CW: Transphobia, Use of the term “trans-trender,” biphobia, homophobia
Maybe in a technical sense, Dan Slott is a competent script-writer. His story and dialogue don’t have major technical issues of craft that I see. What I do see is a failure to understand the source material, both from a hard-continuity position and one that fully appreciates and respects the well-known metaphor of the material. This is the kind of thing that as a sensitivity reader, makes up the foundation of my work in understanding the implications of story choices, outside of the text and within the minds of readers. I regularly find myself coaching writers on how to identify, assess, measure, and guide story-implications as they relate to the explicit and/or metaphorical impact that they have on the identities or experiences being represented. It’s a level of awareness for the mutant metaphor that professional comics man Dan Slott did not demonstrate when he wrote the retcon that Franklin Richards has all along been only “pretending” to be a mutant.
Franklin Richards’ story has meant a lot to me ever since a 2011 reread of Days of Future Present. Something in his desperate, rudderless attempts to locate a sense of home, understanding his powers, and the effects that they had on Rachel, connected far too well with where I found myself in that time of my life. Recently, Franklin (thanks to Chip Zdarsky) came back into my life during the Fantastic Four + X-Men mini, which through the mutant-metaphor, dissected much of the complexity faced by trans teens. Franklin’s story articulated a nuanced study on life in the closet and the battle to leave it, handled with a deftness I don’t often see in cis-men who write about trans topics. I felt so strongly about it, that I wrote a whole essay on it! So when panels of the most recent Fantastic Four issue hit my timeline, I felt an aching call to revisit this topic and to take the issue and Slott to task on the implicit transphobia & homophobia of this retcon.
I want to be clear about my framing. I am trans, and I’m approaching the narrative from that vector of representation as it relates to the mutant-metaphor. I can only discuss the experiences I have though, but know that space is held here for the pain and frustration felt by fans from other marginalized groups & intersections who were upset and frustrated by this issue. Slott’s retcon frames Franklin’s mutanthood, as an unconscious choice, to be a part of a marginalized community. On a technical level, this is plain messy. It’s hard to say when this “choice” was made, but Franklin’s power manifested as a toddler, and he was an infant when he was identified as a mutant, which was confirmed explicitly in an X-Book during Claremont’s Days of Future Past. It’s hard to say how Franklin possessed the necessary understanding of genetics to restructure his own DNA. It’s hard to say how he did such a good job at this early age that it could fool Krakoan Gates and Sentinels alike. Not only does Slott’s choice demonstrate a sloppy understanding of Franklin’s established history as a mutant, but he’s also perpetuating a virulent line of thinking that impacts many queer & trans folks in the real world. Am I saying Slott is transphobic outright? Not necessarily. I don’t know Dan Slott. But I know he wrote an implicitly transphobic story and when confronted, he lashed out of trans critics who sought to hold him accountable for it.
There is this conservative myth that seeks to misinterpret the growing numbers of trans & gender-variant people amongst younger Gen-Xers (no, not them), Millennials, and Gen-Z. In reality, all this data means is that as time passes, preceding generations have broken pavement for the coming generations, a battle that looks different for every generation of trans & gender-variant people. In pushing for a more accepting, safe, and equitable world, each generation makes it a little more possible and little safer to be visible and out. What conservatives have attempted to do is to take this phenomena and imply that gender-variance becoming a more visible experience amongst newer generations is due to trans identities being regarded as “hip” or “trendy”, as if folks are adopting a potential life of abuse, mistreatment, paternalism, transphobia, instability, and violence because “being trans is hip,’, giving rise to the term “trans-trender.”
To imply that Franklin chose to be a mutant, a metaphorical and literal marginalized identity, because he thought it was cool, implicitly normalizes this myth that people can and do choose to be members of marginalized communities. This seeds the idea that any queer or trans person you meet, may be “secretly just pretending.” It feels irresponsible to write an issue like this, with the kind of implications that it can have in our own world and the ideas it normalizes, and even just for sheer lack of regard it demonstrates for Zdarsky’s run, which focused heavily of Franklin’s experiences as a member of the Krakoan community. Franklin has consistently struggled with the friction created with his identity, his family, and the loss of his powers. Why knock him down any further?
