SLASH AND BURN
Teen girls want their boy-band heartthrobs to settle down—with each other.
Tomorrow Magazine // Nov. 2012
Cassady Ranford is the most prolific romance author you’ve never heard of. On a typical day, the 19-year-old churns out a 2,000-word love story in one hour. All of these words are about the band One Direction—five singing, emoting teen idols plucked from the British X Factor reject pile, assembled into boy band formation, then sorted by type to fulfill any permutation of teen girl fantasy. There is Liam Payne, the deep-voiced shy guy; Zayn Malik, the vaguely ethnic bad boy; Louis Tomlinson, the jokester; Harry Styles, the flirt; and Niall Horan. He’s blond.
This is reality TV, so the band’s fan base was pre-assembled, too. From the moment the boys were slicked with pomade and pushed onto the X Factor stage—in an inspired move, their debut performance was a cover of Natalie Imbruglia’s feminine break-up anthem “Torn”—shrieks from the crowd practically formed a part of the harmony. When the band (all between the ages of 18 and 20) released the music video for the poppy jaunt “One Thing” this January, a rabid female reception was built into the video’s narrative. In it, a throng of young girls coalesces around the fivesome like moths to the light. A typical fangirl hops behind a heart-emblazoned “1D” poster, her braces jutting from her open maw, her lips coalescing into an extended “woooo.”
Girls like that may be what record industry dreams are made of, but they rarely appear in Cassady’s work. In fact, women don’t factor into her fantasies about these boys at all. While other girls are busy imagining themselves soul-bonding with Justin Bieber in the tropics, Cassady isn’t writing herself into the One Direction audience, waiting for Zayn to pull her to his suspender-strapped chest. All she wants is to see the boys settle down and get married. To each other.
A typical scene:“Louis Tomlinson, will you marry me?” Harry asked slowly, pulling out the box and showing Louis the gold band with the music note inscripted on the inside. The melody filled Louis’s ear entirely and he answered the question the only way he could. By saying “yes.”
Women have been “slashing” pop culture’s male heartthrobs—turning them gay—since Kirk and Spock first forged their spandexed intergalactic bromance. Slash fandoms have coalesced around imagined relationships, or “ships,” between men of every conceivable background, real or fictional. When The Lord of the Rings hit theaters, “DomElijah” shippers spun a romance between hobbit actors Dominic Monaghan and Elijah Wood. Sonic the Hedgehog has been slashed. A few dedicated fans are still LiveJournaling gay trysts between members of the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC. In one, “Justin [Timberlake]’s got a hand between Brian [Littrell]’s thighs, feeling the coarse hairs there, rubbing the softer inner flesh.”
But never before has the straight girl’s queer imagination so totally disrupted the intended purpose of the men marketed to her: Five straight boys designed to appeal to straight girls, heterosexually. Now, the fantasies of girls like Cassady are threatening to redefine the teeny-bopper sexual dynamic forever, one chapter at a time.
Cassady’s romantic interests were not always this gay. “I first got into shipping because my friends and I were writing fan fiction that shipped us with our favorite celebrities,” Cassady tells me. Then, in the 9th grade, she found “Drarry,” an online fandom around the imagined relationship between frenemies Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy. She lurked on slash forums for years until she worked up the courage to start pairing boys on her own: “I just sort of went for it,” she says. She believes that “falling in love with someone you can call your best friend” is “dead romantic.”
Cassady’s been slashing and shipping 1D from her Vancouver bedroom for nine months now. So far, she’s logged 25 “one-shot short stories,” a series of fictional postcards between Harry and Louis, and 12 ongoing sagas that stretch 20 to 30 chapters each. She posts them all to “Darbygirl30fanfic,” a Tumblr named after her dead dog, under the motto “Ship Everything and Regret Nothing.”
Her tales whisk the boys out of the typical boy-band frame and into a boarding school locker room, a cupcake bakery, or the plot of the film We Bought a Zoo. She makes one of the boys a murderer who kills to conceal his dark secret. She offs another via freak brain aneurysm. In “Weightless,” her opus, she grants the boys superhuman powers—telekinesis, invisibility—that function as allegories for their forbidden love. The details change, but the gay stays the same.
Cassady’s not dreaming alone. When I logged onto her blog one recent Friday, a dozen others were reading, too. Collectively, her fans have returned to her stories more than 600,000 times. They file comments like “That story made me cry. I just love you so much, okay?” and “YOU HAVE CRAZY EYEBROWS I LOVE THEM” and “I can’t picture them as werewolves, but… .” Cassady and other online fans refer to their gay pairings in Brangelina-style shorthand. Zayn and Niall are known as “Ziall,” Niall and Liam become “Niam,” and Louis and Harry are just “Larry.”
