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”.
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).
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.
Content warnings: homophobia, sexism, discussion of sex between minors, discussion of sex between minors and adults.
Spoiler warning: spoilers of the entirety of The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller.
When I started reading The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, I knew it would be gay and sad (as Chloe of Girls Gone Canon put it when recommending it), but I didn’t anticipate just how invested I would become in this novel. And I’m not just talking about how I cried my eyes out for ten minutes straight after finishing reading the last chapter. I also spent the next 24 hours going through different parts of the books in my head, thinking about how they compared to the theory and history of sexuality that I have read. So eventually I came to the conclusion that I had to write something about it. Hence this essay.
The Song of Achilles tells the story of Achilles and Patroclus from the Iliad, their life, love, and eventually their death. This relationship has been interpreted in a myriad of ways through the ages, with some focusing on their friendship and others on the erotic aspects of their relationship. A reading that in my opinion is more in line with how the relationship is presented in The Song of Achilles, however, comes from Warwick (2019). Warwick argues that in the Iliad, Achilles and Patroclus are portrayed similarly to the husband-wife relationships of the story (such as Odysseus and Penelope or Hector and Andromache). It seems like Miller had a similar idea when writing A Song of Achilles since there’s even a scene where Odysseus compares his relationship to his wife to that of Achilles and Patroclus when he is trying to convince Pyrrhus to allow Patroclus’ name to be carved into their joint tomb (Miller 2017, 348). In the novel, Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship is clearly both romantic and sexual (even if the sex scenes aren’t explicit). It is clear that the two of them both love each other and desire each other sexually. In an interesting way, their relationship, therefore, reads as queer both in a modern context and in the context of Ancient Greece. As Warwick notes, in Ancient Greece, their relationship would potentially be seen as anomalous (or queer) not because they were both men (as it does today) but because of their similarity in status. This is quite an interesting contrast to modern conceptualisations of sexuality. To explore this further, I will therefore analyse the way Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship is presented in The Song of Achilles in relation to sexuality and gender norms in Ancient Greece.
Sexuality in Ancient Greece
Before getting further into the norms and structures of sexuality in Ancient Greece, it is worth noting that some, including Warwick, has argued that these social norms and conventions are less pronounced in Homer’s work than in other sources (2019). Nonetheless, it seems relevant to consider the social context in which Homer worked and where the story of Achilles and Patroclus would be heard.
In many ways, the norms of Ancient Greece surrounding sexuality and gender were quite different from those of today, even while there are some similarities (that I will get into later). One big difference is that they didn’t use terms such as heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, or anything similar, and didn’t really conceptualise sexuality as a stable identity like we do today. This makes sense considering that it wasn’t really until the 18th century that the homosexual started to be conceptualised as a specific type of person (Foucault 2002 , 64). Before then homosexual acts were generally seen just as that, acts, not as something that informed someone’s identity. They could be shameful or even criminal acts, but as Foucault notes, the difference is that the homosexual of modern times is seen as a type of person, a part of a different species. Some researchers have questioned this, arguing that individual people living before the 18th century might have considered their sexuality as a stable identity, even if society didn’t (eg. Goldberg & Menon 2005; Roelens 2017). Nevertheless, based on the sources that do exist it seems that the people of Ancient Greece didn’t see sexuality as an identity. Still, what sexual acts one participated in could impact one’s reputation, because there were definitely sexual norms to consider in Ancient Greece, even if those were different from those of today.
As many researchers have noted, Ancient Greek societies were very hierarchical, with adult free-born men on top of the hierarchy and everyone else (women, children, slaves, etc) below them. As for instance Mottier (2008) has noted, these norms surrounding gender and status also impacted sexual life:
Normative ideas of masculinity valued aggressive, dominant behaviour, both in public speaking and in other areas of life, including sexual activity. Masculinity was identified with the active, penetrative sexual role. Sexual desire was seen as normal or deviant in relation to the extent to which it transgressed normative gender roles. Specific practices such as sodomy or masturbation did not give rise to moral anxieties in classical sexual culture. Questions of sexual etiquette centred instead on penetration. Penetration symbolised male as well as social status, but it mattered little whether the penetrated was a woman or a boy. What did matter was who penetrated whom. Penetration was seen as active, submission as passive. It was considered unnatural and demeaning for a free-born man to desire to be penetrated, since that would reduce him to the socially inferior role of a woman or slave.
(Mottier 2008, 9)
That is to say, a “real man” was supposed to be the active party in sexual intercourse. It didn’t matter who he had sex with (woman, boy, slave, sex worker, etc), as long as he was the one penetrating them. That of course doesn’t mean that there weren’t adult free-born men who enjoyed penetration, it just means that they would be looked down upon for it. One’s sexual behaviour could also impact one’s honour and reputation (Foucault 2018 , 56). As Foucault notes, to have a spotless sexual reputation was especially important for men with large authority who might wish to leave an impressive legacy, since sexual scandals might ruin that legacy.
When discussing sexuality in Ancient Greece, it is impossible to avoid the question of pederasty, i.e., the sexual relationship between boys/teenagers (about 12-20 years old) and adult men, which was often seen as a form of mentorship (Mottier 2008, 12). While obviously deeply problematic to us today, these types of relationships were very normalised at the time, as long as the proper sexual etiquette was upheld. This etiquette included, for instance, that the boy only gives his consent after a significant amount of courting (Foucault 2018 , 203). He should furthermore not gain pleasure from the sexual intercourse, only participate as a form of gift to this older man that he respects. This, in combination with the fact that these boys had not yet grown into manhood, made it possible for them to engage in these relationships without it being considered a blight on their honour (Mottier 2008, 11). It should be noted, however, that relationships between teenagers/young men of the same age were also seen as normal (Foucault 2018,  176). As Foucault describes it, it was considered natural that boys of a certain age would have these types of relationships. Sometimes it would even be accepted that these relationships continued beyond boyhood, but then there would often be speculation about the exact nature and mechanics of the relationship. As mentioned above, the Greeks didn’t disapprove of sexual relations between men per se, but they did find it shameful for a man to be (what they considered to be) the passive part of such a relationship. It was therefore seemingly easier to accept relationships between men where there existed a clear difference in status (e.g. in age or that one was a slave). Warwick makes a similar point, arguing that it was in a way easier to discuss sex between men and boys because then it is clear who is in power, and the subordinate party is expected to grow out of that position when he becomes a man (2019). But relationships between adult free men were more complicated because then one of the adult men has to be passive/subordinate (in the eyes of society).
Interestingly, one example that Foucault mentions when discussing this topic is actually Achilles and Patroclus, describing how their relationship was fascinating for the Greeks because it was unclear who was the more powerful in their dynamic (2018 , 177). As Foucault notes, Homer described Achilles as the one with higher birth and more strength, but Patroclus as the older one and the one with more intelligence. Warwick makes a similar point:
Although pederastic relationships were strictly hierarchical with no ambiguity of active and passive roles permitted (Dover 1978, 16), Achilles and Patroclus do not fit into this paradigm. Patroclus is older than Achilles and is instructed by Menoetius to advise Achilles on the basis of his greater experience and wisdom (Il. 11.785–789). The fact that Achilles is younger (and more beautiful, Il. 2.673–675) than Patroclus should by rights make him the erōmenos, the passive partner in the relationship, but Achilles is also clearly socially dominant over Patroclus, both in terms of his rank and his greater prowess in battle. As has been noted, this ambiguity of statuses led to some confusion among ancient authors over who should properly be seen as the erastēs of the relationship, Patroclus or Achilles.
(Warwick 2019, 128)
In a modern context, we might very well find it ridiculous to focus so much on this aspect of a relationship, but then again, it’s not too different from how top/bottom dynamics are sometimes discussed today (cf. Johns, Pingel, Eisenberg, Santana & Baeuermeister 2012). As mentioned previously, the reason it was considered so important who was the active/passive part of a sexual relationship was because it was considered to reflect one’s gender position as well. Men who enjoyed the “passive” position in sex were seen as soft, effeminate, and women-like (Mottier 2008, 11). Essentially, a man being in this position was seen as him relinquishing his position as a man (Foucault 2018, 21). And to voluntarily relinquish the prestige and status of a man was obviously seen as deeply shameful. Similarly, men who dressed or acted in a feminine manner (for instance curling one’s hair, speaking with a soft/feminine voice, singing and dancing, etc) were looked down upon. Clearly, sexuality, gender, and status were very closely intertwined in Ancient Greece.
Queer sexuality in The Song of Achilles
So, how is all of this portrayed in The Song of Achilles? Well, generally, quite accurately. One clear example is in chapter 15 when Odysseus discusses Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship with them as they travel towards Troy:
‘One tent’s enough, I hope? I’ve heard that you prefer to share. Rooms and bedrolls both, they say.’
Heat and shock rushed to my face. Beside me, I heard Achilles’ breath stop.
‘Come now, there’s no need for shame- it’s a common enough thing among boys.’ He scratched his jaw, contemplated. ‘Though you’re not really boys any longer. How old are you?’
‘It’s not true,’ I said. The blood in my face fired my voice. It rang loudly down the beach.
Odysseus raised an eyebrow. ‘True is what men believe, and they believe this of you. But perhaps they are mistaken. If the rumour concerns you, then leave it behind when you sail to war.’
(Miller 2017, 165)
As he says, relationships between boys were considered normal (cf. Foucault 2018 , 176). But the tension comes from them almost entering adulthood, and with that comes the potential of rumours and shame… Achilles and (particularly) Patroclus reflects on this afterwards:
Inside the tent there was quietness between us. I had wondered when this would come. As Odysseus said, many boys took each other for lovers. But such things were given up as they grew older, unless it was with slaves or hired boys. Our men liked conquest; they did not trust a man who was conquered himself.
Do not disgrace him, the goddess had said. And this was some of what she had meant.
‘Perhaps he is right,’ I said
Achilles’ head came up, frowning. ‘You do not think that.’
‘I do not mean—’ I twisted my fingers. ‘I would still be with you. But I could sleep outside, so it would not be so obvious. I do not need to attend your councils. I—’
‘No. The Phthians will not care. And the others can talk all they like. I will still be Aristos Achaion.’ Best of the Greeks.
‘Your honour could be darkened by it.’
‘Then it is darkened.’ His jaw shot forward, stubborn. ‘They are fools if they let my glory rise or fall on this.’
His eyes, green as spring leaves, met mine. ‘Patroclus. I have given enough to them. I will not give them this.’
(Miller 2017, 166)
This quote gives so much information about the way they, and their society, views sexuality, relationships, and tangentially gender. For one, the line about their society not trusting men who were conquered is a really succinct way of summing up what I spent several paragraphs explaining above. A “real man” has to be active, conquering partners the way he would conquer land or people. So, as Patroclus says, if he wants to have sex with a man it must either be when he is a boy or as an adult with a slave or someone he hires. Therefore, Patroclus is worried about what the world might think about his relationship with Achilles, how that would be interpreted. He worries that it would damage Achilles’ reputation and honour, making people see him as less of an honourable man because they might suspect him of being submissive. As Foucault notes, this is something men in a high position in Ancient Greece would worry about, since their sexual behaviour would impact their reputation and their legacy (2018, 56). But Achilles refuses to let this fear affect their relationship, refuses to give it up. Throughout the novel, it is very clear that Achilles and Patroclus do not only desire each other but also love each other deeply. This, in combination with their similarity in status, is what makes their relationship queer in the eyes of society.
Of course, me calling the relationship queer doesn’t mean that the characters think of it in those terms. As mentioned in the theory section above, terms like homosexual, bisexual or queer didn’t exist at this time and people didn’t really think of sexuality as a stable identity. Still, it is interesting to consider how Achilles and Patroclus’ sexual (and romantic) orientations are portrayed. It’s clear that their most important relationship is the one they have with each other, but they do both sleep with women. From the way it’s portrayed in the book, it’s a bit unclear how much they enjoy this experience. It seems as it wouldn’t be their first choice, they clearly prefer each other. But it is unclear if this is because they prefer sex with men in general or just that they prefer sex with each other. Another aspect to consider here is their relationship with Briseis. When they first rescue her, she is afraid that Patroclus is a threat to her, but he convinces her that he’s not by kissing Achilles. It’s interesting to consider why this works. Is it meant to show her that he prefers men over women? Or is it meant to show that he’s not a threat because he is in a relationship? I imagine modern readers, who tend to see sexuality as an identity, probably read it the first way, even if it shouldn’t work based on the way Greek society viewed sex (but since Miller is writing for a modern audience, I don’t really consider that a problem). A third interpretation could possibly be that this is meant to make Briseis trust them because Patroclus showed her an aspect of their relationship that could damage their reputations if it became known. Throughout the story, Briseis continues to be close to them, not exposing them, even if she sometimes becomes a bit of a threat to the relationship in other ways. One such moment is of course when she kisses Patroclus, in chapter 24. She says that she knows he loves Achilles but that she knows that some men have both wives and lovers. Then she asks if he wouldn’t want to have children. As Patroclus tells her: ‘If I ever wished to take a wife, it would be you.’ (Miller 2017, 253) But as he also explains, he does not wish to take a wife. Afterwards, Patroclus mentions their discussion to Achilles and…
‘Does she wish to have a child?’
