- Max Vos
"Spider-Man is trans!": the transgressive potential of superhero queer readings
“Those of us schooled in the humanities and social sciences have become familiar, over the past twenty years or so, with queering things; how might we likewise begin to critically trans- our world?”
(Stryker, Currah & Moore, 2008, p.13)
“When men are growing up and reading about Batman, Spider-man and Superman, these are not fantasies, these are options.”
Jerry Seinfeld (in Vena, 2017)
The Marvel film Spider-Man: Homecoming hit cinemas in the summer of 2017 and was received with praise and relief at a Spider-Man reboot that was for once a “refreshing joy […] to temporarily cure any superhero fatigue” (Lee, 2017). After the film’s release and widespread popularity, the queer community appeared to adopt Tom Holland’s portrayal of the timeless Peter Parker as a representation of trans boy/manhood. Queer readings seek to challenge heteronormative assumptions, “in order to explore possibilities outside of patriarchal, hierarchical, and heteronormative discursive practice” (Ruffalo, 2009, p.17). Such readings involve the understanding that queerness is signified and contained within the non-queer, and vice versa, and, as such, texts have the power to unconsciously represent communities which they do not explicitly involve. It rests on the “proposition that basically hetrocentrist texts can contain queer elements, and basically heterosexual […] people can experience queer moments” (Doty, 1993, p.3) and that these moments are available to queer audiences for new interpretations. Another process by which a character may be “queered” is through reading them as transgender, “transing” them. This type of reading offers a reinterpretation of – among other aspects of the superhero – origin stories, which can highlight “the hero’s own innate transness” (Vena, 2017), and “assembles gender into contingent structures of association with other attributes of bodily being, and allows for their reassembly” (Stryker, Currah & Moore, 2008, p.13). They, therefore, allow audiences to unpack supposed “truths” of gender as combinations of codes and signifiers. Queer readings are legitimate interpretations of presented characters, and “a figure does not need to be intentionally written as trans […] to potentially resonate with trans fans” (Vena, 2017). As Doty writes:
Queer readings aren’t ‘alternative’ readings, wishful or willful [sic.] misreadings, or ‘reading too much into things’ readings. They result from the recognition and articulation of the complex range of queerness that has been in popular culture texts and their audiences all along. (1993, p.16)
These readings allow personalised narratives and constructions to exist in media spaces rife with restrictive and repetitive (if not entirely absent) identities, and a queer reading of any superhero speaks to “the history of gay and lesbian cultures and politics [which] has shown that there are many times and places where the theoretical can have real social impact” (Doty, 1993, p.4). Queer readings of superhero fiction, as with the trans reading of Peter Parker as depicted in Spider-Man: Homecoming allow for the transgression of and liberation from increasingly domineering patriarchal, binary, hetero- and cis-normative power structures.
Superheroes are a particularly unique and powerful canvas upon which a queering can take place, as they are “typically a loner with a secret, leading a double life that must remain secret to protect those closest to [them]” (Shyminsky, 2011, p.294). This dual identity and secrecy is undoubtedly common to many queer people (Schott, 2010, p.21). Superhero narratives have often (if not exclusively) been a means to live vicariously, a means of escapism in which the audience member may substitute themselves into the hero’s suit. To read a text with that purpose as trans shows a “heightened curiosity with exploring the broader aspects of fictional universes” (Schott, 2010, p.20). Homecoming’s Parker seems to have struck a note with fans that other characters within the Marvel Cinematic Universe simply haven’t managed, at least in terms of transness as opposed to readings of queer sexualities. His transness is read in the everyday interactions, his relationships, and physicality in Homecoming. Homecoming was described by one critic as “saccharine goo” (Brody, 2017) and, while this may sound like an insult, it only adds to the escapist fantasy which it offers to transgender viewers. The transgender community is continually facing dire political straits, as in the United States with the most recent threat being the Trump administration’s consideration of erasing trans, intersex, and gender diverse individuals federally (Green, Benner & Pear, 2018). To seek escape would not be an unusual reaction to the kind of community-centred trauma being experienced by transgender people. Spider-Man is depicted as still navigating which spaces are safe publicly and privately, negotiating and learning about his own identity all the way through (Voelker-Morris & Voelker-Morris, 2014, p.106). Parker’s coming-of-age narrative – which extends beyond Homecoming and into comics and other Spider-Man iterations – and ability to inhabit “male dualities” (ibid., p.105) of social and individual identity resonate with transgender experiences. By transing Parker, transgender audiences have created a means by which they can think through their shared experiences (Ruffalo, 2009, p.17). “For all his super-gifts and despite the weird and dangerous company he keeps, he is also a teenage boy — that’s his Kryptonite, what cuts him down to recognisable human size” (Dargis, 2017). Spider-Man presents a very accessible and humanised super-ness (and transness) which is a representation transgender people often don’t see.
