Content warning: transphobia, violence, sexual violence
Spoiler warning: spoilers for season 3 of The Umbrella Academy
In the time leading up to season three of The Umbrella Academy, many people wondered how the show would handle Elliot Page coming out as trans given that his character on the show had previously been presented as a woman. Promotional material leading up to the season gave us a sneak peek of Page as Viktor Hargreeves, a clearly masculine-presenting character. But how would they present this shift? Was it a version from another timeline? Was this the same character as before that had transitioned? So, when I sat down to watch the new season, I was very curious, to say the least. As it turned out, the show simply decided to have Viktor be the same character as before but has him transition into, well, Viktor. The show never specifically gives him a label, but it seems that the audience is supposed to read him as a trans masculine character.
In this essay, I want to discuss just how the show portrays Viktor Hargreeves, both from my perspective as someone with a master’s degree in gender studies and as a trans person myself. But before going further, I thought I should make some things clear. This essay is based on certain values and assumptions, for instance, that trans people deserve respect and dignity, that trans people should be represented in different forms of media, and that trans characters in media should be represented in a respectful (or at least not harmful or offensive) way. I will therefore not engage in any discussion about if it was the right call to have Elliot Page’s character reflect Page’s own transition. I realise some viewers are upset by this decision for a variety of reasons, but that’s not my focus here. My focus is on how Pages’ character Viktor Hargreeves was portrayed in season 3, not whether he should exist.
To start off, I thought it’d be helpful to summarise how the show presents Viktor’s transition and his coming out. In episode one, after the family is thrown into yet another strange place on the timeline, we see Viktor being contemplative and considering what this new life will entail. He clearly mourns his partner Sissy whom he left behind, someone who as he says, “saw me for who I really am. I’m not ready to give that up.” In that episode, there is also a telling moment after Allison tells him that “you’re a good sister.” Viktor looks sort of melancholy, a hint at how he doesn’t feel fully comfortable with the designation as “sister”.
Then in episode two, Viktor is looking through history books to see how the world remembers the group’s previous time-jumping adventures and learns that his partner Sissy has passed away. He remembers her saying, “You have given me the greatest gift of a lifetime. You let me feel alive for the first time. You helped me find hope again. That’s a wonderful thing. You don’t even notice the box that you’re in until someone comes along and lets you out.” Taken together with Viktor’s previous comment that Sissy saw him for who he really was, it seems like the implication is that this queer relationship helped Viktor see through and break free from society’s restrictive gender and sexuality norms. And right after Viktor has this moment of remembering his partner, he goes to a barbershop and gets a short haircut.
After this physical transition of sorts comes the social one, where Viktor introduces himself as Viktor to three of his siblings, saying that it’s “who I’ve always been.” The siblings look a bit confused, but when Viktor follows that up with “Uh, is that an issue for anyone?” we get these lovely replies:
Diego: Nah, I’m good with it.
Klaus: Yeah, me too. Cool.
Five: Truly happy for you, Viktor.
And then they move on to other topics at hand. The next coming-out moment is with Allison, where Viktor explains that he’s making a few changes and that it’s “a bit more” than the hair. We don’t get to see the full explanation, the show cuts to Allison’s reaction which is at once lovely and the type of reaction I think many LGBTQ+ people have experienced:
Allison: Why didn’t you tell me sooner?
Viktor: I didn’t—Well, I…
Allison: Uh I just… I can’t believe I never realised
Viktor: Well, how would you?
Allison: No, I know, I just feel like such an asshole.
This sort of situation with a loved one focusing on how they should have realised earlier probably feels familiar to a lot of LGBTQ+ people. But as Viktor points out:
You couldn’t have known ‘cause, I mean, I didn’t fully. Being with Sissy. I don’t know. She… opened something in me. Showed me I’d never be free hiding from who I really am. And after losing her, I realized… I just can’t live in that box anymore. I won’t. You know, I always hated mirrors. I thought everyone felt so strange in their skin. I guess that’s not true, right?
Allison: What do you see now?