Thanks to the pair’s close friendship and European approach to man-on-man PDA, Larry has emerged as the band’s sturdiest ship—a fantasy vessel so formidable its fans refer to it as the “S.S. Stylingson.” Larry has sailed into the homoerotic daydreams of so many straight girls that the obsession has reached conspiracy-theory levels. Cassady is content to keep her fantasies in the fandom, but others insist on the real-life legitimacy of Larry. One fan compiled footage of Harry and Louis’ every tender touch and homo-ambiguous comment into a 15-minute YouTube video known as “The Larry Bible.” Its begins with an image of a longing gaze between the boys, etched into a heart shape on a beach, the waves lapping at their faces.
Not all 1D fans are on board. While ‘90s boy band fans split their allegiances between the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC, One Direction’s is a single fandom divided. In YouTube comments and on rival Tumblrs, “Larry” shippers face off against “Elounor” believers—fans who support the hetero romance between Louis and university student Eleanor Calder, his real-life girlfriend (or his beard, depending on which team you’re on). “If Elounor is real love I’d rather poke my eyes out with hedgehog spines and strangle myself with my own intestines,” one Larry shipper shot at an Elounor supporter. “I’d rather be alone forever.”
The fan fantasy has even begun chipping away at the band’s lacquered exterior. “This is a subject that was funny at first, but now is actually hard to deal with as I am in relationship,” Louis said in July. “Me and Harry are best friends, people look into our every move, it is actually affecting the way me and Harry are in public.” But statements like that only fuel the fantasy that theirs is a forbidden, unspeakable love. All denials are actually finely-calibrated statements handed down from “The Management,” a shadowy force some fans believe is suppressing gay love to sell records. They will attack any evidence to the contrary, no matter the source. Once, Louis’ mother tweeted about her son’s “lovely” girlfriend. “Shut the fuck up,” a Larry fan shot back. “Stay out of this.”
The boys have reason to be upset. They’ve worked hard to appeal to teen girls, and gay-marrying each other was never a part of the deal. The band’s public story has always revolved around the standard romantic tropes of teen pop. “You’re insecure,” the boys inform their female audience in the first line of the first track of their debut album, before reversing the proposition—“Don’t know what for! You’re turning heads when you walk through the door.” That song, “What Makes You Beautiful,” presents the typical tale of the shy girl plucked from obscurity by the popular guy. Even Louis’ off-stage romantic life conforms to that narrative—he’s said to have met Eleanor, then working at Hollister, on a blind date.
The puppetmaster behind Louis’ relationship may be a fictional construction, but the engineer responsible for “What Makes You Beautiful” is not. The song was crafted by a pair of 30-something Swedish dudes, and if the track sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Songwriter Carl Falk admits cribbing several 1D songs from a decades-old boy-band mold. “We had a vision of going back to the ‘90s.” Falk told an interviewer. He’s lucky that for the teenybopping demographic, the bar is low. “If you look at the One Direction fans who are between 10 and 14 years old, they haven’t grown up listening to music that I did when I was growing up”—like Backstreet and *NSYNC. He started riffing on “that sound from 1999.” It “didn’t take long.”
“I Want It That Way” and “Bye Bye Bye” didn’t just lend One Direction a sound. They provided a perspective on women, too: as either untouchable one-true-loves or manipulative bitches. Pop engineers like Falk have just recycled these tropes and unleashed them upon a new generation. In “Gotta Be You,” One Direction’s love interest is vaulted onto a virginal pedestal (“Girl, what a mess I made upon your innocence,” the boys sing). In the gold-digger anthem “I Want,” the boys peer into the female brain and “find lots of things—clothes, shoes, diamond rings, stuff that’s driving me insane.”
This is the sexuality of young women, as authored by the middle-aged. And The Management is not the only one selling girls an outdated vision of themselves. Also guilty is that other British export targeting women’s loins: E.L. James’ BDSM romance 50 Shades of Grey, itself an elaborate fan fiction off the Twilight franchise. 50 Shades may be inspired by a supernatural teen romance, but it is “mommy porn,” a fantasy for overworked alpha-mothers. “Once you’re in charge of your job, your house, your children, getting the food on the table … it’d be nice for someone else to be in charge,” E.L. James told The Today Show of the book’s male-dominant dynamics. “You want someone who does the dishes.”
James wrote the book to work through her “midlife crisis,” but the female protagonist on whom she’s projected her issues is 21-year-old Anastasia Steele. She is not “in charge” of anything. She can’t walk through a doorway without falling on her face. By college graduation, Steele has never had sex or even masturbated. She appears not to understand where her vagina is located (she registers her first-ever orgasmic pangs “deep in my belly”). And when her sadomasochistic love interest, 27-year-old helicopter-piloting adopted billionaire Christian Grey, signs her up as his submissive sex slave, it makes sense—this woman does need someone to tell her what to do.
