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robin_anne_reid ([personal profile] robin_anne_reid) wrote2009-04-04 12:41 pm

"'A Room of Our Own:' Women Writing Women in Fan and Slash Fiction"

Robin Anne Reid
ICFA 2009

This draft is a work in progress: you are free to make a copy for your own reference, but please do not cite without permission. I will be expanding/developing for publication, but am posting this rough draft at the request of friends. I still have to figure out issues of open access, previous publication, journal polities, etc. so it may be pulled in a few weeks!

(I've sent a copy of the presentation to Jane Land and asked if she'd be willing to give permission to post her novel, and the prequel, on the internet!).

The larger project of which this presentation is a part began with a paper on the implications of the development and growth of homoerotic slash about female characters during the past fifteen years. The earliest scholarship on slash defined it as consisting of "straight women writing about gay men," or, from a more heterosexist perspective, as women writing about two gorgeous men, able to both "be" and "have" the men (Penley 1990, 259). This problematic perception has been popularized in print and electronic media although it is regularly challenged by fans and some later scholarship The existence of women writing about women in fandom is generally ignored. However, fanfic featuring female characters came soon after the first m/m slash publication. A 1977 story featured Uhura and Chapel. "Kismet" by Dani Morin, appeared three years after Diane Marchant's Kirk/Spock story, "A Fragment Out of Time" (1974) which is generally agreed to be one of the earliest if not the earliest published slash fiction in Trek fandom. Slash fiction featuring female characters (called, variously, femslash, femmeslash, f/f slash, female slash, girlslash, and saffic) began to grow in the 1980s and 90s. The growth can be attributed to changes in cultural attitudes about sexuality, the sex-positive movement in feminism, the growing numbers of out lesbian and bisexual women in fandom, the presence of a small group of straight and queer men writing and reading fan fiction, and, not to be ignored, minor changes in media productions starting with shows such as Xena (1995-2001) and Buffy (1997-2003), as well as the increasing popularity of anime and manga in North America.

In this project, I am interested not only in analyzing a 1987 fanfiction novel focusing primarily on Uhura and Chapel but also in questioning whether the ways scholarship has analyzed m/m slash fiction while ignoring the other genres of fan fic ( het and gen, heteosexual romances and general stories, i.e. stories not focusing on relationships) is useful for the women-authored, women-centered fictions, whether gen, het, slash or, as is the case with my chosen text this year, a blend. In her 1987 novel, DEMETER, Jane Land sets out explore the question of what it might mean if sexism still existed in the Federation (Introduction), but sets her story within a very canonical plot: the Enterprise is tasked to deal with a new and instantly addictive drug, called nirvana which turns out to be coming from a colony planet. The ship is on a routine run to a Starbase when they are attacked by two freighters that had seemed to be in distress; they destroy one, the other self-destructs. When the Enterprise arrives at the SB, they are told of a distress call from a little-known colony that says that drug is being produced there, with negative effects to the colony. The twist is that Demeter, the colony, was founded fifty years earlier by lesbian feminist separatists from Earth; they request only female personnel come to the planet. Kirk must put together an all-female away team and remain behind on the ship, along with Spock, McCoy, Sulu, and all the other male crew. A sub-plot involves the complexities of balancing work, marriage, and family in Star Fleet, experienced through Chapel's perspective on her ten years of marriage to Spock in the Vulcan tradition. Their relationship is only one of a number of romantic, sexual, and life relationships that are explored by Land in deftly interwoven scenes. Equally important are relationships between the women of the Enterprise and Demeter colony (which are primarily those of friendship; at one point, Rahab, an engineer on Demeter expresses sexual interest in Keiko, a security officer on the ship). The way this novel handles the variety of relationships, including the range of discussions among women, are what have made me consider whether it is useful to separate women-centered fics into gen/het/slash genres of traditional fanfic scholarship. However, no matter what sub-genre of fanfiction we're talking about, or even what fandom, the scholarship has mostly ignored women-centered stories.


