Characters You Didn’t Realize were Transmasculine Icons (and How Hollywood Keeps Accidentally Making Them)
When I was in kindergarten, I was obsessed with Pixar’s A Bug’s Life (1998). I was a weird kid, and as far as media for weird kids goes, you can’t do much better than a movie about bugs, starring a smart but awkward outcast who finds a band of misfit failures and ends up saving his entire community and becoming a hero.
I latched on hard to the main character, Flick, in particular. He’s an inventor who is doing his best to be helpful, but his inventions are imperfect. He’s looked down upon by the other members of his colony and is eventually kicked out entirely, only to return and continue to mess up until eventually he saves everyone. While I didn’t have the self-awareness at the age of 5 to understand why I latched on to Flick so hard, the parallels to my own life are painfully apparent now. I, like many queer kids, felt ostracized by others, even my own family. I developed a fascination with science, making, and invention, all with the engineering knowledge of a child, and often made a mess. I eagerly studied and did well in school, only to be pushed out of social circles — being precocious was one thing, but that in conjunction with being one of only a few people of color in an elementary school in the middle of a literal swamp in Florida certainly didn’t help. I was an outcast, but all I wanted to do was be loved and feel seen.
It’s no surprise that queer folk identify with outcasts in media. We love villains, monsters, and boundary-pushers — in part because they’re queer coded, but also because we can identify with the struggles of being pushed out of society. NOTE: I could write volumes on this phenomenon, and many others have, but I won’t go into it to much here. Google, it; it’s a fascinating subject.
There’s one, specific aspect about Flick and characters like him, though, that draws me in, something that didn’t dawn on me until recently. See, I’m a trans man, and while there’s pretty much no representation of us in media, I have noticed a trend of accidental transmasculine characters. And Flick is one of them.
How do I know this? Well, he’s a worker ant, and all worker ants are female. We know he’s not a biological male ant because all male ants, called “drones” are alletes, meaning they have wings (like Princess Atta’s), emerge only to mate, and promptly die after a few weeks. He and Princess Atta do get together at the end of the movie, but Flick doesn’t sprout wings and fly away with her.
So Flick, logically, must be biologically female, but identifies as male and uses male pronouns. A transmasculine icon if I’ve ever seen one.
Is this a stretch? A desperate grab at any kind of representation in a media landscape that is so deprived of trans men that the Wikipedia for trans characters in film only lists 10? Maybe. We’re getting more and more trans representation as of late, but can you blame me for rushing to transgender headcanons? I’m grasping at straws because we don’t even have any straws to grasp. And that’s fine, and I’m going to tell you why.
First, I’m going to discuss what I mean by “a transmasculine icon.” I’ll then give a bunch of examples of these icons from media. After that, I’ll talk about why Hollywood keeps accidentally doing this, why we still connect with characters regardless, and why we’re not seeing actual trans representation. I’ll conclude with a discussion of the performativity of gender and its relationship to fictional characters, which I know sounds esoteric but please stick with me.
What is a Transmasculine Icon?
There’s a reason I’m calling these transmasculine icons instead of transmasculine characters. I’m talking about the phenomenon of ‘cultural icons,’ which credible source Wikipedia.org defines as:
A cultural icon is an artifact that is identified by members of a culture as representative of that culture. The process of identification is subjective, and “icons” are judged by the extent to which they can be seen as an authentic proxy of that culture. When individuals perceive a cultural icon, they relate it to their general perceptions of the cultural identity represented. Cultural icons can also be identified as an authentic representation of the practices of one culture by another.
The part of this definition that I want to emphasize is that cultural icons are authentic proxies, meaning that they are indicative of representation of an identity. In popular culture, being ‘iconic’ is more the cultural significance of the icon — a symbol rather than the thing itself. Perhaps it is appropriate to think of this cultural phenomenon as a question of semiotics, the philosophical concepts that discusses ‘signs’, those things which communicates meaning that is not inherent to the sign itself, like how apple pie is a symbol of American culture but is not itself American culture.
This all to say that a character doesn’t necessarily need to be trans to be a trans icon. A trans icon is a person or thing that symbolizes transness in some way, and I am liberally using this definition to apply the title “transmasculine icon” to characters that feel trans in some way, whether that be through the struggle of facing familial expectations, social ostracism, or gender roles — characters that I and other trans people can connect with because they are an approximate representation of our experience.
