Babes in Tropeland: How Alters Shows We Need More Complex Trans Characters in Comics
As a trans woman, finding characters that represent me in popular media has always been a challenging endeavor. Our existences are almost always ignored, and when trans women do get representation, we usually are portrayed as curiosities, freaks, or criminals. These negative portrayals contribute to the hostility and discrimination that the transgender community faces from large portions of society. These portrayals also affect how we as trans women view ourselves. If the narratives we hear and read tell us that we can only be failures, then we are much less likely to feel like we can succeed.
It is the need for more positive portrayals of our experiences that made so many trans women excited for the publication of the new comic series Alters. Not only would a comic feature a trans woman as its main character, but she was literally a superhero! It was so exciting to see what promised to be such a positive portrayal of a powerful trans woman. Unfortunately, that excitement ended when I finally got to read it.
While Alters starts off with what could have been an interesting story about people who develop superhuman abilities, it quickly abandons that in favor of a clichéd exploration into the main character’s “double life” as a closeted trans woman, complete with constant misgendering and deadnaming. Chalice–which others have pointed out is an awkwardly vaginal-sounding superhero name for a trans woman–spends the majority of the debut issue pretending to be a boy for her family. She hasn’t told them out of concern, as “they’ve had so much to deal with” since her brother was “sticken with Cerebral Palsy.” Aside from the medical fact that Cerebral Palsy is a prenatal condition that wouldn’t strike out of nowhere in someone’s twenties and leave them in a wheelchair unable to speak, Alters here makes an implicitly ableist move by pitting the needs of transgender people against the needs of disabled people, erasing the identities of trans people who are disabled.
Alter’s missteps aren’t limited to Paul Jenkins’ plot; Leila Leiz’s art echoes the narrative’s tired tropes. Take for example how Chalice’s transformation from “girl mode” to “boy mode” is made obvious by the way that her face somehow becomes much more angular–and thus masculine-coded–when she’s posing as male. There is also the painful scene of her putting on a wig and literally petting her own face in amazement. (It also must be noted that a comic about a trans woman decided to reify one of the most harmful tropes by making its main villain explicitly queer-coded.) Alters took what could have been an amazing victory for trans representation in comics and turned it into a disappointing mix of clichés and stereotypes that spends way more time hammering home the fact that its main character is a trans woman than it does exploring who she is as a person.
While Alters failed to provide good representation for trans women in comics, another new comic (this time written by a trans woman, Magdalene Visaggio) has done so in spades. Kim & Kim follows the adventures of queer punk intergalactic bounty hunters Kimiko Quatro and Kimber Dantzler, known as Kim Q. and Kim D. In a debut issue that includes interdimensional shapeshifting serial killers, folk-hero crime bosses, and plenty of guitar-on-face action, Kim & Kim also manages to have one of the most positive portrayals of trans woman I’ve ever seen in comics.
Kim Q. is a trans woman. Yet unlike Alters, Kim & Kim doesn’t focus on its main character’s transness at the expense of further characterization. Kim Q.’s transgender identity is only mentioned once, while she is reminiscing about her past and the confusion she had about her sexuality before she came to understand that she was a woman. It is treated as just another piece of information about the character, and doesn’t receive any kind of big reaction. Being a trans woman is just one facet of Kim Q.’s character, and Kim & Kim is much more interested in exploring the other aspects of her life than it is in functioning as a story about being transgender.
Kim & Kim represents such a positive portrayal for precisely this reason. The fact of our transness certainly holds influence in trans women’s lives, but it is far from the only important thing about us. We all have aspirations, hobbies, passions, friendships, and experiences in our daily lives that don’t have to do with our gender–just as all cisgender people do. Yet media that includes transgender characters rarely reflect this. All too often, portrayals of transgender characters in fiction are all about the character being transgender. All other information about them takes a backseat to their transition narrative. The result is that people who are exposed to transgender people only through media don’t get to see that we are people who do things other than suffer and transition. They get a warped perception of transness that impacts the way they view trans women in general, and thus how they interact with us when they do meet us.
This is why complex portrayals of trans women in comics are so important. And Kim & Kim is thankfully far from alone. In the past two years, many other comics such as Saga, The Wicked + The Divine, Trees, Rat Queens, and Lumberjanes (above) have included trans women characters who have personalities that don’t just revolve around them being trans women.
But we still need more trans representation in comics–specifically, representation that shows us as fully fleshed-out people who have more to our personalities than merely being transgender. That Alters could have set such an amazing example but instead turned out to be just another trope-ridden story about the pain of being transgender is exactly why it is so thoroughly disappointing.
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Jes Grobman is a transgender writer and educator living in Northampton, Massachusetts. An activist for five years in Washington, DC, she co-founded DC Trans Power – an organization that worked to empower and fight for transgender people – and hosted a monthly open-mic fundraiser by and for the transgender community. She has given talks on transgender issues at colleges across the United States. Recently she has been writing about the issues that exist at the intersections of transgender identity, mental health, and disability. As recognition for her achievements, The Advocate Magazine named Jes one of the 25 Trans Pioneers of 2015. You can regret following her as @Transpanicked on Twitter or check out her website at JesGrobman.com.
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