Gender-swapped Welcome to Night Vale

Welcome to Night Vale logoI’ve long been fascinated by the idea of gender-swapping—taking a known story and flipping all the characters’ genders, changing as little else as possible, and seeing what happens. It’s an intriguing intellectual exercise. Does it change our perceptions of the characters? Of the story? Do we start to feel that the story is unrealistic? How and why? Ultimately I think it’s a great way to poke and prod at our own subconscious biases.

Welcome to Night Vale makes for a very interesting gender-swap subject because, unlike many mainstream stories, it is already so progressive. We’ve got a diverse cast of characters, with people of differing gender, sexual orientation, skin color, culture, ability, and more. What happens to this rich cast when we swap everyone’s gender? Anything?

Today I spent a few hours coming up with a list of gender-swapped Welcome to Night Vale character names. I believe names have meanings we learn intuitively but don’t necessarily recognize consciously; keeping that in mind, I tried to come up with names that gave me a similar feeling, or names that etymologically had the same or similar meanings. I did not mess with non-gendered characters like Alisha or the Glow Cloud.

In many cases, I didn’t feel that switching the genders made much of a difference. In others, it was harder to imagine gender as being irrelevant. For example, changing Michael Sandero into Michaela suddenly turns the Night Vale Scorpions into a women’s football team. This underscores the real-world “truth” that no one cares about women’s sports…apparently not even in Night Vale. (Let me know if I’m mistaken. I can’t remember an example of a women’s sports team in Night Vale, and a quick search of fan transcripts isn’t turning anything up.)

Here’s the list of gender-swapped characters, and my reactions to the swapping.

  • Cecile Gertrude Palmer
  • Carla the Scientist

So far, so good.

  • Steph Carlsberg
  • Cecile’s unnamed brother, married to Steph Carlsberg
  • Johnny, Cecile’s nephew (son of Cecile’s brother, stepson to Steph)

This is interesting, but not problematic. Johnny could be selling cookies (or something else) for cub/boy scouts. I don’t think anything in the story particularly requires these characters to be male or female.

  • Elle Harlan

I think “Elle” is a far prettier name than “Earl,” but it feels similar when spoken, which is why I picked it. In this gender-swap version I guess Elle would have to be a girl scout leader? And it is a little striking to have a female sous chef and a female executive chef at a premier restaurant. In western culture, as soon as a job becomes a prestigious profession, it suddenly seems to be dominated by men.

  • Karen, radio host for Desert Bluffs

Creepy, creepy Karen.

  • Dan Cardinal
  • Terrell Flynn

Now this is interesting. Two of the show’s big heroes are now guys. Does it feel less heroic for the Intern Who Lived and the adolescent resistance leader to be male? I’m thinking of Cecil’s speech about Tamika, where he goes from calling her a “girl” to a “woman” to a “human being.” How would that speech have felt if it was “boy” to “man” to “human being”? Is it different? Is it necessary to point out that a male is a human being, or does it seem silly, as “male” and “human” have been synonymous for so long in western culture?

  • The woman we all believe to be the sheriff of Night Vale

Does being a woman make the sheriff less weird or imposing? (I don’t think so, actually.)

  • The Woman in the Tan Jacket

This reminds me of the Observers in Fringe. (The Observers really pissed me off, especially in the final season.) Like the Observers, the Man in the Tan Jacket is a strange visitor of default gender (male). When we think of a generic person, we think of a male, so making the visitor in the tan jacket female is very interesting to me. The show actually did something like this with the Woman from Italy, but of course, she hasn’t become a recurring character (yet?).

  • Lorne Mallard, StrexCorp executive

Given Kevin and Lauren’s interesting dynamic—Lauren was supposed to be Kevin’s boss, but he seemed to have some sort of power over her—I’d love to see this gender swap, and see Karen really creeping Lorne out.

  • (Former) Mayor Patterson Winchell
  • Intern Maurice
  • Jane Peters, you know, the farmer?

I don’t really have any comments on these three…swapping their genders doesn’t seem to do anything to the story.

  • Heidi McDaniels, literal five-headed dragon

I like this, if only because Hiram is such a fun character and it would be really neat to see a female version. I’m not seeing anything particularly gendered in his story though.

