The Trouble With Genderswap

Traditional genderswap fics often gloss over sex and gender issues. | © pakpong pongatichat | © pakpong pongatichat

Genderswap stories proliferate in fandom: from Harriet Potter to Jeanne Picard to Shirley Holmes. The genre gained a foothold during the early 1990s, when queer fanfiction surged in popularity due to its transition from print-based zines to online. One of the most influential genderswap fics is My Fair Jeanne (Ruth Gifford, 1995), a Star Trek: The Next Generation fic in which Captain Picard is transformed into a woman by the alien trickster known as Q. By definition, genderswap fanfiction features characters whose biological sex is suddenly switched, usually by magic or technology. This allows for a harmless exploration of body parts familiar and foreign. However, there is also something troubling about genderswap fics, an underlying and ever-present erasure of transgender subjects and concerns.

One of genderswap’s most popular tropes is to show newly swapped male-to-female (MTF) characters learning how to cope with “female issues,” such as how to walk properly in high-heeled shoes, shave their legs without cutting themselves, deal with menstrual cramps, or (heaven forbid) pee sitting down. Considering these “female troubles” are typical of genderswap fics, it’s not surprising that the genre is often criticized by transgender (and other) fans.

Genderswap critics take issue with the fact that, in many fics, the acquisition of the opposite biological sex induces an eager desire for characters to start experimenting with their new body parts (both alone and with partners). For authors and readers, testing the waters of sex and gender is enjoyable and certainly the main appeal of these fics. However, the often one-dimensional focus on sexual gratification usually comes at the expense of transgender readers: traditional genderswap fics often gloss over tangible sex and gender issues that pertain to transgender individuals.

For instance, many genderswap fics pointedly ignore how transgender people cope with issues that accompany transitions, such as gender dysphoria, the use of proper pronouns, or the mechanics of sexual activity after sex reassignment surgery (SRS). Transgender fan Iambic Kilometer expresses this frustration in a 2010 meta post entitled “Five+ Ways Being Transgender in Fandom Really Sucks, and Why I Stick With It Anyway:”

Too often I will see the author switch into new pronouns to match the new body, or depict the character enthusiastically “trying out” their new body, often sexually. I can tell you for sure, suddenly having the wrong body means CRAZY issues. I can’t even look at myself undressed. A new body means learning to use it, first of all, and then all the dysphoria that comes with it, and one thing it isn’t going to do is turn its owner on.

When repeatedly presented through popular fictional characters in genderswap fics, these seemingly harmless (even clichéd) fan tropes can reinforce stereotypical portrayals of gendered behavior and perhaps lead to troubling assumptions about how nonfictional people behave. For example, in “And Now For Something Completely Different,” a story in which Harry Potter “wakes up as a girl,” he takes great pleasure in having his eyebrows “fixed” and writing “cutesy little declarations with a pink inkwell and sparkles” in his diary. Similarly, in “Seven Things That Didn’t Happen on Valentine’s Day at Hogwarts, Or Maybe They Did,” a genderswapped Sirius Black is charged with perfecting the proper way to walk: “there was a new sway in her steps, hard-earned through trial and error, an exaggeration of the round dip and slide with which girls walked always.”

To further highlight how these assumptions can be naturalized in fandom, it is necessary to point out a glaring blunder in the genre: the label of genderswap itself is a misnomer. The genre should really be called “sexswap” because in the vast majority of these fics, it is the biological sex that is switched, with the gender automatically following suit. As Iambic Kilometer insists, “if a character has suddenly switched bodies, you do NOT switch pronouns. They haven’t switched genders. If a character is transgendered, you refer to them by their gender pronoun, not their sex pronoun.” To press even further, the “swap” part of the compound “genderswap” implies gender as “either/or,” which erases the complex spaces that exist between socially established binaries like male/female, homo/hetero, cis/trans.

While the majority of traditional genderswap fics recycle the stereotypical fan tropes mentioned above (high-heels, shaved legs), there is a more recent trend in genderswap fanfiction of writers being more nuanced in their depiction of gender and sexuality. Many contemporary fan writers consciously subvert traditional genderswap tropes to draw attention to gender as construct. In “Being Liquid,” author Rotaryphones emphasizes that gender is learned behavior through her characterization of Metamorphmagus Teddy Lupin: “he [Teddy] taught himself to be female, just as Claire and Miranda and Victoire have been taught since birth.”

This is not to say that all subversions of genderswap fics offer perfect representations of transgender issues. In fact, despite their best intentions, many authors still make use of stereotypical genderswap tropes that trivialize transgender experiences. But if we take these efforts as proof that a fan impulse to present more complex presentations of queer and (trans)gender identities does exist, we can begin to examine how this shift has led to the emergence of a genre—a genre with an explicit mandate to address trans issues—the genre of transfic.

About Malory Beazley (40 Articles)
Malory has taken her interest in fandom to the academy, penning a Master's thesis entitled "Out of the Cupboards and Into the Streets!: Harry Potter Genderfuck Fan Fiction and Fan Activism." You can find her in Nova Scotia, sipping coffee, writing fiction, and reading slash.

4 Comments on The Trouble With Genderswap

  1. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on this matter. I sometimes read genderswap and find myself irritated at reading about someone whose personality completely changes due to the difference in their sex (and I mean change overnight). It always feels awkward to me, and I get really annoyed when a character I could relate to before no longer feels relatable simply because the author wants to fill in the cliches of whichever sex/gender the character has changed to.

    I don’t think it really hit me that what I was looking for was more sex-swap till I read it haha.

  2. If people are writing about trans characters, or want to make characters Trans then of course they need to be careful about the practical reality of these processes and make a real effort to be sensitive to the Trans community.

    But genderswap fic has been around a hell of a lot longer than any kind of popular consciousness of Trans issues. The genre has absolutely nothing to do with it, and fics using this trope certainly isn’t trying to imply characters are Trans. In the same way similar tropes like mpreg and omegaverse similarly have nothing to do with transness.

    Fanfic is a medium where (mostly young female) fans are allowed to explore anything and everything they want to. Sex and gender matter just as much to ciswomen, and slash with these modifications (like omegaverse) are a way to puzzle through this.

    Yes, genderswap fic could be a little annoying sometimes because they were often a way to make a pairing ‘straight’, especially amongst newcomers to slash as a genre but that’s also a perfectly valid way of exploring! If done well it IS interesting to imagine what would happen if happily male Harry Potter drinks a potion, or Kirk gets reassembled wrong after beaming up and suddenly has to deal with periods or people interrupting them more often or a anything else an author wants. Even if a character has fun with their new body, or with gender expression that’s not wrong either.

    This is where fandom needs to be careful it doesn’t stifle people’s creativity or the happiness or contentment they get from writing and reading fic. If you are Trans you need to understand that genderswap is not attacking you, and if it upsets you you need to be responsible for your self care and avoid these fics. Likewise if you are not Trans and want to write transfic then you have a serious responsibility to do so kindly and accurately (or maybe not at all, write another genre). There is enough room for everyone in fandom.

  3. Rachel Smith Cobleigh // February 16, 2016 at 6:04 am // Reply

    It sounds like there’s a real need for some fantastic transgender fanfiction in these popular fandoms. If you find “genderswap” stories that do it really well, please give us an update!

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