The characters that I will be discussing here all fall under the category of a “trans headcanon,” meaning that there’s no explicit confirmation that the characters are trans, but there are some moments that feel like queer subtext and I reserve the right to use those as evidence. NOTE: A ‘headcanon’ is your interpretation of a piece of media where you invent a reality that may not be generally accepted by others or explicitly affirmed in the media itself. This is as opposed to the ‘canon,’ which is what the show explicitly presents, and ‘fanon,’ which is the interpretation that fans of a show generally agree on.
Also, all of these characters are going to be from animation. This is entirely bias on my part as the writer, as I have seen far more animated movies than live-action ones, and I’m not even the slightest bit sorry about that.
Nor am I mentioning characters who are canonically trans, such as Jewelstar from She-Ra (2020), as I am talking about accidental representation rather than intentional representation. By accidental, I mean that the creators did not intend for the characters to ring true to the trans community, though the original intention of creators might be shrouded in some plausible deniability. I’m going to assume that if a character is not explicitly said to be trans and the creators have made no explicit confirmation that the character is trans, but the character still is a transmasculine icon, this is an “accident.”
I’m also not talking about all characters who are coded/could be interpreted as trans, as this essay focuses on transmasculine characters. I would argue that there is significantly more transfeminine representation, for better or for worse, and because of this I want to focus in specifically on transmasculinity.
I’m using “transmasculinity” as an umbrella term for all non-cis gender expressions, including trans men and nonbinary people who identify more with masculinity. This being said, I am personally speaking from the perspective of an AFAB (assigned female at birth) trans man. In my interpretations, I center my own experience. I do not speak for all trans people or all transmasculine people and cannot presume that my interpretations are shared elsewhere.
I would like to invite you to suspend your disbelief with me and have a bit of fun with this list. I’m not interested in arguing about the veracity of these headcanons so please don’t bother.
Without further ado:
The Accidental Transmasculine Icons
Flick is not the only instance of a eusocial insect protagonist who is both a worker and identifies as a man… er… male bug. We of course pretty much all of the ants from the far inferior ant movie of the late 90’s, Woody Allen’s Antz (1998). These ants are not only male, but also display some absurdly hypermasculine ants, complete the glory of war as a backdrop. The protagonist struggles with fitting into this mold and defines his own by the end of the movie.
Staying in the insect world, we also have Barry B. Benson of the internet’s favorite film, Bee Movie (2007). Similar situation here: all worker bees are female, Barry identifies as male. The scene that kicks off the plot of the film has one of the “Pollen Jocks” asking Barry if he is “bee enough,” which is indicative of a desire to be more masculine if I’ve sever seen it. It’s to prove this masculinity that Barry faces a near-death situation and finds the human woman that he precedes to date. He also defines how own role in the colony.
“Enough with insects!” I hear you say. “This is all based on a technicality due to an inaccurate representation of biology!”
Buckle up, it’s about to get wild.
Meet Otis, the protagonist of the 2006 children’s film Barnyard and all the spin-off television show Back at the Barnyard (2007–2010). As you can see, Otis has udders, and guess what bulls don’t have? That’s right, they don’t have udders. Biologically female, presenting as male.
This headcanon is based on more than just biological representation. Otis similarly struggles with being accepted by his family. And then there’s this scene:
Come on, Dreamworks! If this was just for convenience why did you have to include this moment! This might be a throwaway moment, but don’t think for a moment that we forgot it.
We also have Danny Fenton from Danny Phantom (2004–2007). And of course we have the infamous “chest dysphoria” scene, where Desiree, a genie-like villain, asks Danny what his wish is. Danny responds with a defensive “none of your business!” The villain then says “Surely there must be something!” and reaches out, hovering her hand over Danny’s abdomen. Of course there are other — and more likely — interpretations of this scene, such as Danny wishing he could get with his crush or wishing that he had no ghost powers and was “normal.”