  • The Faceless Old Man Who Secretly Lives in Your Home

Somehow this is far creepier to me than a Faceless Old Woman. But it’s creepier because it feels sexual. I don’t get a sexual vibe from the Faceless Old Woman. I suppose western culture has primed me to expect predatory men.

  • Old Man Joe and the Angels, all called Erik

You know what’s funny here? I have no problem thinking of the Erikas as being male or female or genderless, but having them all named Erik makes me assume they are all male. I don’t think gender-swapping Josie is a huge deal, though. (“Joseph” would be the Desert Bluffs counterpart.)

  • Liddy Lenore, out on the edge of town

There may be different connotations to a woman who lives out on the edge of town versus a man who lives out on the edge of town, but in general, I don’t think there’s anything about Larry Leroy that demands maleness. (Also, I was really pleased when I chose “Lenore.”)

  • Morgan Wallaby, who was born as a grown woman’s detached hand

Ah. It would be interesting trying to characterize Morgan’s looks—in the show, Megan’s manly hand-hair is mentioned, but what would you say about a woman’s hand without falling into the trap so many children’s videogames do—putting a bow on it or something? A woman’s hand doesn’t naturally have an identifier like nail polish. And you wouldn’t expect a pre-pubescent boy to have manly hand-hair. In fact, a young boy’s hand might not look so different from a woman’s hand. So what would be the signifier? Maybe just that the hand looked older than a child’s hand?

  • Tammy Williams, owner of the Desert Flower Bowling Alley and Arcade Fun Complex
  • Tilly the barber

These are fun, but ultimately I don’t think they reveal any gendered stereotypes. They work pretty well swapped.

  • (The former) Martha Vanston

Aha. Now here is a problematic one. Marcus Vanston’s big thing is going around naked. There are extraordinarily different connotations when a woman does this. It would be fun to explore.

  • Naaz al-Mujaheed
  • Michaela Sandero and her father Florent
  • Malique Herrera

Here’s where we get the women’s football team.

  • Big Ricki, owner of Big Ricki’s Pizza
  • Lenny Hart, editor of the Night Vale Daily Journal
  • Mickey Nguyen, owner of Dark Owl Records
  • Sammy Sultan, president of Night Vale Community College, who happens to be a smooth, fist-sized river rock
  • Simon Rigadeau, a transient living in the recycling closet of the Earth Sciences building at NVCC

I’m not seeing any big issues with any of these swaps.

  • Rey, the voice of Night Vale’s numbers station WZZZ

Would making WZZZ’s voice male take away some of its “credibility” as a victim? Would he be less sympathetic to the audience, not being a “damsel in distress”? (I think WTNV’s audience is more sophisticated than that, but it is an interesting thought. Would we have a subconscious aversion to hearing a male voice in that kind of distress?)

That pretty much covers the major and notable characters. There are plenty of other characters, but they’re not as important to the storyline (again, yet). There are a couple of interesting things I thought of, though. Making Sylvia Wickersham into Silvio Wickersham kind of gives the character a Marcus Vanston vibe (rich person doing whatever they want). And what if we turn the “Shawns” from sales into “Shawnas”? Does that make what happened to them more stomach-turning?

Here are a few more names, just for fun:

  • Sullivan Thurgood, publicity director for the Night Vale Medical Board
  • Rhonda Singh
  • Former mayor Daniel DuBois
  • Dab, a sentient patch of haze
  • Dion Creighton, treasurer of the PTA and father to Joss
  • Emile Munton, director of the Night Vale Zoo
  • Francis Donaldson, the tall man with green eyes who manages the antiques mall
  • Leonora Burton, former host of Night Vale Community Radio
  • Joy Eisenberg, dinosaur expert
  • LaShawnda Mason, executive chef at Tourniquet (again, a gendered profession)
  • Marcel LeFleur, head of Night Vale’s tourism board
  • Vincenza LeFarge, head of vigilante squad Grab ‘Em and Sack ‘Em (kind of a gendered profession too, eh?)
  • Trent Hidge, staffer during Mayor Winchell’s tenure

What do you think? Does gender-swapping the characters of Welcome to Night Vale tell you anything about your conscious and subconscious thoughts and feelings? Has anyone else done anything with this idea?