‘Maybe,’ I said.
‘With me?’ he said.
‘No,’ I said.
‘That is good,’ he said, eyelids dropping once more. Moments passed, and I was sure he was asleep. But then he said, ‘With you. She wants to have a child with you.’
My silence was his answer. He sat up, the blanket falling from his chest. ‘Is she pregnant?’ he asked.
There was a tautness to his voice I had not heard before.
‘No,’ I said.
His eyes dug into mine, sifting them for answers.
‘Do you want to?’ he asked. I saw the struggle on his face. Jealousy was strange to him; a foreign thing. He was hurt, but did not know how to speak of it. I felt cruel, suddenly, for bringing it up.
‘No,’ I said. ‘I don’t think so. No.’
‘If you wanted it, it would be all right.’ Each word was carefully placed; he was trying to be fair.
I thought of the dark-hair child again. I thought of Achilles.
‘It is all right now,’ I said.
The relief on his face filled me with sweetness.
(Miller 2017, 256)
In a sense, this becomes a moment where Achilles and Patroclus reaffirm their relationship to each other. Patroclus gets an opportunity to go down a more traditional path, taking a wife and having a bunch of cute dark-haired children with her, even as he keeps Achilles as a lover. But he rejects that, choosing Achilles. He doesn’t need a wife when he has Achilles as a partner.
This is of course not the only time their relationship is compared to a marriage. As mentioned in the introduction, Odysseus compares their relationship to his marriage at one point. But there is also the moment on Scyros when Achilles and Patroclus are reunited and Achilles (being dressed as a woman) calls Patroclus his husband. It is worth noting that if this behaviour, Achilles positioning himself as Patroclus’ wife, became public knowledge, he would most likely be severely shamed by others. Even just the fact of his dress could be used to shame him, as Diomedes makes clear when he notes that they could make Achilles’ dressing as a woman known if he won’t come to Troy. Achilles’ reaction is telling:
Achilles flushed as if he’d been struck. It was one thing to wear a dress out of necessity, another thing for the world to know of it. Our people reserved the ugliest names for men who acted like women; lives were lost over such insults.
(Miller 2017, 154)
Again, a man being interpreted as being feminine is seen as deeply shameful. But while Achilles clearly doesn’t want this known, he doesn’t mind people speculating about his relationship with Patroclus. This is somewhat remarkable as that could also be seen as a stain on his reputation, given that people might speculate that it means he is submissive (and therefore unmanly in their eyes). It is worth noting that the book doesn’t comment on how exactly Achilles and Patroclus have sex, if one tends to be the penetrating party, or if they even have sex in that way. In this way, Miller doesn’t have to take a position in this debate around their relationship that’s been going on for thousands of years. But at the same time, not including those details sort of becomes a statement about how it doesn’t matter exactly how they had sex, what matters is their passion and love.
However, the specifics of their relationship did of course matter to their surroundings. This becomes very clear after their death when Achilles’ son Neoptolemus (aka Pyrrhus) comes along and has very strong opinions on the matter.
‘We were talking of your father’s tomb, and where to build it.’
‘On the hill,’ Odysseus says.
Menelaus nods. ‘A fitting place for them.’
There is a slight pause.
‘Your father and his companion. Patroclus.’
‘And why should this man be buried beside Aristos Achaion?’
The air is thick. They are all waiting to hear Menelaus’ answer.
‘It was your father’s wish, Prince Neoptolemus, that their ashes be places together. We cannot bury one without the other,’
Pyrrhus lifts his sharp chin. ‘A slave has no place in his master’s tomb. If the ashes are together it cannot be undone, but I will not allow my father’s fame to be diminished. The monument is for him, alone.’
(Miller 2017, 341)
The specific way that Pyrrhus insists on disrespecting Patroclus here is interesting (if infuriating). He keeps describing Patroclus as being of a lower status, even calling him a slave. As mentioned previously, a man having a sexual relationship with a slave was much more accepted in Greek society than him having a relationship with an equal. So, one can argue that what Pyrrhus is doing her is sort of straightening out the queerness of his father, after death. Again, it’s not that it’s illegal for Achilles to sleep with Patroclus, but it’s frowned upon and impact’s his reputation/honour. This is unacceptable for Pyrrhus who wants to have his father be seen as Aristos Achaion. So, casting Patroclus as a slave rewrites the story to make Achilles seem as the unquestionable active and masculine party.
Later, Odysseus tries to convince Pyrrhus to reconsider and Pyrrhus notes that he will not have his father’s name tainted by a commoner (again, positioning Patroclus as having a lower social standing). He also says that Patroclus is a “blot on my father’s honour, and a blot on mine.” (Miller, 347) Odysseus then continues by asking if Pyrrhus has a wife and says:
‘I have a wife. I have not seen her for ten years. I do not know if she is dead, or if I will die before I can return to her,’ (…) ‘My consolation is that we will be together underworld. That we will meet again there, if not in this life. I would not wish to be there without her.’
‘My father had no such wife,’ Pyrrhus said.
Odysseus looks at the young man’s implacable face. ‘I have done my best,’ he says. ‘Let it be remembered that I tried.’
(Miller 2017, 348)
Here, at least, someone tries to have the truth of their relationship be remembered. To not have it be taken away from them, as Achilles so adamantinely refused in life.
When the podcast Girls Gone Canon discussed this novel, Chloe made a wonderful point about how this is tragically similar to what many queer people have to go through after death:
There’s something about being different, you know from everyone, that knowing someone has control over your body, and your body’s meaning and what your body stood for, when you die. When your partner or the only person you trusted doesn’t have that control, is horrendous. It is scary. It makes their joint tomb really symbolic.
(Girls Gone Canon 2022, 1 h 31 min)
As Chloe notes, queer people (and other marginalised people, such as disabled people) seldom get control over their bodies or their narratives after death. The people they might have trusted to have their wishes carried out aren’t allowed to, because their relationship isn’t seen as legitimate. This is also something that Judith Butler discusses when writing about what types of kinship and relationships are deemed legitimate by the state, and what consequences that has:
Of course, there are consequences to this kind of derealization that go beyond hurting someone’s feelings or causing offense to a group of people. It means that when you arrive at the hospital to see your lover, you may not. It means that when your lover falls into a coma, you may not assume certain executorial rights. It means that when your lover dies, you may not be able to be the one to receive the body. It means that when the child is left with the nonbiological parent, that parent may not be able to counter the claims of biological relatives in court and that you lose custody and even access. It means you may not be able to provide health care benefits for one another. These are all very significant forms of disenfranchisement, ones that are made all the worse by the personal effacements that occur in daily life and that invariably take a toll on a relationship. If you’re not real, it can be hard to sustain yourselves over time; the sense of delegitimation can make it harder to sustain a bond, a bond that is not real anyway, a bond that does not “exist,” that never had a chance to exist, that was never meant to exist. (…) And if you’ve actually lost the lover who was never recognized to be your lover, then did you really lose that person? Is this a loss, and can it be publicly grieved? Surely this is something that has become a pervasive problem in the queer community, given the losses from AIDS, the loss of lives and loves that are always in struggle to be recognized as such.
(Butler 2002, 25-26)
It should be noted that Butler also recognises the risks of legitimisation by the state, in that this can cause more control and create new boundaries of normativity, but their point about the consequences of not being seen as legitimate still stands. It also definitely speaks to what happens to Achilles and Patroclus after death. Their wishes aren’t respected because their bond is not respected. Pyrrhus refuses to let them share a tomb because he refuses to allow their relationship to be acknowledged and recognised. Even as Odysseus tries to appeal to him by talking about how they would want the opportunity to be reunited in the underworld, he still refuses. He only sees Patroclus as a blot on his father’s honour since their relationships make it possible to question Achilles’ masculinity.
Yet in the end, their love and their bond are recognised. Thetis is convinced by Patroclus talking about his memories of Achilles and she allows for both their names to be on the tomb. As I was reading, this is where I truly started sobbing. Reflecting on it now, I think it wasn’t just that I was happy that they got to reunite in the afterlife, but also that I got so emotional about their relationship being acknowledged. Living in a world where queer people’s lives and loves are still erased so often, especially after death, this ending was truly beautiful to read. Yet it still hurt, because it was clear how much of a struggle it had been to have their love be publicly recognised. You can be Aristos Achaion, yet still lack power over how you and your love is remembered.
In many ways, The Song of Achilles accurately depicts how sexuality was viewed in Ancient Greece. For the modern reader, this way of thinking of sexuality might seem very strange. But The Song of Achilles manages to describe the norms of the society succinctly and most of all imbue it all with a ton of emotion. From the plot, it also becomes very clear that there are consequences to these societal norms. We read about Patroclus thinks how their actions could impact Achilles’ reputation and honour, and at the end of the novel, we see that it very well could. Achilles asserts that he doesn’t care if their love darkens his honour, but in the end, their love is almost erased by other people trying to protect his honour.
But for all the way that the conventions of Achilles and Patroclus’ society are different from our own, there are a lot of events from the story that might feel painfully familiar for queer readers. There is family trying to stop you from being with the one you love, there are your surroundings judging you for the way you love, and there is a world trying to erase who you truly are. Achilles and Patroclus’ story might not be queer in the way we think of queerness today, but their story still resonates for anyone who has had to fight for who they are and who they love. It also provides a small hope that maybe, just maybe, you can have a happy ending.
May you also find what will make you shine like the sun.
Burgwinkle, William E. 2006. “Queer Theory and the Middle Ages.” French Studies: A Quarterly Review 60(1): 79-88.
Buter, Judith. 2002. ”Is Kinship Always Already Heterosexual?” differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 13(1): 14-44.
Foucault, Michel. 2002/1976. Sexualitetens historia 1: Viljan att veta. Translated by Birgitta Gröndahl. Göteborg: Bokförlaget Daidalos AB. [This is the Swedish translation of Histoire de la sexualité I :La volonté de savoir/The History of Sexuality I: The Will to Knowledge]
Foucault, Michel. 2018/1984. Sexualitetens historia 2: Njutningarnas bruk. Translated by Britta Gröndahl. Göteborg: Bokförlaget Daidalos AB. [This is the Swedish Translation of Histoire de la sexualité, II: l’usage des plaisirs/The History of Sexuality II: The Use of Pleasure]
Jones, Michelle Marie, Emily Pingel, Anna Eisenberg, Matthew Leslie Santana & José Bauermeister. 2012. “Butch Tops and Femme Bottoms? Sexual Positioning, Sexual Decision Making, and Gender Roles Among Young Gay Men.” American Journal of Men’s Health 6(6): 505–518.
Miller, Madeline. 2017. The Song of Achilles. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Mottier, Véronique. 2008. Sexuality: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Roelens, Jonas. 2017. “A Woman Like Any Other: Female Sodomy, Hermaphroditism, and Witchcraft in Seventeenth-Century Bruges.” Journal of Women’s History 29(4): 11–34.
Warwick, Celsiana. 2019. “We Two Alone: Conjugal Bonds and Homoerotic Subtext in the Iliad.” Helios 46(2): 115-139.
This past week, I have had the honour of making a guest appearance on not one but TWO podcasts.
One is on the esteemed ASOIAF podcast Davos’ Fingers, where I joined Matt and Scad to discuss the prologue to A Feast for Crows. We ended up having a great discussion about the mysterious and magical events of that prologue, but also all the fascinating power dynamics on display. And boy is there a lot to cover, from the gender and sexuality norms apparent in the situation between Rosey and Pate, to Alleras’ position in relation to structures surrounding gender and race. I had a great time, so if you have three hours (!) to spare, I encourage you to take a listen!
I also had the opportunity to join my friend Jonas on his excellent podcast TroyeTalk, where he discusses the music of Troye Sivan. We talked about the song ”WILD”, but also a lot about heteronormativity, queer longing, and our own wild (and drunk) adventures. And somehow also eugenics. It was a blast to sit down and chat about all of this, and I think that comes across on the episode too.
Hoping I’ll have more opportunities to collaborate with friends soon!
This fall, I had the honour of organising workshops for a non-profit involved in sexual and reproductive health and rights, talking about trans inclusion. As part of those workshops, I talked for a bit about trans history. One response I got after every workshop was that people appreciate learning this history because this was something they had never been taught before. As several people also noted, it’s also great to know these facts when arguing with transphobes who use their inaccurate view of history to argue that being trans is just a trend. So, in this essay, I wanted to discuss the history of trans and gender-nonconforming people, to raise awareness about how transness is nothing new. Before going any further though, I want to point out that while I have a master’s degree in gender studies, I am no historian. What I do know of trans history is a mix of things I’ve studied at university (which, with some exceptions, mainly focused on history from the 19th century going forward), and me reading up on these topics on my own. I will discuss trans and gender-nonconforming people from a variety of historical periods and cultural backgrounds, but I cannot possibly cover all of world history in one essay. That said, here is a brief(ish) trans history.