I would argue that this lattermost reason, the most plausible reason, still makes him a transmasculine icon. Throughout the series, Danny has to come to terms with the fact that he’s not “normal,” and learns to embrace his ghost powers… but can’t do so in front of his family.. His struggle is hiding who he really is for fear of persecution from his parents, who are ghost hunters that think all ghosts are evil and should be banished. Closeted and cursed/blessed by the thing that makes him different? Yeah, icon
Of course, I have to mention Mulan from the 1998 Disney movie of the same name. It’s no surprise that many transmasculine people (and queer people in general), connect with Mulan: she fails to be “the perfect daughter,” wishes that her “reflection showed who she is inside,” then binds her chest and presents herself as a man in order to join the army. It is under the guise of “Ping” that Mulan is able to be herself, excel, and save China. Though she goes back to living as a woman at the end of the film, she’s still a great example of gender fluidity in defiance of traditional gender roles.
Next up, we have Jim Hawkins from the underrated Disney movie Treasure Planet (2002). I distinctly remember having what I now recognize as gender envy after seeing the movie, as in I wanted to be him in a way that transcended just wanting to be a swashbuckling space pirate (which I also wanted to be).
Jim Hawkins’s narrative, similar to many of these characters, is of a rebellious outcast who is “a stranger” to his mother. His father abandoned his family, leaving Jim without a father figure. Over the course of the story, he gains that father-son relationship he craves from the pirate John Silver, a cyborg. Oh the rant I could go on about trans narratives and science fiction augmentation! Let’s save that for another time.
Also peep that undercut and rat tail!
Another transmasculine icon is Dipper Pines from Gravity Falls (2021–2016). Dipper on multiple occasions struggles with not feeling manly enough. He discusses it throughout the series, culminating in the episode “Dipper vs. Manliness.” There’s a moment in this episode where a woman says to Dipper “I’m sorry, I’m looking for the mailman,” and Dipper flips out, saying, “Oh, what are you saying? I’m not a mailman? I’m not male, and I’m not a man?” which is honestly a big mood. He’s taken under the wing by some “manotaurs” (who are named Pubetaur, Testosoraur, Pituituar, which are references to hormones). On one hand, this is a young character who is going through puberty; on the other hand, being on HRT is going through puberty a second time, complete with terrible mustaches and hair in weird places.
On top of all that, Dipper is a twin, and while they might be fraternal twins instead of identical twins, they could be identical. This is actually the least interesting part of this headcanon to me, if I’m being honest, especially compared with Dipper’s struggle with his masculinity.
There’s a couple of anime characters that I’d like to bring up as well. One such character is Megumi Fushiguro from Jujutsu Kaisen (2020 — present). “Megumi” is more commonly a girl’s name in Japan, and the character talks disparagingly about his father, who gave it to him with no consideration for his gender. Show me a trans guy who can’t relate to being a boy with a girly name, because it ain’t me.
In his backstory, it is revealed that Megumi was a bit of a problem child in middle school, often in defiance of his step-sister, Tsumiki Fushiguro. Tsumiki was cursed and fell into a coma. Megumi is not forthcoming with this information and never visits her with the other characters on-screen. There’s the potential for a metaphor here — Tsumiki representing Megumi’s former femininity, kept dormant and hidden — but I’m not going to follow that rabbit hole in any particular depth.
A more explicit transmasculine character is Haruhi Fujioka from Ouran High School Host Club (2006). Haruhi cuts her hair right before high school following an unfortunate chewing gum incident, and afterwards is confused for a guy, which “doesn’t really bother” her and she takes no precautions to prevent this misunderstanding.
During the series, she dresses as a boy and joins the host club in order to pay off her debts, where she courts women and even kisses one early on in the series. Many plot points in the series are centered around protecting her persona as a guy, people having to come to grips with her gender expression, and being misgendered constantly.
Her dad is also a crossdresser who works at a gay bar, though I’m hesitant to call him trans representation. Let’s call him a problematic fave.
There’s probably many more characters that could be considered transmasculine icons — these examples were just the ones off the top of my head. I’ve excluded some of the less, ah, substantiated headcanons where I’m clearly just projecting, as well as more substantial examples that did not fit the criteria of “character development that deals with themes that are directly related to gender/self-expression.” Let’s say that there’s plenty I haven’t mentioned. Note: Some examples include Zelda/Sheik from the Legend of Zelda series, Lake from Infinity Train, and Pidge from Zoltron.
How does this keep happening?
I’m not naive enough to believe that Hollywood was intentionally creating trans characters to connect with kids like me. This does not mean that these connections are invalid, of course, but we do have to grapple with why this keeps happening — why, despite Hollywood’s refusal to give transmasculine people representation, we still have icons like this.
