Who Wotches the Wotchmen? (analysis of gender-bending webcomic)
Posted by Richie on March 19, 2007
Update: I’ve noticed that, two years after I wrote it, this post is still getting a lot of traffic. I’ve also noticed that a lot of my search engine referrals are from people looking for The Wotch or TG fiction. Because this is quite an old post, the ideas aren’t as well formed or articulated as I’d like, so if you’re interested in an analysis of The Wotch / TG fiction in general, I’d advise checking out this other Wotch post and this review of It’s A Boy / Girl Thing as well.
I’ve actually been meaning to write this for a while, but it’s difficult to talk about without it looking like “Hey, check out this fucked-up comic for perverts“, or, worse, that I’m transphobic. Which I’m really, really not. So it’s important to state now, before I get started, that this is specifically about the way the concept of being able to change gender at will (essentially) is used in The Wotch. I think what it says about gender identity vs. gender roles is applicable elsewhere, or else I wouldn’t have bothered writing it. This isn’t an attack on The Wotch, even though it’s obvious that I have problems with certain aspects of it, but if I’m talking about it specifically because there are so many webcomics out there with transgender content, all of which handle it differently, and if I get any more general then I risk misrepresenting them. And this isn’t even about transgender, anyway.
To give you a brief idea of The Wotch, here’s a recent panel that should explain everything:
The Wotch is a comic where men get magically transformed into women an awful lot, and sometimes get turned back again. They also get turned into statues, centaurs, mannequins, humanoid foxes and articles of clothing, but those are rarely part of the actual plot in the way male-to-female transformations are. Of the two male leads, at least one, probably both, are going to end up female during each story. If the comic was just an excuse for showing men turning into women, it wouldn’t be worth looking into, but the fact that time is given over to the male-turned-female lead characters living their lives as another gender makes it potentially interesting as a way of examining gender roles.
Quick plot synopsis: 15 year old Anne Onymous (ha) is a “wotch”, which is like a witch, except… Well, it’s like a witch. She’s got magical powers, anyway. Her classmates Robin and Jason share her secret. Wackiness ensues, usually involving Robin and Jason turning into their female alter-egos Robyn and Sonja for some, or all, of the story. There’s also some obtuse background mythology about an inter-dimensional war, but that’s not important right now.
Turning into somebody else is one of the standard tropes of magic-realist kids fiction (Freaky Friday, The Hot Chick, It’s A Boy/Girl Thing, episodes of Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Lizzy McGuire, Big, countless others), forcing adolescents and children to experience the world from another perspective and learn to respect the people in those positions. The key difference between the examples I cited and The Wotch, though, is that the change was involuntary (or at least they didn’t realise the magic whatsit was real) and that protagonists were stuck with the consequences. They’ve got to adapt to their change of circumstance without knowing how long it’s going to last, or if they can ever restore normality. The characters in The Wotch, on the other hand, can casually change gender and age (but mostly gender) whenever they feel like it, as long as Anne is there to cast a spell. Robin isn’t too bothered by this, and Jason actively enjoys it – they can, after all, just turn back into teenage boys later on, so why get fussed about it? Given the hormone-soaked environment of high school, wanting to experience how the other gender lives is understandable, especially if you can opt out when you choose. It’s never suggested that gender identity is the issue here, or that these characters are transgendered; they just like occasionally spending time as girls.
It’s here that the problems begin. As girls, previously male characters engage in stereotypical girl things. They hang out at the mall, they try on clothes, boys hit on them, they have slumber parties, they show off their bodies, they have “girls’ nights out”, they gossip etc. Yeah, whatever. But after the spell is reversed, they never do anything like this again… until the next time they’re turned into girls.
Because, you see, that’s what girls are for.
