Transnormativity and Trans(gender)nationalism through Transmasculine representation in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Fandom

Elyan Stenel

 

Transgender characters in mainstream films and TV series are, despite some progress, still rare and often subject to stereotyping. Regularly portrayed by cisgender (non-trans) actors wearing transness like a costume, they suffer the recurrence of evil or tragic trans characters, which promulgates a narrative influencing both trans and cisgender people’s perception of transness.[1]

Transmen and transwomen face equally harmful but, in some aspects, very different issues in regard to representation in the media. Where transwomen are hyper-visible as stereotyped sexualized cisgender fantasies, transmen are invisible and infantilized. As a trans man, I chose to concentrate on the issues faced by transmen and transmasculine people.[2]

Approaching the subject of transgender male identity through the scope of the interpretation of transmasculine characters in mainstream media productions by fans and the portrayal of transmasculinity in fandom, I looked at fanarts portraying a trans-interpretation of Peter Parker (Spider-man) from the Marvel Cinematic universe, and considered the significance of these interpretations along with their place within mainstream transmasculine representations.

A fandom is a community of fans. From music to sports to celebrities, the objects of focus of fandom are endless. The type of fandom I am focusing on is media fandom, specifically transformative media fandom, whose main mode of fan-activity is the creation of fanworks: fanfictions (written stories), fanarts (visual art), fan videos, and more. Through these fanworks, fans intervene in the canon of the piece of media they are dedicated to and one way in which they do so is through the act of queering characters and relationships. The popularity of same-sex fictional couples in fandom[3] has defined fandom as a safe space for queer fans and the exploration of queer identity, as such many queer people, including trans people, turn to fandom to find and create the varied queer and trans content they were looking for.[4]

In this context, I suggest that while these interpretations of the MCU’s Peter Parker are not inherently harmful and do have many positive aspects, they reveal a broader dynamic toward the establishment of a restrictive, exclusionary narrative of the transmasculine experience as the only valid way to be a trans man. Through this approach, I discuss how transnormavity applies to transmen and, building on Jasbir Puar’s works on homonationalism (2007), I propose a theory of trans(gender)nationalism through which “normative” trans people attempt to find acceptance in a system that rejects transness by investing in it and thus participating in the continuing exclusion and abuse of transpeople who cannot or do not want to conform.

Fig. 1: Spiderman holding Captain America’s shield, still from Captain America: Civil War (2016).

 

Transnormativity is defined by Z Nicolazzo as “the belief that there is only one way for trans* people to practice their gender (Boldly Go, 2013),”[5] specifying that it excludes non-binary people and gender fluidity completely as it suggests that trans people can only transition from one binary sex to another. Austin Johnson, in “Transnormativity: A New Concept and Its Validation through Documentary Film About Transgender Men*” writes that transnormativity is:

[…] a regulatory normative ideology that structures interactions in every arena of social life. As a regulatory normative ideology, transnormativity should be understood alongside heteronormativity (Berlant and Warner 1998; Ingraham 1994; Warner 1991) and homonormativity (Duggan 2003; Seidman 2002) as both an empowering and constraining ideology that deems some trans people’s identifications, characteristics, and behaviors as legitimate and prescriptive (e.g., those that adhere to a medical model) while others’ are marginalized, subordinated, or rendered invisible (e.g., those that do not adhere to a medical model) (Jackson 2006; Rich 1980). (Johnson, 466-467)

In “Challenging “Getting Better” Social Media Narratives with Intersectional Transgender Lived Experiences,” Oliver Haimson remarks that “transgender people’s own narratives of their gender transitions and lives are often affected by broader media influences” and notes the existent disparity between these narratives and the real lives of trans people:

These types of narratives—that transgender people’s lives and well-being will and should improve throughout and after transition—are pervasive in the media […]. However, in reality, transgender people face many other life transitions and experiences during and after gender transition (e.g., relationship changes, job changes), as well as intersecting identity facets (e.g., race/ethnicity, class), all of which also affect emotional well-being over time. (Haimson et al. 4495)

Any “step” portrayed as necessary to be trans, such as medically transitioning, can be a personal goal, a source of joy and a necessity for the well-being of many trans people, but it can equally surface as a source of anxiety, a cause of violence, another way to be pressured into conforming.

Recognizing the impact trans representation in the media can have, I consider how these narratives intersect with larger issues through a global popular franchise like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Since Marvel started its cinematic universe, which is now an extremely popular international phenomenon and the highest grossest movie franchise in the world as of 2021, its presence in the mainstream media sphere is almost inescapable and its influence is undeniable. Even more so since it was acquired by The Walt Disney Company in 2009, contributing to Disney’s progress toward holding a monopoly in the media industry.

In an opinion piece published in The Daily Bruin, UCLA’s main campus newspaper, Joice, he notes that, “Disney is infamously bad at representation ‒ namely LGBTQ+ representation.”[6] This is an issue with outlying consequences on animated movies, which I would extend to live action movies, TV series and other types of media Disney produces.

