Futurama is one of my all-time favorite shows. I have watched these episodes so many times I think I broke Netflix’s suggestion algorithms. While there are many aspects to the show that are brilliant and remarkably nuanced, one topic that they have addressed repeatedly, and one that their exploration has handled in widely disparate and often problematic ways, is gender and gender identity. While not a main theme of the show, various aspects of gender and sexuality are regularly explored and put under the lens of Futurama’s satirical distant future.
In examining how this is generally handled, the good and bad alike, there are some specific episodes scattered throughout the show’s run that specifically deal with these issues and demand specific attention; mostly through changes to the gender identity of one of its most widely known characters: Bender B Rodriguez.
TW: Discussion of transphobic and homophobic themes.
In case you somehow missed it, Futurama is an animated science fiction comedy which ran from 1999 to 2013, with a cancellation and revival in the middle, along with a series of direct to video films that essentially comprise an “unaired season.” Made by the creative minds behind The Simpsons and set in the 31st century, Futurama is a show chock-full of biting social commentary, clever parody, and memorable if absurd side characters (Senator Hedonismbot or President Nixon’s Head, for example). Many people likely also know it as the show that spawned the “shut up and take my money” meme.
Gender issues are not one of the most frequently addressed topics in Futurama, but when they are addressed, it is sometimes in the most memorable and often in the most controversial episodes. In many cases these episodes serve up both problematic and inclusive commentary and employ tropes both as a method of calling attention to them and of getting an easy laugh. While these episodes are not beacons of progressive gender commentary, they do make one think and do often poke at the validity of the stereotypes they seem to employ. Let’s start with one of the earlier examples: “Raging Bender”.
In this Season 2 episode, Bender becomes an Ultimate Robot Fighting contender after an accident makes him appear to have beaten the reigning champion in a street fight. He quickly learns that it is staged, more akin to WWF than pro boxing, and immediately embraces that fact, since it makes for an easier job. As he gains increasing popularity with his wrestler identity, blue collar hero “Bender the Offender”, by fighting enemies that play mostly to xenophobic and classist stereotypes, Bender continues to inflame his already massive ego. When his popularity starts to drop, he is given a new identity that is designed to be unpopular with stereotypical WWF type fans: “The Gender Bender”. When revealing his new costume, a pink ballet leotard and tutu, he is explicitly told he will be hated for this identity and is set up to lose, with an introduction including the phrase “get ready to hate him as he makes you question your sexuality.”
Bender’s new persona is just as artificially constructed as his last one, but by switching from a gender-conforming presentation to a non-gender-conforming one, he goes from fan favorite to hated villain. In an attempt to knock Bender down a peg after his egotistical antics, they feminized him, knowing it would not be viewed favorably by the normally very masculine Bender. While the episode does seem to present that assumption as unfair and highlights the homophobia/transphobia that drives it by pairing the narrative with a blatantly unjust instance of gender discrimination in a secondary story with Leela, it doesn’t fully alleviate the queerbashing that accompanies much of this story. The validity of stigmatizing a non-gender-conforming identity is called into question, but that identity is primarily used to further the stories of cisgender characters and makes the assumption that feminine gender presentation would automatically be viewed in a hostile light. I think the writers attempt to make some valid points about gender equality here, but the perspective fails to be inclusive enough to expand those points to cover trans spectrum genders. By showing off how something as insignificant as a costume design can inspire hatred in former allies, the episode highlights the fragility of the forms of masculinity that are generally represented in fight crowds. But by approaching these issues from a cishet perspective, they miss some key opportunities.
However, there is the matter of that simultaneous plot involving Leela defeating her former martial arts teacher, who actively discriminated against her for being a girl. Leela represents an actual strong woman who is a better fighter than most men, and she contrasts Bender’s insecure braggadociousness. While the feminization of a normally hypermasculine character is played for laughs, there are also many moments where the fundamentally ignorant and biased nature of the attitudes the jokes seem to play to are called out. There are moments where Bender is simultaneously ashamed of being seen as feminine and is begging a woman to teach him how to fight, or where the fight commentators remark (non-sarcastically) on how he looks good in a tutu, and a few where Bender seems to almost embrace the character and enlists help to accessorize the costume (Bender picked the wig and wand). It is a mixed bag on the whole and suffers from the biases inherent in some of the writers’ perspectives, but this is one of the first moments I remember Futurama pulling at the strings of gender norms in a direct way.
