Ryan Is Being Beaten: Incest, Fanfiction, and The OC- Jes Battis

Abstract

This essay interrogates the concept of queer incest within The OC by exploring the relationship between principle characters Ryan Atwood and Seth Cohen, both on the show and in fanfiction. The goal of this discussion is not to offer any sort of recuperative reading of ‘incest’ per se, but to address the indefinably queer relationship that viewers have constructed between these two characters (who are adoptive brothers.)

And I have learned that even landlocked lovers yearn,
For the sea like navy men;
‘Cause now we say goodnight from our own separate sides,
Like brothers on a hotel bed.
-“Brothers on a hotel bed,” Death Cab For Cutie

“I’ve always pushed for the big marriage that the whole entire audience has always seen coming: Ryan and Seth walk down the aisle hand in hand”
– Setoodeh 2006

The television drama series The OC (Fox Network, 2003–2007), created by Josh Schwartz, focuses primarily on the relationship between adoptive brothers Seth Cohen and Ryan Atwood, who come from oppositional class backgrounds. Fan-fiction and fan-produced media about these characters tends to underscore their solid foundation as brothers, but slash fiction – that is, fan writing that focuses on same-sex romance – has transformed the filial bonds between Ryan and Seth into overt eroticism. Since Ryan and Seth are legally but not biologically connected, this erotic refashioning opens up a lot of critically interesting and provocative spaces for the proliferation of alternative sexual discourses, including queer sexuality and consensual incest. The goal of this essay then, will be to explore what I see as the textured and ambiguous space between what the show itself implies, and what the slash fan-fiction makes explicit. In doing so, I will analyze some key moments from The OC alongside three fan-fiction cycles that are currently published online. I will also discuss the possibility of same-sex incest within other programs, including Supernatural (Eric Kripke, WB Network, 2005–present).

I am approaching the topic of same-sex incest from both a psychoanalytic and textual studies methodology, using dialogue from specific episodes as well as excerpts from fan-produced narratives in order to position The OC as a unique case study for critical queer analysis. The show begins with the arrival of Ryan Atwood into the wealthy bubble community of Newport in Orange County, California. Ryan is eventually adopted (both symbolically and legally) into the Cohen family, becoming a surrogate brother to Seth and an unexpected child to Sandy and Kirsten Cohen. A number of fanfic cycles have now been produced by writers who see the Seth/Ryan relationship as one that uniquely collapses the boundaries between brothers, friends, and lovers. The show itself gestures playfully to this by continually placing Seth and Ryan in homosocial, and potentially homosexual, situations, playing up this potential through dramatic aesthetics, for example by dressing Ryan in tank-tops and having him brood artfully while emo music plays in the background.

I will treat three fanfic cycles specifically here – “Yelling,” by M.F. Luder (2007), “The Complete Book of Questions,” by Zahra (2005a), and “Towards the Limits of Maps” (Zahra 2005b) – in order to interrogate their flexible and erotic deployments of queer sexuality, incest, and family violence. The authors have generously allowed me to cite their work in this article under pseudonyms. I also want to contextualize both the show and its fanfic adaptations within a critical discussion of same-sex incest by addressing broadly the role of incest in feminist and queer analyses. As I will discuss, although heterosexual incest (specifically father/daughter) has been treated quite expansively since its enshrinement within Freudian discourse, homosexual incest (brother/brother, or father/son) has been given comparatively little attention. My goal with this discussion is not to offer any sort of recuperative reading of queer incest, nor to suggest that Seth and Ryan’s relationship on The OC is patently incestuous; rather, I want to explore the difficult and highly charged relational space that may be said to exist between incest and queer sexuality, with Ryan and Seth’s relationship as a unique touchstone. In doing so, I will draw principally upon the work of queer-feminist and psychoanalytic theorists Judith Butler and Juliet Mitchell.

From its very first episode, The OC is a show concerned with issues of class, property, exchange, use value. Who or what can be used, what or who can be exchanged? In a wealthy community like Newport, any transaction seems possible, even the wholesale exchange of human beings. The pilot begins, in fact, with an act of theft: Ryan Atwood and his older brother, Trey, are caught stealing a car. Trey, due to his prior record, is given jail time, but Ryan ends up meeting Sandy Cohen, his new public defender. When Sandy brings Ryan home to stay, “just for the weekend,” his wife Kirsten responds as if he’s brought a particularly dangerous animal into her house. She keeps asking Sandy to “take him back,” as if he were a purchase – and Ryan himself, after later giving his court papers a cursory glance, concludes that “I’m the property of the state now” (2.01).[1] Sandy and Kirsten see Ryan as a potential family-member, but their language actually configures him as an object of exchange, a commodity. When Sandy decides that Ryan might benefit from spending time with his birth mother, he simply whisks Ryan’s mother away to Newport and presents her proudly to a stunned Ryan, as if he were offering a gift. In Newport, which is filled with “pod people,” as Seth calls them, social exchange endlessly returns to Marx’s commodity fetish.

