Why Do Adult Women Love One Direction Slash Fanfiction?
Although One Direction has broken up, their influence lives on in homoerotica written by female fans.
Image by Kat Aileen
On July 14, it was announced that Louis Tomlinson, twenty-three-years-old and one quarter of the boy band One Direction, had gotten a girl pregnant. In my email inbox, all hell broke loose. "Everything I believed to be true," I wrote to four friends, "is now no longer true." Last Sunday, when The Sun reported that the group had "mutually agreed to an extended hiatus," I texted my best friend. "I'm dead now," she texted back. "I'm just ... I'm dead." Neither of us were being serious, exactly—but we weren't not being serious either.
Some time after the baby announcement, this same friend, an adult woman of nearly thirty years, sent me a couple of short fics she'd written in an attempt to make sense of the crisis. Though I am, to be clear, likewise a post-pubescent human female who is capable of fulfilling romantic-sexual relationships, by "fics" I do in fact mean works of fanfiction: fan-generated narratives sometimes featuring fictional characters, sometimes featuring real-life stars, sometimes featuring lots and lots of sex.
The fics my friend sent me focused on what post-baby life might look like for One Direction—for, specifically, Louis and band-mate Harry Styles, whose relationship has been the focus of speculation, let's say, since the band formed on the British talent show "X-Factor" in 2010. One popular theory posits that Harry and Louis are in love, and being forcibly closeted by management—hence the chaos in my inbox after news of Louis's impending fatherhood broke. (This theory gets more plausible the farther back you go: Harry and Louis used to live together; they used to look at each other very longingly.) In the years since, the "Larry Stylinson" pairing, or ship—to "ship" (verb) in fandom, is to root for a couple; a "ship" (noun) refers back to the couple in question—has been the subject of .gif sets, "proof" videos, and millions, perhaps even billions, of words of romantico-sexual male/male fanfiction, commonly known as "slash."
Discussions of fanfiction are often thwarted by the abundance of material available for investigation, and by its sprawl. New archives spring up as others are taken down; some venues where fic is hosted—Tumblr; LiveJournal—are difficult to search. Reliable numbers, in other words, are hard to come by. Still, attempts are made: in March of this year, New York Magazine estimated that 30 million fanfiction uploads have been shared on Wattpad; over 1.5 million of those fics are about One Direction. A search for "Harry Styles/Louis Tomlinson" on Archive of Our Own (AO3), a nonprofit that hosts fanfiction on its own servers, returns 31,420 results. An analysis of that archive by destinationtoast in 2013 found that 45.5% of stories posted were tagged M/M, meaning they involved at least one slash relationship. Further breakdowns of the survey results by centrumlumina, indicated that the majority of the AO3's slash readers and writers identified as solely or partially female (within this group, a majority of respondents identified as queer).
These numbers do not present the whole, or even most of, the fandom picture. I use them to make four points: one, fanfiction is big; two, within fanfiction, slash is hardly a niche; three, within slash, there are plenty of fics about One Direction; and four, like all fanfiction, slash is written and read, in large part, by women.
I've read Larry Stylinson fics in which Harry is Harry Styles, member of One Direction; in which Harry is Jack McQueen, personal consultant (read: escort); in which Harry is a talking frog. I've read Larry fics with more angst than sex and Larry fics with more sex than plot. The world of Larry slash is too multifarious—and I am too recent a convert—to attempt any broad definitive claims. There are a few constants: an obsession with Harry's hands (large); an emphasis on Louis's height (he's just 5'8") and butt (beautiful); and poor Liam (that's Liam Payne, another band-mate) seems to be cast as an assistant in alternate universe fics more often than not. I have a narrower goal, a question, really. I'm a straight, cisgendered woman rapidly leaving her twenties who reads about male pop stars in their early twenties having sex with each other: why?
Perhaps, in fact, the question can be narrowed to just two words. Dicks: why? This is the fundamental question that slash provokes: Why would a straight woman (presumably most interested in heterosexual erotica) or a queer woman (presumably not that interested in dicks at all) want to read or write about two canonically straight men fucking? There are, of course, as many responses to that question as there are straight and queer women consuming and producing slash, but one obvious truth is that personal erotic tastes do not necessarily govern the imagination. Something that must also be said: while not all the sex in fanfiction is probable, I have cringed far less reading slash than I have sex scenes in literary novels.
I'm a straight woman rapidly leaving her twenties who reads about male pop stars in their early twenties having sex with each other: why?
It is also the case that dicks—specifically, dicks attached to straight, white men—dominate the popular culture on which fanfiction riffs. Back in 1993, when fic was still being compiled in hand-stapled zines and circulated via snail-mail, academics Shoshana Green, Cynthia Jenkins, and Henry Jenkins collaborated on "Normal Female Interest in Men Bonking," which selected from two "apas," "The Terra Nostra Underground" (TNU) and "Strange Bedfellows." (An "apa," short for "amateur press association," functioned as a "sort of group letter"; TNU and Strange Bedfellows were apas founded to facilitate discussion among slash fans. About half the members of these two apas wrote fanfiction or published fanzines.)