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Relating to the issue of representation and diversity, the omnipresence of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) worldwide brings into focus the connection between Marvel and the American military and the part this link plays in the reproduction of systems of oppressions. Systems of oppressions are perpetuated inside the military itself, some specifically against queer people. The status of trans people in the US military has been particularly unstable. Until 2016, there was a blanket ban on transgender people serving in the military. In 2018, a memo by Donald Trump reinstated the limitations on trans people in the military. This was reversed in 2021 by President Joe Biden, but as laws aiming at reducing the rights of trans people are regularly introduced in various levels of the US legislative system, there is no certainty that such limitations will not ever be reintroduced. It is in this context of imperialism and transphobia that I consider the involvement of the US military in entertainment. Although Marvel might not involve the military directly in the plot of every movie of the MCU, its involvement is noticeable. This is not a setup unique to the MCU and largely predates the franchise.

The Department of Defense (DOD) has a long-standing relationship with Hollywood. It has been working with filmmakers for nearly 100 years with a goal that’s two-fold: to accurately depict military stories and make sure sensitive information isn’t disclosed. In 2018, the Department of Defense even published an article titled “How & Why the DOD Works With Hollywood.” In the section “There can be tension with filmmakers,” the power of decision the DOD wields is directly admitted: “There are compromises on both sides. There’s a point where we just have to say no ‒ ‘It’s either going to happen like this, or it’s not going to happen at all,’” Hyde said, although he admitted it rarely comes to that.”

That the DOD got involved in Marvel movies is not surprising as the superhero genre is well-equipped to promote (or criticize) the military. In “Fighting the Battles We Never Could: The Avengers and Post-September 11 American Political Identities,” Hagley and Harrison argue the whole superhero genre’s popularity that can be connected to 9/11 and the war on terror:

The post-September 11 resurrection of the superhero genre, particularly in film, is a direct response to the feelings of helplessness and terror that Americans experienced in the days and years following the attack. This renewed interest is also a revealing look at the psyche of a nation as it struggled with war, retribution, and its own constitutional and democratic imperatives. (Hagley & Harrison 120)

Fig 2: The Avengers preparing for battle in a New York under attack, still from The Avengers (2012).

 

Taking this context into account, a trans interpretation of Peter Parker that does not question the oppressive, imperialistic elements of his story line within the MCU makes him not just a symbol of transnormativity but an active enforcer of both transnormativity and US nationalism.

In Terrorist Assemblages (2007), Puar introduces the concept of “homonationalism,” defining it as a “dual movement in which certain homosexual constituencies have embraced U.S. nationalist agendas and have also been embraced by nationalist agendas” (Puar 32). She argues that current US nationalism, while based on heteronormativity, now also relies on “homonormative ideologies that replicate narrow racial, class, and gender national ideals” (Puar 33). In the chapter “Sexuality of Terrorism,” she explains that the terrorist figure is racialized and sexualized in ways that are outside the acceptable norms of multiculturalism and considered perverse. This creates a binary system of “‘‘you’re either with us or against us’’” (Puar 38) that reinforces what is deemed acceptable. Through the war on terror, some queer people found acceptance in US nationalism, leading to what is Puar calls homonationalism, a contraction of “homonormative nationalism.” Homonationalism produces what Puar describes as “contradictions inherent in the idealization of the United States as properly multicultural heteronormative but nevertheless gay-friendly, tolerant and sexually liberated society […]” (Puar 39). Akin to Puar, Paola Bacchetta argues that the “USA, formed through violence, now sets itself up as the beacon of freedom for the world” (Bacchetta & Haritaworn, 130). She further interrogates:

Who is left behind when social movements in the North attempt to go global? As LGBT movements and sexuality studies are turning to race and the Global South, who can speak for sexual and gendered subalterns? Who’s genders and sexualities gain value, visibility and universality, and whose are patronised, particularised or marginalised in international LGBT rights “connectivities” […]? How many single-issue agendas around gay marriage, gays in the military and hate crime benefit a small handful of professionalized activisits, often white gay non-trans men, in the Global North […]? (Bacchetta & Haritaworn, 128)

Expending the concept of homonationalism to transgender identity could be confusing as the term transnationalism already has a meaning unrelated to gender. However, since transnormativity exists alongside, intersecting with homonormativity, it is coherent that a trans(gender)nationalism exists as well, and that through this trans(gender)nationalism a number of acceptable stances and norms for trans people are produced, shared through media productions and get replicated in fandoms. Through trans(gender)nationalism, trans people can conform themselves to embrace nationalist ideals and pretend to be full citizens, not in legal terms but rather socially. Especially in the US with the prevalence of the concept of American exceptionalism which claims that the United States is inherently different and better from other countries, the participation in the promotion of the country through nationalism is heavily supported. As trans people invest in a system that rejects them in an attempt to find acceptance and belonging within it, they consolidate the hardship it implements for those who are entirely excluded from it. Non-binary people, fat trans people, trans people of color, disabled trans people, trans refugees, trans immigrants, poor trans people, indigenous trans people, older trans people, trans Muslims, the list is endless. And even for the most privileged, for the white, thin, young, healthy and wealthy trans people, the possibility of being rejected by the system is omnipresent. Trans(gender)nationalism is intrinsically exclusionary.

