Joanna Russ on slash

Joanna Russ was a particularly important, fierce and incisive feminist science fiction writer whose recent death is a great loss, but has prompted all sorts of tributes on internet fora. Her fiction is challenging and narratively innovative, and I thoroughly recommend it for anyone who likes a book to reach up from your lap and punch you in the nose (try The Female Man or Picnic on Paradise, or her short story “When it Changed”, here), but she was also one of the earliest critics to talk about fan fiction, particularly slash, in feminist terms. Her discussions tend to focus on Star Trek slash, with an emphasis on Kirk/Spock. I’ve excerpted some bits below, but I encourage you to follow up the interviews and posts from which they come for more detailed discussions. I’m struck by how many of her points relate directly to issues we raised in the classroom over the last few days.

There’s an argument for looking at slash, and the female writer’s fascination with male intimacy, as yet another form of persona play: if culture attributes strength and power and complexity to men but denies those qualities to women, as a woman you can appropriate those elements by appropriating the male character and writing about them rather than the female. The interview from which I’ve excerpted this is chatty and informal rather than academic in tone, but nonetheless interesting. Russ says:

… the characters are not exactly male. They’re disguises of some sort, kind of like “I have the proper genitals so I am male, please remember that.” I have written a couple of stories myself in which women are disguised, literally disguised as men. You try to write about women and you don’t have the cultural tropes that you could use, there’s very little there. It’s kind of like disguising yourself as an upper-class person, as an aristocrat. It counts, it matters that they’re male. It makes what they do serious…
(Interview with Conseula Francis and Alison Piepmeier,

She also covers the issue of objectification: if male-produced pornography tends to objectify the passive female object, there is potential for female-produced slash pornography to replicate the cliché by objectifying men. In the quote below JR is Joanna Russ, and the response is from Alison Piepmeier; they make opposing points, so you’ll have to decide for yourselves if you think slash is objectifying or not.

JR:…I remember once I was having one of the [fanzines] duplicated, and the illustrations I had forgotten about, and I was there watching them do it in this Xerox place. This elderly man kind of stood next to me and he saw one of the illustrations, and he went gray—shocked, very shocked. Yet I took [these same pictures] to a feminist group and I remember one woman saying “I don’t want to see that,” and I showed it to her and she said, “they’re not there for us, they’re there for each other,” which was very subtle, it was true, in the illustration.
AP: And yet I don’t know that’s true of the stuff that I read. In fact, I would say it’s the exact opposite, that the characters are not there for each other, they’re entirely there to create erotic bonds between the women who are writing and reading the stories. They’re explicitly there for us.
(Interview with Conseula Francis and Alison Piepmeier,

Russ’s critical work Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts (Trumansburg, NY: Crossing P., 1985), on female sexuality in various contexts, is sadly not freely available; one chapter of it, “Pornography By Women For Women, With Love,” deals specifically with slash. K. Laity has written an interesting summary of the chapter’s argument on Teach Me Tonight. She excerpts one quote directly from Russ, addressing the issue of precisely what slash fiction offers the female writer:

What [women] do want is sexual intensity, sexual enjoyment, the freedom to choose, a love that is entirely free of the culture’s whole discourse of gender and sex roles, and a situation in which it is safe to let go and allow oneself to become emotionally and sexually vulnerable. (89)

I referred in lectures to Russ’s comment that fan fiction is particularly revealing of cultural tropes precisely because it is badly written – that pulp writing, in effect, plugs more closely in to broad desires and anxieties than does more self-consciously literary production (cf. Bram Stoker). I found the reference on this comment on a Making Light post about Russ, in which a contemporary reminisces about conversations with Russ.

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *