Slash Manips: Remixing Popular Media with Gay Pornography




fan studies, slash, slash manips

How to Cite

Brennan, J. (2013). Slash Manips: Remixing Popular Media with Gay Pornography. M/C Journal, 16(4).
Vol. 16 No. 4 (2013): remix
Published 2013-08-11

A slash manip is a photo remix that montages visual signs from popular media with those from gay pornography, creating a new cultural artefact. Slash (see Russ) is a fannish practice that homoeroticises the bonds between male media characters and personalities—female pairings are categorised separately as ‘femslash’. Slash has been defined almost exclusively as a female practice. While fandom is indeed “women-centred” (Bury 2), such definitions have a tendency to exclude male contributions. 

Remix has been well acknowledged in discussions on slash, most notably video remix in relation to slash vids (Kreisinger). Non-written slash forms such as slash vids (see Russo) and slash fanart (see Dennis) have received increased attention in recent years. This article continues the tradition of moving beyond fiction by considering the non-written form of slash manips, yet to receive sustained scholarly attention. Speaking as a practitioner—my slash manips can be found here—I perform textual analysis from an aca–fan (academic and fan) position of two Merlin slash manips by male Tumblr artist wandsinhand.

My textual analysis is influenced by Barthes’s use of image semiotics, which he applies to the advertising image. Barthes notes that “all images are polysemous”, that underlying their signifiers they imply “a ‘floating chain’ of signifieds, the reader able to choose some and ignore others” (274). That said, the advertising image, he argues, constructs an “undoubtedly intentional […] signification”, making it ideally suited for analysis (270). By supplementing my analysis with excerpts from two interviews I conducted with wandsinhand in February and April 2013 (quoted here with permission), I support my readings with respect to the artist’s stated ‘intentional reading’. I then contextualise these readings with respect to canon (Merlin) representations and gay pornography—via the chosen sexual acts/positions, bukkake and doggystyle, of the pornographic base models, as selected by the artist. This approach allows me to examine the photo remix qualities of slash manips with respect to the artist’s intentions as well as how artistic choices of inclusion function to anchor meaning in the works. I describe these choices as the ‘semiotic significance of selection’. 

Together the readings and interviews in this article help illustrate the value of this form and the new avenues it opens for slash scholars, such as consideration of photo remix and male production, and the importance of gay pornography to slash. My interviews also reveal, via the artist’s own assessment of the ‘value’ of his practice, a tendency to devalue or overlook the significance of this particular slash form, affirming a real need for further critical engagement with this under-examined practice.

Slash Photo Remix: Famous Faces, Porny Bodies

Lessig defines remix culture as based on an activity of “rip, mix and burn” (12–5); while Navas describes it as a “practice of cut/copy and paste” (159)—the latter being more applicable to photo remix. Whereas Lessig is concerned primarily with issues of copyright, Navas is interested in remix’s role in aesthetics and the political economy.

Within fan studies, slash vids—a form of video remix—has been a topic of considerable academic interest in recent years. Slash manips—a form of photo or image remix—however, has not attracted the same degree of interest. Stasi’s description of slash as “a non-hierarchical, rich layering of genres” points to the usefulness of slash manips as an embodiment of the process of slash; whereby artists combine, blend and mutate graphic layers from popular media with those from gay pornography. Aesthetics and the slash manip process are central concerns of this article’s consideration of slash photo remix.

Slash manips, or slash photo montage, use image manipulation software (Adobe Photoshop being the community standard, see wandsinhand’s tutorial) to layer the heads of male fictional characters from stills or promotional images with scenes—static or moving—from gay pornography. Once an artist has selected pornographic ‘base models’ anatomically suited to canon characters, these models are often then repositioned into the canon universe, which in the case of Merlin means a medieval setting. (Works not repositioned and without added details from canon are generally categorised as ‘male celebrity fakes’ rather than ‘slash manips’.) 