(Many thanks to the Night Vale Wiki for its list of characters, and to Lia and aimlessglee for their episode transcripts, which I have imported into Evernote for reference.)


It occurs to me belatedly that I didn’t consider the Apache Tracker. Actually, I thought of him pretty early on, realized that swap would be fairly complex, and put it off for later. And then forgot.

So, the Apache Tracker. I honestly don’t know enough about Native American culture to figure out whether or not “Apache Tracker” could be “properly” used for a female character. “Properly” is in quotes because of course the term “Apache Tracker” is purposefully misused for this guy. My issue is, I’m not sure if having a female Apache Tracker would add a completely different element that would change the story or the meaning of the character, in terms of what the words “Apache” and “tracker” mean.

I do think making the Apache Tracker female would add some intriguing nuance to the statement the character is making about cultural appropriation. “That white guy” is a fairly standard (dare I say it) strawman for racism, but “that white lady” has some additional connotations. Women aren’t privileged in the same way men are, but white women have privilege that people of color of any gender don’t. Feminism also doesn’t always have a great track record when it comes to people of color. The white male Apache Tracker gives me a generic, ignorant cultural appropriation vibe. A white female Apache Tracker, though? I start to have feelings of betrayal. As someone who straddles a line between privilege and oppression, someone who knows what misogyny feels like and yet has been treated the way human beings should be treated, she should know better. I find myself far angrier at her than I am at the canon Apache Tracker, who just sort of makes me shake my head and laugh ruefully.

A conversation with Robin Thicke

This morning I thought I’d pretend Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” consisted of his half of a conversation at a bar or club. Here’s the full conversation.

“If you can’t hear what I’m trying to say, if you can’t read from the same page, maybe I’m going deaf. Maybe I’m going blind. Maybe I’m out of my mind.”

“Or maybe I’m just not interested in you.”

“OK now he was close, tried to domesticate you, but you’re an animal, baby, it’s in your nature.”

“Being in a relationship has nothing to do with being ‘domesticated’ or ‘tamed’. You literally seem to be implying that I am a non-thinking animal here, and it’s insulting. A relationship is a partnership that requires compromise on both sides.”

“Just let me liberate you. You don’t need no papers.”

“Buddy, I told you, a relationship is a partnership. I don’t need to be ‘liberated’ from a partnership I am a part of by choice. As a thinking human being, I can choose for myself. I am not a damsel in distress.”

“That man is not your maker.”

“And that argument literally makes no sense. No person on Earth is my ‘maker’ unless you count my parents. Again, you’re trying to subjugate me with your arguments, put me at a lower level so you can ‘help’ me from on high. I don’t need your help.”

“And that’s why I’m gon’ take a good girl. I know you want it. You’re a good girl.”

“Really? You’re talking to me like I’m a dog you’re trying to train now?”

“Can’t let it get past me. You’re far from plastic. Talk about getting blasted.”

“It’s none of your business whether I or anyone else has had plastic surgery for any reason. You seem to be using a personal, private decision as a reason to rank people, which is absurd. Have you ever tried actually getting to know someone?”

“I hate these blurred lines. I know you want it. But you’re a good girl.”

“What ‘blurred lines’? I think you must be a victim of the ‘playing hard to get’ myth. It’s not real, man. When a woman says no, it doesn’t mean ‘Yes, if you try hard enough.’ Women aren’t the prize at the end of the video game of your life. Not only does no mean no, but yes is the only thing that means yes. If I’m telling you I don’t want it, that means you need to get out of my face.”

“The way you grab me, must wanna get nasty. Go ahead, get at me.”

“Dude, we were dancing. I’m sorry you read more into it than that.”

“What do they make dreams for, when you got them jeans on? What do we need steam for? You the hottest bitch in this place.”

“Look. It is flattering to have someone find me attractive, but I find the way you are expressing it problematic. Based on what you just said, it sounds like you’re primarily interested in me because I look a certain way. You’re so interested you’re willing to break up a relationship. Like I said before, we’re people, not animals. Thinking beings. We have the ability to make decisions. Think about this situation and then decide whether you think it’s smart to go after someone who clearly isn’t interested. Also…I don’t know why you thought calling me a ‘bitch’ would help your case. And if you’re even listening to what I’m saying here, please stop ranking women by looks, at least out loud. I don’t care about being the hottest woman. I don’t want to be in competition like that with other women. I want a relationship based on mutual attraction and respect, not a system of points-scoring.”

