Transphobia in the Year 3001: Superman A Super Jerk, No Justice For Guy Gardner
“These great heroes called themselves the Justice League — protectors not just of Camelot, but of all the universe,” rambles an insect-like robotic being on the first page of Justice League 3001. It’s part of a speech used to set the stage for the futuristic superhero comic by Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis, and Howard Porter. “Brave men and women who faced danger, risked death… and brought hope to the hopeless, and freedom to the–”
The speech is cut off by another character, which as it turns out is a blessing because this Justice League doesn’t stand up to the praise.
The post-Convergence relaunch of the title brings with it the addition of Guy Gardener to the team. Like others members of this Justice League, Gardner is a clone. For reasons not (yet?) explained in the comic, Cadmus chose to inject Gardner’s DNA into a — to borrow Superman’s problematic phrasing — “female body.”
Gardner is immediately shown to be highly feminized, with a chest-clutching top, exposed midriff, and extremely long green-painted fingernails. Superman, who proudly accepts the label “jackass” later in the issue, starts the conversation off by openly objectifying Gardner, asserting that their body is too attractive to be male when Flash problematically asks, “You do realize she’s a man?”
MJ Feuerborn: To transgender folks, this kind of conversation is nothing new. Gardner’s body is immediately subjected to male gaze dictating his sexual desirability (in this case, Gardner’s body is pleasing enough to Superman’s eye to warrant a feminine labeling), with that desirability being given higher importance than Gardner’s actual identity. Gardner has no agency in this discussion, because not only is he not included, but the conversation clearly indicates Superman’s opinion is the one of value here. Gardner has a feminine behind, Gardner is fuckable, therefore Gardner is female. Even the half-assed counterpoint (“she’s a man”) is intentionally misgendering and seeks only to staunch the flirtation (with a touch of homophobia) rather than the assault on Gardner’s identity.
And allow me to be clear: this is an assault. Misgendering a transgender person, and fixating on and objectifying their body or parts of their body, are acts of violence against them — it’s intentional denial and erasure of their identity and agency on the most immediate level you can reach. Perpetuating those aggressions unchecked in fiction is an assault as well, feeding into a culture of transphobia that leaves droves of transgender people jobless, homeless, abused, or dead.
Several pages later, Batman gets an opportunity to both correct Superman and establish in-narrative that his language is wrong and harmful.
While Batman does defend Gardner’s identity, he only does so passively and with great exasperation, and drops the conversation when it moves past Gardner as an individual and instead becomes a debate on gender identity in general. While conversations on gender with those disinclined to listen can be frustrating and disheartening, there’s simply no excuse for Batman to abandon the exchange so quickly. If the writers didn’t intend to frame the story as transphobic, this conversation would have been the perfect point to condemn the transphobic phrasing used by the characters. That opportunity was squandered and instead used to establish Superman as irritating and Batman as well-intentioned but impatient.
Which is another large problem with this issue. Despite this being Gardner’s debut on the team, the story is structured around his ignorant teammates instead, using his identity as a conversational piece to establish the characterization of characters other than himself. Transgender characters — or characters created mired in transphobic tropes — are almost always used as storytelling fodder, either to be posed as victims to establish the evil of their attackers (or the heroics of their saviors), serving as masquerading villains to be exposed and defeated, or objects to be fetishized and consumed. The lack of Gardner’s perspective in this issue despite several conversations focusing on him is disturbing.
Here we see more of Gardner’s behavior and presentation. He appears to be, despite cloned, the same old Guy — aggressive, masculine body language and all. But despite this, he’s drawn as feminine-presenting, from his costume fulfilling comics’ usual superherione stereotypes (gotta bare some skin!), to his long nails. Initially I assumed these fashion choices were perhaps because Gardner was going to identify as a woman after all, but an exchange between DeMatteis and a reader on Twitter, DeMatteis referred to Gardner as “he”:
(Nevermind the fact that if Gardner was someone “whose true self was female” then they’d be a woman and use she/her pronouns regardless of body, and that there’s no such thing as “the change,” because not all transgender people undergo a physical transition, and even if they did, there’s no universal route and gender is not an end goal but rather an identity held both before and ‘after’. Both of these points were subsequently addressed by a reader.)
So why the feminine revamp of the character? There’s certainly nothing wrong with men (including transgender men) dressing in traditionally feminine ways. Just as one’s body parts don’t define one’s gender, neither does one’s clothing. But seeing as Gardner is a rather notoriously masculine character (even his first name is male-themed), this abrupt change of style is perplexing. And the comic, again, completely lacks Gardner’s perspective, leaving us to wonder if this look was Gardner’s decision, or just the work of a confused or fetishizing artist.
This isn’t the first time the character has been given a different body and drawn as feminine-presenting, though it’s admittedly much less provocative than the trope’s appearance in Guy Gardner: Warrior #42.
In these pages, Gardner is not being treated as the focal point of the story. The art goes out of its way to establish that Gardner — like the women held captive at the bottom of the panel — exists only to visually tittilate readers.
His grotesquely proportioned body is posed in blatantly dehumanizing and objectifying ways. His predicament is played off as a joke for readers to laugh at and fetishize. (In fact, in my search for these scans I came across several blogs and forums wherein posters shared their glee and arousal in equal measure.) In these panels, he is not the champion of his own story, but rather a vehicle through which the writer and artist reinforce the consumable nature of (what is perceived to be) women’s bodies and the apparently laughable freakishness of transgender bodies.