While Bender does not actually undergo a change of gender identity, his Gender Bender persona proved to be fairly popular among fans of the show, including some among the LGBTQ+ community. Something about the hypermasculine Bender evincing a hyperfeminine persona just resonated with many people, for both positive and negative reasons, but nonetheless, the Gender Bender costume is one that is seen among cosplayers of all genders and has been featured in popular collectibles. This can also be seen as a form of reclaiming the character by fans who felt slighted by its portrayal. This often shares the same vibe as when cosplayers proudly wear Leia’s bikini as “Huttslayer” rather than “Slave Leia” or when people who do not normally cross dress choose to cosplay as a character who doesn’t match their own gender. This all may have been on the minds of the writers when they crafted the episode “Bend Her” two seasons later.
In this episode, Bender actually does undergo what today’s humans would call gender confirmation surgery and HRT. After disguising himself as a woman to compete in the fembot events at the robolympics, Bender asks Professor Farnsworth to actually change him into a woman to pass the gender check required to claim his medals. At this point, Bender’s gender identity is not called into question and he is blatantly “disguising himself as a woman” to cheat. This is something that is often brought up by people opposed to trans participation in non-mixed gender events: the fear that a cis man will falsely claim a gender identity to gain an unfair advantage. While this plot decision appears to validate that fear, the cartoonish absurdity of the way Bender goes about it is, to me, meant to highlight the absurdity of those fears themselves
Right off the bat, one of the most hot button issues related to gender equality and trans rights is explored here: fairness in single gender sporting events. In real life, even recently, this has come up both in occasional legitimate social discussion and frequent thinly veiled transphobia. But when the people we’re discussing are robots, the absurdity of the more egregious instances of trans discrimination in sport are exposed. Bender is a robot. Though he competes as a male, in then undergoing the robot equivalent of surgery and HRT, Bender’s gender change is even more complete than humans are currently capable of in that there is no “genetic” difference between an AMAB female robot and an AFAB female robot; they are literally identical in every measurable way. Coylette, Bender’s female name, is essentially the same robot as Bender in terms of raw capability. In the case of real life trans athletes, the question here often becomes one of weight/height class: is this person able to meet class requirements for their gender and if not, are they able to meet it for the gender they were assigned at birth? In the case of Bender/Coylette, presumably he should be identically skilled in the monogendered events based on his robotics; however, the fembot events are significantly less difficult. That hints at the absurdity of non-mixed gender events and the relevance of gender to sporting skill independent of things like weight class or muscle mass. This absurdity is compounded by the fact that nobody checks to find out that the nation Coylette represents is a fictional one made up on the spot, but they do find time to check her gender.
This is mirrored in real life cases like the one linked above; by forcing trans people to compete in events designed for physical builds more common to their birth-assigned gender, a competitive imbalance is created rather than avoided. It also exposes the stereotype that female athletes aren’t doing the “real events” because they’re too physically demanding. The only substantial difference between male Bender and female Coylette is their oil type; Testosteroil or Femmzoil. As is the case with many real life trans athletes, the issue of testosterone as a performance enhancer is a complicated scientific and sociological problem that is not entirely resolved, and it is often difficult to separate the transphobic arguments from those genuinely concerned with fairness. While this episode does occasionally play into the transphobic paranoia surrounding these issues, it seems to be saying that only someone as cartoonishly immoral as Bender would actually validate those fears and thus highlights their silliness.
Perhaps more significantly, this episode also examines how trans people have a unique perspective on gender, particularly those who have undergone extensive HRT and experienced the emotional changes that often accompany that process. Before transitioning into Coylette, Bender was a womanizer who is show to frequent hookerbots (the only term used to describe robot sex workers in Futurama) and regularly refers to hooking up with “floozies” and “tramps”. At the start, that leads to Coylette going out of her way to be overtly sexual, even remarking “that’s the problem with women these days, they don’t dress trampy enough” and “men are so much better at being women”. Initially, these comments are meant to be seen as blatantly sexist; Bender’s identity is still basically the same and he is effectively exploiting his new gender for personal gain; making cis women look bad in the process.
