The surface of women

Lucy Irene Baker

Griffith University, Nathan, Queensland, Australia

[0.1] Abstract—This essay examines the range of gender designations, particularly those referring to women (as a class), within the research I conducted on genderswap fan work. The survey I did as part of that research had 295 participants, who were provided a short-answer field to explain their gender identity. The vast majority can be considered as being in the class of "women," but the ways in which they define themselves offer a significant expansion to the surface that "women" can be conceived to cover.

[0.2] Keywords—Feminism; Gender; Transgender

Baker, Lucy Irene. 2017. "The Surface of Women." In "Queer Female Fandom," edited by Julie Levin Russo and Eve Ng, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 24.

[1] My research focuses on fan work that shifts and changes gender between adaptations of existing works (regendering and gender-creative fanwork), and as part of that research, I surveyed and interviewed fans. The prevalence of women within fandom is well known and researched, from Bacon-Smith to Jamison; however, the tendency of earlier studies to describe primarily heterosexual, white, and cis respondents is mired in expectations about gender and sexuality. The assumption that (transformative) fandom is populated mostly by straight white women is part of why I chose to allow an open response for gender in my survey. That assumption has proven somewhat false about sexuality; would it prove similarly fallible in the case of gender?

[2] Discussing the David Duchovny Estrogen Brigade mailing list in 2005, Rhiannon Bury reasoned, "It is unlikely that female fans who identified as lesbian would join a list whose name, however playfully or ironically, foregrounded heterosexual desire" (2005, 22). This reasoning ignores sexuality's long history as a variable and codified performance that does not tidily line up with our current labeling system. However, sexuality is increasingly respected as an identifier in fan studies, as can be seen particularly in work like "Cunning Linguists: The Bisexual Erotics of Words/Silence/Flesh" (Lackner, Lucas, and Reid 2006) and the collections Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet: New Essays and The Fan Fiction Studies Reader (Hellekson and Busse 2006, 2014), which reflect society's increasing awareness that the usual labels for sexuality do not clearly illustrate the varieties of sexual interest. We are seeing the beginning of a shift: where examination of sexuality was once thought unnecessary, because the motivations for sexual actions seemed clear, now such examination is a clearly valuable facet of quantitative research. Although academic research has both contradicted and supported those earlier findings of hetero dominance, fan research has repeatedly revealed a clear proportion of nonheterosexual women; the blogs Destination: Toast! ( and The Slow Dance of the Infinite Stars ( particularly have taken broad samples of fandom and archives. Out of interest in the gender breakdown, and in order to determine if a similar shift was occurring with gender, I offered survey participants the opportunity to explain their gender to me. Their responses, and the associated data, form the basis of this essay.

[3] Gender-creative works—encompassing regendering, omegaverse, mpreg, and other variations—do not form a large part of fannish work, although they are seen by many people as evidence both of creativity and of puerile sexual interest (which is why fans interested in such works are sometimes described as "rotten" in China, and "trash" and "garbage" on Tumblr). The disproportionate psychological space occupied by these works in the minds of fans and antifans alike is testament to the transgressiveness they engage in both within and outside fannish cultures. As Busse says, "These stories are not only hot and allow our beloved sex objects to get and stay together in bonded bliss but they also interrogate some of the issues and prejudices of our day" (2013, 571–72). It seems logical that these works would primarily be created by and for similarly gender-creative fans, but my survey shows that those who used standard gender identifiers and those who did not were equally likely to consume them, with creators slightly more likely to use nonstandard gender identifiers. What piqued my interest most was the way gender was constructed by my respondents.

[4] What all respondents had in common, of course, was their willingness to participate in my survey about gender-creative fan works. Most belonged to a class that could broadly be described as female; either they outright identified their gender this way, or they located it within a broader spectrum, using phrases like "mostly female" and "afab" ("assigned female at birth") to describe their gender identity. Approximately one-fifth of all women and women-adjacent respondents described their gender in a way that separated them from the category "female" or particularized it in some fashion. I am sympathetic to the desire to do so; my own discomfort with gender asserts itself periodically, in behaviors ranging from teenaged chest-binding to my current b/Butch appearance, and there is no way to explain this gender performance and identity construction within the highly codified structures of the gender binary. Even claiming a gender identity of "other" does not tell the story sufficiently. It certainly does not help explain why I read what I read, or write what I write, given the expectations laid upon gender.

[5] My survey was only available online, publicized via Twitter, email, Tumblr, and other social networks. The respondents came from a variety of educational, economic, language, and racial backgrounds, although they tended to be from the English-speaking West, the US particularly, and to be highly educated. It is tempting to standardize the gender data; after all, the responses "woman," "demigirl," "female," "cisfemale," "lesbian," "queer femme," "lady i guess," "primarily female," and "genderfluid mostly female" could all be considered under the class of "woman," or at least "female," in order to offer a quantitatively "clean" delineation of gender in the analysis. However, these nonstandard responses (all of which are listed in Table 1) offer a way of looking at the shattered surface of womanhood (note 1), a disparate class nonetheless considered "lesser" by mainstream communities and corporate entities, affecting treatment in the work, reading patterns, responses to works, and so on. However, it is difficult to identify an experience common to all those classed as "women," except being seen as "other." The intersectionality of the class "women" is revealed by the term's use with modifiers describing race, trans status, and sexuality.

