Rule 63 and femslash within fandom

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Title: Rule 63 and femslash within fandom
Creator: intransitive
Date(s): October 23rd, 2014
Medium: online
Fandom: multifandom
Topic: Fanfiction, Femslash, Rule 63
External Links: Femslash meta: Rule 63 and femslash within fandom, (archive)
Click here for related articles on Fanlore.

Rule 63 and femslash within fandom Women, femslash, trans identities, rule 63/genderswap, and fandom: a not at all definitive essay is an essay by intransitive.

This essay was cited by the 2019 Marvel Femslash Exchange as the reason the exchange mod chose to include Rule 63 characters.[1]

Topics Discussed

Excerpts from the Essay

I'm going to try and articulate some of the unease I feel about many traditional challenges and fan communities and how they choose to define femslash and women within fandom. The issue is not the decision to exclude rule 63/genderswapped women, as I'll (hopefully) make clear later, but the language used to do so and how it mirrors language from the non-fandom world in a negative way.
That brings me to canon versus fanon, which I think is a huge part of how I feel about this. I consider fanon – the in-fic universe that a fan author creates – to be the final word on the characters in that fic. I know that this is not a universal thing at all – many people consider canon to be the final authority, even for fic created from it. But to me, fic is about resistance, transformation, queering the canon – I'm not here just to get more stories about my favorite characters and worlds. I'm here to proactively change the landscapes I'm given to make them queerer, less racist, more gender-equal, less heteronormative and transphobic, more centered in and focusing on women (all women). I'm here to challenge the environment in which canon is created, even if I love it as it is. So when an author takes a character generally considered male by canon, and writes a world in which they are a woman, and always have been, whether they're trans or cis, I believe the author. That is the final authority for me, and it has as much weight as someone telling me their gender identity (albeit fannish character as opposed to real live person). I don't argue with people when they tell me who they are. I respect their identities and treat them how they want to be treated.

So where's the issue in any of this? There are tons of great stories that do this – take men and make them women – and some of them are escapist fun where a women gets be the hero of a story and not have to deal with all the shit women deal with in the world, gets to be the kind of character that women are rarely written as in mainstream TV or other sources. Some of them are explicitly looking at what changes when a character is a woman – how does she get treated, compared to her male counterpart? How do the other characters interact with her now? What obstacles are there that weren't before? Both of those are valuable and I love them both a lot. There's no bad here! (Sidenote: I definitely think there's nothing wrong with not loving genderswap stories, which is a thing for people for many different reasons. That's legit, and I don't want to shame anyone if they're just not able or don't want to read genderswap, though if you also don't read much fic featuring canonical women, I might suggest looking at why that is, for you. You might find an interesting reason - or not, but it's worth exploring.)

When you're a fan of femslash, and of women characters, the fannish world is a small, small place. That's good and bad for lots of reasons, but the main thing I want to address here is that we have to advocate hard for our niche – femslashers run lots of exchanges and special challenges just to drum up interest in the characters we love, and to find each other online. There aren't many women or genderqueer characters, compared to men characters. There are even fewer who hit the right notes to become fan favorites, and they're fighting against our bias towards men to begin with. There are more and more all the time (hooray!), but we're still working at a huge deficit. That makes us very protective of those characters, and likely to limit the inclusion of genderswapped characters in femslash comms and challenges/exchanges/fests, because they might overwhelm the inclusion of canonical women characters. Genderswapped characters have the built-in advantage of more recognition and attention within fandom, and that's not a minor thing to take into account.

This is where it gets tricky for me - not because I think communities can't make their own standards and rules, and not because I think they have bad intentions - but because the language used to exclude genderswapped women characters from femslash comms/challenges/exchanges reminds me of the language I've encountered from ciswomen in my meatspace life trying to exclude my partner from women-only events, or worse, the TERF woman-born-woman crap.

