Hannibal, Slash Fandom, and Queer Media Visibility

Curator's Note

When I first saw the scene in the S3 finale in which Will Graham presses his hand against the glass wall of Hannibal Lecter's cell, I was reminded of three things: a similar scene in Star Trek II, a quote by Henry Jenkins about slash, and a fan vid inspired by Jenkins' quote. The quote goes as follows: “Slash happens when you take away the glass. The glass, for me, is often more social than physical; the glass represents those aspects of traditional masculinity which prevent emotional expressiveness or physical intimacy between men” (source). Jenkins references the Star Trek II scene in which Kirk and Spock press their hands against one another through a glass wall as Spock dies. Star Trek is also the text which inspired contemporary slash fandom, which pushes back against the constraints of heteronormativity. While it is usually up to fandom to take away the glass, my video essay shows how Hannibal shatters the glass within the text itself.

Hannibal thus deviates from a pattern that thingswithwing's vid “The Glass” shows so well. Through clips drawn from numerous film and TV series showing characters separated by glass walls, the vid demonstrates both how thoroughly heteronormativity polices same-sex relationships and how fans refuse such policing. The relationship between Will and Hannibal might seem to fall into the same pattern: both men are drawn to one another, a sentiment that is rendered in dialogue and gestures—in other words, it is ready-made for slash. In many cases (Supernatural or Teen Wolf come to mind), both text and extratextual discourses may tease but ultimately deny that anything beyond normative male friendship is at work. Not so in Hannibal: showrunner Bryan Fuller and actors Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen have discussed Will and Hannibal as being in love throughout the show's three seasons. No queerbaiting here.

The latter half of season three turns “Hannigram” into text: “Is Hannibal in love with me?” Will asks in 3x12, receiving an affirmative answer. In the final scene of the season, Will returns this love by joining Hannibal in murder, and declares their joint act “beautiful” before resting his head on Hannibal's chest, all while “Love Crime,” a song written for this episode, plays in the background.


I love your observation of the glass and how it both recalls and does something different from Jenkins's observation. One thing I find interesting here - in this specific scene - is that the glass seems to be serving a slightly different function, yet one that's wholly wrapped up in the Jenkinsian (?word?) model. That is, Will himself is consciously distancing himself from Hannibal in this moment, as he tries to throughout (but patently cannot manage), and doing it by recalling an even more distancing moment which - in Will's telling - is paradoxically intimate - keeping Hannibal close by pushing him away. Which, if it can be read that way, seems entirely congruent with a Hannibal-as-fan-fiction reading, inasmuch as the glass, as you say, is no longer a signifier of media/society keeping two men apart (from which fan fiction alternative readings are born), but rather an in-text signifier of playing with the emotional distance/closeness of the two men, in full recognition of their inextricably intimate relationship. If that makes any sense? I'm writing off-the-cuff, but basically what I think I'm trying to say is where Jenkins's glass stands in for every social/narrative constraint that keeps two men apart for reasons external to the text, here in Hannibal it seems to keep them apart for reasons that are entirely of the text, in such a way that the text - the narrative - itself is aware of the usual role played by the glass... as if the explicit play with intimacy/distance of the scene is effectively saying that the glass is obsolete in Hannibal? They're already emotionally and canonically close/distant so that the Jenkinsian glass separates nothing but their bodies...? I may be rambling. ;)

I agree that Will very purposefully touches the glass to show Hannibal how close they could be and then removes that possibility by leaving. Also interesting is that there was no stage direction for this in the script, so perhaps this was an improvisation on Hugh Dancy’s part (and as we know, much of the course of Will and Hannibal’s relationship was motivated by the actors’ performances, as Fuller has pointed out). I really like the idea that if we think of Hannibal as fanfiction, the metaphor of the glass takes on a different value because fanfic (esp. slash) often operates with non-normative ideas about gender and sexuality. And yes, the reasons for the glass and for Will touching the glass are diegetic, much like the later consummation-via-murder of their relationship is.

