Thursday 6 February 2014

Laws of Gender Bending in Fiction

I came across this website by accident. TV Tropes is a website which celebrates the tropes which we all encounter in fiction. It started off discussing television (hence the title) and from there branched into many other aspects of popular media: film, comics, books and music.

Before we go any further, what exactly is a trope? To quote the website:
Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members' minds and expectations. On the whole, tropes are not clichés. The word clichéd means "stereotyped and trite." In other words, dull and uninteresting. We are not looking for dull and uninteresting entries. We are here to recognize tropes and play with them, not to make fun of them.

The wiki is called "TV Tropes" because TV is where we started. Over the course of a few years, our scope has crept out to include other media. Tropes transcend television. They reflect life. Since a lot of art, especially the popular arts, do their best to reflect life, tropes are likely to show up everywhere.
Catwoman in Combat Stilettos
Well, that all sounds great, but what does it mean? Well, the sort of thing they mean is that the good guy drives the cool car, defeats all the bad guy's henchmen, confronts the villain, almost fails, but eventually succeeds in defeating him, rescues the girl, and drives off into the sunset. Sound familiar? Of course it does. We expect those things to happen.

One of the things which I had seen in fiction which really bugged me, is the way the speed of light is variable in fiction. The character turns the switch (or cuts the cable!), but instead of all the lights going off at once, they turn off gradually one at a time in a dramatic or menacing manner. Or the character turns on the lights in the abandoned space station, and they flicker to life in the most dramatic order (near to far, or far to near, as the plot requires). And is this one explored? You bet.

The TV Tropes website succeeds on several levels. First, it is amazingly comprehensive. I recommend typing in the name of your favourite arthouse film or your favourite 80's TV show, and you will find a list of tropes a mile long. Second, it is affectionate, even loving. It's not about criticising the ham acting or the special effects of the work; it's about pointing out how just about every piece of fiction relies on us expecting things to happen in certain patterns. (But special respect is given to works which play with our expectations and violate tropes in clever ways to make things interesting). Finally (and my favourite thing) is that it is always light-hearted and often hilarious, with tropes given quirky and amusing names, and the writing is articulate, well-observed, and wry.

I have spent hours browsing it since I came across it. And I am not ashamed to admit, I discovered quite a few tropes which I was unconscious of, but now see everywhere. Tropes don't "reflect life", I think. They reflect a fictional world we would like life to be. In real life, villains don't have one fatal flaw for the good guy to find at the last minute. Nor do they carelessly let the good guy escape a number of times so that he can show up in the final act to save the day. But, in general, we don't especially enjoy stories where the bad guys win in the end. So I think tropes tell us something very powerful about how people perceive the world.

What's all that got to do with a blog about crossdressing? Well, of course, crossdressing is a popular device in fiction, including film and television. And, I was delighted to find, TV Tropes contains dozens of pages dealing with the subject. If tropes reflect how people perceive the world, I think this reflects the fact that people are fascinated by the fictional representation of people who cross gender boundaries.

Wholesome: Jimmy Olsen
Let's start with one example, the Wholesome Crossdresser. I like to think I belong to this trope myself, as it happens. TV Tropes says this:
Crossdressing characters who are presented in a positive (or at least neutral) way. Frequently presented as attractive (or at least not unattractive), relatively "normal" people as opposed to perverts or sexual deviants.

The Wholesome Crossdresser may have any type of sexual orientation, but in settings where being straight is considered part of being "normal," one can expect to see the character's heterosexuality explicitly highlighted.

Some permutations of the trope are more or less unique to Japanese works. The Japanese Wholesome Crossdresser is usually well-groomed, compassionate, nice, and above all, so convincing that their "true" gender is only mentioned on occasion, as a reminder to newer members of the audience. There's a fair chance someone will get a crush on them, although this is usually resolved after The Reveal.

The opposite of Creepy Crossdresser. May overlap with Disguised in Drag or its Distaff Counterpart, Sweet Polly Oliver. (If the character wears crossdressing disguises more often than seems strictly necessary, this trope may apply.) Wholesome Crossdressers tend to enjoy dressing, even if only reluctantly, secretly, or subconsciously.