In an excerpt from her contribution to TNU 3, writer Cat Anestopoulo explains interest in slash by describing the "traditional pattern" that someone "enriching/feeding their fantasy life with TV fare" will encounter: "the hero (dashing); the buddy (his confidant and accomplice); the screaming ninny (his romantic interest)." Anestopoulo's analysis is perhaps unfair to the actresses who did their best to lend dignity to limp characters. Still: it's hardly surprising that a writer looking to explore alternate narrative possibilities would prefer to slash the hero—Captain Kirk, say—and his buddy—Spock—than to attempt to transform the ninny—whatever space hottie Captain Kirk was crushing on in any given episode—into a character worth caring about.
The demographics of pop culture—not only on TV, but also in film and books—have improved since 1990 (the date of TNU 3), but male characters continue to be both more plentiful and, by and large, more fully fleshed out. According to Morgan Leigh Davies, co-founder of Big Bang Press, which will publish the second of three original novels by writers drawn from the fanfiction community this fall, female characters rarely have "the level of depth" their male counterparts are afforded. Davies, who has written slash in the Teen Wolf, Captain America, and X-Men universes, among others, said she gravitated toward the genre in part because female characters, "when they do show up in stories," tend to be flat. Unimpeachably "fierce, amazing" women make for good role models, perhaps, but they make for awfully dull characters. Davies's critique was echoed by fanfiction author verity, who has written slash, het, and femslash in the Teen Wolf, Buffy, and Harry Potter fandoms, among others. "It is easier to write dudes being ugly and real," she told me over gchat, "when you get to see that on the show."
There's also this: when a woman, in a field dominated by other women, deliberately queers the straightest, most traditionally masculine figures—Captain America; Captain Kirk; Green Bay Packers' quarterback Aaron Rodgers; even Sherlock Holmes—there's an added, electric frisson. Women—straight or queer or not so easily defined by either term—have not yet succeeded in seizing the means of production; they are, however, definitely, literally, fucking with its products.
When I first went looking for fanfiction, I was seeking to satisfy a very specific desire. I wanted something that network television would not and could not give me: Josh Lyman/Donna Moss smut. Josh and Donna were characters on The West Wing, a television show that premiered when I was twelve, and onto which my burgeoning sexuality latched, for good and ill. On the show, Josh was the president's deputy chief of staff and Donna was his assistant; they were always bantering, sometimes quite fiercely, with an energy that I knew meant they wanted to—had to—smoosh their various body parts together. Sometimes I'll come across a rerun on Bravo. The music they play over the credits still hits me right in the lower gut.
My tastes have changed since then, moved away from het and towards slash—though the Josh figure (mostly a dick; occasionally unbearably, impossibly tender) remains a constant. As Anne Jamison writes in Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World, a collection of essays she both edited and contributed extensively to, "we love bad boys, but also love to imagine that they are actually good on the inside—maybe so we don't have to blush so hard." (The bit about blushing is a nod to "Belfour," a female fan who, in 1748, wrote to Samuel Richardson, author of Clarissa. Belfour was worried both over the heroine's fate and her own attraction to the rake who intends to rape the innocent Clarissa: "you must know (though I shall blush again), that if I was to die for it, I cannot help being fond of Lovelace," she confesses to Richardson. "Why would you make him so wicked, and yet so agreeable? Her solution: to reimagine him as a "faultless husband.")
My own interest in slash is inextricable from my soft spot for dicks, in both senses of the word (one is never more aware of how many insults repurpose names for male genitalia than when one is writing about dude-on-dude erotica). It may have, in fact, evolved from it. Slate critic Laura Miller told me that, in a slash relationship, "male characters" are "really emotional and really talky about their emotion... If you have two men," she explained, "then you're guaranteed that at least one of them is going to be honest about his feelings."
This is, for me, the main draw—perhaps because men in my own life have trouble expressing their emotions, or perhaps, more simply, because men aren't "supposed" to express their emotions. When they do, it's unexpectedly and unfairly devastating. My best friend put it more simply: "DUMB MISERABLE BOYS DESPERATELY TRYING TO UNDERSTAND A FEELING," she wrote in a recent email, "my true passion, my only subject, my art, my soul." To which I can only say: Co-sign.
What's more, the feelings revealed in slash can read as more convincing: Two men, in a relationship of equals, negotiating levels of comfort, both physical and emotional. The allure of slash has been explained as a result of the inherent imbalance of power present in any heterosexual relationship in a patriarchy—and while this analysis seems necessarily incomplete, it is true that slash can allow a writer to explore a sexual relationship in the (relative) absence of these dynamics—what Miller called a "gender-caste-system-free zone."
There's also, of course, the appeal of the forbidden. According to Sonia Saraiya, a TV critic for Salon who has dabbled in fandom, slash is "irresistibly taboo in a way that even affection between two female characters wouldn't be because our notions of masculine sexuality are so much more culturally limited."
