First Steps: Clouds of Cisnormativity
Gender variance and gender non-conformity have been around as back as we can go in history, and, consequently, trans people have been a part of popular culture as long as popular culture has been around, just in a different way. As one of the multiple collectives that suffer under this white supremacist LGBTphobic culture, trans representation in the West has come mostly in the form of transphobic jokes or “trans scare” narratives made by cis people, like Some Like It Hot or Dressed to Kill, and that has shaped the root of what we consume. It’s only recently that trans writers, directors, actors, cartoonists, have created some major cultural content, although cis perspectives on trans narratives still represent the majority.
To settle some concepts that are accompanying us for the rest of the article and its DC centered part 2: From the basics, trans (or transgender or transexual) is an adjective describing someone whose gender doesn’t match the assigned by their doctors, and cis (or cisgender or cissexual) would be describing someone whose gender matches that. In this article, I will take into account some popular and well-known trans (including non binary and genderfluid) characters in Marvel, touching, as per definition, on any degree of identitarian gender fluidity or variation.
As for the problems of the narratives that I expose in over more than 250 issues I’ve read for this research, I’m gonna get deep and in the guts (so some big trigger warnings applied to read this) of transphobic preconception – like depicting a trans woman as some sort of “man in a dress” idea – and cisnormative narratives – ideas or scenes to showcase transness/gender variance in a way cis people immediately understand it but it’s not accurate -. Last, since I’m a trans woman, there’s a some talk about transmisogyny, which is misogyny explicitly directed towards trans women (and some non-binary assigned male at birth people), like the false belief that trans women pose some kind of threat to cis women when entering segregated women-only spaces or roles.
In the 80s and 90s, social movements that pushed for transgender acceptance became more central to activism in LGBT+ collectives, after the long shadow of radical feminism and the cis white gay movement that coopted Stonewall. Even with Comics Code limiting it, we find a few examples in Marvel in introducing androgynous and trans narratives there, some of them well-meaning, but mostly falling into oblivion or tiring narratives.
The most notable is Cloud, a Defenders character who unconsciously changes of gender depending on who she/he is attracted “to be better suited for loving them” – this has layers of heteronormativity -, and who is constantly in the perceived as uncomfortable possition to be “turning to male when kissing Iceman” – another of the millions of old hints to gay Iceman, but not only that, we’re getting there -. And, among other details and hints here and there (like Fallen Angels’ Chase), it’s noticeable how Quasar had a “pregnant man” art and story in Quasar #28-29, about a woman (Her) non consensually and magically impregnating a bunch of male characters she considers perfect (which is pretty worrying in itself), and which eventually didn’t arrive anywhere, but really raises some questions as to whether if it’s legitimate to use trans people’s real issues as a shock storyline and publicity move. And… that’s mostly it. Well, you know, except Mystique.
The Fluid Mystique
The most prominent character when addressing trans issues in Marvel, especially from the Bronze era on, will forever be Raven Darkholme. She was comfortable taking various male and female forms, and she established romantic and sexual relationships in both, some of them very relevant to her core like the long relationship she had with Irene Adler a.k.a. Destiny. Change and fluidity are a central part of Mystique’s story to the core, and she’s such a mystery that we don’t know for certain her assigned gender. Some cisnormative narratives would argue that she was pregnant twice (one of them from a demon) and therefore she was assigned female at birth (as if this concrete shapeshifter could not find a way to change her functional organs). Truth is, she also intended to make Destiny pregnant with Rogue, and that storyline was pretty much written before the others, even if it was ditched by editors.
Other appearances of her call to a very complicated childhood and a real suffering caused by the memory of that childhood and her “original” form (not so much cause of her blue-badass-lady-form) and there’s a lot of talk about how she was “intended to be a trans woman”, but none of it is consequential enough. She even gets a special connection with a trans character in her solo run by Brian K. Vaughan, and she decides to not kill that trans woman in base of her being trans. Whatever her unknown sex assignment, Mystique seems to be a character defined by cheap morals and cruelty, except when she’s repeatedly shown how she truly cares for gender-variant characters as much as mutants, who are her main exceptions.
Overall, Mystique’s story is so much about potential of multiple possible representations (intersex, transfeminine or transmasculine, just trans-defying, even a badass trans woman that would happen and never was), than any explicit representation at all. On top of all of that, she’s a character that constantly poses as beautiful women to trick men, and is generally a villain – like most explicitly bisexual X-Men characters. Her story is also one filled with gender stereotypes and clichés around gender non-conforming and bisexual people (morally ambiguous, untrustworthy, dangerous, manipulative). Heck, her run by Brian K. Vaughan saws her come face-to-face with a villain who’s a “girl in a boy’s body”. That and other comics staring Mystique constantly show her cheaply using her power for whatever means, including murder and narratives that can be understood as sexual abuse (we’ll get to that later).