I adore this line of discussion. My goodness. :) Hence me waiting a week to comment--been savoring it. >I really like the idea that if we think of Hannibal as fanfiction, the metaphor of the glass takes on a different value because fanfic (esp. slash) often operates with non-normative ideas about gender and sexuality Just want to throw this out there: The models that Jenkins and even Constance Penley offer re: fanfic formed were premised upon the notion of an intractable, unbreachable divide (that glass again) between official producers and the fans. You could even argue that the text itself was the glass, apparently transparent and accessible but really hardened against breach or crack from the inside. What Hannibal does so beautifully is let everybody leave their fingerprints all over that glass--Hannibal as text bears our fannish marks, including Fuller's, and that brings me such inexplicable joy.

I second what Lori said about the glass becoming a signifier of something other precisely because the text can be read as fan-fiction. Of course, there were criticisms of the season, and particularly of the final episode which ranged from the idea that the show had become too interested in providing fan service to the Hannigram shippers to accusations of queerbaiting because it the relationship wasn't made explicit enough. These criticisms only highlight for me facets of this series which I have always valued greatly - the room it leaves for interpretation and its lack of clear emotional character sign posting. Will and Hannibal's emotional dynamics are complex and are rarely stated simply, directly and clearly; leaving room for the viewer to ponder them and leaving many interesting narrative pathways open. If nothing else, it seems to me that the final scene leaves clear room for the validation and canonisation of the murder husband ship as well as leaving space for a more conventional reading with Will as morally righteous hero attempting to defeat the antagonist . In doing so, the ending has intriguing room for continuation. To have played it any other way -to have made one reading more dominant than the other - would have either led to more legitimate criticisms about the representation of queer characters or the rejection of the fannish (female?) values in favour of a more normative and conventional resolution. A thin and precarious line was trodden, I feel.

I really like this observation; it's interesting - I was talking about the show with my husband/fellow viewer this evening (in comparison to Sherlock, although I won't get into that here), but one thing he said that really struck me as a nice take was that this show, above most/all others, seemed to have graduated from the "sixth grade" school of let us explain everything to you and 'play' with queerness in such a way that it's still jokey and plausibly deniable. He was saying that it's grown-up TV for people who can handle grown-up ideas; and while I'm not entirely sold on the 'grown-up' label, per se, what I liked about this was that in his reading, and mine, what we see is almost a rejection of the paradigm that makes the 'alternative' reading necessary. Like - this gets to what I was attempting to say earlier; that the various readings on the spectrum of male intimacy are fully part of the text - not subtextual, simply available for the taking or leaving, and none privileged any more than the others (so that the debates that you mention - fan service in one corner, and queer baiting in the other - seem (to me) rather... pointless? Or, beside the point? Dare I say, incidental?). IF we can say that - and perhaps not everyone sees it the same way - but IF we can say that, how does that affect/alter our understanding of the slashy read? If the text itself is explicitly slashy (in a multivalenced kind of way, with multiple readings available to a given reader), does an insistently "slash" reading shut down other possibilities as much as one that insists that there's nothing to see here? Which is to say, in a broader sense, does Hannibal mark the beginning of the obsolescence of slash as 'alternative'? By which I don't mean we might no longer have use of or desire for slash fic - my near-obsessive consumption of Hannibal fic since I saw the finale more than attests to a continuing hunger for it. But I wonder - for so long, 'slash' has been discussed in both fandom and academia as necessarily and inherently resistant/oppositional to dominant/hegemonic readings. While I'm not unsympathetic to that take, and even see it in some contexts, I'm less enamored of the 'necessarily' part as a condition for its existence; for my part, and particularly given how politicized it's become (the near-constant charge of queerbaiting if a ship isn't made expressly and canonically sexual- not just romantic), I'd be interested to see more discussion of the pleasurable aspect, in which slash is first and foremost a means of expressing/experiencing female pleasure. Which, yes, raises its own issues, particularly of appropriation, but if the canonical text is making such a reading available, and clothing it in such visually sumptuous images that the pleasure is pretty much built-in, then does this have a material effect on how we might talk about it academically?

