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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Why I Don't Like "Gender Bending" in Fiction

It's always nice to see portrayals of ourselves in the media we consume. Some groups of people get to see those (accurate, positive) portrayals more often than others (for instance, white, straight, currently abled, cis men...). So for those of use who don't, our few opportunities are often seized upon with relish. Which is what makes it so disheartening when they turn out to be crap. Or, in the case with "gender bending fiction," when it turns out that the experience they are peddling has little to nothing to do with the population that it seemingly deals with, and because of that makes our lives invisible, and transphobia/cisgenderism all the more prevalent.

But, since "gender bending" story lines in comics and fiction can be so common (depending on the medium), and are so often thought of as being "our" type of story ("hey, you're a guy who has a girl's body, it's totally the same!"), I thought I'd offer some of my objections with the genre/trope.

I'm going to use examples from the comic Misfile, because it's pretty typical insofar as this particular trope goes.

We'll start off with some similarities between a "gender bender" character and a real live trans person:

In Misfile, Ash (the main character) awakens one day to find that he is now female bodied. Which sucks, because he still thinks of himself as a guy. He seems really pissed about having this body that's just so wrong. Which, I get. I think many a trans person SUPER gets that. It's sort of the main thing that everyone talks about when they talk about the trans experience. It's sort of the only thing.
So, similarity #1: he doesn't like how his body is now, and everyone assumes him to be a gender that he is not

Likewise, in the comic, Ash is interested in Emily, who seems to also be interested in him. However, she struggles with thinking of him as a guy despite his body, she struggles with herself and her assumption of her own heterosexuality, she struggles with what it would mean to be attracted to him despite homophobia (she gets called a lesbian because of the time they spend together), etc. Which is sort of related to how things work in the real world. Many couples struggle a lot if one of them comes out as a different gender than previously assumed.
This happens in the lesbian community where one half of a couple may feel a lot of sadness and confusion about whether she stills belongs to the community now that she is dating a guy, frustration at having her internal identity tweaked with, a sinking feeling knowing that random people on the street see a straight couple as they walk past, and sometimes, a lot of anxiety around whether or not she really respects the masculine identity of her partner (or potential partner -- this happens with prospective couples sometimes).
So, similarity #2: Emily has to deal with a lot of confusion based on her attraction to someone who looks like a girl but doesn't identify as one.

Lastly, and related to the first similarity, is the fact that Ash is often forced into uncomfortable situations because of others' perceptions of his gender. His mom makes him model a dress for her clothing line! He's constantly dealing with heterosexual guys hitting on him! Sexism sucks! (ok, that's not exactly related, but it does suck).
So, similarity #3: other people are constantly forcing Ash to conform to their ideas of his gender, regardless of his obvious discomfort with that.

Now that we've established some of the similarities between the "gender bender comic" Misfile's characters and experiences of trans people, it's important to get to the overwhelming differences.

Being trans is not something that gradually goes away with time. Dr. Zucker's (my loathing for this man knows few bounds) opinions withstanding, trans people don't (generally) wake up one day in full on panic and anxiety about our gender and then gradually over the course of the years of our lives learn to live with it and just sort of mosey along. Which is basically what happens with these types of narratives. In them the main character is suddenly confronted with the wrongness of zir body, and then over the course of zir quest/adventure/what have you, to fix it, ze gradually just sort of la-dee-da falls into acting like a girl, and feeling sort of girlish and whatever. These narratives give this type of lip service to the fact that the characters want to get back to their normal body, but in general they seem to acclimate like WOAH.
In contrast, my initial realizations of my gender were slow coming and mild. However over the years of having people constantly misgendering me, I have become more and more despondent, more strident in my conviction of my gender, more upset at each messed pronoun, experienced more pain and frustration at the body I have grown into. My partner and I estimate that maybe 5 people in this world really and truly believe that I am a boy. None of the people on this list are family members (I consider my partner and I a family, but you get what I mean?). I walk through the world knowing that the people who are supposed to be closest to me, at their core, just don't believe I am who I am. That strangers and acquaintances, that no one besides my partner, my ex-partner, and maybe 3 of my best friends, really understand and agree with me that I am a guy. I am aware of other's perception of my gender every hour of every day. I can't really say this strongly or often enough: my life every day is an exercise in pain because of this. Every Day. Every day that a well-meaning classmate messes up my pronouns and I say "it's ok, it happens," I die a little inside. Every day that a waitperson, check-out clerk, business owner, pamphleteer calls out "miss" or "ladies," my life feels a little more like a hell. I Hate living in a world that can't conceive of me as a boy. That doesn't go away. It grows and grows and grows. This isn't a footnote to my story, I don't forget about this because I'm busy racing cars or fighting ghosts or something. This is the ever present "fuck you" of my day.

