In the world of fan art, if you can imagine it, it probably already exists: a Lupin/Snape romance, evil My Little Ponies on dates, and even “Science Bros,” the meme in which Tony Stark and Bruce Banner hang out, do some science, and have a little PG-13 bromance on the side.
At a recent event, a reporter showed The Avengers star Mark Ruffalo a series of drawings of his character snuggling with Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark. He began giggling, and then even made up captions for one of the cartoons, “Would you like a gummy worm?” Better yet, he told the reporter, “I endorse [this art] 100 percent. You know what it is? It’s open-source creativity.”
Ruffalo isn’t the first actor to embrace fan depictions of same-sex pairings that never happened on screen (better known as “slash”). Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman apparently checked out Tumblr sites full of fan art depicting their Sherlock characters in some compromising scenes. Cumberbatch says he’s “flattered” and “amazed by the level of artistry.”
Fan fiction and fan art have existed in their modern form since at least since the 1960s, when Star Trek devotees began publishing their stories in fan zines (with real paper!). These stories were sometimes erotic, sometimes not. In 1981, Lucasfilm sent a letter to fans advising them to stop writing “X-rated” stories using its Star Wars characters; it’s difficult to imagine a studio today attempting to rein in the massive amount of original content that fans upload daily to the Internet. For better or worse, the people who make movies have had to accept that the people who don’t make movies are going to create their own art, stories and romances to fill in the gaps between sequels and prequels. There’s really no stopping it.
So why not embrace slash? We’re past the days when the implication that an actor is portraying (or is in real life) a gay man would ruin a career. In fact, Entertainment Weekly suspected Downey repeatedly referenced homoerotic subtext during his press junket for 2009’s Sherlock Holmes to try to create buzz around the film (upsetting the Arthur Conan Doyle estate in the process). Homoerotic fan art might be a new signal that you’ve arrived in Hollywood. People know your face (and your abs) well enough to do 30 sketches of you embracing another star.
But cynicism aside, fan art and fan fiction have helped gays and lesbians to express themselves in genres in which gay and lesbian characters are few and far between. There wasn’t going to be a gay Avenger in the 2012 movie. Sherlock and Watson are not going to hook up in the Moffat series. If you are a gay man who love science fiction and superheroes, you won’t see yourself reflected in too many of your favorite movies. It’s not that the fan-art creators are necessarily gay themselves, but they are imagining a wider range of possible character relationships than most Hollywood executives would ever greenlight.
In August, MTV launched a contest for the best fanfic stories based on its Teen Wolf drama that was openly inclusive of slash pairings, including “Sterek,” the popular pairing of Stiles and Derek. The cable network is doing something great here, embracing the fans they have rather than fighting to maintain control over their stories and characters.
The fans who read subtext into every look and gesture of two male characters aren’t a threat to a show’s integrity. After all, they’re probably some of the most loyal viewers out there. Hollywood can’t stop these fans, so actors and studios might as well sit back and have a gummy worm.