Transcending Flesh: Gender and Stereotypes

Note: This was previously published on my Patreon.

a pink and blue sky with a radio tower

This essay is one in a series which focuses on writing gender in science fiction and fantasy settings that provide body modification options beyond our current level of technology. Note that you can download this collection of essays from my website here.


Transcending Flesh:
Gender and Body Diversity in Futuristic and Fantastical Settings

Essay #4: Gender and Stereotypes

Let's talk about Alice the Author.

Alice has built an exciting fictional world where magitech can give anyone the body they want and where trans people don't face stigma for being transgender. Anyone who wants to inform the world that they're a girl can just do so and be a girl without facing contradiction or bigotry or gender policing. Excellent! Now Alice is going to populate that world with some trans girl characters who live and move and exist.

...oh no, Alice draped all of them in pink and frills and lace and froth and pearls. What happened?

There is a thing some cis people do where they assume that trans people base our gender on a list of things we like and enjoy, then check that list against gender stereotypes. As though trans boys wrote a list one day that said "cars, leather, hair grease, and Elvis" and went "I guess I'm a boy now!" while the trans girls' lists all said "pink, poodle skirts, lace, and lollipops" and then realized "oh, wow, I'm a girl, better go transition!"

While each of us is unique, that's generally not how trans people find our gender. The thinking here by cis authors like Alice seems to be that since there are so many barriers between one's assigned gender at birth and coming out as trans, then the people who come out as trans are the ones who are the girliest of girls or the boyishest of boys: the "extreme ends" of the gender spectrum who can't closet themselves and so they come out to drape their bodies in pink and blue respectively.

There are problems with that portrayal of trans people.

First, a world-building problem: Alice has established that trans people aren't stigmatized in her fictional setting. That should make it easy for people to come out as trans, or to question their gender, without needing to be a stereotypical representation of a gender in order to justify themselves. Who is demanding trans people adhere to stereotypes in order to "prove" their gender is valid to a judgmental and hostile society? If someone is sending the message that a trans girl who isn't "girly" is invalid, that's social stigma.

Second, a realism problem: In our world which does have stigma, we still have lots of visible trans people who aren't stereotypically girly-girl or boyish-boy. Even in a world with more stigma than in Alice's fictional world, many people still come out and rock their unique, valid, individual personal aesthetic. Where do those real people exist in Alice's world? Why can't we see them?

Third, a bigotry problem: Many bigoted cis people view trans people as embracing and entrenching gender stereotypes, rather than simply navigating them alongside their cis siblings. If the only trans people in Alice's novel are "extreme" examples of gender presentation, does that mean Alice buys into that bigoted idea that trans people are just "acting" their gender? The reader won't know Alice's meaning; all they have to understand Alice's view of trans people is what she writes on the page.

Alice's novel envisions a world with BodyMod magitech where everyone on earth suddenly rushed to one of two "sides" of gender and gender presentation. All her butch women and boyish girls ran to go outfit themselves with a penis so they could be manly men, while all her soft boys and feminine men rushed to install a fancy new vagina so they could be girly women. But that doesn't make any sense! People don't do that now, so why should the ability to easily and painlessly sprout a penis or dig a vagina change that?

There are femme trans women in our world, yes! There are also androgynous trans women and butch trans women. There are trans women who shave their hair off, wear motorcycle leathers, and ride around the world on a sexy bike shooting werewolves with a sawed-off shotgun and kissing ladies on the mouth. Every possible aesthetic of trans woman exists, just as every possible aesthetic of cis woman exists! There is no reason to assume that trans women as a group are more stereotypically "girly" than cis women.

Similarly, there are trans men who love plaid and rock amazing lumberjack beards. There are trans men who look like James Bond and are dressed to kill and know how to toss back a cocktail with just the right amount of smirk. There are trans men who wear gorgeous makeup and skirts and heels. There are trans men who wear pajamas all day and write novels on their couch with Mister Whiskers the cat. Our trans journeys are almost never "well, I like boy clothes and boy hair, so I guess I'm a boy". Exploring our gender presentation can be an important part of our journey, but the styles we each individually end up favoring aren't all aligned to a gender stereotype. Trans characters should have the same variety as cis characters.

Moreover, in Alice's world there shouldn't be just two options. It defies human nature to imagine that, in a world with BodyMod magitech capabilities, everyone would meekly align to one of two gender stereotypes. Alice has written a world in which everyone either signs up for breasts, a uterus, a bag of pink clothes, and a "girl job" or they checked the box for a flat chest, a scrotum, an entire box of blue socket wrenches, and a "boy job". The reader will almost certainly not recognize themselves in this world. Why are there "girl jobs" at all in a world where people can be any gender or body configuration they could ever want? What are "boy jobs" and what would that mean in a world without barriers to transition?

Body modification isn't going to jam our existing beautiful chaos into one of two types: girly-girl and manly-man. It is worth considering what gender looks like in this new fictional world--how many genders are recognized by society? what does it mean to be one gender or another? what sorts of gender stereotypes, if any, exist?--but there will be the same wonderful chaos of people mixing and matching their aesthetics, their interests, their hobbies, and their careers as there is now in our world.

If exploration and variety are disallowed in Alice's world, the setting is a dystopia and both the author and the narrative need to realize that. "You can be any gender you wish, as long as you conform to the rigid gender expectations therein" is a very bad place in which to live! Characters should be unhappy under those strictures, if we are to recognize them as human.

In short: Include trans people in your world with the same variety as cis people. Not all trans girls will be hyper-girly. Not all trans boys will be super-manly. Not all nonbinary people will be perfectly androgynous. Trans people don't fit into perfect neat stereotype boxes any more than cis people do!


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