The Violence in the System: Transmisogyny In Uncanny X-Men #17

The Violence in the System: Transmisogyny In Uncanny X-Men #17

Content warning ahead for transmisogyny and violence. Spoilers too, I guess, if you care about that. I don’t like Matthew Rosenberg’s work. I’m just gonna go ahead and say that up front: I don’t think it’s good, I don’t think he understands the characters he’s working with, or if he does, I think he’s sloppy

Content warning ahead for transmisogyny and violence. Spoilers too, I guess, if you care about that.

I don’t like Matthew Rosenberg’s work. I’m just gonna go ahead and say that up front: I don’t think it’s good, I don’t think he understands the characters he’s working with, or if he does, I think he’s sloppy in how he handles them. But he gets a lot of praise, a lot of folk seem to like where he’s going with the X-Men, so I pretty much just quietly dislike him from a distance. There are other comics to read, after all. I was content to leave it there. Then Uncanny X-Men #17 happened.

If you haven’t been reading it, #16 closed with Dani Moonstar declaring that Rahne Sinclair–Wolfsbane of the New Mutants–was dead. In #17 we’re shown how it happened. We see Rahne, sitting in a park at night, as she’s approached by four men. This is in itself a dangerous situation for any woman alone, and it’s heightened for Rahne by her being a mutant in a time when, in Marvel’s fictional world, anti-mutant hysteria is at a peak. Maybe that’s why Rosenberg felt justified in using a mode of violence against the character that is used specifically to target trans individuals in real life.

Love to see slurs against the transgender community used in comics ostensibly about oppression.

When these men discover that Rahne is a mutant, they begin to attack her, claiming, as you can see above, that she is trying to “trap” normal people. Rahne partially transforms once by instinct, delivering a cut to one of the men’s faces; she is immediately portrayed as apologetic and horrified at what she’s done, even though these men intend to kill her. She does not fight back beyond that, despite her mutant abilities, her combat training; none of it comes in to play. She is beaten to death.

The language, the method of violence in this comic, is specific in its targeting. It’s what’s said of trans women by men after those women are murdered; it is known, nation- and world-wide as the trans panic defense. The essential crux of the argument as it’s used in court is that when men are confronted with the fact that a woman is trans, they become unaccountable for their panicked reactions, often murdering these women as a means of hiding their own insecurity or shame, or because they’re “not gay.” It is a widely-practiced defense; in fact, thus far it has only been banned in three states in the U.S. — California, Rhode Island, and Illinois. In forty-seven other states, it’s a valid and legal reason to murder a trans woman, established by precedent.

Later, Wolverine tracks down the men who have done this to her; when he goes for vengeance, he is interrupted by armed troops intent on stopping him. We later see him in a suit full of bullet holes; we understand that he has beaten these troops, but we are not told what happens to the men. Again, the violence against Rahne is depicted in detail, but we are denied the retributive catharsis of her victimizers receiving violence in turn. The structure of the story itself protects these men, in the same way our justice system protects men like Brock Turner. I have deliberately used the word ‘men’ in describing the group who killed Rahne, because that is what they are; they are approximately college age adults, of drinking age and responsible for their actions. Like Turner in real life, these fictional men are not children, and if the narrative depicts them as committing crimes, they are responsible for those crimes. They are not boys, they are not children. So why does the story protect them? Even assuming that Wolverine exacted revenge for Rahne’s death, why are we, the readers, denied this?

Look, I’m sure that Rosenberg means well here. The argument could be made that in drawing the comparison, he’s highlighting the fact that legal defenses for trans people are at a distinct deficit, and that violence against trans people runs rampant. Frankly, I appreciate the comparison present in that; but here’s where what I was saying about Rosenberg’s sloppiness comes in to play. “Trap” as it’s used here is a particularly charged word; it is specifically a slur in trans communities, as it relates to the same panic defense discussed earlier. “Trap” is defined as a man pretending to be a woman for purposes of enticing other men, for a community that views trans women as delusional men, you can see how such a thing might be weaponized against us.