Am I being clear? Can you (a presumably cis* person) even conceptualize the pain and frustration and anger and agony I experience over this?
So, difference #1: in "gender bender" fiction, characters seem to acclimate more and more to their bodies and the misrepresentation of their gender by others.

Next, there's the fact that characters in "gender bender" narratives seem to mostly reify gendered expectations of the world around them. Suddenly, after "becoming a girl," these characters start liking chocolate, they become more emotional, and less logical. Or, alternately, the way we know they are "really" boys is because they are sexually attracted to their new bodies (as we see in the comic at the side), because they cling to their sexist versions of chivalry, and because they are disgusted by the idea of men being attracted to them. Which totally ignores the fact that lots of boys are um... gay?
And I don't think I know a single trans guy that is as homophobic as Ash is.
I can't think of a *single* trans guy that finds his body sexaaaay like characters in these stories do. In fact, many trans guys I know hate seeing their bodies naked. At least some guys get sores because of constant wear of binders in an attempt to hide, disguise, emotionally and mentally get rid of our breasts. I like girls, I like female bodies, and looking at my body in the mirror makes me feel like crap.
And, while some (trans) guys are misogynistic creeps, I'd like to think I'm not, and my friends aren't. I don't need to set myself up in opposition to women by living by "chivalrous" rules. I don't have to hate women to not be one (which these narratives imply).
So, differences #2, #3, and #4: characters in "gender bending" story lines are often homophobic to prove their manliness, they are often sexually attracted to the bodies they are forced into, and they often use misogyny and sexism to set themselves apart from the women they are assumed to be.

Lastly, for this analysis, is the fact that not only do characters of "gender bender" stories acclimate to their bodies, they learn to take advantage of the "privileges" conferred on women in our society. Let's get this out of the way: "feminine wiles" are the most bullshit idea of "power" I've ever heard of. We live in a culture rife with rape, misogyny, and example after example of the oppressed status of those who are perceived to be women. If you don't understand this, we just don't have anything further to talk about until you get your head out of your ass. Ok.
So this is the thing, the part up a bit where I talked about how demoralizing and depressing and upsetting it is to have people assume that my gender is "girl"? It doesn't go away when I want to get a good deal on something. But apparently in these stories, as the characters start to acclimate to the unfortunate, (but ultimately not all that upsetting) fact that they are female bodied, they decide it's awesome to play up all the female stereotypes they want so long as it'll help them. Which is blatantly unrealistic if you think about the pain and suffering that trans people go through because of having to constantly deal with the world's bullshit about our genders.
So, difference #5: characters in "gender bending" narratives often decide to go entirely counter to their gender and to "use" their perceived gender to their advantage regardless of the emotional ramifications it would entail if they that strongly identified with their internal gender.

So, why do all these differences matter? They are damaging. When narratives out there that tell stories that are supposed to be sort of like trans people's lives, in fact do so in a way that erases trans people's struggle with a transphobic world? When they do so in a way that implies that trans people buy into normative ideas of gender and use misogyny and homophobia to set ourselves apart from our perceived genders? When they imply that trans people are deceptive and will use whatever we can to get ahead? When they imply that trans women are either "perverts" who find their bodies overly titillating, or that trans men don't really mind having bodies that code us as female (because hey, at least we get to grope boobies whenever we want!)? All of that is totally fucked up. It's fucking lies and they aren't nice ones. You know what a nice lie would be: "all trans people are awesome, there isn't a jerk among us," but we don't get that type of narrative in these "gender bender" stories. Nope, we get: "perverts, deceptive, not that big a deal, they'll get over it."