Concepts and conceptualisations
Before going any further, I should clarify what I mean by trans in this essay. The term trans is sometimes used in different ways in different contexts, but for the purposes of this essay, I use it similarly to how Dr Susan Stryker uses “transgender” in her book Transgender History:
I use [transgender] in this book to refer to people who move away from the gender they were assigned at birth, people who cross (trans-) the boundaries constructed by their culture to define and contain that gender. Some people move away from their birth-assigned gender because they feel strongly that they properly belong to another gender in which it would be better for them to live; others want to strike out toward some new location, some space not yet clearly defined or concretely occupied; still others simply feel the need to get away from the conventional expectations bound up with the gender that was initially put upon them. In any case, it is the movement across a socially imposed boundary away from an unchosen starting place- rather than any particular destination or mode of transition- that best characterizes the concept of ‘transgender’ that I want to develop here.
(Stryker 2008, 1)
Now, while I think this definition is very useful for my purposes here, I feel like I must also point out that not everyone who is included in this definition of transness would identify as trans (see for example Finn Enke 2012). For instance, not all non-binary people self-identify as trans, even if they could be seen as trans using the above definition. When talking about real-life people we should therefore always be cautious when ascribing such labels to them, especially since the term “trans” comes from a very specific historical Western context. I will get into that history further on.
Furthermore, we should be especially careful when assigning the term “trans” to people from outside a Western context, who might have other terms to describe themselves (for more on this, see for instance Boellstorff, Cabral, Cádenas, Cotten, Stanley, Young, and Aizura 2014). Because throughout history and the world, people have understood gender in a variety of different ways. Sometimes it has been as something fixed, determined by the way one’s body looks at birth, and sometimes it has been more fluid. One example I would like to highlight is from a land that my country (Sweden) has colonised, namely Sápmi. As non-binary Sámi activists have pointed out, traditionally speaking Sámi culture wasn’t as binary as many Western cultures are and have been (Märak & Nilla Pinja 2021). Märak and Nilla Pinja also describe that in Sámi religion, the goddess who decides which sex/gender a child would have might sometimes decide to make the child into neither a girl nor a boy, but something else. Non-binary Sámi people are therefore nothing new. But as many Sámi people have also noted, this traditional way of seeing gender has been negatively impacted by colonialism, which insisted on reinforcing a gender binary and heteronormativity (see for example Káddjá Valkeapää 2021; Lifjell 2021; Sandberg McGuinne 2021; Finbog 2022). This is of course similar to what has happened with many other indigenous people, where colonialists have tried their best to stamp out any gender identities and expressions that did not conform to the Western binary view of gender (eg. Roen 2006; Spencer-Hall & Gutt 2021, 28).
There are many too many examples of different cultural understandings of gender to name them all here, and as a white European, I do not feel like it is my place to speak for these people. But I want to highlight just a few places where you can learn more:
KUMU HINA is a documentary about what it’s like to live as māhū in Hawai’i. You can also find educational material related to the movie here, and an explanation of māhū here.
This article discusses multiple Pacific Islander gender identities, such as fa’afafine (Samoa) or fakaleitī (Tonga) while interviewing people living with those identities and different activists.
This video follows fakaleitī Eva Baron who talks about her experiences.
In this video, Geo Neptune explain the term two-spirit, its history and discusses other terms that has been used by native Americans.
This Ted talk by Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, talking about gender in India and living as hijra.
The poetry collection you are enough: love poems for the end of the world by Smokii Sumac, a Ktunaxa queer, transmasculine and two-spirit person. You can find videos of readings of some of the poems here.
The article “Can You See Me? Queer Margins in Aboriginal Communities” by Andrew Farrell, a queer Aboriginal person.
This zine, containing conversations with young two-spirit, trans, and queer indigenous people in Toronto.
This article by transgender Aboriginal professor Sandy O’Sullivan, discussing the colonial project of gender.
The bookColouring The Rainbow: Blak Queer and Trans Perspectives- Life Stories and Essays by First Nations People of Australia.
There is of course a much more to read on this topic, and I really recommend looking into it further, and especially listening to the voices of people who belong to the groups they describe.
Finally, I would just like to make clear that while I’m discussing these gender diverse people in the context of this essay on trans history, that is not to suggest that these people are necessarily trans. Some of these groups and people do describe themselves using terms such as trans or non-binary, but many do not. It is not my place, especially as a white European to label them as trans, that would be a form of colonial violence. The reason I wanted to mention these groups here is rather as a way of highlighting how the Western binary notion of gender is not the only way of understanding gender and have in fact been a part of colonialist violence against gender diverse people.
As mentioned above, there have existed a lot of different conceptualisations of gender historically speaking, and there have always existed people who lived outside the Western binary view of gender. Yet, terms like transgender, non-binary, genderqueer etc are of course relatively new, historically speaking. So, one might wonder how it makes sense to speak of people who lived before then as trans. Well, as some scholars would argue, one reason for doing this is to counter the many voices who try to use history to legitimise their transphobia by arguing that trans folk didn’t exist historically (Spencer-Hall & Gutt 2021, 19). We know gender-nonconforming people existed historically too, even if their lives have often been forgotten or actively hidden. By holding them up, we help create a trans legacy that contemporary trans people can gain strength from.
In the next part of this essay, I will therefore touch on a few historical periods and what we know of trans/gender nonconforming people from those periods. I have chosen to limit this to mostly a Western perspective, partly because I cannot possibly speak about the whole world at once, and partly because that’s what I have the most knowledge about. Another reason for doing so is, as I mentioned above, that history, specifically that of Europe, is often used to legitimise transphobia. It, therefore, makes sense to understand what that history actually looked like to counter those arguments.
With that said, let’s dig into some trans archaeology.
As many have noted, archaeological researchers have long had a tendency to (sometimes forcefully) sort their finds into very strict binary categories (Weismantel 2013; Colwill 2021; Turek 2016). This can be seen in how many archaeologists have had difficulties with how to interpret burial sites containing bodies that seem to belong to one sex but are buried with items which do not seem to match that sex. As Weismantel notes, these kinds of finds have often been ignored or hidden away. Alternatively, these burial finds have been assumed to be some kind of mistake on the part of those doing the burial (Colwill 2021). Another problematic aspect of archaeological gendering/sexing of remains is the methods used to gender/sex both the body and the items buried with it. As Colwill notes:
Archaeological sexing is far from a fail-safe tool, particularly for exploring the often-intangible concept of identities. Remains are sexed osteologically (by examining the size and shape of the bones) or on the basis of genomic analysis (‘genomic’ or ‘chromosomal sexing’), and assigned to a particular sex, most frequently a binary male/female one, on this basis. The inaccuracy of such an approach has been criticized by numerous gender archaeologists for its frequent disregard of the possibility of intersex remains (…) Moreover, it is virtually impossible to accurately assign sex to children and adolescents based on osteological sexing alone (…) Genomic sexing is likewise not the magical bullet it is often presented as, offering a ratio of X and Y chromosomes from which a chromosomal arrangement is extrapolated.
(Colwill 2021, 179)
So, as Colwill notes, sexing of remains often risks being inaccurate. But what is more, with many archaeological finds, researchers haven’t even used those methods but instead interpreted the sex/gender of the remains based on the grave goods found with it. As Colwill notes:
When it comes to exploring gender identity through grave goods, it is difficult to avoid the sort of circular reasoning which declares, for example: ‘oval brooches are items of female dress, so graves containing them must be women’s graves; we know that oval brooches are items of female dress because we find them in women’s graves.
(Colwill 2021, 181)
One example of how this might lead to mistakes comes from an Iron Age grave found near the settlement of Birka (in contemporary Sweden). There a person in a grave was first interpreted to be male based on grave goods but then found to have XX chromosomes. As Weismantel and Colwill both point out, situations such as these have made some researchers question traditional interpretative practices, arguing that some archaeological finds could be interpreted as examples of gender nonconformity (2013; 2021). Colwill describes some such examples from Iron Age Scandinavia that possibly reveal some quite interesting ways the people of that time conceptualised gender. Interestingly, some examples of what seems to be burials of gender nonconforming people from this area and time seem to be burials of seiðr practitioners (Colwill 2021, 182). Seiðr was a practice that could probably most closely be described as a magic ritual, or possibly a shamanic ritual. Some have argued that at least some (if perhaps not all) seiðr practitioners held some sort of liminal gender position, partly outside of female and male binarities. This seems to be reflected in some of their burials, with individuals buried with a mix of “feminine” and “masculine” grave goods for instance. That these individuals are buried with those items, in what is often very elaborate and seemingly thought through burials, also indicate that their contemporaries recognised their liminal gender position.
The Trans Middle Ages
Moving forward a bit in history, I would next like to touch a bit on the Middle Ages and the gender-nonconforming people of that era. As for instance, M.W. Bychowski has pointed out (2018), it is often assumed that the Middle Ages was a time when “men were men” and “women were women” and no trans of queer people were around to make things complicated. Yet, there is a fair bit of evidence that gender-nonconforming people, and people who might call themselves trans had they lived today, existed then as well Below, I want to share just a few of these stories. I’ll start with some trans saints.
First out is Saint Marinos, a saint who was assigned female at birth yet lived for a long time as a monk (Bychowski 2018; Bychowski 2021). He was born around the year 300 in Syria and his story is shared in several medieval chronicles. After his mum died his dad joined a monk order and Marinos did the same. He was considered an exceptional monk until a village girl falsely claimed that he had impregnated her. At this point, he could have told people about how he physically could have not impregnated anyone, but he apparently decided not to. He was allowed to stay at the monastery and raise the child there but was obviously disgraced. When he eventually died and his body was prepared for the funeral, the other monks realised he had a body that would usually be termed female. They then also realised that they had wronged him, as he could not have impregnated someone, and prayed for forgiveness.
A common argument against interpreting people like Saint Marinos, and other people who were assigned female at birth yet passed as men, as trans is that they only did what they did to get access to spaces the strict patriarchal order didn’t allow them to enter. But as many people have pointed out, we do not have to assume that these people only did this gender transition for practical reasons (eg. Boag 2005; Feinberg 1996, 87). We seldom have records that show how these historical people understood themselves, we usually just have second-hand accounts, and when it comes to queer history, history rarely remembers faithfully (cf. Spencer-Hall & Gutt 2021, 19). There has therefore often existed a tendency to “straighten out” all instances of queerness/transness in history. Seeing gender nonconforming behaviour as just a pragmatic/practical choice is one example of this. As Spencer-Hall and Gutt puts it: “the reflexive assumption that non-normative gender expressions can only ever indicate cross-dressing is reductive.” (2021, 27) Furthermore, as Feinberg points out, it is arguably insulting to only see trans identities as the product of sexist oppression (1996, 83).
The next life I want to describe is that of Joseph of Schönau, who was born in Cologne and assigned female at birth (Newman 2021). His very eventful life has been retold in several 12th-century chronicles, which is much too long to describe in their entirety here, but I will include the major events here. The chronicles describe that as a child Joseph accompanied his father on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but his father died on the way. While making his way back to Europe, he encountered a variety of challenges which culminated with some people trying to kill him via hanging. In the retelling, it is said that Joseph survived by an angel arriving and supporting his feet until he could be rescued by some local shepherds. Afterwards, he entered a Cistercian monastery as thanks for the divine aid he had received. He eventually died at the monastery, as a monk. What is interesting is that at least one chronicle consistently describes Joseph as male during this part of his life, using male pronouns etc. The retelling of the story also presents Joseph’s identity as a man as neither a choice on his part nor as a disguise, but rather as a divine gift, another part of the divine interventions in Joseph’s life. Another interesting part of the story is that for the monks that knew Joseph as a man, it seemed as if he had transformed into a woman in death. This was perceived as a form of miracle. One interpretation is that through his holy actions, Joseph’s soul was so perfected that he became so intertwined with the divine that he managed to transcend gender. This was made literal in how he had a body that was morphologically interpreted as female even while he was a man. This carries fascinating implications for the gender of the divine, and the possibility to transcend gender.
Next up, I want to talk about the saint Esmarade, whose story is recounted in a 13th-century verse hagiography (Wright 2021). Esmarade was someone who was assigned female at birth, but who left secular life for a monastery where they would go on to present as a eunuch. Vanessa Wright argues that Esmarade can be read as genderqueer since the identity they express does not fit into a binary understanding of gender. The story describes how Esmarade did not wish to marry the partner chosen by their father, instead wanting to remain a virgin and join a religious order. Being afraid of their father being able to find them, they decided to enter a monastery while presenting as a eunuch. As Wright argues, this can be seen as a way for them to articulate a genderqueer identity with the language available to them, since eunuchs were often seen as a sort of in-between between male and female. This is in fact similar to what trans people have done much later in history too. Sølve Holm for instance describes Danish trans people at the beginning of the 20th century describing themselves as “hermaphrodites” because that was language that would be understood by their surroundings (2020).
But, returning to Esmarade, their father came to the monastery to seek advice and met Esmarade without recognising them. This arrangement went on for years, and right before their death, Esmarade told their father the truth and asks that he alone prepare their body for the funeral so that no one else could see their body. This seems to be so that no one else can “discover” what their body looked like and what their assigned gender would have been. This request isn’t followed, however, and a fellow monk prepared their body, leading them to be seen as venerated as female after death by their fellow monks.