The presently-available constructions of transness are inaccurate, catered by and for a cisgender audience, and often focus far too much on the body and trauma, restricting the narrative of trans lives to one of tragedy and suffering. Films about queerness, in general, have a frustrating tendency to miss the target. They end up being “safe” films as with Boy Erased (2018), routine for queer audiences (Richards, 2018). These films create queerness as the central, most important aspect of every queer character’s identity: “If queer people are not being misrepresented, ridiculed, or there to solely provide comic relief […] then the stories about us are almost unilaterally about the pain and isolation our queerness brings us” (Fury, 2017). It is extremely uncommon “to see [queer characters] in a mainstream program where their sexuality isn’t treated as a constraining or defining factor” (Bartlett, 2012, p.123). For a mainstream film to exclusively portray queer characters as tragic and lonely is to refuse to humanise a community of diverse people and experience. These texts are less interested in the psychological and social realities of queerness and transness than they appear to be with the fetishization of trans existence or suffering (Scott & Kirkpatrick, 2015, p.161). The same texts rarely attempt to challenge the culture in which they have been formed or transphobic power structures that exist. Transing itself “seeks to expose the erasures that occur and to highlight the very gaps where gender slippages are made apparent” (Vena, 2017), and so a transing of a character is an opportunity to place representation where it is wanted, not where it exists. The sheer lack of varied transgender characters makes the deconstruction of a suffering narrative vital and, by transing and challenging existing lacklustre media, “we offer each other the vision of the future we are all fighting for” (Fury, 2017). The queering of Spider-Man certainly seems to act toward this ultimate end. In terms of diverse representation, film studios like Marvel “have calculated that wide audiences are ready to observe diversity regarding race but none regarding gender” (Brody, 2017). As Stabile writes, “gender remains the third rail of the superhero narratives—to touch it is to undo the whole edifice of protection upon which these stories are created” (2009, p.87) and indeed, superhero stories play their role in reinforcing binary gender roles. Split audiences are continually campaigning for and fighting against the representation of women in superhero films, and so it appears that the question of explicitly introducing a trans character is off the table (for now).
Queer superheroes hold a powerful and transgressive potential for critical readings. The relationship that comic book and superhero texts have had with queerness has been tenuous in the past, as with the trope of the sexually ambiguous sidekick – see Batman’s Robin, or Superman’s Jimmy Olson – who ultimately serves to “straighten” the protagonist (Shyminsky, 2011, p.288). Though superhero narratives are predominantly “aimed at legitimating normative ideologies and containing that which threatens them” (Shyminsky, 2011, p.288-9), there is power within showing queer survival and “success” within such norms and limits. As positive government reform and legislative protections can only come so quickly, texts which represent queerness as inextinguishable and survivable can provide comfort to those communities so often threatened by the worlds in which they are trying to live. The support and awareness from superheroes themselves are valuable to queer communities—for example, the amount of fanart that exists of Thor being an ally to the lesbian community. Spider-Man, though an individual who fits the superhero trope of a “reactionary whose concern is with the maintenance of the law and status quo rather than with changing the world” (Shyminsky, 2011, p.289), can still (through transing and queering) benefit the queer community. The community itself may, sometimes, not seek more than mundanity and coexistence, a human-ness and smallness that Parker in Homecoming certainly brings to a cinematic universe obsessed with the end of the world (Robinson, 2017). Superheroes, when “queered” by the audience itself, have valuable meaning to a community so often alienated.
