Rethink That Rule: Genderswapping, Crossplaying, and Reinforcing Gender Binaries

Genderbend, genderswap, genderflip, Rule 63. It has many names, in everything from fashion to animation to movies to comics to fanart and fan fiction. I’m sure you can travel down the veritable wormhole of Internet searches to see the long, storied history of playing with gender. Personally, as a non-binary person, I’m kind of sick of it.

You seen it happen, one way or another. Be it in Ranma ½ where a young man accidentally gains the ability to turn into a woman when exposed to cold water, or the genderswapped episodes of Adventure Time where Finn is now Fionna in an alternate universe, or even fanart you’ve seen on Tumblr or DeviantArt where your favourite characters are portrayed as Dude___ and Fem___. Even in December last year, Rescue Bots had an episode where the worrywart that is Blades, a male-identifying Transformer who turns into a rescue helicopter, swaps bodies with his companion Dani Burns, a young female pilot. Then there are instances of crossplay in which people cosplay as characters, but of the opposite gender. Meanwhile in the world of fashion, people fawned over transgender model Andreja Pejić, but mostly when she was previously billed as an “androgynous” model.

Fionna & Cake with Finn & Jake from Adventure Time
Fionna and Cake with Finn and Jake from Adventure Time

On the surface, a lot of this seems fine. A lot of people assume that these depictions help explore gender in media or even go so far as to assert that these are representative of trans people and our lives. In my earlier experience, I also thought along those lines; I supported and sometimes even promoted these sorts of things as “progressive” or “fascinating” without ever really thinking too much about it. Part of that was a desire to see more ideas about gender experimentation, dealing with my own unreconciled feelings about the way I see myself, as well as that I liked the concept from an artistic standpoint of seeing various interpretations of people and characters. However, I can’t help but look back at all the examples I’ve listed, and then some, and wince thinking about how I helped propagate some gross standards.

The biggest issue I have with the execution of genderswapping (or any of the other similar words), be it through physical changes in the body or essentially a palette swap of a character, is how badly this trend doubles down and reinforces the idea that there is a one true gender binary. There isn’t. The way these examples present gender is that there is only male or female, with zero middle-ground and no room for a spectrum to take place. Being agender is never a concept that enters the mind. Intersex people are just forgotten altogether and swept under a rug. Genderqueer and genderfluid people have no visibility whatsoever. This goes double, hell, sometimes triple for people of colour. It cements the idea that men and women are day and night, polar opposites in every sense of the phrase, a black and white fact that you can’t argue about. Pants become skirts, short hair becomes long, and lips get bigger; where there were muscles there are now curves, penis is to vagina as A is to Z, and vice versa.

This is a really terrible thing to make people believe. 

Gender binarism plays into the widely-regarded cissexist notion that body parts are what make gender. That the thing between your legs or what letters are a part of your chromosomes are the only factors that determine your identity and who you are, as well as your status in society and everything that goes with it. This is even worse when you consider just how often this occurs from the perspective of Man Becomes Woman: Whereby some means, be it through magical curse or science gone wrong, a male character is transformed into female for a short period of time. This fantasy allows too many cismen to engage in what should be stories by and for any non-cisgender folk, but instead are dehumanising experimentations that get to focus on genitals. No. Just no. Stop that. This trope fetishises the bodies and lives of transgender, non-binary, and intersex people in some really disgusting ways. It dehumanises us and turns us into a trope, a joke, a visual gag, something to either laugh at because we’re trained to believe that’s so ridiculous or sit and pretend to think deeply about so we can feel like we live in a post-gender world. We don’t.

I personally had the biggest issue with this growing up in terms of clothing. Up until two years ago, I had a very clean-cut preppy style. Polo shirts, button-ups, french cuffs, cufflinks, boat shoes, blazers, etc. This is how I was told that men dressed, and that this is how women who wanted to be taken seriously dressed. I bought into the excruciatingly white Western notion of androgyny, that androgyny has to be completely masculine in clothing and presentation, that even if you don’t see yourself as a man or woman you still had to be a man to some degree. Short hair was the way to go, or else you’d be a hippy or emo or hipster or whatever new trend we hate; you have to be skinny or muscular without a shred of fat, you can’t have any softness only hardness, and if you want jeans that actually fit comfortably with pockets you had to go with “boyfriend” cuts. Also, don’t bother with anything pretty, because pretty is immature and feminine and that is bad because of reasons that won’t ever be articulated because they don’t hold water for more than a second. Even when I began questioning my own gender, I felt like I had to go big or go home. Cosmetics were slathered on, I bought all manner of fancy dresses and the like, I bought a wig, and throughout it all, I never felt like I was a woman unless I had all of that on at once. I had to become the idea of a woman to feel like one, and I wasn’t allowed to learn how to define being a woman in my own way.

