Saturday, January 20, 2018

No More Magical Transformations: Trans Characters in Comics

“[Lord Fanny] made a huge impression on stupid, mopey me,” Tara Marie states in “The Search for Trans Role Models in Comics” written for The Harlot. Her essay is a wonderful, yet critical examination of trans women in comics. It’s also an illuminating trip into the nostalgic rememberings of a transgender person finding a character who was finally able to communicate what they knew all along. “As flawed as she is, Lord Fanny was my first trans role model,” Marie writes. “Lord Fanny [of The Invisibles] was the first person I had met in fiction who was at all trans-identified and wasn’t a villain, a victim or a joke.”

Comics have long since been the refuge for people who feel different. The idea of superheroes living a double life with dual identities is an apt metaphor to describe people who feel they need to hide parts of their identity–be it their religion, family, queerness, or in Tara Marie’s case, her transgender identity. Being trans can often feel like living a double life with warring expectations, and so it’s a relief when someone who is trans can see themselves reflected  in the pages of a medium they love. Trans characters have become more common in TV shows, films, and in the pages of novels, but graphic narratives are often underrepresented in other lists where “trans characters” are the focus. That doesn’t mean they aren’t in comics, though. Mey Rude has an excellent comprehensive list of all the trans people in comics she can find, and it’s important to note more are being introduced every week.

Some of these representations leave a lot of room for improvement. As Mey Rude notes in her running commentary on comics,

Dagger Type killing audience members and the dreams of the transgendered

Batgirl #37 managed to undo a “year and a half of positive trans representation with a single page.” When the villain character was revealed to be trans, it fell into one of the oldest tropes in transgender storytelling, making the already precarious progress of trans visibility seem utterly futile. When comics rehash these old tropes, they usually borrow from filmic renderings of transgender people.

As trans writer Julia Serano documents, there are usually two types of filmic depictions of transgender women: the pathetic and the deceptive. The deceptive trans woman hides her trans status and reveals it at the worst moments, usually during a sex scene (as the trans woman Dil does to Fergus in The Crying Game) to shock and disrupt the narrative of heterosexuality. At the core of the deceptive narrative is that the transgender person passes so well, they inherently become dangerous–just like Dagger Type.

John Lithgow as Roberta Muldoon in the movie version of The World According to Garp

The pathetic trans woman, on the other hand, is obviously trans, so she can’t pass at all. Her Adam’s apple is visible, her hands are too large, or her make-up is wrong; to the (presumed) cisgender audience, she seems to be nothing but a man in a dress, fumbling through femininity. Serano cites Roberta Muldon from World According to Garp as her example. At its core, the pathetic trans woman isn’t dangerous like the deceptive one–she’s pitiful. She can’t sink into the background because her attempts at femininity ‘out’ her origin story before she even has the chance to fool anyone. She’s too visible, whereas the deception trans woman is invisible.

Both ideas stem from the “cissexist” ideology that exists in the West, as Serano notes. Cissexism is the enactment of another power structure, much like racism and sexism, where the power imbalance happens between cis/trans. The cissexism that exists in culture is then magnified through the “cisgender gaze” (as Cheryl Morgan defines) of most storytelling.  Both Morgan and Serano have done a good job deconstructing and discussing trans people in media in their articles where they define those terms, so I won’t rehash much more of their arguments here. But what I want to focus on is how when authors try to write sympathetic trans characters that the audience knows are trans, they tend to default to a kind of ‘pathetic’ narrative. Only instead of pathetic, these trans characters become mythic.

Trans Women, Myth, and Magic

In Casey Plett’s essay, “The Rise of the Gender Novel,” she reviews the most recent literary works containing intersex, genderqueer, or trans characters, and discovers that in spite of many different authors and events in the book,

[e]ach protagonist is a chosen one, a lone wolf plodding on against adversity. They do no wrong; they remain gentle and stoic in the face of difficulty. Whatever imperfections they show are forgiven, usually by dint of gender trouble. […] This might make for inspiring reading, but it’s odd to spend a few hundred pages with someone who goes through hell and emerges with all the flaws of a Disney hero. The reader scarcely knows anything about the characters’ inner lives.

