Redefining genderswap fan fiction: A Sherlock case study

Ann McClellan

Plymouth State University, Plymouth, New Hampshire, United States

[0.1] Abstract—Using BBC Sherlock (2010–) fan fiction as case study, this article looks at how fans use and understand such concepts as biological sex and gender in genderswap fan fiction, arguing that the label often minimizes the importance of the physical body in determining gender identity. The label genderswap, most often used to describe stories where characters have become differently sexed, reflects and reinforces common cultural misunderstandings about differences between sex and gender. By teasing out definitions of genderswap, sex, gender, cisgender, and transgender, the article analyzes what genderswap includes and excludes from discussions of gender and identity within contemporary fan fiction, ultimately arguing for a broader conceptual understanding that grounds the genre within contemporary transgender theory.

[0.2] Keywords—Cisgender; Fan Fiction; Gender; Sex; Transgender

McClellan, Ann. 2014. "Redefining Genderswap Fan Fiction: A Sherlock Case Study." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 17.

1. Introduction

[1.1] The genderswap label, used by fans and scholars alike to describe stories where characters have become differently sexed, contributes to the ways we theorize about sex and gender and simultaneously risks reinforcing and potentially limiting common cultural understandings of the differences between the two concepts. However, very little research has been published on genderswap fan fiction, either as a genre or as specific case studies, perhaps because of the confusions over sex versus gender and what the term genderswap actually signifies (note 1). As such, this article aims to interrogate the terminology used in genderswap fan fiction and to discuss how it relates to current transgender theory about the relationship between biological sex and gender identity.

[1.2] Over the past 30 years, transgender studies has shifted away from feminism and queer theory, from which they emerged, to an exploration of "the lived complexity of contemporary gender" (Stryker 2006). Originally concerned with breaking down the cultural links between sex and gender, transgender theorists challenged the structuralist notion that gender was merely the mimetic sign of an ontological sexual identity. Rather, building on the work of Judith Butler, they argued that sex was not, in fact, a stable or unified referent but rather performative, "a variety of viable bodily aggregations that number far more than two. The 'wholeness' of the body and 'sameness' of its sex are themselves revealed to be socially constructed," just like gender identity (9). While this earlier iteration of transgender phenomena can be defined as a kind of Butlerian performance studies, more recent articulations have reinforced the importance of the "lived complexity" of gendered bodies in a post-9/11 world where nations define and police the borders of bodies and identities, just as they do states and nations. Genderswap fan fiction provides another way for us to understand "how bodies mean, how representation works, and what counts as legitimate knowledge," both inside and outside of the academy (8–9). By foregrounding gender expectations and how they are both attached to and separate from biological sex, genderswap fan fiction complicates such assumptions and encourages readers to see sex and gender identity as codependent rather than as separate aspects of an individual's identity.

2. Why Sherlock?

[2.1] BBC Sherlock (2010–) fan fiction is perhaps uniquely suited as a genderswap case study. The popular modernized update of Arthur Conan Doyle's classic detective presents two diversely gendered characters. On the one hand, Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock is as cold and intellectually dynamic as his Victorian counterpart, and Martin Freeman's John Watson fully embodies the military ethos and medical acumen of the original. On the other hand, Cumberbatch's Sherlock's asexuality, his unruly enthusiasm, and his mercurial mood swings could easily be gendered just as feminine as Freeman's Watson's nurturing caretaker persona. The characters' ability to embody stereotypical masculine and feminine gender behaviors simultaneously within male sexed bodies—and other characters' reactions to those behaviors—makes them intriguing sites for exploring the relationship between the two concepts.

[2.2] BBC Sherlock is also a great fit for analysis because of the popularity of its eponymous protagonist. Genderswap fan fiction purposefully uses familiar characters in order to reify the cultural significance of that character and simultaneously to distance the audience from previous portrayals; such characters carry all of the cultural capital of the original canonical figures as well as the defamiliarization needed to challenge traditional gender and sexual stereotypes. As the Guinness Book of Records' most portrayed literary figure of all time, there are few literary characters with more cultural capital than Sherlock Holmes. Studying Sherlock genderswap fan fiction allows us to see not only how predominantly female audiences are co-opting this century-old character but also the ways they explore and theorize relationships between the body and gender identity.

3. (Re)defining sex and gender: What is genderswap?

[3.1] Readers familiar with gender theory find the genderswap label problematic because of the way it seemingly confuses sex and gender (note 2). A fan-created genre, genderswap by definition depends on gender as its primary category when describing stories about characters swapping sexed bodies (note 3). For example, a male-bodied Sherlock Holmes in a genderswap fan fiction becomes a female-bodied Sherlock Holmes. While this body swapping is often combined with implicit and explicit analyses of gendered behavior or behaviors, cultural expectations, surveillance, sexuality, and so on, using gender as the root of the term seems to privilege socially constructed behaviors over the material reality of the physical body (note 4). However, most often the genderswapped character's gender behavior does not actually change; rather, the character's gender behavior remains consistent with its originally sexed body (or at least with its original canonical depiction). The focus then becomes not what happens to change a character when a male-gendered character becomes female-gendered, but how the character's surrounding world—other characters, institutions—changes in response to the same behaviors being differently sexed.

[3.2] To simplify, sex is generally considered to be biologically determined while gender is considered to be culturally constructed, although even these basic definitions are under current debate (note 5). Male and female are terms used to denote a body's sex status, referring to its (potential) reproductive capacity, chromosomes, and genitalia (note 6). In contrast, gender refers to the social construction and cultural expectation of gendered behaviors or, in the words of transgender theorist Susan Stryker, "gender is the social organization of bodies into different categories of people" (Stryker 2008, 11). The emphasis here is of course on both "social organization" and "bodies." Gender is a cultural category used to privilege certain behaviors over others by assigning them to specific sex characteristics.