There are no trans X-Men. There has been one trans character adjacent to the X-Men; a young mutant named Jessie Drake (no relation to Bobby Drake, the Iceman). Jessie appeared in two issues of Marvel Comics Presents penned by Ann Nocenti before disappearing into “therapy” and never being seen again. She was the first on-panel depiction of a trans character in Marvel; while Loki was certainly created first, the depiction of Loki as trans came decades later. There are, on the whole, only a half-dozen trans characters in the Marvel universe. Of them, only Loki appears regularly.

Jessie Drake explaining what it is to be trans to Typhoid Mary.

When cisgender writers co-opt the experiences of trans folk, when they depict the violence that occurs against us without bothering to depict us, we are not helped. We are not aided by this choice; the violence against us becomes normalized, but our presence does not. If anything that hurts us in the long run, because when we are seen, the first association with that sight becomes the violence. The message to trans readers specifically is even worse: it says we are not welcome here.

This kind of scenario is more than just that, though; it’s symptomatic of the systemic campaign of violence that trans people are forced to endure; we cannot even have art about us. When I call it systemic, I mean that; as described above, not only does the violence exist and occur regularly, it is protected by the very law of the land in forty-seven out of fifty states in the U.S. The trans community doesn’t need another display of coded violence against us; we do not need to be victimized by one of the very pieces of media we consume in an effort to feel understood. To read this, to see it, when we can’t see ourselves represented is more than injury; it’s disrespect on top of it. We deserve better.

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  • Michael Gallagher
    May 7, 2019, 3:41 pm

    I wish I had thought of considering Rosenberg a sloppy writer when I read New Mutants: Dead Souls last year. Issue #2 had a scene where Rahne shrugged off concerns about Illyana’s trustworthiness by saying, "[Illyana]’s always been weird." This is the same Rahne Sinclair who, back when Illyana revealed her true nature in New Mutants vol. 1 #15, had thought of Illyana as a "witch" and a "spawn of Satan." How do you go from that to "she’s always been weird"? Had I known to shrug that off as sloppy writing, I would have saved myself a small fortune on digital comics and trade paperbacks to see if I could trace any hint of an evolution in their relationship. I didn’t. (Along the way I learned that after NM v.1 #25, Rahne stopped calling Illyana names. No explanation given. So not even Chris Claremont had it perfect.) But that was the least of my worries. Instead of showing a team coming together and beginning its adventures, Dead Souls shows a team ultimately shredded from within by a combination of betrayal and incompetence. (Oh, and issue #3 showed Warlock, a living starship who could transform himself into anyone or anything, brutally beaten by some teenage boys. Sound familiar?) The series’ non-ending left me unable to sleep the night I read it.

    Which brings us to Uncanny X-Men, whose praiseworthy direction appears to be one word: "Slaughter." #16 has Rahne leave the team. Just leave. Out of the blue, she announces she’s had enough of fighting and suffering and is going to leave. No one tries to stop her; no one even tries to talk it out with her. Hell, no one suggest that maybe they should go to the beach for a weekend. And there was nothing in any previous issue leading up to it. But off she goes. And in issue #17 we see the same Wolfsbane who fought giant robots, demons, sorceresses, other mutants; who lost her powers and regained them; and who had traveled in time, across the galaxy, and made two trips to Asgard (that I know of), the Rahne Sinclair who had done all that was beaten do death by a bunch of bros. She should have been able to get away from them easily, but no, instead, she was beaten to death. The mutant haters have wasted their time all these years! Why build sentinel robots? All you need is to send enough bros out for bear runs! Mutant problem solved.

    And then Logan goes out and apparently murders Rahne’s attackers and some government agents. That makes sense. The X-Men are down to about half a dozen living in the back of a bar, the government already knows where they are, and Logan is going to go out and kill some people. Way to help the cause, Logan!

    Rahne’s apparent death, then, is both contrived and implausible. Delivered for shock, some allegorical moralizing, and a chance to write another funeral story (there was one in Dead Souls, too).

