Fanfiction labels (specifically pairing labels)

Over the last few years, I have come to loathe the conventions clung to by fandoms, and especially those within fandoms that are interested in gay pairings, for denoting those pairings. Whose name comes first and what symbol goes between as an indicator of sexual dominance — and therefore, all too often, characterization — more often than not enrages me, and I not infrequently pass up reading fics whose introductions smack too heavily of unpleasant stereotypes as indicated thereby. Others have discussed this frequently and undoubtedly better, but I’m going to get into it anyway, pretty well just to get it off my chest.

The convention of expressing a pairing “[dominant partner] [penetrates] [submissive partner],” while carrying a somewhat bizarre specificity not likely to be applicable in a lot of cases, is not necessarily any better or worse than any other method of expressing a pairing… until writers start fitting the characters and the relationship to the naming convention rather than the other way around: without any reference to canon personalities, writing one half of the pairing as more forceful, decisive, dominant, and physically or emotionally strong; and the other as weaker-willed, needier, more vulnerable emotionally or physically, and more submissive — and then assuming that this personality dichotomy will manifest in a system of sexual dominance, usually represented by penetration.

To begin with, as far as the sex thing goes… well, I can only speak from personal experience and that of those I’ve talked to about sex, but as far as I can tell, whether or not you typically penetrate or are penetrated during sex is much more a matter of taste than balance of power in the relationship. Sure, if one partner has a more dominant or energetic personality than the other, it’s not unlikely that that person may direct the sexual encounters a lot of the time… but in my experience this usually leads to that person initiating the specific activities preferred by each, including penetration of and by whichever party enjoys it. (This is, obviously, completely ignoring the possibility of D/s and role-playing and so on, but that’s an entirely different kettle of fish.)

And I don’t want to sound like I think any of the above-mentioned characteristics of forcefulness, vulnerability, and so on are necessarily bad (or, if they are, or are taken to an extreme that makes them so, that the possession of some bad traits is a negative thing in a character), or even necessarily absent from the characters I write and read about. It’s when “[dominant partner] [penetrates] [submissive partner]” becomes the template for writing a relationship that it becomes a problem.

This isn’t just because not every set of characters you may want to write about will fit into this restrictive mold, and therefore attempting to force them into it is going to result in largely unrecognizable characters; it’s also because the dichotomy arises in many cases from a subconscious set of relationship gender stereotypes: according to age-old heteronormative patriarchal standards, the man in a relationship, who penetrates, is more forceful, decisive, dominant, and physically or emotionally strong; while the woman, who is penetrated, is weaker-willed, needier, more vulnerable emotionally or physically, and more submissive.

This is insulting to everyone in that it completely ignores individuality and essentially forces a set of traits that may or may not be accurate or desirable on people based solely on the arbitrary characteristic of an assigned gender identity that may not even be correct in the first place; but it’s especially harmful to women, since it relegates them to the position of the acted-upon, the direct object, the weaker party that has no control over her sexuality or her life.

I’m sure that not every writer of a gay pairing is subconsciously trying to force the characters into this setup — having one half of the pairing play “the man” and one play “the woman” even if both are women or both are men — but I do believe that it happens, and far more frequently than is terribly pleasant to think about… though perhaps a lot of the time simply because that’s what the writer has seen other writers do and therefore accepts it as an established custom not to be deviated from.

I’m aware that a certain set of bullshit from Japan plays a big role in this, because BL manga and the subculture that surrounds it is just steeped in these painful stereotypes. I used to buy yaoi manga and a lot of doujinshi about characters I liked, but so very, very little of it was free of these awful attitudes that I pretty well had to stop completely. Seeing one man drawn looking like a man and the other like a prepubescent girl… watching one partner consistently dominate the other emotionally, socially, and physically… and don’t even get me started on the rape, because that’s a discussion for another day. In any case, this type of publication with its stereotype perpetuation has led me to despise words like “yaoi,” “seme,” and “uke” even more than I hate character x character labeling, and led an entire subgroup of fanfiction authors into a slum.