“I feel so lucky. You wanna hug me. What rhymes with hug me?”

“…first of all, no. Second of all, I’m sorry, but did you think that was clever?”

Robin, getting nowhere, lapses into silence. At this moment T.I. steps up.

“One thing I ask of you, let me be the one you back that ass to. Go, from Malibu, to Paris, boo.”

“I’m sorry, I’m in a relationship.”

“Yeah, I had a bitch, but she ain’t bad as you, so hit me up when you passing through. I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two.”

“Oh, that’s nice. Again with calling women ‘bitch’ and comparing me to other women, with added vulgarity for…what, emphasis? Gee, I am very impressed by the size of your penis, sir, and I want nothing more than for you to inflict bodily harm on me with it. Hmm, since you guys seem to have trouble comprehending the English language, that was sarcasm.”

“Swag on, even when you dress casual, I mean it’s almost unbearable. In a hundred years not dare would I pull a Pharcyde, let you pass me by.”

“So basically no matter what I say to you, you are not going to leave me alone.”

“Nothing like your last guy, he too square for you. He don’t smack that ass and pull your hair like that.”

“Excuse me. First of all, my relationship is none of your business. Second, if all you can bring to the table is a little echo of BDSM, I don’t see why you think you will convince me to leave a relationship.”

“So I’m just watching and waitin’ for you to salute the true big pimpin’. Not many women can refuse this pimpin’. I’m a nice guy, but don’t get confused, this pimpin’.”

“Oh, I’m not confused at all. And I’m not interested.”

At this point Robin tries again.

“Shake your rump! Get down, get up-a! Do it like it hurt, like it hurt. What, you don’t like work?”

“Are you seriously telling me how to dance right now? Am I your puppet? Hint: The answer is no.”

“Baby can you breathe? I got this from Jamaica. It always works for me, Dakota to Decatur, uh huh.”

“Dude, get away from me. I don’t do drugs.”

“No more pretending. Cause now you winning. Here’s our beginning.”


Feminism and relatable characters

Today I started reading a review of Brave. It mentioned a little boy had no one to relate to in the film. Oh, boo hoo.

I haven’t seen the movie yet, so I stopped reading the review when it became evident that it contained copious spoilers. But I may as well have just stopped at that point. I mean come on. “No relatable boy characters” is the first thing that comes to mind?

And yet I’ve never seen this reviewer comment on any perceived lack of relatable female characters.

(This reviewer a writer I have enjoyed for many years, but he is occasionally sexist. Maybe unwittingly. I’m just baffled.)

Women have had to relate to male characters in stories pretty much since the beginning of storytelling. Do you really think we relate to the hot chick who is only in the film to give the guy someone to rescue? All the great adventure stories, traditionally, have had male heroes, and so we’ve just had to relate to those guys.

We have “women’s lit”, but that’s philosophy, us trying to figure out who the hell we are. It’s not entertainment.

There have been some excellent exceptions in recent decades, thanks to forward-thinking storytellers, but most movie heroes are still guys. Think about Marvel’s Avengers. Which team members got their own movies? (Granted, the superhero genre is flawed in general because it’s built on stories written decades ago about a bunch of white guys.)

Upshot: When someone who gets all the stories suddenly doesn’t have one story and starts complaining about it, I just have to laugh. Or cry.

Speaking of disappointing movies, I watched X-Men: First Class, and why do we still have token black guys who get predictably killed off?! Reminds me of how I immediately knew who that guy in Men in Black III was, because, well, he was black. Not to be too spoilery. Or pessimistic.

The American Airlines t-shirt debate

Many are upset that a woman called O. was publicly berated and detained by American Airlines staff for wearing a t-shirt the staff members found offensive, causing her to miss a connecting flight and end up late to pick her daughter up. While I can kind of see where they’re coming from, I am not really all that angry about it.