Although scholars writing about fan fiction do focus primarily on women fans who invented the genre, the major focus tends to be m/m slash: why women write it; what the existence of the fics mean in terms of gender relations; what relation slash has to other genres such as romance or pornography or both; what relationships between women are fostered in the fic community. All perfectly useful questions to consider. But even while current scholarship is beginning to move away from an exclusive focus on the fan fictions to include work on other fan productions (costuming, vidding, role playing games, etc.), the women-centered stories are being ignored.

In the earliest scholarship, "Women" in fandom as constructed in the texts are primarily straight and white. The single monograph most devoted to women fans is Camille Bacon-Smith's 1992 Enterprising Women, devoted to women fan writers, artists, and critics, but only in one pre-internet fandom (Star Trek). Bacon-Smith sees hurt/comfort as the most important genre of fanfic, and privileges construction of androgynous men by slash writers. Hurt/comfort are stories centering on one man experiencing pain or injury and being comforted by the other, often leading to the start of the relationship. Alternately, Constance Penley, in her 1997 discussion of slash in NASA/TREK, reads the predominance of male bodies that she sees representing "real" ("manly" rather than androgynous) men in Trek fan fiction as revealing women's alienation from our own bodies (although tellingly, in her usage, it is "alienation from their own bodies"--my emphasis). She also says that the fanfic writers' rejection of "perfect Amazons of female fantasy/sword-and-sorcery writing" is rejection of artificiality NOT "rejection of lesbianism, even though most of them are heterosexual" (126). In the 1992 Textual Poachers, Henry Jenkins does briefly mention the "smaller (but growing) number of lesbian stories," envisioning this type of reciprocal relationship occurring between two female characters (197). I note his use of "lesbian" as the modifier (as opposed to the simple "slash" which was rarely if ever called "gay stories"--current debates in fandom over "gay literature" and "slash" have begun to address that question). The common scholarly emphasis on reciprocal relationship is a put forth for one major reason why women write m/m relationships: gender inequalities make it impossible for a woman and a man to be imagined/written in an eglitarian relationship.

This earlier gap in the scholarship may be in part due to lack of access to texts before the internet but is also, I will argue, caused by theoretical and methodological assumptions which apparently still affect scholars who are ignoring the women-centered texts on the internet. The extent to which m/m slash, the primary focus of scholarship, might be considered as fitting within heteronormative assumptions may well be one reason: fan scholars and academic scholars have complicated any easy assumption that straight women writing m/m slash is essentially feminist, or queer. A good deal of work remains to be done on the neglected female-centered stories in the female space(s) of fan fiction. While there are a number of men writing f/f slash, I am primarily interested in women authors, though I do not plan to restrict my focus to cisgendered women, nor will I be interrogating authors for gender identification!.

The easier access to fanfiction via the internet, as well as the growing number of f/f slash communities on LiveJournal reveals a richness of women-centered works. Sheenagh Pugh who deals with internet fandom and fic in her 2005 monograph, The Democratic Genre, discusses the growth of femslash within context of the appearance of more interesting female characters in more shows (and more than one female per show), as well as within socio-political context: some writers write for a political reason: "Some female femslash writers are themselves gay or bisexual and are marking out a territory" (109). Executrix is noted as saying she writes female characters as a way to redress lack of attention paid to female characters in the past.

While part of my project deals with f/f slash on the internet, in this paper I consider the question of how an earlier fan fiction, published in pre-internet days, constructs women protagonists, women characters, and especially all women-settings. My larger question is how women writing in earlier decades integrated the questions being debated by feminists in the larger culture around them into their fic, whether or not the story is categorized as gen, het, orslash. . This issue needs to be addressed, despite the difficulty of finding primary documents: that is, I do not know how typical Land's novel is. Getting my hands on it was a difficult process (especially for one not used to archival research). Henry Jenkins was the source for my first awareness of DEMETER: he briefly describes it in Textual Poachers: the novel "puts Uhura and Chapel in command of an all-female landing party on a voyage to a lesbian separatist space colony; their adventures not only provide these characters with a chance to demonstrate their professional competency but also to question the patriarchal focus of the original series and its male protagonists" (167). Jenkins quotes Land characterizing her project as rescuing one Star Trek character from 'an artificially imposed case of foolishness' (167) The novel is discussed as an example of "refocalization" in fanfiction: stories which shift the perspective to focus on a minor character; given the prevalence of male protagonists in media texts of the period, refocalization stories can easily focus on female characters. Refocalization stories need not be slash, but they can raise the question of what a different axis of analysis would be, if fan scholarship focuses on the creation of women characters across the 'genre boundaries' of gen, het, and slash. Refocalization is not a specific fanfic genre eithere: there is a similar pattern in the Trek media tie-in novels by women authors who make Uhura or Chapel or an original female character a major focus of the story (my favorites include original series Trek novels by Margaret Wander Bonanno, Diane Carey, Diane Duane, Janet Kagan, Majliss Larson, Melinda Snodgrass, and Della Van Hise; in fact, the next incarnation of this project will probably pair tie-in novels and fan fic about women characters in Trek!). Jenkins discusses Land's novel briefly since his purpose is not a full analysis of single texts but an overall theory of fan production and creativity.