Generally does not overlap with Drag Queen (which is more about "performance" and theatricality) or Transsexual (usually a much deeper and more complicated subject), though there are exceptions.
You can see that the authors of TV Tropes have really thought this through. The article presents a huge list of wholesome crossdressers, including some classics such as Mrs Doubtfire, (Robin Williams crossdressing to get near his kids) but also some I had never known of or considered before. It turns out, for example, that Superman's journalist friend Jimmy Olsen was uncommonly fond of crossdressing as a means of fooling the bad guys. Who knew?

Anime crossdresser Ruka Urushibara
I could go on all day; there is so much to talk about. However, on browsing through TV Tropes, I discovered they had postulated Three Laws of Gender Bending, and I couldn't resist taking some time to debate the issues. (Remember that these laws apply to fictional circumstances! Phlebotinum is the TV Tropes name for some sort of scientific device or substance which furthers the plot in any way, and an Aesop is a life-lesson taught by a story; these neologisms soon become very clear).

First Law of Gender Bending: Once a girl has been created, circumstances will conspire to keep her a girl.
Not only are male-to-female Gender Benders a lot more common than their female-to-male counterparts, they are also a lot more permanent. One might think that the same Applied Phlebotinum that can change a male into a female should just as easily be able to do the opposite, but that's rarely the case in practice — most characters who try to reverse a male-to-female Gender Bender will learn that Failure Is the Only Option.

There are many reasons for this; even if the phlebotinum is ordinarily reversible, there will be an unexpected Phlebotinum Breakdown, or something else will prevent the character from simply switching the gender-bender into reverse. Perhaps the character inadvertently falls in love with his/her best friend after Jumping the Gender Barrier (the mind is a plaything of the hormones, after all). If there's Time Travel involved, maybe a Kid from the Future turned up to save their life, and the only way to keep the kid from going Ret Gone is to remain a lady (the possibility that they could just have been the kid's father all along is never even considered). Maybe the Gender Bender bestows them with actual superpowers (and no, not those powers) that the character needs in order to protect the earth.

Or to put the above another way, if the work is a webcomic called The Amazing Girl-Boy's Adventures in Femininity, expect the First Law to be enforced. If one episode of a Kid Com called Homeroom Genie involves the Jackass Genie turning Zach into Zoe to teach him a lesson? Not so much.

Other reasons for enforcing First Law stem from Unfortunate Implications and the Double Standard regarding men and women: Women Are Wiser makes for a good gender-equality Aesop. There's also the stereotype that a man being turned into a woman is somehow a demotion, punishment, or loss of status — what better way to start (or finish) a man's Humiliation Conga than by requiring him to wear skirts and a bra while losing that ancient symbol of power under his pants? This is an attitude that even the most feminist Take That against men may support, consciously or unconsciously.

In contrast, female-to-male gender benders are not only less common, but are typically resolved quickly and easily, ultimately reinforcing the woman's original femininity. And since Beauty Is Never Tarnished, the very same forces aiding the restoration of her gender will work against him restoring his.

And of course, since Most Writers Are Male and All Men Are Perverts there's just that much more pulchritude to go around if she gets restored and he doesn't. And if the gender-bent man refuses to act in gender-appropriate ways, then who cares? Everyone loves a good Tomboy! (Nobody likes a good Sissy.)
Scott Bakula in Quantum Leap
First of all, I hadn't really recognised that this law was a phenomenon at all. The law was originally observed about Anime, which, I have to say, I have very little knowledge or experience of. On the other hand, assuming that it's true for Western fiction too, the reasons postulated above are (I think) very telling. There are some narrative justifications for why it might be true, but this removes the question only one step further back: why should we like narrative justifications for keeping men as women (in the same way we prefer it when the good guys win)?

I think the article does a good job of explaining the reasons, such as gender ranking (men are "better" than women, but women are prettier to look at). Let's move on to the Second Law.

Second Law: Any character, after being gender bent, will come to enjoy their new gender more than their old gender.
A fictional character that gets his or her gender bent often becomes gradually accustomed to life as a new man or woman. Eventually they likely will experience an epiphany: that they are better off in their new gender than they ever were in their old one. This is the Second Law of Gender Bending, where a gender bent person would, if offered a chance to revert to their former gender, turn it down because they have come to enjoy the benefits of the change.