Author Zan Romanoff—who identifies as a straight, cisgendered woman—sees slash as "the most widespread body of literature that exists about what it's like to be attracted to men." Pop culture largely treats female desire, even "in its most straight cis vanilla hetero 'normal' form" as something "forbidden and unspeakable." Slash, on the other hand, "exists in order to speak about" at least an aspect of this desire—and from, in most cases, a female (writer's) perspective. "I think it's actually kind of fucking radical that teenage girls on the internet are writing custom porn for each other for free," she told me in an email. "Like, hello, every dude who thinks women are undersexed as a gender: check and mate, motherfucker."
Even in the world of fanfiction—which is itself derided by many readers of original fiction, as well as by those who enjoy the TV shows or books or movies popularly ficced—there is a hierarchy. Real Person Fiction (RPF)—including, of course, fics about One Direction—is doubtless at the bottom. (Another common form of RPF I stumbled across takes professional athletes as its subjects; lostcoastlines's "Whatever Makes You Stay," for example, slashes Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers.)
RPF's frequent focus on boy bands is certainly partly responsible for it being held in low regard. "The culture of teenage girls is always really stigmatized," Miller said, "both inside of fandom and outside of fandom, so things that teenage girls like or think are romantic are often the least valued parts of any culture."
The badly-kept secret of One Direction fandom, of course, is that its members are hardly all teenage girls. dolce_piccante, whose Larry fic "Escapade" has over a quarter-million hits on Archive of Our Own, is in her late twenties. "I was certain I would be the oldest person in the fandom," she told me, "and it's not that way at all, which was a pleasant surprise. It seems like there's a pretty wide range of ages, but is shifting more towards late 20s/early 30s." While numbers here too are unreliable, in Fic, writer V. Arrow notes that, "a survey performed in the fall of 2012, of over 1,550 One Direction fans who wrote or read RPF... 35 percent were over twenty."
How impossible to fall in love with your best friend, while the whole world watches, and also how beautiful.
Ultimately, the appeal of One Direction slash in particular remains somewhat ineffable. It seems related to how young they were when they became a band (Harry was just 16). Fans have gotten to watch them grow up, pass out of adolescence and into early adulthood; to watch their cheekbones sharpen and their hairstyles change; to watch them grow cognizant of their own celebrity, toy with it; to watch each attempt to, in the words of wandaplenn, who has been active in a number of fandoms, including One Direction "come to terms with what [he] want[s] and be [his] true self."
The appeal of One Direction homoeroticism also seems related to how physically comfortable and genuinely playful the boys are with each other: in interviews, in behind-the-scenes clips from their tours, in X-Factor video diaries. They touch one another a lot. It seems related to the fact that they are boys who sing songs about feelings and look like they mean it. It seems, unfortunately, related to Louis's irreverent-shading-into-dickish personality, which fans—along the lines of our eighteenth century friend "Belfour"—wish to understand and explain away. Perhaps most significantly, it seems related to taboo and tragedy: how impossible to fall in love with your best friend, while the whole world watches, and also how beautiful.
Certainly, it seems related to Harry Styles's individual charisma. He comes across as exceptionally comfortable with his sexuality, even when it is perceived as ambiguous. (In an interview, Harry and his bandmate Liam were asked to name the four traits they look for "in a lady." Liam: "Female. That's a good trait." Harry, shrugging: "Not that important.") "Imagine if Mick Jagger had the warm and benign heart of Paul McCartney, cast under a magic spell by Stevie Nicks, and you're about halfway there," wrote Rob Sheffield, in a review of One Direction's current tour for Rolling Stone. "Watching Harry spit water and touch his hair makes me want to be a better person."
Fanfiction writer wandaplenn put it somewhat differently. "I kind of want to be [Harry]," she said. "But I also kind of want to be his mother, and I kind of also want to be his girlfriend." Look at enough pictures of Harry eating a bunch of marshmallows, at enough .gifs of him mouthing the words "my mouth," into a mic, his expression equal amounts pain and passion, and one starts to understand where she's coming from.
In her essay for Fic, Arrow concludes, "The difficulty—and the fun, and the challenge, and the beauty—of RPF comes from the ever-changing nature of the materials available for creating canon as the people who generate it grow, change, and react to experiences in new ways." This week, with the announcement of the hiatus, One Direction fans are dealing with change of a rather exceptional nature. It's a bit like the end of a television show, or the publication of the last volume in a book series—only the characters will continue to exist outside their source text.
The fanfiction too will persist, even if production eventually slows, as will its tropes: In some corners of the internet, Harry will always be an exceptional cook (in fact he did work in a bakery, pre-fame); Louis will always be funny but prickly; Niall will always love beer and golf. It's perverse in the best way: in some corners of the internet, these boys, designed to live in posters on bedroom walls, created to make teenage girls swoon, will keep loving each other better than they love anyone else—thanks precisely to the creative energies of a certain number of the women they were engineered to seduce.