In this essay, I place Jane Land's novel within the context of second wave feminism, specifically: the creation of the 1970s feminist utopias (which often featured a lesbian separatist culture, sometimes though not always on a separate planet!); Adrienne Rich's concepts of compulsory heterosexuality and the "lesbian continuum;" conflicts between straight and lesbian feminists which led to divisions along political and gender lines; the radical feminist rhetoric recasting lesbianism as a political choice. Within the novel's plot and character interactions, Land presents a range of feminist arguments about the situation of women in patriarchal cultures and what ought to be done, including the complicated relationship between the political and the personal.

Kirk puts together an away team consisting of Uhura (in command), Chapel, and four more characters (my knowledge of canon is fairly rusty, but I think they are all original): Keiko Ichigawa (security, and martial arts specialist/award winner), Grace Dawson (med tech/nurse -- both terms are used); T'Nila (Vulcan healer who applies to the Enterprise at her husband's request, but who arrives after he is killed in the first attack on the ship), and Thelit (an Andorian, also med-tech). While only Chapel is currently married, the others all identify as heterosexual: Keiko begins a relationship with Sulu before the away team goes on the mission; T'Nila is a widow; Dawson says a number of times that same-sex relationships are a perversion of God's natural laws, and Thelit was divorced by her husband when she made the decision to leave Andor and join Starfleet (as well as being disowned by her family and disenfranchised of citizenship).

Chapel is the primary protagonist/POV character, but Land deftly presents multiple point of view through a third person omniscient narrative with quick scene shifts that mimic the pacing of the show. POV characters include all the members of the away team; Sappho, the head of the council on Demeter, Kirk and Spock, as well as the leaders of the drug smuggling ring, a human and a Tellarite.Uhura is placed in command of the expedition, and Chapel is the Chief Medical Officer (she is a doctor by this time). However, the long friendship she and Chapel have is made clear from the start, especially as they commiserate with each other over the short skirts of the uniforms of 20 years earlier, the relative youth of many of their crewmates, and discuss the mission, Chapel's marriage, Uhura's decision to remain unmarried but have a variety of sexual partners. The younger women on the team are lower in rank and come from at least four different cultures (Earth, Federation colony, Andor, Vulcan).

The differences among the women on the away team are emphasized from the start. After the briefing, Uhura asks the etam to stay after the men leave to discuss their response to the mission, to Demeter. Little attention is paid to hierarchial rank in this frank exchange, until they end when Uhura notes the need to remain professional despite their personal feeings. They come from cultures with different attitudes about gender. On Vulcan, women are equal of anybody except must be "bondmate" to husbands (subordinate to male biological needs) which T'Nila argues is logical in this scene. She later questions the logic. Chapel is bonded to Spock, and their conflicts during the course of the story case an interesting light on the practice of Vulcan bondmates compared to the theory. Andor is a warrior culture with oppressive gender hierarchy (only 11 women Andorians in Starfleet, all of whom are disowned/disenfranchised). Earth prides itself on equality (much like the United States during the time of the original show), but Spock considers that neither Earth nor the Federation as an institution is particularly egalitarian. The colony where Dawson came from is a religious fundamentalist group; she has a mission to "save" others. The women disagree with each other about the women of Demeter and about lesbian separatism. Soon following that scene, we see Spock, Uhura, and Kirk eating dinner. Their familiar interactions turns into a heated discussion about lesbian separatism and gender hierarchies. As Uhura notes: "All of us in the landing party, when we talked among ourselves about Demeter, we didn't agree at all, except in one basic assumption. We all agreed that men hold the balance of power over women in our cultures. Whether we thought it was good or bad, logical or not, we all accepted it as fact" (59). Jim first dismisses her assessment as "being a little paranoid," but he does reflect, later, while he is relegated to staying on the ship, on his unconscious tendency to treat women in his crew differently from the men: and he acts on his awareness. As his senior women officers pointed out, in the Federation, male crew who perform well are moved around to learn more areas of the ship; the women who do well tend to be relegated to one area, thus not gaining the depth of experience that would suit those who are interested in/qualified for command that the men have. Thus, the women in actual high command are few because of institutional bias.