The unfortunate division you see in most clothing and department stores
The unfortunate division you see in most clothing and department stores

This partly extends from how transmisogynistic crossdressing has become. We gender clothes and appearances to a degree that is painful. We somehow feel the need to add labels that explicitly determine what is for men and women, and this then completely ruins any sort of exploration with gender, fashion, and presentation. When men crossdress they become pastiches, overly exaggerated performances that deride and poke holes in every facet of what society deems to be womanly. Exaggerated mascara-laden eyelashes, ridiculous wigs, ill-fitting dresses, and heels as long as your forearm. Not to mention these depictions are only ever done with villains like in The Boxtrolls and farcical figures like Uncle Grandpa in the most recent Steven Universe episode. This coding warps the views of young audiences and only adds to the bitter cynicism of older crowds. Gender becomes more of a performance, a role to fill, with the focus being on waxing, stuffing underwear, and instead of someone’s very life and identity. As well as all that, these performances don’t end up empowering those who are portrayed; more often they become ridiculing acts or reinforce societal standards. Intentions be damned, these types of examples are horrific and need to be wiped clean from this world.

Uncle Grandpa in Steven Universe, crossdressing as Steven's mother in an unfortunate opening to the crossover episode
Uncle Grandpa in Steven Universe, crossdressing as Steven’s mother in an unfortunate opening to the crossover episode

Instead of these gags challenging the status quo, they end up supporting it as shallow executions of crass and derisive humour, making certain people feel bad about themselves for everything like their clothing to their very self. They hammer into us the idea of clothing being for two types of gender only and that in almost every case it can only be practical. It has to be practical; it can’t ever just make you feel good or make you look good. It has to function, and if it doesn’t function then it’s ridiculous and doesn’t belong and shouldn’t be. It doesn’t help either that predominantly it’s cisgender men that are heard when they get the last word on deciding what is or isn’t appropriate in fashion; from streetwear to superhero costumes, they’re the ones allowed to speak up and have their opinions given stock. And genderbending further plays into this with gusto.

Notice how every popular story involving body swapping or genderbending has the man-who-becomes-woman sigh and begrudge and hate every aspect of putting on makeup or wearing a skirt with no pockets. Notice how the woman-who-becomes-man loves how clothing sizes are easier, how shoes are more comfortable, how more desirable less maintenance is. This can be seen in cases like the films It’s A Boy Girl Thing and Dating The Enemy, where a man and woman swap bodies, inevitably leading to various montages involving wardrobe exploration. Even in cases where this change is more of a positive experience, it’s still through an incredibly fetishising gaze, with the men-as-women depicted as only enjoying the “sexy” aspects of clothing or using this opportunity as an avenue for perverted motives like infiltrating women’s spaces. As for my own experiences, I like having pockets; they’re pretty handy. I’ve found clothing sizes for men’s fashion are definitely simpler and more streamlined. And some days makeup can be incredibly tiring and not worth the effort. However, I don’t want any of those aspects and feelings to only be associated with the male side of a spectrum, and likewise I’m sick of feeling like I have to ditch the feminine parts of myself to achieve any level of simplicity and comfort and in some cases strength.

Sometimes, I want to wear a skirt without feeling the need to shave or wear lipstick and eyeliner with a loose tank top and ripped jeans, and I can’t without knowing I’m going to get some sort of flak when going out in public. Stares, murmurs, glares, and slurs are what I face. People are all for fashion and fiction experimenting and depicting radical variations on gender, except for when someone who isn’t cis, especially a person of colour, does it. Because it makes it real. Men can wear dresses and be lauded for their “efforts” or “humour;” women have access to all of these options yet can also sometimes be made to feel bad for doing so, but most painfully a transgender or non-binary person doing the exact same thing can’t be seen as the gender they are and only receive derision and violence. We are shamed for dressing too “over-the-top,” and we are put down for not meeting our gender’s beauty standards that have been foisted upon us.