The epiphany typically takes one of two forms:
-A reluctant admission, either because they've changed too much to return to the way things were or are loath to admit the enjoyment they get from their new lifestyle.
-A jovial acceptance, where they quickly discover how much fun life is after the gender flip, and they never want to go back.
Forced to be a schoolgirl
Now this is a law I can relate to, having observed it myself. It tends to overlap with a trope which is present in transgender fiction. In general, I think TG fiction is shallow, wish-fulfilment stuff, and I speak as someone who has written some of it! Characters are invited, coaxed, blackmailed or otherwise coerced to cross-dress for the flimsiest of pretexts. And they resist and protest strenuously. But once they are all dolled up (and TG fiction often goes into exquisite and loving detail over this process), they find that actually they really enjoy the sensual feeling of those soft fabrics, and the emotional freedom to act in a different way, as well as how gorgeous they look (and in fiction, at least, this is nigh-universally a male-to-female process, but see here).

I think this trope is so popular in TG fiction because it removes one of the main obstacles to crossdressing: personal responsibility. We choose to crossdress, but it might be nice to have some sort of "excuse", because some people might consider our motivations to be unpalatable or questionable. A fictional scenario which coerces us to do what we most want to anyway is a powerful one indeed.

As you can see, I think most TG fiction is contrived and unreal. It serves only one purpose. The best sort of TG fiction is where the crossdressing is enveloped within an actual plot. When this happens successfully (and it's rare), you get an absolute knockout story, such as The Crying Game, which is popular with mainstream as well as transgender audiences.

Third Law: Any gender bent character will either embrace or be subject to all of the stereotypes associated with their new gender.
Characters who change gender will adopt "gender appropriate" dress and behavior. Most of the time, this means dresses and makeup for a man turned woman and aggressive and macho behavior for a woman turned man. Frequently rationalized as being due to the characters having stereotypical views of gender roles, particularly when the character in question is depicted as being in need of a gender equality lesson.

Like the second law, this trope typically manifests in one of two forms:
-A masquerade wherein the character is forced by circumstances to adopt stereotypically masculine or feminine attire or behavior, sometimes under duress. (This is especially the case in "Freaky Friday" Flip or similar plots where the character becomes a preexisting person of the opposite gender and must maintain the pretence.)
-The Mind Is a Plaything of the Body, wherein the character simply cannot resist adopting stereotypical attire or behavior due to irresistible compulsion, latent desires, Mind Control, biological imperatives, or all of the above.

More sophisticated applications of this trope will often try to find common ground somewhere between these two extremes. It may be as simple as characters wanting or needing to be treated "like a normal person" and thus adopting stereotypically "gender appropriate" attire and/or behavior to conform with their perception of the new roles they've been forced to adopt.

Since most gender benders are male-to-female this frequently results in scenes where the newly minted "girl" is confronted with all of the "requirements" of his new gender, which can include skirts, hose, makeup, high heels and other trappings of femininity which, while common, are by no means mandatory in real life.
We can see an example of this above in the Jimmy Olsen image, where not only is he a girl, but a knockout, who is immediately the subject of vocal male attention. We can also see examples of it in Quantum Leap, where Scott Bakula's character sometimes "leaps" into the bodies of "real" female characters and has to act as if he were actually that woman.

Curiously attractive: Patrick Swayze
What is interesting to me is that these "laws" seem to have been created or written by people who love fiction, not people who love transgender themes, or by crossdressers. In a sense, then, these laws suggest that this is how fictional crossdressing is seen from the outside, rather than how it seems to me from the inside.

So I challenge you to come up with a law of your own! For it to be a law, you need examples.

To get the ball rolling, I propose Vivienne's First Law: A crossdressed male will be forced to use his fists in a sticky situation, to prove that, no matter how feminine he looks or acts, he is still a man underneath.

Examples include Patrick Swayze's character in To Wong Foo, as well as similar scenes in Priscilla, and Sorority Boys. And at least one episode of Quantum Leap. All the best laws have exceptions, of course, and Sean Bean evades his obnoxious male aggressors with his wits in the wonderful Tracie's Story.

What I find disappointing about this law is that a crossdressed male should not have to use masculine solutions to his problems! When it comes right down to it, he looks like a woman, walks and talks like a woman, and wishes everyone would treat him like a woman, or even believe he is a woman, but he is still prepared to use aggression and violence in a manly way. To me, this is a blatant example of gender ranking. A woman could never get out of that situation safely; only a man could. Is that really a message we agree with?

