I can keenly recall the feeling of my stomach lurching when I read the words “transgender robot bodyguard” in the solicitations for Prez #6 because it didn’t feel anything remotely like shock or surprise. It just felt inexorable. On the whole, 2015 was a big year for increased visibility of trans issues in comics, but “increased visibility” isn’t synonymous with progress or compassion. As important and welcomed as Sophie Campbell’s coming out and the bright spots of positive representation like Tim Seeley and Marley Zarcone’s Effigy or Alysia Yeoh’s wedding in Batgirl #45, ineptitude, indifference, and impertinence are the words that most vividly evoke how the industry as a whole has treated issues of transgender representation over the last year. Seen in that light, Prez #6, which is far too mediocre and bumbling to be considered genuinely damaging or cruel, is perhaps the most revealing way to cap off the year.
The relevant plotline concerns an advanced military drone that gains sentience and breaks out of the facility housing it when it begins feeling remorse for being used to kill people. The robot, originally called War Beast, seeks sanctuary in a church and eventually attends an LBGTQIA support group where the robot, after having been gendered male, decides that it wants to be called Tina and begins wearing a blonde wig. The current conversation around the subplot, such as it is, works along the same axis as most discussions around questionable portrayals of marginalized groups and is mostly concerned with whether or not it’s harmful and hurtful to trans women. Which is all well and good, but the question that isn’t being asked, and is seemingly rarely asked in these situations, is why the writer, Mark Russell in this instance, felt compelled to do it.
Russell is completely out of his depth, revealing that he has nothing of substance or worth to add to the topic of anything resembling actual trans rights issues with his portrayal of War Beast, which is especially damning, considering that the title prides itself for delivering a brand of political satire that hinges on an intimate understanding of the mechanics of the US federal government while vilifying the ignorant and cruel. All he seems to have at his disposal is the arrogant notion that he’s entitled to speak on it when everyone involved would have been better served if he’d either stayed in his lane or take the time to actually research and gain an understanding of the urgent human rights issues facing the global transgender population.
The semiotics are an absolute mess and assuming blundering ignorance is the kindest way of approaching the fact that portraying the robot sloppily wearing a blonde wig reads like the man in a dress trope played straight. It’s further compounded by the fact that War Beast’s decision to present as female has absolutely nothing to do with any kind of feelings of dysphoria or anything that could be read as a personal epiphany leading to a desire to present as female. Instead, the entire impetus appears to be War Beast’s remorse at being a product of masculine coded violence and dominance, deciding to present as female -via the wig- as a means of asserting a kinder, gentler self image. This has absolutely nothing to do with transgender identity or gender dysphoria whatsoever. It’s just a jaw droppingly inept depiction of gender as being two extreme poles of aggression and passivity.
Hypothetically, War Beast is a plagiarism of Danny The Street, a character introduced in Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol who was a sentient street full of shops coded as being expressions of violent masculinity, most of them being gun shops, who had decided to dress up the windows and facades of the stores with lace curtains and other feminine accoutrements. The difference between War Beast and Danny The Street, however, is that Danny, whose name is a pun homaging Irish drag performer Danny La Rue, was presented in the context of a story that spent considerable time exploring the gender binary towards achieving a reconciliation and synthesis of the twin poles while Prez has shown absolutely no interest or investment in exploring the performance of gender outside of the storyline in question. There’s absolutely nothing that justifies any element of the story or why Russell elected to use a robot stand in instead of using an actual transgender character to put a legitimately human face on the real world struggles that we face. Russell has chosen pharmaceutical companies and access to affordable healthcare as central themes for Prez, but it’s evident that it never even crossed his mind to consider how power and privilege affect trans women’s access to healthcare and transition related services. Russell very clearly does not give a shit about actual living, breathing trans women.
Unfortunately, Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples showed the exact same callous disregard in the most recent issue of Saga (#31) for what appears to be far more cynical and self serving reasons than Russell’s absolutely vapid work. In the issue in question, Hazel, the child who is the current viewpoint character of the series, walks into a shower room in search of her grandmother only to be greeted by a full page spread of a fully nude trans woman of her species with a penis. Hazel engages the woman in a conversation interrogating her about her genitalia, getting the response that she’s a woman in her head.
Somehow, both Vaughan and Staples managed to blithely ignore the issue that cisgender people like themselves feel entitled to interrogate trans women about their bodies and genitalia whenever it suits them, having absolutely no shame or respect for our privacy in doing so. Introducing a trans woman by objectifying her naked body and using it as a teaching tool for an inquisitive child before she even gets a name, backstory, or motivation of any kind is utterly retrograde and ought to be understood quite cleanly as anti-feminist, but the discourse around bodies of any kind in comics remains utterly helpless in the face of any kind of portrayal outside of extremely exaggerated eroticism, so the troubling semiotics of the situation sail right over the heads of most observers.
Neither Saga nor Prez present anything within the relevant examples that is written to appeal to or include the viewpoints of trans women at all. Both sequences, for different reasons and in different ways, are presented and executed completely for the consumption, and in the case of Saga, education of a cisgender audience. It’s an incredibly troubling situation when it takes something as monstrous as the outright degradation and slurring of trans women in James Robinson and Greg Hinkle’s Airboy to raise so much as an eyebrow.
Neither Saga nor Prez holds any appeal for me or speaks to anything I’ve ever felt or experienced and there really aren’t any examples of note that I could point to that do. There certainly examples of characters written and drawn by cisgender creators who make me feel valued and included -like Effigy’s Edie, The Wicked + The Divine’s Cassandra, Angela: Queen of Hel’s Sera, or Batgirl’s Alysia Yeoh- but I can’t think of a single character explicitly presented as transgender in a comic that has come near to establishing a visceral connection with my own experiences because there have been no trans women writing trans women characters in any prominent way in recent history. As it’s been pointed out before, the current push towards diversified hiring practices at the major comic book companies have only been beneficial to cisgender white women so far.
The difficult and disturbing reality that the comic book industry is unwilling to own up to is that it is characterized by complete apathy in regards to the portrayal of trans women. There surely are creators who have made significant effort in attempting to portray trans women with honesty and compassion, but not only are they few and far between, there is no credible interest whatsoever by any significant figures in the industry beyond Janelle Asselin at Rosy Press or Brandon Graham and Emma Rios’ efforts on their Island anthology to actually uplift and create opportunities for trans women writers to tell our own stories in our own words. For all the proliferation of trans women characters both harmful and helpful over the last year, the industry has made it quite clear that it absolutely, positively, does not care about real trans women. Saying it’s put up or shut up time just doesn’t go far enough any more because shut up has been readily chosen at every significant opportunity so far except for Team Batgirl’s exceptional handling of the controversy surrounding #37 and their well earned redemption in #45.
Emma Houxbois is a fiercely queer trans woman from the wilds of Canada, most recently spotted in the Pacific Northwest. She is a two time IWC Women’s World Champion and has written about comics for the web since 2005 for sites including Playboy, Bitch Media, and Graphic Policy.