(Judith: The interview began with a reading of a Starsky and Hutch slash story, the kind where one of them confessed to the other that his long-term feelings of friendship have deepened into another kind of love. The transcript picks up shortly after this where the concept of slash in general is being explained to the listener - the tape being transcribed started at this point. I shoud add that the whole interview was done on the fly, Catherine didn't know in advance exactly what she was going to be asked, so if any explanations of hers are less than perfect, then that's why. Some points are a lot better explained in the book. Whether you agree with them or not is a separate matter <grin>, but do read the full argument before disagreeing too much.)
Interviewer: ... part of a screen pairing: Starsky-slash-Hutch, Kirk-slash-Spock, Skywalker-slash-Solo.
Slash fiction is examined in a new book on how evolution affects female sexuality, so-written by Catherine Salmon in the 'Darwinism Today' series.
So, Catherine, what is the appeal of slash fiction?
Catherine Salmon: Well, I think there are a lot of things that are appealing about it; for one thing, in a lot of ways it's like a regular romance novel - that's very appealing to women, it's a genre that's designed to appeal to women. And many of the things that are present in regular romance novels are present in slash; so that really the story is about two people coming to grips and finding this relationship together, finding their one true love. And it just happens that in the case of a slash story it's two men finding their one true love.
I: You see, to me, the absolute essence of a romance is boy-meets-girl!
CS: Sure, and I think that there are a couple of things in particular about slash that can make this particular type of relationship more appealing; not necessarily to all women, but certainly to a small group of women. And one of the big things, one of the main things about romance novels is that there is a conflict, something that separates the hero and the heroine of the story, and they have to get past that conflict. And their getting past that conflict proves their love for each other - that's part of the whole point.
I: Boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl.
CS: Exactly. And in slash the barriers that they have to get past to come to this mutual recognition of their love for each other are more intense than any that you could have in a heterosexual romance; because in the end, when you pick up the romance - it's, a man falls in love with a woman, you expect them to end up together. And nobody really thinks that the conflict is going to be insurmountable. But ins a slash, you have two heterosexual men who have been best friends for years, somehow coming to this realization that they love each other, and despite the fact that they are sexually attracted in general to women, they love each other so much that that is what becomes of the relationship, that it becomes sexual from that point. So that the angst factor in the story is much more intense in a slash story.
I: So what would be an example of that?
CS: Well, with Starsky and Hutch, for example, you've got a pairing where the men are typical heterosexual, aggressive guys - they're cops - and all of the barriers that society has against the love between men are barriers that they have to surmount to recognize their love and to consummate their love for each other. And so those barriers are very intense, and it makes the story much more powerful in that way. So often the writers will create devices like the life or death situation that was in that little quote that makes them realize how much they love each other.
I: But isn't the answer to all of this just for people to write stronger heroines who have a more evenly balanced relationship with the man?
CS: Well, that would be one thing that could happen, but I think that if there's one thing that - even if you have a real strong female character, like you could have the Mulder/Scully, X-Files type of situation where, in a sense, they are on a more equal footing, but I think one of the appeals with slash is that the relationship is based in the first place on their friendship and the interdependence that they share. That's not coloured by initial lust, so that when any man meets a woman and there's that initial sexual attraction, I think that women are always aware of the fact that one of the huge factors for men in the appeal of women in general is the physical attractiveness, and that they're attracted to their body before they're attracted to anything else about them, and that in slash stories, what's really the driving factor behind the relationship isn't, you know, that they've got the hots for their body, but that they've got the hots for the person inside. And that's going to survive regardless of what time does to the way you look. And I think that fantasy is extremely appealing for a lot of women.
I: And seriously appealing? This isn't tongue-in-cheek, this isn't just a bit of kitsch?
CS: Right, exactly! And it's appealing in the sense that there are a lot of women who do really like these stories, they read these stories preferentially over other sorts of romance novel.
I: Which is what really interested you as an evolutionary psychologist; because this story gets even more bizarre, because this fits into the theories of Darwinian psychology?
CS: It does, and it does in many ways. As far as Darwinian psychology goes, it's easy to explain differences between erotic material that's produced for men and that what's produced for women. So that for men you have this huge pornography industry where the main body of the material is all about sex and it's about lust and physical gratification, and not about relationships or finding your one true love, which is what the romance novel's all about. And it's easy to look at that from a Darwinian perspective, that for women one of the biggest concerns is finding a mate who will stay with you and remain faithful to you and help you raise your children. And that for males, while that's also a part of their psychology, that they choose a mate and they raise children with them, a little bit of action on the side doesn't have a really high cost for men. And in terms of passing their genes on to their children, it can have a benefit, so that a man might marry and raise children, but if he fathers one or two children outside of the relationship, he may do it at no cost, because some other man may be raising those children.
I: How does slash fiction fit into this?
CS: Well, I think slash fiction fits into it in an interesting way. Part of the reason for writing the book was that we were interested in trying to explain why women would be interested in slash fiction. And part of what we do in the book is we explain how so much slash is like romance. Because some people in culture studies who had done some work on slash had suggested that what's going on is that slash is pornography for women.
I: Because it's much more overtly erotic.
CS: It certainly is. And the descriptions of what goes on in terms of the sexual activities can be very explicit. And so in that sense that might seem on the surface to be a little bit more pornographic, but in fact slash is anything but that, because even romance has, at the very start of the relationship, its basis in a lust for the physical, and that's not present in slash at all, so in some ways slash is even more romantic than a romance novel.
I: Isn't it a very deterministic way of looking at relationships between men and women? I mean, haven't we, in the 21st century, in the era of birth control, aren't cultural norms more important than these biological imperatives?
CS: I think that some cultural norms do play a role and have an influence, but I think that you can't that easily turn away from millions of years of evolutionary history, and that just because something like birth control has become common in the last century doesn't mean that human psychological development and adaptation change that quickly.
I: But looking at ideas of beauty; years ago presumably in the Stone Ages, big women would have been regarded as particularly attractive because of fertility, yet now we have thin women as the ideal.
CS: Well, yes and no. So, there certainly is a more slender ideal of beauty, and that's in our culture; as well there's a lot of cultural variation in how attractive thin women are considered, and there are certainly lots of cultures where the preference isn't for as thin as in the UK and the United States and Canada. But what some people have shown, actually, in doing the research is that it's not so much the thinness or the fatness that is what's most consistent about our standards of attractiveness in for example the female shape, but that actually it's more to do with things like the ratio between your waist size and your hip size, which is very reflective of fertility. And, in fact, even though we like very thin women, we like very thin women that have a thin waist and still have hips. So that we don't want, really, boy-looking girls, we like them to still look like women.
I: Thanks very much, Catherine Salmon, fascinating stuff.
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Last updated on 20th of January 2002.