Please feel free to provide examples or counter-examples of anything in this article, or to suggest laws of your own. Who knows? Maybe TV Tropes will codify them into "law" on their website!


Addendum: 25th February 2014

Vivienne's Second Law: Any man who unknowingly kisses (or almost kisses) a transgender woman, will, when he finds out, have a meltdown or a bout of homophobic panic.

Horrified: Ace Ventura
Examples can be found in the first Ace Ventura movie (where it turns out that the villain, played by Sean Young, is a transsexual); the first Crocodile Dundee movie; The Crying Game (although he later relents), and even David Tennant's first transgender outing in Scottish comedy show Rab C. Nesbitt. But not doubt other examples abound.

What disappoints me about this law is that a man is initially attracted to someone, sometimes enough to get very intimate with them. When he finds out that the person is actually a genetic male, he becomes suddenly terrified that he might be gay. Unable to deal with the consequences to his self-esteem (because nothing could be worse than being gay!) his former attraction turns to revulsion, and sometimes aggressive revulsion. As the audience, we are supposed to sympathise with the poor fellow.

This law is about homophobia and transphobia, played for laughs. Let's hope examples become rarer in the future.


My thanks to Heather Colleen for sending me the Tammy front cover image.


  1. Oh, what a fun topic! I too have delved the endless halls of tvtropes (you really should put a warning at the start of your article that the links could lead a reader into a trap from which they won't emerge until many hours later, wondering "where did the time go?").

    Your comment about responsibility touched on a theme I was discussing with a friend the other day. There seems to be a huge overlap between crossdressing and attaction to bondage. So often in discussion forums I'll see people say things like "I want to be forced to dress like a girl" and I'll wonder "want to? what part of forced do you not understand?"

    The reason, of course, is that when we are forced (by circumstances, by a sadistic dominant, whatever) into socially unacceptable behavior, it's not our fault. Of course I would never voluntarily dress like a girl; that would be weird. But I was *forced* to, you see, and I have no choice in the matter.

    There is a certain appeal to abdicating responsibility. Somebody else can make all the hard decisions, do all the work to put food on the table and keep a roof over our heads. At the most extreme limits -- kept more or less permanently bound and/or caged -- this hypothetical victim doesn't even have to worry about feeding himself or cleaning up after himself. All he has to do is exist and look helpless. For some, I suppose that's the ideal life. The so-called "master" (or better yet, mistress) is now really just a glorified maid, attending to the captive's every need.

    I seem to have strayed from my original point, which is if we can at least pretend we are forced into the circumstances, we free ourselves from any guilt over unacceptable behavior.

    1. Hi Ralph,

      I wholly agree with this comment. I deliberately avoided mentioning the G-word, but I do feel guilty about crossdressing. Guilty about wanting to do it; guilty about enjoying it; guilty about doing it instead of more family-friendly pursuits. For someone to "force" me would absolve me of that guilt, and result in a more enjoyable experience.

      I wonder about the overlap between crossdressing and bondage. For me, restraint and humiliation would be extremely unpleasant. However, for people who get turned on by those things, I wonder if forcible crossdressing isn't about embracing femininity, but (as TV Tropes alludes above) about men being maximally humiliated by being forced into feminine garments and accoutrements.

      However, this is WELL outside my zone of experience or expertise!


  2. Grok posting. Awhile back I posted to Skirt Cafe the tv trope "RealWomenDontWearDresses". Demonstrates gender ranking indirectly, by contrasting a Tomboy with a traditionally feminine woman. Of course, traditionally feminine clothing is a badge of inferiority.

  3. Grok posting. Of course, I spent hours looking at a diversity of tv tropes, most of which have nothing to do with this blog. Of course, I had to look at the Gender Bender tropes.

  4. Grok again. Check out fan

  5. Grok posting. By the way, a few people have commented that tv tropes is addicting.

  6. Grok again. It occurred to me that Skirt Cafe is-at least partly-an attempt at the wholesome crossdresser theme. To make it real, to make it visible.

    1. Hi Grok,

      Thanks for your comments.

      TV Tropes is indeed highly addictive, as both you and Ralph have mentioned! I am sure Skirt Café (and to an extent, the Beaumont Society and Tri-Ess) are trying to reassure everyone that crossdressers are "wholesome". I think some truly are-- but not all.