Table 1. Answers to "What Gender Do You Identify As?"

bigender (female and nb/masculine)
Cis female
cis lady
Cis woman
cisgender female
Female (demigirl/genderqueer)
female (with a strong streak of genderqueer)
Female, more or less
Genderfluid (biologically female)
Genderfluid; mostly female right now
Genderqueer afab
I am anti-gender
I reject gender as a concept, but society deems me female.
lady, i guess.
Masculine Genderqueer
Nonbinary (agender)
None (agender)
Primarily female
queer femme
transgender/agender (they/their pronouns)
woman I suppose (not something I'm paying much attention to on internal level)
[Some respondents intentionally left the space blank.]

[6] This shattering of the categories presents categorization difficulties to researchers, particularly within an online environment. That is not to say the gender(s) chosen are false, but to highlight the multiplicity of identities people find themselves inhabiting online as expressions of themselves and their truths, particularly within the overlapping subcultural elements that make up what Morimoto terms the "contact zones of fandom," where a singular interest binds people together from an "infinite diversity" (Morimoto 2015). I also want to highlight the way this makes data analysis fraught with a kind of bowdlerized gender binarism—removing the subcategories of "woman" in order to present a more cohesive dataset makes a kind of sense, even as it replaces that deep and broad category selected by the respondents with the putative "whole" of a gender binary, or even a trinary, no matter how flexibly that third status lets us shift between categories and identities. The one-fifth of women-adjacent respondents who identified themselves with nonstandard gender terms would be lost, their gender identification swallowed by those larger categories.

[7] The assumption of a static gender-class, in and of itself, is the genesis of gender policing that gender-creative fan work can interact with. A gender binary sees women as a class identified by femininity (with allowed deviations) and men as a class identified by masculinity (again with allowed deviations). Within fandom, it is divorced from sexual behaviors in multiple ways, but is reinscribed in others. Respondents often derided this binary. In their survey responses, they often described fan work that strengthens the wall between those two genders, or that reifies a kind of gendered performance of sexuality (by, for instance, featuring feminine bishies or sexually receptive and passive males, "bottoms"), as "less interesting" than work that creatively intersects with gender as a concept. They also often consider such work to be fetishizing the gender binary, having more in common with sexual roleplaying and dress-up than with actual gender identity. This use of gender as a means for fetishized sexual performance, without either an honest claiming of the fetish or a coherent examination of gendered sex and performance, garners fans' disdain; they see it as appropriating gender politics without giving due consideration to the sociopolitical importance of the act of regendering the existing characters.

[8] Gender expression as integrity forms a part of this disparate surface—the shattered pieces reflect better expressions of "woman" than the whole, ones with more meaning to the respondents than the word "woman" can offer, even as they become part of the class of women by virtue of not being men. This absorption into the class of women intersects with the management and "cleaning" of data by overriding respondents' attempts at integrity in favor of a meaning that may or may not be their intent. While this shift may make analysis easier, it also ignores the facets of gender highlighted by the terms "cis," "demi," and "femme." The urge to standardize data in order to fit it into the shape expected has historically not served minorities or subaltern groups well, particularly in research. The nuances afforded by these categories of womanhood offer a way to look at the surface of womanhood in contemporary culture.

[9] The new wave of gender criticism, with facets of trans* activism, feminism, racial studies, and sociology, invites us to explore the intent of those who police, reify, produce, and reproduce these binaries in media and in culture. Gender forms the foundational element of society in a way that is not yet fully understood; investigations into brain structure, hormones, and physiology are providing new and provocative complications of what was once considered to be a discrete binary. Fandom, rather than simply being a reflection of the media it focuses on, is a site where the questions those complications raise can find creative praxis alongside personal recovery and reimagining. Gender-creative adaptations, though contentious, can rework an original property alongside its archontic versions, can meditate on gender, and can critique media, gender, and fandom itself. Junot Diaz notes that "if you want to make a human being a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves" (Stetler, 2009), and thus his work seeks to provide mirrors for those unreflected and made monstrous populations of minorities and the sub-altern. A personal revelatory experience offers a necessary reflection to soothe that monster, albeit in a fractured surface.


1. Djuna Barnes, in a letter to Emily Coleman, says, "There is more surface to the shattered object than the whole," and this conceptualization has guided my investigation of gender identity within the data I have collected (Barnes 2003, xi).

Works cited

Barnes, Djuna. 2003. The Book of Repulsive Women and Other Poems. Edited with an Introduction by Rebecca Loncrain. New York: Routledge.

Bury, Rhiannon. 2005. Cyberspaces of Their Own: Female Fandoms Online. Digital Formations 25. New York: Peter Lang.

Busse, Kristina. 2013. "Pon Farr, Mpreg, Bonds, and the Rise of the Omegaverse." In Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World, edited by Anne Jamison, 562–73. Dallas, TX: Smart Pop.

Hellekson, Karen, and Kristina Busse, eds. 2006. Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet: New Essays. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Hellekson, Karen, and Kristina Busse, eds. 2014. The Fan Fiction Studies Reader. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

Lackner, Eden, Barbara Lynn Lucas, and Robin Anne Reid. 2006. "Cunning Linguists: The Bisexual Erotics of Words/Silence/Flesh." In Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet: New Essays, edited by Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse, 189–206. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Morimoto, Lori [tea-and-liminality]. 2015. "'Fandom in/as Contact Zone,' by Tea-and-Liminality." Fan Meta Reader, May 28. Originally posted on April 16, 2014.

Stetler, Carrie. 2009. "Junot Diaz: Man in the Mirror.", October 27. Originally posted on October 26, 2009.