According to Levi-Strauss, incest is also a form of exchange. In The Elementary Structures of Kinship, he states that “the prohibition of incest is less a rule prohibiting marriage with the mother, sister, or daughter, than a rule obliging the mother, sister, or daughter to be given to others. It is the supreme rule of the gift” (1971, 481). If incest, as Levi-Strauss also suggests, is the ground of culture, “the fundamental step because of which, by which, but above all in which, the transition from nature to culture is accomplished” (1971, 24), then this machinery by which culture emerges is really a factory, an operative conditioning based upon strict principles of exchange. Feminist analyses have generally labeled this as the exchange of mothers and daughters, but if we can just un-moor incest for a moment from the field of exclusive reproductive heterosexuality, it might equally apply to brothers and sons. I will not marry my sister, I will giver her up; I will not marry my brother, I will give him up – and my neighbor will do the same. In the case of The OC, Ryan Atwood becomes the outsider who disrupts the incestuous community of Newport, but he also becomes the object (or subject) of queer incest, a kind of loving twin to Seth Cohen. He is first described jokingly as “the cousin from Boston,” (1.01) then he and Seth become “like brothers,” or “almost brothers,” but the exact nature of their paternity is never quite ironed out.

What this has to do with Ryan, specifically, is something that I hope to make clear by citing some of the incestuous fanfic written about him. Many fans would argue that incest, in fact, has nothing to do with Seth and Ryan’s relationship, since they aren’t bound by the laws of consanguinity – they aren’t brothers by blood, or even by law. The OC is deliberately cagey about defining the exact placement of Ryan within the Cohen family. The word adoption is never used, although Sandy and Kirsten do admit to being “legally responsible” for Ryan, at least until he turns eighteen. They are not precisely his foster-family, and not his adoptive parents, either. So what, then, is Seth to Ryan? Are they brothers, or… others? He is the changeling, the outsider-child who turns Newport upside down upon his arrival, whose very proximity in a room full of “Newpsie” girls can create a grumbling undercurrent of aggression from their possessive boyfriends.

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Figure 1: Ryan and Seth. Brothers, or… others? The OC © Fox Network, 2004.

In “The Debut” (1.04), after Ryan has been legally inscribed within the Cohen family (when Sandy signs the paperwork for his guardianship), Seth gives him a performative entrée as well: “Dude. You’re a Cohen now. Welcome to a world of insecurity and paralyzing self doubt.” Like the priest’s “I now pronounce you,” Seth’s utterance closes the legal circle, completing the transaction that has Ryan as its end-product. But, as I have asked before, who exactly is Ryan to Seth? When Ryan leaves at the end of Season One, Seth also abandons Newport, claiming that he can’t bear it without Ryan. Summer, Seth’s girlfriend at the time, clarifies this as “running away like a little bitch,” but Seth sees it as a necessary flight from – what? A flight from Ryan, or a running toward him? For Seth, Newport holds no meaning without Ryan. Sandy actually has to send Ryan after Seth, like an erotic courier, and Ryan’s arrival in Oregon (where Seth is staying with, of all people, Luke’s gay dad , is what actually forces Seth to return home. In this sense, as well as in other scenarios, Ryan usurps the role of the symbolic father, becoming the parent who must discipline Seth as a wayward boy. Seth, in turn, feels that he is paternally educating Ryan, giving him a sort of cultural tutelage in Newport society, even as Ryan continues to watch his back and protect him from – well, just about everyone.

The pilot episode ends with an impromptu embrace between Ryan and Seth, just before Ryan is forced to return to his biological family. After Sandy drives him back to Chino, they both discover that Ryan’s house is empty – his mother has literally abandoned him. But just before this happens, Ryan comes up to Seth’s room to say goodbye, thinking that it might very well be forever. What makes this moment significant? Perhaps it is the duration and tightness of the embrace; perhaps it is the fact that Seth, having been woken up by Ryan in the middle of the night, is wearing only a t-shirt and boxer shorts; perhaps it is Seth’s gentle “c’mere” as he deflates Ryan’s handshake and pulls him into a hug, knowing that his only friend in Newport is about to leave. Most likely, though, it is the curious expression on Ryan’s face: confusion, at first, and then a kind of disbelief, as if he is asking himself, do people actually do this? Then, the disbelief fades into warmth as he hugs Seth back, allowing himself to be held, just for that moment. Seth is so thin beneath his undershirt that we can see the curve of his spine, his shoulder blades – he appears so flimsy, a fragile bundle of nerves and love that could be blown away at any moment – unless Ryan holds on.

I’ve deliberately chosen not to draw any ironclad distinctions between what’s queer and what’s homosocial within The OC, since I don’t believe those distinctions exist legibly in the outside world. If every homosexual act is produced by and interpellated within an original homosocial kickoff or flashpoint, then both terms are really just part of the same emanation. This is the touchstone for any queer reading of canon, as it were, and in this sense it becomes easy to mediate the same-sex affection shared by Ryan and Seth as something that straddles both realms.

After he has been legally sworn into the Cohen family, Ryan is forced to attend a cotillion—a coming-out party for the debs of Newport. As he takes Marissa’s hand, leading her, quite literally, into society, into culture, we realize that Ryan himself is also coming out here as a social being. He is a “white knight,” but he is also a debutante, just like Marissa, being led into a painful and uncertain future. After a fracas predictably occurs – this time centering on Marissa’s father and his money problems, not on Ryan – Seth claps Ryan on the back and tells him: “that’s quite a little debut you had tonight” (1.04). Now that Ryan has stepped into Newport society, where does he go from here?

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Figure 2: Ryan and Seth. Where do they go from here? The OC © Fox Network, 2004.

