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I am preparing to teach a graduate course called Queer/ing Popular Culture this fall, and I decided it was time to get around to actually reading the late, great Alex Doty’s Making Things Perfectly Queer: Interpreting Mass Culture. On this second attempt, it was not only just what I need for this course, but there was also a lot of “Yeah! Right on!” that I don’t remember from when I read the introduction howevermany years ago.

I particularly had an “OMG, this explains things!” moment in the “I Love Laverne and Shirley” chapter. Doty contends that Laverne and Shirley, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Designing Women, and The Golden Girls should be understood as “lesbian sitcoms” because the primary relationships in them are between women and male love interests are generally transient and not central to the ongoing development of the story or characters.

This relies, of course, on Adrienne Rich’s concept of the “lesbian continuum”: “a range—through each woman’s life and throughout history—of woman-identified experience, not simply the fact that a woman has had or consciously desired genital sexual experience with another woman.” In her 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” Rich proposed that we use this term “lesbian continuum” “to embrace many more forms of primary intensity between and among women, including the sharing of a rich inner life, the bonding against male tyranny, the giving and receiving of practical and political support,” and other woman-to-woman relationships (all quotations in this paragraph as published in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader in 1993, p. 239).

In saying that all “primary intensity” between women should be framed as lesbian, Rich was making a political move, calling on ostensibly heterosexual women to recognize their kinship to lesbians on the basis of their deep emotional ties to other women, asking them to “consider the possibility that all women [ . . . ] exist on a lesbian continuum,” because this would let us “see ourselves as moving in and out of this continuum, whether we identify ourselves as lesbian or not” (p. 240), in order that women could band together more effectively toward feminist causes rather than being divided by the specter of lesbianism.

Thus, Doty argues, “in mass culture reception, at least, the idea of a lesbian continuum might be adapted and expanded to include those situations in which anyone identifies with or takes pleasure in the ‘many  . . . forms of primary intensity between and among women’” (p. 42). Doty describes the shows he discusses as “lesbian sitcoms” because they are structured around, and audiences “identify with” or “take pleasure in,” the centrality of women to each other’s lives.

And that got me thinking. In the years since Doty wrote, the ways audiences “identify with” or “take pleasure in” relationships between women in television has shifted dramatically with the rise of large, visible femslash fandom, taking this “lesbian continuum” type of lesbianism and weaving it together with the sexual lesbianism Rich termed “lesbian existence.” It therefore seems to me, first, that it makes sense to call all media (not just sitcoms) that have a relationship between women as the central one, or among the central ones, lesbian media, and second, that to locate lesbian media after the Internet is to locate femslash fandoms.

Moreover, not only do such lesbian media objects generate femslash fandoms (because people kind of literally ship everything), but for lesbian media femslash tends to be comparably voluminous and visible and internet-powerful as heterosexual shipping or m/m shipping—which are otherwise dominant in fandom. Lesbian media generate big femslash fandoms in a way that for other shows femslash is present but more minor.

In Xena: Warrior Princess, for example, the Xena-Gabrielle dyad was the core of the show. Other characters came and went, but the two ladies were what it was about, and lo and behold, Xena was the first major femslash fandom. Moreover, Xena-Gabrielle shipping vastly drowned out any other pairing in the show, and I argue that this is because Xena was a lesbian show in its focus on relationships between women as primary.

Or to take a perhaps unexpected example, recent Disney films Frozen and Maleficent have very central relationships between women, and there is femslash about those relationships despite the respectively literally and figuratively incestuous nature of those woman-woman pairs. Where women are important to each other, it seems to me, strong femslash followings arise.

And I think that being a lesbian media object and producing a large femslash fandom plays out in interesting ways the tension between “lesbian continuum”—women’s primary relations to women—and “lesbian existence”—sexual lesbianism. To take the example of Once Upon a Time, it is also, by this measure, a lesbian television show. The first season revolved around relationships between women—primarily Regina and Emma’s conflict over Regina’s adopted son being Emma’s biological son and Regina and Snow White’s conflict in the past that had led to current events, though there were some other ones as well. Those women’s relationships to one another drove the show. And indeed OUAT had a large femslash fanbase for “Swan Queen,” the relationship between Emma Swan and Regina, the Evil Queen, from the get-go.

This pattern of “primary intensity between women” as the driver continued in the second season, when the primary arcs were about mothers and daughters, supplemented with Emma and Regina starting to learn to trust one another. Season three to some extent broke the pattern, with the first half all about fathers and sons, though there was some more “Regina and Emma learn to trust each other,” and while the back half of the third season was ostensibly about conflict between sisters, romantic relationships with men took a lot of screen time in a way they hadn’t before. The first half of season 4 was much the same dual focus, with one main story arc being about sisters and the other main character spending all her time dealing with a boyfriend situation. The most recent half-season got in many ways back to basics and re-centered relationships between women, with the Regina-Emma relationship developing and Emma having conflict with her mother—importantly, despite the fact that her father also did the thing she was upset about, her anger focused on her mom.

