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The Art of Passing

Amophrast's picture

Professors Anne Dalke, Liz McCormack

Gender, Information, Science, and Technology

11 February 2011

The Art of Passing

Gender crossing, especially when done temporarily or situationally, often provokes the question of whether or not one can pass. The term passing, as in the novel Passing by Nella Larsen, was often historically used to describe taking on the appearance of a different racial group. Passing for gender is much more difficult. Let’s take a look at some of the characteristics that would need to be altered in order for another gender:

                   Female to Male:


-          Bind down breasts

-          Use shoulder pads to make shoulders appear broader

-          Hide curves with loose, baggy clothing

-          Pack underwear to create the illusion of a male genitals

-          Accentuate jawline with makeup or by angle of face/clenching jaw in photos

-          Create facial hair (stubble, five o’clock shadow) with makeup

-          Wear appropriate footwear

-          Stand with legs at shoulder width

-          Sit with legs apart; if you cross your legs, prop your ankle on top of the opposite knee

-          Use slimming gear to decrease appearance of butt

-          Change voice (if you can be convincing)


Male to Female:

-          Create the illusion of breasts by stuffing a bra

-          Wear a wig or style hair in a feminine manner

-          Makeup: false eyelashes, lipstick enhances the shape of the lips

-          Tuck genitals to create the illusion of a smooth crotch

-          Shave face, armpits, legs, arms (if necessary)

-          Wear a girdle or corset to slim stomach and create a waist

-          Pad hips and butt if necessary

-          Wear jewelry

-          Wear heels

-          Cross ankles or legs when sitting; keep legs together

-          Swing hips when walking

-          Change voice (if you can be convincing)

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The shield obscures the hips and binding flattens the chest, but the straight-on position of the crossplayer’s face allows her jawline to appear smooth, rounded, and feminine.  

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The lighting draws attention to the crossplayer’s chest, which makes it appear not to be fully binded. She juts her hip out, completely betraying any sense of masculinity she might have tried to achieve. She could have taken a tip from the guy in the middle and crossed her arms over her chest, which would have effectively hidden her bust. It seems that men in tights can be still be manly.

Switching gender online involves controlling mannerisms, speech, and actions rather than physical appearance and movement. Turkle talked about people online switching genders for various reasons. Some men, like Case, felt that women would be seen as stronger, empowered characters if they were the ones taking on a stronger role, which he often described as a “Katherine Hepburn” role—a Bryn Mawr ideal. Some women, like Zoe, felt stronger as male characters, because they felt that a strong female character would seem like a bitch. They seemed to believe that men’s actions would be read in a more positive way than a female performing the same actions. This was emphasized when Ron the male frog was seen as more dependable than Ribbit the female frog. Regardless of the gender switches occurring, they seemed to happen all for more or less the same reason: people wanted to experience a different role that they felt they could not express through their real-life gender. This includes people wanting to understand the opposite sex by trying to assimilate their role in an online chatroom. Online, Zoe did not create a female character who was strong and firm—and why not? There are definitely strong female characters that she could have drawn from for inspiration. Why would she feel the need to switch her gender? Zoe’s feeling of weakness or ineffectiveness was centered around her femaleness, just as Case’s feeling of weakness was centered around his maleness.

In a sense, this gender roleplay can be seen as not merely switching genders, but as creating whole other characters purposefully gendered differently than the user. This switch can be initiated for achieving characteristics that the switcher sees as generally a characteristic of the other gender. A woman does not play a male version of herself, but rather a male character that acts the way a male is perceived to act. 

“In this way, the play suggests that donning a mask, adopting a persona, is a step toward reaching a deeper truth about the real, a position many MUDders take regarding their experiences as virtual selves” (Turkle 216). 

But how does one know how a male actually acts? These chatrooms do not reveal anything about true male behavior. There’s no “way” that men act. There is, however, a socially constructed, supposedly “ideal” expectation for the way that men are supposed to act, especially in our culture. How can one learn more about men by deriving information from men online? The people who claim to be men online might not be men at all. This simply causes a perpetuation of the stereotypical ideals that our society is so focused on constructing.

Kate Bornstein, a transgender performance artist and gender theorist, once had lessons from a voice coach teach her how to modify her voice to be more womanly. She was instructed that women always smile when they speak and they speak in higher and breathier voices than men. Women also modulate their voices more whereas men speak in a monotone. Not only this, but it was necessary for women to qualify their statements with little questions at the end, you know? These observations from this voice coach further enforce an impression of women who are weaker than men and constantly seeking approval from men.

At first, when the person who played the female frog tried to switch back to a male role, others online did not believe that he was genuinely a man. While playing a female role, he might have picked up female ways of talking or acting that simply were not allowed in the virtual world for someone who presented themselves as a man. They did not fit the construction, so online users deemed that "she” was failing to pass as a man.

The same applies for females trying to gender themselves as women. A female is not really a woman unless she is skinny, curvy, and ultimately subservient to men. A female must change her natural body with tasks such as shaving, wearing makeup, and exercising in order to be fully characterized as a woman.  

Cosplay, or costume play, is an activity that requires one not only to dress up like a character but also to act like them. It is common in the cosplay community to also crossdress, otherwise known as crossplay. Often an important element for passing in the crossplay community is size. Size is gendered. A skinny male often makes a better woman than a chubbier female, because skinny is seen as a feminine characteristic.

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Female crossplayers express envy over the woman-ness of a male in a bra and panties.

Constructions of gender only disillusion people as to how they act. Gender differences should be approached through conversation, not through imitation of one expects to find. If everyone online was regarded as gender neutral, their interactions might be markedly different.



Forum comments: Universal "Can I Pass" Thread on, page 2:

Sherry Turkle. “Tinysex and Gender Trouble.” Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. Simon and Schuster, 1995. 210-232


Liz McCormack's picture

This was an informative piece

This was an informative piece comparing "passing" gender in the real world and online.  It seems "passing"  accentuates stereotypes about gender rather than blurs them. The "passing" examples include broad unknown audiences to convince.  As such nuances go unnoticed and only the most visible signals are effectively transmitted. It is interesting to think about the visuals and audibles in "passing" as pieces of information that are interpreted as gender. I wonder, which senses trump others? How does gender information online compare to that in the real world?  Is it a fundamental difference or just currently limited by the technology?

You've highlighted for me the role of external changes in successfully "passing".  What happens internally?  Does one actually feel transformed when "passing"?   Or is it simply play?  When does play become transformational?  

Perhaps that is where the conversation comes in....