What Ryan doesn’t realize is that he has actually been written into the role of femme fatale. From the moment that he arrives in Newport, every girl wants to possess him, and every boyfriend wants to expel him. Sandy wants desperately to understand him, Kirsten feels like she has to protect Seth from him, and Seth just wants to be him, or at least to be seen by him. Ryan spends most of Season One wearing a dirty white tank-top, very much Brando in Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan, 1951), brooding silently or appearing just in time at parties where his presence will cause the maximum amount of sexual panic. The only time he appears even remotely happy is when he’s playing video games with Seth, and many fanfic writers have grasped this practice as a unique mediating tactic between the two boys. Whenever anything in Ryan’s life gets too overblown, whenever he is about to come undone, we always find him playing video games with Seth. The console, the digital violence, the kinship, all act as sublimatory devices for the anger and turmoil that he is always feeling just below the surface. Rather than see this as repression, however, fanfic often reimagines these game-playing sessions as a kind of extended foreplay between Ryan and Seth. This can be seen in the work of fic-writers like Zahra and MF Luder, as well as other fanfic cycles on Fanfiction.net or LiveJournal.com.

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Figure 3: Ryan and Seth. Domestic/erotic in the pool. The OC © Fox Network, 2004.

The OC continually dramatizes the close bonds between Ryan and Seth by pushing, ever so gently, on the sexual and cultural boundaries that separate homosociality, homosexuality, and fraternity (and no more so than college fraternities themselves, as well as companies like Abercrombie and Fitch that celebrate them.) For Ryan, moments of quietude and safety always come from playing video games with Seth or watching TV with the Cohens, as the domestic bleeds and swirls into the potentially erotic. In season one, especially, when Ryan first moves into the Cohens’ pool-house, he seems constantly to be in a state of tantalizing undress while Seth stammers and watches him, clearly embarrassed but also unmistakably curious. In “The Proposal,” when Seth walks in on Ryan as he’s toweling off from the shower, he practically faints:

SETH: Hey! Oh… sorry. I’m surprised that hasn’t happened before. Not saying I’m disappointed it hasn’t happened before just saying the mathematical probability—
RYAN: Yeah. Crying during chick flicks…walking in on me getting dressed—
SETH: Yeah, what’s your point? Okay, I’m not seeing what you’re getting at. Do you work out?
RYAN: Not really.
SETH: Cool, me neither. I’m gonna go watch some hockey.
RYAN: Hockey season’s over. (1.23, “The Proposal”)

The embrace that they share in the pilot episode is rare for two male characters on television, and is especially unusual here since at this point in the show’s narrative arc the two haven’t yet been produced/mediated as ‘family.’ When Seth runs away to Portland (to live with Luke’s gay dad, let us remember), only Ryan can convince him to come home – and the scene that ensues, with Seth’s foot tapping nervously as the music swells, then Seth and Ryan running to the front door simultaneously, is worthy of any John Hughes moment of romantic drama. Their dialogue is playfully romantic: after running to the door, Ryan says “hey, so, ah, I was thinking – “ and Seth replies “I was thinking too. You know, they don’t even have a water polo team here. That’s just gonna be a problem for me” (2.01). Newport’s water polo team is the source of multiple gay jokes in the series, but aside from this, Ryan’s “I was thinking” echoes so many other cinematic and televisual moments of reconciliation that the audience half expects them to kiss. Summer constantly jokes about how hot Ryan is (Seth jokes that “we all know you get a lot of mileage out of a tank top” [1.04]), and later in the series, Seth even plans a birthday celebration for Ryan with huge cardboard cutouts of him (including Fireman Ryan and Policeman Ryan) in a metatextual nod to about a dozen stereotypes of queer iconography. Their relationship is, in Seth’s own words, “extremely minty.”

In his famous fantasy-scenario, “A Child is Being Beaten,” Freud illustrates a collective repressed memory by which all of us first come into being as desiring subjects. It begins with hazy edges, very much like a dream: a child is being beaten. At first, it seems as if the child is being beaten by “a crowd” of other children, but as the scene resolves itself, we see that there are only two figures. Freud writes: “[m]y father is beating me (I am being beaten by my father). This being-beaten is now a meeting place between the sense of guilt and sexual pleasure. It is not only the punishment for the forbidden genital relation, but also the regressive substitute for it” (1997, 184). Freud offers different scenarios for boys and girls, but he is clearly more concerned with the little girl’s fantasy; he dismisses this by saying that “I have not been able to get so far in my knowledge of beating-phantasies involving boys, perhaps because my material was unfavorable” (1997, 192). Both fantasies are ultimately the same, since, despite the fact that the boy sees his mother in place of his father, this is simply a screen-memory for the placeholder father, the name of the father: “In both cases, the beating-phantasy has its origin in an incestuous attachment to the father” (1997, 195). I mention this scenario because it forms an incestuous linchpin in the workings of the Oedipus complex. The child first desires the parent, but sublimates that desire into a masturbatory fantasy (a child is being beaten), and turns instead away from the family for erotic fulfillment.