It's both excellent yet sad that this has to be advertised
It’s both excellent yet sad that this has to be advertised

That said, I want there to be more variation of gender in everything. I want more transgender and non-binary and intersex depictions by creators with those backgrounds and experiences, as well as more accepted headcanons from fans within those communities. I want transgender, non-binary, intersex, and so many other people to feel safe with defining who they are and not through what they wear or what organs and body parts they have. People should feel safe knowing that having a beard doesn’t mean you can’t be a woman, or that having breasts means you can still be a man. I want these people to feel comfortable wearing dresses, skirts, and/or makeup and not feel like they have to conform to one gender. Maybe these people are both, maybe they’re neither, maybe let them decide for themselves without playing into societal norms. If you’re going to do a genderswap then actually dig into that stereotype and rip apart all of the horrible notions it presents and make it something different, something that’s encouraging instead of dehumanising.

I haven’t swapped genders, I’m still me, and dammit I should love me.

Jules Low

Jules Low

Staff Writer. Jules Low is a genderfluid trans lady located in Australia. She's a Fine Arts graduate, freelance illustrator, lover of Super Sentai and Power Rangers, self-proclaimed Professor of Zoids and Digimon, raving Halo fan, and the sort of person who reaches the maximum level of characters allowed on World of Warcraft.

6 thoughts on “Rethink That Rule: Genderswapping, Crossplaying, and Reinforcing Gender Binaries

  1. I identify myself as a female and conform to almost all gender norms. But I get really angry when I feel the pressure of those norms on myself and on those who are unaware of the constrictions with which they live every day. Appearance, beauty standards, language, roles, sexuality..we are slave of norms and not conforming – no matter what gender you identify in – can be a detrimental process that requires immense bravery. After reading postructuralist theories about gender, I decided to write a dossier that not only looks at the legal standards introduced for intersex people, but it also tries to deconstruct the binary division of biological sex. It’s here and I hope it can be of help to relieve ourselves fro the pressure of gender norms.

  2. I am so grateful that you wrote this article, Jules. One of my biggest takeaways is how insidious the gender binary has become–for me, within my actions and thoughts. There are many ways in which I unwittingly reinforce the binary, even though I don’t think of myself as subscribing to it. A few years ago, a friend explained to me that gender is not a binary, nor even a spectrum between two points; it’s a sphere, he said, any point within or along which is a valid place to be. I’ve tried to grow with that thought in mind. Thank you for helping me recognize more ways in which I can grow.

  3. As Jules’ partner/girlfriend/S.O. , I cried big fat ugly tears of love on the train reading this article. (Love?! Why didn’t you tell me bout this one?!) As a cis-woman, I will readily admit I struggled with coming to terms with Jules’s identity. And many people have no clue how pervasive these rigid binary norms and “rules” are in our culture. We need more articles like this explaining and debunking the myth that one’s gender identity is not set in stone or a “minstrel show ” for the amusement of others as a comedy gag. Jules has taught me that you are who you are. We need more discussion on this point. Thank you love.

  4. Thank you for writing this. It’s all information that desperately needs to be said and learned by those in just about every fandom community. It’s also a lovely validation for other non-binary people like myself, who always benefit from more reminders in a society that erases us no matter how confident we are. Just last night, I finally decided to try and cosplay a male character- without binding, without making the costume feminine, just- being him, without restraining myself in a way that makes me uncomfortable. It’s things like this that remind us we have these options. Thank you!!!!

    Also interesting- gender bending that does not just follow the binary. For example, it’d be interesting to see characters born DFAB or born DMAB and how the fan believes that different socialization would effect their character- do they dress and present exactly the same on a different body? Or has the different urging throughout their life changed it in some way? Also non-binary character interpretations. Of course a character can look any way at all and be any gender, but this could be a fun way for non-binary folks to play with representation on characters they enjoy.

  5. You have written something absolutely amazing, Jules. I want everyone to read this.

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