Magdalene Visaggio on the Problem with Cis Creators Writing Trans Narratives

Comics Features Magdalene Visaggio
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Magdalene Visaggio on the Problem with Cis Creators Writing Trans Narratives

Back in 2014, TIME Magazine proclaimed “the transgender tipping point,” a supposed moment humanity had reached in which trans people encountered unprecedented welcome and acceptance in modern society. And to an extent, that transition has occurred. But with the flip side of that increased exposure comes our newfound re-assimilation into American popular culture, a process fraught with missteps, frustrations and pure exploitation.

It’s an arena where respect is mixed with what sometimes feels like a willful disregard, and—as always—an assumption that our stories are the purview of others to tell, as if we ourselves were voiceless.

We aren’t voiceless. But it can feel that way, especially because we often play second fiddle in stories that are ostensibly about us. There are trans supporting actors in Transparent, but the star is a cisgender man. And the justified kerfuffle over Mark Ruffalo casting cisgender gay man Matt Bomer as the main transgender character in his upcoming movie, Anything, while actual trans women play other, less important characters is merely the latest prominent example.

The fact is that we’ve been largely shut out of mainstream media unless we are telling the stories of our unhappiness and transformations. Transgender lives—the things that actually matter to us once we’ve gotten through our transitions—are as boring as anyone else’s. As a result, we only seem to be justified showing up in media when someone wants to gawk at a woman who used to be a man. Prurient, salacious, tragic, taboo—it’s great television. But very rarely are we given the opportunity to tell our own stories. Not when cisgender white men decide they should be telling them for us.

This brings me to Alters, the new comic by Paul Jenkins and Leila Leiz from publisher AfterShock. This isn’t a review of the quality of the work. Paul Jenkins is a fantastic writer and I’m not here to critique his ability to make a great comic. But I’m definitely here to question his judgment in bringing this book to market.

Because Alters is a lot of things, but it’s mainly a story about a trans woman. And not just about a trans woman, but about her being trans.

In interviews, Jenkins has taken pains to say that this comic isn’t about the trans experience specifically, or about trans people specifically, and that it has a big cast and will cover a lot of thematic territory. All of that might be true; it’s too early to say. But this issue, first and foremost, is about being trans.

The gender identity of Alters’ main character, a superhero named Chalice, drips over this book, providing the main narrative thrust and the comic’s most noteworthy idea. Now, as a trans woman who writes comics professionally, this frustrates the hell out of me, because this isn’t just a book with a transgender character. Jenkins clearly fell in love with the concept of a hero who can “only be herself when she’s not herself”; the main conceptual focus of Alters #1 revolves around Chalice’s identity, and all of the characterization is centered on this plot point.

Her struggles over being trans—her conflicted emotions, her worries about upsetting her parents, her sly sotto voce confessions (admitting that she’s not attracted to girls like normal boys under her breath while her buddy gapes at another woman’s posterior)—occupy a full seven of the issue’s 20 pages. That’s a solid third of the book dedicated to internal monologuing about transgender angst.

And that’s where this comic really rubs me the wrong way.

I am (obviously) all about transgender representation in media. But there’s a distinction between telling a story with a transgender person in it and telling a trans story. The former is the purview of any writer; Kieron Gillen, Gail Simone and Marguerite Bennett (among others) all handle this approach admirably. But the other?

Well, the other is not.

Let me draw from my own work if I can. I make a very deliberate point of centering transgender characters in my writing. My characters’ transness, however, is very rarely the focus of their story. Being a trans woman is honestly super dull and mostly involves boob pain and dealing with people staring at you on the subway. Meanwhile, transition narratives tend to get kind of same-y, and I’ve certainly experienced enough trans angst in my life to avoid doing stories where the entire focus is oh woe is me, I am trans and sad and my parents will never understand. I lived that. It sucked. And it’s boring.

But it’s still mine. It’s ours. It’s unique to being trans. And I am extremely curious what possessed Paul Jenkins of the notion that this story was somehow his to tell. In doing so, he turns transgender identity into something to be stared at.