What Freud fails to factor into this primal scene, however, is the defining presence of siblings. Why must it always be the father who is doing the beating, and why must the father be critically set up as the superego within the child’s developing consciousness? Why couldn’t it be a brother or sister, especially in cases where an older sibling is the family’s primary caregiver? Juliet Mitchell frames the question this way:

Classically in the theoretical explanation, this [superego] ideal is postulated as being modeled on the real object of the father…but isn’t it also likely that the original model may be another child, a heroic or critical older (or other) sibling? For most of us, when our conscience is putting us down, making us feel inferior, the voice we hear is reminiscent of the tauntings not of adults but of other children. (2003, 12)

The title of this paper, “Ryan is Being Beaten,” refers just to this possibility, as well as to the flexibility of Freud’s fantasy-scenario. This could actually be the subtitle for The OC, since almost every episode defines Ryan in relation to an economy of beating, violence, the exchange of blows, blood, fists, overlaid by the exchange of capital. Ryan is either being beaten, or he is the one doing the beating. In the pilot episode, Ryan gets into a fight while defending Seth from a group of bigger kids, only to end up getting pummeled himself. “That’s how we do things here,” says Luke, who will become Ryan’s nemesis for the season (as well as his romantic competition for Marissa Cooper, who is literally the girl of his dreams). As Ryan is beaten, kicked, and left groaning on the beach, we are reminded of the first conscious phase of Freud’s beating-scenario: a child is being beaten by a crowd.

After they drag themselves home, Seth and Ryan stumble drunkenly into the poolhouse – Ryan’s dwelling, just adjacent to the Cohen residence, which also represents his erratic ambit and placement within the family. Then a curious thing happens. Seth falls asleep, and Ryan watches him – just watches him. Not in an overtly sexual way, but in an entirely ambiguous way, a possibly brotherly, possibly otherly way. Mitchell reminds us that:

[s]ibling incest is taboo… but, rather than this being strongly repressed and hence so unconscious a desire that it can only return in a disguised form in psychopathic symptoms… it is instead transformed into a preconscious, sometimes vaguely remembered possibility, prohibited metaphorically by the mother, but easily indulged in when parents are absent (2003, 21).

Since Kristen and Sandy are almost exclusively working and away from home during the day, at least in the beginning of the series, this “easily indulged in” practice becomes a kind of erotic slippage for Ryan and Seth. Fanfic writers like Zahra and Luder, whose work I will discuss below, have seized upon what Mitchell calls a “vaguely remembered possibility,” (2003, 21) and spun it quite liberally into countless stories, one-shots, epics, blog entries, and even fan-made videos, all devoted to sexualizing Ryan and Seth’s relationship. This strategy, in part, depends upon not defining the relationship, or over-defining it until it loses all symbolic currency within the family system. They are, after all, not “really” brothers.

Supernatural, a recent show about two fraternal demon-hunters looking for their father, also provides a fascinating cultural ground for looking at same-sex incest. Sam and Dean Winchester (named after the rifle) are typical “middle-American” siblings, despite the fact that they were raised on vampire lore and strategies for demon-killing. Dean reappears in Sam’s life after an extended absence, saying cryptically that “dad’s on a hunting trip… and he hasn’t been back in a while” (1.01). Sam, having previously dreamt of law school and a ‘normal’ life, must then accompany Dean on a season-long quest for their father, John. Given the intimate relationship, sarcastic banter, and close spatial proximity of the brothers in nearly every episode – they spend most of their time in cramped hotel rooms, or driving a righteously phallic Chevy Impala – fans have produced an already large collection of incest-fiction relating to the Winchesters. There are several online communities already dedicated to Sam/Dean “slash” fiction (the show only began last year), and one of the bigger archives boasts over four-thousand stories on Supernatural alone (http://www.fanfiction.net).

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Figure 4: Demon-hunting brothers Sam and Dean Winchester. Supernatural. Source: http://www.cwtv.com © CW Network, 2006.

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Figure 5: Dean (left) and Sam in “Hell House”, Season 1, episode 17. Supernatural. © WB Network, 2005.

In one fic called “Conversations Over the Front Seat,” Sam and Dean are trapped in the Impala in the middle of a rain storm, and so they resort to talking about their fantasies in order to pass the time. Sam unwittingly relates an incest fantasy to Dean, who responds with surprising tenderness. “We’re working a job,” Sam begins, “and they capture us, tie me down”:

They’ve got your hands tied behind your back so one of them has to position you but once the hand moves away, it’s just all you and me and I’m holding my breath and I don’t know how I could want something so much and hate it so much all at the same time. And then you lean into me, enter me… (A sniff, a gasp, more crunching of leather as legs and hips shift and rock.) It hurts and I cry out and I can feel your face against my back and feel tears because you think you’re doing something so terrible to me. (Sam’s voice is scratchy and stuffy sounding and almost like hiccups the way he gasps between every few words.) And I just want to tell you it’s okay. And all I can do is think it and hope that you get it. Because sometimes it’s like that between us, we don’t have to speak to each other to get it. (Sampson 2006).

As the show progresses, we begin to get hints of Sam’s own demonic heritage, which arguably divides the brothers and seems to make them appear less related biologically. Yet, as Sam’s own powers grow, he relies on Dean more and more, even as Dean suspects that he might not really know this person who calls himself Sam Winchester – that he may never have really known anything about his own brother. What does this do to their relationship? Would you still love your sibling if he developed demonic powers? I’d like to suggest that this space of hesitation between Sam and Dean – this interruption of their consanguinity through demonic intervention – also opens up a similar space of erotic flexibility. Fans seem to have seized upon this space by crafting stories, videos, graphic manipulations, and other visual/textual mediations that make the subtle eroticism between the Winchesters overt. What remains to be seen is whether this eroticism is attractive to fans – many of whom identify as straight women – precisely because it is ambiguous, or rather, because it is unambiguously taboo.

