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Essay

The Ol’ Switcheroo: A Consideration of Gender-Bending in Geek Culture


A few years back, I was at a Can’t Stop The Serenity event in San Francisco. For those of you unfamiliar with CSTS, every year a mess of plucky Browncoats around the world organize charity screenings of Serenity to raise funds for Equality Now. CSTS is an evening of impromptu outbursts of “The Ballad of Jayne,” new friends buying rounds of drinks at the pre-screening shindig, warm fuzzies for supporting a good cause – and of course, cosplay. Everywhere you turn there are Kaylees with stripey umbrellas and grubby coveralls, Rivers in big boots and flowy dresses, and a sea of fuzzy orange hats. Naturally, there are a ton of Malcolm Reynoldses as well. You can find them in small huddles, comparing holsters and coats, posing for group pictures as they’d just stepped out of a Duplicator. Not to belittle our fine cosplaying Captains, but if you attend enough geeky gatherings, seeing a burly captain in suspenders and a brown coat becomes somewhat commonplace. Captains are cool, but they’re unsurprising.

Or so I thought until that fateful CSTS night, when I spotted the best damn Captain Mal cosplayer I’ve ever seen. The coat hung just so, with that sort of casual, devil-may-care look about the shoulders. The gun was slung low, ready for action. The hair, though a smidge longer than the Captain on screen, had just the right kind of curve and shine. The colors were right. The fabric was right. The swagger was right. It was perfect.

She was perfect.

The main difference between this cosplayer and the others was not her slight stature, nor her higher-pitched voice, nor her presumed chromosomal makeup. No, it was the fact that while the other guys were wearing costumes, she was Malcolm Reynolds. It was as if she had embodied his very essence through some sort of sacred geek ritual involving exploding incense and Fruity Oaty Bars.

What made her extra special, in my eyes, was that this was not a woman who looked like a man, or who was trying to hide the fact that she was a woman. While she was every bit the tomboy, she was not trying to pass as the opposite gender. She was Captain Malcolm Reynolds, as a woman.

There is a noticeable contingency within the geek community that is fairly nonchalant when it comes to gender-bending. It’s an increasingly common staple in cosplay, from the Venture Brothers ladies to the gender-swap Justice League. It pops up in fanart and fanfic, too – sometimes to make a point, as we see with Megan Rosalarian Gedris’ crossdressing superheroes. But more often, gender-swapped character design is presented with a sort of innocent curiosity, a sentiment no more political or radical than “what if?”

“What if?” could be the founding premise of all science fiction and fantasy. What if we lived in space? What if wizards went to school? What if a person could run as fast as light, or control the weather, or walk up walls like a spider? Geek culture thrives on the question of “what if?” There are few questions that get us more excited. When we engage in our favorite fandoms, what we’re really doing is putting an extraordinary amount of cognitive power into the suspension of disbelief. In doing so, we open ourselves up to a whole new realm of possibilities.

At some inevitable point, we pause to compare these fictional worlds to the world around us. We begin to contemplate the ideas we’ve taken from stories and games as they relate to our own lives. This is why so many quantum physicists and astrobiologists and rocket scientists begin their book intros or TED talks with, “It all began when I was a kid, watching Star Trek…” I think it is exceptionally rare for a person to not compare at least some of the “what ifs” in any story – SF/F or otherwise – to the things in his or her own life.

Our favorite stories are stuffed with musings concerning the finer points of getting busy, even if that is not their primary focus. Let’s look at the scientist’s standby, Star Trek. The fact that the Trek franchise has never featured an openly gay character is kind of bizarre when you consider all the other notions about gender and sexuality that have been put forward. There are interspecies hybrid kids aplenty. Joined Trill have the life experiences of both genders, having been both fathers and mothers. Vulcans only get frisky every seven years (and they die if they don’t get laid). We meet species who lay eggs, spawn, and bud. There are species that are completely androgynous.

You don’t have to look far outside of the United Federation of Planets to find countless fictional cultures that challenge our ideas of identity and family. I could go on for hours listing them all. Aiel sister wives in The Wheel of Time. The biomechanical, live-birthing starships of Farscape. The Bene Gesserit breeding program in Dune. The Gethen of The Left Hand of Darkness. The Asari of Mass Effect. Though we may not go out specifically seeking stories that focus on gender, the worlds we love are nevertheless chock-full of variations on this theme. It makes sense. We want to know everything about a new universe: how they dress, what they eat, what kind of gadgets they have. It’s only natural that we’d be curious about how they couple as well.

We’re comfy, too, with ordinary, Earth-born human characters undergoing a gender swap. Starbuck, anyone? Ripley, who might well have been played by a man? The scores of alternate universe superheroes that have gone through the ol’ switcheroo? I think we’re all pretty much down with that.

We spend our days pondering the practical and ethical dilemmas surrounding big ideas like time travel, interstellar flight, genetic mutations, sentient machines, telekinesis, and bringing people back from the dead. In comparison, trying on the other gender seems like a non-issue. I mean, come on, we’re the sort of people who spend our weekends writing Wiki articles about the intricacies of four-gendered Andorian families. Juxtapose that with the real world, and the idea of being weirded out by a dude in a dress seems patently absurd.

