Storify: "Girl in Boy Clothes" Tropes

Storify is shutting down in May and has informed users that we have to migrate our content elsewhere if we wish to save it. This is one of my old threads.

Okay, so I went and had a thought about it and I want to do a thread about "girl dresses up as a boy" tropes in books. This is a very controversial subject with a lot of potential for hurting trans people, AND I AM ONLY ONE TRANS ENBY. Clear? Please please please do not take anything I say here as The Trans Community's Take on this trope. These are my feelings, that's it. Ok?

Let's lay down some basics first.

1. Clothing shouldn't have gender, imo. The fact that societies link clothing with gender hurts a lot of folks. But many do so. What's more, many of us absorb that linkage in ways that aren't necessarily hurtful. Fluid people may dress differently w/their gender, etc.

2. Clothing doesn't make the person wearing it a certain gender. To strongly link "X clothing gives Y gender" hurts many trans people. At the same time, clothing can be gender-affirming for many trans people and can often play a role in our social transition.

3. Combining "disguise" tropes with "gender" tropes can harm trans people because we're viewed as "fooling" people with our dress. At the same time, we are familiar with the "disguising" effects of clothes, when we talk about going stealthy girl mode around family, etc.

*peers back up at tweets* So wow, already we see that clothes and gender and disguises are all pretty fraught and you want to step w/care. So into this mix, let's take a trope older than Shakespeare: a girl dresses up as a boy to get shit done.

This is an actual historical thing that happened: girls did this thing. (Some of them might not have been cis, but some were.) This can also be an empowering thing in societies where there's a strong power imbalance between girls and boys. This can also be a form of gender exploration: there's a reason Disney's Mulan movie is so powerful for so many enbys and trans boys, etc.

So I am not going to say "don't do 'girl dresses up as boy' tropes" because history and feminism and gender exploration. But. Let's talk about a couple things.

First big one: Does anyone "discover" the girl is a girl under those boy clothes? Those "discovery" scenes can be VERY harmful to trans people. Both from a triggering perspective and an invalidation of our genders. If the girl in boys' clothes is a girl, she's a girl BECAUSE SHE'S A GIRL. Not because of her body configuration. Glimpses of body parts that "prove" her girlness hurt us and (wrongly) affirm that being a girl is meeting a body type quota.

So if you're writing people being suspicious of her for her soft voice or smooth neck or wide eyes or "discovering" her breasts, etc. = NO. I mean, you can do it, I can't stop you, but I'm going to stay far away from that book and so will a lot of other trans folk. For safety. If someone needs to "find out" the girl is a girl, consider having her tell them. And then consider them NOT "not surprised because XYZ".

For clarity, the above tweet means to avoid things like "I'm not surprised you're a girl because your hands are so tiny" or "I'm not surprised to learn this because you're so gentle" or whatever: these are what I call 'gender detectives'. Finding out someone is not the gender you believed them to be (because you believed them when they said they were that gender) can be surprising! Let your characters be surprised. They can be surprised and still accept the protagonist's gender. Surprise and acceptance aren't either/or states of being. "Gender Detectives" hurt us. Show us folks who didn't spend a chunk of their free time speculating whether the heroine's gender was a lie.

That's the big one, okay. The "reveal". Reveals can hurt us a LOT and it's hard to gather up all the reasons why into one thread. You want to convey:

- Good people believe other's genders and don't play "detective".
- Gender isn't body parts.
- Coming out is a choice.

The doctor in Mulan is the WORST and should've kept his mouth shut. If you're going to have a doctor, make them ethical. PLEASE. There are few things more dangerous for a lot of us than being outed against our will. It is NOT a romantic, reliefy moment.

The second thing to think about when writing a "girl in boys clothes" trope is whether you're subtly suggesting that clothes convey gender. This is a tricky one because men's clothes in many societies ARE more comfortable and better made and more designed for confidence/action. So it's hard to tell if a girl feels better/stronger/more-confident/more-powerful/etc in the clothes because they're better made, or because she's maybe trans and exploring her gender, OR if the author thinks being in boy clothes makes you "boyish" by magic.

The good news here is that you have an entire book's worth of words to explore why the protagonist likes these clothes better, if she does! But put some thought into exploring clearly and not just having a girl become, for all intents and purposes, A Boy when she wears a boy hat.

To wrap up this thread because I think that's all I wanted to say for now: I don't think "girl dresses up as boy" tropes are inherently bad. I even think they can be powerful and affirming for AFAB trans people sometimes! BUT. Please be really careful how you deploy that trope and *especially* be careful around any outing/discovery scenes. Because those can hurt not just your character, but also your reader.

Addition after watching the 2009 live-action, non-Disney-version Mulan: I loved the live-action 2009 Mulan so much, y'all.

1, she starts out already a badass at fighting because she's had an interest in it from childhood and protects her friends. So there's not a dynamic of "weak woman learns to get strong and manly". She just IS STRONG already.

2, there's no "dressing for war" sequence in which she puts away her girly clothes/hairstyle/makeup. She just rides away from home with her hair up and in armor. She looks the EXACT SAME as before, and it's FINE.

3, there's a very brief "learn to be manly" bit from a childhood friend who advises her to laugh less often, but it's not packed with toxic masculinity tropes about MEN BEING MANLY. It's brief & comical, and you can easily read the friend as being silly / worrying too much.

4, Nobody at camp "gender detectives" her. And again, she looks the exact same as before. She changes NOTHING about her appearance before going off to war. Gender is presented as cultural and a function of what people "expect" to see. (Here noting that this is a Chinese movie and I'm a white American so there's probably all kinds of nuance about clothing and appearance that I missed, so take all this with a boatload of salt, but I can only talk about what I saw/see and add caveats like this one.)

5, There's exactly one "discovery" scene where Mulan is undressed in a pool and another person realizes that the person they can't see clearly or identify by sight is apparently a woman fearing being outed. That dude then religiously keeps her secret and is her ally.

6, Every other time in the movie when Mulan "comes out" to someone as a woman, it is on her terms, with her words, and because she wants to. Each time, people react with respect and affirmation.

7, People who liked her when she was a "boy" (in all senses of the word 'like' here) feel the same about her when she comes out as a girl. There's no condemnation, no revulsion. There's also no "oh now she's HOT" or that gross trope of "thank god I'm not gay". Yes, I am subtweeting the Disney movie a LOT here because while I LOVE IT, it's painful for me to watch because there's a LOT of toxicity in it re: manliness and heterosexuality and transphobia.

The 2009 live-action is SO much better on these fronts, imo.

8, there is another woman in the movie who is very feminine. Mulan instantly identifies her as having common interests, comes out to her, and they save the day with subterfuge, violence, and diplomacy. IT'S AWESOME.

9, at the end of the movie, Mulan comes out to the Emperor. I'm still crying over that scene. It's so good. It just is.

10, the movie really touchingly deals with the horrors of war and of losing friends and, ya'll, it is not a HAPPY movie but it is a GOOD one. And I really really think they treated the "girl dresses up as boy" trope as good as it can be done. I was impressed. I felt validated. Do that.


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