The incest prohibition is itself a paradox, simultaneously instituting precisely what it is supposed to prevent, and containing within itself the very possibility that it should foreclose. In Antigone’s Claim, Judith Butler explains this paradox as the means by which all subjects are formed: “To the extent that the incest taboo contains its infraction within itself, it does not simply prohibit incest but rather sustains and cultivates incest as a necessary spectre of social dissolution, a spectre without which social bonds cannot emerge”. (2002, 10) What we have lost, through numerous Freudian, Kleinian, and other analyses of incest, is that “vaguely remembered possibility” that is incest’s actual inchoate form, the possibility for it to occur in ways that can’t be defined clearly as ‘abusive’ or ‘harmless,’ the various and silent relays between brother/brother and sister/sister by which it can short-circuit our own clinical taxonomies. In her essay, “Quandaries of the Incest Taboo,” Butler clarifies this by saying:

I do think that there are probably forms of incest that are not necessarily traumatic or which gain their traumatic character by virtue of the consciousness of social shame that they produce… the prohibitions that work to prohibit nonnormative sexual exchange also work to institute and patrol the norms of presumptively heterosexual kinship. (2004, 157)

Ryan/Seth slash fanfic explores these bonds, which, in Butler’s hedging words, are “not necessarily traumatic”. As a concept, slash is generally understood to be queer relationship- or sex-fiction between television or cinema characters, its title denoting the ‘/’ that joins those characters together in a romantic tryst. It can also extend to comics, miniseries, novels, cartoons, and just about any other media where sex and romance are possible. The slash tradition emerged from the K/S (Kirk/Spock) slashers, who recast the homosocial relationship between Kirk and Spock on the original Star Trek. Angela Thomas, in her 2006 article “Fan Fiction Online,” summarizes the data from a critical study of “a 400 participant fan fiction world,” an online community called Middle Earth Insanity. Exploring the roots of fanfiction, she states that “[its] origins… can be traced back to the 1930s pulp magazine Fanzines, and it enjoyed a surge in the late 1960s with the popularity of Star Trek” (Thomas 2006, 226).

The K/S slash community produced an amazing network of erotic zines in the 1970s and ‘80s, made all the more impressive by the fact that they only had access to the most conventional of fan technology – a VCR, a printer, a public photocopier, and so on. Constance Penley (1997) discusses this fan community in detail in the introduction to her book NASA/Trek, describing how the Trek slashers, who are primarily heterosexual women, don’t radically reposition Kirk and Spock so much as give their relationship the nudge from “homosocial” to “homoerotic” – which always remains the impossible boundary to cross in network television. In “Slashing the Romance Narrative,” Anne Kustritz writes about the “Renegade Slash Militia,” a collective of female slash writers who “reserve the right to slash anyone, anywhere, at any time” (2003, 371). Kustritz originally defines slash as any type of “noncanonical romantic relationship,” and later specifies that slash fiction, as well as fanfic in general, allows “fans [to] discuss the narratives and characters provided for them by the mass media, and then alter those hegemonic messages to reflect their own needs” (2003, 374). Lest we see her definition as too uncritically utopian, she also adds that “there [are] however alternative types of fan activities besides wholesale adoration” Slash fiction can be elegantly critical, repositioning characters in “noncanonical” situations from which unique choices and strategies might emerge, as well as which disrupt the conventional hetero-narrative of the original text itself.

There are two main online sites for OC slash: Fanfiction.net, which is a clearinghouse for all kinds of different fic (it includes hundreds of shows and films), and a separate LiveJournal” posting-board specifically for OC slash-fic (The OC Slash: http://community.livejournal.com/theoc_slash). While sites like Fanfiction.net allow the user to custom-search for different types of fic, using different keywords (like “slash,” or “Ryan/Seth”), The LiveJournal site only contains fic with slash elements. Other LiveJournal sites focus on het pairings and romance, as well as fan-produced media. Various predictable partnerships emerge, like Ryan/Seth, Marissa/Summer, Marissa/Alex, as well as some more unorthodox ones, like Sandy/Ryan, or Ryan/Luke. Often, the most slash is written about the characters who seem the least romantically compatible, since, like the incest taboo, it is the very impossibility of their partnership that contains a sort of germinal potential, a maybe or might-have-been, or even must-be.