      I did click on the Genderswap link and was fascinated at the ideas which people had: a female Kirk and Spock, a male Uhura-- and pictures too! Some of the fan fiction concerns work I have never heard of, but clearly there is a huge group of people out there toying with the gender of our most revered characters.

      Darth Vader as a woman?


  7. Grok again. The Procrustean Petard appeared in a Star Trek anthology. An involuntary experience-the characters were fed into a magical machine. Their bodies were transformed as though they had originally been born into the opposite gender.

  8. Grok again. Read Ralph's comments. One of the TV tropes had a similar theme, "Dragged Into Drag." Notable for the male being treated as a doll.

    1. Hi Grok.

      Dragged into Drag can be found here:

      A short commentary about The Procrustean Petard can be found here at Memory Beta.

      And it didn't take much clicking before I came across all sorts of gender-bending fan fiction involving Star Trek, such as this site here.*d*%20Kirk/works

      Interestingly, Kirk as a female is called Jamie or Jane Kirk. Nobody seems to have come up with my accidental slipup: Kim. Do not grieve, Kim. It is logical.

      Some of the fan fiction stuff seems interesting, but most of it is just fan-porn I guess. Much of it seems to obey the Laws above. Kirk, rendered female, will suddenly become all breathless about Spock's cool eyebrows, and be willing to go where no man has gone before.

      Deary, deary me.


  9. Grok again. I not sure that this is considered a trope, but cross dressing for a male is often considered humorous. Used in comedy. Derived from gender ranking. It is considered degrading for a male to wear feminine clothing. If circumstances require a male to wear such, he is supposed to be humiliated, but in a way that is humorous to the audience. Often by making the male appear absurd.

    1. Hi Grok,

      I am sure the connection between crossdressing and absurdity goes back at least as far as Shakespeare, and probably for as long as humans have been telling stories.

      One of the things which troubles me about my own crossdressing is its connection with absurdity in the public mind. And I have never found crossdressing as a device to be funny in any way.


  10. Janice here Vivienne: - this is all so absolutely new to me -- will come back later with a more intelligible comment - clicked on TV Tropes and found myself in a maze of never ending thoughts. I love it, but gotta spend a couple hours there before I'll be able to wrap my mind around this one. .... Until then......

  11. "I think this trope is so popular in TG fiction because it removes one of the main obstacles to crossdressing: personal responsibility. We choose to crossdress, but it might be nice to have some sort of "excuse", because some people might consider our motivations to be unpalatable or questionable. A fictional scenario which coerces us to do what we most want to anyway is a powerful one indeed."

    Agree very much, and resonate with what Ralph was saying too. I think this explains my behavior over the past 2-3 years. I have not given in to crossdressing in reality but there have been a couple of occasions where I failed my resolutions by reading stories of crossdressing in these kind of forced scenarios, where the characters had to crossdress because of their circumstances, like disguise, no other clothes around, etc. In reality, and in God's eyes, physically crossdressing or reading these stories is basically the same thing. But in my false rationalizations during those moments of failure, crossdressing seems to be something I choose to do or not do and so am responsible for what I do, while in the stories it's all about having no responsibility. Somehow in the moment of pleasure while reading the stories, I also abdicate my responsibility in choosing to read the stories. It's as if since the character couldn't choose to not crossdress, I am not guilty for reading the stories, like I had no choice. It's obviously very irrational and quite pathetic.

    Regardless of what people think about the morality of crossdressing, there seems to be a lot of guilt about the activity because we know it's sexual, or if not sexual, we know that it's very odd and strange that we like it so much. We want desperately to have some other more practical reason for crossdressing. We want desperately to have those stories be our real life, where we can crossdress and enjoy it, but on the outside people perceive we are only doing it out of necessity.

  12. Thorin, I think the guilt comes from a fear of how society reacts. I do other things that I know are wrong, too -- like going 5 miles over the speed limit, or drink too much wine before bed -- but I don't feel guilty about them because "everybody does it", so those sins are socially acceptable.

    I don't feel guilty about the dressing from a theological point of view, because God knows exactly what I'm doing and I've never pretended I'm hiding it from Him. But I do feel guilty from a social point of view, in the sense that if I get caught, the penalty will be much, much more than I can bear.

    1. The differentiation of those two kinds of guilt is very interesting, Ralph. My guilt, too, is on the societal side.