Steele is a 21-year-old woman invented by a 40-something woman obsessed with a 30-something woman’s characterization of a 17-year-old girl, and Cassady isn’t buying it. 50 Shades “makes it seem like all fan fiction is written by people who have crazy sex fantasies they can’t fulfill, so instead write it within the confines of their bedrooms,” she says. “I think it’s ridiculous.”
No wonder girls like Cassady are eager to write themselves out of this story. You can set a pop hook on permanent repeat, but gender roles change, and the sexual landscape has shifted dramatically since Justin Timberlake first debuted his frosted-tipped fro. Gay marriage is now legal in six states and Washington, D.C. Same-sex experimentation is a tween rite of passage. Girls are outperforming boys academically all the way through college. Experimenting with friends has emerged as the middle ground between one-night stands and all-consuming romances. The false dichotomies of those traditional romantic structures—straight or gay, friend zone or marriage track, sex or love, masculine or feminine—are crumbling.
And the rise of the hookup—though dismissed by some as the downfall of teen girls—has actually given young people a more compelling romantic script. This one looks less like a power struggle and more like a collaboration. While girls and boys are arguing in class and getting high in their dorms, they’re laying the foundation of a more gender-equitable relationship than one built on an appropriate number of dinner dates before sexual contact. That tired dynamic is about as compatible with the desires of today’s young women as Brian Littrell’s strawberry blond soul patch.
Until top 40 catches up, girls like Cassady will keep slashing it down. With few strong female characters represented in books and movies and One Direction songs, romance between two male friends gives girls the opportunity to explore a relationship based on equality and respect. The boys fuel the fantasy when they step out looking “very comfortable with themselves,” Cassady says. She loves that they’re “so close.”
More to the point: “If guys can get turned on by two girls making out, why can’t it be the same for girls watching two guys?” Cassady asks me. Slash opens the door for girls to experience love and sex in ways that previously only boys have been allowed—as a free and fun experiment, no judgment.
On her blog, Cassady posts her own covers of One Direction tracks. Staring into the eye of her webcam, she sings them over a karaoke track, shifting each pronoun to position herself as the song’s protagonist. It can be romantic and hot to construct a world around these boys, sure, but it’s also just fun to construct a world. “Some of us look beyond the fact that it is about One Direction being gay for one another, and actually look at the quality of writing,” Cassady says. Men may write and sing the songs, but girls captain the ship.
On Sept. 16, Louis Tomlinson cracked. “Funny that no matter what happens they will never deny larry,” a 1D fan tweeted to her circle of shippers. “Hows this,” Louis blasted back to 5.9 million followers. “Larry is the biggest load of bullshit I’ve ever heard. I’m happy why can’t you accept that.” The shipper was soon buried under thousands of replies, some threatening death: “slit your wrists bitch”; “you’re worthless”; “stop breathing.”
Cassady took to her blog to assess the situation. “What is going on with the larry shippers right now?” she posted, opening the thread. “Louis tweeted that Larry was bullshit,” a fan replied. “I think it was Management.” In the days that followed, the shipper community grappled with the fallout. Many lashed out at Louis. Some talked shit about his mom. One girl took to YouTube to register support for fellow shippers. “Right on. We got this. We have the ship that will never sink,” she told them. She had a message for The Management, too: “You can’t sue me for believing in a relationship. No matter how fake it is.”
For most of these girls, shipping isn’t about proving Larry real. The Management may never be exposed. Larry may never elope. It’s not about them, anyway. “The fact that I am a 19-year-old girl writing slash fan fiction doesn’t mean I’m crazy,” Cassady tells me. “I think of the boys as characters when I write them, not real people.” In her opinion, “slash needs to stay within the fandom.” Projecting it onto the real band members “takes the fun away.”
No matter what happens with Louis and Harry, “I’ve met some amazing people,” Cassady says. They “see the world in the same way,” whether they’re engaging in “very analytical” shipping discussions or just chatting about “life in general.” They convene to talk about writing and self-harm and the new season of the X Factor, and boys. “It’s a great balance between celebrating the fandom and actual friendship,” she says. All the bizarre attention may have convinced the boys of One Direction to tone down the onstage PDA. But online, these girls’ stories are growing stronger every day.
“LOL ALL THIS DRAMA IS GOING ON AND PEOPLE ARE FREAKING OUT,” one anonymous fan wrote on Cassady’s blog. “SO I’M JUST GOING [TO] SIT HERE AND STAY DRAMA-FREE AND JUST SHIP WHAT I WANT TO SHIP AND JUST READ THE FANFICS BECAUSE IT’S THE INTERNET AND I CAN. LALALALALALA.”