therizinosaur: (Emosaur)
Nellasaur ([personal profile] therizinosaur) wrote2012-01-10 11:10 pm

META: Defining 'Femme' in Transformers: Prime

So [personal profile] hellkitty made a post asking for people's thoughts on femmes/female Cybertronians and their roles and treatment in both Transformers canon and fanon. After spending an evening agonizing over thinking about it, I think I've finally banged out what my fundamental headcanon is concerning femmes/female Transformers, at least when it comes to TFP. Obviously, this is only my own opinion and applicable to my own fanon, and your mileage may vary.

This presented me with a lot of problems at first, because TFP is part of the Aligned continuity, and in Aligned continuity, word of god has it that female Transformers are just one model type out of thirteen. Both of the female-identified Cybertronians in canon are small and slender, with hips and shoulders roughly the same size (as opposed to the broad shoulders and narrow hips of most of the male Cybertronians); the concept designs for the female classes in the TF: Universe MMO are the same. A lot of fandom is willing to wave their hands and leave it at that-- female Transformers are the minority, they're a small and slender model type, and that's all there is to it! No need to think about it any harder than that, right?

But leaving it at that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. For one thing, there's the obviously problematic "physically small = female" thing. At least the female Cybertronians in TFP are pretty hardcore-- both Arcee and Airachnid are more than capable of holding their own in a fight. Arcee is either implied or specifically said to be Optimus' second-in-command--at least on Earth--and Airachnid is given the command of the Decepticons in Megatron's absence (for...some reason) at the end of the first season.

So at least TFP, for the most part, doesn't relegate their female TFs to rescue-fodder or weak support characters. So far. (And I can't speak for the rest of "Aligned continuity" because I'm not really familiar with it.)

But I still don't like the small slender TFs= female Transformers thing, especially since Arcee and Airachnid both do get thrown around physically by bigger mechs in the cast, and also because of Strika. I intend to write Strika into my TFP fic "Mercenary Medicine", and I'd like to keep using female pronouns with her. But if all the female Transformers in TFP verse are small and skinny, what am I to do with the massive, robust, female Strika?

And then I realized that up to this point in my fanon-building, I had been making one fundamental mistake: conflating female with femme. Plenty of people do this, of course; it's probably safe to say that to the majority of TF fans, femme and female Cybertronian are the same thing. As I was writing out my thoughts in a scrap document, trying to put them properly to words before I could articulate them coherently here, I was even using the words interchangeably, and that was my problem. I was trying to constrain myself to the prevailing fanon opinion that femme = female Transformer and that that's all there is to it.

But as so many of the commenters over on [personal profile] hellkitty's post have pointed out already, there is no need for Cybertronians to conform to the human male/female sex/gender binary at all. In fact, from a xenobiological/-cultural worldbuilding standpoint, it's exceedingly lazy to assume that the human system of gender identification maps over to abiological alien robots at all. And from a metatextual gender studies standpoint, it leaves my gut in knots to consider applying a system of identification that's really doing nothing more than reinforcing incredibly problematic gender stereotypes.

So I disambiguated femme from female. In my headcanon, there is a model class of small, agile, fast grounders. Arcee belongs to this class. (Airachnid possibly did once, although where she fits in now, with her triple-changer beast/flight mode, I have no clue.) Mechs like Blurr, Mirage, and Drag Strip-- all fast little racers-- are probably part of the same class/model-type as Arcee, the one that fandom knows as femme. Strika, conversely, would not be a femme, but rather some other model type--a sizable, robust grounder model, possibly the same type as Breakdown and Bulkhead. Other model types include things like high-performance grounders (Knock Out, Wheeljack, Bumblebee), high-performance fliers (Starscream and Soundwave), and robust fliers (Megatron, Skyquake). Each model-type has a different name, although I haven't defined the models well enough to have come up with any yet. Where humans have men and women, Cybertronians would have femme, [high-performance grounder], [high-performance flier], etc, a different term for every model type. Model type, then, is roughly analogous to the physical sex of humans.

So where does gender come into it? If Cybertronians have thirteen model types, do they have thirteen genders? Well, they could, and there's almost definitely some kind of social construction on Cybertron relating to the role/social position of the different model types. But given that gender is a social construction, it doesn't immediately follow from thirteen "sexes" that there are thirteen "genders", at least not in the human sense of gender where it encompasses complex proscriptive behavior rules, many of which tie into the female reproductive burden, and different sets of pronouns for those genders. It would certainly be a hell of a worldbuilding challenge to write it that way, but I don't think it's a challenge I'm willing to tackle.

Instead, in my fanon for TFP I’m going with the Cybertronian language not having different grammatical constructions for the different model types. There is one pronoun for all Cybertronians, and "mech" is the general noun. When Cybertronians refer to themselves as 'he' or 'she' on Earth, it's just another form of local camouflage. They're determining what the dominant pattern of self-identification is on planet and assuming a certain set of pronouns because the characteristics fit. Arcee, for example, could have chosen to identify as 'she' because her chassis looks more like a human female's than a male's. Blurr or Drag Strip, who would also be femme models, could choose to use male pronouns when they’re interacting with humans because their competitiveness seems more like a 'his' trait than a 'hers'. A mech could choose arbitrarily, or wait until a native identifies him and use that, or identify after the pronouns of a native they like or admire (i.e., a medic choosing to identify as 'she' because of an admiration for June Darby and her work, or something like that). A mech who doesn’t plan to interact with the natives, like, say, Soundwave, could neglect to chose a construction at all. A mech could pick a gender neutral or third-gender construct, or insist on being called 'it'. Similarly, Arcee could chose to present as female on Earth, whereas on another planet with a binary gender construct, she might chose to identify as a male if the characteristics fit better. It all becomes a matter of personal choice.