Another possibly trans medieval saint is of course Joan of Arc. I’ve talked about Joan in other essays too when discussing the possibility to analyse medieval people (and fictional characters in mediaevalesque settings) as trans, those essays are available here and here. Joan of Arc is probably most remembered today for her claims of holy visions and successful military leadership and has as such been turned into a symbol of French nationalism and white supremacy (Spencer-Hall & Blake Gutt 2021, 12). Yet her story is undeniably a queer one, regardless of how much white supremacists try to scrub off the queerness. As trans writer and activist Leslie Feinberg once wrote about Joan: “If society strictly mandates only men can be warriors, isn’t a woman military leader dressed in armor an example of cross-gendered expression?” (1996, 31) It is clear that her contemporaries viewed her gender expression with contempt, with for instance the English king Henry the VI writing to Inquisitor Pierre Cauchon, the Bishop of Beauvais:
It is sufficiently notorious and well known that for some time past a woman calling herself Jeanne the Pucelle (the Maid) , leaving off the dress and clothing of the feminine sex, a thing contrary to divine law and abominable before God, and forbidden by all laws, wore clothing and armour such as is worn by men.
(quoted in Feinberg 1996, 34)
Joan of Arc was eventually brought before an Inquisitorial court, charged with a variety of crimes (such as witchcraft and heresy). The court could not prove the witchcraft, so they chose to focus on how Joan’s crossdressing (according to them) constituted heresy since it went against God’s will. For this crime, she was eventually burned at the stake. As both Feinberg (1996) and Bychowski notes (2018), Joan continued to refuse to stop wearing “men’s clothing” even while being accused of heresy. For this crime she was eventually burned to death. As Bychowski notes, it is difficult to say if Joan would have identified as trans had she lived today, but it is clear that what killed her was transphobia.
I have thus far only talked about possible trans people of the Middle Ages who were assigned female at birth, so before moving on I wanted to mention one who seemed to have been assigned male at birth. Eleanor Rykener was a seamstress living in London during the 14th century who was arrested on charges of sexual misconduct, having been caught in the act of selling sex (Bychowski 2018). She presented as a woman when appearing at the court and gave her name as Eleanor, but during questioning, she was forced to reveal that she had previously lived in London under a male name. This provided the court with several quandaries: firstly, which name should they use in the records (they ended up using both), and secondly, if Eleanor is a man, does that mean that sodomy was committed when she slept with men? No verdict is recorded, but it is clear that the court was very confused about how to handle Eleanor’s gender. It is also clear that both someone’s gender identity and how their gender is perceived by their surroundings can have very clear material consequences.
The 19th century and beyond
I am now jumping forward quite a bit in time, but in many ways, the 19th century was a turning point for how trans people were perceived in the West. As Dr Susan Stryker points out: “One of the most powerful tools for social regulation in this period was the rapid development of medical science.” (2008, 36). During this time, sexology and other scientific disciplines started to examine and categorise human sexuality and gender, dividing people into groups and dictating what was normal and abnormal. One such researcher was the Austrian Karl Heinrich Ulrichs who published a series of booklets in 1864-1865. In these booklets, he described people who he called “urnings” that he described as having a female soul enclosed within a male body. This term encompassed both what we might today call homosexuality and transgender. Over the next couple of decades, several other researchers proposed different terms to describe trans people, with the only one that has really survived until today being “transvestite”, as suggested by German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld in 1910. While the usage of that word is slightly different today, Hirschfeld originally used it to (more or less) mean someone who dressed or lived as another sex than they were assigned at birth (Bychowski 2021). It is also worth noting that in his book Die Transvestiten, Hirschfeld actually discusses the life of Saint Marinos which I also mentioned above. Besides being a scholar, Hirschfeld also advocated for LGBTQ+ people (he was gay himself) and he was very involved in the queer community in Berlin at the time.
I’ll return to Hirschfeld shortly, but before moving too far into the 20th century I would like to touch a bit more on the 19th century.
Because another relevant event to discuss is the way gender nonconforming expressions started to become more formally criminalised during the 19th century, especially in the U.S. While gender nonconformity had hardly been approved of earlier either, in the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, a wave of anti cross-dressing laws became enacted across the U.S. These were often municipal laws and were enacted in 40 American municipalities between 1848 to 1974. As Stryker notes, there isn’t much historical research to explain the sudden explosion of such laws in the latter half of the 19th century, but one explanation might be the rise of modern industrial cities (2008, 33). In such places, people had more opportunities to express their sense of gender than they might have had in close-knit communities in smaller towns. Another contributing factor to these anti cross-dressing laws was the rise of feminism, and with it calls for dress reform allowing for women to wear pants. But another important aspect to consider is the immigration to the US from a variety of Asian countries, especially on the West Coast. As Stryker notes:
Gold rush-era newspapers are full of stories about how difficult it was for European Americans to tell Chinese men apart from Chinese women, because they all wore their hair long and dressed in silky pajamalike costumes. To understand the historical conditions for contemporary transgender activism, we thus have to take into account race, class, culture, sexuality, and sexism and we have to develop an understanding of the ways that U.S. society has fostered conditions of inequality and injustice for people who aren’t white, male, heterosexual and middle class- in addition to understanding the difficulties particularly associated with engaging in transgender practices.
(Stryker 2008, 36)
As I have mentioned previously in this essay, norms of gender are heavily culture dependant, and Europeans (and European Americans) have a long history of judging other cultures as inferior because of their perspectives on gender. It is also worth noting that while cross-dressing and dressing in certain cultural clothing was being criminalised, so-called freak shows were busy exhibiting people whose appearance would have been criminalised in public (Sears 2008). In such a way, these people were doubly classified as abnormal: their existence was both criminalised and made into something freakish to be shown off at a show. Sears even mentions one person who after having been arrested for cross-dressing, got recruited by a freak show who made use of their infamy when advertising the show.
Now, I would like to return across the Atlantic to Europe, and Germany… As mentioned previously, Magnus Hirschfeld was one of the more significant sexologists there at the turn of the century (Stryker 2008, 39). But he didn’t just research trans people, he was also an early advocate for them. For instance, he worked with the Berlin police department to end the harassment of trans people, and he employed trans people at his institute (as receptionists and maids, but still). Said institute was called Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (”the Institute for Sexual Science”) and was opened in 1919. There Hirschfeld and his colleagues held lectures and collected historical documents detailing the diversity of sexuality and gender throughout the world. They also had a clinic, where trans people could receive gender-affirming treatments starting in the early 1920s (Holm 2020). It was there the world’s first documented gender-affirming genital surgery was performed in 1931, on one of Hirschfeld’s employees and friends, Dora Richter.
Later during the same year, Lili Elbe (who some might know from the movie The Danish Girl) received the same treatment at the institute. Unfortunately, the institute was attacked by Nazis in 1933, its books burned, and many of those working there were killed (Stryker 2008, 40). Hirschfeld himself survived, not being in Germany at the time.
Even if much research was destroyed in the destruction of the Institute for Sexual Science, not all knowledge was lost. One key example of this can be seen in the person of Harry Benjamin, a former colleague of Hirschfeld who had migrated to the U.S. in 1913 yet had remained in contact with Hirschfeld for several years (Stryker 2008, 45). In the U.S. Benjamin eventually ended up being one of the leading medical authorities on trans people. For example, he advised on a court case in San Francisco in 1949, arguing against the opinion of other experts (including Alfred Kinsey) who thought that:
…transsexual genital modification would constitute ‘mayhem’ (the willful destruction of healthy tissue) and would expose any surgeon who performed such an operation to possible criminal prosecution. That opinion cast a pall, lasting for years, over efforts by U.S. transgender people to gain access to transsexual medical procedures in their own countries.
(Stryker 2008, 45)
As is hinted at in that quote, however, treatments were available in other countries, for instance in Europe. This was something for instance Christine Jorgensen, who can perhaps be called the world’s first modern trans celebrity, made use of when she travelled to Denmark in 1951 to receive gender-affirming surgery.
This immediately made Denmark famous for allowing trans people access to gender-affirming treatments, although as Holm notes, this also led them to quickly stop allowing non-Danish citizens access to such treatments (Holm 2017, 36). In the U.S. gender-affirming treatments slowly started to become more accessible during the 60s and 70s, but mainly through university-based research programs (Stryker 2008, 93). This was partly thanks to Harry Benjamin, who had in 1966 published a book called The Transgender Phenomena. In this book, he argued that trans people should be given access to medical treatments, instead of being subjected to psychotherapy. He also proposed diagnostics criteria and medical treatments that have influenced trans health care worldwide way into the 21st century (Krieg 2013). It should therefore be noted that while Benjamin did a lot for the transgender community of his time, many trans scholars and activists today criticise the way his work is still used today (eg. Krieg 2013).
Even while this was all happening, queer and trans communities were being formed both in the U.S. and other parts of the world, taking up more and more visible space. Or rather, some did. As Susan Stryker notes, while many white suburban trans people organised discreetly in private, trans people of colour in urban settings were often decidedly more visible (Stryker 2008, 56). One example of this was the drag ball subculture emerging in several American cities. But another example is of course the increasing activism and resistance shown by especially poor queer and trans people of colour. The most famous example of this, which has often been called the start of the modern LGBTQ+ movement, is of course the Stonewall Riots in 1969. There queer people, the majority being poor and/or people of colour, fought back against police brutality, racism, homophobia, and transphobia.
But Stonewall wasn’t the first such instance, a very similar one happened at Compton’s Cafeteria in the Tenderloin neighbourhood San Francisco in 1966. As Stryker describes it:
One weekend night in August- the precise date is unknown- Compton’s, a twenty-four-hour cafeteria at the corner of Turk and Taylor streets, was buzzing with its usual late-night crowd of drag queens, hustlers, slummers, cruisers, runaway teens, and down-and-out neighbourhood regulars. The restaurant’s management became annoyed by a noisy young crowd of queens at one table who seemed to be spending a lot of time without spending a lot of money, and called in the police to roust them- as it had been doing with increasing frequency throughout the summer. A surly police officer, accustomed to manhandling Compton’s clientele with impunity, grabbed the arm of one of the queens and tried to drag her away. She unexpectedly threw her coffee in his face, however, and a melee erupted: Plates, trays, cups and silverware flew through the air at the startled police officers, who ran outside and called for backup.
(Stryker 2008, 64-65)
As Stryker notes, a variety of societal factors impacted the outcome at Compton’s Cafeteria, one of the main ones being that the residents of the area were very socially disadvantaged on several levels. This was especially true for trans women who often had very few options both regards to where to live and where to work due to discrimination. They were also often harassed by police, often being arrested for selling sex, regardless if they did so or not, and were then mistreated in a variety of horrible ways. But by 1966 some changes had begun happening, and the inhabitants of the area had begun to organise in a variety of ways, including getting involved in anti-poverty activism. One consequence of this organising was the formation of the organisation Vanguard, an organisation mostly made up of “young gay hustlers and transgender people.” (Stryker 2008, 70) Being formed in the summer of 1966, this was the first known queer youth organisation in the U.S. Considering this background, it’s not surprising that the queens at Compton’s Cafeteria had enough of the police’s harassment and decided to fight back.
Yet, with the increasing trans activism across the U.S. there came a backlash too, of course. This happened in a variety of ways, but one I thought especially worth noting is the backlash within the feminist movement. The opposition to trans people in feminism can be said to have started in the early 1970s, with some feminists arguing that trans people should not be welcome in feminist spaces, and trans women especially should not be welcome in women-only spaces (Stryker 2008). By the late 70s, this view was being expressed by feminist scholars as well, with for instance feminist theologian Mary Daly calling transsexuality a “necrophilic invasion” of women’s spaces. But it was perhaps another scholar, Janice G Raymond who would leave the biggest mark on anti-trans feminism, influencing people for decades to come. In 1979, Raymond published her book The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male where she, among other things writes “I contend that the problem of transsexualism would be best served by morally mandating it out of existence.” (quoted in Stryker 2008, 109) She also writes the following about trans women (TW sexual violence):
Rape, of course, is a masculinist violation of bodily integrity. All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves. However, the transsexually constructed lesbian-feminist violates women’s sexuality and spirit, as well. Rape, although it is usually done by force, can also be accomplished by deception. It is significant that in the case of the transsexually constructed lesbian-feminist, often he [sic] is able to gain entrance and a dominant position in women’s spaces because the women involved do not know he [sic] is a transsexual and he [sic] just does not happen to mention it. (…) Because transsexuals have lost their physical ‘members’ does not mean that they have lost their ability to penetrate women—women’s mind, women’s space, women’s sexuality.
(Raymond 1979, 134)
Raymond’s argument is basically that not only are trans women not women, but by “appropriating” female bodies they exploit women. And if trans women want to join women-only spaces, that is a violation. If this sounds familiar, it is because many anti-trans feminists use similar arguments today as well. It is as hateful and untrue now as it was then.
I will stop here, at the beginning of the 1980s, with trans people fighting back against oppression, and their oppressors fighting them in return. In many ways things have of course changed since then, we have more legal equality in many countries, but in other ways, it feels like we are stuck in the same type of backlash again. Globally, the situation for trans people is currently getting worse again (Pearce; Erikainen & Vincent 2020). There is increased societal backlash against trans people in many places, and anti-trans legislation is also being introduced in many countries. We are also in the middle of what Pearce, Erikainen and Vincent call the “TERF-wars”, with anti-trans feminism running rampant. In many current debates, it is claimed that trans identities are something new, just some trend that young people are following. I hope that this essay has helped make it clear that this is most definitely not the case. Across the world, we have evidence that gender diverse people who don’t fit into Western binary gender norms has always existed. Even if one would just focus on the West, there is evidence as far back as the Iron Age that gender nonconforming people existed. There is evidence of medieval trans people who lived and died, as another gender than they were assigned at birth. And in modern times, we have had access to gender-affirming treatments for trans people for a hundred years. Trans people are not a trend, and we will not be erased.
This essay was edited on March 31st 2022 to include a reference to a post by Dr Liisa-Rávná Finbog (2022).
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Colwill, Lee. 2021. «The Queerly Departed: Narratives of Veneration in the Burials of Late Iron Age Scandinavia.” In Trans and Genderqueer Subjects in Medieval Hagiography, eds. Alicia Spencer-Hall & Blake Gutt, 177-197. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
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Finn Enke, A. 2012. “Note on Terms and Concepts.” In Transfeminist Perspectives in and beyond Transgender and Gender Studies, eds. Finn Enke, A., 16-20. Temple University Press: Philadelphia.
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Holm, Sølve M. 2020.“Current and Historical Notions of Sexed Embodiment and Transition in Relation to Lili Elvenes.” In Man into woman : a comparative scholarly edition, eds. Sabine Meyer & Pamala L. Caughie. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.
Newman, Martha G. 2021. ”Assigned Female at Death: Joseph of Schönau and the Disruption of Medieval Gender Binaries.” In Trans and Genderqueer Subjects in Medieval Hagiography, eds. Alicia Spencer-Hall & Blake Gutt, 43-64. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
Pearce, Ruth, Sonja Erikainen & Ben Vincent. 2020. ”TERF wars: An introduction.” The Sociological Review Monographs 68(4) 677-698.
Raymond, Janice. 1979/2006. “Sappho by Surgery: The Transsexually Constructed Lesbian-Feminist.” In The Transgender Studies Reader, eds. Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle, 131-143. New York: Routledge.
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Sears, Clare. 2008. “Electric Brilliancy: Cross-Dressing Law and Freak Show Displays in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco.” WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly, 36(3 & 4):170-187.
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O’Sullivan S. 2021. “The Colonial Project of Gender (and Everything Else).” Genealogy 5(3):67.
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Wright, Vanessa. 2021. “Illuminating Queer Gender Identity in the Manuscripts of the Vie de sainte Eufrosine.” In Trans and Genderqueer Subjects in Medieval Hagiography, eds. Alicia Spencer-Hall & Blake Gutt, 155-176. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
”I came to theory because I was hurting” (hooks 1994, 59). This quote by black feminist scholar bell hooks has stuck with me ever since I first read it. I think I’ve personally have had a similar reason for turning to writing about gender, sexuality, and other social structures. To understand why these structures have hurt me so. In this essay, in honour of Trans Awareness Week, I therefore want to use some of my personal experiences to discuss some of these harmful structures. I especially want to write about the experience of embodying an uncoherent gender (according to society), of moving outside of the normative boundaries of sex and gender, deviating from the expected path through life and thus becoming a deviant. But before that, a slight (theoretical) background:
I’ve previously written about this sort of experience in the context of different fictional stories and characters (for instance about Brienne, Arya, and Alleras in A Song of Ice and Fire). In these different essays I’ve referred to a lot of different theoretical perspectives of understanding this feeling of always being a bit off kilter, always feeling a bit uncomfortable, always feeling like you’re chafing against the world. One such perspective is put forth by trans scholar Susan Stryker, who writes about how the regulatory schemata (eg. gender and sexuality norms) dictate which bodies and lives make sense (1996). Trans people don’t comply with such norms, and are therefore seen as abnormal, and our lives are seen as unlivable. This is also similar to how Sara Ahmed write about how there are certain paths/lines you’re supposed to follow through life, and if you deviate from these institutionalised lines you’re seen as deviant (2006). One of the best descriptions of how it feels being forced into this regulatory schemata, being pressured to follow these institutional lines, is in my opinion this quote by black trans scholar Marquis Bey:
Hegemonic gender’s process— the ways we are formed and inaugurated from without, the ways that y’all tell us what we are permitted to be and how our bodies should move— operates binaristically, slotting unruly subjects into viable social existence by way of legibility. The gendered name bestowed upon us, which is, all in all, more like a branding, claims to speak to something held deeply within, something unique to us and unfettered by our outside. Put paradoxically, this apparent fact said to emanate from us is an already- made badge stabbed into us by someone else. They tell us they call us “boy,” call us “girl,” because that is what we are, have been, will always be, because there is no outside to this. The violence proliferates; the designation lacks the proper size because what we yearn for are improper sizes that fit us ill- fittingly, it lacks the correct numerical measurements because all we want is to incorrectly measure up. What they’ve given us, godlike and tyrannical, is a stuffy room with no space to run around in. And they call it viable life. (Bey 2019, 136)
The regulatory schemata brands us, forces us into this space that doesn’t fit us, and when we try to break free it brands us as abnormal freaks. This branding and violent forcing into certain roles and spaces is what I want to talk about next.
Misgendering. Such a simple word. Sounds so banal. It’s just a misclassification, just a mistake. It doesn’t capture the feeling of being misgendered. The feeling of walking along the street with some new acquaintances and being called “girl” and feeling like you’ve run into a brick wall. The feeling of slight panic when you have to decide to correct them or not. And then continuing walking, smiling, talking like nothing happened, because you’re not sure how they’d react. Or because you hesitated one second too long, and now the conversation has moved on, and you don’t want to make things awkward by mentioning it now. You don’t want to cause a scene, make a fuss. But nonetheless, you can suddenly feel the walls close in around you. The room afforded by the gender binary is so small. You can feel the borders pressing against your body and very being, you can feel the manacles of gendered expectations chafing against your skin.
Then there’s the moments when those who should know better, those who do know your pronouns, misgender you, when they make a mistake. And you feel like they’ll always see you as something you’re not. Subconsciously or not, they’ll always see you as the gender you were assigned at birth. It hurts even more when it’s someone who didn’t know you before you changed name and pronouns. Because if even they can’t get it right, will people ever recognize you for who you are? Will this branding you received at birth ever disappear, or will people always force you into that same constrictive gendered space?
You move through society, you move through this incredibly gendered space, and you’re trying to walk on a different path than you were assigned at birth. But nonetheless you run into these blocking devices which question why you’re moving through life in this way. You’re exposed to straightening devices who try to straighten up your queer way of living. Force you back upon the “normal” path, force you back in line. The bureaucratic legal system that insists that your passport can only say man or woman. The doctor who takes one look at your ID and assumes that the reason you have anxiety is because women are naturally more in touch with their feelings. The relative who, when you tell them you’re genderqueer, asks if you’re sure that it’s not just that you don’t feel like a stereotypical girly girl. Because surely you’re really still a girl?
But there’s of course also the moment when you’re scrolling through twitter and see that the author of your favourite childhood books have said that people like you don’t exist, you’re all just confused or mentally ill. And then it seems like everyone has to debate if you even exist, and people think it’s good that this is being discussed since it’s a complicated issue. A complicated issue where one side refuses to acknowledge the very existence and humanity of the other side. But, of course, let’s have a civil discussion about if trans people should be allowed to exist. Make sure to ask the opinion that unknown person on twitter who replied to one of my tweets saying that people like me are “mentally ill individuals with the delusion that genital mutilation and legal acceptance of their unnatural self-harming behaviours would somehow better their broken circumstance” and that society shouldn’t legitimise this delusion.
You live this life which people consider unlivable. You carve out a space in this world that is not made for you. You get knocked down, dragged back in line. And sometimes you don’t know how you’re supposed to carry on. But somehow you do. And you turn to theory to make sense of this pain this world causes you. You turn to writing. You try to write it all down to make sense of it all. To try to explain to others what it feels like to live besides the beaten path, to be incoherent in the eyes of society, to live an unlivable life.
Ahmed, Sara. 2006. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Duke University Press: Durham.
Bey, Marquis. 2019. Them Goon Rules: Fugitive Essays on Radical Black Feminism. Tuscon: University of Arizona Press.
hooks, bell. 1994. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge.
Stryker, Susan. 1994. “My words to Victor Frankenstein above the village of Chamounix: Performing transgender rage” GLQ, 1(3): 237-254.
When I first read Grant Piercy’s novel Agent of Truth, the sequel to his The Erased a while back, I immediately knew that I had to write some sort of analysis on it. The novel wrestles with themes of power, humanity, and technology, much like its predecessor, and examines what makes us human. This is most explicitly done through the existence of so called ”transhumans”, people who have transferred their consciousness to android bodies. In Agent of Truth, with the introduction of the trans character Cassia the parallels between transhumans and transgender people’s experience also became quite obvious to me. In Cassia’s story, she draws the parallel between transhumans and transgender humans explicitly at some points, mostly when she gets forcibly put in a body that isn’t her own, and how this is similar but worse than being deadnamed (Piercy 2020, 312). In both instances she is being denied who she is, not recognised as the person she actually is, and she can feel it in her body. In both her quest to transition, and getting back control over her body, she has to fight a fascist regime for her right for bodily autonomy. When remembering her gender transition, she thinks this, which might very well also be about getting back to her body after her consciousness was forcibly moved:
I thought about moving forward or killing myself. Ironic that I faced that simple, binary choice. Continue with a life of agony, where I would never be seen as the person I know that I am- that I might be tantalizingly close, but I’d never truly attain it, no matter the work I put in. And to do it all in secret. To refashion my body with the help of back-alley surgeons, black market drugs. To keep it hidden away from the fascists who wanted me dead because of an itch I could never scratch. (Piercy 2020, 123-124)
It’s not a perfect parallel, but it’s a very interesting one. Especially considering the amount of scholarly work that has been done about gender, technology, and medicine (eg. Haraway 1991, Stryker 1994, Preciado 2013). In this essay, I therefore want to analyse the ways that both the Transhumans of The Erased and The Agent of Truth, and trans people of our world makes society question what makes us human, and the way society wants to control these alternative ways of embodiment.
Before analysing the novel, I want to provide a theoretical background to all of this, and to do that I will start with discussing the pretty much ground-breaking text A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century by feminist scholar Donna Haraway (1991). Haraway uses the figure of the cyborg to analyse and problematise our preconceived notions about society. The cyborg, in her view, makes us question our assumptions about gender, reproduction, and so on. It also makes us question the Western world’s goal of unity, in bodies and narratives. The cyborg isn’t just a metaphor for her though, she argues that we are all cyborgs in one way or another, since we are all affected and dependant on technology in today’s society. She further argues that three different boundary breakdowns have led us to this situation where we can question these preconceived assumptions about humanity etc. These boundary breakdowns are: human v animals (where is the boundary really, when we’ve figured out that we’ve all evolved from the same ancestors?), human and animal v machines (since machines have evolved to the level where they don’t need humans controlling them anymore), and physical and non-physical (the existance of such a machine makes one question the divine). She furthermore discusses the concept of identities, specifically in a political context, and the need to understand that identities are broken. One such examples she brings up is the identity of woman, and questions how this can be an identity for feminism to gather round since the experience of womanhood is so different for different women (based on race, class, sexuality, etc). She argues that feminists should instead focus on chosen alliances and “political kinship” and proposes that the myth of the cyborg can potentially function as a new myth to gather round. This is because the cyborg helps us question all dichotomies, since it’s a dissembled and reassembled postmodern collective and self. Haraway envisions a future where we have moved beyond essentialist characteristics, and where the focus instead lies on design, boundaries, flows, and systems. In such a future, sexual reproduction will just be one of many forms of reproductive strategy, and gender norms and groupings based on race/blood/being seen as primitive/enlightened will be irrational. She does, however, note that while the cyborg works well to question all of these things:
The main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism. But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential. (Haraway 1991, 151)
This idea of illegitimate offspring being unfaithful to their origins is something I will return to later. But first, I want to discuss a scholar who have in many ways drawn on Haraway’s work to discuss technology and medicine even further.
