So, I’ll be honest: I have a deep and abiding love for Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time with Finn and Jake. You can argue all you like about the obnoxious hipsters now roaming mall food courts and sushi restaurants across the planet in licensed Hot Topic Adventure Time hats and t-shirts (believe me, they get on my nerves too), the show remains one of my favorite things on television. Brightly colored and absurd, it tells the episodic adventures of Finn the Human, Jake the Dog, and the hijinks they get into with the weird citizens of the Land of Ooo. (All of which take place in a post-apocalyptic reality where mankind was wiped out by nuclear warfare, only to be replaced by anthropomorphic candy and the occasional vampire. Just so you know.) It has great character designs, inventively strange stories and a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, making the show fun for kids and adults alike.
For an episode airing in September, Adventure Time with Fionna and Cake, the creative staff has gender-swapped the entire cast. Male to female, female to male, humans and dogs and candy-people alike. As a fan of the show, I’m looking forward to it. As a writer, I’m positively giddy. To see a major network show throw gender out the window, even for a day, and prove that they can tell the same ridiculous stories regardless of the identities of the characters themselves, is kind of awesome. And I know I’m not the only one who thinks so.
The idea of exploring the gender identities of beloved characters is nothing new. Gender-swapping has been going on as long as I’ve been wandering the halls of the internet, and longer. This underlying interest among fans has spawned waves of gender-swap alternate reality fanfiction, about everything from Starfleet captains to Hogwarts wizards, demon hunters to Tarantino characters. The group The Girls on Film have been refilming scenes from major Hollywood movies with women in the roles of notable male characters, drawing attention to how viewers respond to women doing typically “masculine” things. It’s something I’ve often heard discussed in literature and film theory classes, and feminist blogs. Me? I try to be aware of how much I rely on gender in my writing, and strive to make my characters as gender-neutral as possible. Gender is a part of them, just as my gender is a part of me, but I don’t let it control or define them. If the story hinges on a female character being female, like a gay character being gay, or a black character being black, that’s not a story. That’s an after-school special. (Sometimes these kinds of stories need to be told, especially in the context of overcoming adversity or coming-of-age, but I don’t tell them. That’s just not my speed.)
So if I write a story with a male protagonist, use Find/Replace to change his name and gender, and I still end up with the same story in the end as I’d started with, I feel like I did my job. I told a solid story with a believable character. Analyzing just how much gender informs a character, and how much that influences his or her role in a story — and to a greater extent, how that character will now be read/viewed in the context of his/her culture’s gender roles — is a topic worth pursuing. For me, it helps me balance the tone of my writing. For a lot of fans I encounter, it helps them explore and enjoy their favorite stories and characters in new ways. For a lot of people, both in the writing community and outside of it, it’s a way to evaluate the kind of stories we’re telling, the types of archetypes we’re putting out into the world. Still, it’s not something that usually comes a lot outside of the classroom or message board.
Sure, gender-swapping turns up in film and fiction, but usually as the butt of a joke or as the plot of a formulaic body-swap comedy. It’s not taken very seriously in mainstream popular culture, where we still argue about gender roles and cliches, over-muscled male heroes and half-naked women trying to fight crime in lingerie. Even for it, this children’s show is the first that I’ve seen in a long time to throw the rule book out the window and have some fun with their characters. It may not be deep or particularly thought-provoking, but it is refreshing. A girl adventurer with a silly hat, her cat Cake, a pervy ice queen and a prince in need of saving. Oh, and some hipster vampires and anthropomorphic candy-people. It’s Adventure Time, but in a new light. What’s not to love?
Kind of makes you wonder what the rest of us are waiting for. After all, it’s 2011. Girls can be heroes and princes can be damsels in distress too, damnit.
(And for those of you out there who don’t have genders, I will try to come up with something to coherent to say about that and discuss that topic in a later post…)