Sometimes adaptations of a work or cameos of previously established characters are less faithful than they could be for artistic reasons—adding scenes to expand the perspective of the story, altering the design of something for more practical or aesthetic purposes… changing the gender of a character? Yeah, okay. Why not? This is a hip, liberal age we’re living in. It’s been done all over the shop, from Sherlock Holmes to Hannibal to the Arthurian legends. It’s an interesting thing to do, but like many Interesting Things, it carries a lot of potential problems with its potential awesomeness.
As an example: Saber, undisputed queen (or rather king) of the Fate franchise, is King Arthur of the British legends. So, surprise! She was a girl all along! Arthur has been genderbent before, in reincarnations like Avalon High, but Fate’s case is that Arthur was a pseudonym for Arturia because a male ruler was more accepted, and so the fabricated truth is what went down in history and legend. It’s pretty awesome, nay, empowering, to suggest that one of the best known fictional figures in history was in fact a tiny girl.
However, given the treatment of her character and the original context of the Fate/Stay Night game (it’s got sexy bits because otherwise nobody would buy it… nowadays, there exists a censor patch so you don’t have to sit through them, because well-studied, jaded and eye-bleached sources tell me they’re so bad they’re an experience) I have to wonder if female empowerment was exactly what they had in mind when they wrote Saber as the Saber we know.
There’s definitely an element of girl power there—the most iconic scene in the entire franchise, possibly, is when Saber is summoned in Stay Night, standing radiant and strong in the moonlight in an armoured dress while the protagonist looks up in awe from where he’s fallen on his ass. But they spend the rest of the story periodically taking that image of power apart, which is not a bad thing in itself as character exploration, but the way it’s done comes off reeking of awkward sexism. Generally, when you’re genderbending a character, your first move should not be to smack them upisde the head with the gender roles you’re supposedly playing with.
I have a sneaking suspicion that she may have only been she so that she could end up falling for Our Hero and fulfilling the fantasies of meek awkward teenaged boys everywhere (or, whatever the stereotype of dating sim players in 2004 is). That could just be me, of course, but even if the original reason Saber was changed from Arthur to Arturia is never pinned down we have to look at the way it’s been handled in practice. You can’t even say there are sexist ‘undertones’ in the Fate route because Shirou literally says “Girls should not fight and should be protected”. She has a magic sword, godammit. Granted, her character development is about her being less of the perfect king and more of her own person, but the fact that she’s a girl and ought to act more like a girl is brought up so insistently it demeans the entire arc.
Genderbending characters for the wrong reasons—or even for the right ones—can lead your story and their integrity down a strange and shady path. It’s definitely a shaky bridge above a crocodile and problem infested river to walk. I think a successful genderbend should come off as seamless, i.e., the fact that the character is a girl (or a boy) where canonically they aren’t shouldn’t be brought up, the essence of their character shouldn’t change, and they shouldn’t lose or gain strength or depth for being swapped. Of course, depending on the context there will logically be differences, like if you’re writing in a social setting where men and women are raised in very different ways and the character will thus have had different experiences that shaped them. But at their core, we should be able to recognise them as the same character. And in general, harping on about their gender and its perceived roles is going to get really old really fast.
The amount of times Saber’s inescapable femaleness is brought up makes the whole thing come off as rather ridiculous, purposely or otherwise linking all her shortcomings with the fact she didn’t just let it go and embrace her femineity. I mean, Saber relaxing and getting in touch with her girly side like she never got to do as King Arthur is not a bad thing in itself, but Saber less embraces her womanhood as has it foisted on her by characters (and writers) that know what’s good for her. I could go on about the slog of the Fate route forever but I shan’t bore you. The one and only redeeming quality of Saber and Shirou as a romantic couple is the slightly amusing mental image of Kiritsugu watching from some ghostly plane and subsequently banging his head against an ethereal table.
The Sherlock Holmes canon isn’t as woven into history as the Arthurian legends, but it’s sure as hell prominent in the pop culture of the past century and a half, making John Watson a very recognisable figure. So when he was turned into Joan Watson for Elementary, of course it came with risks—the Saber problem of turned-female-for-the-chance-of-romantic-involvement was a fear high in the minds of many (and is pretty damn problematic in itself, in a she’s-a-woman-so-of-course-she’s-going-to-fall-for-the-hero way as well as a it’s-okay-to-pair-up-Sherlock-and-Watson-on-TV-but-only-if-it’s-not-gay way), though it’s been very much stomped out as a possibility by now.
You could say they went down that road with Jamie Moriarty, but turning the arch nemesis into an ex-lover added an interesting dynamic to the power play without reducing Moriarty’s character to a love interest. If anything, that reveal kicked the love-interest-wounded-for-your-manpain thing in the face, and there was something utterly surprising and wonderful about seeing the character everyone expected to be some evil suit-wearing British dude gliding into view as Natalie My-Lipstick-Matches-The-Blood-Of-My-Enemies Dormer, but that’s another matter. Both Watson and Moriarty have their own nuances as they will in every new adaptation, but the essence of them remains the same despite them being women instead of men. Neither of them is especially sexualised or struck with a you’re a girl! spotlight that changes the way they’re treated by the characters or writers.
Basically, you have to look at these things and say “Would they still have done that if they were the opposite gender?” Hey, you could have still had Moriarty and Holmes bang for the purposes of emotional manipulation if they were both dudes, and Joan/John end up saving the day with the power of friendship. Sherlock half-looked into that, then turned it into a joke at fans’ expenses. That’s also another matter (don’t get me started). The fact that Joan and Jamie are women gets brought up once or twice in passing, and it does alter the dynamic between them and Sherlock slightly (if anything, it makes it more satisfying when Joan doesn’t take any of his crap and Moriarty is… Moriarty) but ultimately it would work just the same if they were still John and James, except that the show would not be half as interesting because that’s something we’ve seen plenty of times before.
Is that a valid reason to genderbend a pre-established character—you’re sick of seeing them as their traditional one? I suppose it is, and if it’s handled properly it can give the series a fresh face and opportunity for representation it wouldn’t have had otherwise. Bryan Fuller, showrunner of Hannibal, has deliberately turned a lot of pre-established male characters female for a more balanced cast, as well as casting non-Caucasian actors in roles described as pasty white in the books for a more racially diverse set of characters.
It makes you see them differently, but ultimately, nothing about the roles and personalities of the characters are changed, making it a matter of equality and more realistic casting as opposed to keeping up the idea that all the heroes and detectives are white men. It gives female characters roles and positions in the story they didn’t have originally and gives a broader spectrum of women’s involvement in the story (however ghastly it is). They may get murdered now and then, but so do the dudes. It’s all about equal opportunity at Dr. Lector’s dinner table.
So genderbending, especially traditionally male characters to female, is a modern and inclusive thing that challenges “Hey, would you respect this character as much if they were a lady?” It can also, however, suck the respect out of the pre-established character if it’s handled badly and gender bias crawls in where the exercise is meant to be removing it. It comes with the same set of risks and rewards as writing any character that isn’t originally yours and already comes with a set of audience expectations that you want to tap into or tear apart. Professional fanfic is a deadly trade.
To those who dare to genderbend and diversify, I say power to you. I also say we set up a prayer circle for the new Fate/Stay Night animation not to end up so full of silliness.