Am I happy with the metatextual implications of this system? Well, yes and no. It does offer a chance to really challenge the social construction of gender-- I'm already envisioning a scene where a human character refers to Mirage as 'she' because his frame is similar to Arcee's and has to be corrected. Conversely, upon learning that the Cybertronians pick and choose their gender presentation on Earth, someone could ask Arcee why she IDs as female when she portrays a number of masculine traits (military acumen, aggressiveness, a primarily blue color scheme). But it also fundamentally means that Cybertronian characters are choosing their Earthside gender identifications based on stereotypes. And when most of the characters in the canon are identified as male and will be addressed as male in a fanfiction, all a system like this does is affirm that maleness is the default, and that femaleness is an exception or a special condition.

There is, of course, a way to combat this, and that’s having traditionally “male” characters choose to identify in the text as female to even out the numbers. While this again could be a valuable way to challenge gender stereotypes, there’s a risk of running afoul of fannish inertia and even internalized misogyny—the knee-jerk reaction that turning a male character female somehow minimizes or insults him. It’s all well and good when you’re just doing it in a one-off fanart or for the “lols”, but as soon as you seriously change a character’s gender presentation, you’re opening yourself up to backlash.

Part of this is Hasbro’s fault. Hasbro makes it amply clear to this day that they consider this franchise a boy’s club. Many of the female-coded Transformers they include come off as tokens to appease a minority in their fanbase (Arcee in G1 and the triplets in Bayverse), seem to be included to titillate male fans (femme fatale Blackarachnia in Beast Wars, who has to be saved by the love of the virtuous Silverbolt), or are fundamentally broken or flawed and therefore either evil or unstable (accidentally corrupted Blackarachnia in Animated and deliberately corrupted Arcee in IDW) or without agency (memory-wiped Arcee in Animated).

Even the “good” female characters in the franchise, Cybertronian and human alike, leave something to be desired: Sari disappears from the third season of Animated without explanation, because she was harder to write as an adolescent girl than as a somewhat genderless, somewhat tomboyish child. Mikaela’s role is reduced by the second Bayverse movie to ‘clingy and jealous love interest’. Arcee in TFP and Strika in both Beast Machines and Animated are almost entirely unfeminine—much of their characterization is masculine, from elements of their appearance to their actions and personality.

So what’s Hasbro telling their audience? Sadly, basically the same thing as practically every other action-adventure or boy-targeted canon—that female characters are weak or helpless or sex objects or dangerous because of their feminine wiles or unstable or only worthwhile when they reject stereotyped femininity and just act like male characters anyway. That male is default, male is superior, male is the only thing worth being. The only reason female Transformers seem to exist at all, metatextually, is to either pander shallowly to a shrill feminist minority or to inform masculinity by being an object for it to save, to salivate over, or to defend itself from.

I really can’t help but hesitate when I contemplate turning a “male” character female, or to expect some kind of negative feedback for ruining male characters by having them identify with the clearly inferior gender.

Does that mean it shouldn’t be done? Not at all—it mostly means I’m a coward for not wanting to do it myself. Honestly, I think the assumption that “Cybertronians are sexless/genderless and therefore should just all be treated as male (except for those rare exceptions who insist on being female for some weird reason)” needs to be severely challenged in fandom just as much as it needs to be in canon. In fact, I would argue that it’s more important to explore these issues in fandom, because Hasbro sure won’t tackle it in canon. They have made it all too clear that to them, Transformers fiction is about boys doing boy things that only boys care about and consume.

But we know that’s not true. Transformers as a franchise has been speaking to people for more than 25 years. I think it’s about time that it stopped peddling problematic, stereotyped, and hurtful messages, don’t you?

And if canon won’t do it, well then obviously we have to.

(Anonymous) 2012-01-11 09:53 pm (UTC)(link)
I don't follow Transformers fandom at all but I thought this was a very interesting and informative piece of meta. It really gave me some food for thought and I want to thank you for writing it. :)
femme4jack: (Default)

[personal profile] femme4jack 2012-01-12 09:04 pm (UTC)(link)
Brilliant! Disambiguating femme from female is what has been happening for me on a gut level, to the point that I, in most cases, resist having human females are referred to as "femmes" by the TFs in a story (I have intentionally done so in other cases, but with full awareness that it was because the human was being seen as having certain femme characteristics that had nothing to do with human gender stereotyping). You have explicated what I've felt on a gut level, and done so brilliantly. What a pleasure to read.

In Tainry's Borealis, the femmes are all enormous (as large if not larger than Prime). This made me SO happy in terms of getting away from that particular stereotype.
ten: Naked male torso (Default)

[personal profile] ten 2012-02-05 11:04 am (UTC)(link)
I found this post today through tumblr (thus the late comment, I'm sorry if that's bothersome), and it delighted me to finally see a fan critically look at female representation. And in my favourite TF no less. Your model, er, model fascinates me. When you mentioned that Airachnid seems to straddle model types, I came to think: if the model types are analogous to sexes, does that mean mechs who straddle types are roughly analogous to being intersex? And if they were, might there be a similar system of oppression and disdain in cybertronian society toward 'intersex' mechs as there is in human society toward intersex humans? Or is being 'intersex', cross-model, actually considered a unique, respectable attribute because it allows a mech more flexibility?

(Anonymous) 2013-04-20 02:44 pm (UTC)(link)
First, I think your delineation on the theory of frame types as sex options is quite brilliant.
On another note, I've always been quite happy with the agendered-species proposal, but this also means I get annoyed when in canon, said beings are referred to with gendered pronouns. You can't have your cake and eat it too, Hasbro. Though I concede, it's hard as hell to write dialogue without using any gendered pronouns ever.
(quickchangeartist, from tumblr)