Each of these characters, despite being part of a contemporary novel, are distinctly rooted in mythic tropes. This “element of myth lends these novels their synchronicity and broad appeal,” Plett writes. “It also makes them fantasies.” By conflating transgender and intersex identity to mythology, even in a contemporary and critically acclaimed novel, it mistakes transgender identity itself as fantastic in origin. Moreover, the subtle equation of transgender equals mythic being reduces their real life suffering to an extended metaphor. If a trans person is known to the reader as trans, but they aren’t viewed as pathetic, then the transgender person must be mythic, like a prophet, in order to still be rendered useful in the cisgender person’s–and contemporary literature’s–imagination.

Lord Fanny from The Invisibles

When I first read Casey Plett’s piece, it never seemed farfetched to me because I could only think back to the first trans character I saw in comics: Lord Fanny. Like Tara Marie, I thought Lord Fanny changed everything: she was strong-willed and a main character; she didn’t die at the end; and she saved the real author-insert King Mob’s life on several occasions. But when I looked back at her with critical eyes, I saw what Plett saw in those contemporary novels. Lord Fanny’s trans identity is linked to butterflies, which is a common tool used by many authors to represent a mythic transformation, and one that appears repeatedly (alongside the rebirth analogy of the Phoenix) in transgender representation. Lord Fanny is also raised by witches who need her to be a girl for their magic to work. Fanny becomes a new Tiresias, changing into a woman for the sake of knowledge and spiritual progress.

And she’s not the only one. The more I thought about Fanny, the more I started to see Wanda from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series as part of this issue. Gaiman is often praised for his sympathetic depiction of her in A Game Of You (though Morgan, in her Strange Horizons’ piece, does acknowledge that she does seem to suffer too much in order to make a point). But Wanda also has an aura of witchcraft and magic around her; it’s not as expressly linked as Lord Fanny’s, but the implication is clear with the series title. Identity is something that shifts and changes, thanks in part to magic. I went through all the speculative fiction I could remember that contained genderqueer or trans characters and realized that many of them were prophets, witches, shapeshifters, shamans, or characters that were supposed to embody both supernatural and natural worlds, therefore becoming bridges. Their transition, instead of being viewed as pathetic, was instead viewed as part of the magic they possessed.

On the surface, this may seem like a positive change–certainly better than being seen as pathetic or deceptive. But their magic still made them stand out for being trans. Instead of being accepted as another character, they were tokens to travel to and accept advice from. These depictions conflated transgender identity to that of a superpower–and this trope persisted in the real world. Trans people are often seen as having some kind of mythic insight into gender and because of this, often become research subjects in academia–like the scribes or prophets they become in speculative fiction. Trans people are often expected to offer up their transition stories to prove their authenticity (read: true self), which means that, on some level, they’re still dealing with the societal expectation that they’re dangerous and deceptive even when they’re accepted.

In speculative fiction, where we go to see different worlds, transgender people are given more of the same. They’re still telling stories about their true selves masked in mythic language and metaphors as a way to not be perceived as the villain of the story (and look no further than The Silence of the Lambs to see how quickly the butterfly metaphor can go from inspiring to dangerous and then comical). The trans person becomes the “magical helper” the weary protagonist travels to visit in order to see the future. These types of characters only exist, as Joelle Ruby Ryan finds in her research, “to fix the problems of gender-normative people, add color and spice to their broken lives, and become worthy through their devoted service to the hegemonic class.”

I was ready to give up reading all kinds of speculative fiction, especially if it was touted as gender progressive, when I stumbled on Warren Ellis’s Trees.

And this time, things really did change.

Getting It Right

Trees is a sci-fi series by Warren Ellis and Jason Howard about an alien invasion in several different locations and sets of characters around the globe. I want to focus on the first collected work, In Shadows, and the story of Tian Chenglei, a young Chinese artist from a rural farmland who longs to join an art collective. His story intertwines with a trans woman named Zhen, her community of friends, including an older trans man named Uncle.