The away team arrives on Demeter in a wheat field where they meet Lilith, the thirteen year old daughter of Sappho (the colony leader for that season) and Astarte (a physician though as they discuss at one point, she had not attended official medical schools, referencing the whole feminist debate on medical institutions controlled by men, with a history going back to the midwives who were excluded from formal training. The names of the women colonists (about 400 in the colony, fifty years after settlement) come from mythic or historical sources:
Demeter (Dr. Juanita Alvarez, the geneticist whose work made blending ova possible); Sappho (the lesbian poet) Rahab (an engineer, whose name is that of the Old Testament woman, possibly prostitute, who hid Israelite spies in Jericho). There are at least three generations on Demeter (their name for colony/planet): the first/oldest (Alvarez) being among the group of women who choose to leave Earth to found the colony. The second, adult women, all under the age of 50, (Sappho, Astarte, Rahab) were the first generation born on the planet, and were raised by women who had been raised in the cultures of Earth, who feared men. The third generation are their children: Lilith, and the younger ones. Lilith is an important minor character, interacting with the Enterprise crew without fear, not being afraid of men, resisting Dawson's attempt to proselytize. The colonists brought books from Earth including, as we learn later in scenes where Dawson tries to proselytize Lilith, the christian Bible, but also other texts. Lilith tells Dawson that she (Lilith) will read the Bible if Grace reads "our" books: The Second Sex, Against Our Will, Womanpower, Without our Chains. The first two authors considered major texts of second wave Anglo-Amnerican feminism, written by Simone de Beauvoir and Susan Browniller. Laura Schlessinger is the writer of the third, and I cannot find information on the fourth.

The away team and the colonists must work together, aided by the crew remaining on the ship, to complete three tasks: to destroy the automated factory behind the the shield; discover the area of the problem in the ova blending process caused by the shield radiation, and work on an antidote for the drug nirvana. The radiation's effect on the ova bonding process is why Sappho, acting alone and without consensus, sent the distress call. While they need to beam down heavier equipment to break open the shield and more up to date medical technology to help identify the area of the problem in the ova bonding process and study the native plant to create the antidote, those tasks go fairly easily. The plant is worth cultivating because is is a mild stimulant in its natural form (the Enterprise crew are offered it as a drink) and one component can can help treat brain tumor, a component that the Federation currently has to synthesize in an expensive process. But the leaders of the drug smuggling ring arrive at the planet: they are coming to pick up the current batch of refined drug and have learned of the distress call and the presence of the Enterprise. They decoy the ship away, and the human (described by all as incredibly handsome--blonde and blue-eyed--and also the son of a British lord who is a wealthy corporate owners) decides to destroy the colony personally, enjoying the chance to rape and brutalize women; he overrules his Tellarite partner's wish for a more quiet exit.

The away team are attacked as well as the colonists; Lilith is raped (the survivors of the attack discover the rape and her exposure to nirvana after it takes place--the scene is not described); others are killed or injured. The away team are separated from each other, but in the company of different groups of the colonists. Earlier conflicts between the women (both the colonists and the crewmembers) around questions of cultural differences, the supremacy of men, the relative autonomy of women within a patriarchy compared to an all-female colony, must be set aside as the women fight for their lives, and then fight to save the lives of injured comrades. One group (including Thelit and Keiko) are caught at the facility as they are setting charges to destroy it after the colony salvages the technology; another (Chapel, Uhura, T'Nila, and Dawson) are attacked in the medical lab.

