There was just a handful of sites available, and just a handful of content creators penning the “fic,” writing the “meta,” and drawing the art. And that handful of people moved from fandom to fandom, often moving on to a new series wherever one woman looked at another woman for longer than 5 seconds.

One fan would discover a new show and evangelize, and the others would follow. And also because, unlike m/m slash fiction, which is written by (primarily straight) women for (primarily straight) women, femslash is written by queer women and for queer women. The group isn’t just interested in one particular character or set of characters, either. It’s the commonalities these women experience — an immediate bond that transcends the particulars of Greek mythology or doctor drama.

Fuck Canon

“Fan culture stands as an open challenge to the “naturalness” and desirability of dominant cultural hierarchies, a refusal of authorial authority and a violation of intellection property.”

That’s Henry Jenkins in Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture and he’s talking about fandom’s tendency to rebel against the cultural establishment. Femslash exemplifies that rebellion better than a lot of fandoms. It’s where the phrase “fuck canon” found popularity, as a direct response to the aggressively hetero nature of characters the fandom wanted to see together.

Femslashers don’t need to build on official canon, to create a series of hundred thousand word novels. They don’t even need fanon. They just need that look. That one brief moment between two women that isn’t about a dude. With that one look, they can build a massive narrative as detailed and compelling as more socially appealing works of literature and loaded with characters who are rarely found in popular media (and when they are found they dead).

While slash (involving two men) has been a fanfic trope since Kirk manhandled Spock, femslash has operated further on the fringe. There’s major disagreement on the origins of the first femslash story (Fanlore lists two potential stories as the first, with no real consensus on which counts) and it didn’t achieve any kind of acceptability until the mid-80s. Much of the femslash focus was on non-genre shows like Facts of Life and Cagney and Lacey — but even then, interactions between the fans were limited to the rare zine and real life acquaintances. The sense of community the Star Trek fandom was afforded, with their large conventions, wasn’t present in femslash fandoms.

And all of those fandoms had to deal with bad press. Cagney and Lacey fans, who helped propel the show to a second season renewal, were lambasted by the press as “kamikaze lesbians” after a woman broke into star Sharon Gless’s home.

It wasn’t until the internet, and the instant connectivity with other fans, that fandom went mainstream, being a geek became cool, and femslash formed into the great migratory monolith it exists as today. But it wasn’t just the internet that set femslash on its path.

Xena Makes Queer Gals Cool

Xena, and her plucky sidekick Gabrielle, somersaulted into fandom like a pair of rockets. Xena: Warrior Princess had the luxury of arriving on the scene at the perfect time. “Girl Power” was a phrase on everyone’s lips, social mores had loosened enough that you could talk about gay people without being committed or labelled a deviant, and the internet was building enormous communities on chatrooms, websites and Usenet.

It was a group of elements that just needed a spark. Xena kissing Gabrielle (even though she was in Bruce Campbell’s body) was god damned ignition. That Xena was also one of the most watched shows on television helped, too. All the small disparate fandoms of queer women had a single banner to unite under, and a blond and brunette to ship like an Onassis.

They had a lot of creativity too, and immediately started churning out fanfic and fanart that even straight fans could enjoy. Then, late in the second season, the show aired an episode that would not only alter the Xena fandom — but fandom at large — forever

“The Xena Scrolls” was a “clip” show designed to be cheap and help fulfil the episode order. It just happened to be a damn clever clip show. Set in the 1930s, it was a major role reversal for the primary women of the cast. Lucy Lawless wasn’t a flinty-eyed warrior princess, but a Southern debutant out to reclaim her father’s reputation, and Renee O’Connor wasn’t the bubbly sidekick, but a hard-nosed adventurer out to restore her family name after her father sullied it. The episode was so popular it inspired its own fandom. It also inspired the creation of a whole new genre of fanfiction, which started out being called “uberfic” before being renamed “AU,” for “alternate universe.”

AUs had existed before Xena, but they have been rare and frequently unpopular. Xena romanticized the AU. It wasn’t just about putting good looking people in new situations. There was something distinctly canonical about it. These were soulmates meeting again and again throughout time, living the same stories over and over again, with little tweaks here and there.

The Xena fandom took the opportunity presented by “The Xena Scrolls” and ran with it — changing the characters but always keeping some element, however small, the same. And as they produced more and more uberfic, the scenarios presented in the stories moved further and further away from the original conceits of the show. Writers were spending months — even years — on their fanfic. After a point a question was naturally asked: why not just sell it?

Almost fifteen years before E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey the Xena fandom was “scrubbing the serial numbers” off their uberfic and turning fanfic writers into lesbian lit superstars. And they’re still doing it today. Check out the top ten best selling lesbian romance novels on Amazon. They’re almost all either former fanfics, or the work of authors who started as uberfic writers.

Glee Earns Fandom a Win

In 2009 femslash exploded rapidly. Glee was on the air, and was promising lots of queer representation — only it was primarily guys getting their gay on. The Brittany and Santana relationship, that would come to dominate much of the Glee fandom conversation, was born out of one throwaway line about two featured extras and a group of women’s yearning to see themselves on TV.

It was fandom willing a pairing into canon.

And fandom’s reason? Queer women deserve representation.

The cry for representation wasn’t new, but Glee fans had, at the time, unprecedented access to the creators of their show. They didn’t have to mount letter campaigns, or ship hot sauce to a studio. They could bombard Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk directly via Twitter, and they could bombard them constantly.

It wasn’t a campaign, as much as an irate and well-meaning mob shouting through the ethers. And it worked. Murphy and Falchuk saw the the Twitter trends and the Tumblr hashtags, and acquiesced. “Brittana” went from a “crack” ship to a major narrative driving force of the show.

A key reason, besides young fans’ ability to bombard the Glee cast and crew with tweets, was that they had a very noble cause beyond wanting to see some genital grinding. For the first time, the majority of the fans begging for a couple to be canon were actual members of the community they wanted represented. Their call for expanded LBGTQ representation carried with it not just fans’ desire to see fictional people get together, but sincere social activism.

This set a precedent that quickly became thorny in the community itself. Now any queer gal pairing was the right pairing to have on a show, because of representation. Fans of male slash glommed onto the idea as well — and suddenly Sherlock had to be gay for Watson, and Dean had to love Castiel because gay guys need to be on TV too (which is, you know, a totally valid concern). And if a showrunner failed to meet their demands? Then their show was a homophobic monstrosity, best consigned to the cancellation column.

Femslash fans remained in the forefront of these campaigns to push same-sex romantic pairings. But this marriage of activism and romance was about to implode spectacularly. All thanks to a show about fairytales coming true.

The Major Setback That Is Once Upon a Time

Once Upon a Time‘s premise is a little gay. A kid has two mums, and those mums like to argue passionately with one another while looking at each other’s lips. It spawned the major pairing, Swan Queen (Emma and Regina), and set up a new style of pairing names — moving away from portmanteaus, and onto whatever Swan Queen, Red Warrior (Red Riding Hood and Mulan), and Captain Swan (Emma and Hook) are.

But the showrunners of Once Upon a Time were not even a little ok with the queer focus of fandom, or the demands hinged on “social justice,” and they went out of their ways to assert the hetero nature of the leads. First by calling any flirtation “unintentional,” and then by trucking out male love interests for both characters, who just happened to be identical to the supposed female love interests apart from how they identify gender-wise.

It was an absolute shitshow. Fandom, accustomed to having its demands met when they were attached to the concept of social activism, was appalled by the tone deafness of OUaT’s showrunners (one showrunner still doesn’t have a Twitter account) and infuriated by the show’s complete refusal to entertain the idea of better queer representation.

Salt was added to the wound when the show hinted that Mulan was gay and then, only minutes later, shuttled her off screen for two seasons. And there were few other shows to turn to. Warehouse 13 introduced a femslash ship on accident, baited queer viewers into watching then went for the straight relationship no one wanted, while Persons of Interest was still only flirting with femslash possibilities (it has since made its femslash pairing the primary romance of the show).

After raging at Once Upon a Time, the femslash fandom licked its wounds and began to migrate. They found refuge in Orange is the New Black and Orphan Black (even creating the Orphan is the New Black portmanteau as a result). On those shows, the ladies were unapologetically queer and at the forefront of the show.

There was also interest in the first season of The 100. The show is full of very attractive women, who have a tendency to talk to each other and not talk about men. But it was Lexa’s comment about her dead girlfriend that brought fans to the show in droves.