In this section, I’ll start out with why these characters ended up they way they are, why I don’t expect any transmasculine representation anytime soon, and my theory as to why we continue to claim characters as our own.
NOTE: I’m using Hollywood here as a shorthand for the entire film and animation industry. I know I also mentioned media from Japan, so this is especially inaccurate. I just didn’t want to use the phrase “mainstream media” because of the phrase’s association with conservative media critics. This is definitely me centering my American experience as an American, but I couldn’t think of an easier shorthand, as “the film industry writ large” is just a mouthful.
The Reality Check
If Hollywood is not intentionally creating characters that appeal to trans people, then why do they keep accidentally making them? And why won’t they actually give us more representation?
For starters, there’s just the question of convenience. Often, such as the case of Otis the cow, characters are designed in a way that will streamline production. The animators may only want to create one model to animate, and it’s much easier to just make one cow model and to create characters that are variations of that model than to make two cow models, one male and one female. We also have to consider that the animators wanted to make it clear that the character is a cow, and one of ways that people recognize a cow is with the udders. It is far less likely (even with that scene!) that the animators wanted to create a trans character and more likely that they were doing so for convenience’s sake,
In the case of A Bug’s Life, Antz, and Bee Movie, biological reality is inconvenient. In these cases, they wanted to have male protagonists, and so chose to have male worker ants and bees, ignoring biology. This is emblematic of another problem in Hollywood: sexism.
Even today, movies starring female protagonists are rare, and were especially so back in the late 90s and early 00s, which is, coincidentally perhaps, where a lot of these characters are from. Hollywood takes creative liberties all the time, notably so when avoiding those topics that they just don’t want to deal with. Flick was a male protagonist because he was the star of the show, and while he could have been a female ant and had the exact same story, they just didn’t make him one. Pixar wouldn’t have a female protagonist in one of its movies until 2012, with the release of Brave.
On top of that, we have some specific cases where there was no chance at a female protagonist: Woody Allen had to be the star of Antz, and Jerry Seinfeld had to be the star of Bee Movie, and so the protagonist matched the gender of the actors.
There is also the issue of censorship. Plenty of studios are notorious for forcing creators to squash queer themes in order to “appeal to a global audience,” basically making accommodations for homophobic and transphobic views at the expense of queer representation. Even if the creators wanted to make a character trans, they would not have been allowed to.
Trans perspectives being centered in media are more common now than ever as mindsets open and studios realize that there’s a market for these kinds of stories, but it’s far from the norm. Despite all this progress, however, I’m not holding my breath for Hollywood to allow representations of transmasculinity anytime soon, even though we need it.
What is Hollywood so Afraid Of?
Trans people’s stories are inherently transgressive. Our existence threatens the very basis of biological determination and the veracity of gender roles — if a woman is not a woman because she’s born with a female reproductive system, then how valid could the gendered expectations of women be valid either? By traversing these boundaries and defining our own identities, we attack the societal structures of power based on gender. Those who want to uphold these power structures thus want to prevent trans people from telling our stories and are more vocal now than ever as we gain visibility and sympathy. They believe that validating us invalidates them.
And y’know what? They’re right. We want to dismantle these power structures, because how else can we exist? If we accept that masculinity is defined by the penis, that men are inherently stronger and better than women, then what happens when someone that they expect to be a woman says “no, actually, I’m one of you”? How can they maintain the boundary of power between men and women when that boundary is made fluid? How can men be biologically determined to be better when being a man is not biologically determined?
This is also why we get up in arms when Hollywood attempts to tell trans stories without actually having trans people involved, such as when Scarlett Johansen was cast as a trans man or when Eddie Redmayne played a trans woman. It’s not just because they’re not going to get it right — and trust me, y’all need us to get it right — it’s also because creating these story without us reinforces this power structure. “Sure,” it says, “You can tell your little stories, but only we can use our big Hollywood budgets and only we can be on screen.”
It’s only those few instances where actual trans people get a seat at the table that we are able to openly claim characters as our own and have our stories represented, and we can do it better. For one, there’s plenty of trans actors who could have starred in The Danish Girl (2015) — and a role like that may have kickstarted an entire career. Can you imagine how powerful and inspiring it would have been to watch a trans actress win that Oscar for that performance? How much more authentic the story would have been if an actual transwoman was one of the writers?