Viktor: Me. Just me.
Allison then goes on to thank him for trusting her with all of this, making it clear that he’s family and that she loves him.
Then in episode three, we get the last sibling, Luther, finding out about Viktor. Interestingly enough, he finds out when he uses Viktor’s old name and Diego corrects him. Again, it’s not made into a big deal (besides Luther lamenting that he has missed things while he was temporarily kidnapped by their enemies). However, later in the episode, we get this exchange.
Luther: This whole, uh, Viktor thing.
Luther: Well, it’s a pretty big deal, right?
Diego: I guess, for him. It’s whatever.
Luther: Well, should we say something? You know? I mean, make a formal gesture? Welcome him as brothers.
Diego: God, no. Just roll with it man. Don’t say anything, and don’t be weird.
Luther: Okay. But not saying anything feels weird, right? I mean… Shouldn’t we, I don’t know, mark the occasion somehow?
Diego: You just wanna throw a party.
Luther: Why do you hate tiny sandwiches?
Viktor: Hey, what’s up?
Diego: Luther wants to throw you a big, stupid party so you feel loved.
Diego: Do you feel loved?
Viktor: Yeah, I… I do.
Diego: Good. You are. Can we all get back to saving the world now?
Luther: I… I really like the hair. Is that a number 10? Yeah, that’s a good choice. Really… frames your face.
It’s an incredibly wholesome scene, and in many ways shows just how the show intends to handle this situation. Every character reacts a bit differently, but they all react positively. I also personally love Diego’s point, that this is a big deal for Viktor but that they shouldn’t make it into an unnecessarily big thing. They just need to make sure he knows he’s loved. Throughout the rest of the season, all the characters use the correct name and pronouns for Viktor and the siblings refer to him as their brother. There is also the absolutely lovely moment of Luther asking Viktor to be the best man at his wedding, which clearly touches Viktor. The siblings might fight and argue a lot, but even when they are pissed at Viktor, they are never transphobic. They might be angry at him, but they always respect him as their brother.
So, having summarised how Viktor’s transition and coming out is portrayed, what do I think of it? Well, I generally think it worked quite well. When I first watched the season, I thought it was a bit rushed, especially in regards to Viktor’s own process of coming to terms with his gender identity. But upon a second watch, I felt like it worked better. The show tied it to his queer experiences last season, and it makes sense to not want to lose time living in a box (as he puts it) when you have lived through two apocalypses. Furthermore, I get that the showrunners (and probably Elliot Page) wanted to get to the point of Viktor presenting as a man relatively quickly. As it is, the show still gets a lot of very nice and meaningful moments in there, as outlined above. I wanted to look at two of them a bit more closely, and specifically how they relate to common trans tropes.
Firstly, I wanted to discuss what you might call the “I was born this way” trope. Viktor comes quite close to it when coming out to Diego, Klaus, and Five, saying that Viktor is “who I’ve always been.” Trans people describing their gender as something they’ve always been or always known is quite common, both in media and in real life. As Spencer Garrison notes, this is a common narrative and relatively accepted, so trans people tend to employ it when narrating their life stories so that their lives will make sense to others (2018). That doesn’t mean that it’s some sort of trick, a narrative only used to convince others. It simply means that this is a way of explaining a very complex experience in a way that others can understand. It’s worth noting, however, that trans writer and scholar Julia Serano has questioned the usage of the “born this way” narrative, arguing that it might be contra-productive in the fight for LGBTQ+ equality (Serano 2022). Serano notes that when she grew up in the 1970s and 1980s “people would often treat the revelation that someone they knew was LGBTQ as though it were a potential contamination event. “ That is to say, LGBTQ+ identities were seen as contagious. While this is still the case today to a certain degree (especially in among conservatives), it’s less so than 40 years ago. As Serano writes:
In subsequent decades, there has been growing acceptance of LGBTQ people, much of it hinging on the public understanding that we are ”born this way.” Within LGBTQ communities, that phrase evokes mixed reactions. Some feel that it accurately captures their experience of knowing from childhood that they were different, and finding that there was nothing they could do to make those feelings go away. But others have critiqued ”born this way” for its failure to account for their later-in-life shifts in identity, their experiences with gender or sexual fluidity, and/or that the phrase gives the impression that LGBTQ people have suffered some kind of ”birth defect.” Because of its success, anti-LGBTQ campaigners have worked hard to upend the ”born this way” narrative. This is why they have long flaunted ”ex-gays,” and more recently, people who detransition, as though the existence of such individuals disproves the authenticity and longevity of all of our identities. And now, they are citing the growing LGBTQ population as supposed evidence that our identities are merely ”trendy” (…) or worse, the result of ”social engineering”.(Serano 2022)
Essentially, they’re trying to revive the idea of queerness being contagious. In light of this new wave of anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment, Serano argues that the “born this way” narrative might be ineffective. As she notes, many people seem to assume that LGBTQ+ people being born this way means that the number of LGBTQ+ people in the world should be static. That more people come out as LGBTQ+ nowadays (as the world grows more accepting) is, therefore, a sign of queerness being contagious in these people’s eyes. Serano, therefore, suggests that a shift in language could therefore be beneficial:
In my own writings, I often describe gender and sexual diversity as being intrinsic and inexplicable. By inexplicable, I mean that none of us can precisely say for sure why we turned out to be gay, or trans, or otherwise. Nor can we say why some people come to this self-understanding as children, others during adolescence, and still others as adults. (…) By intrinsic, I mean that our sexual orientations and gender identities typically arise in an unconscious manner, are deeply felt, and are not readily repressed or ignored. While language and culture may influence how we make sense of, or act upon, those forces, they do not create them out of whole cloth, nor are they capable of entirely purging them from our persons (which is why conversion therapies are widely considered both ineffective and unethical).(Serano 2022)
I wanted to share this viewpoint when discussing Viktor’s coming out because I think it’s important to consider how certain tropes and discourses might be reproduced in media, even when the people behind it have good intentions. I’m not saying that it’s wrong of them to have Viktor say that being Viktor is who he’s always been, it’s a common way of describing one’s experiences after all. But having recently read Serano’s article, I couldn’t help but think of the limitations of that way of describing transness.
Secondly, I briefly wanted to discuss the trope of having a trans character look at themselves in the mirror as a way to visualise their transness. Such scenes are very often part of the portrayal of trans characters (Poole 2017). Often (but not always) the character is nude or partly nude during these scenes. While the specifics might vary, the scene generally invites the audience to observe the dissonance between the character’s perceived self and their body. Sometimes it’s very voyeuristic, sometimes it’s more contemplative and invites the audience to feel with the character. The Umbrella Academy does a version of this when Viktor looks in a mirror and notes how he has always hated mirrors because they made him realise how uncomfortable he was in his own body. Now, after his transition into Viktor, he can look into the mirror and see himself. This is an interesting twist on the usual trope, where instead of highlighting the dissonance between self and body, the mirror is used to show how his transition has made Viktor comfortable in his body. Viktor is also fully clothed in the scene, so the voyeurism that can be there in some iterations of the trope is not present. So, all in all, while being a bit cliché, the scene functions well as a visible representation of how Viktor’s transition has made him happier and more comfortable. It’s also nice because it shows that “just” coming out and changing parts of your appearance (such as clothing and hairstyle) can make a big difference in how comfortable someone might feel in their own body. Trans people’s experiences are often very medicalised, with people assuming that they must want to make a “full” medical transition from one binary gender to another (something I’ve discussed elsewhere). To be sure, Viktor wouldn’t have time for any gender-affirming treatment during season 3 regardless, being a bit busy trying to save the world again. But it’s nevertheless nice to see a transition story that isn’t focused on the medical aspect.