As time wears on, however, we see more clearly that the combination of his new hormonal responses and being viewed as female by society is actually having an effect on his personality, and the more empathetic tendencies he usually represses are emerging. Bender seems to be embracing his new identity and simultaneously becoming desperate to switch back before the change becomes permanent. The misogyny of his manbot personality carries over into his fembot one and eventually that same attitude begins to make him uncomfortable being on the other side of the male gaze. While his initial reaction to womanhood is to exploit it and play to male fantasy, he eventually feels the weight of social expectations placed on women and begins to exhibit what could arguably be referred to as a form of dysphoria over the emotionally vulnerable and anxious state this leaves him in. Coylette’s presentation is based on Bender’s expectations of what a woman should be: overtly sexual and sexually available. Bender succeeded in achieving that goal, and Coylette was left to deal with the negative consequences.
This experience of confusion stemming from the fact that one’s gender is being validated by others yet simultaneously confronting the new realities of that perception is one which cis people, particularly cis women, have dealt with their whole lives. It also mirrors that of many trans spectrum people when they are publicly transitioning. I know that when I started wearing Secret instead of Old Spice, I had a hint of that same reaction; granted, as a mostly male-presenting non-binary person who is not undergoing HRT or a massive presentation change, that anxiety was far less acute. But the combination of validation and anxiety is one I can attest to nonetheless, and there are moments where Futurama seems to be trying to present that in an authentic way.
As Coylette gains increasing celebrity, however, she enters a relationship with Calculon, star of stage and screen best known for the (in-universe) soap opera All My Circuits. Initially Coylette intends to use this as a means to defraud and rob Calculon, her core personality still being based on Bender as far as crime goes. As time wears on and she becomes increasingly used to the hormonal and social aspects of her transition, she develops feelings for Calculon and decides not to go through with the crime. Even though Coylette has been continually reassuring Fry that she’s actually still just Bender and remains a heterosexual manbot, the reality is much more complex, even though the writers don’t fully explore it. Immediately after having his transition reversed, Bender apparently goes back to his same old machismo-obsessed self, explicitly remarking that his experience has not changed his views toward women, but he is also revealed to retain a secret love for Calculon stemming from his memories of Coylette. The implication is that some of those experiences did in fact stick with him.
This episode, while still often problematic, shows Futurama’s willingness to delve into the more complex issues of gender. It holds back on tropes a bit more than “Raging Bender” and subverts them more often, presenting a subtle message that gender is not as strong a defining characteristic as society seems to believe. It is ironic that Bender was the primary focus for these episodes, as a large part of Bender’s character is straight up parody of toxic masculinity. Perhaps that is the point, though. After all, what better way to point out the absurdity of social constructs that are conflated with biology than by exploring them through a robot whose gender identity seems, by the nature of his very existence, to be a constructed identity? While this episode seems to indicate that Bender is in fact heteroflexible, there are no indications of him being attracted to other manbots or human/alien men in any other situation (though the crush on Calculon persists) and even one where he is repulsed by a trans fembot prostitute. As a result, this episode, like the previous one, seems to conflate gender and sexuality; exposing a cishet normativity bias in the perspective of the writers.
While there are numerous other examples of gender being addressed throughout the show, including the episode “Neutopia” depicted in the top image, which is entirely and extensively focused on gender, these episodes represent a gradual evolution of a highly imperfect, sometimes offensive, but usually well-meaning (if somewhat limited) perspective on these issues. Futurama, like many other shows during the early part of the 21st century, initially treated non-cishet identities almost as a joke. As it evolved and society changed, the show adapted and its perspective evolved, albeit still constrained by the socialization of a mostly cishet male writing staff.
So where does that leave Futurama in terms of gender issues? When I re-watch these episodes, I find something new and problematic each time, but I also increasingly see the nuance in the humor used to attempt to make these points. Even though much of that content looks increasingly dated and occasionally crosses over into outright offensive, there are some nuggets there worth revisiting as well. Much like its spiritual sibling The Simpsons, Futurama intentionally employs stereotypes on a regular basis. In most cases, this is done as a form of meta social commentary and makes fun of stereotypes even as it embraces them. In many instances, the trans plots with Bender are meant to highlight gender disparity between cis men and women, leading to a problematic but fascinating set of stories that bear reexamination as society (slowly) becomes more progressive towards gender identity.
It has been said “be critical of the media you love” (FemFreq even has merch), and this is an excellent example of why that’s so vital. In dissecting the failures and successes of the portrayal of gender on a show that is among my all-time favorites
, I am forced to examine these issues from different perspectives myself, ones that have shifted with my own gender identity over the years and have colored repeat viewings of these episodes. Though I still find much that makes me grimace, there is enough food for thought in these episodes that I continue to watch them nonetheless. Now if you’ll excuse me, Everybody Loves Hypnotoad is about to come on.