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(Meta) Thoughts on genderswap fanfic

21st November 2008 (23:36)
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One of the genres of fanfiction I've read about here on LJ far more than I've ever read examples of is genderswap. It seems to have something of an unfortunate reputation.
 

On the one hand, true, you've (apparently) got some deep and serious feminist critiques of gender role stereotyping and the function of social expectations in the conditioning of behaviour. Or in other words, "How would character X's personality and the attitudes of his/her friends and colleagues change if he/she were a woman/man instead?"

But (so I'm told) the majority of genderswap fic isn't like that. Rather, it's a variant of hurt/comfort. Character X changes sex and is distressed and upset, until their friend - who used to be the same sex but is now the opposite sex - comforts and consoles them and then in the last chapter wields the Healing Power Of Sex to either change them back to normal, or get them to accept their new gender. While that's a perfectly respectable plot for a fanfic story as far as it goes, there's a lurking suspicion that it's simply a device being used by writers who want to get their favourite same-sex UST-couple together without actually getting any of that icky gay stuff over them. (Or, more charitably, because the writer believes that the potential couple are so straight-laced that this is the only conceivable way to get them into bed).

However, it's the hurt part of the hurt/comfort paradigm that I find more controversial. From what I've heard, it seems to be the convention in such stories that the person changing sex finds their new body utterly loathsome and repulsive. They can't bear to look at it, let alone touch it. They think they have become hideous... until, of course, their friend convinces them that actually, they're beautiful. (Or handsome. Whatever.)  Now I certainly wouldn't want to argue that such a reaction could never happen. I don't feel particularly qualified to discuss issues of gender dysphoria, due to lack of knowledge and experience, but I certainly acknowledge its existence... but to counter that, I'd argue that in general, genderswap fic deals with TS issues in the same way that most slashfic deals with gay issues - that is, it doesn't. They're separate genres designed to appeal to different audiences.

Which still leaves me wondering how many of the authors of genderswap fic have the same feelings for their own bodies as they put into the mouths of their characters. (Due to the demographics of fandom, I'm assuming that most genderswap fic is written by women and describes a man turning into a woman.) Even more disturbingly, is this what some writers imagine the opposite sex think of their bodies? That a man turned into a woman (or vice-versa) would automatically react with disgust and loathing of his new shape?

This got me wondering how I'd react myself in such a situation, or how my friends would react. Of course, since this is the real world I imagine my assumption would be that I was hallucinating, or that I'd gone completely mad and lost my grip on reality. So, let's talk instead about a world like the Buffyverse, where magical transformations and curses and spells are practically a weekly occurrence. ("I've turned into a man. Must be Tuesday.") Would those characters react with horror and disgust? Or would they be totally blasé about the whole thing? After all, one of the wonderful things about the Buffyverse is that most of the most extreme crack!fic ideas you can think of are actually canon. Including this one. ('Him' and 'The Killer In Me'.)

To be fair, I do think there'd be a fair amount of negative emotions involved even for the Scoobies. Shock and embarrassment, denial and a desire to hide. Looking in the mirror and seeing a stranger staring back at you must be traumatic and disturbing. And there's the reaction of friends, and work colleagues, and the authorities to negotiate; all stressful stuff. But on the other hand, these are resilient people we're talking about. People who laugh in the face of death. Buffy would certainly find some opportunity to use her new form for a bit of mischievous fun. Willow would be filled with intellectual curiosity, and then get angry at anyone who treated her differently now she was a man. Xander would hide in the bathroom from Buffy and Willow, who would both be longing to dress him up in their clothes and put make-up on him. Anya would try to persuade Xander to experiment with gay sex, and if he refused she'd ask Willow to change him into a woman to match her. Giles would say "oh dear" and clean his glasses. Spike would say "Bloody hell" and find someone to beat up to prove becoming a woman hadn't turned him soft.

And after thinking about it a bit longer, I started thinking about all the other issues they'd encounter, and how they'd cope with them. From the obvious ones like sex and going to the bathroom, to what clothes they'd wear, to how people they passed in the street would look at them. And after a while I realised the only solution to all this speculation would be to write fic about it. And so I did.