Stedman contends that while many fan studies scholars are interested in remix, “studies commonly focus on examples of remixed objects rather than the compositional strategies used by remix composers themselves” (107). He advocates moving beyond an exclusive consideration of “text-centred approaches” to also consider “practice-” and “composer-centred” approaches. Such approaches offer insight into “the detailed choices composers actually make when composing” (107). He refers to recognition of the skills required by a remix composer as “remix literacy” (108). This article’s consideration of the various choices and skills that go into the composition of slash manips—what I term the ‘semiotic significance of selection’—is explored with respect to wandsinhand’s practice, coupling my reading—informed by my experience as a practitioner—with the interpretations of the artist himself. 

Jenkins defines slash as “reaction against” constructions of male sexuality in both popular media and pornography (189). By their very nature, slash manips also make clear the oft-overlooked connections between slash and gay pornography, and in turn the contributions of gay male participants, who are well represented by the form. This contrasts with a tendency within scholarship to compare slash with heterosexual female forms, such as the romance genre (Salmon and Symons). Gay pornography plays a visible role in slash manips—and slash vids, which often remix scenes from popular media with gay cinema and pornography.

Slash as Romance, Slash as Pornography

Early scholarship on slash (see Russ; Lamb and Veith) defines it as a form of erotica or pornography, by and for women; a reductive definition that fails to take into account men’s contribution, yet one that many researchers continue to adopt today. As stated above, there has also been a tendency within scholarship to align the practice with heterosexual female forms such as the romance genre. Such a tendency is by and large due to theorisation of slash as heterosexual female fantasy—and concerned primarily with romance and intimacy rather than sex (see Woledge). Weinstein describes slash as more a “fascination with” than a “representation of” homosexual relationships (615); while MacDonald makes the point that homosexuality is not a major political motivator for slash (28–9).

There is no refuting that slash—along with most fannish practice—is female dominated, ethnographic work and fandom surveys reveal that is the case. However there is great need for research into male production of slash, particularly how such practices might challenge reigning definitions and assumptions of the practice. In similar Japanese practices, for example, gay male opposition to girls’ comics (shōjo) depicting love between ‘pretty boys’ (bishōunen) has been well documented (see Hori)—Men’s Love (or bara) is a subgenre of Boys’ Love (or shōnen’ai) predominately created by gay men seeking a greater connection with the lived reality of gay life (Lunsing).

Dennis finds male slash fanart producers more committed to muscular representations and depiction of graphic male/male sex when compared with female-identifying artists (14, 16). He also observes that male fanart artists have a tendency of “valuing same-sex desire without a heterosexual default and placing it within the context of realistic gay relationships” (11). I have observed similar differences between male and female-identifying slash manip artists. Female-identifying Nicci Mac, for example, will often add trousers to her donor bodies, recoding them for a more romantic context. By contrast, male-identifying mythagowood is known for digitally enlarging the penises and rectums of his base models, exaggerating his work’s connection to the pornographic and the macabre. Consider, for example, mythagowood’s rationale for digitally enlarging and importing ‘lips’ for Sam’s (Supernatural) rectum in his work Ass-milk: 2012, which marks the third anniversary of the original:

Originally I wasn’t going to give Sammy’s cunt any treatment (before I determined the theme) but when assmilk became the theme I had to go find a good set of lips to slap on him and I figured, it’s been three years, his hole is going to be MUCH bigger. (personal correspondence, used with permission)

While mythagowood himself cautions against gendered romance/pornography slash arguments—“I find it annoying that people attribute certain specific aspects of my work to something ‘only a man’ would make.” (ibid.)—gay pornography occupies an important place in the lives of gay men as a means for entertainment, community engagement and identity-construction (see McKee). As one of the only cultural representations available to gay men, Fejes argues that gay pornography plays a crucial role in defining gay male desire and identity. This is confirmed by an Internet survey conducted by Duggan and McCreary that finds 98% of gay participants reporting exposure to pornographic material in the 30-day period prior to the survey. Further, the underground nature of gay pornographic film (see Dyer) aligns it with slash as a subcultural practice. I now analyse two Merlin slash manips with respect to the sexual positions of the pornographic base models, illustrating how gay pornography genres and ideologies referenced through these works enforce their intended meaning, as defined by the artist.

A sexual act such as bukkake, as wandsinhand astutely notes, acts as a universal sign and “automatically generates a narrative for the image without anything really needing to be detailed”. Barthes argues that such a “relation between thing signified and image signifying in analogical representation” is unlike language, which has a much more ‘arbitrary’ relationship between signifier and signified (272).

