When you have a project you’ve been working on since you first started writing, oftentimes you have a pile of characters who have grown comfortably into deep entities that sometimes even feel like real people (or sometimes you have characters who have stagnantly started rolling about in their own feces).
Whatever the case may be, a writer often finds that their views on character writing may have changed, and that these original characters from that decade-old magnum opus you never got around to completing are now outdated and no longer match your aesthetics.
Such was the case with my cast of Rathuni, my oldest-to-date project. When I started, my cast was almost entirely young white males, as that was what I was used to seeing on television, movies, web comics, novels, etc. Thus, sub-consciously, every time I tried to write a woman, I was sexualizing her without even realizing it. I was making her less complex than any of her male counterparts, despite being a woman myself. I think I can safely say that I am not the only female author or artist who’s ever felt pressured to make her women beautiful and tantalizing. As a lesbian, I felt the added pressure that if I included a lesbian in my story, people would think I was inserting a Mary Sue.
And then came Rebecca Sugar’s Steven Universe. I was finally shown women who reminded me of people I’d met in real life (sans their magical powers), not particularly beautiful, but all interesting and full of as much character as any fictional males I’d ever seen. They were complex and fraught with their own worries, worries that did not pertain to whether or not a man had interest in them or found them attractive, and they were identifiable to both female and male viewers alike. This was such a relief after everyone was touting Disney’s Frozen as the most feminist thing since Rosie the Riveter, because Elsa and Anna were women with whom I still could not identify. Strange though it may be, I felt that if this was what a woman was, I had no business being one. The kind of representation Steven Universe supplies is not to be underestimated. Exploring these types of women is important because we exist and we’re never shown as being celebrated.
So I still had my young male cast that was almost entirely made up of people who were of European descent. Compared to my later projects (and projects underway), this aesthetic no longer matched how I felt about the world and who I wanted to represent.
So I went through and started altering my young, male cast to suit my tastes. I split Shibuki into two female characters, Hidemi and the Puck-ish Miyako, I accelerated Basil to age sixty-three, and changed the slightly insane Slickfeed smuggler Remfield into a girl.
You might notice she doesn’t look any different.
As I was changing Rem into a girl, I started drawing clothes that accentuated her breasts and hips, just to make the change apparent.
But these designs did not sit well with me.
I realized very quickly that I felt pressured to suddenly sexualize this character, despite her personality and function in the story remaining completely the same. Why didn’t I feel like pulling the shirt tighter across Rem’s chest when he was male? Why didn’t I tighten his pants to show off his posterior then? Why was I doing it now?
Because in this society, we are bombarded relentlessly with sexualized women to the point where I didn’t know how to write characters who did not fit this mold.
I started initiating the sex change in my outline of the plot (simply by changing the pronouns and adding a few more Ss in front of those Hs and Es). Rem’s behavior (and name) remained the same, and when I started picturing her going through the same motions, sucking too hard on a cigarette that had gone out, sucking it to the back of her throat and coughing it out again, all while trying to act nonchalant, the character started to emerge. She’s a slouching, flat-chested, pancake-butted smuggler who picks her nose in her spare time and wiggles her fingers between her toes to get the sock fuzz out. She eats cans of beans cold because her cigarette lighter is too faulty to make any real fire. She feels like she’s cross-dressing whenever she’s in a dress.
In short, Remfield is still here.
Here she is in baggy clothes and the same goggles as always:
Then again, I’m not saying you should apply sex changes to your characters willy-nilly just to include more females. (For example, Sridar Williams is someone who could never actually be anything but male. Believe me, I’ve tried.) Rem has always been a very metro character anyway, and it feels like I’m delving more into who she really is by this change. It’s something I’ve been sitting on and conceptualizing for a couple months, and I’m so happy with it that I am ready to finally share it with the world.
I suppose what I discovered in this project is that when you gender switch a character, hardly anything changes. People still mistake Remfield for a guy, and she doesn’t really care which pronoun people use with her. Girls, guys, we’re all the same. Steven Universe is an excellent and powerful step in that direction. I look forward to a society in which the media begins to depict that, and where future generations can grow up with less boundaries than we did.