In recent years, the mainstream comic book industry has undergone an onslaught of controversy, with many fans noting what they feel to be a relatively recent decline in quality. For more generalised details on this, you can check out our other article on why comics aren’t dying. For this one, though, I want to hone in on a very specific focal point that has become a prominent subject of discussion within the contemporary comic book world. The subject of gender swapping is a facet of the industry that is frequently raised and debated, often very heatedly so. Such discussions often beg the question: is incorporating a gender swap responsible for what many perceive to be the slow death of comics? While it’d be easy to give a simple yes/no answer based on a simple knee-jerk reaction, the fact is, it’s a far more nuanced question than that.
It’s awesome that we live in an age where ambitions for representation are at an all-time high, of which gender swapping has become a popular off-shoot. However, as many will state, it’s certainly not unheard of for gender swapped interpretations of preexisting and often beloved characters to fall horribly flat.
Consider Fantastic Four’s She-Thing, for example. Formally known as Sharon Ventura, she began life as a wrestler who fell in love with the Thing and went on to join the Marvel Universe as a comrade of the Fantastic Four. However, after exposure to cosmic rays, Ventura mutated into a female rendition of the Thing – pretty strong premise, right? The problem was, it wasn’t too long before all this character background began to feel as if it were laid out solely for justifying the character’s existence, as it later failed to feed into an overarching story or character development. Instead, the rest of the She-Thing’s existence was spent wallowing in a pit of misery over the fact that she was no longer considered aesthetically beautiful, a trait that made her painfully easy to manipulate and a prime target for villains to take advantage of. Pretty sloppy stuff. Even so, the arc still had a chance to bounce back but unfortunately, no such effort was made and the She-Thing soon sunk into obscurity.
Similar to this, we have Lady Deadpool, a female incarnation of the 90s sensation, Deadpool, who was more or less an overly sexualised clone of her male counterpart.
While there are many more examples of poor gender swapped interpretations, it’d be useless to sit here and bore you with the list as they all follow more or less the exact same pattern. And this part of the problem – once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Not a great outcome for something that ought to have been fresh and compelling.
It could be argued that while these interpretations offered very little in terms of compelling character or narrative arcs, they did at least offer more choice range for female cosplayers within the superhero genre. Although, since genderbending has pretty much always been a major facet of cosplay, even that hint of praise feels like it’s scraping the bottom of the barrel.
But don’t lose hope. As someone who is an absolute sucker for character exploration, I can promise you that the very last thing I want to do is sit here and slag off the concept of gender bending. But unfortunately, complacency within the concept has led to a lot of poorly executed gender swapping attempts.
The problem here is not the fact that these interpretations existed, but rather the sheer lack of effort that went into them.
However, on the flip side, it has been proven on numerous occasions that gender swapped characters absolutely can and do work!
For one of the most notable examples of this, look no further than the female Joker. With the Joker being among the rare few characters that has remained relatively untouched over the years, this idea was certainly a dangerous one – but hey, fortune favours the bold! No doubt the inherent overhead pressure for this project prompted the much-needed attention for the creation of a successful incarnation of such a high-risk switch. And did they pull it off? Hell yeah, they did! An incarnation that takes place in an altered timeline, Thomas Wayne becomes a far more ruthless embodiment of Batman following the murder of Bruce Wayne by Joe Chill. Driven mad by the incident, Martha Wayne becomes the Joker and by extension, the arch-nemesis of her own spouse. A uniquely intriguing storyline in its own right, this gender swap added an entirely new dynamic to the notorious Batman Vs. Joker tug of war.
Other successful gender swapped interpretations include Miss Sinister, the female rendition of X-Men’s iconic villain, Mister Sinister, Female Thor, the Goddess of Thunder, and Batwoman. And that’s just to name a few! And guess what they all have in common? Good development and attention to detail. Unlike the less favourable attempts at gender swapping, the ones that worked are not simply copies of their counterparts but exist as characters in their own right.
In short, gender swapping isn’t the direct cause of what many perceive to be a relatively recent decline in quality within the mainstream comic book industry, but rather ill-conceived interpretations done lazily and for the wrong reasons.
It’s vital that characters are gender swapped not only tactfully but for the right intentions, not simply for the purpose of box-ticking which, sadly, is far too often the case. With a person’s gender frequently having a knock-on effect on their life experience within society, it is a vital thing to take into account when trying out a gender swap.
The fact is: sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. When it does work, it’s great! When it doesn’t, it’s not the end of the world. If we want the comic book industry to keep content fresh, it’s important to experiment.
While some interpretations of gender swapped characters seem bafflingly poor, there are those that really hit the nail on the head and act as a perfect demonstration of the potential possibilities in the concept of a well-executed gender swap. Provided the incarnation captures the true essence of the character in question, AKA: their morals, values, motivations, inner-conflicts, etc., then the gender of said character ought to be an irrelevant factor when it comes to enjoying a good story.
Like many things in the fictional world, it mostly comes down to the importance of placing content over politics. The majority of characters could be successfully gender-swapped. However, it shouldn’t be done from the perspective of a political decision, but rather with the intention of experimenting with feasible, alternate versions of established characters and delving into new and exciting sides of them that wouldn’t be available otherwise. It should be done for the sake of exploration and a fresh take and good content, not for the sake of winning brownie points on Twitter.
While it may start well-intended, reasoning such as this actually does more harm than good, as it runs the risk of female superheroes being saddled with the label of tokenism, and that’s definitely not the look we want to go for.
So is gender swapping killing comics? Put simply: no. It’s not the concept of gender swapping itself that’s responsible for low-quality output, but poor execution, lazy writing and misguided intentions. There’s an absolute wealth of examples that prove, when done properly, gender swapping is a uniquely compelling method of exploring alternate versions of well-loved characters and offering up an exciting, fresh take on new comic book content. When character and story take precedent, that’s when we know we’re on the right track! At the end of the day, female superheroes should be in comics because, like their male counterparts, they are filled with deep, compelling, emotional depth and are straight-up BADASS.
What are your thoughts on gender swapping? Do you love a good character experiment, or would you rather they be left alone? Perhaps you’re somewhere on the fence? Share your take with us in the comments below!