[3.3] At heart, genderswap fan fiction stories explore the cultural constructedness of gender, and interrogate what theorist Judith Butler describes as gender performativity and the role that physical embodiment plays in gender identity (note 7). Individuals perform gender identity through various behaviors ranging from clothing choices (women's skirts, high heels, and tight-fitting clothing; men's loose clothing, low-heeled shoes, and hats), to how they move their bodies, use their voices, and the activities they participate in. Culturally, we expect male-bodied persons to behave (i.e., perform) in masculine-gendered ways (ambitious, protective, aggressive, assertive), and we expect female-bodied individuals to behave in feminine-gendered ways (nurturing, weak, passive, submissive). Such alignment is often referred to as cisgender—literally, gendered behavior that is on the side of its assigned biological sex (note 8). Gender theorists emphasize that such behaviors are learned at an early age by watching and mirroring people we admire, and while it may be easy to criticize such descriptions as stereotypes, they describe how most people define and police gender in their everyday lives. Children, parents, teachers, and friends all conspire to correct any behaviors that do not seem to match a person's perceived sex.

[3.4] The danger of focusing so much on the performative aspect of gender identity, however, for fans and scholars alike, is that it begins to erase the material reality of the body. Gender is embodied. Embodiment refers both to the corporeal body and to the ways an individual materially manifests and lives the life of a specifically sexed and gendered person. As many biologists and trans theorists have noted, the physical manifestations of biological sex—which include genetic composition (XX vs. XY), reproductive organs, genitalia, secondary sex characteristics—all affect how a person identifies as a sexed individual and how society sees, interprets, and acts upon that individual; this is where genderswap fiction concentrates most of its interrogations. In addition, how people interpret these biological identifiers—that is, how they choose to express their biological sex through their gender identities—is similarly a form of embodiment. As a concept, embodiment attempts to articulate how individuals manifest gender through their physical selves—and, conversely, their physical selves through their gender—in a way that is inclusive of both biological and cultural factors (note 9). Rather than separate the two, genderswap, as a genre, ultimately highlights and complicates the interconnectedness between the physical embodiment of sex and gender behaviors.

[3.5] Genderswap's complication of traditional feminist and queer theory understandings of sex and gender also mirrors contemporary trends in North American transgender activism and theory (note 10). Debates about the relationship between biology and gender continue to dominate much of contemporary feminist and gender theory, especially in transgender studies. Many poststructural transgender theorists in the late 20th century, like Leslie Feinberg, Sandy Stone, Cressida Heyes, and Susan Stryker, focused primarily on performativity and identity politics, arguing that gender is a culturally constructed performance that is perpetuated by its own continuous reenactment, and that the body itself is as much a re-presentation of identity as the behaviors and actions one attributes to it. More recently, contemporary transgender theorists have criticized such poststructuralist gender approaches, claiming they ignore "the embodied experience of the speaking subject" and how culture acts upon that body (Stryker 2006, 12; Nagoshi and Brzuzy 2010, 435; Lane 2009, 149) (note 11). While earlier critics possibly overlooked the ways characters physically embody gender identity, focusing solely on the biological sex of genderswap characters simultaneously risks an essentializing discourse that posits masculine and feminine behaviors as being naturally tied to male and female bodies, respectively. If genderswap stories "use changes of sex to explore how [characters] experience the embodiment of gender," as Alexis Lothian (2008) argues, then a study of genderswap fan fiction needs to include both gendered behaviors and sexed bodies in order to understand how the two together contribute to individual identity and to how society perceives, constructs, and categorizes them. The very concept of genderswap fan fiction itself forces us to reimagine sex and gender as mutually codependent, rather than separate, influences on identity formation.

4. "I want a female Sherlock Holmes": Fan responses to Sherlock

[4.1] Analyzing an individual fandom through a particular theoretical lens can reveal important trends, patterns, and attitudes, and the central corpus of Sherlock genderswap fan fiction grapples with the relationship among gender behavior, identity, and embodiment. BBC Sherlock has a large and active fandom ranging across multiple online platforms (LiveJournal, Archive of Our Own [AO3],, Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, etc.), and while Sherlock Holmes fandoms have been dominated historically by men, Sherlock is the first adaptation with a predominantly female audience. Several critical debates over the show's portrayal and overall lack of female characters and perceived misogyny have dominated both Web forums and the media, illustrating that representations of women, gender, and sexuality are critical to the audience's interaction with and reception of the show (note 12).

[4.2] While there isn't space in this article to discuss the politics surrounding Sherlock's women characters and fans' specific responses to the show, some fans specifically cite such arguments as motivation for their writing and reading of genderswap fan fiction. For example, in her author's note to the story "Astronomy," a loose adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle's "A Scandal in Bohemia" where Sherlock, John/Joan, Mycroft, and Lestrade go on a romantic holiday to Prague, writer Parachute_Silks explained that she turned all of the male characters into women "as a slightly desperate reaction to this show's female character problem" (Parachute_Silks 2010a). Parachute_Silks seems to be referring to what is commonly known in fan lore as "Rule 63," a feminist response to the underrepresentation of women in television and film: "For every given male character, there is a female version of that character, and vice versa" ( Representation isn't about simple numbers (i.e., requiring the same number of male and female characters, regardless of characterization); rather, significance, meaning, and value are of importance. According to Rule 63, there is a matching and equal female version of every male character, with the same values, work, and characteristics. For writers like Parachute_Silks, shifting the canonically gendered behavior from the show into female-embodied fan fiction characters allowed her both to address a perceived lack of representation on the show and to implicitly explore the relationship between gender behavior and biological sex.

[4.3] Representations of women characters are similarly important for bloggers and viewers. Blogger Shadowfireflame argued that women fans want the equivalent of the heroic male protagonist famous throughout canonical Sherlock Holmes lore:

[4.4] Okay, so I'm coming to realize that it's not just that I want a female genius (though I'll take those!). I actually want an arrogant female genius. Someone irritating, confident, abrasive, demanding. I don't want a cute little girl who demurely and quietly provides her brain powers to the betterment of humanity; I want a woman with charisma who explodes onto the scene, verbally eviscerates everyone, and then sweeps away with her massive intellect. Yeah…in short, I want a female Sherlock Holmes. (Shadowfireflame 2011)

[4.5] The characteristics typically associated with the canonical Holmes figure—irritating, confident, abrasive, demanding, one who eviscerates everyone with his massive intellect—are all behaviors typically gendered masculine in Western society. Women, Shadowfireflame rightly articulates, are expected to be cute, little, demure, and quiet; they are supposed to dedicate their intellect to helping others and improving quality of life. Shadowfireflame doesn't want a female character like Sherlock Holmes; she wants a female Sherlock Holmes. Genderswap's ability to transfer the gender behaviors of a beloved canonical male figure into an equally engaging female allows readers to challenge culturally accepted norms for gendered behavior and to identify with clever, charismatic protagonists. The central tension of many such stories is, thus, the social reaction to those gender characteristics being embodied differently, thus bringing sex back to the forefront of analysis.