This is why shows like Pose (2018 — present) and Euphoria (2019 — present) are so important, and also, I’d argue, why they’re so good. We connect to fiction when it’s authentic, when it feels real, and realness is what we do best.
When cis people tell trans stories, they’re robbing us of opportunities to tell our stories. For the most part, when Hollywood represents trans people, they’re still not actually doing it for us. They’re doing it for other cisgender people. Often, when we see ourselves on screen, it’s presenting our pain and struggle, zooming in on dysphoria, but not those moments of triumph, joy, and euphoria. Yes, of course, struggle is a reality that trans people have to face, and yes, it’s important to show that pain, but more often than not, this is all that is presented.
When talking about this phenomenon, I am reminded of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s work, and particularly her TED Talk about “The Danger of the Single Story.” In it, she discusses how stories, while powerful, also carry with them a certain risk — because stories are how we come to know people and cultures, if we “show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.” Specifically, she is talking about how Western perspectives flatten all of Africa into a reductive vision of poverty, following “a tradition of Sub-Saharan Africa as a place of negatives, of difference, of darkness, of people who, in the words of the wonderful poet Rudyard Kipling, are ‘half devil, half child.’”
While I am not African, I relate to this so much it hurts, and not just because I’m Filipino, and Filipinx people have also been described as ‘half-devil and half child’ (colonizers lack imagination) — it is because it is the same power structures, upheld by racism, colonialism, sexism, and capitalism, that flatten trans stories as well. In re-enforcing difference and pain, Hollywood re-enforces this single story and the power structures it upholds. As Adichie says:
It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is “nkali.” It’s a noun that loosely translates to “to be greater than another.” Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power. Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. (from about 9 minutes into her TED talk)
When Hollywood tells our stories for us and focuses in on pain, they are presenting transness as only pain. As I said, pain is important, but pain is not enough. When I was outed as gay as a teenager (long, long before I figured out I was trans), part of the reason why my parents didn’t want me to be gay was because they knew that being gay would make my life harder and put me in danger… just like how they were by rejecting me. It’s not their fault. This happened in 2008, the year Prop 8 passed in California, at a time where people in same-sex relationships were under media and political attack — just like how trans people are now. They were presented with one story of homosexuality, and this — paired with the outsider perspective of watching the AIDS epidemic, encountering violent homophobia, and the ever-present specter of Catholicism — prompted their rejection. For the sake of not making myself fixate on what could have been, I try not to imagine what it would be like if I was 14 now and could come out in a world where same-sex marriage is legal, where we have so much queer representation in media, and where they had gotten to see role models of the kind of parenting queer people actually need. I imagine that this story looks different now for many young queer people.
As I mentioned previously, I love Pose. It is incredible, revolutionary, talented, brilliant, incredible, amazing, show stopping, spectacular, never the same, totally unique, completely not ever been done before, unafraid to reference or not reference — and entirely necessary. Because trans people are making Pose, the show and characters present an authentic version of our stories, sharing the nuance of experience only available with a primary source.
Yet, I have a hard time watching it. I usually am pretty stone faced with media — the only fictional movie I’ve ever cried to prior was Lilo and Stitch 2 — but Pose had me bawling. It’s a raw, visceral look into what happened to people like me only decades ago, and the show’s conflict centers, as it must, the AIDS epidemic, fetishization, bigotry, and danger. The death of Angelica Ross’s character, Candy, rocked me to my core. I watched it alone, at my computer desk, and found myself curled up and sobbing uncontrollably.
Death is a reality for us. Trans people, especially trans women of color, are murdered at increasing rates, with 2020 being the worst year on record (though note that this record has only existed since 2015, though we have been murdered for much longer than that). We walk the knife’s edge between trying to express ourselves as we really are and being killed for it. We are ten times more likely to commit suicide, are more likely to be sexually assaulted than cis people, and trans teens face homelessness at staggering rates.
Like, we get it.
I am much more interested in stories that move beyond these specific realities — my journey as a trans person is so much more than facing oppression and getting access to gender-affirming health care. I crave fun stories, stories of euphoric proportion, where transness is celebrated in our struggle and our triumph. For me, triumph means more than overcoming obstacles or presenting in a gender-affirming way; it’s also about finding places of community and belonging, defining who I am as a person, and coming into the man I was always meant to be. Hollywood is only just beginning to share this side of our story — and it’s about time.