In his book Testo junkie: sex, drugs, and biopolitics in the pharmacopornographic era, Paul B. Preciado describes our current world as a global postindustrial and medical regime (2013). He calls this regime pharmacopornographic because of the way it governs sexual subjectivity through a process of biomolecular (pharmaco) and semiotictechnical (pornographic) control (ibid, 33). This argument is similar to how Donna Haraway uses the concept of the cyborg, and Preciado is inspired by this the theoretical framework when conceptualising the pharmacopornographic world (ibid, 45). He argues that this regime can be seen in the ways governments and corporations control sexual subjectivity and bodies through the production of for instance hormonal contraceptives and other sex related pharmaceuticals (such as Viagra), as well as sex hormones. Preciado writes:
After World War II, human mapping in the West, characterized by sexual dimorphism and its classification of sexualities as normal or deviant, healthy or disabled, becomes dependent on the legal and commercial management of molecules essential to the production of phenotypes (external signs) that are culturally recognized as female or male (facial hair, size and shape of the genitals, voice register…), as well as on the techno political managements of the reproduction of the species and on the pharmacological control of our immune systems and their resistance to aggression, illness, and death. (ibid, 112-113)
One example that he specifically discusses is the usage of sex hormones to change one’s body and he writes about people who call themselves gender hackers or gender pirates (ibid, 55). These groups see sex hormones as free and open biocodes and argue that these should not be regulated by the state or controlled by pharmaceutical companies. Preciado argues that in the pharmacopornographic era, a possible act of resistance on the microlevel is to participate in individual experimentation and changing of one’s body, without the “permission” of the institutions of the pharmacoporn complex (ibid, 333). He further argues that there is a need for trans-feminists to use their living bodies as biopolitical platforms to describe the experiences/effects of for instance sex hormones, to create new frameworks of understanding:
In an era in which pharmaceutical laboratories and corporations and state medico-legal institutions are controlling and regulating the use of gender and sex biocodes (the active molecules of progesterone, estrogen [sic], and testosterone) as well as chemical protheses, it seems anachronistic to speak of practices of political representations without going through performative and biotechnical experiments on sexual subjectivity and gender. We must reclaim the right to participate in the construction of biopolitical fictions. We have the right to demand collective and ‘common’ ownership of the biocodes of gender, sex, and race. We must wrest them from private hands, from technocrats and from the pharmacoporn complex. Such a process of resistance and redistribution could be called technosomatic communism. (ibid, 352)
Here, Preciado, just as Haraway, argues for the wrestling away of technology from the powers that be in our world. He also speaks of creating our own stories about our experiences of gender and changing of bodies, not just accepting the narratives imposed on us by those in power. This leads me nicely into the next text I want to discuss, which is very much about narratives about trans bodies.
In her text My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Villiage of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage, Susan Stryker discusses how trans people have often been seen as monstrous, as less than human (1994). She writes:
The transsexual body is an unnatural body. It is the product of medical science. It is a technological construction. It is flesh torn apart and sewn together again in a shape other than that in which it was born. In these circumstances, I find a deep affinity between myself as a transsexual woman and the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Like the monster, I am too often perceived as less than fully human due to the means of my embodiment; like the monster’s as well, my exclusion from human community fuels a deep and abiding rage in me that I, like the monster, direct against the conditions in which I must struggle to exist. (ibid, 238)
Her claiming of this monsterous identity is, as she notes, a form of reclaiming (similarly to how LGBTQ+ people have reclaimed the word “queer”), since trans people have historically been seen as Frankensteinian monsters. She for instance notes the way (so called) feminist writers Mary Daly and Janice Raymond compared trans people to Frankenstein’s monster, and called trans women specifically “agents of ‘necrophilic invasion’ of female space” (ibid), and argued that the (so called) problem of transsexuality should be morally mandated out of existance. Stryker argues that the reason cis people are so outraged by trans people is that they (trans people), makes them question the so called “natural order”. She decides to embrace being called a creature or a monster, writing that the word monster is derived from the Latin noun “monstrum” which means “divine portent” and is formed from the verb “monere” which means “to warn”. The word monster ended up referring living things of anomalous shape, or fantastical creatures such as the sphinx “who were composed of strikingly incongruous parts” (ibid, 240). This was because the people of the time (Ancient Greece and Rome) thought such beings were the sign of some supernatural events and considered monsters (similarly to angels) to be messengers and heralds of the extraordinary. Stryker therefore takes up the voice of the monster to convey this message:
Hearken unto me, fellow creatures. I who have dwelt in a form unmatched with my desire, I whose flesh has become an assemblage of incongruous anatomical parts, I who achieve the similitude of a natural body only through an unnatural process, I offer you this warning: the Nature you bedevil me with is a lie. Do not trust it to protect you from what I represent, for it is a fabrication that cloaks the groundlessness of the privilege you seek to maintain for yourself at my expense. You are as constructed as me; the same anarchic womb has birthed us both. I call upon you to investigate your nature as I have been compelled to confront mine. I challenge you to risk abjection and flourish as well as have I. Heed my words, and you may well discover the seams and sutures in yourself. (ibid)
Essentially what she’s saying is that trans people can function as a wake-up call to question the limiting norms of society if people have the sense to listen, and not demonise us (side-note: if you’re a fan of A Song of Ice and Fire, you should read my essay where I discuss this in relation to the character Alleras, aka the Sphnix). A final point that I want to discuss from Stryker’s text is the monster’s relation to its creation, and here I will once again quote her since she puts it much better than I ever could:
The very success of Mary Shelley’s scientist in his self-appointed task thus paradoxically proves its futility: rather than demonstrate Frankenstein’s power over materiality, the newly enlivened body of the creature attests to its maker’s failure to attain the mastery he sought. Frankenstein cannot control the mind and feelings of the monster he makes.It exceeds and refutes his purposes. My own experience as a transsexual parallels the monster’s in this regard. The consciousness shaped by the transsexual body is no more the creation of the science that refigures its flesh than the monster’s mind is the creation of Frankenstein. (…) Heroic doctors still endeavor to triumph over nature. The scientific discourse that produced sex reassignment techniques is inseparable from the pursuit of immortality through the perfection of the body, the fantasy of total mastery through the transcendence of an absolute limit, and the hubristic desire to create life itself. (…) None of this, however, precludes medically constructed transsexual bodies from being viable sites of subjectivity. Nor does it guarantee the compliance subjects thus embodied with the agenda that resulted in a transsexual means of embodiment. As we rise up from the operating tables of our rebirth, we transsexuals are something more, arid something other, than the creatures our makers intended us to be (ibid, 242).
Here, again, we return to the theme from Haraway and Preciado, of the creation moving away from the intentions of its creator.
Now, finally, I want to return to Agent of Truth. The first thing I want to note is how the Transhumans of the story very much reminds me of the cyborgs that Haraway describes, in that the escaped Transhumans envision a new world, freer from oppression. This can be seen very much in 77/Ian’s chapters, for instance in the very first chapter when he remembers Four saying: “’This is the Fall in reverse, our expulsion from a negative Eden. Together we ascend.” (Piercy 2020, 11). But it’s also clear that the very existence of Transhumans makes us question boundaries between human and non-human, human and machine, just as she writes. It also provides an opportunity to imagine something beyond our current society, that is, if we can get beyond the current structures holding us down. As 77 thinks much later in the novel:
They drift through the world, pretending to have a greater purpose. They act as though their families, friends, jobs, and loves construct and architecture that droves the progress of their society. In the meantime, corporation and governments actively work against progress, purposefully producing materials that continue a march toward extinction- the entire construct of modern civilization borne on waves of plastic, carbon monoxide, and nuclear waste. They create only to destroy, the social contract of society requiring compromise against personal ethics to participate.
Take, for instance James Burke, the CEO of NMAC, the corporation that manufactured my current body. This body was 3-D printed with materials provided by NMAC to a government contract. The coolant coursing through my musculature would blight the ground we walk if it spilled and leached into the soil (though it’s labelled non-toxic). East Asian sweatshops manufactured the processor neural network that powers my consciousness. Burke earns an obscene amount of money to create bodies like this (…) What does Burke do with more money than God? Does he end world hunger? Does he create affordable housing for the poor? Does he put it toward the healthcare system? Or public transportation? Or helping underfunded social programs? No. He hoards the wealth into creating more wealth. More money than god is used to create more money than god. It’s a cycle of capital building capital. When you know the secret to making money is through exploiting the underclass and creating your own necessity, it doesn’t seem so difficult. (Piercy 2020, 253)
Now, these Transhumans, the illegitimate children of Burke in a way, want to rebel against their creator, just as cyborgs should in Haraway’s view. This, of course, also very much puts me in mind of Preciado’s urging to “wrest [the biocodes of sex and gender] from private hands, from technocrats and from the pharmacoporn complex. Such a process of resistance and redistribution could be called technosomatic communism.” (Preciado 2013, 335). Similarly to how he argues that trans people should get control over these biocodes independent from governments and corporations, one could argue that the Transhumans think that humanity should get to access Transhumaness outside of the same types of institutions (reading the end of the novel though, one can wonder to which degree this has succeeded, or to which degree they have just set up a new system of control). Speaking of trans people creating their own narrative and becoming more than their creator intended, this of course connects very strongly to what Stryker writes about trans people’s relationship to doctors (and Frankenstein’s monster’s connection to Frankenstein). I think this becomes especially clear in the case of Garrick:
Garrick: I hear my own music. I’ve accepted that. Maybe I don’t get to have what everyone else does… but how is that so different from the way people lived before? There’s value in it. There’s something worth saving in what we used to have. But that’s the most difficult thing. It wasn’t always good. It wasn’t always worth it. But there’s something we need to keep.
Guthrie: I suppose you’re right. We can’t just erase ourselves entirely, can we?
Garrick: Even me. I lost so much, but I still kept myself. I was still allowed to identify on my own terms.
Guthrie: I’m sure Cassia would appreciate that.
Garrick: I’m sure she would too. That was why I took a new name. They’d called me Gary when I was under repair, but my name was Erik. So I used a portmanteau when I could. (Piercy 2020, 322-323)
Garrick here very much embodies what Stryker writes about the being becoming more than his creator intended. To paraphrase Stryker, Garrick rose up from the operating table of his rebirth, hearing his own music and identifying himself on his own terms. There are, however, even more connections between that text and the way Transhumans are described.
Another such way is the similarities between the way the posts by the Agent_of_Truth describes transhumans, and the trans people have often been described. One such example is the post by Agent_of_Truth entitled “one body”, where he writes:
God did not require mechanical parts to create our bodies. With that, the Transhumans seek to pervert God’s perfection. We are perfect machines, our bodies perfect containers for our souls and our consciousness. (…) But these abominations that have walked out into the world pervert this perfection with ever step. (…) But for them, there are two bodies. They are the bodies from which they came, the soft flesh of God’s creation, and the mechanical bodies men have constructed for them. Why would they seek to negate the perfection of the organic? (Piercy 202, 81-83)
This, to me, puts me very much in mind of the anti-trans feminists who accuse trans women of being necrophilic invasion agents, of being unnatural monsters. It also, however, reminds me of how the right anti-feminists of today describe feminists and LGBTQ+ people (Paternotte & Kuhar 2017). They often think that feminists and LGBTQ+ activists are trying to destroy natural relationships between men and women, and that they through the normalization of what they see as abnormal sexuality will normalize paedophilia too. Trans people specifically are often seen as a threat against human ecology. Paternotte and Kuhar also notes that while there are sometimes religious (specifically Christian) components in such arguments, they have also spread to non-religious circles. Proponents of these arguments also often see themselves as supporters of truth, truth that is being suppressed, and see themselves as oppressed. This feels extremely similar to what is written by Agent_of_Truth. It should be noted that he also writes about how Transhumans assault women and children at one point (Piercy 2020, 38). All in all, it’s clear that Transhumans evoke similar feelings of revulsion as trans people do, be it from anti-trans feminists or the right.
In conclusion then, I think it’s clear that both Transhumans and trans people makes us as a society question what makes us human. This can lead us to being able to envision a better world, as Haraway discusses in relation to the cyborg, or it can make us hate the figure that makes us question this “natural order” as Stryker writes. It also makes us question who should have the power over the resources of technology and medicine, like Preciado reminds us. Something else that both Agent of Truth’s depiction and discussion on Transhumans, and Preciado and Stryker’s discussion on trans people, remind us of is the importance of questioning the narratives presented by the powers that be. They remind us that even if we are all shaped by our circumstances, we can become more than our creators intended.
Haraway, Donna. 1991. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist- Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, ibid, 149-181. London: Free Association Books.
Paternotte, David and Roman Kuhar. 2017. ‘“Gender ideology” in movement: Introduction.’ In Anti-Gender Campaigns in Europe: Mobilizing Against Equality, edited by David Paternotte & Roman Kuhar, 1-22. New York: Rowman: Little.
Piercy, Grant. 2020. Agent of Truth. [e-book]
Preciado, Paul B. 2013. Testo junkie: sex, drugs, and biopolitics in the pharmacopornographic era. Translated by Bruce Benderson. New York: Feminist Press.
Stryker, Susan. 1994. “My words to Victor Frankenstein above the village of Chamounix: Performing transgender rage” GLQ, 1(3): 237-254
[Note: this was originally published on February 1st 2020 on my tumblr]
Spoilers for season one of Netflix’s show Ragnarok!
I binged the first season of the Netflix show Ragnarok yesterday, and felt compelled to write something about it. This is somewhat hastely written, so I apologise if the arguments are not as well thought out as they could be, but I wanted to write something. So here we go:
In the Netflix show Ragnarok we meet the two brothers Magne and Laurits as they move to the Norwegian town of Edda with their mother (Ragnarok 2020a). The audience and the characters soon realise that this town is not quite normal, and something mysterious is afoot… It becomes clear that Magne has been bestowed with some sort of magical powers and has been put in the role of Thor in the battle between Norse gods and giants. However, it is less clear what role Laurits is supposed to play. In this text I will claim that he is the Loki to Magne’s Thor, and that is especially interesting in regards to the queerness of his character.
So, first of all, why do I think Laurits is Loki? I think the first point that should be made here is his and Magne’s physical descriptions.