You know what else is upsetting and damaging in these stories? This isn't about differences, it's just about dangerous and mean and jerkishness. It's this: when the idea of gender reassignment surgery makes the main character yell in defiance. Right there Ash implictly says: "being trans, needing surgery or hormones, that is a BAD THING... people who need surgery or hormones are bad people." And it's this: as the comic progresses, we get more and more ass-shots of Ash, more and more bras and panties. As the comic continues we see Ash becoming a pin-up girl. It just shows how little the artist respects even the idea of Ash as a boy.

The icing on the cake? That this and many other "gender bending" comics and stories are written by people who then commemorate The Transgender Day of Remembrance, the day in November that we are meant to honor trans men and women who have died due to transphobia. When they post their commemorative comics, it serves as a banner proclaiming "we are trans friendly," which means that those who aren't paying attention, due to cis* privilege, who don't know better but are open to becoming allies, they learn that this is what allyship means.

And that? That depresses the hell out of me.


  1. I see what you mean about most of these points. Ash really is pretty homophobic at times. And the whole routine about using "feminine wiles" to get total strangers to do what you want is a major can of worms. A female writer, even one as presumably well-intentioned but uninformed about trans issues as (male) "Misfile" creator Chris Hazelden, would probably have had more sense than to employ this particular trope--or at least to play it up as in the scene shown here-- since it has serious potential for backfiring by making the total stranger in question assume that the feminine wiles-user is leading him (usually) on and getting nasty if his expectations are frustrated.

    However, I think the final example, of Ash's adverse reaction to a reference to gender reassignment surgery (which, if I remember correctly, takes place when he's only been in a girl's body for a day or two), was basically intended to convey the character's shock and dismay at the idea that if Rumisiel doesn't manage to correct his magical screw-up, the only way Ash can regain the male body he has had for 99% of his life is through surgery. I doubt that it occurred to the writer that this reaction could be interpreted not as merely being upset at the prospect of unnecessarily going through a painful hassle to regain what was lost, but as disparaging trans people and/or the only means available to them in real life to reconcile their inner and outer genders. However, in retrospect, I don't think that justifies the creator's failure to consider these issues or to be more specific about what Ash's statement was intended to imply.

    Of course, as in most "gender bending" comics of this type, the character has spent his entire life up until this point in a body whose outward gender matched the gender he felt himself to be. So some of Ash's reactions might conceivably make sense for somebody who was literally transformed overnight into a member of what he considered the opposite sex, even though they may actively conflict with the attitudes of someone whose physical body and gender identity have been at odds for more or less their entire life, however gradually they may have realized that. Unfortunately, most cartoonists whose allusions to things like the Transgender Day of Remembrance invoke comparisons between their suddenly gender-switched characters and the more complicated lifelong experiences of real-life trans people don't seem to have thought through how painfully and misleadingly inexact the parallels between such a hypothetical magically-induced situation and the lives of actual trans people can be, especially to trans readers.

  2. Damn, your post - reading about how you feel - that makes my heart hurt for you.

    So much of the transgender narrative in comics seems to center around cis het guy porn and the idea of the woman's boday that cannot say no. He owns it, he can do anything he wants with it, and all his experiences in it uncannily mirror all the stereotypes that those men perpetuate about the "privilege" of beig female. They're entirely unconcerned with the reality, they just want the fantasy.

    And that makes me throw up a little in my mouth every time I think about it, 'cause it's creepy as hell.

    (followed you from Shakesville, btw!)

  3. Thanks marfisa and attack_laurel (hey! I figured you came from Shakesville... awesome!).

    To respond partially to what marfisa said about the GRS panel probably not being meant how I read it: that's an interesting point. However (of course there's a however), I do still wonder about its purpose in the narrative because I don't recall any subsequent broaching of the topic. Its been many months (within the plot) since that comment and it's becoming increasingly clear that Ash and Emily may become permanently stuck like this. So why not return to the subject?

    Something that attack_laurel's comment made me think of (can't say why) is that these types of narratives also perpetuate the idea that it's no big deal (which yeah, I touched on in the post itself). I just remembered recently an infuriating conversation with a family "friend" who stated quite self-assuredly, that if he woke up one morning to find that the world thought he was a girl (and he had the breasts and vagina to "prove it") that he would happily assent that this was the case.
    It's so interesting how cis* people can baldly state that they would have no problem reconciling their gender and the world's messed up views if it were to happen to them, without any idea of what it would feel like. I get the feeling sometimes that they ("friends" like him) think that if I just bucked up and put my head on straight (we'll put aside my mental illness that isn't bogus like Gender Identity Disorder), it'd all be just fine.

