It’s Femslash February and I’ve been writing Jean/Hilda and Sam/Susan all month which has returned me to the perennial question of why there is not more romances (fanfic or profic) in the world featuring a central relationship between two female-identified persons. There are a lot of women writing professionally published romance and romance-centered fanfiction, and there are a lot of queer women writing it. Published romance featuring m/m relationships is a booming category (I read and enjoy a lot of it!) and “slash” is so synonymous in the fandom hivemind with male/male pairings that “femslash” carries the mark of difference: this isn’t regular slash (featuring men sexing) but femslash (featuring ladysex).
(Image: Cover of Star Crossed by Emma Barry & Genevieve Turner. The cover art features an black woman and a white woman kissing superimposed on a night sky.)
Women — especially queer women — writing romance know full well that women can fall in love with, and have smoking hot sex with other women. Many of us have done so! But “the market isn’t there” for f/f stories the way it is for m/m or f/m (or even f/m/m). Last night I read an interview with romance writer Cat Sebastian where she and the interviewer, Kelly Faircloth, have the following exchange about why we aren’t drowing in historical femslash a la the classic Sarah Waters’ novels Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith:
There’s such a large audience of women for romance featuring two men. What do you think it is that readers see in that?
I don’t know, and I think about this all the time! First of all, I don’t know that there is an answer that we can access. This is just me guessing. I do wonder if it’s something about seeing a man through the male gaze. Maybe we are used to seeing women through the male gaze. Maybe the experience of seeing men as beings who are desired by other men is freeing, or novel, or attractive in some other way as readers. I feel like that could be it, and that might explain why F/F doesn’t seem to have taken root, which is a huge source of frustration for me. I don’t understand—where are all my lesbian historical novels? Give them to me! There aren’t nearly enough of them out there, and everybody who’s written one assured me that the reason is because there’s just not a huge audience, and they like to eat food and make money, which is totally respectable. Maybe it’s because in a novel with two women as protagonists, maybe as readers, we don’t know how to look at them without the male gaze. I have no idea, and it’s been so long since I have been in a women’s studies class, but I do feel like that’s got to be part if it.
I don’t know! I would like for somebody to write a dissertation on that.
I also don’t understand. Like, Fingersmith is one of the best books ever.
Exactly. One of the best books ever. I feel like romance needs to jealousy claim Sarah Waters as one of our own, because Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet are models we could use.
Also, if you look at how people could hide queer relationships around existing structures—two women could live together really easily in the 19th century.
Yes! And forever. It’s never been hard to hide a lesbian relationship. And I don’t know if that’s because we expect women to live together, or we expect single women to team up, or if it’s just because no one’s thinking there’s anything sexual behind it, so they can do whatever they want. Even if they’re married to other people, they can do whatever they want, and no one looks twice.
As Cat observes, there’s a widespread agreement that “there’s just not a huge audience,” and yet there are also perennial discussions by the (mostly female/nonbinary and many queer) people who read/write romance and read/write romantic fanfic about how we all wish there were more. I actually began writing fanfic and publishing it on Ao3 in 2011 specifically because I was frustrated by the lack of f/f representation in erotic fanworks. Writing m/m came later, although these days I have about an equal number of m/m, f/f, m/f and more complex (e.g. m/m/f or f/f + m/f + m/m) relationships represented in my overall body of work. I have felt the pull first-hand, as both a (queer cis woman) writer and a reader, toward m/m story arcs and pondered how to square the desire to read, write, and imagine those relationships with my real-life f/f marriage and my feminist values which call upon me to center marginalized voices in narrative storytelling.
So here’s my attempt to share my working theory for why f/f romance isn’t an exploding subgenre, and why Femslash February is a thing because the rest of the year femslash is such a rare flower in the ecosphere of fandom. This is in no way meant to be a definitive articulation of why f/f is so difficult to locate in our bodies of literature, and if anyone who reads this has additional insight I welcome your thoughts below or on Twitter (@feministlib).
Reason 1: Men are protagonists.
