I’ve been watching Sherlock recently and, as you’d imagine, this has led me to start reading the stories. I’m only on The Sign of the Four, so I’ve still got a ways to go; but then, this post isn’t really about Sherlock Holmes specifically so much as the relationships between the characters in the TV series served as a jumping-off point for what I want to talk about here.
Browse any fanfic site, and you’ll find the Sherlock/Watson pairing is far more popular than Watson/Mary. And in the new TV series, set in the present day and therefore freer to explore topics of sexual orientation, many characters are convinced there’s something going on between Sherlock and Watson. Mary doesn’t appear until two-thirds of the way through the series (there are three ‘seasons’ – called ‘series’ in British TV – each of 3 90-minute episodes, and Mary first appears at the start of series 3) and, while she’s likeable enough and I can even see why she and Watson make a good couple, their relationship just doesn’t have the same pull as that between Sherlock and Watson.
Perhaps it would have been different if she had been introduced earlier. However, I don’t think that would have made much difference (for a start, she’s introduced in the second published story), because the stories are fundamentally about the relationship between Sherlock and Watson, and any love interest for either of them – or, indeed, any platonic relationship – takes a backseat to their relationship with one another. As a consequence, it is far easier for fans to imagine a deeper relationship between Sherlock and John than between one of them and a character with less prevalence.
Sherlock and Watson, however, are not the only apparently straight characters about whom fans like to write slashfic. Kirk and Spock is perhaps the original example, though Sam and Frodo are a well-loved pairing, too. What all these examples have in common is not just the platonic closeness the author shows between these two characters, but also a general imbalance between the genders. When there is an average of one named female character per volume, again, chances are the relationships that hold emotional sway over the audience are going to be between two men.
There’s another reason, however, that I think these same-sex relationships tend to be so popular in fanfiction, and that’s because it’s so often the only place LGBT teens can find same-sex relationships. I’ve been reading Shadowhunters and Downworlders, a collection of essays about Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments, and Sara Ryan’s essay, ‘The Importance of Being Malec’, discusses the significance of a canon relationship between two male characters, Magnus and Alec. She talks about the difference between mirrors and windows, the former being stories (or characters) with whom the reader shares similarities and can relate, and the latter being those that open the reader’s eyes to things and people that are new. Most significantly, she points out that in the first decade of the 21st century, only 0.2% of YA books featured LGBT characters.* If LGBT teens can’t find mirrors in published fiction, they can, at least, turn to fanfiction to find same-sex couples.
Ironically, then, it seems to me that it’s a lack of diversity amongst casts in canon works that encourages so much slashfic; female characters are too minor to hold their own amongst the more significant male ones, and LGBT characters are so absent that fanfic writers modify the orientation of straight characters. I don’t think this is a bad thing, because providing LGBT teens with more mirrors, when there are so few of them, is a good thing, but I do think it speaks to a dearth of diversity in the first place.
*Ryan, Sara, ‘The Importance of Being Malec,’ in Cassandra Clare, Shadowhunters and Downworlders, BenBella Books, Inc.: Dallas, 2013, pp. 107-108.