It's so funny that your husband called the show for "grown ups," because I have been describing it as a "show for adults" for months now in my head, although not out loud because, as you suggest, it implies devaluation of other types of programs and viewers as immature. I think you're articulating what I have been feeling here, which is that the show is operating outside the dominant paradigm for what is an "alternative" or "queer" show or fan practice, just as it's operating outside dominant gender/class hierarchies around quality television. There are a lot of industrial and social conditions that seem to me to be underpinning this paradigm shift, which would be worth exploring further, but the primary effect is liberatory. I feel like I can breathe. It feels like change, and I think that's what I mean by "adult". There is something so inspiring in having fantasy truly function AS fantasy, as a liberatory alternative to existing paradigms. In this case I feel like Hannibal could be part of the larger paradigm shift culturally and socially regarding these discourses of gender/queerness/quality, including those around slash. I keep thinking of the last line of Matt Zoller Seitz's review of the season: "Hannibal is dead. Hannibal is the future." Let's hope so.

I can't help but feel that the "this is fan service" critiques of the finale are anxious reactions to how overtly the love between Will and Hannibal was expressed in gestures and dialogue toward the end of the season. Declaring it fan service is an easy way to dismiss having to engage with what the show did there. I almost don't want there to be more of Hannibal because the ending was so perfect (although maybe I should have more faith in Bryan Fuller).

Amen on both counts. >Declaring it fan service is an easy way to dismiss having to engage with what the show did there. Yeah--it's a shorthand dismissal that's patronizing to both the series and to fans. Nil points. And I trust Fuller, but I would be so very ok on the one hand if there were no more Hannibal. The ending to the series is just so freaking perfect. On the other, though, as a fan, I'd love to watch 13 episodes of Murder Husbands. But perhaps that's what the (non-network televised) fanfic is for...

I love this discussion and wholly agree with the points all of you are making about how "the glass" moment in Hannibal as yet another way in which this text is offering us something new that, as Lori says so well, both "recalls and does something different from Jenkins' observation." And to Kirsty's point, I also love how the ambiguity of the text does not in some way buttress a normative reading (which would have been queerbaiting), but instead preserves emotional complexity in a relationship that we already know to be passionate and loving (and that the penultimate episode clearly defined as love). My favorite moment of this exchange was the sigh that came right before the iconic hand-on-glass moment, because it seemed to signal both the textual/emotional weight of that gesture between the two characters as well as its extra-textual significance within the fanfiction/queer worlds. It was the wind-up to the punch. If, as Melanie suggests, this gesture was Dancy's choice, it would be yet another in his pattern of fulfilling fan desires for emotional moments/gestures while, in interviews/press, being much more coy and teasing--in a playful way-- about the characters' relationship than Mads. It seems to me so important that both actors are willing to explore the complexity of this relationship without any sense of discomfort with its being perceived as "queer," just as they have no discomfort in their being objects of fannish love and desire (no femiphobia; no interest in reinforcing cultural hierarchies of taste and gender). Not being American seems key here, and another way in which the transcultural production and casting of this show is so essential to its unusually rich text and the intensity of its grateful fans.

Maybe I'm biased, but I agree that it makes a difference that the actors are European and probably have a less anxious conception of masculinity than some American actors. I really appreciate that Hannibal does make clear that love is the key term for defining Will and Hannibal's relationship, but doesn't qualify what kind of love either within the text or in extratextual discourse. I only noticed the sigh when I was editing the video, and it perfectly captures Will's frustrated state of mind re: Hannibal (the kind of "can't live with him/can't live without him" limbo he's in at that moment).

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.