The art for Zhen’s character doesn’t make her pathetic by drawing large hands or an Adam’s apple as a tip-off to the audience. Even though we’re introduced to her being trans through a rather stereotypical “big reveal” moment (where cameras pan to genitals as a shock and awe tactic), her reveal isn’t to “deceive” a man into sex like in The Crying Game; it’s to mark a contrast point for Tian’s development. After seeing her in the hall, he remarks that he has landed on an “different planet” altogether; when he and Zhen are together, though, the landscape becomes “beautiful” and she is beautiful. Her difference is meant to highlight Tian’s misunderstanding of himself–not undermine her. Though we get some outdated language (‘transgendered’ is not a verb, therefore there is no need for the -ed at the end), we also get Zhen actively speaking about her identity and the trans community. When she introduces Tian to her friends, she says, “You won’t be able to tell [the difference between who is trans and who is not], and you shouldn’t try.” Her words are meant to criticize Tian’s first “cisgender gaze” of her body, and to also chastise the audience who have been doing the same. I also find myself contrasting Zhen’s reveal scene with the later one after the party where Tian is surrounded by many different people, including Zhen. Both scenes have full body shots, including both trans and cis bodies, but neither one feels as if it’s done for exploitation.

Uncle gives Tian advice in Warren Ellis’ Trees

It doesn’t feel like exploitation to me, first and foremost, because Ellis and Howard spend time developing Zhen. When she does talk about her transition, it isn’t conflated with magic or myth, not even during typical ‘coming out’ moments, where the prophet narrative can become the strongest. The mere fact that she doesn’t have to explain who she is, and more importantly, why she is this way, immediately removes the story from the previous tropes. Her presence is not questioned; the only thing that is questioned is if she’ll fall in love with Tian.

This love story, and the nuanced way it’s handled, is another reason why Trees breaks down previous tropes. Cloaking transgender characters in the aura of magic removes them from the physical plane, and with that, often leaves them devoid of desire. Alternatively, trans women are often depicted with an over-run sex drive, so the tempered way in which Zhen interacts with Tian, especially after they’ve been together, is refreshing. Even if Zhen being trans seems to be a roadblock for Tian, it’s not for the typical reasons. He’s not wondering if sleeping with a trans woman makes him gay; Tian wasn’t sure if he’d ever fall in love or have sex at all, and now that he’s found Zhen, he’s re-evaluating his thoughts.

We also get more than one trans character. Most readers are probably familiar with the Bechdel Test for women in media, but there’s also something called the ‘Topside Test’ for trans characters in stories. The Topside Test was created by Tom Leger, the owner of Topside Press, which specializes in trans works. The Topside Test mimics the form of the Bechdel test by asking three simple questions:

Does the book include more than one trans character?

Do they know each other?

Do they talk to each other about something besides a transition-related medical procedure?

Passing the Topside Test is difficult for most mainstream depictions of trans characters. It’s even harder when we look at the previous examples in comics. When the trans person is treated like a mythic being, it implies that they are a rare resource, and that trans identity in itself is rare. Doctors in the 1950s perpetuated the same idea when they told trans people to stay silent after their transition. As Allison Washington reflects, being trans was a rare resource for a while because there was no community. Removing people from a community is a way to control their demands/needs, so when a piece of media does not pass the Topside Test, it passes on that same mentality–whether it intended to or not. By not having more than one trans character, it says there is no trans community, so anything that a trans person wants must be filtered through that “cisgender gaze” first.

Ellis and Howard manage to pass the Topside Test when Zhen interacts with her friends. Because we know that some are trans, and there is no stereotyping in how these characters are drawn, it’s difficult to spot the exact interaction which passes the test–but we know it does. There’s also Uncle. Not only does he interact with Zhen, but he’s a transgender man–something that, to me, feels even rarer than finding a transgender woman character not shrouded in mythology. While trans women seem almost overrepresented with a witchcraft or shapeshifting narrative, transgender men’s superpower may as well be invisibility.