The fact is, there are a lot of shapeshifters that run through the pages or Marvel comics, but two of the most villainous are two of the most queer – couldn’t be otherwise-: Mystique…and Loki.
Loki, Godexx of Tropes
Now we move onto the 2000s and we need to talk about Loki. A lot of the fandom is aware of Loki’s gender fluidity, and, while it was directly extracted of Nordic mythology, it was J. Michael Straczynski & Olivier Coipel’s Thor run that cemented this identity with the character of Lady Loki. The full basis of that character highlights the problematics in how cisnormative narratives treat gender variance. Loki “stole” their “female body” from Lady Sif’s intended one (we all know cis women take preference) for the purpose of tricking men into siding with them, to present themself as a caring nurse for trapped-on-an-old-body Lady Sif – yeah the one they stole the body from, what a trickster – while manipulating everyone around them.
A “man taking the body of a woman to manipulate everyone around them” is a trope that calls to a transphobic anxiety that cis people have, especially with trans women (Hi, J.K. Rowling!). And this is what’s been played with Loki here, even in the visual narrative around every page and their “creepy” design and postures. That was played before in short scale, in Thor Annual #18, where we saw a glimpse of Loki trying to manipulate a man by assuming a female form that the man “desires”. Healthy! And, if you go back in this article, you see it’s played in a couple of characters more. Well, let’s get into that trope, right?
The truth is, trans people’s life experience doesn’t look at all like deceiving anyone. Oftentimes, the ways we don’t conform to gender stereotypes associated to our assigned gender is perceived as something dangerous, and that’s the reason that people attack and ostrazice us. And this happens from our childhood, when children bully other kids for not conforming to gender norms, moving on for the rest of our lives. In fact, regarding to transgender women, the “gay panic defense” is a legal strategy that is valid in more than 30 states of the USA, and that has historically allowed people to alleviate their sentence when they kill a trans woman after finding out she’s trans in an intimate setting (among legalizing other anti-LGBT+ hate crimes in intimate settings), and that’s more worrying having in mind hundreds of trans women of color get murdered each year on hate crimes. That danger to trans lives is fed by the trope that transgender people not stating – or “hiding” – they’re trans is some kind of dangerous action, when in reality that has never posed any proven damage or danger to any cisgender person.
That same idea of the supposed danger of gender variance makes the subconscious basis of a lot of comic books representation, making transgender characters like Loki or Mystique to be villainous evils who threaten the perceptions of the cisgender characters around them, and that’s a problem, even if their gender-non conformity makes them badass-y cool. To put it even more painfully, Loki finally despises that female body and admits of using it literally as a tool in that run. Gladly, Loki’s narrative has been shifted in recent years, but, before we get back to that, we’re gonna say goodbye to the 2000s with an example that was almost done right: Xavin, from The Runaways.
Xavin Deserves Better
Xavin is a shapeshifter too, and one who discovers her female identity after turning into a woman to marry Karolina Dean, a lesbian. Wait, Duna, that’s worrisome! Yeah, Brian K. Vaughan here writing again a story about a trans character that falls into predatory stereotypes. The difference of Xavin is it was almost done right. Karolina actually consents explicitly to Xavin assuming female form and is like “yeah ok, I like you!”, which is somewhat of a validating story of a lesbian loving a trans woman (except its beginnings are so uncomfortable in some racial and gendered ways it hurts to read the pages). This falls into one of the worrisome race issues of that Runaways run.
When she marries Karolina, Xavin makes it clear that for Skrulls gender is malleable and not really an important thing (wish we could see that other place btw), but years of multiple writers with inconsistent ideas have proven otherwise: Xavin (depends on the run) sometimes feels discomfort or anger when she’s treated like a man and even comes to realize she’s actually a woman and the relationship with Karolina has given her that identity perspective.
Let me say this would be a beautiful perspective to explore, but it gets shadowed by the fact that Xavin’s teammates constantly question her gender and subjectivity, to the point the realization of her being a woman all along comes first from the lips of Molly. Here we’re almost presented with a compelling trans storyline, but sadly it turns down too often by how everyone’s eyes and actions except Xavin’s gets to really define her gender. And, sadly, in the Runaways TV show, Xavin’s gender is not stated explicitly anywhere, she’s acted by a cis actress and uses she/her pronouns with the series doing nothing to explore the trans narrative. A move that, to be fair, avoids also its problematics (along with everything else).
