Tuesday, January 24th, 2017 11:40 am
This post is part of Femslash Revolution’s I Am Femslash series, sharing voices of F/F creators from all walks of life. The views represented within are those of the author only. Originally posted to tumblr.

Hi, I'm Sophie alias sqbr, a fic writer and fanartist, mostly into Bioware games, anime, and Jane Austen.

This post is basically just a bunch of thoughts about my personal experience, I would be really interested to hear from other people with different experiences. In a sense it's the third in a trilogy:
First, Why do we femslash?, written back in 2009 when I identified as a straight cis woman.
Second, Personal Experiences of Femslash Fandom as a Queer Space, written in 2013 after I started identifying as a bi woman.
And now we have this, written in 2017, now that I identify as a genderfluid biromantic grey asexual. I guess we'll have to wait and see where I'm at in 2021 ;)

So! I've been into f/f since before I even realised queerness existed (my childhood feels about Anne/Diana let me tell you them), and into femslash fandom for about ten years. I have always identified much more strongly with female characters than male ones, and while I enjoy m/f romance I get tired of it's ubiquitous heteronormativity. So when I find good f/f I really enjoy it, and I get a kick out of making it.

When I realised I was bi a lot of things made more sense. I was a bi woman, no wonder I identified with female characters and like m/f and f/f! But when I realised I was genderfluid it made things a little more complicated.

What exactly is a woman, anyway?


So, femslash is about women who love other women. Femslash fandom is also largely made up of women who love other women, and has a lot of crossover with other queer women's spaces. Since sexism and homophobia exists, there's also a lot of necessary pushback against men and compulsory heterosexuality. This is all entirely understandable and necessary but can become alienating when people apply it too simplistically e.g. the constant assumption that everyone who likes femslash is either a queer woman (implicitly good and welcome) or a straight man (implicitly gross and unwelcome).

In "Personal Experiences of Femslash Fandom as a Queer Space" I talked about how femslash fandom being for everyone who likes femslash, but with a default assumption that you're a wlw, was really helpful for me figuring out my sexuality. I postulated that it might feel less comfortable for non binary people and...I was right. It does.

My personal experience has been fine. All my friends have been great about my new gender identity, and supportive of me exploring different gender stuff in fiction and real life. Every time my gender has come up in conversation in broader fannish contexts, femslashy or otherwise, people have been ok about it. But I have still seen a lot of hostile reactions to non binary people in fannish, feminist, and queer spaces, and knowing those attitudes are out there puts me on edge. Also, while I avoid people who deliberately exclude non binary people, I still encounter a LOT of tumblr posts/fic etc which assume the world divides neatly into men and women.

On the plus side, the fact that femslash fandom is still just defined as "people who like femslash" does mean I can avoid the "but should I even be in women's spaces" existential angst I have elsewhere. Some non binary people identify with women closely enough that this is less of a big deal, but while I identify strongly with women politically (because the Patriarchy will always see me as one) it's a big part of my gender identity that I am actually all genders, including male.

So. That's real life. In fiction, there are basically no non binary characters. As a non binary person, you either accept your faves being binary gendered, headcanon them as non binary, or make your own new characters. I do all three.

In the same way that characters are assumed to divide into male and female, pairings are assumed to divide neatly into het, slash, and femslash. On the AO3, for example, your options are gen, m/f, f/f, m/m, multi and "other". But as in real life, the boundaries are fuzzy, and some non binary characters feel close enough to women that it feels kind of like femslash to ship them with female characters. This can sometimes go to a bad place, e.g. if they "look female" (and specifically, if they have vaginas) then "it's femslash", regardless of how they identify. I haven't encountered much shipping discussion about trans women or amab non binary characters (because they are even rarer and more badly done by) but am assuming it sometimes goes to the equivalent bad place.

Then there's societies whose gender structures are different to ours. "Female coded single gender alien society" seems to be a popular trope. The three I've encountered are the Gems in Steven Universe, Radchaii in the Imperial Radch trilogy and Asari in Mass Effect. In all three cases the society seems to have no internal idea of gender, and they may or may not all resemble human cis women physically or present in a very feminine way, but she/her pronouns are used. There's a clear contrast between the society where EVERYONE is the SAME kind of non binary, and societies where everyone is male or female. I can't think of anyone in any of these stories who chooses their gender. Some non binary people and women really relate to these characters but the idea of a society with a single gender sets off my dysphoria. This makes it hard for me to consider them properly, and figuring out if the ships count as femslash squicks me too hard to think about very long. But it's still a worthwhile question!

So when I talk about femslash in this post, I am pretty much just talking about shipping 100% binary gendered female characters. Where the line is for what counts as femslash is interesting, but not what I'm looking at.

Why do I relate to female characters


I often relate strongly to non binary characters but since they're incredibly rare that doesn't affect my fannish experience much. Mostly fiction is about about men and women, and my preference is for women. I've had a slight uptick in interest in male characters since I started identifying as genderfluid, but it feels more like poking at them to explore masculinity than a long term change in preferences.

I have always related really strongly to female characters way more than male ones. I can enjoy stories with an all male main cast, but not easily, and if those characters or the story are awful about women I will get pissed off and feel personally insulted. Now that I identify as genderfluid the fact that I relate to female characters more strongly than many women is kind of surreal!

I've seen a lot of women, and trans and non binary people, talk about relating to male characters more in sexist canons because they didn't feel as oppressively gendered as the female ones. I can understand this reaction intellectually, and I get annoyed when people act like it's a simple matter of Good Feminist Choices to care more about female characters.

