Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette

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Trans Superheroes

This article talks about trans superheroes. It raises a few good points and a lot of troublesome ones. TL;DR: Tell ALL the stories! So let's take a look ...

#1: Shape-shifters, or magic users changing appearance, are not transgender unless the default form they live in 99% of the time is transgender.

Well OUCH. That's a slap in the face for anyone who can't, doesn't feel safe, isn't ready yet, or otherwise hasn't taken up full-time presentation. It implies they're not really transgender if they don't. >_< A great big fuck no to that. You are transgender if your body doesn't match your gender identity.

I get that the point of this is wanting to show more variety of trans characters, but following it would have the opposite effect. Let's don't. Because I think we need stories about the stress of presenting in different ways, as much as we need stories about living full-time as your gender of identity. After all, most people go through the former before reaching the latter. And believe me, if you transform in any way to a different gender, you will have some very eye-opening experiences about it whether you meant to do that or not. Don't think that suddenly putting your penis on will get you out of a bashing, either.

#2: Your transgender superhero should not be tragic. They should not be an addict, or a prostitute, or any other “tragic trope.”

Tempting, isn't it? Let's tell stories about happy transfolk so people know that's possible. Certainly we need those, and there aren't many yet.

The problem is, trans lives often are tragic in a transphobic culture. Transfolk have higher rates of addiction, prostitution, and other tragedies compared with cis people. Erasing that does not seem like a solution to me. That's not to say that comics are handling these issues well very often. They aren't. But someone should.

#3: Your transgender superhero is not the comic relief for other characters or the audience. They can, of course, be humorous – but not intrinsically so.

I would tilt this a little: they should not be funny because transgender is treated as a joke unto itself. Many people are intrinsically funny; they are comics, clowns, and other entertainers. That's fine. You'll see a higher proportion of them not just among transfolk but any oppressed group, because humor is a defense mechanism. It can keep you alive. But let's honor that as a survival skill, not just a throwaway gag.

#4: Creating a transgender superhero that is killed off counts for nothing. Nowt. Nada. Zip.

True in that it does nothing for the continuing representation in the character cast. However, part of equality means getting to do all the stuff that other character types can do. That includes dying, and especially, heroic deaths. Look at the giant pile of trans corpses in comics and you'll see mostly hopeless causes, not people who threw themselves into a wormhole to save the world. I should add that trans deaths hit hardest when that's the only trans character in the plot, which is almost always the case. Most tropes can be undermined with plain old diversity. Add more trans characters and it stops being as dire when one of them dies -- especially as a hero.

#5: Having characters swap brains or bodies does not count. The transgender character has to have been born transgender; it can’t be an accident.

Once again, that's pretty hard on people who discovered their nature later in life, particularly if it came up after a triggering even such as they needed to take hormones for something, and let's not forget that occasionally someone gets into an accident and learns things about their body that had been hidden from them before. I reiterate: transgender means your body doesn't match your identity. That can happen in a variety of ways. In a superpowered context, body swaps, hostile transformations, etc. almost always produce trans characters. They want their original sex back, because they don't feel comfortable with the new one. However, the body and its hormones have their own pull, which can modulate gender and other experiences, which usually just contributes to the shear but occasionally someone finds it enlightening. This can lead to very trans stories indeed, if you look at what it would actually be like instead of playing it for laughs.

#6: The focus of the comic book story should not be all about gender. The hero should be a normal, well-rounded character as they are normal.

That's called background parity. It's a great thing and we do need it. But that's not all we need. Transfolk have unique experiences based on their sex/gender dynamics, and we need to tell those stories too. Certainly the characters should be well-rounded, but that doesn't mean their story (or some of their episodes) can't focus on gender. I mean, come on, a huge proportion of cis-het stories are about gendered themes, chiefly mate selection. Equality means everybody gets to do all the things!

#7: A transgender superhero needs to be a main character, have agency, and not perpetually be a background character or a sidekick.

I agree with this as a definition for main characters, which we do need. However, anyone can play any role. For diverse representation, we need trans superheroes, supervillains, sidekicks, minions, police, EMTs, firefighters, reporters, relatives, background characters, and so on.

#8: Transgender superheroes should not be dressed in a way that shows they are transgender. Clothing in and out of uniform should be normal, mainstream superhero clothing.

Yet another round of erasure, which is especially unpleasant for all the trans and genderqueer folks out there who are still trying to figure out what their "normal clothing" even is. Among the common options are: Dress in masculine styles. Dress in feminine styles. Dress in things that shout your transness because you are sick of hiding it or just want to be an activist. Make up a style unique to you as a way of expressing your gender. So let's take two of my trans soups: Calliope's wardrobe is a riot of pink-white-blue with a good handful of things that say "transgender" on them. Hyperspaceman simply dresses in masculine clothes, and deliberately picked a cape name with -man. Two trans characters, who are actually nothing alike other than being trans and having superpowers. That's diversity in action.

Also, look at how much of this whole article aims to make trans characters invisible as trans. You know what happens when people pass 100%? They merge into the wider stream of men or women. You can't clock them as trans. Which is actually fantastic for them if that's what they want, as many do, but it does bupkis for the visibility of trans characters. People have asked about dress mode and pronoun use among the Marionettes in particular. Why do the butch women in men's clothes and female pronouns stick out, for instance? Because the actual transmen tend to be indistinguishable from the cismen around them. The folks who mix it up a bit are more identifiable as some flavor of genderqueer.

#9: The hero’s villains/opposing force should not be gender or sex related. No one called ‘Codpiece’ ever again, please.

That's a nice fantasy. By all means write it. The problem is, being trans makes you an asshole magnet. I imagine this will be the same with superheroes and supervillains. Jackasses who sexualize their supervillainy will be drawn to pester superheras and female supervillains, and probably also trans ones. At least until they try it with Fortressa and she punches them in the pelvis, or Hyperspaceman and he dumps them an Islam-held island in the Maldives, or Calliope and she goes, "Oh look at the time, I'm too busy to deal with this!" and abandons them to Vagary's mercy. Or am I the only one who fantasizes about throwing some pervert's nuts under a bus? Somehow I doubt that.

#10: A transgender superhero should be a positive character. With almost no positive representation in the media for transgender people, this is vital.

I do agree that we need many more positive portrayals of trans characters, including superheroes. However, if you write them without flaws, they're going to be Mary Sue/Marty Stu/Marion Sam.

So I guess this is just a long-winded way of saying that I don't have the patience to wait 20-30 years for society to hike through the whole spectrum of identity literature before they get to the good part. I don't want to faff around with the pendulum. I just want to see trans characters DO ALL THE THINGS.
Tags: #1, #10, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, #8, #9, activism, discussion, entertainment, gender studies, meta, reading, writing

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