In the second half of the fourth season, both of the leads have some kind of romantic entanglement with men on the horizon, but they are deemphasized, showing what Doty calls a show “introducing, and then marginalizing or eliminating, the men who date or marry its women characters” (p. 57). He notes that “the narrative fact of straight romance and marriage does not necessarily heterosexualize lesbian sitcoms any more than being married makes actual lesbians straight” (p. 57), and indeed for femslashers it hasn’t, as they’ve focused, for example, much more on (spoiler alert) the fact that Emma sacrificed her soul to save Regina in the finale than the fact that she told the boyfriend she loved him for the first time right before.

And it seems that the more “lesbian” the show is, in terms of prioritizing relationships between women as the central arc and having the men more or less fail the Sexy Lamp Test—meaning that they can be replaced by a sexy lamp and not change the story (there has also been a proposal by some in the SwanQueen fandom to speak of a the “No Homo”-Sign Test, in which the men could be replaced by “no homo” signs without changing the story)—the more femslashers like it. Season 1 and the part of Season 2 up until one of the mothers was killed are held up as the golden age of the show for femslashers. Season 3 and the first half of Season 4 are pretty universally reviled among this population. The reaction to the second half of Season 4 is mixed.

And the backlash to SwanQueen fandom has taken the form of trying to push “lesbian existence” back into the “lesbian continuum”—to desexualize and deemphasize the relationships between women. First, there has been an attempt to de-lesbian the show by denying that the Emma-Regina relationship is important: both that it’s not important to either woman, and certainly not as much as their boyfriends, and that it’s not important to the show, because they are not the main characters (despite the fact that the two actors involved get second and third billing).

The second de-lesbian-ing strategy is what Doty identifies in an endnote as “straight culture’s careful maintenance of the line between homosociality and homosexuality (p. 42, n. 9). There is much “They are friends or sisterly and why do you have to sexualize things?” from people who are opposed to the SwanQueen interpretation. This, Doty notes, “only encourages homophobia and heterocentrism, as the homosocial is always considered preferable to the homosexual. If there wasn’t some problem about being labeled ‘homosexual,’ straight culture wouldn’t care if certain straight personal relationships and cultural representations were misperceived as being queer.” And indeed, these responses tend to come along with either overt or implicit homophobia. This also show’s why Rich’s move to claim those friend and sister relationships as on a continuum with sexual lesbianism matters. Pulling these two apart is why people opposed to the SwanQueen interpretation can say that seeing a link between “women being important to women” and “women having sex with women” is “delusional.” Insisting on the existence of the continuum—that these two forms of woman-to-woman relationship exist in relation to one another, and can slide into one another—is terrifying for homophobes but vital to femslashers.

(Doty also notes that “lesbian and gay maintenance of the homosexual/heterosexual line is another matter, as this is concerned with keeping same-sex sex as the central definer of queerness in order to prevent the cultural and political neutralization and domestication of lesbianism and gayness by straight culture” [p. 42, n. 9] and indeed this happens in the fandom too, with some segments rejecting a friendship as acceptable, staking a claim for sexual lesbianism.)

What’s interesting to me here is that, while Doty was telling a macro-level structural story about how shows work, he wasn’t an audience researcher and certainly not in fan studies, and so was not equipped to explain (or, perhaps, even notice) this whole other side to how shows are “lesbian”—nor, indeed, did femslash fandom exist at scale when he was writing. In this way, Doty provides a useful contribution to thinking about why large femslash fandoms coalesce around particular texts, but fan studies work on slash also provides enrichment to how the patterns he identifies play out when actual people get ahold of structurally queer texts.

5 Comments

  1. I just *yesterday* ordered this book, guiltily thinking I should have read it years ago. Thanks for the preview—looking forward to it!

  2. Wow. Such a good insightful article. Thanks for the amazing read. It touches so many things a #SwanQueen shipper experiences on a day to day basis.

    • Thanks! I was aiming more at big structures than individual experiences, but it’s always nice to have your work speak to more than you thought.

  3. Thanks a lot, this was a very interesting article and I enjoyed reading it. You’ve gotten me very curious about the book you mentioned! I think I’ll order it.
    Also your graduate course sounds very interesting, sometimes I wonder if I chose the wrong field of study haha 😉

    • Well the good part of studying media is that you get to watch TV and be working, but the bad part is you never get to shut off your critical brain, so there are pros and cons! Thanks for your comment.


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