“Yelling,” by M.F. Luder (the author gave permission to include this pseudonym), is an ongoing series that focuses on Ryan’s abusive sexual relationship with the invented “Mr. Dart,” an old family-friend of the Cohens. There is actually very little romantic subtext between Ryan and Seth in these stories, which is what makes them rather unique among the other slash-fic. “Yelling” begins with a traumatic childhood memory of abuse, a past-phantom that returns to Ryan when he unexpectedly meets Mr. Dart again after managing to stay away from him for nearly six years. We discover that, when Ryan was eleven, his mother worked as a personal assistant of sorts for the wealthy Mr. Dart, and would frequently leave Ryan in the older man’s ‘care’ while she ran errands. These episodes of parental absence were just the opportunities that Mr. Dart needed to sexually abuse Ryan, swearing him to silence unless he wanted his mother to lose her job. Ryan, ever the young pragmatist, agreed to keep silent. But when his abuser returns, Ryan finds himself entering into their familiar ‘relationship’ once again, offering his body to Mr. Dart, who in turn agrees to keep the Newport Group from sinking financially. Once again, we are given a transaction where sex, violence, and money are all contiguous:

Eyes were wide shut, as much as he could, trying to block everything out. He took a deep breath a second before there was pain on the edges of his eyes and his head, on his back as it was pushed forward, stomach on top of the green velvet of the pool table. The wood edge cut into his hips, but that was nothing, that pain was nothing, against the one in his hips and lower legs… “I like you, Ryan. I really like you. You’re special.” The words are whispered, low in Ryan’s ear, making the boy shudder and shake. “You’re so special. So pretty, so young. So perfect. Hmm… Perfect. (Luder 2007)

As Ryan submits once again, six years later, to sex with Mr. Dart, a question crystallizes within his own scarred, torn-up, avulsed life, constantly being cut open and sutured messily back into shape: who are you? He asks this question as an eleven-year-old boy, staring into the mirror after being anally raped by Mr. Dart, and then again, as a seventeen-year-old, after enduring the same act. Who are you? The same question that lies at the bottom of the incest prohibition, the same question that inaugurates and installs culture, like a movie that we’re all doomed to watch without ever understanding the plot. Six years later, as he once again finds himself bent over that familiar pool-table, his body pressed painfully into an act of violent, non-consensual sex, Ryan finds himself thinking of… Seth. His safe place. His lighthouse. Even as Mr. Dart begins to pant as he nears climax, Ryan dreams of Seth:

Seth’s laughing, curls a mess, heart light, as he makes his way down the harbor with his skateboard. Ryan’s laughing as well, in this picture Ryan has in his mind’s eye. He’s laughing, grin on his lips, mouth wide open in happiness. He’s riding his bike along Seth’s side, the two of them, like it’s always been. It’s just the two of them. (Luder, 2007)

Incest has been critically understood, within feminist analyses, as an act existing along the continuum of rape, an expression of violent patriarchal intrusion. “The feminist analyses of incest,” says Vikki Bell, “see incestuous abuse as an extreme form of the training that all girl children receive. The normalizing aim of such training is feminine, subordinate girls and women” (1993, 168). But Bell herself, who is critiquing these analyses in her book Interrogating Incest, also states that “incest is theoretically placed at the intersection of discourses on predatory masculine (hetero)sexuality, children as sexually attractive, and children as possessions” (1993, 79). This idea of “children as possessions” harkens back to my earlier discussion about Ryan as human property, a possession of the Cohens. He belongs to them in the sense of being a part of the family, being included in their family-text of love, but he also belongs to them literally as a legal responsibility, a child with no money and no prospects who must be cared for, provided for, fed, clothed, and watched constantly.

How do we locate incest as a crime, and what happens when something defined as ‘criminal’ occurs between two siblings who claim to be consenting? Freud argued that all homosexual attachments were by nature incestuous and narcissistic, since they sublimated hatred towards the same-sex parent into an ‘obsessive’ desire. If we follow this theory to its conclusion, then Ryan’s queerness is actually the product of his troubling relationship with Trey, his older brother. A great deal of slash fic includes memories of Trey, specifically memories where Trey acts as a kind of mothering influence, substituting for their absent parents. In the fan fiction piece “Towards the Limits of Maps” (Zahra 2005), Ryan remembers an instance where Trey, only a few years older himself, cooked dinner for him (powdered mac and cheese), then tucked him into bed. Interestingly, in the show itself, one of Ryan’s first acts in the Cohen household is to cook everyone breakfast, telling Kirsten sheepishly that “my mom’s not much of a cook.” (Pilot, 1.01). While Seth envisions taking a “pancake tour” of America, just like Jack Kerouac – while safe in he knowledge that he will eat pricey Thai-takeout every night – it becomes clear that Ryan actually grew up on pancakes and mac and cheese, since his mother was constantly absent. Juliet Mitchell clarifies the question that emerges from this essential relationship of care between Ryan and Trey, a relationship that crumbles once Trey is sent to jail: “[w]here older siblings rather than parents are the main carers of younger children, where children are left alone in their peer groups, are prohibitions accepted and internalized? Can siblings in themselves be each other’s lawgiver?” (Mitchell 2003, 53). In essence, if Ryan has become his own “lawgiver,” or if Trey has been installed as Ryan’s own critical superego, than what possibilities does this open up for an unorthodox relationship between two adoptive brothers – Seth and Ryan? If we’re all inside various enactments of the incest prohibition, all moving the machinery ourselves, then what happens when two erotic circuits converge in an unexpected way, when two desiring subjects suddenly decide to remake the law?