5. BAMF!John and fem!John—one and the same?

[5.1] Based on the preponderance of fem!Sherlock fan fiction stories on Archive of Our Own and other such sites, Shadowfireflame isn't the only person interested in a female Sherlock Holmes (note 13). The majority of genderswap Sherlock stories on the Web take place within the BBC Sherlock world/canon and focus on fem!Sherlock, often but not always paired with a fem!John. While both characters exhibit both cis- and transgendered traits in the original show, John's feminine behaviors seem more accepted and easily translatable between male and female bodies; that is, fem!John characters are not often seen in conflict over their gender identities in the same way that fem!Sherlock's often experience (note 14). Sexed male, Martin Freeman's John Watson assumes transgendered roles in his relationship with Sherlock, depending on Sherlock's needs at the time. He purchases groceries, manages their finances, and maintains their flat, and his position as a doctor also means he is responsible for Sherlock's health. Many of guy!John's behaviors tie in with what Marxist feminists identify as women's unpaid reproductive labor—that is, unpaid domestic/house work that supports the reproduction of the family unit. Historically, women's activities within the home—cleaning, providing food, bearing and raising children, and so on—have not been considered work in the eyes of capitalist society. Work was productive, outside the home, and wage earning. As a result, reproductive labor was historically aligned with women's political and economic position within the home and within the structure of marriage. In the classic Victorian Holmes and Watson stories and pastiches, this work was taken up by Mrs. Hudson, their housekeeper. However, as single men in the 20th century, the BBC Sherlock's John and Sherlock would have to take on the reproductive labor role in their household; living together as roommates also facilitates the approximation of a heteronormative relationship whereby one person—John Watson—becomes culturally feminized by assuming these responsibilities. These feminized behaviors carry over into genderswap stories like Parachute_Silks' "Categories."

[5.2] Alternating between fem!Sherlock's and fem!John's (Joan) point of view, "Categories" begins by describing both characters as young girls. Fem!Sherlock has a failed sexual relationship with "The Blind Banker's" Sebastian while at university before she becomes a consulting detective as an adult. The story follows the original canonical meeting between Sherlock and John at St. Bart's, after which they move in together and begin to develop sexual feelings for one another. The story concludes with fem!Sherlock and Joan working a case for Sebastian in France and confronting him about his treatment of fem!Sherlock at university. Fem!Sherlock retains her masculine aloofness and independence within the story, but Joan is shown as caring and emotionally sensitive. While fem!Sherlock "is not one to appreciate people trying to look after her," Joan likes caring about people: "Love and responsibility come natural to her" (Parachute_Silks 2010b) (note 15). Including the word "natural" here to describe fem!John's behavior may strike a dissonant chord in the reader. Joan's characterization may look, on the surface, as if it reinforces traditional gender dynamics of woman-as-caretaker. It is "natural," that is, instinctual, for Joan to nurture fem!Sherlock, something that is directly tied to her womanly biology; Joan's characterization is cisgendered and therefore does not challenge cultural expectations for women's behavior. However, such characterization is also consistent with BBC!John's portrayal on the show, which makes the term "natural" a bit more slippery. Joan's "natural" preference for taking care of fem!Sherlock could come either from her female biology, or it could be the result of her tie to the show's original portrayal of John's character. Fem!Sherlock is still brilliant, arrogant, and rude, while fem!John remains supportive, loyal, and caring. In a sense, then, the exact same behaviors from the show become inverted in the genderswap story; fem!Sherlock's arrogance is now portrayed as transgendered while fem!John is now cisgendered. By giving readers two female genderswapped characters who exhibit differently gendered behaviors (the former stereotypically masculine, the latter stereotypically feminine), both of which are consistent with their male personifications in the original show, genderswap fan fiction stories like "Categories" inherently challenge the audience's notions of "natural" gender roles in relation to sex and disrupt the traditional binaries of sex/gender and masculine/feminine.

[5.3] Along with BBC!John's feminization in both the show and in fan fiction, several other stories keep John's canonical military career in the forefront of their characterization. For example, in Mad_Maudlin's "In Arduis Fidelis," BAMF (badass motherfucker) Jane Watson emphasizes male BBC!John's cis/masculine characteristics, like his history in the military and his physical prowess. The story loosely follows the plot of season 1's "A Study in Pink" and portrays a nonlinear retelling, from Jane's point of view, of her first meeting with Sherlock, her frustrating therapy sessions, and her sense of purposelessness and resentment after being injured and discharged from the army. The focus on her father–son-like relationship with her father, her childhood experiences learning to shoot and hunt, and her skills with weapons all highlight the cisgendered elements of BBC!John's military career, behaviors typically associated with men's experiences. Shifting those masculine characteristics into a female body highlights the cultural assumptions we make when encountering a sexed individual. However, unlike fan fiction's seeming easy acceptance and transference of male!John's more feminine transgendered behaviors, such masculine behavior when embodied in a woman can be cause for concern and conflict (note 16). The text constantly reiterates cultural rules for women's behavior: "Women didn't serve in front-line positions. Women weren't marksmen. Women didn't get shot" (Mad_Maudlin 2010). Clearly, the assumption here is that women, as a group, do not participate in war or violence; such activities are not cisgender for women. And yet, by placing John's canonical (male) characteristics in a woman's body, "In Arduis Fidelis" simultaneously reinforces and challenges those generalizations. The phrase "Women didn't get shot" denies Jane's experience and makes it an impossibility; as a woman, she couldn't possibly have gone to war or have been injured since, according to contemporary attitudes, women didn't do that. Women, as a group, do not go into combat. At the same time, however, that fact that Jane does get shot in the story means that Jane has the same masculinely constructed experiences as the BBC's John. By shifting the same behaviors from a male sexed body to a female one, Mad_Maudlin is able both to challenge gender expectations and to highlight how embodiment influences our reactions to those behaviors.

