Kristina Busse

Genderswap and Feminism

Is Fandom Gonna Have to Choke a Bitch? Language and Gender in Fanfiction

Writercon (August 2009)

[excerpted and revised from "Bending Gender: Feminist and (Trans)Gender Discourses in the Changing Bodies of Slash Fanfiction." Co-written with Alexis Lothian. Internet Fiction(s). Ed. Ingrid Hotz-Davies, Anton Kirchhofer, and Sirpa Leppänen. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009. 105-27. ]

[Intro] I'd like to talk a little bit about a slash genre that is simultaneously very popular but also often belittled and ridiculed, namely genderswap. (I chose to use this term—even though it’s problematic—because the alternatives like genderfuck and gender bending aren’t much better). Genderswap is a character’s sudden change into the opposite gender, sometimes explained by aliens, demons, or magic; other times with no explanation. So, let’s just say, Dean and Sam from Supernatural encounter a witch and the next morning Dean wakes up female; or Colonel Sheppard touches an ancient artifact on Atlantis and turns female; or, as is quite common in reality-based fandoms, one of the Panic! boys simply wakes up female for no story intrinsic reason at all. The appeal of genderswap is obvious: like any bodyswap, it forces the character to learn not only about the opposite gender but also their own, forces them to separate expectations from reality and nurture from nature so to speak.

[Trans] What they do not do, however, in most cases is deal with the realities of trans* experiences. While recently there has been an influx of very good trans* narratives (and Travis keeps a rec list at that’s well worth looking at), I want to look at more traditional genderswap, where the focus is on gender attributes in cis (as opposed to trans) identities more than actual realistic trans concerns. Since my familiarity is mostly with m/m slash, I’ll also focus primarily on male to female genderswap.

[General Problems] Genderswap has to juggle various—at times contradictory—narratives, ideologies, and expectations:

So why do I nevertheless want to redeem genderswap? I mean, more often than not it is transphobic and has a clear tendency to be both misogynist and homophobic. And yet, I think it may offer a particular playing field in which cis women can explore gender and identity issues.

[m/m slash: Unmarked Bodies] This has often been argued about m/m slash in general, and while we can certainly debate this, I'm just gonna take this as a possible way to read our identification with initially male bodies, with the male characters on screen (beyond the fact that still they often get more screen time, and all the other why-we-slash arguments).

Now, I see the female body as war-torn territory in a lot of ways, because wars get fought over it-- abortion, premarital sex, contraception, breast implants, breastfeeding, date rape, and on and on and on. … In addition, the erotic female body is very thick with domination and resistance. … When you move into fantasy, into the semiotic, you're entering the semiotic territory that the porn industry and the advertising industry … occupy.... The air around women's bodies is so thick with semiotic smoke that, if you're aware of the smoke, it's very difficult to generate eroticism there. Romance blows the smoke away in one direction, and porn blows it away in the opposite direction (both taking an approach of denying the problems and encouraging us to stop thinking about them), but slash takes another approach, by decamping from women's bodies to men's, where the air is clearer. (Julad 5-03)

What Julad’s arguing here is that female bodies are often too overdetermined to create readily identifiable objects, that it is easier for us to identify and play out our concerns on the unmarked (and for bi and het females also desirable) bodies of the male protagonists than trying to negotiate those of the female TV stars who often present bodies that are oppressively unlike their own.

[Why Genderswap?] But, if we understand the male fictional characters to be unmarked bodies on which we write our fears, hopes, and desires, who let us play out our dreams and fantasies, then why would we turn around and impose female bodies on them?

[Sadistic Pleasure] For one, there’s a certain pleasure to force men to suffer the everyday mechanics of a female body (period, sitting while peeing, breasts when running). In many cases, however, the stories engage in a surprisingly stereotyped understanding of the intersections of biology and gender. Frequent discoveries for the newly female-bodied include exaggerated invocations which would horrify many feminists: intense menstrual cramps, chocolate cravings, frustration at the restrictive expectations around women’s clothing and grooming behavior. This preoccupation with negative aspects of female-bodiedness often goes along with similarly stereotyped positive descriptions: characters learn to read their emotional environment better and experience a different and multi-orgasmic sexuality.