Even with the recent Transgender Tipping Point, most of the strong voices behind the movement are transgender women: Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, and (unfortunately) Caitlyn Jenner. Chaz Bono is also there, and I’m sure anyone here can list a couple more famous trans men, but the culture is less fascinated with them. Serano states that this is yet another expression of the trans-misogyny in culture; since masculinity is a dominant discourse, and we don’t demonize masculine identity expression as much as we do feminine, therefore transgender men are more accepted by society. I’ve never been fully convinced of this reasoning, though, mostly because if you’re accepted by society, you don’t disappear.

As I mentioned before, doctors often encourage trans people not to talk about their past. Publishing autobiographies ends up becoming a way to push back against the urge to stay quiet and allows them to represent themselves to the wider world (thus staving off the deceptive or pathetic trope). Since masculine culture does not tend to valorize the sentiments involved in writing a memoir (expression, emotion, feeling, etc), though, most transgender men stay quiet because most cisgender men stay quiet. As Jackson Katz has spoken about numerous times, men don a ‘tough guise’ and are forced to stuff down their feelings. Most cisgender men are actively engaged in the same role of ‘passing’ that transgender men are doing. Like their comic book counterparts, men often are forced to lead a double life of suppressing their internal worlds (feelings) in order to put on the bravado for the external world where they become the hero.

This kind of narrative weighs on anyone–cis or trans. So when Uncle, the mentor character, says to Tian, “Talk to the girl [Zhen]. Trust me, I used to be one,” he ends his invisibility–and I feel like Tara Marie did. In my sad, mopey heart, Uncle feels like a role model for trans men. By stating outright that Uncle is also trans, Ellis and Howard manage to break the stereotype of trans masculine invisibility, while at the same time expressing a diversity in masculine representation. So often, transgender men aren’t seen as ‘real’ men, so they cling to the same sexist and damaging behaviour that Katz outlines in his documentary. By Uncle both saying Zhen is a woman, and he is trans, and that Tian should fall in love with Zhen because he wants it, a new imaginative setting is created for gender, sexuality, and masculinity, right alongside the distinct world of Trees itself.

All of this happens in the first book. Trees‘ second collected volume, Two Forests, came out in 2016. The imaginative potential abounds in Trees, and I’m excited to see it’s not the only comic using sci-fi and speculative settings to re-craft and define gender.

My Chemical Nostalgia

Earlier this year, I picked up The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys for my own nostalgia’s sake, and because Morrison

Party Poison of The Fabulous Killjoys

himself got to be another comic-insert (this time as the villain Korse). The comic’s landscape is a futuristic California-like place called Battery City that’s been devastated by chemical warfare. The desert home seems to be full of nothing but children and a group of misfits who have based their lives on The Fabulous Killjoys. The Killjoys are a stand-in for the band My Chemical Romance and represent a now-deceased team of people who fight a corporation called Better Living Industries. Though the Killjoys have long since passed, their legacy lingers and inspires those who currently live on the outskirts. The act of being a Killjoy is remarkably similar to being a superhero: there are alternative names and costume changes. And like all superhero costume and name changes, it feels very trans to me–but more so than usual.

Certain characters like Show Pony and Cherry Cola blur the lines of femininity and masculinity through their clothing and ambiguous names; while their bodies are DMAB (declared male at birth), their gender presentation embraces the ambiguity of feminine attire–such as Show Pony’s tights and crop top. No characters come out as trans, but Party Poison, the red-haired masquerade-mask-wearing original Killjoy, gives me the most hope for a queer reading. The images on the page, along with the subsequent music videos, outline that Party Poison is singer and comic writer Gerald Way’s alter ego in this world. And since Way is not quite cis himself, Party Poison’s representation matters. Way’s comic career matters. Because not only is he able to transcend gender stereotypes with his cast of characters in The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys, he is a not-cis writer. Though many other transgender writers and artists are now entering the field of comics (and again, Mey Rude has a great list of them), and we’re getting more representations out there, we all have a starting point. Like Tara Marie, I’m sure I’ll look back on The True Lives of The Fabulous Killjoys, along with Trees, and see many flaws. But at the time I first read it, my mopey heart also saw something cool.

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