6. Freaks and geeks: Fem!Sherlock's (disruptive) femininity

[6.1] While the majority of male BBC!John's femininity seems socially acceptable to audiences, male BBC!Sherlock's disruptive femininity seems more troublesome (note 17). At first glance, Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock appears to reinforce the traditional cis/masculine characteristics familiar to all Sherlock Holmes aficionados: high-level reasoning, emotionlessness, arrogance, audacity, and initiative. Yet one could argue that he also exhibits feminized behavior—through his unruly enthusiasm (for example, jumping and clapping his hands in excitement over hearing of a new suicide in "A Study in Pink"), his mercurial mood swings and sulking on the couch, his vanity over his appearance, and his snarky eye-rolling, exaggerated shrugs, and heavy sighs (note 18). Characters within the show, ranging from Sally Donovan's repeated "freak" to John's begrudgingly affectionate "bit not good," constantly admonish Sherlock into more socially acceptable (i.e., masculine or cisgendered) behaviors. However, enthusiasm itself is not consistently feminized, either within the show or in Western culture. Men are allowed—and even encouraged—to be unruly and enthusiastic within sporting activities and events, for example; it is only when Sherlock shows his enthusiasm for morbid topics like death and crime that John steps in. Sherlock is being enthusiastic in the wrong way. Similarly, John chastises Sherlock in "The Great Game" episode for not being feminine enough—that is, he does not show proper emotion or feeling when the hostages are in danger nor when the old woman hostage dies in the bomb explosion. Rather than being criticized for unruly feminine behavior while embodied as a male, Sherlock seems to be constantly violating the limits and expectations for both masculinity and femininity.

[6.2] Unlike fem!John, however, fem!Sherlock seems in constant conflict with gender expectations once she is female-bodied within genderswapped texts. Male!Sherlock's freakishness in the canon gets recontextualized as a specifically gendered critique in the fan fiction where male characters, in particular, play an important role in policing women's gender behavior. At the beginning of Parachute_Silks's fem!Sherlock/fem!John story "Categories," for example, a young female Sherlock tries to keep her university boyfriend, Sebastian, interested in her at first by pretending to fulfill traditional cis/feminine stereotypes: she hides her deductions and intelligence and tries to "make conversation—and the phrase is perfect, really, because that is very much what it feels like, that she is creating something artificial" (Parachute_Silks 2010b). However, she cannot keep up the charade; she "tries less and less to pretend not to know things" and when she is herself in front of Sebastian's friends, "he snaps at her, tells her not to be such a freak, and his friends snigger and make jokes [fem!]Sherlock doesn't understand or particularly want to" (Parachute_Silks 2010b). The central tension of such scenes is the social perception of the female embodiment of masculine gender traits, which make her a "freak" in the eyes of patriarchal society. Sebastian ends up dumping fem!Sherlock for another woman who looks just like her: "pale and dark-haired and clever"; but this woman "isn't cleverer than him and thinks he's brilliant and goes to the Conservative Society meetings with him" (Parachute_Silks 2010b). By not fulfilling Sebastian's (and society's) expectations of her as a woman, fem!Sherlock is belittled, emotionally damaged, and ultimately ostracized from her social group in university. The contrast between canonical Sherlock's masculine intellectualism and its embodiment in a female body highlights the gender expectations audiences have for male and female behavior and the high costs of going against cultural expectations of femininity, in particular.

[6.3] SomeoneElsesDream's fem!Sherlock story "And Then You Wake" explores the ways in which men and women define and police their peers' appropriate gender behavior and sexualized bodies. The majority of the text closely follows the show's "A Study in Pink" and "The Great Game" episodes, beginning with John's Afghan injury (2009) and fem!Sherlock being violently assaulted and raped while a student at Cambridge University (1999). At the beginning of the story, fem!Sherlock is surprised in a deserted alcove by three male university students who immediately begin criticizing her masculine behavior. They accuse her of "running around like a boy" on campus and of thinking she is smarter than everyone else (SomoneElsesDream 2011). The first assailant then proceeds to restrain fem!Sherlock, pressing her into the wall, querying, "Do you even have a cunt? Or are you some kind of freak?" A second man raucously suggests she has a "dick," and the third proceeds to grope her chest and force her down on the floor before proclaiming "she's hardly a girl at all" because of the small size of her breasts. One of the attackers brutally rapes fem!Sherlock before Mycroft appears and prevents the rest of the men from assaulting her. "And Then You Wake" problematizes the mistake of equating gender identity with physical embodiment. While the men in the text seem, on the surface, to reinscribe the idea that "cunt" or "breasts" equals "woman" (and "dick" equals "man"), the tone of the story and fem!Sherlock's reactions clearly show the reader that this concept is to be questioned. Similarly, one could argue that simply highlighting the assumed connection between a woman's genitals and her gender identity simultaneously reveals cultural stereotypes about womanhood and critiques them. Such analysis of the relationship or relationships between biological sex and gender identity is key to recent North American transgender theory, the focus of the final section.

7. Transgender theory and trans/genderswap fan fiction

[7.1] Transgender fan fiction—that is, fan fiction that deals with characters who transition from one sex or gender to another—is even more underresearched and undertheorized than current genderswap scholarship, most likely because it is quite rare (note 19). Trans/genderswap fan fiction takes the basic premises of genderswap to an entirely new level by adding a trans component to an already genderswapped character. To clarify, genderswap narratives in themselves do not qualify as transgender fan fiction; rather, trans stories explicitly explore a character whose gender identity is dissociated from his or her assigned sex identity and who may or may not seek to transition to the other sex. Adding the genderswap component to such narratives, however, significantly complicates them. Before the story begins, the author recasts a canonically male character like Sherlock Holmes as female and then places them within a narrative world where that fem!Sherlock is transgender. Thus, male Sherlock becomes fem!Sherlock becomes female-to-male (FTM) Sherlock (note 20). Such doubling and redoubling highlights the primary concern of transgender theory today: the intricate relationship between gender identity and embodiment.