This type of normalization-through-media of the “trans-trender” myth is only going to throw fuel on the fire for folks who are looking for ways to undermine the validity and autonomy of queer and trans people. It’s worth noting, that undermining the agency of trans people, is the first step along many roads towards greater forms of transphobic violence and oppression, which is rooted around a “belief’ that we are not really who we say/know we are.
I think particularly of non-binary, agender, gender-fluid, asexual, bi, and pan folks, who already combat so much cultural gaslighting from folks who believe our experiences and identities are “made up” because of the ways that they challenge mainstream expectations about queer & trans experiences. Some of us are constantly fighting the internalized “am I just pretending” thoughts imposed on us by society, we don’t need comics like this putting the idea into other people’s heads that anybody whose identity doesn’t meet their criteria for authenticity may be “pretending”. For Slott to incorporate explicit language from these types of discourses, to imply that Franklin did this to “feel special”, as Xavier puts it, is an invalidating misuse of the language of oppression that many members of the queer & trans community face. It feels somewhat proximate to the pejorative “snowflake” language we see so often. To have a telepath be the one who speaks these words further pushes this notion that somebody else could know your identity better than you.
Being trans is not a trend. It’s a daily battle, and one that not all of us survive, we didn’t choose a life of marginalization and institutional abuse to be “special”. We are who we are because it’s who we are and implying that marginalized groups “choose” this life because it makes us feel special is a dangerously implicit form of transphobia that needs to be eliminated in media altogether. There does come a complexity in this framing of the mutant-metaphor, as Franklin is an omnipotent reality-warper, and mutation is an observable genetic marker, represented by the X Gene. So, is this a 1:1 comparison? No. But it’s still perpetuating the dangerous notion that folks from marginalized communities may be ” pretending” to be members of a marginalized community, which can go on to be the conceptual underpinning of greater and more aggressive forms of bigotry.
Alongside of troubling narratives of queer-erasure, the story has also rightfully been accused of being polyphobic with the misrepresentation and stigmatization of polyamorous relationships. While it’s not the meat of my review, it’s a problem. The issue plainly frames a polyamorous relationship as antagonistic to our protagonist’s interests and emotional wellbeing. It’s framed as a subversion of a healthy romantic and sexual relationship, rather than another form of one. This scene even escalates to Val asking her brother to kill her partner, over this perceived slight. At the end of the day, the protagonist’s perspective of Val, directly frames polyamory and polycules, as antithetical and threatening to healthy relationships, a step well being the emotionality of teenage romance.
What’s more frustrating, is that Slott immediately took to Twitter to defend his story by comparing it to killing off beloved characters, using the medium of “serialized storytelling” as the flimsy bandage over the gushing wound of this retcon. But the medium does not forgive the message, and this notion devalues the impact of individual issues as discrete experiences, simply because something is coming up, which may overturn or conflict with what was just experienced. Even if this is flipped in the first page of the next issue, you can’t un-ring a bell; you can’t undo the harm that was lived by readers from marginalized communities.
Since I began this piece, Slott has made several statements apologizing for the harm the issue has done, expressing a desire to hear from critics, only after blocking several Eisner-winning trans critics who were nothing but honest with their critique of his work. Some have pointed out though, that it was largely cis folks who were able to get through to Slott, while most queer & trans critics were smacked with the block. While his apology has value, it feels like we’re locked in a cycle of cis men writing bad faith stories (knowingly or otherwise) about trans politique and experiences and then only after a week of intense criticism from other cis men do we get apologies. I do wonder when that cycle will end and I hope that it’s soon. While I’m glad Slott came around to acknowledge the harm he did, genuine or not, it’s yet another bell that can’t be un-rung for readers and another writer we’ll feel a sense of ongoing mistrust towards.