Rise of The 100

It helped that The 100 already had an active fandom before Lexa, and that that fandom was full of many of the young queer women who had successfully campaigned for a lesbian subplot on Glee. They had the experience and the time to get their fan on, and here was a show giving them what they wanted without them having to do any work. There was no demanding gay ladies at Comic Con panels and PaleyFest events, or giant Twitter campaigns seeking to trend queer hashtags over “official” ones.

All they had to do was wait for Lexa to stop making moon eyes at Clarke, and start making moves.

It also helped that the showrunners seemed to like them. Writer’s assistant Shawna Benson (she was just announced as a new writer for DC’s Batgirl and the Birds of Prey) took to lesbian fan websites to court viewers and promise safe and sound lady lovers on a show known for its shocking murders, and showrunner Jason Rothenburg was happy to tweet any and all love for Lexa and the Clexa pairing.

By the end of the second season the pairing, Clexa, was rapidly consuming much of the energies of the fandom, and the fan output quickly became focused around the couple. Of the 13,462 The 100 fics on Archive of Our Own, 47 per cent are Clexa focused. Bellarke, the primary hetero pairing? 43 per cent.

It was the first time since Once Upon a Time that femslash stories dominated the fandom output, and the first time since Xena that such a femslash pairing was also 100 per cent canon.

Fall of The 100

And then they went and killed Lexa. The reactions from fans was immediate. Those same fans that had successfully bent Ryan Murphy to their will and dealt with the clumsy social media advances of the OUaT crew were more organised and more focused than ever. Within days Jason Rothenberg’s follower count had plummeted and the Lexa related hashtag, #LGBTFansDeserveBetter, was trending on Twitter. Even the ratings of the show took a dive, with the next episode scoring the worst ratings of the season (and series) to date.

Normally such a furor would disappear after a week, but this wasn’t just a few kids pissed about their favourite romance. This was a well-organised group of women who had experience. They’d scored a win with Glee and scored a loss with Once Upon a Time, and now their new fave show had gone and pulled the biggest trope faux pas in the lesbian handbook.

Bury your gays.

Femslash Fandom Goes Mainstream

The furor has not let up since. Media outlets, including Entertainment Weekly, Vanity Fair and Variety have all commented on The 100 hullabaloo, with Mo Ryan of Variety being particularly outspoken. The hashtag #LGBTFansDeserveBetter even continues to trend sporadically on Twitter and fans have even succeeded in getting sponsors to drop the show.

Faced with the success of burying a once critically exclaimed drama, fans have stepped up their game. Two weeks ago The Walking Dead axed a lesbian, and despite this being a show that’s fatal to all characters who aren’t the handful of leads, the rage was still immediate. One lesbian was bad, but two lesbians?

Last week it was worse. In anticipation of a sapphic slaughter on The Vampire Diaries (another show that kills indiscriminately, but always seems to accidentally target PoCs and queer folks the most) showrunner Julie Plec spoiled the deaths the day before in a blog. It was her attempt at damage control. And it didn’t go well.

AfterEllen Editor in Chief, Trish Bendix, has also been in on the spoiling game, alluding to a double murder on a hugely popular show.

That turned out to be Empire, where a bisexual Naomi Campbell (in love with a dude) murdered her wife, played by Marisa Tomei, before offing herself.

Showrunner Illene Chaiken, herself a lesbian and creator of The L Word, insists that her show isn’t “a part of that phenomenon or conversation.”

“If anything, the lesbians should wish for a character like Camilla to be killed off since she just preyed on a powerful lesbian in order to fulfil her heterosexual ambitions,” she told Variety.

Chaiken may believe that, but she’s the only one. The dead lesbian (we’ve had once a week since late Febuary) and her opportunistic bisexual wife are a part of a trend that can no longer be ignored. What was once a miserable trope consigned to discussions on L Chat and Tumblr is now being discussed, and condemned, in the open, and by more than the frustrated queer girls experiencing it.

And this conversation, which is coming to dominate the TV criticism conversation, is happening because of the tiny migratory fandom that didn’t shut up, and instead got smarter and savvier with their complaints. Femslash has come a long way from The Facts of Life.