Bukkake and the Assertion of Masculine Power in Merlin

Merlin (2008–12) is a BBC reimagining of the Arthurian legend that focuses on the coming-of-age of Arthur and his close bond with his manservant Merlin, who keeps his magical identity secret until Arthur’s final stand in the iconic Battle of Camlann. The homosexual potential of Merlin and Arthur’s story—and of magic as a metaphor for homosexuality—is something slash fans were quick to recognise. During question time at the first Merlin cast appearance at the London MCM Expo in October 2008—just one month after the show’s pilot first aired—a fan asked Morgan and James, who portray Merlin and Arthur, is Merlin “meant to be a love story between Arthur and Merlin?” James nods in jest.

Wandsinhand, who is most active in the Teen Wolf (2011–present) fandom, has produced two Merlin slash manips to date, a 2013 Merlin/Arthur and a 2012 Arthur/Percival, both untitled. The Merlin/Arthur manip (see Figure 1) depicts Merlin bound and on his knees, Arthur ejaculating across his face and on his chest. Merlin is naked while Arthur is partially clothed in chainmail and armour. They are both bruised and dirty, Arthur’s injuries suggesting battle given his overall appearance, while Merlin’s suggesting abuse, given his subordinate position. The setting appears to be the royal stables, where we know Merlin spends much of his time mucking out Arthur’s horses. I am left to wonder if perhaps Merlin did not carry out this duty to Arthur’s satisfaction, and is now being punished for it; or if Arthur has returned from battle in need of sexual gratification and the endorsement of power that comes from debasing his manservant. 

Figure 1: wandsinhand, Untitled (Merlin/Arthur), 2013, photo montage. Courtesy the artist.

Both readings are supported by Arthur’s ‘spent’ expression of disinterest or mild curiosity, while Merlin’s face emotes pain: crying and squinting through the semen obscuring his vision. The artist confirms this reading in our interview: “Arthur is using his pet Merlin to relieve some stress; Merlin of course not being too pleased about the aftermath, but obedient all the same.” The noun ‘pet’ evokes the sexual connotations of Merlin’s role as Arthur’s personal manservant, while also demoting Merlin even further than usual. He is, in Arthur’s eyes, less than human, a sexual plaything to use and abuse at will. 

The artist’s statement also confirms that Arthur is acting against Merlin’s will. Violence is certainly represented here, the base models having been ‘marked up’ to depict sexualisation of an already physically and emotionally abusive relationship, their relative positioning and the importation of semen heightening the humiliation.

Wandsinhand’s work engages characters in sadomasochistic play, with semen and urine frequently employed to degrade and arouse—“peen wolf”, a reference to watersports, is used within his Teen Wolf practice. The two wandsinhand works analysed in this present article come without words, thus lacking a “linguistic message” (Barthes 273–6). However even so, the artist’s statement and Arthur’s stance over “his pet Merlin” mean we are still able to “skim off” (270) the meanings the image contains. The base models, for example, invite comparison with the ‘gay bukkake’ genre of gay pornography—admittedly with a single dominant male rather than a group.

Gay bukkake has become a popular niche in North American gay pornography—it originated in Japan as a male–female act in the 1980s. It describes a ritualistic sexual act where a group of dominant men—often identifying as heterosexual—fuck and debase a homosexual, submissive male, commonly bareback (Durkin et al. 600).

The aggression on display in this act—much like the homosocial insistency of men who partake in a ‘circle jerk’ (Mosher 318)—enables the participating men to affirm their masculinity and dominance by degrading the gay male, who is there to service (often on his knees) and receive—in any orifice of the group’s choosing—the men’s semen, and often urine as well. The equivalencies I have made here are based on the ‘performance’ of the bukkake fantasy in gay niche hazing and gay-for-pay pornography genres. These genres are fuelled by antigay sentiment, aggression and debasement of effeminate males (see Kendall).

I wish here to resist the temptation of labelling the acts described above as deviant. As is a common problem with anti-pornography arguments, to attempt to fix a practice such as bukkake as deviant and abject—by, for example, equating it to rape (Franklin 24)—is to negate a much more complex consideration of distinctions and ambiguities between force and consent; lived and fantasy; where pleasure is, where it is performed and where it is taken.