[7.2] By changing a canonically male character into a female character, genderswap authors often seek to restore (or challenge) the relationship between the character's sexed body and gender comportment; behavior that may have seemed cis in the original becomes misaligned in the swapped character, forcing readers to rethink their assumptions about the (implied) relationship between sex and gender. However, the decision to reembody that character in the original-sexed body yet again raises several important questions. Why not just write a male Sherlock Holmes who seeks to transition to being a female? Why the added complexity of transitioning back to the original sex? What does drawing attention to biological sex in addition to gender add to such stories? Such a move seems to simultaneously question the origin of sex identity as well as to reaffirm the importance the body plays in gender identity (note 21). As transgender theorists Elliot and Roen explain, "The body is not equivalent to the organism but only comes to take on form and meaning through representation" (247). Such representation does not occur only through the individual and how s/he presents her body and her personal gender identity to the world (i.e., through clothing, naming, behaviors, etc.); it also occurs through powerful visual and textual representations across cultures—including fan productions. While traditional genderswap fan fiction seems to dissociate gender behavior from the body, trans/genderswap narratives—following the trajectory of contemporary transgender theory—remind readers that the body plays an important role in determining identity and shouldn't be subsumed under gender labels.

[7.3] Much of recent transgender theory focuses on the relationship among embodiment, gender, and identity, particularly around the issue of sex reassignment surgery (SRS). Some trans theorists criticize what, to them, seems to be an overemphasis on the importance of genital surgery, arguing that medical practitioners often take advantage of transgender patients by offering idealistic expectations and often unrealistic reconstruction surgeries (Elliot and Roen 1998, 250). However, others like Rubin (1998), Ramachandran (2008), and Lane (2009) emphasize how important the physical body is to gender and sexual identity. For these theorists, "body image is the psychic representation of the body for the subject. There can be a difference between the body image and the corporeal body—but it is the body image that we act on in the world" (Lane 2009, 149). Many transgender individuals report dissociation between their bodies and identities. For instance, transgender theorist Cressida Heyes, describing her own transition, felt "a deep sense of unease with [her] body" and "often wished (including for periods of years at a time) to be in a different body" (Heyes 2003, 1097). Another research subject, FTM "Babe," similarly described feeling "trapped in the wrong body" and he anxiously sought genital surgery in order to "correct" this "aberration" (Elliot and Roen 1998, 250). Making sure that the body matches the individual's psychic image is crucial for many transgender people. While poststructuralist arguments about the social constructedness of gender are immensely important to our understanding of how gender is learned, acquired, and performed, ignoring embodiment and relying solely on the "artificiality" of gender—which genderswap, in isolation from sex, runs the risk of doing—may diminish the need many transsexuals feel for sex reassignment surgery and, more broadly, negate the gender/sex dissociation many transgender people describe (Nagoshi and Brzuzy 2010, 432) (note 22).

8. FTM!Sherlock and the importance of embodiment

[8.1] Many characters in FTM Sherlock genderswap fan fiction claim their identities do not match the physical manifestation of their selves; that is, they feel as if they inhabit the wrong bodies (note 23). Most female readers are familiar with how the media acculturates women to hate their bodies—to see physical developments like growing breasts and menstruating as embarrassing or even disgusting, and to seek constantly to reshape, reform, and redesign their bodies (whether through clothing, diet, or plastic surgery). Perhaps not surprisingly, several FTM!Sherlock stories spend a considerable amount of time on how the onset of puberty was particularly problematic for the character's sense of identity. For example, Ishmael's "Body of Evidence" (from the longer Bodies series on AO3) describes a young FTM!Sherlock disgusted with her body. Born female, Sheridan Olivia Holmes enjoyed typical boy activities as a child, like exploring the outdoors and getting dirty. Her family was constantly disappointed she wasn't more interested in traditionally feminine things like wearing frilly dresses and playing with dolls. However, young Sheridan resented her body and the changes it went through in puberty, viewing it as a kind of "betrayal." When she sees her pregnant Aunt Matilda early in the story, she describes Matilda's stomach as a "grotesque flesh balloon" and the fetus a "parasite" (Ishmael 2011). When her female family members tell her she, too, will want to have a child of her own one day, Sheridan is terrified. She wants to keep her boyish prepubescent body and all of the freedoms that presumably go with it:

[8.2] None of them understood. You didn't want to do anything but grow taller. You liked your skinny hips and flat chest. You hated the idea of carrying a thing inside you, of bleeding every month without any say in it. You didn't know why having those parts meant you wanted the things people expected you to.

[8.3] You knew biology, knew your body's betrayal was inevitable. (Ishmael 2011)

[8.4] She hates the idea of menstruation and childbearing, two clear biological functions of the female body. Clearly, Sheridan recognizes how society equates the shape of her body and its functions with who she is supposed to be as an individual, yet she rejects and points out such problematic assumptions.

[8.5] Red's "A Room Untended" tells a similar story of a FTM!Sherlock who struggles through puberty, rejecting her female body and its attributes. FTM!Sherlock tries to stave off puberty through starvation, ultimately turning to cocaine and drug addiction when this tactic fails. By the young age of 16, Red's FTM!Sherlock is "disgusted" by her developing body, "the onset of menses, the steady development of breasts, the nearly undisguisable distribution of what fat remained on [her] body" (Red 2012). Even though FTM!Sherlock comes from a strongly matriarchal family and is raised to believe that her sex has nothing to do with her abilities or intellect, she rejects her female identity and, after sex reassignment surgery, transitions to being male. The story ends on a rather wistful note, with FTM!Sherlock hoping he can one day share his history with John and reveal the fact that he "did not emerge fully formed into this world, complete as [he was]" (Red 2012). Red's FTM!Sherlock seems to view his transitioned self as "complete" rather than fragmented, faulty, or perhaps more simply, in transition. For transgender FTM characters like Ishmael's Sheridan and Red's FTM!Sherlock, the disconnection between the physical and mental manifestations of the self cause them to reject their bodies as "faulty," and these "faulty" bodies become damaging to characters' sense of self.

[8.6] On the one hand, Etothepii's "Seems so Easy for Everybody Else" seems to reinforce these cultural hostilities toward female bodies. From a young age, FTM!Sherlock, Sophie Charlotte Holmes, is told that being a girl isn't good enough. When she brushes some maggots off a rotting rat skull in the playground, the boys grudgingly tell her she is "almost as good as a boy" (Etothepii 2011). She learns early that boys like Mycroft are "smart and strong and fierce," and they "go off and have adventures." Instead, girls are told to be pretty and "empty-headed" (Etothepii 2011). As a result, she sees her female body as her enemy; menstruation is "just another way her body fights her, changing against her wishes, unstoppable and uncontrollable" (Etothepii 2011). As she matures into a young woman, her unhappiness grows.