It’s widely recognized across genres that in the stories available to us in Western literature, (white) male characters are understood to be capable of carrying a “universal” narrative while female protagonists are not. Women and girls, queer or not, learn from a very young age to identify and empathize with male characters in stories across multiple formats (television, film, literature). Men and boys are presumed to need characters like themselves to remain interested in the media before them. I don’t believe this is innately true about men and boys — because I believe that women, men, and nonbinary persons share a common humanity that allows us to empathize and be interested in the humanity of one another across categories of gender, race, sexual orientation, and other differences. However, I do believe that it is a groomed preference: That women (and people from other marginalized identities) are expected, and therefore learn, to identify with characters across identity categories while men are not, and therefore do not — unless they are purposeful about cultivating that ability. It’s not a muscle they are challenged to use — while women are challenged to use it continually.
Therefore, it makes sense that even in a genre dominated by female creators, we drift toward narrative scripts that privilege male subjectivity. That means stories that include male protagonists, either in m/f or m/m relationships, feel more natural to create and consume because we are used to male agency.
This default of the male protagonist can be amplified in fanworks particularly because fanworks play with existing media that is — because patriarchy — skewed heavily toward (white) male protagonists. While fanworks creators have done incredible work queering those canonical protagonists — including, at times, imagining them as genderfluid or trans, or genderswapping one or both characters in what would canonically be an m/m relationship — it remains a factor that canonical main characters are overwhelmingly presented as cis, straight, and male.
Reason 2: Sex Needs Dicks.
Our cultural scripts for sex are overwhelmingly heteronormative and require the presence of a penis for “sex” to have taken place. I would argue that m/m narratives, rightly or wrongly, are easier to translate in the context of these narratives because putting a penis into an orifice counts as sex in our brains in a way that sex only with clitorises does not. We also expect men to be sexually-desiring beings, and physically sexual, in a way we do not expect of women. (Again, even queer women are vulnerable to these sexual scripts because we grow up in heteronormative culture too.) In the context of the romance genre, there is typically a romantic and sexual script that intensifies over the course of the novel and culiminates — for f/m couples — with penis-in-vagina intercourse as an expression of consumated love and/or marriage. This script can be hijacked for use with m/m protagonists because you can build the sexual intimacy from handjobs to blowjobs to anal sex with kissing thrown in somewhere along the intimacy ladder depending on whether you assume that kissing is the entry point for sexual contact or a feminine-coded expression of love (meaning it falls probably somewhere after blowjobs).
What do you do with two women? We don’t have a widespread, culturally legible or adaptive script for that. Which leads to jokes like this:
(Image: Imagined graph of Hetero Sex vs. Lesbian Sex. The hetero sex graph is a four-minute timeline featuring a male orgasm, an optional female orgasm, then sleep. The lesbian sex graph is a five-hour timeline featuring a rainbow tangle of sexual activity and multiple orgasms. I don’t have an image credit for this, so if you know who to credit please let me know!)
Despite the fact that f/f couples report higher rates of orgasm and higher levels of sexual satisfaction than women who have sex with men, we don’t know how to turn our queer sexual pleasure into a linear narrative (possibly because of that “time travel” squiggle around hour three…). In a genre that relies to some extent on a predictable, comfortable formula that promises readers the emotional satisfaction of increasing emotional and sexual intimacy that culminates in the formation of a committed, found-family relationship, those squiggles don’t provide clear guidence for how to move your two female protagonists from first blush to final orgasm and/or family formation.
Reason 3: Challenging Toxic Masculinity
In a world where toxic masculinity runs rampant, f/m and m/m romance (fanfic or professionally published) is a space where feminist-minded women and nonbinary folks can explore what the world might be like if men, too, were allowed to be vulnerable and desired. In romance literature and fanfic romance, male partners feel a full range of emotions related to forming human relationships: desire, pleasure, anxiety, hurt, anger, fear, pride, caring … the list could go on and on. In order for a romance plot to work, the male protagonist(s) must be a character the reader can identify with as a human being whose humanity could be made more whole in relationship with his partner — and often in relationship with extended and found family too. Romance novels assert that men can be desiring and desired, and that their sexuality is not irrevocably shaped by expectations of dominance or violence. I think this reason is part of what Cat Sebastian was getting at in the interview excerpt above, where she observed that “seeing men as beings who are desired by other men is freeing.”
As Emma Lindsay observed a year ago, dating men can make women feel like shit in part because “society labels men creepy when they are open about their sexual feelings.” Yet in order for f/m or m/m romance narratives to work, male characters must be open about their sexual feelings. A three hundred page novel centered around a man and a woman, or a man and another man, falling in love and becoming sexually intimate requires interiority and emotional labor from both protagonists in order to give the readers stake in the happily-ever-after outcome. We need to care that they care. We need to be shown that they care. Or the emotional payoff of reading the novel simply isn’t there. And because of this genre requirement, we get three-dimensional human characters who wrestle with their humanity, wrestle with their desires, and wrestle with the cultural scripts they have been handed and emerge better human beings.