However, that doesn’t mean we’re perfect. Western society has an unfair but steadfast double-standard when it comes to gender-bending. We’re okay with tomboys, but boys who dress like girls are another matter entirely. Consider Katie the Star Wars girl. The global geek community (myself included) joined together with a roar when they heard that she’d been bullied for liking Star Wars (which, y’know, is for boys). But less than two weeks earlier, there had been nothing resembling that outpouring of support – the gifts, the trending hashtag, the Facebook groups – for Boo, the five-year-old boy who dressed as Daphne from Scooby Doo for Halloween (and looked smashing, by the way). You could argue that geeks just don’t get as fired up about the Scooby Gang as they do about Jedi Knights, but given the disparity between the “girls can do anything boys can do!” comments and the cries of “oh my god, that mother’s going to turn her boy gay,” I’d say there was something a bit more complicated going on there.

So yes, that societal double-standard is visible amongst us, though perhaps not as strongly as in other places. I think that a man in cosplay drag is going to be more welcome at Comic-Con than a man dressed as his favorite cheerleader at the Super Bowl. But to put forward a hypothetical: I was certainly not the only one who had applauded the female Captain Mal at CSTS those years ago. But how would the crowd have reacted to a graceful, picture-perfect Inara with broad hands and an Adam’s apple? Would the other Captain Mals have lined up to take pictures with a six-foot-three Inara, as they had done with the smaller, curvier Captain Mal? I can’t say. I don’t want to speak for anyone, but I tend to think not. However, though geek culture may not be some sort of magical gender-transcendent utopia, I would venture that the rest of the world still could learn a few things from us when it comes to tolerance.

What does this say about us? Are we all the oddballs and freaks that the Muggles so often make us out to be? Are we all just too weird and kinky for respectable society?

Hell, no. We’re awesome.

As far as I’m concerned, the only time that gender-bending has anything to do with sex is if somebody actually pursues sex whilst bending said gender. Gender isn’t just about who you like to knock boots with (a point I’d like to underline for the detractors of Boo, who seemed to miss the fact that he’s a good seven years away from puberty). Gender is about identity and expression and connection. So while there are some fan-artists who draw gender-swapped characters because it gets their respective motors running, I would venture that far more of them do so in the spirit of intellectual and creative exploration. It’s their way of asking “what if?”

That seems to be a concept that we, generally speaking, have learned to grok without even thinking about it. Can you think of any other community, outside of drag shows, in which a crossdresser isn’t instantly greeted with, “Oh my stars, that’s a dude,” but more commonly, “Dude! Look at that costume!” There may be some laughs or raised eyebrows, but for the most part, I think we’re just tickled to see something new.

Maybe some of us are weirdos. Maybe some of us are freaks. But far more universally, we geeks are people with great big brains that crave imaginative stimuli. We’re not afraid to come up with new ideas. We’re not afraid to explore. We look at our world through other worlds, and we come up with ways to make things better. We spend so much time pondering new possibilities that when someone comes up to us and says, “Hey, I’m different,” we get excited. We give them a big hug and say, “No worries. We love different here.”

And that makes us pretty cool.

Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. She blogs over at Other Scribbles.

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  • nmlop

    great article, and so glad to learn about Can’t Stop the Serenity!

  • http://ladymercury-10.livejournal.com/ Maiasaura

    I’ve always felt lucky to be a girl, because while girls do get knocked for liking “boy things,” being a tomboy is still much more socially acceptable than being a boy who’s into stereotypically female pursuits.  (This is underlined by my inability to even *think* of an equivalent term for boys that’s not purely pejorative.)

    That said, I do have (a possibly hypocritical) a tendency to feel much more welcoming of female interpretations of male characters than male interpretations of female characters.  Perhaps it feels more taboo?  At least part of it has to do with feelings of erasure, though.  I know some people feel that a white person cosplaying a character of color is somehow erasing an important part of the character–especially since non-white characters are so rare.  I’ve never felt that way, but I have felt that a man interpreting a female character as male takes away from something important to me–strong female characters (not in the Kate Beaton sense, haha) are still somewhat rare, and making one into a man feels a little like stealing.  I know that I should be flattered that the character is so fantastic that her appeal crosses gender lines–maybe I’m being oversensitive.  It doesn’t bother me in the same way to do a genderswap of a whole cast, because then there are still awesome ladies, just different ones, and sometimes more of them.  I don’t know.  Just thinking aloud, I guess.

  • mea.glitch

    If you can pull it off, I say go for it.  A few of the best cosplay interpretations of characters I’ve seen have been played by the characters’ actual gender, like a Jack Sparrow at DragonCon that was so close, down to the mannerisms and her speech delivery I almost didn’t notice the pitch being off.  Heck, one of my best friends (male) made an amazing Shaak-ti costume.