    In addition to being among those who hopes Rahne either comes back to life or somehow isn’t really dead, this one issue has turned me against Rosenberg. He seems to determined to deliver shock, tragedy, angst, and a rising body count, with no regard for characterization, mythology, or even simple plausibility. I have no idea what Marvel plans next for their mutant characters–either the conspiracy theories are true or they are smoking way too much pot before plotting story arcs–but hopefully when his time on X-Men is done, Mr. Rosenberg will not be allowed near an X-Man book ever again.

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  • Icon_UK
    May 4, 2019, 7:11 am

    I don’t get angry with comics very often (maybe I should) but this one managed it faster than any title I’ve read in years.

    Along with the, very valid, comments made above about the implications of the scenes with Rahne (and her bizarrely contrived helplessness to either fight OR flight, given she is a combat trained werewolf with well above human strength, reaction time and speed), I found myself baffled and angry that the character who sought justice was not someone who might have some emotional resonance with Rahne. (Like, say, her oldest and best friend Dani, who has experience with violent prejudice in multiple levels (being a woman, a woman of colour and a mutant) who had literally FELT HER DIE.)

    No, instead this becomes a moment for Scott and Logan to display their manly angst about, and Wolverine to go all macho over someone who was, at best, a tangential team-mate (I think Logan and Rahne served briefy on one iteration of X-Force, but never as close comrades or friends)

    I’m not sure if I’d have wanted to have Dani give them a sample of the fear her (now apparently restored) powers would create, and then stop, explaining the only reason she’s releasing them is because Rahne wouldn’t want her to do this, because Rahne was a fundamentally kind person.

    Or for her to leave them trapped in their own fears, noting that Rahne would have asked her to stop, and she would have done, but Rahne’s not there any more.

    I’m also told by those who know more about such things than I that the "Say her name" moment that Logan has with the killers is taken from a protest chant used when police officers and vigilantes shoot and kill people of colour in the US. So, whilst it’s powerful, it’s a white guy co-opting a completely different marginalised violence protest over the death of a white woman.

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    • Karma@Icon_UK
      May 5, 2019, 2:47 pm

      Better writing right here than 90% of mutant comics, with better understanding of the character motivations…

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  • Kate Kirby
    May 3, 2019, 1:03 pm

    I’ve got every issue of Uncanny X-Men since Giant Size #1 in 1973. While I haven’t liked Rosenberg’s writing at all, I’ve weathered a fair number of storms over the years. This is my core title in comics, and it would take a lot for me to drop it.

    It turns out, this is that ‘a lot’.

    Dropped it from my pull list for the first time since I started reading comics decades ago. I’m sure I’ll be back someday, when there’s a good writer on my mutants again, but this guy is decidedly not it. Marvel, you can do better.

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  • GoodFaith
    May 3, 2019, 10:20 am

    I just read the issue. I’m very confused by all of this. A character met their end in a similar fashion to how trans people have as well. The scenario and character are clearly meant to be analogies for that. So is the argument that characters who represent these marginalized groups exist in a world where they do not face the same experiences as the people in those groups? Is the idea that every character who represents a marginalized group must have a protective bubble around them? If the murder wasn’t a trans analogous murder (many x-men have been murdered by bigots in the past) would it be fine? Why is one murder more abhorrent than any other?

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    • Nola Pfau@GoodFaith
      May 3, 2019, 10:56 am

      “characters who represent these marginalized groups” where do those characters exist? Because they don’t exist in X-Men. I can open an X-Men book and read a slur that’s used against me, but I can’t open an X-Men book and read a character who’s *like* me. That’s what the problem is.

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    • Wendy Browne@GoodFaith
      May 3, 2019, 10:58 am

      Feel free to read the article all the way through; the point of analogy versus representation is right there.

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  • DMaster
    May 2, 2019, 8:03 pm

    …remind me what it is again that people like about Rosenberg? Aside from 4 Kids Walk Into A Bank, I’ve never read anything from the guy that wasn’t workmanlike at best, and the overall results of his Marvel work feels completely hollow. Aside from this, which might at least induce revulsion first. What is his appeal?

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