This is where we get wildly out-of-character pairings where one party is exaggeratedly decisive and strong and the other is absurdly clingy and ineffectual, the relationship as a whole operates on an unhealthy and illogical power imbalance, and the two only ever engage in one specific type of sex that represents that imbalance and their juxtaposed strength and weakness. That’s what “[dominant partner] [penetrates] [submissive partner]” means to me. That’s why you won’t see me label my stories “Saitou x Sano” or “Heero x Duo” or any variation thereon.

I’m not trying to claim that these types of relationships cannot and do not exist, that characters that do fit the mold don’t exist, or that no one should ever write relationships with power imbalance. The latter can be extremely interesting to explore and to read about, and often occurs both in life and in fictional situations based on characters that fit the bill. What I don’t like is seeing that power imbalance, and the traits of the parties involved that lead to it, become such a fixed standard that characters cannot be written as anything remotely like themselves because they must be skewed and broken to fit.

Actually I’m all for the use of a character’s canon traits as a springboard for building a more complex character through story and setting, and this will always result in a character that differs, to varying degrees, from the canon. But extrapolating new characteristics based on those already known is not the same as arbitrarily assigning new characteristics based on some alien system of detrimental preconceived notions; it’s all the difference between driving from one location to another along a road connecting the two, and flying out to someplace completely unrelated possibly not even in the same town. Someplace sexist.

For my own personal satisfaction (i.e. to keep my blood pressure down), I’ve dropped x’s and slashes and name-order significance in pairing labeling, sticking to alphabetized names separated by an ampersand. The problem with this is that it knocks me right off the fanfiction radar, since nobody looking for (as a random example) romance between Saitou and Sano is going to search for “Saitou & Sano.” They’re going to search for “Saitou x Sano” or “Saitou/Sano.” (Or some variation based on poor romanization, but never mind that.) I have seventy-eight stories archived here that could be labeled “Saitou x Sano,” but whether anyone will ever find them again is a matter of question. But so, for the sake of my tranquility, must it be.

And let’s talk about Gundam Wing for a moment.

Aaargh, no, there is too much. Let me sum up.

The idea that “1×2” is a different thing from “2×1” makes me so angry I probably have steam coming out my ears right now just thinking about it. The idea that writers go out of their way to characterize these guys differently based on (or sometimes resulting in) who’s doing the penetrating during sex is just… I can’t find a better word than “disgusting,” really. And, no, “1x2x1” (or inverted) does not solve this problem; to me that reads like a half-assed attempt to placate fans of both skewed iterations of the pairing without doing away with the idea of power imbalance and characterization with sexual penetration foremost in mind.

In general, characterization that doesn’t precisely match what we see in canon doesn’t bother me, as I mentioned above… but characters written out of character in order to fit these relationship role stereotypes, whether deliberately or otherwise, make me want to scream.

On another, only tangentially related note, getting away from the rage for a moment, I really can’t stand fic headers that look like algebra problems. I am not insensible of the awesomeness of having characters associated with numbers, because then you can see them everywhere you go — and, based on the very labeling protocol I’ve been discussing throughout this post, some math then starts to look like specific pairing endorsements (see post from a few days back) — but I would never label a story that way.

I know it’s Gundam Wing fandom tradition, but is it really that difficult to type out characters’ names? Besides allusions to relationship role stereotypes and the use of the word “warning” in relation to homosexuality, very little in a header/label turns me off a story quicker than a string of numbers with a few random letters thrown in.

OK, that was a long and largely pointless rant. Manager just called and said I don’t need to come in today at all, which is absolutely fantastic since it means I can be productive now. So enough of this.

7 thoughts on “Fanfiction labels (specifically pairing labels)

  1. In general, I’d say I agree (even if I do follow GW convention and I guess that’s more because I wish to avoid stepping on other fans toes–odd, since I guess anyone who’d be reading whose opinion I’d care about wouldn’t care one way or the other). At least in the relationships I’m interested in seeing carried beyond their canon worlds, I couldn’t care less about who ‘tops’ who in the bedroom because it’s about more than that facet of the relationship and because it IS about more than that facet of the relationship, even that one aspect wouldn’t be set in stone.