    And so narratives like Ash's make it even easier for them to think that this is the case, 'cause after-all, Ash starts to self-identify as sort of a girl.

  4. I've always thought that scenes like the ones you called out seemed unrealistic, from my viewpoint as a cis-female. It's good to know that I wasn't wrong. (I often assume that I am wrong. Sigh.)

    A left-handed friend explained to me that left-handers are more left-handed than most right-handers are right-handed. Only the people who had to be left-handed were left-handed. People who were ambidextrous to any extent were trained as right-handers. In the same way, I'd bet that trans-people are more strongly the sex they identify as than many cis-people are. Perhaps your family "friend" is a bit ambi-gendered.

  5. Not to speak for anyone else's experiences, but I very much doubt it (based off of the extensive conversation we had). I think he just really couldn't even conceptualize the gender/sex difference, and refused to understand that he wasn't somehow better than me because he'd managed to luck out and get a congruent gender and sex.

  6. Wow... Just, wow. In reading webcomics like Misfile and others that deal with transgenderment, I never took any of it as realism, but I guess I never stopped to consider what it's really like, either...

    Thanks for opening my eyes to this, really.

  7. Great post, I meant to comment last night but it was late and stuff. I did have one or two things to say about it. First, I don’t want to defend Misfile as a whole, but IIRC the “Ask Ash” segment explained that hir reason for not wanting GRS was that if the Misfile were fixed hir card would still say GRS. Second, do you know any cases of gender-bending used in non-problematic ways? Third, I don’t know if you’re interested or already know about them, but there are some really great Trans* webcomics out there Venus Envy (http://www.venusenvycomic.com/), Closetspace http://www.dolari.org/cs/index.htm, and Tales of the Galli http://talesofthegalli.comicdish.com/index.php?pageID=231 jump to mind.

  8. Wonderfully done TheDeviantE! I totally agree with your analysis and so feel what you describe regarding misgendering and the escalation of those feelings over time (from a trans woman perspective).

    I also find it interesting that we normally see this narrative from the cis dudes perspective (he wakes up as a woman) vs a woman that finds herself transformed suddenly. While stories that include born trans people tend to center on trans women. The common thread I see being that they get to objectify a female body for the (assumed) male reader in each case.

    Re: your experiences with misgendering and the cumulative effect making it worse (to unbearable)...

    Jenny (from Shakesville)

  9. darn... editing- fail ;)

    (meant to delete the last thought fragment)


  10. Oh man, I stopped reading Venus Envy a while ago 'cause it wasn't updating, but it looks like maybe I just didn't know to follow it to a new site. Thanks for the updated link beo. I'll also try to check out the other two (which I hadn't heard of).

    I'd also like to thank everyone that has commented to far and read the post. According to my statcounting software dealio, it is one of my most read posts (that I have data for) in no small part because of people coming from the comic related linklist "When Fangirls Attack". So hey (potential) new readers!

  11. *facepalm* I accidently posted a permant link to the most recent ToTG page instead of the homepage address, which is http://talesofthegalli.comicdish.com/
    @TheDeviantE Do you think it is theoretically possible to write a genderbending story that isn’t horribly offensive?

  12. beo, it is probably possible. Whether or not it's possible for a cis, straight, man to write one? Less likely.

  13. *A bit of a disclamer. I've never had any trans or homosexual friends(or seen that many, I think its cause of where I live or they are really good at it) so I will say I dont know any of such things they go through and will not pretend I do. Just let me know and I will correct my mistakes.

    I do however, know how it feels when society pressures you to conform to what you dont like. I am a black female, that doesnt mean that I like cute small pink stuff or like rap music. My brother spends more time getting ready in the bathroom then me. So it bothers me to no end when a story is made by an ignorant white male about the 'other side' and its blatantly obvious they could care less to get to know 'us'. Female privileges? Being called a slut cause you show boobs never happens? Being scared to walk down a street because of high crime rate against women never happens? Getting dirty looks like I killed a puppy just cause I like alternative rock instead of rap is just my imagination? Just cause you push what you 'think' we should be, we just accept it?