This is cathartic and hopeful reading, and writing, for people who yearn for a less toxic, less patriarchal world. And it’s an act of revisioning that f/f romances don’t tackle in such a direct way (although they also must reckon with toxic masculinity, as I point out below).
Reason 4: The Shadow of Male Violence
(Image: Still from the film Carol in which Carol and Therese are interrupted at breakfast by a private investigator posing as a salesman.)
For a number of reasons this year I’ve been thinking a lot about the spectre of male violence that haunts romance between women. I’m not sure if this is so much a reason that f/f stories are not created as it is an illustration of how deeply our patriarchal narratives of romance and sex require a male presence — so much so that when we try to write them out of the narrative they become violent. In the 2015 film Carol — an adaptation of the classic lesbian pulp The Price of Salt — the two women whose romance is the central narrative, Carol and Therese, escape Carol’s estranged husband and Therese’s (nominal) boyfriend by embarking upon a roadtrip from New York to Chicago. Carol’s husband, furious at his wife’s request for a divorce — and eager to collect evidence of her perversity as leverage in the custody dispute over their young daughter — sends a private investigator to tail them. In a striking violation of the couple’s private intimacies, he ultimately ends up making an audio recording of the couple’s first sexual encounter together.
There is something heady (for me, as a cis, bisexual woman) in the realization that you can opt out of the social expectation that you give a damn what men think of you: your body, your words, your desires, your life choices, your past, or your future. Men are powerful in our patriarchal society — granted, it is power that comes with caveats regarding race, class, sexual orientation, and all the rest — and girls grow up into women understanding that they will be scrutinized by men and that this scrutiny will matter. If you are a woman who desires men (and I have been that woman, in the past) the reality of navigating patriarchal power within the intimacies of your most intense and enduring adult relationship(s) can feel like an exhausting prospect. For women who also or instead desire women, it can be liberatory to realize that the male gaze no longer matters to you. It might constrain your choices in the wider world, but it is unable to touch you in the bedroom.
As I say, I experienced this as liberatory. Yet it is also dangerous. Since I have been paying attention to this spectre of male violence in the context of f/f romance I have seen it everywhere: In Cat Sebastian’s The Soldier’s Scoundrel the sister of one of the male protagonists, Charlotte, is trapped in an abusive marriage and escapes only when her lover, Anne, murders her husband. In Jordan Hawk’s Undertow a spurned male suitor not only attempts to murder Maggie’s ketoi lover Persephone but attempts genocide against Persephone’s entire species. Women are vulnerable under patriarchy whether or not they choose to have sex with men, and men who feel entitled to female attention can turn violent when they realize they have been written out of the plot. That’s an exhausting truth we live with daily, and it can be hard to read and write it in our escapist literature as well.
Reason 5: Follow the Money
Of course, at the end of the day, women — queer women, especially — do write and read f/f romance, and yearn for more. But as with any other lack of diversity in publishing, authors need editors and publishers convinced of a book’s marketability before they will give meaningful support to a project. This is why, I would argue, that we see f/f relationships written in to more and more m/m and f/m romance series as novellas or as secondary couples. Queer women — including myself — who write m/m relationships as the primary story arc will populate their world with secondary queer characters that feel authentic to our experiences. The m/m or f/m romance carries the narrative for all of the reasons outlined above, while the women-loving-women do so on the sidelines — often with the full support of their gay male or otherwise socially subversive protagonists.
Hopefully, in the not-to-distant future, we’ll see those relationships rotated with increasing regularity from the sidelines to center court. More and more frequently we are seeing f/f novels integrated into romance series with m/f and m/m pairings: Her Ebony by Maggie Chase (2017); Star Crossed by Emma Barry & Genevieve Turner (2017); and the forthcoming Last Couple in Hell by K. J. Charles (March 2018!) which I am dying to get my hands on.
Earlier this month I set up a Good Reads shelf on which I am collecting all of the f/f historical romances I come across. If you have a favorite f/f historical — or come across one in your reading life — please share! I dearly hope that one day there will be too many f/f romance novels published for me to keep up with the flood.