After the premiere of The L Word in 2004, femslash became much more mainstream, though some fanfic writers may question whether L Word stories about same-sex couples are actually “slash,” given that they are openly lesbian in the show itself. One Buffy fanfic writer, nepthys12, argued on the Kittenboard, a bulletin board for die-hard Willow/Tara fans, in 2002, “Some (including me) feel that slash is any m/m or f/f relationship, even if it's conventional in the show. To me, Willow/Tara is slash, and I have labeled it as such on my website.”
Why is it that femslash has never been as popular as male/male slash?
One writer, Kadorienne, theorized in an essay titled “Some Thoughts on Femslash” that the main problem was “finding a fandom that has not only one, but two interesting, complex female characters. In most fandoms, we're lucky to get just one.” Indeed, now that many shows include multiple female lead characters, femslash has certainly increased. In addition, Kadorienne noted that the majority of fanfic writers are straight women, for whom reading and writing about men having sex is more pleasurable than reading and writing about lesbians.
So Tell Me About This Femslash, Already!
The mother of all femslash is, without a doubt, Xena: Warrior Princess, which premiered in September 1995. Xena was unique in that it was a television program in which the hero and the hero’s sidekick were both women. That relationship, between former warlord-turned-heroine Xena and the initially innocent bard Gabrielle, was one of the most three-dimensional relationships between women seen on television. That relationship also involved them in a number of sexually suggestive situations, as the two famously bathed together, shared mystical kisses, and sang to each other in melodramatic musical episodes.
It seems almost inevitable that fans would pick up on the lingering glances and interpret those declarations of unending “friendship” as a lesbian romance in the making. Xena producers even caught on to the fans’ interpretation of the subtext and obliged them by inserting more and more subtext into the show as the seasons passed.
The fan fiction that was written about Xena and Gabrielle almost immediately took these subtextual instances and elaborated on them, creating a genre of Xena fanfic dubbed “alternative” or “alt” fanfic to denote a departure from what was depicted in the scripted series. “Romantic Altfic,” according to Xena fan Bongo Bear, “is an adult fairy tale through which the [writer] expresses her own beliefs and ideals about loving relationships. One of these ideals is that lesbian lovers are as unremarkable as any heterosexual couple. This is an unspoken premise of almost all Altfic, romantic or not, and it is the significant differentiator from traditional heterosexual romance.” ("Don’t Mind the Ladies: Lesbian Fanfic as an Old-Fashioned Romance," Whoosh!)
After the 1997 episode “The Xena Scrolls,” in which the characters of Xena and Gabrielle were essentially reinterpreted in the characters of Mel and Janice, two archaeologists living in the 1940s, the genre of “uber-Xena” fan fiction became extremely popular. In uber-Xena fan fiction, the essence of the characters Xena and Gabrielle are placed in another time or place. Because the two women are “soul mates,” they will always find each other, no matter where they are.
Buffy: The Vampire Slayer has also had a significant impact on femslash because the show features several three-dimensional female characters, and because one of the characters, Willow, came out as a lesbian in Season 4. For the first few seasons of the series, Buffy fan fiction was largely heterosexual and not terribly explicit, but as the characters matured, so did the fan fiction. A favorite slash pairing was the violent and moody Angel/Spike couple, while femslash inspired by Buffy includes Buffy/Faith, Buffy/Willow, Buffy/Cordelia, and any number of other female/female couplings. But the largest amount of femslash in the Buffyverse centers on Willow/Tara, the show's first openly lesbian couple.
The characters of Willow and Tara quickly developed their own group of fans within the broader Buffy fandom, and in comparison to other slash fandoms that were largely comprised of straight women, Willow/Tara fans are often lesbians. (For a more nuanced discussion of the Willow/Tara fan following, see Judith L. Tabron's article “Girl on Girl Politics: Willow/Tara and New Approaches to Media Fandom” at slayage.tv.)