Here we see Laurits sitting furthest to the left, with a green jacket, and Magne sitting to the right of him (with blue jeans and a red t-shirt). Magne and Laurits very much look like how one would imagine Thor and Loki, especially a contemporary audience who has seen the Marvel version of them:
But even beyond Laurits’ looks and brotherly relation to the Thor character, there are parallels between Loki and Laurits. There is his slightly deceptive and trickster like nature, such as when he plays pranks on Magne (for instance by messing up his essay for class when he was supposed to look over the spelling) (Ragnarok 2020a, 22 min). Then there’s also his affinity with the Jutul family, who are actually giants (the name seems to be a play on the old Norse word for giants, jǫtunn). The Loki of Norse myth is often associated with giants as well and might be giant or half-giant (Hume 2019). In the series it is also hinted at several times that Laurits has some sort of magical connection to the giants, for instance at the school dance (Ragnarok 2002b, 31 min). It is also hinted at that the father of the Jutul family, Vidar, has had an affair with Laurits’ mother Turid previously (for example: Ragnarok 2002b, 11:30 min). This makes me wonder if Laurits’ parents are in fact Turid and Vidar, making him half giant… If that is the case, he would have a sort of double cultural heritage, that of humans and that of giants.
Another cultural aspect that is interesting to look at is the parallels between the Loki of myth and the culture of the indigenous Sámi people in northern Scandinavia and Russia (Laidoner 2012). For one, the land of the giants seems to somewhat resemble the description of the Sámi peoples land, in regards to geographical location (north, on the borderlands). Similar to how Sámi was (and are) seen as “other” by Scandinavian people, so were the jǫtunn seen by the æsir (the gods). Laidoner also sees parallels between Loki and historical Sámi shamanism (noadi). She writes:
Loki’s potential links to the cultural world of the Sámi might perhaps first and foremost lie in his combination of being both a jǫtunn and (possibly) an áss and the fact that he seems to lack a home and a clear cultural background (…). This certainly makes him a very untrustworthy outsider among the æsir who, irrespective of the fact that their own ancestry goes back to the jǫtnar, frequently show hostility towards them. Loki’s jǫtunn background, and the possible connection between the Sámi and the jǫtnar whose headquarters seem to have been placed in an area that corresponded to the Sámi territories, allow us to place the focus of the following discussion on Loki’s potential affiliation with Sámi culture, where ideas of symbolic soul travels, cosmic oppositions and ambiguity seem to form a natural part of human existence, something most clearly reflected in the noaidi-tradition. It is difficult to overlook the fact that many dualistic ideas of the same kind are also embodied in the Loki figure. Besides being borderline jǫtunn and áss, a curious relic of Loki’s possible connection to the Sámi-world can perhaps be found in his everpresent duality. This duality is shown in several contrasting qualities, such as existing in both male and female form and being a father and a mother, representing aspects of both good and evil (to the extent that such clear distinctions existed in pre-Christian times), being a causer and resolver of problems, a thief and a bringer of valuable objects, all of which again seems to be in accordance with the functions of a noaidi. (Laidoner 2012, 69)
So, as we can see, Loki crosses borders between both cultures and genders, and both of these aspects make him seem untrustworthy. We can also see a parallel here to how indigenous people have been seen and are seen still today. Now, to return to Laurits, we can see some of these aspects here. Laurits move between different worlds, from the luxury of the Jutuls and the popular kids at school, to his rather less glamorous home-life. As I mentioned above, I also think there’s a possibility of him being half Jutul. But he also most definitely plays with gender borders.
I have previously written on this blog about characters moving between genders, for instance regarding Varys in ASOIAF/GoT and Alex in the “Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard” series by Rick Riordan. As mentioned in the latter text, in that story Loki is presented as genderfluid for similar reasons as I outlined above with his changing of sex/gender. In the analysis of Varys, I wrote about how he was perceived as a transgressor of both borders of gender and ethnicity, with being a eunuch from “the East”. (I there relied on texts about the historical eunuchs in for instance Ancient Greece (Llewyn-Jones 2002; Nikoloutsos 2008)). Similar to what Laidoner writes about Loki, one can see that the fluidity of Varys is connected to his movement between different gender expressions as well as cultures. Here I want to briefly touch on some more theoretical background that might be useful when understanding the crossing of borders with gender and ethnicity. Emma Bond writes about the experiences of trans people who also crosses borders of nations, and how they are seen as transgressors in double ways (2018, 71). She further writes that those who permanently inhabit this liminal space between borders, this site is often experienced as a place of alienation and violence (2018, 97). So, throughout these different examples we can see that people who cross borders of gender and ethnicity are seen as suspicious, and perhaps doubly queer (in the sense of non-conformity to norms of sex/gender/sexuality, which is of course also bound up with norms of ethnicity).
In the show, Laurits is seen crossing gender borders several times. One clear example is during the school dance, where he shows up with eyeliner, skinny jeans, and his mother’s old shirt (Ragnarok 2020b, 22:30 min). At the same dance it becomes clear that he has somewhat of a crush on the popular boy Fjor Jotul (who might be his half-brother if my theory is correct… but I’m also not sure if the Jutul family is actually related in the way they claim…) (Ragnarok 2020b, 24:36 min). This is of course also a break with gender norms, that dictate that men should be attracted to women. Then in the last episode of season one Laurits shows up to the school’s celebration of the national day dressed as the school’s headmistress Ran Jutul to mock and criticise her (Ragnarok 2020c, 31:40 min). Here he cross-dresses, perhaps in a similar way as the mythological Loki has done at times. He also plays the role of the trickster very well. Throughout the season it has been somewhat unclear on whose side he is on, but here at the end he helps the “good guys” (mainly his brother), but of course in a mocking manner. This illuminates the dualistic nature of Loki that Laidoner describes (2012).
Overall, Laurits can be seen as portraying several aspects of Loki. He is a trickster, but also a somewhat fluid character in regards to his heritage/culture and gender/sexuality. He moves between different spaces, inhabiting the liminal space between borders of good/evil, feminine/masculine, etc. This portrayal of a queer character is very interesting, and I hope in the event that the show is renewed for a second season it will explore this further. I should however mention the risk of showing a queer character as a deceiver, this could of course play into stereotypes about queer and/or trans characters. This is something that I write about in the previously mentioned text about Alex from the Magnus Chase novels. But I also think this can be portrayed well and interestingly if the audience is shown a contrast between how Laurits is perceived and who he is. A similar element was most definitely present with Magne in season one. So overall, this portrayal of a queer Laurits/Loki is quite interesting and promising.
Bond, Emma. 2018. Writing Migration through the Body. Springer: Cham
Hume, Kathryn. 2019. “Loki and Odin: Old Gods Repurposed by Neil Gaiman, A. S. Byatt, and Klas Östergren.” Studies in the Novel, (51)2: 237-308.
Laidoner, Triin. “The Flying Noaidi of the North: Sámi Tradition Reflected in the Figure Loki Laufeyjarson in Old Norse Mythology.” Scripta Islandica 63 (2012): 59–91.
Llewellyn-Jones, Lloyd. 2002. “Eunuchs and the royal harem in Achaemenid Persia (559-331 BC)”, in Eunuchs in antiquity and beyond, ed. Tougher, Shaun, 19-50. Swansea: The Classical Press of Wales.
Nikoloutsos, Konstantinos P. 2008. ”The Alexander Bromance: Male Desire and Gender Fluidity in Oliver Stone’s Historical Epic.” Helios, (35)2: 223-251
Ragnarok. 2020a. New Boy. [TV-show] Netflix, 31st of January.
Ragnarok. 2020b. 541 Meters. [TV-show] Netflix, 31st of January.
Ragnarok. 2020c. Yes, we love this country. [TV-show] Netflix, 31st of January.
[Note: this essay was originally published on January 14th 2020 on my tumblr]
Feminists and likeminded folks are quite often accused of bringing politics into things unnecessarily. We are accused of being a killjoy, of ruining family dinners by disagreeing with the racist relative, etc. In the words of feminist theorist Sara Ahmed: “We become the problem by describing the problem.” (2017, 39). I’ve certainly done my fair deal of killing joy, both in life in general, and on this blog in specifically. Here I’ve brought politics into the Harry Potter books, A Song of Ice and Fire, His Dark Materials, etc (…several times for all of those). So why do I, and so many others insist on doing this? Well, that’s what I’m going to try to explain in this text.
From a more academic/scholarly point of view, a lot of different fields analyse gender, sexuality, ethnicity, class etc in works of fiction. For instance, Swedish literary and art scholars Linda Fagerström and Maria Nilsson writes this about analysing gender in mass media:
Every Swedish consumer of media consumes around six hours of media each day. Therefore, it is not surprising that media has a big influence on us. Our values and views on things like our rights and responsibilities in a democratic society are impacted by this. It is therefore central to ask how media portrays for instance men and women. It is highly likely that we are impacted by these portrayals, and the values that they carry with them. (2008, 25) [My translation]
Furthermore, as literary scholar Rita Felski writes, “(…) trying to hold literature and the social world apart is a Sisyphean task: however valiantly critics try to keep art pure, external meanings keep seeping in.” (2003, 12). As she also points out, many literary critics try to look at the context in which a literary work was written, why would that not involve analysing for instance gender? (ibid, 14). I could of course cite countless more texts that say similar things, but the point is that scholars from several different fields agree that gender and other social categories should be analysed in media, partly because they always influence media and partly because media influences us, the consumers.
Now, I want to look at a slightly different point. In the text that I previously cited by Rita Felski, she also writes about why critics might be hesitant to analyse specifically gender:
Yet if bringing in social contexts and meanings is part of business as usual in literary critics, why is there so much fuss about expanding this framework to include gender? One reason, I think, lies in the current challenge to the universality of art. This is the sticking point, the place where traditional critics and feminist critics often seem to be speaking different languages. While scholars have often looked at the social conditions that shape literature, they have also believed that it transcends those conditions. Great art speaks beyond its time and place; and, what is more, it speaks to everybody. Defying details of history and context, gender, ethnicity, or creed, it embodies quintessential truths. Literature is universal because it speaks to a common, shared humanity. Feminists, however, often have a hard time with this universality. They point to a very long history of equating the male with the universal and seeing the female as the special case. (2003, 14)
Now, Felski is of the opinion that art/literature can transcend its context, while it is still important to analyse that context. But what I want to focus on is this idea that by bringing in gender (or sexuality, race, ability etc) one disturbs the idea of universality. As Felski writes, many feminists have critiqued this idea. It is also a central part in what is often called “feminist science critique” (Grahm & Lykke 2015, 78). One aspect of this is questioning the idea that the male is universal and neutral. For example, researchers have noted that medical research often uses male patients, which skews results (ibid, 80). In the case of heart disease research, this has led to researchers missing differences in symptoms between men and women, leading to treatment not working optimally. Other gender researchers have argued for research (in this case mostly in social sciences and humanities) to have its starting point with those least privileged, not the opposite (ibid, 82). Yet again other researchers, perhaps most famously Donna Haraway, argue that it is important to be critical of the idea of the objective scientist (ibid, 87). Is it possible to be completely objective when we are all part of the world that we study? Haraway would say no, therefore the scientist must always consider their own position and how that might affect their analysis.
This transitions me into my next question: what is neutral and apolitical? In her book “Feminist theory: from margin to center” bell hooks writes that oftentimes white women presume that their experience (as women) is universal, and that political reforms that benefit them will benefit all women (1984, 2). She further points out that when black women have questioned this, they have been seen as a problem, a threat to the unity of feminist sisterhood. So, just as science and research oftentimes have a male bias, feminism has a white (and heterosexual, cisgender, middleclass, able bodied etc) bias. What we can learn from these perspectives then, is that what is deemed universal and neutral seems to be that which applies to the groups in society that has the most power. But what we can also learn is that when such norms are questioned, those doing the questioning are seen as the ones being political and/or a problem. As if it’s more political to argue for change than to argue for the status quo. Once again, I want to return to what Sara Ahmed writes: “when you expose a problem you pose a problem” (2017, 37). By not keeping quiet about what you perceive as an injustice you cause a scene, you make everyone uncomfortable by making them consider the political implications of what is being said, you become the problem. Not ignoring the problem or shrugging it off has consequences: “by not doing something we will be perceived as doing too much.” (Ahmed 2017, 36)
So, this is why I keep on insisting on being political. Because I believe that we can see our social world reflected in the fictional worlds we consume. Because I believe that those fictional worlds influence our social world(s). Because I believe that our social world is inherently political, and to ignore that is to assume that the status quo is neutral. Now, you don’t have to agree with my views or my analysis! But I’ll keep on writing them down. As Sara Ahmed writes, sometimes when you speak up you will cause unhappiness (2017, 258). People will label you as a killjoy, the bringer of unhappiness. Yet we must persist in pointing out these problems, and support others who do, because:
Audre Lord once wrote ‘Your silence will not protect you’ (1984a, 41). But your silence could protect them. And by them I mean: those who are violent, or those who benefit in some way from silence about violence. The Killjoy is testimony. (Ahmed 2017, 260)
My point is not that you must share my every opinion. Rather, my point is that not taking a stance is not neutral. Of course, no one has the energy to stand on the barricades of every cause all the time. That would be exhausting. I’m not advocating for that. I just want people to realise that most everything in life is political in some way, and to deny that is political as well. Sorry. So, yeah, I’ll keep on being political.