In “The Complete Book of Questions”, Zahra (2005a, pseudonym used with permission) explores this question, triangulating her story of Ryan/Seth with the phantom of Trey. In the actual show, Trey survives a shooting (by Marissa, no less), and then removes himself from Ryan’s life, ostensibly to give him a chance at being ‘normal.’ In this fic, however, as well as in several others, Trey actually dies, and Ryan is left to deal with his grief. Like most Ryan/Seth slash, “Towards the Limits of Maps” (Zahra 2005b) hinges upon parental absence – Kirsten and Sandy are away on a trip, and Ryan and Seth have the house to themselves. In actual fact, they are also sharing the house with Trey, since Ryan still has an urn with his ashes in it. This slash, I would contend, is actually a spectral threesome, a Ryan/Seth/Trey encounter, which is erotic in the classical sense because it involves a triangulated sense of lack. After returning home with the urn, Ryan appears to come undone, and Seth moves to comfort him, entirely unsure of what he is doing, how such a thing should be done, what should be said. Seth realizes that “Ryan had spent over a month sleeping in the same room as his dead brother’s ashes” (Zahra 2005b) and doesn’t know how he failed to notice this ghostly invasion, as if an outline of Trey was sleeping in Ryan’s bed with him, curling up to Ryan, holding his little-brother in cold, unreachable arms.

As Ryan ponders what to do with the urn in this fic piece, he finds himself desperately trying to escape from this phantasmal presence of Trey: “[he] used to lie like Trey lies, with this slippery charm that eases people into the lie. Eases people into believing in him. I swear on Mom, Ry. Ryan hates himself for the pieces of Trey that still live within him, that show up when he looks in the mirror” (Zahra 2005b). Meanwhile, in attempt to establish some sort of intimacy with the unusually taciturn Ryan, Seth resorts to asking him questions from the eponymous book of the title. It is through these questions, this peculiar and fragile dialogue, that Seth and Ryan’s desire for each other slowly emerges in “Towards the Limits of Maps”. When Seth asks Summer for advice, her reply is tart and incisive, as usual: “Cohen… you and me? Ryan and Marissa? That’s not how this turns out, that’s not where the, like, lines get drawn in our little four-square box.”

Where the lines do get drawn is a matter of some contention, especially since, as is spelt out in the show itself, Seth doesn’t “feel gay,” even though he admits to having a “huge man-crush” on Ryan. He protests that Ryan isn’t “exactly” his brother, and Summer replies firmly that: “If he’s not your brother, then you’re like, way spicy” (Zahra 2005b). This is a creative corruption of Seth’s favorite gay adjective on the show, “minty,” which he uses to describe just about every situation where he and Ryan are pushing queer subtext; it emerges after Ryan admits to having performed musical theater in junior-high, and Seth says “that’s extremely minty of you. I didn’t even know they had musicals in Chino” (1.11). Minty, like spicy, is also a kind of subtext, a scent, an odor of desire that one has to sniff or suss out (and that one can take pleasure in sniffing out).

In the fic “Questions” by Zahra (2005a), Ryan begins sleeping in Seth’s bed, although the two of them only touch by accident. One morning, however, as Seth wakes up and spies Ryan by the window, he makes a voyeuristic discovery:

Ryan is standing by the window, his back to Seth, and the light is edging his silhouette, burning an outline around his messy hair and his muscles and his narrow hips, and Seth can’t tell but he’s pretty sure that Ryan, in that moment, is glowing (Zahra 2005a).

Later, as they get drunk and spin more questions from the book, Ryan finds himself getting closer and closer to Seth, who resists/invites the contact like a classical ephebe, never quite asking for, but never quite declining, the attentions of the erastes. As desire sparks, leaps the gap, enflames the air between them, how can it be characterized? Are they two brothers in love? Ryan seems to reject their fraternal connection, but Seth insists upon it, understanding that, whatever is happening between them, their brotherhood is its ground, its field:

Seth feels Ryan moving closer to him. He expects the press of Ryan’s front against his own back before he feels it, and when he feels Ryan’s nose against the nape of his neck he isn’t surprised by it. He doesn’t move, but he lets Ryan’s arms tighten around him. ‘I don’t want another brother,’ Ryan whispers against Seth’s t-shirt. Seth feels the words vibrate there, even more than he hears them. ‘I ruin people, Seth. I don’t want you to go anywhere.’ (Zahra 2005a)

Their kiss is “also a crash,” (Zahra 2005a) and although it occurs as the climax of the fic, it also seems subservient to the real desire, which occurs through recollection. Fetish items, like Ryan’s leather wrist cuff, the necklace that he only wore for part of the first season, the bottle of tequila passed between them, snippets of things that Trey once said to him, all culminate in a kind of mnemonic sexuality, an erotics of memory that is more powerful than the actual sex that eventually occurs. This is also the case in “Towards The Limits of Maps” (Zahra 2005b), by the same author, where Ryan and Seth embark an erotic road-trip that never seems to arrive at any acceptable destination.

Unlike “Questions”, which is roughly contiguous with Trey’s shooting in season two, “Maps” occurs several years later—Ryan has become a successful architect for the Newport Group, and Seth has moved to San Francisco, where he is haphazardly working on “a novel that is in no way like a comic book” (Zahra 2005b). Mostly, he is sleeping with a girl who reminds him of Summer, and not doing much of anything else. When Ryan arrives at his door and asks him to go on an unexpected road-trip, Seth agrees because he has nothing else to do, but also because Ryan is asking. Like all picaresque journeys, this one has a hidden truth – Ryan and Marissa are engaged, and Ryan can’t quite bring himself to tell Seth.

