Monday, February 11, 2013

Fangirl 101: Shipping, sexuality and canon

This topic of conversation comes to us from the Supernatural fandom (but it is by no means exclusive to it). For those of you that don’t know in last week’s episode Dean had a gay thing. I would love to spend the next 4 paragraphs discussing the shippie implications of this moment but unfortunately it stirred up another round of the age-old slash fandom argument about sexual orientation and shipping so we’re going to talk about that instead.

Whether you want to admit it or not sexual ordination plays an important part in the shipping community. As much as we love to pretend we live in a world where flexible sexuality is the norm (fan fiction is a wondrous place) it’s just not true. Personally I believe that sexuality is a hell of a lot more fluid than most people admit but society mostly sticks to a pretty rigid heteronormative binary when it comes to sexual ordination and the media generally follows suit.

Sorry I got a bit academic there didn’t I? It happens sometimes, I can’t help it. Basically in most television series, movies or books a character’s sexuality remains relatively fixed. If they are shown flirting, hooking up with or dating a member of the opposite sex then that character is straight (unless explicitly stated otherwise). For those of us that choose to engage with slash ships (by slash ships I mean the coupling of two canonically straight characters of the same sex) this presents a problem.

Generally it doesn’t bother us that much – part of the fun of shipping slash is going through the text with a fine-tooth comb looking for hints and suggestions that your ship is ‘real’. So it doesn’t really matter if the character is canonically straight because we can use evidence from the text to create our own headcanons in the sexually fluid world of fanon. The other side of it is queerbaiting – where the powers-that-be deliberately bait the slash fandom with hints towards a ship becoming canon but then never actually follow through. Queerbaiting sucks, and it’s just as bad for the fandom to take subtext and call it representation.

Look nobody likes to have their ship sunk and unfortunately for slash fans heterosexuality is a pretty common cock block so we are constantly have to find ways around it. As I said above most of the time a character’s canon sexuality doesn’t really matter. Sure a lot of us hope that one-day slash ships (and a flexible idea of sexual ordination) will be more acceptable. Then hopefully our favourite same-sex pairings won’t be dismissed quite so easily but realistically we understand that we have a while to go before we get there.

Most of the time we’re content analyzing subtext but sometimes fanon becomes so prevalent that it is accepted as canon (at least by part of the fandom). This, of course, clashes with the side of fandom that does not engage with fanon at all, those fans that only accept of what actually happens in the text. This is how arguments – like the one seen in the Supernatural fandom this week – happen.

The side of the fandom that is taking fanon just a little bit too seriously takes a moment of subtext (or a joke or a hint) as proof of a character’s queer sexuality. In this case the Supernatural fandom takes Dean getting flustered when a guy tries to pick him up as proof that Dean is canonically bisexual. This upsets people that stick to canon. It’s not the first time this has happened (I’ve already added it to my personal headcanon for Dean Winchesters sexuality) and it probably won’t be the last but as much as I hate to admit it there is nothing about this moment that actually changes Dean’s canon sexuality.  

For those of us that choose to read Dean as bisexual it’s just another in a long line of hints that we use to justify our headcanon but that doesn’t mean that I can start listing Dean Winchester as canonically bisexual character. In canon we have only ever seen him talk about and act on a sexual attraction to women, which means he’s straight.

The thing is – representation is really important in regards to queer characters (especially those outside the gay/straight binary). There aren’t that many bisexuals on television so claiming a character that is NOT canonically depicted as queer as a queer character just because of subtext is not cool. It’s kind of like going back to Hayes-Code era cinema where the only way queer characters could be depicted was through subtext. I like to think we’ve gone beyond that now so let’s not ruin it by claiming that slash subtext is actual text.

It’s completely all right to talk about subtext and create headcanons about character’s sexualities but you can’t claim it as canon unless it actually is. If you do choose to state that something is text when in reality it’s subtext then you can’t really blame people for disagreeing with you.

…and that’s all I have to say on the matter, feel free to argue with me in the comments or send me angry anonymous messages on Tumblr.