    For the cosplayer anime fan, female-playing-male actually works in their favor due to the inherent aspects of the medium.  I recently saw an amazing Kotetsu (from Tiger & Bunny) online played by a woman who looked like he stepped off of the screen. On the downside, the aforementioned medium tends to not encourage the reverse (male-as-female), except as a joke (see the many guys-in-sailor-fuku-for-laughs images out there).

    My own experience: Many years back, I did a Vincent Valentine costume.  It was nothing compared to the ones I previously mentioned (though it was one of my better ones, and my boyfriend made himself a very good Cid), but I got a lot of positive feedback about it.  Either people didn’t notice the gender swap, or they didn’t care… they just liked the character.  Then again, I think environment helped as well – I primarily showed it off at a convention that emphasizes costuming, where effort and creativity matter more than the person under the garb. At Halloween that year, not enough “mundanes” recognized the character for the gender issue to matter. 

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_7G4SWUX2MCWWXLMYNN347JMIZY Frodo Baggins

    I think the men in drag (“queens” doesn’t seem the appropriate term, here) are treated differently than women in drag, because women are still perceived as, if not inherently sexual and passive, certainly sexualized and pacified by society. Take, for example, your query about a male Inara vs. a female Mal. Mal is a tough, dominant space cowboy. A BAMF of the first order. Inara is a space-hooker, which many women view as a disempowering stereotype.

    One of the main thrusts of the Sexual Revolution was affirming that women deserved all the rights and respect that men do, because they’re just as worthy and able. No one was campaigning to let men wear skirts and high heels to work, or get jobs as stewardesses and cigar girls, because those aspects of the feminine lifestyle were seen–by feminists more than anyone else–as being instruments of oppression. So, fucked up as it seems, dressing up as a man is seen as wanting to be free and powerful, while dressing up as a woman is seen as wanting to be oppressed and objectified. There’s nothing inherent about the different sexes that warrants this double standard, but you can’t deny that centuries of rigid gender roles have left an indelible mark on the connotations of one’s choice of clothing.

  • Ceili

    I like the point you made about the Mal crossplayer not hiding the fact she was female. I don’t care about crossplay one way or the other, but I MUCH prefer female versions of characters, rather than females-trying-to-look-like-males, which is what you usually see when it comes to anime crossplay with all the bishies out there.

    I saw a female Link once that was to die for. Those girls that did the androgynous Link cosplay were fine and all, but this…mmf. She had the long flowing hair, the slightly low-cut tunic just enough to be revealing without being too fanservicey, etc. Way, way better imo.

    I wish you had a picture of that Mal, though. I’ve got such a thing for women in dusters. *.*

  • http://twitter.com/textbkleftovers Textbook Leftovers

    I actually have to admit that gender-bent cosplay is often the best. My favorite photo shoots of Legend of Zelda cosplay have ALWAYS had a female Link. I can’t, off the top of my head, think of any specific instances of men cosplaying as a female character, but I’m sure it’s happened, and I’m sure that it rocked. I don’t know what it is about it (maybe it’s just the warm fuzzies I get for that kind of thing being acceptable), but gender-bent cosplay RULES.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ellen.sturm Ellen Sturm

    It is not hard to see why it’s okay for girls to like boy things, but inacceptable for boys to like girl things: It’s because our society is still very sexist. It’s because most things that are considered female things are still seen as negative, whereas male traits/things are generally seen as something positive.
    Therefore, girls taking over “male” stuff = They take over something positive.
    Boys taking over “female” stuff = They take over something negative.

    We need to get rid of gendered perception of traits or at least we need to stop seeing everything female as the lesser good of something.

  • http://twitter.com/greenspace01 Deborah Green

    I saw heaps of support for Boo and his mother – not, as far as I know, in the forms of Scooby Gang gifts, admittedly, but lots of tweets and FB posts saying how brave Boo was, how bigoted the parishioners were, how admirable his mum was…

    one of the highlights of this year’s Sydney SupaNova for me (along with lovely Amy Acker’s Q & A session) was seeing a man in cosplay as Wonder Woman – I wish I could post a pic here – he looked so svelte and wonderful :-)

  • http://twitter.com/relmneiko relmneiko

    Yeah, this. Personally, both crossplay (at cons and such) and crossdressing in a day-to-day way are at least half about presenting a more powerful/non-sexualized image. While male characters are frequently badass, if female characters  are badass they generally have to be sexy + badass, which is not something I’m comfortable with projecting. I find wearing men’s clothing empowering, but I have a hard time understanding why men would even want to wear women’s clothing.

    Yeah, this is probably all internalized sexism at work, but I feel like women’s clothing is something I have learned to accept, being a woman, but I still hate everything it symbolizes.

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  • Anonymous

    My Sgt Hatred three years ago was better :P I just didn’t have Hank and Dean with me. Fantastic article, BTW. I adore a good gender switch

  • Anonymous

    Girls can wear jeans
    And cut their hair short
    Wear shirts and boots’
    Cause it’s OK to be a boy
    But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading
    ‘Cause you think that being a girl is degrading
    But secretly you’d love to know what it’s like
    Wouldn’t you
    What it feels like for a girl

  • http://twitter.com/seriouslyyouguy you guys

    Can’t really argue with more women in spandex.