I extend this desire not to label the manip in question, which by exploiting the masculine posturing of Arthur effectively sexualises canon debasement. This began with the pilot when Arthur says: “Tell me Merlin, do you know how to walk on your knees?” Of the imported imagery—semen, bruising, perspiration—the key signifier is Arthur’s armour which, while torn in places, still ensures the encoding of particular signifieds: masculinity, strength and power.

Doggystyle and the Subversion of Arthur’s ‘Armoured Self’

Since the romanticism and chivalric tradition of the knight in shining armour (see Huizinga) men as armoured selves have become a stoic symbol of masculine power and the benchmark for aspirational masculinity. For the medieval knight, armour reflects in its shiny surface the mettle of the man enclosed, imparting a state of ‘bodilessness’ by containing any softness beneath its shielded exterior (Burns 140).

Wandsinhand’s Arthur/Percival manip (see Figure 2) subverts Arthur and the symbolism of armour with the help of arguably the only man who can: Arthur’s largest knight Percival. While a minor character among the knights, Percival’s physical presence in the series looms large, and has endeared him to slash manip artists, particularly those with only a casual interest in the series, such as wandsinhand:

Why Arthur and Percival were specifically chosen had really little to do with the show’s plot, and in point of fact, I don’t really follow Merlin that closely nor am I an avid fan. […] Choosing Arthur/Percival really was just a matter of taste rather than being contextually based on their characterisations in the television show. 


Figure 2: wandsinhand, Untitled (Arthur/Percival), 2012, photo montage. Courtesy the artist.

Concerning motivation, the artist explains: “Sometimes one’s penis decides to pick the tv show Merlin, and specifically Arthur and Percival.”

The popularity of Percival among manip artists illustrates the power of physicality as a visual sign, and the valorisation of size and muscle within the gay community (see Sánchez et al.). Having his armour modified to display his muscles, the implication is that Percival does not need armour, for his body is already hard, impenetrable. He is already suited up, simultaneously man and armoured. 

Wandsinhand uses the physicality of this character to strip Arthur of his symbolic, masculine power. The work depicts Arthur with a dishevelled expression, his armoured chest pressed against the ground, his chainmail hitched up at the back to expose his arse, Percival threading his unsheathed cock inside him, staring expressionless at the ‘viewer’. The artist explains he “was trying to show a shift of power”:

I was also hinting at some sign of struggle, which is somewhat evident on Arthur’s face too. […] I think the expressions work in concert to suggest […] a power reversal that leaves Arthur on the bottom, a position he’s not entirely comfortable accepting.

There is pleasure to be had in seeing the “cocky” Arthur forcefully penetrated, “cut down to size by a bigger man” (wandsinhand). The two assume the ‘doggystyle’ position, an impersonal sexual position, without eye contact and where the penetrator sets the rhythm and intensity of each thrust. Scholars have argued that the position is degrading to the passive party, who is dehumanised by the act, a ‘dog’ (Dworkin 27); and rapper Snoop ‘Doggy’ Dogg exploits the misogynistic connotations of the position on his record Doggystyle (see Armstrong).

Wandsinhand is clear in his intent to depict forceful domination of Arthur. Struggle is signified through the addition of perspiration, a trademark device used by this artist to symbolise struggle. Domination in a sexual act involves the erasure of the wishes of the dominated partner (see Cowan and Dunn). To attune oneself to the pleasures of a sexual partner is to regard them as a subject. To ignore such pleasures is to degrade the other person. 

The artist’s choice of pairing embraces the physicality of the male/male bond and illustrates a tendency among manip producers to privilege conventional masculine identifiers—such as size and muscle—above symbolic, nonphysical identifiers, such as status and rank. It is worth noting that muscle is more readily available in the pornographic source material used in slash manips—muscularity being a recurrent component of gay pornography (see Duggan and McCreary). In my interview with manip artist simontheduck, he describes the difficulty he had sourcing a base image “that complimented the physicality of the [Merlin] characters. […] The actor that plays Merlin is fairly thin while Arthur is pretty built, it was difficult to find one. I even had to edit Merlin’s body down further in the end.” (personal correspondence, used with permission) As wandsinhand explains, “you’re basically limited by what’s available on the internet, and even then, only what you’re prepared to sift through or screencap yourself”.