It started out going to be a mini-ficlet, and ended up over 13,000 words. :-)  Buffy, of course, was the lucky victim chosen to be genderswapped - it's her show after all. Since I'm a traditionalist at heart, she does indeed get reverted back to her usual sex in the final chapter through the HPOS with a formerly-same-sex close friend. Anybody who's read any of my other fic will have no difficulty guessing who. :-) (Clue: it's not Faith.) I set the fic in early season 7, which gave me the opportunity to write extensive scenes for both Spike and Anya, two characters I haven't written much of before. I even included the first sex scene I've ever written that's het instead of femslash, although since I keep on calling Buffy 'her' throughout the story even when she's male, I didn't avoid that dratted pronoun problem even here. I'll post the first chapter shortly - though having said that, if there's anybody out there who'd be willing to give it a quick beta-read through first, I'd be grateful. Mostly to make sure that Buffy's reactions to things make sense from a character point of view - especially since she's a woman, I'm not, and this is one fic where I think it's really important to get that sort of thing spot on.

Now I've got to restrain myself from writing a director's commentary before I've even posted the fic. I'll probably fail.
 


 

Comments

Posted by: candleanfeather (candleanfeather )
Posted at: 22nd November 2008 10:46 (UTC)

Hi Stormwreath.

Just some quick thoughts (because an enormous amount of work is waiting for me, wails)about genderswap fictions:

genderswap stories in fanfiction are probably not very different from these produced in other artistic genres. They also probably can be related to much older traditions of reversal of social values like carnivals where genderswap is currently used as a disguise.

Under the guise of contestation, they present in reality very conservative traits:

- the genderswap is always presented as the disruption of a natural order (think about the use of magic in fanfiction as the cause of the gender swap).

- the genderswap is often treated as comedy and provokes laugh: seeing a woman in the place of a man is laughable, seeing a man in the place of a woman is laughable. So the core message is finally that each gender has to occupy its natural place, they can't exchange them.

- there's an essentialist perception of the identity of men and women. Under their new costume of flesh, the character is still the same woman/man she or he was before the change. The comedic element arise from the confrontation between this essential truth and the new body.

- these fictions generally end with the return of the character to his/ her original state, thus reassuring the reader with a happy ending and comforting the natural order.

Now some genderswap stories will really introduce some element of subversion in this scheme (for example, with the change being permanent, or the character entering a gay relationship... but even in this latter case, social conservatism is not excluded with the characters sticking to traditonnal gender roles) but they are probably not the majority.

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath )
Posted at: 22nd November 2008 13:18 (UTC)

Interesting thoughts; thanks for posting them. I definitely see what you mean about the conservatism of the "typical" gewnderswap story. And it reminds me of the criticism of a lot of slash, especially that written by younger women, which is that the male characters react and emote exactly as if they were women in a similar relationship.


seeing a woman in the place of a man is laughable

I think there's a lot about the experience of trying to operate as a member of the opposite sex that would be laughable. Hopefully we've got past the idea that, say, a woman wearing trousers in inherently ludicrous, though...


the character is still the same woman/man she or he was before the change.

That is something I tried to address in my own story, by assuming that male!Buffy still had her memories and experiences of being a woman, but her brain chemistry and hormones had become masculine as well as just the more obvious outward physical traits. Mostly serving to make her even more confused, poor thing. :-)


thus reassuring the reader with a happy ending and comforting the natural order

And making the story conform to canon, at least in my case, because Buffy definitely didn't stay male for the rest of Season 7. :-)

I don't think it's quite right to say that the typical story ends with the natural order being restored and everything going back exactly how it was. Usually the genderswapped person has learned something from their experience that they can carry forward in the rest of their life.

Ususally, of course, it's a realisation that they really do love the same-sex friend who helped them regain their shape with the HPOS, and that they want to continue the relaitonship even now they're both the same sex again... ;-)

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