Considering the primarily cis-gendered female media fan community, these stereotypical presentations of womanly complaints may be less an attempt to accurately portray women’s realities than a means of fictionally venting frustrations among likeminded friends. Furthermore, the exaggerated lens is often a tool through which to explore gender relations rather than a failure of verisimilitude. It is a reflection of cultural stereotypes of femininity, reflecting both the fears and envies of men, rather than an accurate depiction of readers’ and writers’ own embodiments. The stories become an ironic playground to explore exaggerated stereotypes and feminine roles, projecting onto these fictional men the fictional constructs an equally fictional womanhood. Genderswap thus further complicates crossgendered identification by turning the identificatory (male) object into a (false) female, thus forcing characters and readers to address the constructed gender not just of the protagonist but of all of us.

[Cultural Context and Critique] Likewise, these men-turned-women encounter various forms of cultural expectations and societal sexism. In a way, they are strangers in a strange land: this allows us as women to confront womanliness through the filter of an outside observer turned insider. Forcing male characters to experience the social and cultural, physical and emotional realities of life in a female body, genderfuck stories ask whether and how much these socio-biological facts—objectification, sexual vulnerability, the possibility of becoming pregnant—constitute womanhood. As a result, the (male) narrative perspective juxtaposed with the (female) appearance creates a gap in which feminist critique can arise.

[Performing Femininity] Gender here clearly must be seen as performance: the disjuncture between womanliness and actual women writes femininity and its discontents onto the bodies of favorite male characters. Suggesting that all women perform femininity, genderswap offers women a reconnection to the female body via a doubled gender masquerade. The man-turned-woman protagonist has to acquire these skills more consciously, allowing reader and writer to explore what constitutes femininity. Fucking with gender in this way allows writers and readers to explore how to be a woman. Or, more explicitly, it allows writers and readers to envision how familiar characters in unlikely situations construct their identities and negotiate sexed bodies in gendered environments.

[Why these men?] Genderswaps purposefully uses characters we know, characters that have been explored in hundreds and thousands of other stories. Rather than using female media figures that are often too pretty, too accomplished, too close for comfort, the crossgender identification allows a distancing. The genderswitch, however, then returns these characters into familiar (yet defamiliarized) territory. Merging the gender identity of the writer with the body of the desired male subject produces a paradigm in which the twice-removed body offers an identification that actual female media representations may not. If it is impossible to identify with the actual women on screen, then a viable alternative clearly is the protagonist-as-woman, who both is and is not female, both is and is not the story’s reader.

[Heteronormativity and Romance] I want to close with an issue that may be the one aspect I cannot argue or explicate away, namely the surprising heteronormativity of many genderswap stories. The romance plot has often been criticized as a patriarchal structure; when slash fans take it up, it can be difficult to see where texts criticize patriarchal structures and where they reinscribe them. Moreover, with genderswap, the dangers are even greater to fall into traditional gender dynamics, especially since quite often the goal of genderswaps is the ability to attain marriage and biological children, something not possible for most slash couples. The impossibly overdetermined topic of pregnancy, in particular, and the power dynamics associated with it brings slash fiction’s inherent tensions between romance and feminism into sharp focus.

[Identity and Desire] Through its very structure, genderswap should open up questions of sexual orientation and gender identity. All too often, however, stories ignore these concerns and love transcends gender and sexual desire, thus invoking the powerful slash trope wherein romantic love trumps identity politics. The singularity and exceptional status of the relationship is confirmed, ultimately evoking values of true love, monogamy, and heteronormativity. Most genderswap (and, in fact, most slash stories) end with the happily same-sex-loving central slash pairing—at times, married with child. So where the genderswap itself may have opened up feminist inquiry and queer potential of questioning identity, sexuality and patriarchy associated wit, the happy ending leaves us all to often with a romanticized heteronormative homosexual relationship—and I think that more than the genderswap itself is possibly the most dangerous of tropes we often desire from our fan fiction.