ManLove: From the Black Market to the Red Carpet

Dolls of Kirk and Spock Sitting in Front of Campfire

The increasing popularity of e-books—especially erotic romance e-books—hopefully prefigures an extended period of audience growth and mainstream exposure for the erotic romance genre.  In another positive trend, the culture as a whole, from the political arena to the film and television industries, is progressing toward an environment of greater acceptance of M/M relationships. These two factors in tandem—a growing market with an appetite for M/M romance—should be music to the ears of ManLove authors and readers. With any luck, it might soon be difficult to imagine a time when M/M stories were passed between underground fan communities as unauthorized “zines” with hand-drawn images. But that’s where the story of M/M fiction begins—specifically, right between those two Ms.

By the late 1970s, the original run of Gene Roddenberry’s influential and beloved Star Trek series was ten years old and entrenched as a reliable rerun in most network schedules. For the show’s passionate fan base, however, the story was far from over. They began to publish their own fan fiction, expanding the show’s plot or developing entirely original plots that starred the characters of Star Trek. Some of the most popular fan fiction that began to emerge was romantic in nature and featured the show’s two male leads, Captain James Kirk (played by a young William Shatner) and Commander Spock (Leonard Nimoy), his second-in-command. Because there was already a large amount of “Kirk & Spock” fan fiction that depicted their relationship as strictly platonic, the explicitly romantic fiction came to be referred to as “Kirk/Spock,” “K/S,” or, simply, “slash” fiction. As this new genre spilled over into other fan communities (Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series and Starsky & Hutch, to name two), “slashing” relationships in mainstream media became commonplace in fan fiction. It is in these early slash communities that we see the origins of the term “M/M fiction” and the use of the slash to indicate romantic pairings in modern erotic novels.

In the first few years of slash fiction, fan zines circulated via mail and were published on a very limited basis. The author and fan communities are believed to have been largely female. In fact, the popularity of slash fiction is typically attributed to the lack of well-developed female and gay characters in the canonical versions of these stories as well as the creativity and passion on display in the slash versions.

Gradually, though, film and television began to improve on this front. The 1970 film The Boys in the Band, directed by William Friedkin and based on an Off-Broadway play of the same name, was one of the first films in American cinema to primarily focus on gay characters. Although this aspect of the film was seen by many at the time as a step forward for the representation of gay men in the culture at large, the film received some criticism on the grounds that all of its gay characters were riddled with self-loathing and shame. Indeed, for much of the 1970s and 1980s, homosexuality was not commonly portrayed in American cinema, and when it was, it was depicted as a sometimes perverse, sometimes positive, always scandalous curiosity rather than a viable lifestyle. A turning point in this trend came in the early 1990s, with the development of a movement known as New Queer Cinema on the independent film circuit. Small-budget films like Uli Edel’s Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989), Todd Haynes’s Poison (1991), and Gregg Araki’s Totally Fucked Up (1993) presented gay characters that often rejected the norms of society, preferring instead to embrace radical lifestyles and live as outlaws or fugitives from the dominant culture. At the same time, the release of major Hollywood movies like Philadelphia (1993) and The Birdcage (1996) heralded an age in which major movie studios were increasingly willing to fund films with LGBT issues situated prominently in their narratives. Since the turn of the century, this pattern has continued, with major releases like Far From Heaven (2002), Brokeback Mountain (2005), and Milk (2008) commanding greater attention in the media and at the box office.

Television, perhaps due to its reputation as a fixture in every American home, took longer to catch up. Although television shows approached gay issues in very special episodes or brief season arcs throughout the ’70s and ’80s, it wasn’t until the late ’90s that a television series exclusively featured gay main characters. Queer as Folk (1999-2000) began as a groundbreaking series in the UK, where its two seasons chronicled the lives of three gay men living in Manchester. The American remake (2000-2005), which followed the lives of five gay men living in Pittsburgh, was a massive hit for its network, Showtime. Unconstrained by the content limitations placed on basic cable programs, Queer as Folk was able to show its characters actually having sex and discussing their sex lives in explicit detail. Since Queer as Folk, numerous programs with prominent gay characters have debuted, including Glee and Modern Family, both of which currently air on major television networks.

It seems that the original renegade group of K/S authors can take comfort in the fact that realistic, positive M/M relationships have begun to filter—gradually, almost imperceptibly at times— into the mainstream media from which they were once glaringly absent. As erotic fiction continues to command a larger share of the e-books market (and as ManLove continues to claim a larger portion of the erotic fiction market), this overall trend toward greater acceptance of M/M romance can only be seen as a boon to authors and readers of the genre.

By Jim Stansel, Staff Contributor


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