Here's the logic - that character was created as a man, and is best known as a man, is canonically male (leaving aside canons where there are canonically genderswapped characters in various realities, like Marvel comics…). And just because a fan creator has reimagined them as a woman doesn't make them a woman - they're still REALLY a man within the larger fannish context. This makes some sense when talking about promoting minor characters and women characters and not letting fandom's male-centric focus overrun this resistance. But to me, it sounds like "just because you SAY you're a woman doesn't mean you really are." That belief has been used to keep my partner from girls' nights, from clothing exchanges, from places where I was welcome, but she was not. (Granted, if she's not welcome, I don't feel welcome, either. But it took a while to communicate that to everyone in our social circle. And the ones who didn't adapt are no longer part of that circle.)
Let me be clear about one thing - the harm caused to transwomen off- and online when they are excluded from women-only spaces is real, and much more serious than any harm resulting from genderswapped women not being included in fandom femslash spaces, so I'm definitely not trying to make a false equivalency, here. But both create an atmosphere of gender essentialism that is ultimately not good for anyone, and if we can avoid it in fanworks as well as outside of them, why wouldn't we? They exist on the same spectrum. As I was reminded at a fannish party recently, the solution to bad or problematic speech is more speech, not censorship.

There's a distinct difference between an individual fan's decision to focus on canonical women, or just plain love of canonical women characters, and the decision to structure an entire comm or exchange on the exclusion of genderswapped characters. They're connected and related, but the latter has a larger effect on the rest of fandom, and I think should be held to a higher degree of scrutiny and discussion. So what am I asking for?

I'm not asking for everyone to suddenly love genderswap or start creating and consuming fanworks with genderswapped women. I also believe there's still a need for canonical-women-only challenges/exchanges, especially if it's single-fandom-specific, so I'm not asking to abolish these. But maybe the next time you're running one, you could very carefully make sure your language isn't echoing the language of transphobia or gender essentialism. I think it's possible to do that. And I'd respect that limitation – I've said before that I'm really torn about this, and it's true. There are VERY good reasons to limit femslash exchanges and challenges to canonical women, and certainly to not allow sexswap stories (since the character isn't a woman just because they have an assigned-female body for the fic). I'd actually say that no, we shouldn't ever allow sexswapped (woke up with female genitalia) men characters in femslash or women-only spaces. Because regardless of what body you have, your gender identity is the same (or not, if you're fluid, but you get what I mean!). And maybe having a better distinction between sexswap and genderswap will help alleviate some of the ambiguity around this whole topic.
The basic thing I come back to, in all of this, is that a woman is a woman if she says she is - there is nothing that can trump self-identification, in real life or in a story. Instead of worrying too much about whether the women we're writing/creating fanworks about are canonically women or not, let's focus on creating and supporting all women in fandom (characters AND live people), regardless of their canon or "official" and/or assigned-at-birth gender status. Let's also continue to support and champion canonical women and other minority characters who get a short shrift in canon and in fandom. Fandom is not a zero-sum game, and genderswapped femslash can even be a gateway for fans into canonical-women femslash, so these two particular types of femslash can support each other just by existing. We can do both at once, and support each other in doing both - I believe in us!



I just don't tend to believe fic authors by default. If a writer tells me that they're depicting a 19th century millworker from Burnley or a Hmong immigrant - someone who doesn't fit the default settings in fandom - my first question when reading is always going to be "does this character actually seem to fit the identity that the author was claiming for them? Do they read right? Do I believe this identity?" Plus there is the fact that I may be writing the same character differently myself - if I'm reading a fic where someone has written canonically cismale character X as a genderswapped woman, I reserve the right to say "hmm, I think I'd rather write a fic where X is a trans man."

So I'm not sure that I can sign up to the project of respecting the identities of fictional characters. Especially because much of fandom is built on the project of turning them upside down in the first place. You do address this issue and give reasons why you *don't* respect the canonical identity of characters, but for this reason I'm not sure that the blanket rhetoric works for me. (That is, "a woman is a woman if she says she is" becomes considerably less powerful as an argument if you don't believe that when it comes to canon.)

This is not to say that you're necessarily wrong about opening up more space in fandom for genderswapped female characters. I'm still considering that one. It would certainly be interesting to see the results of the experiment that you suggest, at least.[2]


I really appreciated your suggestions of alternative ways to approach the "want more women" vs "do not want some to be massively overshadowed by others" knot. I seem to remember that in my earlier years in fandom, femslash challenges used to essentially allow rule 63 by not having any rules against it. Since now that rule is very present, yet I don't have any clear memory of seeing genderswapped characters overshadowing canon women works in femslash and women-oriented challenges, I might have assumed there must have been cases. If I find any clues either way, I'll come back with links!