    As a female and/or as a minority, these gender bending or token minority characters offend me to no end. If in the first few chapters I see any red flags, I just drop the series.

  14. I think this whole essay/article is pretty much unneeded. Fundamentally, these comics are about magical transformations into the opposite genders, NOT transexuality and all that it entails along all that other mess of thought. If you want a Transsexual webcomic to comfort you, just go to Venus Envy instead or any of those other kinds.

    Directing your anger toward a comic that doesn't even aim to give the simulation that you want of the process of transsexuality, is a energy wasting affair for yourself.

    If you want other stories that explore the thought of gender as an identity, then try fictionmania.com. You can eventually find the stories you want to relate to there.

  15. Ah yes, Anonymous, and coming to an almost 3 month old post on someone else's blog, to tell them they are taking something too seriously, that shows a *wonderful* grip on the idea of letting things go.

    Did you even bother to read the words on the post where I explained why even though it isn't explicitly about the experience of transgender individuals, these comics do attempt to align themselves? And how they are unrealistic regardless of whether the characters are "magically changed overnight" or whether they are trans* individuals? No. Of course not. That would take reading comprehension.

    Let me direct you to a lovely website that might be able to help you with your poor arguing skills.

  16. Sorry for the long delay in responding. I forgot all about this post I made. Anyway, I was just trying to help, although now that I look back on my post, I was rather directly rude in the way I said things, so I'm sorry for posting that way. Anyway, I wasn't trying to be a troll or anything, and I don't look at the entry dates too much, as I assume that any comments would be welcome in blogs like these. Although if you're actually popular and have too many comments on your hands to tie up your time, I apologize for that too.

    Although I do feel sad and hurt that I've been thought of as a person that doesn't a thing of what's going on, considering you know nothing of me and my own experiences with sexual identity. I would tell you them, but since they have no credibility, it would be a waste to talk of it. (plus this post would be too long)

    One thing I do hope you'll trust that I say is true though is that I've pretty much dried up the well of TG comics on the web, trying to learn of how real they can be and how many perspectives they can take. And after reviewing them, I can say you're right, they are not realistic in simulating actual sexually complex identities. Venus Envy was one of the more realistic ones so that's why I referred you to it, but you probably already knew of it, so sorry in that regard too.

    What I will stand in my viewpoint though is that TG comics that introduce magical elements are the least realistic in actual immediate reactions and continued lives of the characters, and therefore should not be taken seriously enough to bawl over if they go over wrong, no matter what they aim to simulate.

  17. Anonymous, it's true, I actually wish people would feel free to comment on old posts more often, since it is a small blog and the thoughts I had a year ago are generally ones I'm still thinking about, standing behind, and interested in talking about with others a year later.
    However, your initial comment about how it was just a waste of my time/energy to write about something that offends me seemed especially ironic given that time difference.

    In regards to your main point, which if I read correctly is that, "you should know it's magical, so what's the big deal?" I'll just direct you to Shard's comment. There are plenty of people out there that even though it's magical, have no reason to disbelieve the other parts. Especially the emotional/inter-personal parts, because those are meant to be realistic even if the setting in which they are placed is fantastical.
    I am opposed to fiction that is "close enough" to some oppression but that get the effects of said oppression totally wrong (I'm looking at *you Avatar and District 9) and in doing so gets in the way of people *actually* learning about it, because it never crosses their minds to learn. That angers me. And it is a form of appropriation. It takes this idea such as: "it's too bad our country slaughtered entire cultures and populations because of colonialism ," or "wow, apartheid was fucked up," or "man, I don't think I could handle it if everyone thought I was a girl," and then it just... totally ignores the people who could tell you anything meaningful about the idea*.

    I mean, if you don't get the idea of appropriation and the wrongness of it, and the point of calling out media that pays lip service to certain communities while actually making their lives harder... we just don't really have anything to talk about. 'Cause that's a fairly basic principle of critiquing media.

    *just so as to make sure no bad faith is assumed, I do not believe that people misgendering me or others is the same level of fucked up that the genocide of Native People of what became The Americas is, or the oppression that Black South Africans faced under apartheid.


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