[8.7] She doesn't know why she's unhappy. She just…she doesn't like herself, her body, the way it looks. It's pretty enough, in a feminine sort of way. It's fit, and her muscle memory—for combat, for the violin, for archery, is superb.

[8.8] But.

[8.9] But she looks in the mirror and she thinks, This isn't who I want to be.

[8.10] She doesn't know why and this bothers her the most. (Etothepii 2011)

[8.11] Later in the story, Charlotte catches a glimpse of herself in a mirror and "she hates her reflection with a vehemence that surprises her. She looks wrong—awkward and uncomfortable and unhappy. I don't want to be that woman, she thinks" (Etothepii 2011). The transgender element adds another level of complexity to the story, however. Clearly, Sophie is experiencing a strong dissociation between her biological body and her gender identity. Psychologically, she identifies as masculine and even begins using a male pen name when corresponding with the Metropolitan police; the constant reminder of her female body confounds her and causes an intellectual and emotional dissonance that leads her, in this story, to drug addiction and overdose.

[8.12] Transgender theorists Elliot and Roen maintain that the body is not just a physical reality but rather an "unconscious manifestation" of the self which "might or might not 'correspond' with anatomical sex" (247). The body Charlotte sees in the mirror does not necessarily reflect the one she sees in her mind, the one she may think is a more accurate representation of her self. Charlotte's comment that "she doesn't like herself, her body, the way it looks," syntactically connects her sense of self directly with her body, its physical manifestation (Etothepii 2011). The three—self, body, appearance—all become one. Even though she is fit and athletic, Sophie "hates her reflection with a vehemence that surprises her" (Etothepii 2011). With no distinction between the body and identity, then in hating her body, Sophie must hate herself. One way to escape from this self-loathing is to change the physical manifestation of that self.

[8.13] FTM!Sherlock characters ultimately emphasize the importance of analyzing sex as well as gender within the genderswap genre; but at the same time, they reflect a conflicted stance on embodiment and gender identity. As we've already seen, many stories emphasize the dissociation many transgender people experience toward their corporeal bodies, with several characters expressing outright resentment and hatred of their sexed selves. However, very few stories choose to have the FTM!Sherlock character pursue sex reassignment surgery. Red's "A Room Untended" immediately starts with FTM!Sherlock's claim, "It had occurred long enough ago that you had considered the surgery a complete success," which one can assume refers to SRS. Most trans/genderswap writers in the Sherlock fandom choose to focus on embodiment and transgender—not transsexual—issues, implying that genital reassignment surgery only addresses cosmetic elements of sexual identity. For instance, Charlotte in Etothepii's "Seems so Easy for Everybody Else" is suspicious of SRS: "And even if she does want to be male, what does it matter? She can't actually change her chromosomes, just force her body into a facsimile of masculinity" (Etothepii 2011). While Charlotte believes that maleness is embodied, one must go deeper than the external copy of masculinity she argues SRS provides. For her, sex is immutable, genetic, inside the body, not outside, and unchangeable by modern surgery. For a character like Ishmael's Sheridan in "Body of Evidence," however, masculinity and masculine identity are not necessarily centered on male biology at all; while she binds her breasts and moves about in the world as an adult man, s/he "had no particular desire for a penis" (Ishmael 2011) (note 24). Sheridan can be a man without having a male body.

[8.14] Problems with terminology, confusion between sex and gender, and debates over gender performance versus embodiment all point to the importance of language and representation when discussing gender identity. Language, in particular, is frequently used as a way to structure the self. For instance, individuals are often forced to choose between the binary of male or female when filling out forms, which frustrates Sheridan in Ishmael's "Body of Evidence." Although Charlotte in "Seems So Easy for Everybody Else" distrusts SRS and its ability to make her a man, the story ultimately argues that representation—specifically that found within language—is where true ontological power resides (note 25). Three-quarters of the way through the story, Charlotte admits defeatedly that she "can't see [transitioning to a male] happening, no matter how hard she tries" [emphasis added]; then, there is a break before the narrative returns: "He gives up arguing with himself about it, eventually" (Etothepii 2011). Through this subtle shift from the feminine to masculine pronoun, the reader experiences both a linguistic and ontological shift. As Judith Butler explains, "Within speech act theory, a performative is that discursive practice that enacts or produces that which it names" (Butler 1993, 13). The linguistic move from feminine to masculine pronoun in Etothepii's story highlights the cultural (historic, linguistic) construction of gender identity; by calling herself "he," Charlotte transitions to Sherlock in a Butlerian and Lacanian sense. S/he is performing masculinity through language, labels, and identity. This is simultaneously an ontological shift as well. Immediately after the pronoun shift, Mycroft arrives in Sherlock's apartment and confronts him: "You've been pretending you're a man." Sherlock's response—"I'm not pretending"—firmly establishes his ontological shift in identity (Etothepii 2011). In the Cartesian sense, by calling himself "he," Sherlock now literally defines himself as male. By the end of the story, Sherlock is able to recognize himself in the mirror "without hating how he looks" in a way he could not or did not previously as a female.

9. Conclusion

[9.1] While much of early fan studies has focused on defining and establishing the parameters of a new discipline, analyzing specific fan fiction genres and individual fandoms gives theorists insight not only into fan practices and reimaginings of canonical work but also into the ways in which we, as a society, define ourselves. Looking at genderswap fan fiction, for example, not only helps us to understand a specific genre within fan writing but also how fans understand and articulate complex ideas like sex, gender, and identity. Similarly, analyzing a popular character like Sherlock Holmes through his modern BBC incarnation also provides insight into the ways in which contemporary fans interact with, admire, and critique cultural representations of masculinity and femininity. Hopefully this article provides an entry point for additional nuanced theoretical and ethnographic studies on the intricate ways in which media and fans re-present cultural understandings of what it means to be men and/or women.

10. Notes

1. The most notable source on genderswap fan fiction to date is Kristina Busse and Alexia Lothian (2009). Both Busse and Lothian have also blogged independently on the issue (Busse 2009; Lothian 2008), and Hannah Ellison dedicated a small section of her recent Glee (2009–) Kink Meme article to "girl!peen" fiction; that is, stories about women with male genitalia (2013). Freund and Fielding (2013) also touch on the subject. Additionally, a few other recent articles—on cosplay, in particular—have included discussions of gender bending (Gilligan 2012; Leng 2013), and Jordan Youngblood recently published an article on gender embodiment in video games (2013).