And Yet, We Still have Icons
Despite Hollywood’s lack of vision/reluctance/inherently exclusive power structures, queer people still claim characters as our own. Though sometimes we do so for inexplicable reasons (I’m looking at you, Babadook), there is a specific appeal for the characters I’ve listed as a transmasculine person.
For one, the male-dominated film industry actually comes with a perk, in a way. Because there are so many male protagonists, many of whom are going through their own coming of age stories, it is fairly common for a character to contend with what it means to be “a man.” Part of my journey as a trans man has been discovering and defining my relationship to masculinity. I too seek out male role models and have to contend with not being “manly enough,” especially given my origin story. Growing up, that wasn’t the framework of my relationship with my father and other older male figures in my life, so I experience it through proxy.
Dysphoria comes in many forms. As far as media coverage goes, I’ve noticed a particular emphasis on body dysphoria — wanting surgery, hormones, medical transition — and often our stories, when they are told, center around these realities. I suspect that this kind of dysphoria is considered more interesting, especially by cisgender people, because it’s an unusual and unique journey with very obvious physical markers. People love to see “before” and “after” pictures of us.
While this is not the only representation we get, I see much fewer stories about social dysphoria — contending with gender dysphoria put on us in social situations. This is the kind of dysphoria that arises from being misgendered or people making assumptions about our gender roles. In my opinion, there’s an over-emphasis on the pronouns conversation — it is, after all, only one item on our list of demands — but pronouns mean something. They’re an indicator of how others perceive us. When someone refers to me as “she,” it’s telling me that they still see me as a woman, regardless of how little I look like one now, how masculine I dress and act, and how many times I have told them that I’m not one. Social dysphoria arises when others don’t see us as how we see ourselves.
It’s ironic that we don’t have more of this kind of representation, because I genuinely believe that this is actually one way that cisgender people and transgender people can relate. Time and time again, we see stories of men who don’t feel “manly enough,” or women who struggle with fitting into the mold of a “perfect daughter/wife” or otherwise being “unladylike.” Even though many of these stories are about cisgender people, they are, in their own way, about social dysphoria, as gender dysphoria is something that everyone experiences. Y’know, because most everyone has gender (oh, and pronouns), and we all have a personal journey to figure out how we fit or don’t fit into gendered expectations.
This is why, unintentionally, Hollywood keeps creating transgender icons — characters that feel like they’re like us, because, despite what the original intentions may be, they are.
I’m expecting pushback to this essay. I’ve already had plenty of arguments on the internet, and all of these arguments are the same: “stop forcing characters to be trans!” and “they’re not trans because we’re never told that they’re trans!”
Ok, for one, congrats on getting this far into the essay even though you oppose my POV. I hope you’re genuinely listening to my point and critically engaging with it, though I would have hoped I’d convinced you by now.
Second off, they’re not real.
And that’s actually very important.
Fictional Characters and the Performativity of Gender
There are so many instances of characters in media that feel like transgender representation, whether it be through gender presentation or character development. Even though these characters were not intended to be trans, we still recognize and connect with them. I believe that this connection happens because of the performativity of gender.
You may have heard the phrase “gender is a performance,” “gender is a social construct,” or perhaps this quote from the ironically transphobic RuPaul:
We are all born naked and the rest is just drag. (Discussed with Oprah here)
This concept of the performativity of gender was originally made popular by the philosopher Judith Butler. Gender performativity means that gender is not inherent to a person, but rather constructed through the performance of that gender. Butler explains:
When we say that gender is performed, we usually mean that we’ve taken on a role; we’re acting in some way…To say that gender is performative is a little different…For something to be performative means that it produces a series of effects. We act and walk and speak and talk that consolidate an impression of being a man or being a woman…we act as if that being of a man or that being of a woman is actually an internal reality or simply something that is true about us. Actually, it is a phenomenon that is being produced all the time and reproduced all the time. (Source)
When Butler speaks of performative, she means that a person is not inherently a specific gender — a man is not a man because he was born male, but rather, he is a man because his actions, speech, and presentation are made such that he is interpreted as a man. Gender, she argues, is social. It is through the performance that one’s gender and the interpretation of ones gender that it arises. The biological reality of a person matters little when we interact with others; it’s not like we’re checking the genitals of every person we meet to confirm that people are cisgender (with the exception of some particularly disgusting legislation that passed recently in Florida). In this way the biological sex of the person is little more than a predictor of what their gender expression is likely to be.