In the cases of "what about BADLY portrayed women identities", my own opinion is that "bad is better than no representation", in that if anything it challenges the viewers to reflect and exchange on why they dislike this portrayal and perhaps to make their own version in response, which means we now have MORE. \o/ Plus, I've seen people doing problematic works (myself very much included) get better through discussions, criticism and practice, so I have faith in our community helping each others out, newcomers or not.[3]


I can't give you any examples of specific challenges without that rule that were swamped by genderswap/sexswap stories, but I do remember when I first starting seeing people discussing whether rules like that were needed (2006? 2007-ish maybe?) and I know it was in reaction to cases where it had happened that a women or femmeslash-centered space got overrun with 'always a girl' AUs - it might have been themed lj fic communities rather than challenges, though? And if I'm remembering right it would've been in SGA fandom, which had a single slash OTP that overran EVERYTHING to an extent I haven't seen since. Not sure though. Even now it's a problem on AO3 - if I filter, say, MCU for femmeslash, and then filter out all the stories where the only femmslash is background pairings, I'm still left with a situation where in either six or seven of the top twenty fics (depending on how you count Loki....), the only f/f involves canonically male characters. In teen wolf, 11 of the top 20 stories in that sort are always-female Stiles AUs.


I think I do understand your problem with the rule, though. :/ I don't think policing rarity is the answer, though - determining rarity fairly is REALLY HARD, as yt alway shows us, and besides, a lot of female characters look popular because they're constantly tagged as background characters' in the mens stories, while rarely getting stories of their own.




I would be very hesitant about opening women-centric fic exchanges for genderswapped characters, even rare ones, because I don't trust fandom not to give a genderswapped Zelenka story more attention than an Elizabeth Weir story, and as a participant in such an exchange I'd find that very disappointing. Even if the most popular characters are excluded, and participants could choose whether or not they're personally okay with writing/receiving genderswap stories: when I'm participating in a women-focused exchange I don't want the reminder that a majority of fandom is more interested in canonically male characters. I love genderswap stories!, and I want more of them; but I don't want them in spaces focusing on canonically female characters, even if your headcanon might be different.



This is such a fascinating post, thank you for sharing it!

Your point about including rule 63 characters in a femmeslash challenge really stood out to me, and I tend to agree with what you're proposing here. I think rule 63 has a small enough fanbase that it wouldn't necessarily overrun a challenge. I mean, like you, who knows if that's actually the case, seeing as rule 63 characters tend to be excluded on principal alone. I think the idea is worth exploring, because more stories about women is always a good thing!

Mostly, thank you for opening up my eyes to this type of language. It's not something I consciously though about in the past (although definitely I've been thinking of it more since writing my own sexswap story), and I couldn't agree more about how important it is.[6]


I'm glad you found it interesting! Thanks for adding to the conversation.

I hadn't thought about the fact that rule 63 fic does tend to have a smaller number of people interested enough to read or write it - that definitely is true. Hopefully we'll get a chance to see what does happen if it's allowed in a challenge or two, because I'm with you - more stories with women is an across the board positive.

I actually was just thinking about this in terms of hockey rpf fandom - I've always loved rule 63 fic, but it became especially important to me when I got into hockey, because other than the fairly small number of women's hockey rpf fics, it was the only way for me to read stories about women and read in the fandom that I most wanted to read in. So sometimes, rule 63 is explicitly allowing femslash and women to exist in a usually men-only space, and I think that's really important. (I love the sexswap fics, too, obviously, but I'm so gleeful about the relatively huge number of genderswap fics in hockey!)[7]


  1. GlassesOfJustice (posting with the exchange mod account) on February 25th, 2019: Exchange Rules & FAQ
  2. naraht, commenting on Oct 24th, 2014.
  3. yue_ix, commenting on October 25th.
  4. melannen, commenting on Oct 26, 2014.
  5. schneefink, commenting on Oct 28, 2014.
  6. torigates, commenting on Nov 02, 2014.
  7. intransitive, commenting on Nov 04, 2014.