Ryan first takes him to Fresno, his childhood home, where he points out the empty parking lots, concrete playgrounds, and other desolate, in-between spaces where he grew up “as part of a pack” with Trey, Arturo, and Theresa(Zahra 2005b). Once again, Ryan finds himself animalized, rendered as something not quite human, and this remediation is firmly bound up with his own sense of shame over being poor. “I know it sounds like it was really bad,” he starts to tell Seth. But, it was something else entirely. It was a life lived with other people, with friends, a life with connections and lifelines. Being part of a pack has always been Seth’s dream. Being part of anything has always been Seth’s dream, anything beyond a life lived in Japanime action-films and secret conversations with his confidante, a plastic horse named Captain Oats:

He is remembering days sitting alone underneath the jungle gym with his Luke Skywalker action figure and Captain Oats while the kids climbed overhead and pointed at him through the bars. He is remembering coming home from school and sitting cross-legged on the floor of the laundry room with his comic books, listening to Rosa sing songs in Spanish under her breath. He is remembering skateboarding down the pier alone and watching Luke and Marissa and Summer and Chip and Holly and all their stupid shiny friends tossing French fries at one another, sneaking closed-mouth picante-flavored kisses and laughing. ‘No,’ he says again, ‘it doesn’t sound like it was really bad at all’. (Zahra 2005b)

As with “The Complete Book of Questions” (Zahra 2005a), although this slash-cycle culminates in more than one sexual scene, the real desire in “Maps” (Zahra 2005b) sleeps in these little moments, these erotic attenuations of lost time and memory, time passed and bodies passed out of existence, houses exchanged and parks filled in with concrete. Ryan actually visits his old house, only to find that the wallpaper in his former bedroom, “rocket-ships, or maybe racing cars,” is just barely visible beneath the new coat of paint. In “Towards the Limits of Maps” Seth begins to feel, after a time, that he is walking in Trey’s footsteps, but also that he is becoming something different to Ryan, a partner for which there really is no definition. Talking to Summer, Seth insists that he’s “not gay,” but “just Ryan gay,” (Zahra 2005b) as if Ryan-gay is actually a variation on bisexuality – as if Ryan himself, his mysterious body, the way his skin glows against the window, as if all of these things signal a primary frustration of the sexual binary, a ‘/’ between gay and straight that may be no punctuation at all, or may be everything.

I am not naive enough to suggest that incest has the same positive flexibility as queerness, that it is an area ripe for deconstruction, rather than a force that has the power to sexually cripple the lives of children. Rather, like many fanfic writers, I want to explore a continuum of incest that allows for potential expressions of non-traumatic sexuality, while keeping in mind Judith Butler’s claim that:

If the incest taboo is also what is supposed to install the subject in heterosexual normativity, and if, as some argue, this installation is the condition of possibility for a symbolically or culturally intelligible life, then homosexual love emerges as the unintelligible within the intelligible; a love that has no place in the name of love, a position within kinship that is no position. (2004, 160)

The prohibition against incest remains always the prohibition against homosexuality, and in order to avoid creating exiled-loves, shadow-loves, “a love that has no place in the name of love,” (ibid) we need to be willing to acknowledge a continuum along which sexuality – both queer and straight – gender, power, and incest all exist as nodal points, linked threads, or competing energies and intensities, capable of deep annihilation and paradoxically loving expression at the same time.

Bibliography

Bell, V. 1993. Interrogating Incest: Feminism, Foucault, and the Law. New York: Routledge.

Butler, J. 2002. Antigone’s Claim. New York: Routledge,

———. 2004. Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge.

Freud, S. 1997. Sexuality and the Philosophy of Love. New York: Touchstone.

Kustritz, A. 2003. “Slashing the Romance Narrative.” Journal of American Culture. 26.3, Sept .

Levi-Strauss, C. 1971. The Elementary Structures of Kinship. Boston, MA: Beacon.

Luder, MF. 2007. “Yelling.” Sept. http://sdlucly.livejournal.com/tag/yelling (accessed Feb. 10 2009).

Mitchell, J. 2003. Siblings: Sex and Violence. London: Polity.

Penley, C. 1997. NASA/Trek, London: Verso.

Sampson, JD. 2006. “Conversations Over the Front Seat.” Jan 21.

Setoodeh, R. 2006. “Unknown To Hit: Ben Talks To Newsweek.” Newsweek, Jan 15.

Thomas, A. 2006. “Fan Fiction Online: Engagement, Critical Response and Affective Play through Writing.” Australian Journal of Language and Literacy. Vol. 29, No. 3.

Zahra. “The Complete Book of Questions.” 2005a. (no longer available online)

Zahra “Towards the Limits of Maps.” 2005b. (no longer available online)

Film & Teleography

A Streetcar Named Desire, Elia Kazan, 1951.

Supernatural, Eric Kripke, Warner Brothers Television, 2005-Present.

The OC, Josh Schwartz, Fox Network, 2003-2007.

Notes

[1] The citation convention for television episodes used in this paper indicates season followed by episode number.

[2] Luke is Marissa Cooper’s ex-boyfriend, a typecast jock who antagonizes both Ryan and Seth until discovering that his dad is actually gay and having an affair with man.

Author Bio

Jes Battis is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the University of Regina, specializing in Fantasy and Science Fiction, Queer Studies, and Children’s Literature. He is also a novelist.