Gender Swopping Characters to Reveal Stereotypes

I recently read a fascinating article by Michelle Nijhuis, who gender-swopped Bilbo in The Hobbit when reading to her little girl to try to introduce her daughter to a strong female character in a fantasy narrative. You can explore the article here http://www.lastwordonnothing.com/2013/12/18/one-weird-old-trick/ .

When I read it, I thought about what an effective strategy gender swopping could be for teaching students about gender constructions and the way that gendered assumptions infiltrate our written work. When we take a written work (or even just a passage from a written work) and swop the gendered pronouns, we bring critical attention to the way that we create notions of gender.women in capes

Fan fiction has been gender swopping characters for a long time as a way to insert a feminine voice into narratives that exclude women or write them into stereotypical roles, so this is not a new idea, but I thought that it could occupy an interesting place in the classroom, and in personal education.

I tried this activity out yesterday in an English course on gender theory at Trent University. I thought gender swopping would be a really interesting way to get students to examine power structures implicated in writing gendered narratives and start to question some of the stereotypes and beliefs that are assembled with our constructions of gender. Students were given three different short stories and asked to pull out passages that they thought would be fascinating for gender swopping. This was only the second week of a half course, so I thought that it would highlight for students the important work that feminism still needs to do in challenging gender assumptions and that it would also help to introduce students to passage analysis (since they could examine the whole passage from a different perspective, individual lines from the passage, or even the different significance that an individual word takes in constructing ideas of gender).

Students pulled out passages that highlighted constructions of masculinity and femininity and were able to note the framing narratives that were built around gender and the dependency that these narratives had on gendered assumptions. The activity was a powerful critical moment to bring stereotypes under the umbrella of question… but they also allowed students to laugh at these constructions and disempower the gendered power structures by finding them amusing.  Students stated that they found the activity interesting as well as enlightening and that it focused their attention on passages they otherwise wouldn’t have noted.

I would recommend having a few passages to fall back on if students aren’t immediately able to pick out some passages that are of interest to them. Generally, you should only need to point out a few passages and gender swop them before students get the idea and begin finding really potent passages on their own.

I did point out that “gender swopping” is problematic because it assumes a binary gendered system and excludes third gender options, but I thought this was a potent way to examine these gender stereotypes.

Remember, education doesn’t just happen in the classroom, so for those of you who are not teachers, parents, or students, consider gender swopping a few passages from your favourite Canadian Speculative Fiction to examine the ways that gender is constructed in the books that you are reading.

Even when authors create worlds of the future or the different worlds of fantasy, a lot of our culture’s own gendered assumptions end up filtering into these works. It becomes difficult to imagine a world with different gender roles when our minds and thought processes are so embedded in gendered dichotomies and assumptions about “proper” gender roles.

If you are an author reading this post and want to look at the way you examine gender in your own work (and maybe challenge some of these assumptions and propose some innovative new gender roles), consider gender swopping your characters to see how you may have unconsciously applied current gender assumptions on your characters.gender question

Here is the activity that I proposed to my students. Feel free to use or adapt it as you wish:

Gender swopping characters can be an effective way of bringing your own critical attention to the constructions of gender and gender stereotypes in the text you are analyzing. By switching the gendered identity of characters, you can highlight the way that gender is constructed and the specific assumptions around gender that shape the author’s work.

What are some key elements of the texts we are examining that a gender swop brings attention to?

Pull a few paragraphs from the text and gender swop the characters. What does this new gender configuration suggest to you?

How has it highlighted some gendered issues and problems of representation? Make sure to chose elements of the text that are particularly gendered or do fascinating things with gender.

What are some of the things you notice about the new gender configuration?

What did you find amusing about the gender swop?

How did the character read differently as male/female?

Why did this passage particularly interest you or catch your attention?

What stereotypes about gender did you first notice?

How is femininity constructed?

How is masculinity constructed?

In what ways does power shape these assumptions?

Who in the narrative is constructed as the object of desire?

Who is constructed as the active desirer?

How are descriptions of characters different when they are male or female? What is different about the features or attributes that the author focuses on when she/he discusses male characters versus female characters? Why do you think the author is focusing on these characteristics and what does it say about gender constructions?

What notions of “active” and “passive” underlie these gender assumptions?

What did you expect to find? How has the passage differed from your expectations?

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8 thoughts on “Gender Swopping Characters to Reveal Stereotypes

  1. This is a great exercise! I will definitely think of this as a framework as I write new stories — I have been trying to write more stories that at least pass the Bechdel Test, just because prior to learning about it, I don’t think many of mine would have passed it, but the binarism of the way gender is usually discussed in mainstream media/society is also problematic. It’s telling that for all the technological sophistication and advancements put forward in speculative fiction, the social sophistication and advancements seem far fewer and less developed.
    And, too, the notion of how power is constructed, and the intersectionality that affects how characters act and what they can do is, I think, an important thing to examine in a story.

    • Nicely said. I am hoping that we as a society can start breaking down gender binarism as well as continue to explore intersectionality as it relates to our characters. Characters are not composed of one identity, but are rather composites of identities.

  2. Diane Tibert says:

    Derek, I took your advice and did a gender swop exercise in the first chapter of one of my stories. I posted it for readers to see (there’s a link back to this post) here: http://dianetibert.com/2014/01/20/gender-swopping/

  3. BTW, I am trying this (sort of) in a current short story rewrite, after asking myself, “why do the main characters have to be heterosexual?” Changed one physiological gender, two sexualities, and started looking at how it might affect internal and external conflict in the story. This is a good exercise for resetting one’s “defaults” in writing fiction.

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