Wandsinhand’s Arthur/Percival pairing selection works in tandem with other artistic decisions and inclusions—sexual position, setting, expressions, effects (perspiration, lighting)—to ensure the intended reading of the work. Antithetical size and rank positions play out in the penetration/submission act of wandsinhand’s work, in which only the stronger of the two may come out ‘on top’. Percival subverts the symbolic power structures of prince/knight, asserting his physical, sexual dominance over the physically inferior Arthur. That such a construction of Percival is incongruent with the polite, impeded-by-my-size-and-muscle-density Percival of the series speaks to the circumstances of manip production, much of which is on a taste basis, as previously noted. 

There are of course exceptions to this, the Teen Wolf ‘Sterek’ (Stiles/Derek) pairing being wandsinhand’s, but even in this case, size tends to couple with penetration. Slash manips often privilege physicality of the characters in question—as well as the base models selected—above any particular canon-supported slash reading. (Of course, the ‘queering’ nature of slash practice means at times there is also a desire to see such identifiers subverted, however in this example, raw masculine power prevails.)

This final point is in no way representative—my practice, for example, combines manips with ficlets to offer a clearer connection with canon, while LJ’s zdae69 integrates manips, fiction and comics. However, common across slash manip artists driven by taste—and requests—rather than connection with canon—the best known being LJ’s tw-31988demon48180 and Tumblr’s lwoodsmalestarsfakes, all of whom work across many fandoms—is interest in the ‘aesthetics of canon’, the blue hues of Teen Wolf or the fluorescent greens of Arrow (2012–present), displayed in glossy magazine format using services such as ISSUU. In short, ‘the look’ of the work often takes precedent over canonical implications of any artistic decisions.

“Nothing Too Serious”: Slash Manips as Objects Worth Studying

It had long been believed that the popular was the transient, that of entertainment rather than enlightenment; that which is manufactured, “an appendage of the machinery”, consumed by the duped masses and a product not of culture but of a ‘culture industry’ (Adorno and Rabinbach 12). 

Scholars such as Radway, Ang pioneered a shift in scholarly practice, advancing the cultural studies project by challenging elitism and finding meaning in traditionally devalued cultural texts and practices. The most surprising outcome of my interviews with wandsinhand was hearing how he conceived of his practice, and the study of slash:

If I knew I could get a PhD by writing a dissertation on Slash, I would probably drop out of my physics papers! […] I don’t really think too highly of faking/manip-making. I mean, it’s not like it’s high art, is it? … or is it? I guess if Duchamp’s toilet can be a masterpiece, then so can anything. But I mainly just do it to pass the time, materialise fantasies, and disperse my fantasies unto others. Nothing too serious.

Wandsinhand erects various binaries—academic/fan, important/trivial, science/arts, high art/low art, profession/hobby, reality/fantasy, serious/frivolous—as justification to devalue his own artistic practice. Yet embracing the amateur, personal nature of his practice frees him to “materialise fantasies” that would perhaps not be possible without self-imposed, underground production. This is certainly supported by his body of work, which plays with taboos of the unseen, of bodily fluids and sadomasochism.

My intention with this article is not to contravene views such as wandsinhand’s. Rather, it is to promote slash manips as a form of remix culture that encourages new perspectives on how slash has been defined, its connection with male producers and its symbiotic relationship with gay pornography. I have examined the ‘semiotic significance of selection’ that creates meaning in two contrary slash manips; how these works actualise and resist canon dominance, as it relates to the physical and the symbolic. This examination also offers insight into this form’s connection to and negotiation with certain ideologies of gay pornography, such as the valorisation of size and muscle.


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Author Biography

Joseph Brennan, The University of Sydney

Joseph Brennan is a Postgraduate Teaching Fellow and PhD Candidate in the Department of Media and Communications at the University of Sydney. His doctoral research is on slash, a fannish practice that repositions heterosexual male characters into homosexual pairings. He was an art critic with Australian Art Review 2008–2013.