In mid 2016 Alison Rowley, a Concordia University professor of Russian social history, started work on an article about the evolution of Russian leadership cults in the century since the 1917 revolution that spawned the Soviet Union. It was meant to be a technical piece examining how advances in technology have changed the way people produce material culture that build the images of dictators like Vladimir Putin. But around the same time, Donald Trump’s candidacy was heating up, as were stories about his chumminess with and demagogic similarities to Putin. Rowley thought she ought to see if there was any material culture exploring or deepening the narrative of their budding bromance.
She typed “Trump Putin” into eBay to see what showed up and found thousands of buttons, T-shirts, and other items, playing with slogans and sound bites. Some of them were oddly sexual. Then she checked Amazon and found, besides Trump-Putin underwear and coloring books, a trove of slash fiction—a sexualized genre of fan fiction between characters of the same sex. We're talking extremely sexual stuff. Fascinated, she started buying as much of it as she could to build an archive of oddly pornographic Trump-Putin items.
Earlier this year, Rowley published an article in the academic journal Porn Studies, unpacking her deep dive into Trump-Putin kitsch and quasi-erotica. Entitled “‘Trump and Putin Sittin’ in a Tree: Material Culture, Slash and the Pornographication of the 2016 US Presidential Election,” the piece explored what all this junk means, why it exists, and how that sexualization bleeds into mainstream culture. (Think Alec Baldwin’s Trump kissing Putin on SNL in late 2016, Stephen Colbert referring to Trump’s mouth as Putin’s cock holster in May, or any article about Trump and Putin referencing a romantic entanglement.) VICE recently caught up with Rowley to talk about her ongoing research on Trump-Putin slash fic and kitsch. She told us what it was about this that drew her in, how much sexualized content there is, and why it’s culturally important.
VICE: When you first found Trump-Putin kitsch and erotica, what was your interest in it?
Alison Rowley: I was interested in the way these things changed every time there was a new sound bite. Trump would say something and overnight there would be new materials. And I would buy them. I was wondering about that sexualization. [After stockpiling a bunch of books] finally I opened up all these fan-fiction files on my Kindle and went, "Holy shit!” You’re not really aroused by some of these stories, but they’re hysterically funny. And they’re a lot more explicit than what I found on material objects. I thought, OK, I’ve got to figure out what’s going on.
How much exposure did you have to slash fic and the sexuality around it at that point?
None. I felt like a total novice. I just realized I had to write about this because nobody else was. And you don’t have to be an expert in slash culture to find it. If my mother plugged the wrong words into Amazon, she could find these books. Some of this stuff—that’s quite explicit—is now part of the mainstream. You don’t have to look very far. That was the big surprise for me.
Do you collect a lot of Trump-Putin stories from dedicated slash sites? Is it more hardcore than the stuff on Amazon that, as you say, anyone could stumble upon?
I’m doing more research on those sites. [But widely available content] is using every single trope and example and model [from slash]. You have all kinds of approaches to it, from very romantic, to the most extreme parts of slash you can find. The only difference is that it’s on Amazon.
It’s surprising, because a large part of the population doesn’t read slash, and doesn’t understand slash. There are a whole bunch of acronyms that you have to learn. Even some of the pornography that’s being referenced, that’s not exactly stuff you’re aware of [in the mainstream].
Is there something special about Trump and Putin that triggered this widespread, explicit eroticization, or has this type of thing always happened historically?
When we have controversial political moments, they often become sexualized. You go back to the French Revolution, and you find pornographic outpourings about the royal family. In that era, people drew cartoons. Now, people are able to express themselves in a different way online.
Why Trump-Putin? Why isn’t there Obama-Joe Biden stuff? Those two men were clearly very good friends.
Trump has managed to turn himself into a sexual being. Like when on the campaign he talked about the size of his penis. Or when he talks about grabbing women. You can talk about Trump and porn in the same sentence, and it’s believable. If you try to make slash with president Obama and Joe Biden, who don’t discuss sexuality or have over-the-top personas, it’s not as believable. It’s harder to read a homoerotic subtext into Obama’s relations with anybody. The trigger is Trump. When I looked for Putin fan fiction that predates the Trump stuff, there’s very little. This is Trump unknowingly leading the way to make himself into this kind of image.
I’m sure that makes him an even more attractive target for slash writers.
Oh, if you write slash, you have hit the jackpot. Because, “Finally, we’ve found someone who can give us sound bites we can work with!” He doesn’t filter enough to know how his words could be turned. I also think he’s completely unaware that any of this is happening. I don’t think anyone in the White House now ponders the way political and material culture responds to what is going on.
Are there any other politicians worldwide who are having slash written about them?