The Enterprise returns in time to help control the rapist, prompted by Kirk's command intuition and Spock's awareness through his bond with Chapel that something has gone wrong on the planet. After the final confrontation, the women who have refused to meet or speak to men agree to have their injured treated on the Enterprise, and diplomatic negotiations are opened. In the more personal plots, Keiko turns down Rahab's offer of a relationship; Christine and Spock re-evaluate their marital bond, and Thelit decides to stay on Demeter. The women on the away team receive commendations, and Kirk has reassigned crew to new area to give women a chance to take on a wider range of responsibilities.

Land's novel is not a lesbian separatist novel: the colony of Demeter, though a refuge for some at one time, will continue to be at risk as long as the possibility of exploiting the native plant for drugs exist. There will be more open interaction with the Federation. The plot, pacing, and characterizations, as well as a number of allusions to key episodes (including the one with Janice Lester), make the novel very much congruent with the canon. The shift to focus more on women's relationships, women's conversations, and women's decisions as they face the sexism which did exist in the show (and in the culture at the time of the show) does nowever reflect an engagement with feminist ideas.

Most of the scholarship on fandom does not ask whether or not feminisms exists within fandom. Jenkins does not consider the question of feminism of fans, although he often uses the theory/language of second wave feminism. Constance Penley tends to rhetorically position herself as the feminist academic in contrast to the non-feminist fans, and Bacon-Smith claims that there were only a few feminists among the fans communities she was familiar with. I do not know if Land considered/cosiders herself a feminist at the time she wrote the novel; however, I would argue there is no need for fans to identify themselves as feminists in order to engage with cultural conflicts over gender through their fiction, and I see Land integrating feminist ideas in an overt and interesting way in her novel.

Working Bibliography

Bacon-Smith, Camille. 1992. Enterprising women: Television fandom and the
creation of popular myth. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.
---. 2000. Science fiction culture. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.
Halberstam, Judith. 1998. Female masculinity. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.
---. 2005. In a queer time and place: Transgender bodies, subcultural lives. New York:
New York Univ. Press.
Hills, Matt. 2002. Fan cultures. London: Routledge.
Jenkins, Henry. 1992. Textual poachers: Television fans and participatory culture. New
York: Routledge.
Land, Jane. Demeter. 1987. Larchmont, NY: Self-published.
Penley, Constance. 1997. NASA/Trek: Popular science and sex in America. New York:
Russ, Joanna. 1985. Pornography by women, for women, with love. In Magic mommas,
trembling sisters, Puritans and perverts: Feminist essays, 79–99. Trumansburg, NY: The Crossing Press. (accessed September 29, 2005).
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 1985. Between men: English literature and male homosocial
desire. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.
---. 1990. Epistemology of the closet. Berkley: Univ. of California Press. 1990.
akamine_chan: Created by me; please don't take (Default)

[personal profile] akamine_chan 2009-04-04 09:33 pm (UTC)(link)
I don't know if you wanted comments here; if you didn't feel free to delete this.

Demeter sounds like what I was hoping to see each time I watched an episode of Star Trek. I'd watched re-runs growing up and even as a young girl I was disappointed by the dichotomy between the philosophy of "infinite diversity in infinite combination" and what was shown on the show. The Janice Lester episode (Turnabout Intruder) was especially galling in the depiction of women.

And I have to admit a fondness for feminists eutopias - Joanna Russ' When It Changed, James Tiptree's Houston, Houston, Do You Read? being two of my very favorites.

This is fascinating and I look forward to more on this subject.

[identity profile] 2009-04-04 11:08 pm (UTC)(link)
Comments always welcome! (If I decide to "pull," I'll probably just lock down to flist at the most.

I am a huge fan of feminist utopias (I credit Russ' "When It Changed," with saving my life when I was 14)--that's one reason I so liked seeing Star Trek crossed with a feminist separatist utopia!

(Anonymous) 2009-04-05 01:12 am (UTC)(link)

I wrote about Demeter much more extensively in my book with John Tulloch, Science Fiction Audiences, which also includes my essay on the Gaylaxians and their campaign to get a queer character on Star Trek. I share your sense that it's a key piece of fan fiction.