2. On AO3, one of the only truly searchable fan sites, fans use a number of different terms to describe the genre, ranging from "genderswap," "gender!swap," "sexswap," "genderswitch," "gender-switch," "genderflip" to adding "girl!" or "fem!" in front of a character's name. Such variety illustrates the multiple ways in which fans envision gender identity while simultaneously complicating researchers' ability to gather definitive data on the subject. Other research published on genderswap fan fiction uses additional labels such as "genderfuck" and "gender-bending" interchangeably (Busse and Lothian 2009, 105).

3. The genderswap entry in the Fanlore wiki is one of the few places where this discrepancy is noted. "While it should correctly be called sexswap, since the biological sex is being swapped (and the social gender only as a consequence of the biological change)," the site explains, "the term is established for a number of likely reasons, e.g., the conflation of sex and gender in discourse or the better flow of words" ( However, such a definition assumes that social gender is only a consequence of biological sex rather than an integral part of an individual's holistic gender identity. "Sex," as Susan Stryker notes, "is not the foundations of gender in the same way that an apple is not the foundation of a reflection of red fruit in the mirror; 'sex' is a mash-up, a story we mix about how the body means, which parts matter most, and how they register in our consciousness or field of vision" (Stryker 2006, 9).

4. Some readers may fairly question whether one can claim that genderswap fails to attend to the body when so many of these stories are sexually explicit. While this is certainly true, this article seeks to explore what those bodies mean and how they affect characters' sense of identity rather than merely what bodies do in sexual situations.

5. Some scholars, for example Monique Wittig and Judith Butler, argue that our understanding of nature and the natural at the root of the biological argument underpinning our concept of sex are as culturally constructed as our understanding of gender. As Wittig explains, we often take sex "as an 'immediate given,' 'a sensible given,' 'physical features,' belonging to a natural order. But what we believe to be a physical and direct perception is only a sophisticated and mythic construction, an 'imaginary formation,' which reinterprets physical features (in themselves as neutral as others but marked by a social system), through the network of relationships in which they are perceived" (quoted in Butler 1993, 155).

6. Of course, all of these parameters can be problematized in specific circumstances: infertility, castration, vasectomy, hysterectomy, mastectomy, etc. Even the most obvious cultural and biological determinants of sex identity can be altered. In addition to basic reproductive genitalia, some people also include secondary sex characteristics, including mammary glands and facial hair, as bodily signs of one's biological sex. Intersexed individuals—people who exhibit biological characteristics from more than one sex—clearly challenge the underlying concepts defining Western society's male/female sex/gender classification; however, most of Western culture remains structured by this simplified binary system.

7. For Butler, gender is performative in the sense that "as in other ritual social dramas, the action of gender requires a performance that is repeated. This repetition is at once a reenactment and reexperiencing of a set of meanings already socially established; and it is the mundane and ritualized form of their legitimation" (Butler 1993, 191). Therefore, gender has "no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute its reality" (185). In more recent transgender research, such arguments have come under fire for ignoring the material reality of the body in a post-9/11 surveillance state which is much more invested in defining, maintaining, and policing boundaries between sex and gender, the self and the state, nation and nation.

8. The term cisgender attempts to highlight the typically unnamed assumption of nontransgender status in the terms man and woman. Some transgender theorists dislike the term, however, arguing that it still situates nontransgender, or cisgender, as the norm. Nontransgender, they argue, positions transgender identities as center, which, for some, is a more political act.

9. Notably, transgender research has shifted in the last decade away from the pathological, linguistic, and performative histories of gendered bodies to focus on the various ways in which bodies are politicized through gender, sexuality, race, class, nation, able-bodiedness, etc. Current trans theory is particularly interested in the ways in which bodies act, are acted upon, and are materially defined in/by systems of power.

10. Many scholars and individuals reject the transsexual label, claiming it is too old-fashioned and narrow to encompass all transgender people and experience; many others refuse it due to its unfortunate pathological associations with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and its connections to gender identity disorder and gender dysphoria. While transsexuals and transgender people both experience similar dissociation between their gender identities and/or gender expression and their biological sex, transsexuals are often described as individuals who seek to alter their bodies, either through hormone treatment or sex assignment surgery, while transgender people "may have little or no intention of having sex-reassignment surgeries or hormone treatments" (Nagoshi and Brzuzy 2010, 432). Transgender, rather than transsexual, has become the accepted term within North American trans activism—most likely since it is considered more inclusive and addresses a wide range of gender and sex identities.

11. Transgender theorists Nagoshi and Brzuzy argue that previous poststructural theories about the social construction of gender which do not take embodiment and biology into account are now considered inadequate: "Bodies are involved more actively, more intimately, and more intricately in social processes than theory has usually allowed," they argue. "Bodies participate in social action by delineating courses of social conduct—the body is a participant in gender social practice" (Nagoshi and Brzuzy 2010, 435). As a result, the recently published Transgender Studies Reader 2 (2013) draws attention to previous transgender scholarship's "explicit whiteness, U.S.-centric, and Anglophone bias" (Stryker and Aizura 2013, 4) and the ways in which transgender bodies are increasing becoming a Foucauldian field of knowledge through post-9/11 surveillance strategies. As editors Stryker and Aizura note, "'Gender' is not merely the representation in language and culture of a biological sex; it is also an administrative or bureaucratic structure for the maintenance of sexual difference and reproductive capacity (the ticking off of M's and F's on state-issued or state-sanctioned forms). In this sense, and to the extent that gender identity is understood as the psychical internalization and somaticization of historically contingent modes of embodied personhood," they argue, "transgender is intimately bound up with questions of nation, territory, and citizenship, with categories of belonging and exclusion, of excess and incorporation, and with all the processes through which individual corporealities become aggregated as bodies politic" (8).

12. Jane Clare Jones's "Is Sherlock Sexist? Steven Moffat's Wanton Women" from the Guardian and Helen Lewis's rebuttal in the New Statesman prompted a small but passionate media and Internet firestorm around the show's female characters—or lack thereof. Bloggers like Foz Meadows, P0rcupinegirl, Wellingtonboots, Rileyo, and Addyke all wrote insightful meta commentary on the show's women characters, their portrayals, and audience responses.