Every major political figure in the US is having slash written about them [to varying degrees]. There were stories about Trump and everybody else, like Pence. It’s becoming a part of American political culture. But I have yet to see anything involving Trump and any world leader except for Putin. They don’t have them for Putin and other leaders, either. This seems to be a uniquely American thing, and I don’t think I have any explanation for that.
I don’t think the Russians read any of this. If they did pay any attention to it, I think they would be fine with it because Putin comes across as the strong man who’s the dominant figure… Putin has built his entire political reputation on being a dominant male figure. In the Russian context, every time he wants to shame a political opponent, he will always suggest things like, “So and so, while he was in prison, was of course raped.” He’s undercutting their masculinity.
Has the easy-to-find slash content evolved, or gotten more hardcore, as time’s gone by?
No, it’s been fairly consistent, and that’s surprising. I thought there’d be more of a lead-up, like one person read someone else’s work and went from there. Instead, it’s like it fell from the sky, well into the hardcore. In August 2016, we have full-on hardcore references that last through about February 2017. Now it’s tapering off… But we’re going to have another outpouring. Some materials are already referencing a 2020 campaign. If Trump does run again, we’re going to see another peak of slash and way more material objects again. I don’t think this will go away.
How much bleed do you see between this slash content and mainstream culture and conversations? How important is it, beyond being just this weird internet thing?
It’s a very serious topic. It speaks to an unusual moment in political history. When we talk about the way in which people’s respect for politicians has eroded in the past 20 years… Can you imagine anyone in the Reagan era having this kind of discourse? The answer’s really: No. Now, it seems that anything is fair game. And I don’t know how you get the respect back.
Some critics who know about this slash fic say that it’s homophobic or kink shaming, because it uses a sex between Trump and Putin as a punchline. When Trump submits to Putin, he’s lesser. It deals in gay stereotypes. What do you think about that?
I think they’re playful [stories]. I think they’re written by people who have an absolute acceptance of same-sex relationships. They’re taking something they think would upset Trump and his conservative supporters and they’re going as extreme as they can because they think it’ll have shock value. What I see is that it’s political commentary every single page.
The political satire comes in the language, like the blustery way Trump speaks, constantly referencing “the greatest” throughout the stories. One of the stories is called Putin It in Trump: A Sexy Bromance by Will Smut. He says, “Donald wanted the Russian to make his butthole great again.” It’s playing with the slogans, referencing catchphrases. Throughout the stories you have political moments, so it becomes less about sex between two men and more about political commentary.
You’ve collected a lot more than just slash fic, and a lot of it’s eroticized kitsch. What are some of the other sexualized pieces of Trump-Putin material culture you’re into now?
I’m interested in is the diversity of things. You have scented candles. You’ve got chocolates. I’m resisting, this week, the Vladimir Putin garden gnome. I want this gnome so desperately. It’s a shirtless Putin sitting on a tank with the gun between his legs. It looks like an erect penis. It’s so awful—it’s awesome. Who thinks to make a garden gnome? I really want the Donald Trump sex doll that comes with an erect penis where you put the air in it. I’m loving seeing the sheer creativity people are bringing to the image of these two men. And my bank account’s taken a hit.
How big is your archive right now? How big could it get? How much have you spent?
I bought a really big plastic bin at Wal-Mart. The biggest one they sold. I’m expecting it to be filled. Some things don’t take up much room, like thongs. I’ve been talking to an archivist in the US about what’s going to become of these things. Some of the shirts I bought last year are not available anymore. I want them to survive. I think they will end up in a university archive.
I’m maybe buying 10 percent of what I want. I’m not doing this with a grant. I’m doing this on my own. I try not to think about this, but I’m probably $2,000, $3,000 in. In two weeks—crap, my husband just walked in and is going to hear me say this—I think I’ve spent $400. I have a list in my head: Payday is Thursday. If I pay this bill, this might be left. I could afford that. Yeah, now I’m getting the evil death stare. I wouldn’t be surprised if, by the end, I’m $10,000 into this.
You’re turning this into a book, right? What else are you trying to explore about Trump-Putin slash, the pornification of that relationship, and generally, all of this ?
I want to spend double the amount of time looking at the material items. I want to talk about the stuff on fan fiction websites. I want to go back and look at earlier material on Obama. I’m going to include a chapter on internet memes, which is something I didn’t include before. Eventually, I need to pull up Pornhub and type “Trump Putin” in and see if there are some parodies.
I hope when the book is done, I’ll be able to walk away. I’ve been able to do that in the past [with other archiving projects]. I’m not sure I’ll be able to. But I’m lucky because that line between scholar and collector is fluid. I can always argue that everything I purchase is really for work.
Follow Mark Hay on Twitter.