But for me, male characters in sexist canons do feel gendered. Sure, they get to be People, unlike the female characters. But Person is defined as Not A Woman. And I know that the characters and the story would see me as a woman, or maybe a freaky genderweirdo. Definitely not a person e.g. a Real Man. So I feel resentful of and alienated by the male characters, and connect with the other Not People, e.g. the female characters.

And even in less sexist settings, where the male characters aren't gross and the female characters get to be people, I may be able to like the male characters but still tend to gravitate to the female ones. I'm still not 100% sure why that is, though a few reasons come to mind.

Part of it is that I tend to be drawn to characters who are marginalised by the story, and since writers share the biases of broader society, those characters are often in some real-world marginalised group. The straight white dude protagonist gets everything handed to him on a platter and is expected to be likeable Just Because. The women/POC/disabled characters etc have to work harder, tend to be less unthinkingly arrogant and so on. This effect is so reliable that any time I find myself oddly attached to a "white" male secondary character I can generally assume that I'm misreading US ethnic markers as a white Australian and he's actually (a) A POC (b) About to die.

Part of it is that I spent the first 36 years of my life as a woman, and am still generally read as one now. Which has meant 37 years of sexist crap, generally from men, and receiving more respect and acceptance from women. That has left a mark. Also, when you’re afab, there's more space to be kind-of-a-woman than kind-of-a-man, which makes me feel closer to women than men.

And part of it is that I relate best to characters who, even if they aren't canonically genderfluid, are at least not aggressively gendersolid. Who see gender roles as something to put up with, or take advantage of, or play around with, but not as a rigid box they feel they have to stay in at all times. And because of the way gender works, and my personal experiences, cis female characters tend to feel that way to me more than cis male ones. I relate to trans characters of all genders, but they’re very rare. Those cis male characters I do relate to tend not to be very invested in Being A Real Man.

How I feel about f/f


Why I relate to f/f is pretty straightforward: I relate to female characters, I relate to queer characters, therefore I relate to f/f.

One problem I can have with f/f, though, is that it's still too gendered for me. Not sexist, but emphasising how these characters are WOMEN, which is TOTALLY DIFFERENT FROM BEING A MAN. It doesn't help that the default f/f narrative by and for women seems to be "woman thinks she is straight, meets hot lesbian and realises MEN ARE AWFUL AND WOMEN ARE SO MUCH BETTER, they are happy lesbians ever after." There's nothing wrong with that narrative, but I personally find it alienating, especially when the narrative doesn't acknowledge the possibility of bi-ness let alone trans or non binary people. (The default f/f narrative by and for men is...fetishising grossness. So that's not an improvement)

In fact my intense negative reaction to sentences like "Women are short with soft curves while men are tall with lots of hard muscles" in f/f and m/f romances was one of the key things that made me realise I'm non binary. I realise a lot of people kink on that sort of thing and that's fine but I wish they could either label it or be less biologically essentialist in the broader story.

Femslashing while non binary


Did I mention I have existential angst about being in Women's Spaces? Because I do. Femslash fandom is not just for women, even straight cis men are welcome. But there is still a strong distinction made between femslash by and for women and that made by and for men, and there isn't always much acknowledgement that other kinds exist. Not just femslash made by non binary people, but femslash made by women for a largely male market, femslash made by men that is very popular with queer women etc. And then there's something like Bound which was made by two trans women who (publicly at least) identified as men at the time. Yet I have encountered enough gross male gazey femslash and yuri, and gross men, to understand why queer women want to draw a line. It's complicated, and I'm not 100% sure where I sit within that complexity. (I get the feeling feminist male femslashers worry about this too! But that's a separate topic)

Now the stuff I make is generally not very sexually explicit, focussing a lot more on feelings than sex. But I enjoy other people's sexually explicit works, and some of those people are straight cis guys. In general I enjoy a lot of f/f which is considered gross and male gazey by many queer women. When I identified as a woman I felt more comfortable about that than I do now. I mean, my bar for "too gross" is pretty low compared to a lot of Actual Queer Women, and I am pretty sure I don't see women as Not People etc. But it still feels a bit weird.

Also, while a lot of what I make is inoffensive fluff some of it is somewhat disturbing and not an Unproblematic and Positive Representation of Queer Women. Relationships are not always healthy, actions are not always moral, characters are not always positively portrayed etc. Again, when I identified as a woman I felt more comfortable writing Women Being Terrible To Each Other Then Making Out, and now I feel a little weird. On the other hand, I am not going to stop writing People Being Terrible To Each Other Then Making Out, and I can't see that only writing it about men (or m/f couples, or non binary OCs) would be an improvement. Especially since, again, a lot of Actual Queer Women are into it.

And then, I guess, there's the question of a Non-woman writing about women. Personally I think everyone should write more trans/non-binary/female/POC/disabled/poor etc characters, we just need to be more careful when the group is not our own, especially if we have privilege over them. And (cis) women vs non binary people is one of those complicated situations that proves you can't divide the world neatly into a single continuum of more or less privileged. But I do try to remember that my experience of "womanhood" is not universal. Of course, noone's is, and neither is my experience of being genderfluid. I actually think I've gotten better at writing women since realising I'm genderfluid: now that I recognise dysphoria etc for what they are, I am better able to imagine what it's like for people who don't experience them.

So, I will keep making and consuming the stuff I like, but try to do so mindfully, checking in with Actual Women if it feels necessary.

I feel like over time I'm going to feel more and more like creating works about non binary characters, and luckily my main fandom, Dragon Age, is very OC friendly. Hopefully other canons I like will introduce canon non binary characters. And there's always going to be male characters, and ships involving men, that I am into. But I'm pretty sure that for the indefinite future, most fictional characters I fall in love with will still be women, and a lot of the ships I fall in love with will only involve women. So I will keep femslashing :)