Science Fiction Notes: The Gender Swap

12 July 2017 · 5 minute read

A long-standing staple of comedy is the gender swap. Classic examples include Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, in which the shipwrecked Viola poses as the man Cesario and accidentally woos Olivia, and Richard Strauss’s Rosenkavalier where the youth Octavian (scored for a woman) assumes the identity of a woman and attracts the attentions of Baron Ochs. Probably a less offensive and more recent example is Some Like it Hot and Victor, Victoria which turns the usual source of discomfort on its ear with suggestions that maybe being gay or bisexual isn’t that bad or uncomfortable, at least for people who are gay or bisexual. In Victor, Victoria we’re laughing at straight-man King Marchand’s discomfort in addition to with it.

The obvious extension into science fiction takes the joke one step further. The character not only appears to be a different sex, he or she (since these stories are inevitably binary) becomes a different sex. Coincidentally, I’ve hit two TV shows and one short story centering on science-fiction gender-swaps.

Star Trek: Voyager: “Body and Soul”

The EMH loves cheesecake

In the Star Trek: Voyager episode, “Body and Soul,” the Voyager’s shuttlecraft is captured by a culture that’s at war with photonic lifeforms. Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) hides the photonic Emergency Medical Hologram (Robert Picardo), or Doctor, by uploading him into her own cybernetic systems. The EMH takes control over Seven’s body, a premise that’s even creepier than is acknowledged in the episode. The EMH volunteers to help out his captors, experiences attraction to the female first officer, and attracts the attentions of the captain.

All of which is played for comedy since the EMH inexplicably has a sense of gender and heterosexuality, but not a sense of taste or smell. As with Der Rosenkavalier the Doctor is initially appalled at becoming objectified by a man, but then uses Seven’s sexual attractiveness to manipulate the Captain into a compromising position. The episode manages to hit many of the transphobic low notes: autogynophilia (attraction to self), same-sex attraction panic, and sexual manipulation. The saving grace is that the Lokirrin crew who eventually discover this are considerably more easy-going than The Doctor is about the situation.

Doctor Who: “The Doctor Falls”

The Master and Missy

Fast forward 17 years and we come to Doctor Who and Missy. Missy is the latest incarnation of The Master, a long-time, mass-murdering, antagonist of The Doctor. For the most part the humor of this switch comes from the premise that The Doctor’s “first man-crush” is supposedly now available as a potential date. And this season has left little ambiguity about playing them as estranged lovers, even though its never clear as to whether anything sexual has happened in the past. Missy (Michelle Gomez) appears to be the serial abuser looking for forgiveness but not yet unable to change her ways. The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is the lonely and estranged lover hoping for change but perpetually disappointed.

For the most part, that works. Missy is almost completely comfortable regarding the gender change. She was the Master. Now, she is The Mistress. Where I feel this falls short is that we’re told that the Time Lords are so far advanced they’re beyond gender. We’re shown that Time Lords have fluid gender across incarnations. But when Missy meets her previous male incarnation (John Simm), he’s disappointed, snarks about the gender change, and drops a number of sexist one-liners attempting to annoy both Missy and the Doctor’s companion, Bill (Pearl Mackie). Time Lords are apparently gender-fluid, except when they’re not, and that’s often in places where it really matters.

Foz Meadows, “Mnemosyne”

While I was mulling this over, a post by Liz Bourke referred me to Three Short Stories by Foz Meadows. Meadows demonstrates how the science-fiction gender swap could work. Evke Rau is sent on a mission to inspect a former prison colony. She’s told by her pilot that the inhabitants of the colony are bound by a system of multi-generational debt slavery. Conditions at the colony are hostile to human life, so workers use remote-controlled humanoid “av’s” or androids. “This won’t be what you expect,” her pilot says.

Rau discovers that given the freedom to inhabit idealized bodies, both physically as androids and in cyberspace, the colonists choose to do so full time. Gender fluidity isn’t a embarrassing source of comedy or a disappointment, it’s an opportunity:

There’s forty-odd children here now between five and fourteen, and though the youngest have smaller avs, the rest switch bodies like minnows, sometimes-boy and sometimes-girl, sometimes-neither and sometimes-both. Many still claim what the miners call a fixed heart, an immutable identity of male or female, but still they change avs happily. They claim each one has a different feel, a different perspective; as though the passage of so many souls through their mech-genned flesh has left behind a flavour, or an echo…

The miners have built themselves bigger, internal worlds to cope with the smallness of the station. They were meant to be prisoners, trapped and punished. Instead, they’ve turned Ayu Khadan into a paradise.

Which I think is what the science-fiction gender-swap stories could say beyond the obvious jokes about mistaken identity. How does the ability to choose your idealized body change culture? How is it an opportunity?