Loki’s (Gender) Redemption Arc
Yes, as we see, authors in the 2000s progressed in not depicting trans people as literal murderers and sexual assaulters (character growth we see!). In the 2010s, Al Ewing arrived to Loki’s mistreated characterization, after Kieron Gillen’s Journey Into Mystery and Young Avengers (very bisexual, but shrugging off the gender part), and saw a pattern he could follow and subvert into a beautiful redeeming of the character. The good news, Al Ewing probably agreed with me in getting rid of the “fakeness” of Loki’s genderfluidity and of its transmisogynistic tropes, and, between Loki’s multiple redemption arcs in Loki: Agent of Asgard, he included a precious explicit non binary storyline that, sincerely, elevates what I have to say about trans representation in Marvel and I hope gets chosen as the go-to narrative for the upcoming TV series.
Not only that, but Al Ewing decides to place Loki facing Verity, a character that has the quality of always seeing through the lies (so that way we get to see how Loki’s redemption and reinvention goes in a non-linear, sometimes confusing way, till its apotheosis ending), but the run constantly depicts Loki’s genderfluidity in front of Verity as a truth about them. Loki is not “shifting into Lady Loki” and less even “fooling anyone” here. When Loki is the Goddess of Stories (which is a lot cooler name!), Loki is explicitly being true to herself. There’s a lot of exploration of deceptions and lies in this run, but none of it is about Loki’s gender. Even an old version of Loki recalls their infancy sometimes as “little boy” and others as “little girl”, denying any cisnormative transition storyline about how Loki “turned” genderfluid.
Most importantly, this “true to themself” narrative doesn’t include every possible thing they could turn into via shapeshifting, only the things they already are, and that way of presenting a trans narrative, in which Loki already is all these gendered forms – even if sometimes they’re more comfortable with ones and other times with others -, there’s no “change to be a girl or back” there, there’s no cisnormative or transphobic “oh but now Loki is turning into a girl to do X thing”, and that adds a beautiful layer to this interesting story about redemption and gray narratives – and about devilanizing otherness, to some extent.
Sera’s Silent Transness & Last Thoughts
In Kieron Gillen, Marguerite Bennett & Stéphanie Hans’ Angela comic series, one of the first explicit trans women characters (whose gender is not up to interpretation) appears, and that has caused many trans fans to identify themselves with Sera. Other characters like Unbeatable Squirrel Girl‘s Ken Shiga or Immortal Hulk‘s Charlene McGowan have followed. They all follow a pattern of making transness simply a part of the character’s history that I think is a much healthier way to look at trans representation, although it still leaves some need for more compelling narratives like the one in Agent of Asgard.
I’m gonna focus on Sera cause I love her story a lot and also can look more critically at it than the two others, having reread it thousands of times. Sera is from Heven, Angela’s Tenth Realm, and, in her society, assigned male at birth people are prayers and monks, and assigned female at birth people are warrior angels (DnD style gender binary). Sera knew the monk role wasn’t for her, and so she prayed for liberation that finally came by the hands of Angela.
The damsel in distress trope is one of the parts I like less about this story, because Angela is far more centered (and this centering on the cis character can be said about all the modern cases explored), but Sera is still compelling, well defined, with personality traits not assigned based on the fact that she’s transgender, very lovable by her own merits, with a solid queer love story, an example of a happy trans woman of colour, and defined not only by how other people see her. In this way, this non-pretentious simpler way of approaching transgender stories comes out as a really fair play without risking getting deeply into gender issues explicitly. In fact, it even leaves some room for giving the character weight and they don’t erase their transness in complex parts of their stories, having some great moments like mildly exploring Sera’s childhood trauma or giving Charlene a certain ability to see the truth veiled based on her true relationship to herself.
These stories are fairly silent, with only a few moments of reflection, but they’re a ground in which these authors avoid tropes and misconceptions and build some compelling narratives, and it’s a great starting point. I must say, as I close and promise for a DC one next week (editorial in which trans authors have taken writing roles in major trans characters, even if few and some time ago), I don’t think most of the things exposed as problematic in this article are malicious, and they say more about the societal prejudice of cis people as a group than certain authors. I do however think we need to value more the impact of media than the goodness of the author behind it, and I like that some of these authors have actively worked through these misconceptions, especially in recent years (probably due to a shift in editorial perspectives as well). But mostly, I can’t wait until Marvel finally hires trans authors to write major trans characters moving forward, and I really hope and feel Vita Ayala’s upcoming Children Of The Atom could be the next place we look up to for that.