Gender-Swapping Characters: Does That Work?
io9 has a post talking about artists who swap genders of existing characters, and they linked to this comic, Spectrum Sliding by Allison “Mu” Jones, on the Oh Joy Sex Toy site. (Warning: other posts on the site are NSFW). Both posts made me think, and that means another meandering blog post while I work stuff out. (Yes, I’m thinking again. You have been warned.)
A lot of us began writing because we read the work of the others and thought, “I want to do that.” My two inspirations were Georgette Heyer and Dorothy Parker, and I started writing, not because I wanted to write like them, but because I wanted to have the effect they had, give that sense of “Yes, that’s how I feel, this story understands me as well as I understand it” to readers the way they’d given it to me. Fortunately for me, Heyer and Parker were both female, writing female-centered stories. What happens if your kind of story doesn’t have female protagonists? What happens if you want to save the world by battling the giant whatsis? Defeat the Nazi’s with a whip and cool hat? What happens if your genre is male?
So you gender-switch, and that can produce a lot of great stories, but those stories are not like the originals because gender has a huge impact on character. You can do the Sensitive Guy and the Tough Girl, but they’re never going be exactly like the original Sensitive Girl and the Tough Guy that inspired them. Gender matters. I think the gender-switch is a great idea, I’m all for it, but it does it really make a place for the opposite gender in the genre if the story changes?
I think the change in story is one of the reasons women write romance and men write superhero comics. Yes, I know a lot more women are writing comics now, I’m a huge Amanda Connor fan, but comic books are still a man’s (boy’s) world, full of boob windows and bending over. I think one of the reasons I love Harley Quinn so much is that she keeps blowing up story lines; I love comics, but I’d like to see some of those narratives blown off the planet. Harley Quinn may die one of these days, but she’s not going to get fridged; whoever takes her out will do it to take her out, not to deliver man-pain to the Joker. But even Harley is in there because she fell in love with the Joker. What happens if I want to be Captain America?
So I’m a skinny young girl who wants to join the Army in 1941–no, wait, I’d have to be WAC and they’d take me even if I was skinny because they wouldn’t let me fight. There were physical requirements for WACs, but they weren’t as stringent (you had to be healthy, not strong) and they included skin care and make-up tips, so not the same thing. Okay, I’m not very powerful (well, I’m a woman in 1942 which is when the WACs began, so yeah) but I want to help win the war so I join the WACs. That’s good.
And then a scientist recognizes my heartfelt desire to serve and turns me into a super soldier–no, wait, they won’t let me fight so they won’t waste the serum on me. It’ll have to be a radioactive spider.
Okay, so now I’m a super-soldier and I save . . . men? That’s not right. Real Men do not get saved by women. And who am I going to fall in love with? Better be a superhero who’s stronger than me because otherwise everybody will think my True Love is whipped. Thank God Superman is around today or Wonder Woman would never get a date; Steve Trevor was such a wimp.
Well, crap. At least there’s Wonder Woman . . . wait. How many Batman movies have there been? Ten, not counting the cartoons? How many Superman movies? Nineteen, twenty? How many Wonder Woman movies? [Crickets.] Crap, crap, crap. Back to gender-swapping. (Also this.)
The truth is, it’s damn hard to gender swap an action story because of our preconceptions, especially our ideas about male/female relationships. It worked with Ripley in Alien, and I think a large part of that was because there was no guy she was emasculating as a love interest. You can be a powerful, kickass heroine, just don’t have a male lover because that’s too far a reach.
I loved the final battle of Iron Man 3, but nobody really thinks Pepper is tougher than Tony, especially since the first thing he did was reverse the effects of the drug (albeit that was to keep her from dying from it, not because he didn’t want her more powerful than he was).
Xena was powerful, but her real love interest was Gabrielle, so she wasn’t emasculating a partner every time she kicked somebody’s ass.
Buffy was great at destroying bad guys, terrible at relationships; her one “normal” relationship ended because he couldn’t handle how much stronger she was, and her other two major relationships were with men who kind of enjoyed getting beat up by her.
The example I keep returning to is one from my childhood: Annie Oakley. Annie chased stage coaches and rescued people and shot bad guys and was just the BEST . . . until the last scene, where she was always in a pretty dress, standing under a tree, blushing and flirting with her boyfriend, Lofty. I was seven when the series ended, so that might have just been one episode, but what I do remember clearly was fantasizing about being Annie and having great difficulty slotting the guy into my fantasy. And what I decided–I remember this as if it were yesterday–is that I’d save the people on the stagecoach and then faint into my boyfriend’s arms. Cake: Having and Eating Accomplished.
And that’s why I think gender-switching is so hard. If we’ve internalized ideas of who we want to be, those ideas are part of us and attention must be paid. Yes, some of them need to be excised from the fantasy–that whole fainting into the hero’s arms had to go–but a lot of them are good changes. I have no wish to spray anybody with a machine gun. I can get behind a good swift stiletto, but I don’t need a phallic symbol spitting indiscriminate death, I get enough of that crap in real life. So we have to adapt the story when we gender-switch, but we have to keep the things that made us want to gender switch in the first place.
I love Captain America because his is an underdog story and because he knows who he is even though he wakes up in an alien environment beset by things he can’t imagine. I love Tony Stark because his arrogance is earned–he really is a genius–and because he learns and adapts while rarely losing his cool. I love Bruce Banner because he’s so smart and so angry and because dealing with that anger is both his cross to bear and his greatest strength (boy, can I relate to that). I can work with those ideas in female characters, I would love to work with those ideas in female characters, but I don’t see them having the same impact somehow.
When you make Captain America female, is there that same stirring old-fashioned response to the idea of Hero if she stands in her costume before an American flag? Or is she just a dirty Rosie the Riveter in red, white, and blue? Is Toni Stark just a self-entitled bitch with a cutting tongue? Is Brenda Banner just one period away from being a Destroying Woman? (I know there’s a She-Hulk, but she’s never as powerful as her cousin, Bruce, she never becomes an ugly monster, she just gets bigger and green, and she feels no angst about her plight, actually preferring her hulked-out form, which means she’s no Hulk. You know what might be interesting? A thin woman who hulks out into a huge, furious, powerful fat woman. I could work with that.)
As usual, I have no answers, but I’m really fascinated by this. I could write a female Indiana Jones, a female Han Solo, a female Cap, Tony, or Bruce, but they’d be so different from the originals that I’m not sure I’d accomplish my original goal, to give myself a role in the fantasies I love, a role that’s not The Girl.
So maybe I can’t have my cake and eat it, too. Maybe I just have to make new cake.
What do you think?
(Cory, where are you? We need you on this one.)