Having discussed these tropes and specific scenes, I wanted to consider the portrayal of Viktor this season as a whole. Because when doing so, it becomes quite clear that this type of portrayal of trans masculine characters on TV is still quite uncommon. As Wibke Straube notes when analysing trans cinema:
In films in which the trans male character is grown up, the character(s) are most often exposed to sexualised violence enacted by cis male characters and contextualised through the passing and the failing to pass of this character (Romeos, 2011; Boys don’t Cry, 1999). Tomboy (2011), featuring a child character, closely links its character to a continuous fear of being discovered as passing and for the “knowing entrants” this directly links to the fear that the character will become a victim of (sexualised) violence.”(Straube 2014, 39)
As Straube notes, in portrayals of trans men in movies this fear of being discovered as trans, as a “deceiver”, is often pervasive and usually connected to a fear of sexual violence. Straube further argues that the use of sexual violence against trans male characters in cinema (and television) often functions as a way to put them “in their place” and undermine their position as men.
Sexualised violence seems to be a conventionalised narrative device in films with trans male protagonists that seems to be used to accentuate the over-stepping of cis male gender boundaries, to put the transing characters “in their place” and to re-establish and reinforce the gender hierarchy (Gay 2014). It also links to the overly dominant use of rape as a narrative tool in both television series and cinema, where rape is used in order to victimise a cis female character and create drama and higher ratings (Gay 2014). The contextualisation of the trans male character with sexualised violence that is otherwise conventionally deployed against cis female characters works to undermine the masculinity of the male trans character and effects an intra-diegetic feminising of the character (Halberstam 2005: 90). In contrast to the representation of trans masculinity in films, sexualised violence is not central to the representation of trans female characters, who experience discrimination and violence in other forms.(Straube 2014, 40)
We don’t get any of this in The Umbrella Academy. Sure, Viktor (and his siblings) face plenty of violence but he isn’t targeted with sexual violence because of his gender. The violence isn’t motivated by transphobia. There really isn’t any questioning of Viktor’s gender at all in the show. This is truly rare. Even in more recent representations of trans masculine characters in television (for instance The Fosters, The OA, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, DRUCK, etc) transphobia is present in the story. It might not be as exploitative and used for shock value as some of what Straube describes, but the threat of violence is often there. The fear of what might happen if others find out that one is trans is definitely there in a lot of those stories, which is of course true to life. As Straube puts it quite succinctly: “Trans Cinema often works through an overarching feeling of fear and impending danger.” (2014, 45) So to have a story where a character’s transition just goes well is very rare. It’s also almost unrealistic, given the transphobic state of the world. But watching as a trans person, it’s sort of refreshing to watch a happy trans story. Don’t get me wrong, there is value to depicting how difficult trans people’s lives can be. But sometimes it’s nice for trans stories to not just be about hardship. It can be nice as a trans person to not always have to watch trans pain.
So, in conclusion, the portrayal of Viktor Hargreeves in season 3 of The Umbrella Academy is interesting in that while it uses some common tropes, it is also very different from a lot of other examples of trans masculine representation in media. There isn’t really a focus on the body of the trans character or their medical transition, and the character doesn’t face violence (including sexual violence) for their transness. In that way, it’s almost a bit of a breath of fresh air. It’s a break from the trans pain that is often depicted in media. Of course, depictions of the hardships trans people face can be important too but seeing some wholesome trans joy is quite nice when living in a world filled with trans pain.
Garrison, Spencer. 2018. “ON THE LIMITS OF ‘TRANS ENOUGH’: Authenticating Trans Identity Narratives.” GENDER & SOCIETY 32 (5): 613-637.
Poole, Ralph J. 2017. “Towards a Queer Futurity: New Trans Television.” European Journal of American Studies. 12-2.
Serano, Julia. 2022. “It’s time to rethink “born this way,” a phrase that’s been key to LGBTQ acceptance” Salon, June 17, 2022. https://www.salon.com/2022/06/17/its-time-to-rethink-born-this-way-a-phrase-thats-been-key-to-lgbtq-acceptance/
Straube, Wibke. 2014. ”Trans cinema and its exit scapes- A Transfeminist Reading of Utopian Sensibility and Gender Dissidence in Contemporary Film.” PhD diss., University of Linköping.