Transformative media fandom does not have the same power when it comes to representation that mainstream media does. Despite its growing visibility, it is still a marginal phenomenon. As such, putting the responsibility of “good” representation on fandom rather than on mainstream media would be unfair to fans and would not have a large impact, but that does not mean that the way fandoms represent marginalized identities cannot be criticized. Any community, including fandoms, cannot become a safer space for trans people if it excludes people of color, older people, migrants, disabled people, people from outside of the United States, and other historically excluded minorities. There are, in fandom like in society, always possibilities of change and progress.

Elyan Stenel completed a Master in English Studies at the Université de Paris Diderot in 2021 and is currently working on applications to PhD programs to continue his research. His research focus is queer and transgender identities viewed through the lens of popular culture and fandom. He can be contacted at: es.stenel@gmail.com

Works cited

Bacchetta, Paola & Jin Haritaworn. “There are Many Transatlantics: Homonationalism, Homotransnationalism and Feminist–Queer–Trans of Colour Theories and Practices.” Transatlantic Conversations, Routledge, 2011, p. 127‑43. doi:10.4324/9781315550305.

Hagley, Annika & Micheal Harrison. “Fighting the Battles We Never Could: The Avengers and Post-September 11 American Political Identities.” PS: Political Science & Politics, vol. 47, no 01, January 2014, p. 120-24. doi:10.1017/S1049096513001650.

Haimson, Oliver L. “Challenging “Getting Better” Social Media Narratives with Intersectional Transgender Lived Experiences.” Social Media + Society, vol. 6, no 1, January 2020. doi:10.1177/2056305120905365.

Haimson, Oliver L. et al. “Rethinking (and Retheorizing) Transgender Media Representation: A Roundtable Discussion.” International Journal of Communication [Online], 14, 2020.

Johnson, Austin H. “Transnormativity: A New Concept and Its Validation through Documentary Film About Transgender Men.” Sociological Inquiry, vol. 86, no 4, November 2016, p. 465-91. doi:10.1111/soin.12127.

Nicolazzo, Z. “‘It’s a Hard Line to Walk’: Black Non-Binary Trans* Collegians’ Perspectives on Passing, Realness, and Trans*-Normativity”.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, vol. 29, no 9, October 2016, p. 1173-88. doi:10.1080/09518398.2016.1201612.

Puar, Jasbir K. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times: Tenth Anniversary Expanded Edition. Duke University Press, 2017.


[1] The roles of the tragic transgender characters in the movies Boys Don’t Cry (1999), Dallas Buyers Club (2013) and The Dannish Girl (2015) earned Academy Award wins for the cisgender actors portraying them, illustrating the critical and commercial success of this type of narrative.

[2] The scarcity of trans characters is noted in the 2019-2020 Glaad Media Report: “Of the 488 total regular and recurring LGBTQ characters on scripted primetime broadcast, cable, and streaming programs, only 38 (eight percent) are transgender, and they appear on only 28 shows. […] Of the 38 characters counted in this report, there are 21 transgender women, 12 trans men, and five non-binary characters.” (Where We Are on TV 2019-2020. Glaad Media Institute, p.28-30, https://www.glaad.org/sites/default/files/GLAAD%20WHERE%20WE%20ARE%20ON%20TV%202019%202020.pdf.)

[3]The relationship tags on the Archive of Our Own, an online fanfiction archive, demonstrates the popularity of same-sex relationships in fandoms, with, as of February 5th 2022,  4153910 works tagged with “m/m”, indicating they contain a relationship between two men, and 769079 works tagged with “f/f”, relationships between two women, for a total of 4 922 989 works containing either or both gay male and female relationships. In contrast, there are 2109506 tagged with “f/m”, referring to a relationship between a man and a woman.

[4] Lothian, Alexis, Kristina Busse, Robin Anne Reid; ““Yearning Void and Infinite Potential”: Online Slash Fandom as Queer Female Space.” English Language Notes 45.2, 2007, p. 103–111.

Rose, Jonathan A. ““My Male Skin”: (self-)narratives of transmasculinities in fanfiction,” European Journal of English Studies 24.1, 2020, p. 25-36.

[5] Nicolazzo, Z. « ‘It’s a Hard Line to Walk’: Black Non-Binary Trans* Collegians’ Perspectives on Passing, Realness, and Trans*-Normativity ». International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, vol. 29, no 9, Oct. 2016, p. 1175.

[6] He, Joice. “Opinion: Disney’s Growing Monopoly Breeds Uniformity in Animation.” Daily Bruin, 12 April 2021, https://dailybruin.com/2021/04/12/opinion-disneys-growing-monopoly-breeds-uniformity-in-animation/.


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