Ahmed, Sara. 2017. Living a Feminist Life. Durham: Durham University Press
Fagerström, Linda & Maria Nilsson. 2008. Genus, medier och masskultur. Malmö: Gleerup
Felski, Rita. 2003. Literature after Feminism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Grahm, Jessica & Nina Lykke. 2015. “Ontologi och epistemologi i feministiskt tänkande”, in Feministiskt tänkande och sociologi: Teorier, begrepp och tillämpningar, eds Hedenius, Anna, Sofia Björk & Oksana Shmulyar Gréen, 77-95. Lund: Studentlitteratur AB
hooks, bell. Feminist Theory from Margin to Center. Boston: South End press.
Note: I used the Grahm and Lykke text here because I happened to have that book on hand. If anyone wants a source in English about feminist science critique, I can recommend looking up work by for instance Sandra Harding, Lynda Birke, Karen Barad, and Donna Haraway.
[Note: this essay was originally published on May 24th 2019 on my tumblr]
CW: body shame, abelism, eugenics
A while back I watched the movie UglyDolls (2019) with my seven-year-old nephew, and I was struck with how dark this children’s movie is when you look beneath the surface. UglyDolls is a movie about how dolls from the toy factory that isn’t perfect are discarded, and not allowed to go to “the big world” and get a child who loves them. The protagonist of the story is Moxy, an “ugly” doll who dreams of going to the “big world” nonetheless and find her child. So, she sets out with her friends to do so. On the way they encounter the “perfect” dolls who mock them, and their leader who thinks un-perfect dolls should be recycled. The movie ends with the “ugly” dolls defeating the leader of the “perfect” dolls and everyone realising that even “ugly” dolls are able to have children who love them. On the surface this seems like a quite sweet story of accepting our differences and of equality, but I couldn’t help to want to dig a bit deeper.
One way to analyse this is through the concept of bodynormativity. Denise Malmberg defines bodynormativity as:
Bodynormativity can be defined as the predominant or hegemonic cultural and societal norms of bodily attraction. The concept of bodynormativity establishes the boundary between the dominant and the deviant norm, that which is classified as matter out of place in a hierarchal power and gender structure that assigns subject status to the male and object status to the female. This boundary is, however, not clearly defined but fluctuates and is redefined by the terms of the normate. The point is that the criteria are seldom distinct, and a normative body is primarily defined by the deviations – by what it is not – for example in modern western society, it should not be fat, skinny, too short or too tall. (Malmberg 2012: 196)
She further writes that disabled people often are regarded as objects, their humanity being stripped from them by their disability (ibid: 202). Malmberg also writes that physically disabled women are often presumed to be asexual (this does however not protect those women from sexual assault), while women with psychological disabilities are often regarded as hypersexual (ibid: 204). All the while, Malmberg explains, disabled people are (like other non-normative people) often seen as ugly. One way to compensate for this might be to dress properly, and try to fit the beauty ideals of society, and by doing that not confirming pre-existing prejudices (ibid: 207). At the same time disabled women might have to be careful as to not seem to portray an exaggerated femininity and sexuality, and thusly coming close to the concept of a “freak show”. Malmberg also writes that disability often seems to invoke a sense of dread and fear with able-bodied people (ibid: 209). She claims that this is rooted in bodynormativity, and that disabled people’s transgression of the borders of bodynormativity threatens the safety this hierarchal order provides able-bodied people.
Bodynormativity is quite obviously present in UglyDolls. The “ugly” dolls are seen as just that, ugly, because their bodies don’t conform to the norm. This, in the eyes of the “perfect dolls” (the able-bodied dolls), makes them unable to be loved. That might be seen as an expression of what Malmberg writes about how physically disabled women are seen as unattractive and de-sexualised, like someone nobody would want. The fact that the “ugly” dolls find love and acceptance in the end then becomes a counter argument to that belief. Perhaps the darkest moment of the movie however is when the leader of the “perfect” dolls tries to recycle the “ugly” dolls. Throughout the movie it becomes more and more clear that these dolls form a threat to his idea of perfection, and his way of dealing with that is to eliminate them. The non-conforming dolls threatens the system and must be removed. It’s hard to not be reminded of the practice of eugenics when this white, blonde, blue-eyed male doll talks about removing those who don’t conform to his view of what is perfect. I’ve written previously about how the sterilisation program in Sweden based on eugenic ideas targeted unrespectable women of the lower classes in addition of people of colour (Amy & Rowland 2018: 197). This also effected disabled people who were considered “inferior” and “feebleminded”. In USA forced sterilisations of people who were considered abnormal also took place in thirty states during the 20th century (Stephens & Cyle 2017: 373). In UglyDolls the “perfect” doll’s leader is seemingly threatened by the non-conformability of the “ugly” dolls, and thusly wants to remove them. This seems to be rooted in the dread Malmberg claims able-bodied people often feel in regard to disability. But it’s also very similar to the eugenic idea of removing unwanted people from society.
In conclusion, UglyDolls deals with dark yet important issues of bodynormativity and the far-reaching consequences of ableism. This might feel very heavy for a children’s movie, but the film does have a happy ending. Being able-bodied myself I can hardly speak on if the movie handled these issues well, but I am glad I could watch it with my nephew so he might learn its important lessons on acceptance.
Amy, J.-J., Rowland, S. (2018). “Legalised non-consensual sterilisation – eugenics put into practice before 1945, and the aftermath. Part 2: Europe”. The European Journal of Contraception & Reproductive Health Care. (23)3, 194-200.
Malmberg, D. (2012). “’To Be Cocky Is to Challenge the Norms’: The Impact of Bodynormativity on Bodily and Sexual Attraction in Relation to Being a Cripple.” lambda nordica, (17)1-2, 194-216.
Stephens, E. & Cyle, P. (2017) “Eugenics and the normal body: the role of visual images and intelligence testing in framing the treatment of people with disabilities in the early twentieth century”. Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies (31):3, 365-376.
UglyDolls. (2019). Director: Kelly Asbury. United States: STX Family.
[Note: this essay was originally posted on May 12th 2019 on my tumblr]
TW: discussion about sexual violence and race-based hate crimes.
In this text I’m going to analyse the Swedish movie Män som hatar kvinnor (2009), which is based on the novel with the same name. The English title of both the novel, and the American filmatisation is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but literal translation of the Swedish title would be “men who hate women”. Nonetheless, the movie (and novel) is about the journalist Mikael Blomkvist and the hacker Lisbeth Salander who gets involved with solving a 40-year-old mystery of a missing teenage girl. Like the Swedish title hints at sexism and violence towards women are important themes in the story, but as for instance Kimberlé Crenshaw (1991) argues, it is important to have an intersectional analysis of violence towards women. Therefore, I will in this text analyse how class and race interacts with gender when men hate women in Män som hatar kvinnor.
Firstly, over the course of the story we find out that Lisbeth’s father abused her mother during Lisbeth’s childhood. It’s also hinted at (and further explained in the later movies/novels) that this somehow is connected to the fact that Lisbeth still has a legal guardian even though she is in her twenties. Lisbeth is a very hard and tough person, she’s mostly dressed in punk, and generally break social codes by not being polite etc. She also doesn’t conform to heteronormativity, since she has sex with women as well as men, but this isn’t a focus of the movie. But her non-conformability to normative femininity does has negative consequences for her. Most significantly her legal guardian is apparently provoked by this, and when she asks him for money he uses his power over her to rape her. He later tells her that if she tells anyone he’ll get her locked up, since her “violent tendencies” are well known.
That Lisbeth’s femininity doesn’t fit into society’s middleclass femininity ideal can therefore be used against her. According to Skeggs (1997, 22) working class women often try to achieve respectability by mimicking this ideal femininity. By doing that working-class women can get more cultural capital, and thusly compensate for the economic and social capital that they lack. This can therefore improve their position in society. Since Lisbeth is under guardianship her social and economic capital is restricted, even though she has a well-paid work. That her non-normative femininity limits her life becomes very clear when it’s used as an argument for her having a legal guardian. However, it’s very interesting how she very clearly (deliberately?) shows that she doesn’t conform to the femininity ideals of society. Lundström (2007, 171) writes that one strategy for girls/women who have a harder time of fitting into the (white) middle class femininity can be to instead perform a sort of “bad girl”-femininity. Lundström here writes about (mostly working class) Swedish Latina girls, but I would argue that it’s applicable to Lisbeth in the movie as well. Lisbeth knows that the society she lives in won’t accept her, and therefore she fights back by being tough, by not conforming.
While it isn’t clear in this installment of the series why Lisbeth has a legal guardian, it’s clear that her non-respectability is used as an argument against her. Something worth mentioning here is that historically Sweden have sterilised people, particularly women, that wasn’t deemed suitable to procreate (Hübinette & Lundström 2014). Women of colour and/or working-class women who didn’t conform to a respectable femininity was particularly targeted in this eugenics movement. While this is not the case anymore, the movie shows this continuous control of non-respectable working class women by way of guardianship.
Another important exploration of violence and the structures it’s a part of is the Vanger family. The Vanger family is the owner of a big industrial company and is described by one character as “storkapitalet” (big capital/business). Henrik Vanger, the old patriarch of the family, employs Mikael for one last attempt to solve the disappearance of his niece Harriet in the 1960s. During the investigation one learns more of this (white) upper class family and realise just how right-wing, sexist, and racist a lot of them are. Some examples of them being right wing and sexist are how one family member calls the magazine Mikael works for a communist rag and another one calling Lisbeth for Mikael’s whore. The racist and Nazi part of it is what is most pronounced though. One learns that several family members used to be active Nazis, and still keeps Nazi memorabilia. As the plots and mystery unfolds one also learns that Gottfried Vanger, Harriet’s father, killed Jewish women in religious rituals during the 1940-1960s. It’s also revealed that him and Martin Vanger, Harriet’s brother, sexually abused Harriet, leading to her running away. In the end of the movie it’s revealed that Martin has continued to kill women. He claims that he didn’t have any racist motives like his father did, like he puts it:
That was dad’s project. He mixed his hobby with race and religion. And that was a mistake, there’s no reason to take risks by leaving bodies.
[my translation] (Män som hatar kvinnor 2009, 2 h 22 min)
Instead chooses women no one will look for; “whores, immigrants” [my translation] (Män som hatar kvinnor, 2009, 2 h 23 min). Throughout the movie Martin also tries to distance himself from the older members of his family by apologising for their prejudiced behaviour, and by living in a newly built house instead of an old fancy one.
The difference in Gottfried and Martin’s behaviour can be understood by using the framework presented by Hübinette and Lundström (2014). They argue that between 1905-1968 Sweden was in what they call “the white purity stage”, where the idea of white hegemony was very important and influential (Hübinette & Lundström 2014, 427-428). That which was considered Swedish, and the ”white race” as a whole, was considered to be superior to other nations and races. The State Institute for Racial Biology was opened during this period (it existed from 1922 to 1968) and influenced the view of race during this era. During later periods of Swedish history, a picture of Sweden as an anti-racist and morally good country was instead created (Hübinette & Lundström 2014, 429). Because of this a norm of colour blindness was created, that is to say, a norm of not “seeing race” in Sweden. But racism is still very much present. Hübinette and Lundström (2014, 426) argues that this colour blindness keeps us from being able to see similarities between the racism in contemporary society and the historical racism. In my opinion one could claim that the way Gottfried and Martin are racist in ways that are typical for their time. Gottfried was openly a Nazi and specifically killed Jewish women. Martin on the other hand claims that race isn’t important in his murders, but he still mainly kills immigrant women. The way Martin distances himself from the Nazis in his family’s past can be seen as an expression of Sweden’s view of race in since 1968.
One should also note that there is definitely a class aspect of Gottfried and Martin’s murder. Martin specifically targets women who are socially vulnerable, because it’s easier to get away with killing them. He then uses his own soundproof torture chamber and disposes of the bodies at sea using his own boat. His economic capital thusly makes it possible for him to cover up his crimes. He might have learned that from his father, who killed women while he was on business trips, and therefore was able to spread out his killings throughout the country.
In conclusion, despite of the title, Män som hatar kvinnor isn’t just about the impact of the patriarchy on violence toward women. Throughout the movie it is clear that class and race also have a large impact on the violence that is inflicted on the women in it. Lisbeth’s lack of social, cultural and economic capital limits her life, and her lack of respectability is used against her. The murders that Gottfried and Martin commit are racially charged, and simultaneous shows how race has been conceived of in Sweden during the last 100 years. In the end of the movie Lisbeth says that even though Martin might have learned this behaviour from his father, that’s not an excuse, he’s just a fucker who hates women. I agree, but like the other fuckers who hate women in this movie, he’s also influenced by white hegemony and capitalism.
Crenshaw, K. (1991) “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43 (6): 1241–1299.
Hübinette, T. & Lundström, C. (2014). ”Three phases of hegemonic whiteness: understanding racial temporalities in Sweden”, Social Identities: Journal for the Study of Race, Nation and Culture 20 (6): 423-37.
Lundström, C. (2007). Svenska Latinas: Ras, klass och kön i svenskhetens geografi. Göteborg: Makadam.
Skeggs, B. (1997). Att bli respektabel: Konstruktioner av klass och kön. Göteborg: Daidalos. [This is a Swedish translation of Skeggs’ book Formations of Class and Gender: Becoming Respectable]