Call me a prude, but I don’t want to see the f-word on somebody’s shirt while I’m using a mode of transportation frequented by people, adults and children, from all over the world. I don’t particularly want to see the other things listed as examples in the article, either:

I have been on flights with men wearing tatoos [sic] that demean women, and t-shirts that advocate violence against women, that demean women, that treat Obama with racist derision… What someone wears on their body is their business. Whether or not you would wear that t-shirt is not the point. It is not for American Airlines to decide what is politically okay or not.

Actually, as American Airlines is a private company selling a service, they can pretty much do whatever they want, so long as they don’t violate FAA regulations. People are free to not use AA if they disagree with their policies…one of which, as noted here, is that passengers can be ejected at any time for the following reason:

Are clothed in a manner that would cause discomfort or offense to other passengers

Now, I can’t guarantee that list item wasn’t added in the aftermath of this particular incident, but even if it was, so what? It’s the company’s prerogative. And it’s your prerogative to decide whether or not you think that’s wrong, and whether or not to use the company’s service.

I don’t think the employees handled the issue well. They could have pulled the lady aside and quietly asked her to turn the t-shirt inside out or cover it with the shawl, as suggested in the article. It certainly wasn’t necessary to cause her to miss her flight–assuming she cooperated with their request.

And there’s the rub. We only have her side. We don’t know that she was simply victimized here, or if she became argumentative. We don’t know if the captain mentioned AA’s policy to her during that conversation, or said anything else. (The article also draws some conclusions about the event that don’t seem to be represented in O.’s writeup.) This sort of ambiguity is why I hesitate to make snap judgments about things like this…especially when they don’t really matter so much. No one was hurt or killed here.

My main takeaway is this: if her shirt had said, “If I wanted the government in my womb, I’d have sex with a senator!” it wouldn’t have bothered me. If that language had bothered AA, I would be troubled. I think the inclusion of the profanity was what made it offensive, not the political message. It’s possible I’m wrong, but due to the inclusion of profanity, it’s impossible to actually know.


I’ve started following the inimitable Soraya Chemaly on Twitter; she’s always writing or posting links to articles that intrigue and inspire me. Today she linked to a piece on Rookie magazine called “It Happens All the Time”.

In a nutshell, the article consists of the women of Rookie discussing the harassment they’ve faced in public, just trying to get stuff done or get from point A to point B. Towards the end it goes into how frustrating it is that men don’t seem to understand that this is not flattering–it is completely unwelcome, gross, disturbing, and frightening.

Some of their examples are pretty extreme. I can’t recall a time where I’ve ever seen a stranger touching himself while looking at me. However, things have happened. I tend not to think about them much.

There was the time in Walmart (back when it was called Wal-Mart) when I was an adolescent, and I was several steps behind my mom in the lingerie department. A man I didn’t know came up to me, began stroking a bra, and said with a smile, “Shall I buy you something?”

There was the time on the school bus when I was wearing a long t-shirt and tight leggings, a style I’d copied from my trendy cousin, and a high school boy came up to me with a leer and put his hand on my thigh. (I never wore that outfit again.)

There was the time as a teenager when my bottom was grabbed by someone who was not a stranger and who did not understand that I didn’t want him to do that, even when I told him. He had also told me, when I was younger, that I looked sexy, but at the time I thought that was a good thing.

I haven’t done a lot of walking around, other than on college campuses and hiking/biking trails, and my experience with public transportation is minimal, so I haven’t had many bad experiences that I can recall as an adult. I have been flirted with before, but infrequently and in ways that didn’t bother me. Rereading this one, I can see where it might be gross to some people, but I don’t know. I guess I was in a good mood? And it’s not like it happened every day. I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone yell anything at me on the street, other than panhandlers looking for money.

There is one panhandling incident that freaked me out. I was in downtown Augusta. I’d just parked and was walking to a restaurant. A panhandler came up really quickly and hugged me, pinning my arms to my sides. “Don’t worry,” he said cheerfully, “I’m not gonna rape you!”

Yeah, that’s the way to get me to not worry.

I was thinking about the various ways I could get out of his iron grip (destroy his kneecap, head-butt him, knee him in the groin) when he finally let go and asked for money.

