So, I want to introduce you to two characters. On the left is Claire Augustus from Jeph Jacques’ webcomic Questionable Content and on the right is Alysia Yeoh from Gail Simone’s Batgirl. These two have a great deal in common, stemming from the fact that both characters are transgendered. Both were create with a deliberate eye to improving the representation of transpeople in the media and I think its eerie how similar the methodologies of both Simone and Jacques are in this regard.
I think the thing that interests me the most about these characters is the fact that their sexuality is not the main focus of their character. Both are written as well rounded individuals who, incidentally, happen to be trans. The fact that they are trans is not played for conflict in any way, and in both “coming out” issues, the respective protagonists in each series take the character’s gender in stride. In Alysia’s case, the character is a “civilian” in a superhero book, which I understand was a very deliberate choice by the author. Furthermore, neither character is illustrated in a way that differentiates them from the cis females in the same book. These characters look to represent transpeople in a very human way. Again, it’s refreshing to see a representation that does not focus on the sexuality of the character in question.
That having been said, these characters do frustrate me a little. While on the one hand they represent very character driven portrayals, I’m concerned with how insignificant their genders are to their stories as a whole. Both authors use “coming out” as a trope to solidify the friendship between the protagonist and the trans side character. However, beyond this, these characters’ trans status is not used for any other sort of development. These characters could very easily be replaced by cis characters without dramatically affecting the narrative of the stories they appear in.
So, on the one hand I do appreciate that both authors have put tremendous effort into creating realistic trans characters. And, I admit, I like the idea of portraying trans characters without making their gender the defining aspect of the character. At the same time, neither series has thus far meaningfully delved into what it means to be trans. We haven’t seen either character deal with gender dysphoria, discrimination, transphobia or any of the other struggles that transpeople face.
Representation is a tough nut to crack and I do think that both Jacques and Simone deserve a great deal of praise for these characters. This isn’t meant to be overly critical. I think that the point I want to make is that these sorts of representational struggles represent a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” sort of situation. I suspect I would be just as disappointed if Batgirl became a supporting character in her own book so that Alysia’s struggles as a transwoman could take center stage.
In the end, I think the secret is diversity. While works of the sort that Simone and Jacques are producing help, we need writers to tackle trans related issues in a variety of ways. After all, I do not think that the issue is that there are not enough LGBT characters in the media; the problem is that most LGBT characters fall into one or two predictable roles. So I think that the key is to broaden the diversity of said characters, which is exactly what these two are doing.