BY Rea McNamara in Opinion | 29 APR 20
Featured in
Issue 211

Emily Allan and Leah Hennessey’s Queer Cosplay

The New York-based comedians give sexually repressed characters, from sci-fi heroes to famous academics, the chance to fight and fall in love

BY Rea McNamara in Opinion | 29 APR 20

Google ‘Johnlock’ and you’ll find an endless stream of fan art picturing a romantic relationship between detective Sherlock Holmes and his loyal assistant, Dr. John Watson, from the BBC’s Sherlock series (2010–17). On websites such as Archive of Our Own, the fan-coined portmanteau will pull up torrid accounts of their love, initiated by moments of real on-screen tension between actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. Johnlock was a mutual obsession of New York-based comedians Emily Allan and Leah Hennessey when they co-wrote the cult YouTube series Zhe Zhe with Ruby McCollister in 2013. Their satire of ‘post-apocalipstick’ New York followed the antics of a gender-fluid postpop band, with Allan as the villainous former lead singer, Chewie Swindleburne, and Hennessey as her on-again, off-again boyfriend, androgynous guitarist Jean D’Arc. The show’s esoteric humour seemed targeted at a niche audience who, like its writer-stars, were fans of both the British sitcom Absolutely Fabulous (1992–2016) and Kim’s Video and Music, an erstwhile shop in Manhattan’s East Village.

Niche fandoms layer in Allan and Hennessey’s work, often to absurd and melodramatic effect. For Slash (2016), a performance at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, they performed as their Zhe Zhe characters fighting and making up in Johnlock cosplay. ‘We get the most pleasure out of playing what we consider to be male characters,’ Allan told me. 

Emily Allan and Leah Hennessey, Slash: Unholy Matrimony, 2020. Courtesy: the artists and DIS 

Johnlock is an example of slash – fan fiction that inflates real and imagined homoerotic subtexts between two pop-cultural figures, from Marvel superheroes to members of K-pop bands. Primarily produced by women and queer fans, the form originated with fan fiction about hot-headed Captain James T. Kirk and his cool, half-Vulcan first officer Spock from Star Trek: The Original Series (1966–69). Their imagined romance, abbreviated as ‘K/S’ (hence slash), evolved into a genre self-published in fanzines and circulated at conventions. Underground by necessity – to avoid homophobic attacks and copyright-infringement law suits – it became a thriving internet subculture in the 1990s. 

In Slash, Allan and Hennessey play women who feel trapped in their female gender. In several versions of the work – after its Museum of Modern Art debut, the play was performed in New York as a full-length piece at MX Gallery in October 2018, followed by runs at Joe’s Pub and Ars Nova, the latter revised under the direction of John Cameron Mitchell – they begin as Betty and Veronica, two love interests from the comic series Archie (1942–2015). Bored of fighting for the title character’s affections, they unleash their sexual tension through erotic cosplay of tight-knit male friendships from popular culture, such as John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Threaded throughout their performance are excerpts from Joanna Russ’s 1985 essay ‘Pornography by Women, for Women, with Love’, in which the lesbian science-fiction writer argues that K/S fan works offer a feminist rebuke of Star Trek’s patriarchal undertones. The first time she read Russ’s essay, Hennessey understood why she found such freedom in slash’s ‘gendered weirdness’. ‘I really felt like my world was breaking open,’ she told me.

Earlier this year, Allan and Hennessey reprised Slash for an eponymous video series, commissioned by DIS, in which real and imagined catfights are staged between famous academics. In the first episode, Camille Paglia (Allan) harangues Susan Sontag (Hennessey) after being told, during a 1992 CNBC Live interview, that her former idol claimed never to have heard of her. Hewing closely to the original transcript, Allan delivers Paglia’s meltdown (‘She doesn’t watch TV. She doesn’t even listen to rock … I’m a Sontag of the ’90s!’) at sonic speed. If academia prides itself on cool critical remove, Allan and Hennessey’s fandom runs white-hot.

Emily Allan and Leah Hennessey, Star Odyssey, 2020. Courtesy: the artists; photograph: Max Lakner

Another episode imagines a confrontation between Fall frontman Mark E. Smith (Allan) and Fall groupie and techno-theorist Mark Fisher (Hennessey) during a lecture in hell that satirizes the YouTube video essay format Fisher made famous. In an earnest Midlands lilt, Hennessey drops references to Fisher’s ‘k-punk’ blog and heaps praise on Smith (‘You’re the muse of the everyman … I’m the person that understands you!’) while the rocker keeps him in a chokehold. The gesture and Dantean set underscore the way our icons can keep us eternally paralyzed in awe.

In the final episode of Slash, Hennessey – dressed in a frizzy grey wig as second-wave feminist Andrea Dworkin – debates her former academic advisor Allen Ginsberg (Allan in a rabbinic beard), while at their godson’s bar mitzvah, on the merits of New York v. Ferber (1982), the Supreme Court decision that made child pornography illegal. Quoting Dworkin’s own account of the argument in Heartbreak: The Political Memoir of a Feminist Militant (2002), Hennessey seems both weary and baffled, a relatable state in the era of #MeToo: ‘Everyone knew Allen’s tastes skewered younger. But I was surprised by the brazenness with which he outed himself as a paedophile.’ 

In the five decades since Trekkies birthed modern Western media fandom, slash has gone mainstream, migrating from obscure zines to viral posts on Tumblr. Now, with live comedy and performance art cancelled due to the COVID-19 virus, Allan and Hennessey are thinking about what it means to create spectacle and intimacy in virtual space. For Allan, slash’s roleplay offers their sexually repressed characters either ‘a political prescriptive for how to live or an escapist fantasy for apocalyptic end-times’. Or, perhaps, a little of both. And that, she says, ‘feels like the highest and most responsible art form to make’.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 211 with the headline ‘Superfans’.

Main Image: Emily Allan and Leah Hennessey, Star Odyssey, 2020. Courtesy: the artists; photograph: Max Lakner

Rea McNamara is an artist, writer, editor and curator. She lives in Toronto, Canada.