Superheroes also bring a level of imperviousness to violence – both physical and social – that queer communities (presently) can only campaign to achieve and, simply by nature of the genre in which they exist, are placed at odds with the rest of the world and “normal society” (Maroney, 2006, p.3). The queer sub-text of franchises such as the X-Men has certainly not been missed, wherein “super powered characters are instead labelled and understood as mutants that are often abused and distrusted by humans for their genetic differences” (Schott, 2010, p.21). Even less immediately obvious characters, such as Superman, can parallel trans experiences in their own alienation. In what is now known as the World of Cardboard speech, Superman remarks:
I feel like I live in a world made of cardboard, always taking constant care not to break something, to break someone. Never allowing myself to lose control even for a moment, or someone could die. (in Vena, 2017)
One possible reading of such an emotion is the “grief and frustration of living in a world not suited to one’s body” (ibid.), an experience similar to transness which inherently challenges dominant structural notions of gender and sex; it threatens a destruction of “the world”. As such, “the logics and architecture of this world are […] too demanding and ultimately exhausting for the hero” and the transgender person to function within (ibid.). Like many transgender people, Superman “experiences a constant tension between belonging and not belonging” (ibid.), simply fitting nowhere.
Peter Parker’s journey and realities of superhero life are different to your typical Marvel or DC protagonist, and he does at first experience an inability to fully realise Spider-Man’s superhero identity. This parallels nicely with the unachievable masculine ideals pressed upon men, which compel them “trans and cis alike, to feel grief over their ‘lacking’ qualities” (ibid.). Tony Stark, at the end of the second act in Homecoming, tells a distressed Peter that “if you’re nothing without the suit then you shouldn’t have it”. Here we see a direct upset in Peter’s understanding of his own identity, the gaps between who he is as Parker and as Spider-Man are dangerously vast, and Stark is able to expose this. Peter’s is a “fantasy of becoming” – he sees Iron Man as the ideal superhero, wants to be like him – mirrored in masculine experiences themselves, though for transgender men in particular “the fantasy of becoming may be equally tantalizing because of the caged boundaries of the sexed/gendered body” (ibid.). Peter eventually realises his capability and uniqueness in identity, and the distinction between himself and Spider-Man becomes blurred; his identity takes shape. Initially, Peter might have thought that he became Spider-Man when he was bitten by the spider, but at the film’s conclusion, he may be more inclined to suggest that it was when he realised he didn’t need Stark’s technology to do so. This smoothly mirrors a trans experience, breaking down logic that one “may be able to precisely locate the moment or moments during which the superhero [or transgender] identity began to take shape” (ibid.). Usually “the entry into becoming a superhero is already overdetermined by the limitations of the body” (ibid.), but Spider-Man overcomes these limitations of a tech-less suit and re-invents a personal understanding of what superhero-ness is.
Something that is not a crucial aspect of queering and transing superheroes, but which is certainly helpful in the progress towards a more trans-positive culture, is external validation and support. One of the stars of Homecoming, Jacob Batalon (Ned) said in an interview that he would like to see a transgender superhero enter the Marvel Cinematic Universe: “That should be a thing. Personally, I would write a movie about it. Definitely. Definitely. That’s a good thing” (Bradley, 2017). The queer reading of Peter Parker as a trans man is one means by which a marginalised and largely misrepresented community, transgender and gender diverse people, can transgress current systems of gendered power. Such structures infiltrate everyday culture and have an influence on the available representation, so a queering of traditionally dominant media tropes allows for a form of access to representation and power within existing structures.
Vena's Rereading Superman as a trans f/man has a more in-depth account of how queering superheroes is also a personal practice, especially for people in the transgender community who experience dysphoria.
Full reference: Vena, D. (2017). Rereading Superman as a trans f/man. Transformative Works and Cultures, 25. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2017.1063