[Note: this essay was originally published on May 6th 2019 on my tumblr]
NOTE: this is a semi-rewritten (I tried to make the language slightly less academic and easier to read for instance) version of an essay I once wrote for a university course. I remembered it and wanted to look it over and publish it here too!
A lot of the time representation of trans people in movies and such is highly stereotypical and hurtful. For instance, the inclusion of trans characters may be to use them as a joke, and oftentimes their gender identity and transition is made light of (GLAAD 2017). The focus is often on the character’s body in a way that is exotifying and sensationalising (Straube 2014, 46-47). Trans characters are also frequently framed as deceivers or as fake, often in connection to this focus of the body and how it apparently does not match the gender of the character. This limits the character’s ability for self-determination since the audience is supposed to see this apparent mismatch and therefore conclude what the character’s gender so to say “really is”. This description of trans people as deceivers also often appear in real life, for instance in the use of the “trans panic defence” after hate crimes and murder (Bettcher 2013, 279). The “trans panic defence” claims that because the transgender person has deceived you by not stating their status as trans you are justified in using violence against them. But as Bettcher points out there is often a double bind for trans people, because if they do not come out as trans they are labelled as deceivers if people find out that they are trans, but if they do come out as trans they risk discrimination and violence (Bettcher 2013, 282-283). But even though there are many negative portrayals of trans people, there are also some positive ones, and one of those I would claim is the character Alex Fierro in the novel “Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard: The Hammer of Thor” (Riordan 2016). This text will therefore examine the role Alex plays in the novel and how she is described by comparing her to the common way trans characters are described, but also in relation to theories of the trans person as a monster and animal.
Transgender people have often been viewed as less than human, even monstrous, but the identity of a monster is something that some trans people have reclaimed (Stryker 2006). Being trans can feel like being a monster, too different to fit into the world (Wagner 2010). One way of coping with that can be to embrace the monstrous identity. Another way of looking at transness is to consider the diversity in nature when it comes to sex and gender (Roughgarden 2013). Oftentimes binary sex is considered something natural, but as Roughgarden shows this is often not the case with non-human animals. For instance, there are many organisms which changes sex throughout their lifetimes, and there are organisms where there exists more than two genders and they do not necessarily correspond to one specific sex (Roughgarden 2013, 150-151).
Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard: The Hammer of Thor is the second novel in the urban fantasy series “Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard” which takes place in contemporary USA, but in this universe the Norse gods still exist (Riordan 2016). The protagonist, Magnus Chase, is a demigod who after he dies ends up in the Norse afterlife Valhalla and experiences several adventures with the people he meets there. This includes, in the second novel, the demigod Alex Fierro who is the gender fluid child of the god Loki. Alex grew up on Midgard (the human world) in a human family who neither liked Loki nor their child for being gender fluid, something they blamed on the god (Riordan 2016, 288). The novel presents Loki as gender fluid as well, having temporarily been a woman who got pregnant with Alex’s dad (which is similar to a story from the Norse myths), and it is out of that union that Alex is born (Riordan 2016, 300). Loki is also a shapeshifter and is thus capable of changing into for instance animals, an ability that Alex has inherited and embraces. This is in direct contrast to her cis half-sister Samirah who avoids using her shapeshifting ability at all cost because of its connection to Loki. Alex is a very tough person who informs the main characters that she is gender fluid immediately and to “Call me she– unless and until I tell you otherwise.” (Riordan 2016, 64). Later she says that “I’m gender fluid and transgender, idiot. Look it up if you need to, but it’s not my job to educate-“ (Riordan 2016, 70). Alex later explains that she uses both she/her and he/him pronouns depending on if she feels female or male at the time, and prefer that to they/them because shifting between she/her and he/him more accurately signify the fluidity in her gender (Riordan 2016, 286). In the story Alex’s gender is very much tied up with her shapeshifting ability, however she cannot change her gender at will, something she herself finds ironic (Riordan 2016, 285-286). Her shapeshifting ability is also very much connected to the fact that she is the child of Loki. Loki often symbolise flexibility and change, but also slipperiness and manipulation, and many other characters are therefore mistrustful of Alex at first (Riordan 2016, 52 & 92). This mistrustfulness continues throughout the novel, but Magnus and the other characters continually starts trusting her and becoming her friend.
The way Alex is described differs in many ways from how trans people are often portrayed. Her gender is not played as a joke, and there is not a lot of focus on her body. It is not even completely clear what her assigned gender at birth was, since it is never mentioned in the novel, which is very refreshing. She is also given a lot of own agency in that she defines her gender herself and tells the other characters which pronouns to use. In that way the novel avoids falling into the trap of other characters or the reader determining a trans character’s gender. While the common description of trans people as deceivers because of their gender does not show up directly in the novel, the other characters are mistrustful of Alex. This is mainly because she is the child of Loki, who is known to be manipulative, but it is also tied to her shapeshifting ability which is a large part of her fluid identity. Therefore, this can in a metaphorical way be viewed as another way of seeing trans people as manipulative and deceiving. However, by the end of the novel the main characters do trust her, which gives it a hopeful ending.
It is very interesting how Alex has magical shapeshifting abilities and how this is very much connected to her gender fluidity. Alex embraces this ability to shift and change in a way that can be considered similar to how trans people may embrace being a monster. This is especially clear since Alex’s sister Samirah, who is cis, does not want to use her shapeshifting ability. Alex however wants to be viewed as changeable and fluid and feels like this is who she truly is. This can also be seen in her wish to use both she/her and he/him pronouns, but not they/them, because she wants to showcase this fluidity. The fact that she as a gender fluid person can turn into non-human animals is also very interesting considering the fluidity of many animal’s genders/sex. Many non-human animals change their gender or sex throughout their lives, and it can therefore be considered very symbolic that Alex can shapeshift into animals. However, the novel states that Alex cannot change her own gender at will, even though she can change her shape at will. This might be to dispel the idea that transness is something one chooses though.
In conclusion one can consider Alex Fierro an uncommonly good example of trans representation. Unlike many other fictional characters, she is given (or rather takes) the opportunity to define her gender rather than having it done for her. While she is framed as untrustworthy in the beginning of the novel this is changed by the end. The connection of her shapeshifting ability to her gender fluidity is also very interesting and reminds one of the self-identification of a monster that trans people might employ. Her ability to change into other animals can also be considered significant considering the fluidity of sex and gender that exists in nature.
Bettcher, T. M., 2013. Evil Decievers and Make-Believers: On Trans Violence and the Politics of Illusion. in: S. Stryker & A. Z. Aizura, ed. The Transgender studies reader 2. New York: Routledge, pp. 278-290.
GLAAD, 2017. 2017 Studio Responsibibility Index.
Riordan, R., 2016. Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard: The Hammer of Thor. New York: Disney Hyperion.
Roughgarden, J., 2013. Sex and Diversity, Sex versus Gender, and Sexed Bodies. Excerpts from Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People. in: S. Stryker & A. Z. Aizura, ed. The Transgender Studies Reader 2. New York: Routledge, pp. 147-155.
Straube, W., 2014. Transcinema and it’s exit scapes: A Transfeminist Reading of Utopian Sensibility and Gender Dissidence in Contemporary Film. Lindköping: Lindköping University.
Stryker, S., 2006. My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage. in: S. Stryker & S. Whittle, ed. The Transgender Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, pp. 244-256.
Wagner, A. C., 2010. On Beasts and Elves: An Intervention Into Normative Imaginaries. Graduate Journal of Social Science, pp. 44-56.