Regardless, despite a few uncomfortable incidents, I feel like I’ve been remarkably sheltered compared to other women. Part of it is self-sheltering…I don’t go out in public in a vulnerable way very much, and I listen to my gut when it says to leave an area. Part of it is probably due to the fact that I’ve never lived in a place where I didn’t need a car to get around. I also tend to pay attention more to patterns of behavior rather than individuals–I’m the one reading the signs and noting where to go, but I couldn’t tell you what anyone was wearing, for example. It’s possible I’m completely oblivious to some really disgusting behavior. If so, ignorance is definitely bliss! (Or maybe men are just classier in the South?)

But this has me a little nervous about travel in the future. I’ve really been wanting to go to France, for example…is it that bad for women there? One of the women mentioned London. I didn’t experience anything during my quick day there, but I was with Brooke and David. How would it have been if I was alone?

Honestly, I’m not sure I would be comfortable traveling alone, even without having read that article. I’m already pretty wary of situations that can turn dangerous fast. It sucks, but it’s reality. I’m a woman, so I’m not free to just do what I want when I want. I have to think about my safety at all times.

Feminism and Fringe

Fringe has been one of my favorite shows ever since it began. I loved the focus on a strong female lead who attacked problems head-on and who, at least in the beginning, provided direction for the group as a whole. But I’ve recently started to notice a few troubling details that make me wonder whether the writers are working with unconscious sexist assumptions.

Really, it all started with the horrid episode 4.19. It struck me as very odd that Olivia and Peter’s daughter should be, essentially, a clone of Olivia, and not have any of Peter’s scientific genius. This made me start to think about the female characters in Fringe in general, and I realized that none of them is really a match for Peter, Walter, William Bell, David Robert Jones. There are no genius woman scientists in Fringe.

Nina is said to be a scientist, but we rarely see her doing anything related to science. More often she is managing Massive Dynamic or directing others to perform scientific experiments. She can’t even repair her robotic arm on her own.

Astrid has a gift for computers, languages, and code-breaking, but more often than not she is relegated to the tasks of lab assistant and babysitter. We have never really seen her take the lead on a project, though she may make small observations that help the show’s featured geniuses arrive at a conclusion.

Other than that, we have the Fringe events of the week, some of which involve women, but usually those women are either pawns or are using technology they got somewhere else. We have had no main scientific antagonists who were female.

Do the writers of Fringe believe on some subconscious level that women can’t be genius scientists? Is this why there are no female Observers? (If what September said was true, and the Observers are the future of humanity, this implies that humanity evolved away from, or forcibly shifted itself away from, having two sexes. Are we to believe this is because women were inferior scientists and could not “keep up”?)

This all comes as the show has shifted its focus away from its protagonist, Olivia, to focus on Peter. Suddenly Peter is the one who has remained the same throughout all four seasons, not Olivia. Our base of “normal” is no longer Olivia, but Peter. We don’t see Olivia directing the action anymore…instead, she reacts. Things happen to her. At the very end of 4.20 she started to take control again, but after a full season without that strength, it didn’t feel like enough to re-cement her protagonist role. And we already know that in the ridiculous totalitarian Observer future, Olivia isn’t even there.

It’s just all very troubling, and I wonder if the writers see it.

“Girls Be Ambitious”

I was skimming through CDJapan’s clearance sale when I came across this CD. It’s the ending song for an anime called So-Ra-No-Wo-To. I’ve never heard of this show; what intrigued me was the name of the song: “Girls Be Ambitious”.

There’s a statue in Sapporo, Hokkaido, on the campus of Hokkaido University, with a similar message. The statue is of Dr. William S. Clark of Massachusetts, a former vice principal. Beneath his head-and-shoulders bust is a monument with what appears to be his signature, a seal, and the text “Boys Be Ambitious”. Here’s a picture of me posing with that statue in 2001. I sort of took that command as a challenge. If boys were supposed to be ambitious, what were girls supposed to do? Be completely overlooked?

me with William S. Clark statueMay 31, 2001

I don’t know if Haruka Tomatsu had this statue in mind when she wrote her song, or how ubiquitous the “Boys Be Ambitious” quote is in Japan, but it certainly struck a chord for me!