Make no mistake: Chalice’s trans identity is literally the only thing about her in the debut issue. She also has superpowers, I guess. Her personality? She doesn’t want to disappoint her family by being trans. Her interests? By all evidence, her interests seem limited to quietly hoping nobody discovers she’s transitioning and unenthusiastically attending baseball games. Yes, she’s a superhero—but we know superheroes, so “she’s a superhero” isn’t a terribly distinguishing character trait.

The distinction between Charlie (her male name) and Chalice is comically overwrought (see what I did there? Comically? Shut up, I’m funny). Her family and friends seem to do little beyond reinforcing the gulf between her presentation and self-perception, with anti-queer attitudes, misogyny and multiple instances of people gratuitously referring to her as a boy. It’s a slow burn dysphoria hurricane carefully calculated to remind the reader that Chalice feels like shit all the time unless she’s presenting as female. Which is fair, to be honest.

But all of it is presented—and this is indisputable—in an attempt to communicate transness to a cis audience.

A cis man is trying to tell a cis audience what it’s really like being a trans woman. This is akin to the pope describing the experience of childbirth, the sort of thing for which ecclesiastics have been rightly called out for ages. Communicating essential parts of the trans experience is not the purview of a cis writer, and it’s extremely frustrating to see yet another “media triumph” for transgender people being once again the product of cisgender people commodifying our experience for cisgender consumption. Transparent is a smash; Her Story is a queer media YouTube afterthought. Eddie Redmayne plays Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl. Again and again, the message is that it matters so much less when we tell our stories ourselves.

There’s a critical difference between cisgender narratives of being trans and real self-directed narratives: it turns being trans into a spectacle, something to be stared at, consumed. It’s strange and other and foreign, and the presentation is driven by a gaping fascination with the facts of transformation. In Alters, the creators produce a loving depiction of Chalice doffing her wig, costume and makeup, and an understated but none-too-subtle full-body reveal panel of her in boy mode, because the cis audience loves a before-and-after photo. What it does is underscore the cis audience’s sense of artificiality; here is something she must become, and not something she is.

And not only that (and here’s the kicker), her female presentation is literally a disguise—a superhero persona, not a real identity. It’s not just a secret; it’s overtly an act of dissimulation and occultation, pushing her femme presentation into the realm of pure artifice. She isn’t real. And the whole central conceit of Alters—“She’s only herself when she’s not herself”—relies on this; her superhero identity is utterly constructed, at odds with her “real identity,” and the gender distinction between the two only heightens that separation. I can see what Jenkins is trying to accomplish—Chalice has a conflicted sense of her own identity—but that’s something I’d honesty have a much easier time taking seriously if it wasn’t being presented as little more than “the poor sad trans is sad and has to live in secret.” Please. We’ve been here before. And we’ve had quite enough of it.

In other words, if you’re cisgender and you want to write a transgender character, don’t make their being trans the only fact about them worth exploring. We’re real, actual human beings with hobbies and cars and jobs and impulse control problems and a propensity to sing “Fat-Bottomed Girls” horribly out of tune. When you reduce us to little more than the tragedy of our gender bullshit, you not only render us less than human, you center yourselves in our stories: it becomes about your sensitivity, your liberality, your compassion.

Alters doesn’t exist for the transgender community, colorist Tamra Bonvillain’s participation in the book notwithstanding; she’s a stellar artist who elevates any book she’s on. Alters isn’t for us or our benefit. It is ultimately exploitative. It’s for the cisgender writer, and the cisgender audience. It’s about pathos; you get to feel bad for a minute, and then feel good about how bad you felt. It’s about staring at the weirdo under the cloak of compassion.

Poor little trans girl.

She has it so rough.

Magdalene Visaggio is a professional writer and marketer. She’s best known as the creator of the comic Kim & Kim from Black Mask Studios. She lives in Manhattan with her wife Eowyn, and can be found on Twitter @MagsVisaggs.