13. To help situate the popularity of genderswap stories in Sherlock fandom, there are 35,669 BBC Sherlock fan fiction entries on AO3, 260 of which are specifically tagged "genderswap"; AO3 reports 3,353 total "genderswap" narratives across all fandoms. Keeping in mind the variants within statistical reporting, when searching BBC Sherlock and the following tags, AO3 revealed: Femlock: 147; Gender Changes: 210; Female John: 1,019; Fem!John: 31; Girl!John: 122; Female Sherlock: 1,440; Fem!Sherlock: 0; Girl!Sherlock: 0; Transgender: 34. (Statistics are from August 1, 2013.)

14. While such masculine and feminine labels are limiting and, to some extent, the entire point of this critique, they remain a useful shorthand for how most of North American society categorizes such behaviors.

15. In other genderswap stories, guy!John is not as comfortable with his feminine behaviors as Martin Freeman appears on BBC Sherlock. In one story, guy!John has a minor gender identity crisis when he realizes he's the one who's insisting on having a romantic relationship instead of casual sex with Sherlock, exclaiming, "Oh God, I'm the woman in this relationship" (Violet_Pencil 2011). In another, fem!Sherlock and John have a disagreement about Sherlock's ex-boyfriend, Sebastian, who claimed one of them wasn't "suited" to being a wife. Fem!Sherlock assumes he is speaking about her, but guy!John thinks it's really a comment about his role in their relationship. He explains: "Sherlock, I'm the one who does the washing up, and I practically have to bully you into doing the drying. I do the cooking, and if anything gets tidied around here it's because I do it. And he was looking at you as he said it, and I figured he knew that if anyone's the stereotypical 'wife' here, it's me" (Blind Author 2011). Clearly, not all genderswap stories are as political about dissociating sex and gender, and some may, in fact, reinforce such notions, all of which serves as strong reminder not to generalize that all genderswap fan fiction stories are feminist or counter hegemonic.

16. Kristina Busse points out the ways in which cultural expectations for women's gendered behavior are often contradictory: "When women act according to stereotype, their behaviors get dismissed as feminine; when they act against stereotype, their behaviors get dismissed as aberrant or get reinscribed negatively as feminine nevertheless" (Busse 2013, 74).

17. This may be because John's femininity is largely canonical. Even though he is the primary narrator for virtually all of the Arthur Conan Doyle Holmes/Watson stories, he is subordinate to Holmes's ability, always a step behind, concerned for his health and drug habits, etc. This feminized subordination becomes reified in the various film and television portrayals of the characters, particularly Nigel Bruce's Watson in relation to Basil Rathbone's Holmes. The BBC Sherlock's Martin Freeman keeps Watson's military acumen to the forefront of his characterization, which perhaps mitigates the possible threat of his femininity for traditional audiences.

18. Such criticisms of allegedly feminized behavior are striking when taken in the context of fan studies as a discipline, since the historical etymology of fan, fanatic, is rooted in the highly gendered and criticized practice of women audiences' pursuit of male matinee idols in the early 20th century, as discussed by Henry Jenkins, among others (Jenkins 2006, 17).

19. Of the 35,669 BBC Sherlock fan fiction stories currently listed on AO3, only 34 are tagged transgender. Of the 891,202 works listed on AO3 to date, only 645 are tagged transgender. (Statistics are from August 1, 2013.)

20. Male-to-female Sherlock transgender fan fiction stories are quite rare; in my research, I only uncovered one: Red's "Like Normal People." John stumbles upon Sherlock in the bathroom injecting himself with an unknown substance. Based on Sherlock's history with drug addiction, John immediately assumes it is a narcotic, and when he learns Sherlock is injecting estrogen instead, it completely changes their relationship. John continues to treat Sherlock the same way he had before—only now he is the one providing the legally obtained, regulated hormones and managing Sherlock's transition—but it allows for John to acknowledge his latent sexual feelings for his flatmate.

21. Contemporary theorists like Susan Stryker and Judith Butler deny that the existence of biological sex always already determines an individual's gender identity. For Stryker, "the sex of the body does not bear any necessary or deterministic relationship to the social category in which that body lives" (Stryker 2006, 11). Butler's poststructuralist argument is a bit more nuanced, claiming that sex cannot be viewed as the prediscursive forebear of gender—that is, sex does not somehow come before gender, nor is gender based on sex (Butler 2006, 152). Instead, sex itself is culturally constructed and a gendered category, one which politically situates nature and the natural in order to serve the economic benefits of heterosexuality and reproduction. In contrast, gender for Butler is "a kind of becoming or an activity" (152).

22. Even though gender may be "artificial," as Nagoshi and Brzuzy argue, this does not mean it is easy to change.

23. Transgender theorist Cressida Heyes explained her own physical/psychic dissociation as follows: "In some ways, I feel as though the body I have is the wrong body: too large, too female in some respects, too clumsy. Surely an incisive intellectual mind requires an equally lean and skillful body?" (Heyes 2003, 1097–8).

24. Richard Ekins and Dave King describe four subprocesses by which transgender individuals transition from one gender to another: substituting, concealing, implying, and redefining. Substituting involves replacing one sex's genitalia with the other's. Concealing involves hiding or masking specific sex characteristics: binding breasts, tucking the penis, etc. Implying involves suggesting the presence of certain sexed body parts, most often through the use of clothing. Redefining is the most complex and subtle of the processes whereby individuals rename and reclassify traditionally sexed characteristics (e.g., a beard becomes facial hair or a penis becomes a "growth" between the legs) (Ekins and King 1999, 583–5). Fan fiction writer Ishmael uses several of these processes in her series "Bodies" to illustrate the ways in which FTM!Sherlock expresses his gender and sex identities.

25. Interestingly, Red's "Like Normal People," the sole MTF!Sherlock story I found, uses the same pronoun shift midway through the story. In the first half, John refers to Sherlock as "he" until he discovers Sherlock injecting estrogen in their kitchen; then the pronoun shifts to "she" in the second half, where John and MTF!Sherlock become romantically involved. As an aside, one problematic element of this story is John's speculation that perhaps Sherlock transitioned to female "for his benefit" so that John would consider her as a sexual partner, which negates the very significant personal reasons why an individual might feel the need to transition to another sex/gender.

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