Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Gender Swap!

It's Immortal ConFusion recap week!

Today's musings: Gender swapping characters!

Have you ever considered what would happen if you made Voldemort or Darth Vader women? Besides the fact that we'd probably call them "Voldemom" and "Darth Mader." What expectations change? How do you see them acting nefariously? Do you imagine more seduction, more guile?

I'm going to argue that honestly, most of the male antagonists, and male characters, in fiction can be changed to women with little real difference to the story. You can make a believable woman who doesn't act in a hypersexual way. (Though, you might expect Hollywood to make these gender-swapped antagonists act that way) Instead, I'm going to talk about women turning into men.

I'm going to talk about Snow White. And basically every other Disney story. Because when you change the women in these stories to men, and vice versa, the story literally breaks. It changes from a "romance" to a comedy.

Imagine, if you will, the story of Snow White with two A-type men instead of women. Instead of the evil step-mother witch Queen, you have the evil step-father witch King. Instead of the princess singing and dancing with birds with beautiful black hair, you have a bro, muscled and toned, singing and dancing with birds.

And Evil Step-King just hates that Snow White the man is hotter than he is. That is radically unacceptable. So he plots to have Snow white killed, and so Snow White is whisked away, and finds a bunch of cartoonish female dwarves who embody a variety of emotional states. Meanwhile, Step-King rages because he's still not the hottest in the land.

Eventually, you have some foreign princess show up, see Snow White dancing and singing in baritone to birds and woodland critters, and say "okay now you're my bitch." Then she goes, beats the shit out of the Step-King, and rules the kingdom forever.

You have now created a comedy. (Also yes I am writing that book now. Nobody steal it!) It is too absurd to think that two A-Type Macho American Dudes could possibly get that much in a tizzy over which one of them was hotter. No one could take it seriously. The story is broken, and is now satire.

How many other stories break when you swap genders? Does your character's tale break if it's a man instead of a woman, or a woman instead of a man? How much of your story would you have to change if you made your character swap genders? Or, more than just your MC, how about ALL the characters. Do some of your scenes feel weird and wrong now? If they do, why? Is it because your character is acting in what appears to be a different sexuality, or is it because you can't imagine a woman doing something (like being heroic) or a man doing something (like being domestic).

For another Disney example, how about the absolutely terrible story of Sleeping Beauty. Literally all sleeping Beauty does is sleep. But she's not the only female character in this tale. There's the fairies, and the evil witch-queen (Remember her? Man that seems like a theme. I wonder why Disney has such problems with women in positions of power). The Fairies have magic, true, which makes girls look and say "hey, I could be like them, with magic and wings and stuff!" But they have to give up their magic to help Sleeping Beauty. And as soon as they exercise their power, for anything (in the movie, it's sweeping and other household chores) shit falls apart and Sleeping Beauty gets captured and put to sleep because seriously she's useless. So, girls, I guess you're not supposed to use your power at all.

But wait, you say! They use their powers in the final epic fight against the dragon and the witch-queen! You're right, I say! But they're only using their powers to assist Prince Asshole -- every other time in the story they use their powers outside of directly helping a man, shit goes wrong. Mostly because they can't figure out how to use their own powers. Women, amirite?

Alright so the fairies are terrible role models too. There's one last one though -- the woman with all the power -- the evil witch queen!

Womp womp. So, for little girls watching this movie, they get the option of "Useless, beautiful and obedient" "powerless and motherly" or "total bitch."

Is it any wonder so many men think so many feminists act like bitches? They're literally taught from childhood that women with power are bitches. Just by association. There's not even any thought put into it. It's a gut reaction from media and the real-life subjugation of women. It doesn't matter if the woman explaining her position is the calmest, most unreactionary person there is, there are going to be people who just have that gut reaction that has been drilled into them for their entire lives that "women with power = bad."

Just turn the story of Sleeping Beauty around, gender-wise, and see how it feels to you.

If you're a man, it probably seems pretty lame.

If you're a woman, it's probably pretty pathetic. "Oh joy, I found this sleeping asshole in a glass box. Well, at least I get his kingdom."

So that's my advice to you, I guess. When your character is doing something, or has something happen to them, are you doing it because that is what that character would do, or that's something that the character's actions have made likely to happen to them? Or is it just because your character is female, or male. If you're basing a plot point purely on sex, it's probably not as strong of a plot point as you could make it. Don't take the easy route and stereotype actions based on sex. In a fantasy world where Orcs are twice as strong as humans, there's no reason they wouldn't rape men too. But I don't think there's one rape scene of a man in a single fantasy novel out there. Not one published, anyways.

Sorry if this one was a bit more heavy-hitting, but gender inequality, while improving steadily thanks to the vast army of female writers (the majority of panelists I saw were female) coming into the fore, is still a big issue that needs tackling. Make sure you know what kind of messages you're sending to men and women with your novels. You won't be able to catch all of them, but you can at least get the egregiously stereotypical ones out. And trust me, they're in there. No matter how educated and well-intentioned you are. It's not your fault, it's just the way we've all been raised. It's only your fault if you choose to ignore it.


  1. This is a really interesting idea, and I definitely agree with some of the points made here. Gender swapped fairy tales sound hilarious! I've honestly only thought about gender inequality within male or female protagonists in relationship to which gender would read the book (as opposed to the way people are portrayed) I think I want to try that gender swapping thing (don't worry I won't steal yours!!) I don't know how far I"ll get with it but I will keep you updated!

  2. Well, Disney and unfair gender stereotypes have a long running history, though they've gotten better over the years. Though I do appreciate that unlike the rest of Hollywood, they (being the animated group, not overall) have had far more female main characters than male main characters. (I do disagree with your assessment of Sleeping Beauty, because I did appreciate that the prince does more than show up at the very end to swoon the girl, and also, Malificent is AWESOME and as writers, we should all consider her a role model as to what to do with main characters.)

    I've actually made a conscious decision to genderswap characters (mostly because I have a habit of writing sausage parties). There's usually almost no change in the character themselves, but then again, I usually don't consider the ones that have plot or characterization that's dependant on their gender. (For example, I have one female growing up in a medieval-ish male-dominated society, and her struggle to define herself and buck against the system wouldn't exist if she was male.)

    1. I never meant to imply that Malificent isn't actually radical. As writers, she is exactly who we should be looking at. But she is the "bad guy" so when you're talking about children.
      That's the lesson a lot of them are gonna get out of it, or their parents are going to remind them of. "I wanna be the evil witch!" the child cries. "But wouldn't you rather be the princess? she's good!" "No! That lady is boring!" I mean, well, that's a bad parent, but these are likely conversations that have actually occurred.

      It's also a bit different when you are writing a story that is actively attacking gender roles (such as growing up in a Western European modeled society as a woman) Sure the story breaks, but at this point you're not ignoring it, you're actively working with that gender role. So I wouldn't consider that a problem.

  3. . . . Funnily enough, if my male protagonist was gender swapped to a girl he'd be MORE confident than he currently is (which isn't a whole lot). It was a fun thought exercise seeing how that would shift and change different aspects of my story. I'm going to try and make it into an exercise for my writing group and NaNo region!