A comic where the main characters swap gender throughout looks like a great way of deconstructing gender stereotypes, but The Wotch is actually stiflingly conformist in its adherence to traditional male / female roles. All “feminine” behaviour is the exclusive domain of women, and if a male character wishes to engage in any, they have to literally become a woman in order to do it. Instead of taking what they learned during their time as women and applying it to their lives as men, they act in pretty much the same way as they always did, only changing their behaviour if their gender happens to change as well. Keep in mind that we’re not talking exclusively sexual things here – wanting to be a woman to experience what it’s like to date a straight man; that makes sense. Wanting to be a woman so you can socialise in a non-aggressive way, or go shopping for clothing, or feel attractive, or be emotional… Yes, you can see the problem here. I understand (from personal experience) that teenage boys are under an incredible amount of pressure to avoid falling into “feminine” behaviour patterns, so I can see why a comic like The Wotch would provide escapism for cisgendered boys who feel constrained by gender roles. But, by intrinsically linking gender roles with a person’s physical gender, isn’t it actually being counter-productive? Isn’t it feeding the same ideas that created the dichotomy to start with?
(It does have transgendered readers as well, obviously. However, the gender-changing on display in the comic isn’t about being born in the wrong body and needing to be physically female to be a complete person, it’s about wanting to do “feminine” things and believing that only women are “allowed” to do them. Anne’s older brother Evan says as much, when he asks Anne to temporarily turn him into a three year old girl, because as a three year old girl, he can get away with eating cookies and playing dress-up all day, which he couldn’t as a 21 year old man).
There are no women in the comic who routinely become men. There are almost no women in the comic who become men at all, ever, and when they do, it’s “fixed” by the story’s end. Incidental male characters who become female, however, occasionally stay that way permanently, and it’s always viewed as an improvement, since, as women, they immediately become friendlier and more in-touch with their emotions, as if their whole personality is inherently tied to their gender rather than how they were socialised. One of the teachers is transformed into a teenage Japanese girl who enjoys slumber parties and being cute, and elects to stay this way when given the choice of turning back. Another teacher is transformed into a buxom blonde woman in a tight dress, even though he this has nothing to do with his original appearance and isn’t a “female version” of him. A group of bullying, sexist football jocks are hit by a spell and become a group of nice, supportive cheerleaders who talk about their uniforms and bust measurements. Even though their new roles, appearances and personalities are described as being part of the spell, the implications about gender roles are still there. They couldn’t have become nice, supportive, attractive, fun men, because being nice, supportive, attractive and fun isn’t what men do.
The last sentence is the wrong way around, actually. The belief that men can’t be nice and supportive makes it look like it’s attacking men, but it’s really placing women on a pedestal and assuming they must always be nice and supportive to each other all the time. The belief that all women have superhuman niceness, morality, intelligence, attractiveness, sensuality and self-control fitted as standard is a persistent one, but it’s got nothing to do with a sense of female superiority, it’s just there to make it easier to blame women for not living up to those impossible standards 24/7. Not that I believe the people behind The Wotch are thinking this consciously.
But there’s something else about masculinity in The Wotch. There are women in the comic who undertake stereotypically “masculine” activities – wrestling, for instance – but don’t need to become men in order to do it. Again, you can interpret this as women-are-the-best-so-nyah, but isn’t it just reinforcing the concept that “masculine” activities are the benchmark for normality, and therefore it’s alright for women to take part and prove they’re tough (as long as they stay attractive!!!), while “feminine” activities are lesser, and a man “lowering” himself to that level is wrong? This would seem to conflict with the whole point of the comic, but I think it’s the linchpin. The gender divide is burned into our brains from such an early age that, even in a fantasy comic seemingly specifically designed for people who feel frustrated by it, we still view a woman “acting like a man” as empowered and in control, but a man “acting like a woman” is… Well, it’s non-existent, to be honest. Only women can genuinely cross the gender divide and come to terms with masculine activities without it threatening their identity as women – they become “tough chicks” instead – but if a man wants to come to terms with feminine activities, it can only happen after his identity as a man is removed. After this point he can take on masculine attributes again, becoming “empowered”, but the feminine attributes will vanish when he turns back. It’s OK to be a girl, but not a sissy.
No, it’s not going to make a huge amount of difference in the long run, and I’m not going to seriously berate a webcomic about magical high school kids for not being a gender studies textbook. But, given total creative freedom and a premise tailor-made to undermine gender roles, The Wotch has still chosen to view them as essential and absolute, and entirely in keeping with the mainstream concepts of masculinity and femininity. I think that’s worth noting, as a sign of how far we still have to go.