    Writing fanfic might also be more about the author assuming a characters role rather than reverse…in such a case, the veneer is of X character, but the substance is really the author. The author’s voice, mode of thinking, etc. Sometimes, that might mesh with the original character and other times, it might deviate greatly.

    There is also, as you mentioned, the kind of author who is imitating the styles that have come before (I am guilty of this). I can only speak for myself, but the one story that I wrote that clung mightily to the established “Heero is the caregiver and Duo is the caretaker” is because I fancied me some extreme angst (I think Duo had been given a drug/alcohol cocktail and was suffering from the chemical combination and its adverse affects on a human system) and wanted to see Heero taking care of Duo. That sort of story was appealing to me at the time. I’d probably still read a story like that (I still love me some major angst) but I’d probably not put up with the kind of writing that includes epithets like “the braided one” or “precious bundle” to describe what’s going on in the scene.

    Of course, what flipped my 18 year old trigger isn’t the same as what flips my 31 year old trigger. I feel more invested in crafting a deeper story (and constantly worry that I’m not faithfully representing my favorite pairing in a believable fashion).

    As far as labels go…I guess I use it more to describe who either initiates the romance (which is easy to do when you have a get-together) or who is going to be penetrating whom in this particular story as opposed to dominating one person in general…at least as far as GW goes, though, I don’t care who tops sexually (though I love me some lemons) as long as the writing is reasonably good and the characterization is written above a tween level (provided it’s not a humor fic, I guess)

    1. You’re definitely right that some authors seem to be projecting themselves onto/into half of a pairing… and it sometimes even works. But I think, more often than not, it doesn’t XD Ah, well. I complain and complain, but I still love fanfiction :D

      1. Yeah, well, that’s MY big theory about GW fandom: Japanese fans intentionally/subconsciously put themselves in Heero’s shoes and American fans do that with Duo (and with US/Japanese gender roles’ generic shape and form, well, I’ve blogged about that before)

        But projecting yourself into a fictional character! Let me tell you (something else I’ve already blogged about, I’m sure)! My good friend Hikari on LJ (and RL, I have some of those friends, too!) found a comment about how authors of fiction should only write about what they have personally experienced themselves. And, to draw some sweepingly grand and stupid conclusions: there would be no fiction. But yeah, there’s a big difference between using your experineces and just writing Mary Sue, fo sho.

        1. Yeah, that “write what you know” bullshit has been floating around forever, and it’s too stupid even to be annoying anymore. I think it maybe possibly might have been a little bit reasonable long, long ago before research was convenient (or even possible) for the majority of people that might be inclined to write, but at this point it’s entirely outdated and absurd.

  2. I’ve known some people in GW fandom who were extremely specific about what they wanted to see as far as who penetrates and who is penetrated in lemon fic. If you label a 2×1 and it’s really a 1×2 (using the typical fandom designations), they go crazy. The same is true for some 1×2 fans. That’s why I try to use the labels on my site for lemon fic.

    I like seeing Heero pursue Duo. I don’t care if he penetrates or Duo does or they both just like oral sex. I enjoy a good lemon, but it’s the stuff before and after that makes me happiest. Heero realizing his feelings first and acting on them is one of the things that makes me happiest in the fandom (because it’s more rare).

    The funny thing is that when I talk about the pairings in my LJ, I usually do write the names out. I only use 1×2 and 3×4 when space is an issue.

    1. It’s funny how the majority of a fandom is willing to label a fic (essentially) “this one character is dominant and this other one is submissive and they’re both totally out of character” because that’s what some people specifically want to read, but a comparatively small percentage of fan authors will apply labels for things like “Heero realizes his feelings first and pursues Duo and it’s all totally rational” XD Buuut, what can you do?

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