If Justice League 3001’s creative team intended to do something less harmful than the above portrayal of so-called “Gal Gardener,” they have thus far failed in their attempt. Because while the new portrayal is not as blatant in sexuality, this incarnation’s feminized costume and accessories, and the lack of Gardner’s own perspective while transphobic commentary remains ongoing, calls into question whether or not the team intended — or knew how important it was — to give Gardner agency over his own gender identity in the first place. Whether they even realize they’re doing damage. Whether they’ve ever read something from the perspective of a transgender man before pirating from their experience for laughs and drama.
Because while DeMatteis implied in the above tweets that this is not a transgender story, it absolutely is. Slapstick “genderbend” tropes are about transgender people even when the narratives aren’t, because they steal from the transgender experience and warp it for cheap storytelling. The transphobic language employed by the characters in this issue, and the baggage stacked against Gardner’s agency both on and behind the pages, mirror the transgender experience in an ignorant, cissexist world perfectly.
“Forgive me (and I mean that sincerely) if I don’t have the language mastered,” DeMatteis tweeted in an exchange with a reader who raised concerns, both about the in-comic portrayal and his phrasing on Twitter, “Give it a few issues (we work ahead) and I’ll try to incorporate some of these thoughts.”
One wonders why if he didn’t understand it, he felt like he should write it at all. Transgender characters in comics (and any other media) are a rarity. Respectfully written transgender characters are virtually nonexistent. But transphobic, trope-laden storylines that imitate transgender experiences but claim to not be transgender, and thus not held to standard of respectful representation requiring research and in-narrative agency, are plentiful. And these days, so are the apologies for them. Without some kind of editorial oversight reigning in writers who apparently don’t know any better, the future looks grim.
So much for bringing hope to the hopeless in 3001.
Rachel J Stevens: This issue’s transphobic treatment of Guy Gardner, and the discussion of the character’s use by the writers, is on the face of it completely fucking awful. In the context of other media, this is just another drop in a sea of poison.
This isn’t the first time the character’s been “genderbent.” This isn’t the first time a comic company’s failed to understand that if a person of one gender — that they were used to and identified with — was forcibly put into the body of another gender, they’d most likely feel dysphoric as hell and try to present closer to their actual gender identity. Ultimate Jessica Drew, I’m looking at you. Shit, Marvel’s still guilty of this garbage — Endo from a recent Wolverine related story arc was a male character who was genetically altered into a physical duplicate of their dead fiancee. They’ve since been killed off by a subsequent writer; perhaps a small mercy.
Of course, here’s the thing. Cis writers don’t get that forced feminization would result in some understandably upset trans men. They think that trans women are men that look like women, or that the characters would mentally become women and accept their predicament, that putting them in tight or scantily clad outfits is fine.
Trans characters as written by cis writers get to be victims, jokes, monsters, or fetishes. They’re sexualized, otherized, and made subhuman. In turn, that’s what closeted trans people get as representation; that’s what they get growing up. Most don’t get real human beings to look up to, they see people cast out, mocked, and killed. They become too scared to admit they’re trans, and often either bury their feelings deep, or get tormented by the feelings of wrongness.
A recent hashtag on twitter’s been making the rounds, #eggmode, referring to behaviors that trans people did before they realized they were trans. Many found commonality in the tweets, and the situations relatable, even when there were extremely different scenarios. Many were linked to how they initially felt they couldn’t be trans because they didn’t match existing media portrayals.Trans folks breathing in the pollution of our culture cope in different ways and survive in completely different narratives than the ones cis folks force on us.
It has been pointed out that eggmode could imply an essentialism to trans people, that they’d always be trans even before they realized it themselves, and this doesn’t apply to all trans folks who didn’t have these experiences. Not all trans folks identify with a binary gender, not all trans folks experience dysphoria. That is a fair criticism, but it is also worth noting that the point of the hashtag, at least as I saw it, was to share experiences and help other trans folks feel normal in a way that cis media couldn’t, to illustrate a more diverse array of feelings.
I want trans folks to keep creating and sharing their lives, and replace the narratives cis people create to portray us. I want us to shout over them and help each other. I’m a white, binary, able bodied, English-speaking trans woman who can be read as female by cisgender people. I’m more privileged than many in the queer community — I’ve been an unemployed, homeless couchsurfer whot considered herself lucky when she only got misgendered once a day, who’d get completely immobilized by anxiety and depression. I fled across the country to escape my father who refused to believe that I was trans, or allow my transition because I was attracted to women. I’m still luckier than many. I have internet access, I haven’t been assaulted, I’ve had economic and emotional support from my mother and friends, I’ve actually found a job and housing, I’ve been able to get on hormones. I can’t say the same for most of my trans friends.
My life is one of many, and many other voices need to be heard — not booed, like Jennicet Gutiérrez speaking out against the detainment and abuse of transgender immigrants. Not belittled by tabloid rags, like Caitlyn Jenner. Janet Mock and Laverne Cox as two of the most prominent members of the trans community makes me genuinely happy, because more and more people are listening to them. We need trans people of all stripes speaking out — of various faiths, of disability, of ethnicity, of non-binary status. With enough signal to noise, trans people might yet make things better for ourselves, and trans children not yet born. We have to tell our own stories, not just be props for absurd, cruel jokes in cisgender written stories, or objects for cis people to portray in film and television for other cisgender viewers to pity. I’ve been pleased with the increasing amount of zines, webcomics, and indie games created by trans folks that the internet hosts, but we need more. Trans women writers, trans male actors, non-binary folks even existing in the public eye. The poison needs to be sucked out and spat back in the face of those who oppress us. We need to live, love, and not just be heard but listened to, not just pitied for our dying cries in the margins.