Using this concept as a framework explains the fluidity of gender and how it changes depending on the context. The markers of gender are always in flux across cultures and time, and new modes of expression crop up all the time. When we consider the social construction of gender, we must recognize both pieces of that equation: social and construction.
The “social” in the statement “gender is a social construct” denotes the reality that gender derives meaning from and is expressed in relation to other people. “Masculinity” is only masculinity when it is being acted out as a person; otherwise, it does not exist. “Masculinity” cannot exist in a vacuum as a disembodied concept. There is no gendered “being” that is “doing” gender. The act of “doing” gender is gender. On top of this, those actions that are considered “gender” are all social cues — you dress in a way that other people associate with men or speak in ways you’ve heard other men speak. Identity comes into play as it defines and clarifies one’s intentions and self-perception, informing how one will be and act in front of others. So if I, for example, want to ‘pass’ as a man, then I must look and speak in a way that I want others to interpret as masculine. I relate to those things which I have associated with masculinity, and much of my growth — let’s call it a character arc — deals with grappling with that masculinity and finding what it means for me.
In this way, the construction of gender is inherently collaborative and context-dependent, which leaves room for what I’ll call gender “innovation”; in other words, it is inherent to gender itself that is constructed by each person individually; we take whatever cues, molds, or role models and shape them into our own version. In this way, gender is less a spectrum, with people falling along a line that gradates from masculinity to femininity, and more a playground. People who are nonbinary, for example may present or act in ways that are not confined to the traditional expectations of any particular gender and instead self-define gender. They may or may not blend modes of expression of a mix of genders, combining masculine and feminine, find ways to communicate ‘androgeny’, or reject all of the above and create new ways of expression that are not generally associated with any gender.
This is what it means for gender to be a social construct.
The performativity of gender is especially salient when discussing fictional characters. There is no real person behind a fictional character: they exist within their media and do not exist outside of it. One could argue that they only come to being as the media plays, when it is being watched by people; in other words, there is no story in a book unless someone is reading it, because otherwise it is just ink on paper.
We believe fictional characters are of a specific gender because of the way they’re presented to us: their appearance, their actions, their way of speaking, what they say, and how other people refer to them. In other words, their gender is constructed socially, with the relationship between their performance and the viewer.
Let Us Have This
If a character is interpreted by a viewer as trans, who is to say that they’re not? Without a biological reality, there is no ‘sex’ to reckon with. There is no ‘cisgender’ and there is no ‘transgender,’ as these terms, as applied to people, relate directly to the relationship between biology and identity. For a fictional character, there is only the performance, and that performance is where meaning is created.
I believe that art in any form, including film and television, acquires meaning from its viewers regardless of the creators’ original intent. This is why, for example, many queer people still are part of the Harry Potter fandom even after J.K. Rowling revealed herself to be vehemently transphobic — that world and its characters took on new meaning that far outstretches what Rowling initially created, and it is that part of the fandom that people connect most to, not just the movies and books.
When we connect emotionally to a character, be it because they feel trans or not, we are constructing a meaningful relationship between fiction and our own lives. The relationship we have to any character creates depth that is not inherent to the media itself. Everyone knows what it feels like to have a favorite character and to feel excited when the character comes onscreen, regardless of how minor a character they are. Character arcs disappoint us when the character does not change in the way we want or expect them to, and I would argue that this disappointment is akin to when a real person disappoints us, though usually we direct this disappointment to the writers of a show for not giving us what we wanted.
A trans headcanon is just another form of a relationship with a fictional character. Trans people connect with characters like anyone else, and this form of connection often comes about because we see parallels with our own lives. It’s no surprise that when we connect with a character, sometimes it’s because we interpret them as trans. Being trans is a defining component of who I am, and when I see myself in a fictional character, I want to see all of myself. I recognize my story in another’s and the freedom of fiction allows me to interpret the character however I want, just as you can interpret the same character however you want. My interpretation of a character of trans isn’t erasure of a cisgender interpretation; it’s just another interpretation.
Ultimately, the goal of fiction is to craft a story that connects with people and thus it focuses on those things that people connect to: identity, self-discovery, growth, relationships, and belonging. And trans people, being people, connect to those things too.