[EDIT: Content warning --- objectification, degendering, and fetishizing of trans* people; objectification of breast cancer sufferers.]
Over the last day, I’ve been devouring Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series. I love the themes of the series: the strengths of hope and friendship, self-determination, the creative and destructive powers of dreams, and so on.
But much as I like it, I’m kind of skeeved out. When I took a break from reading a few hours ago, I felt like hiding from the world and crying for a bit. I don’t think I can go back to reading the series until I express my concerns.
From here on be spoilers. Mostly, I’mma talk about the a game of you subplot, which ran from issues 32-37. Consider anything before that fair play, though.
You have been warned.
…why the fuck must every trans* person in the media be a punchline, a caricature, or a corpse?
I’m trying my best to think if there’s anything not cliched about Wanda’s character, I really am, but I’m not succeeding. The way she’s portrayed in these issues, she doesn’t seem to have any agency or definition of her own. Her purpose was to be humiliated, and then to die.
When she was alive, Wanda was defined by her past — by her dead name, by a family that doesn’t accept her and that finds her wicked, by what her body used to be. She wasn’t given very much personality; she mentioned a comic book series she used to read when she was young, but mostly we are supposed to remember and treat her as “that woman everyone kept calling a man.” She has one friend who takes her seriously, and seemingly no-one else. Not even the fucking moon, one of the essential deities and objects keeping her alive, one of the fundamental beings of the world:
Wanda: Okay, George, why’d they leave me behind to look after Barbie?
George: That’s uh pretty easy. It’s because you’re a man. That stuff they did with the uh moon. That was a women thing.
Wanda: I am not a man.
George: Maybe not to you, you’re not. But you’ve got the uh, you know. Male nasty thing.
Wanda: Listen: I’ve had electrolysis. I’m taking hormones. All that’s left is just a little lump of flesh; but all that doesn’t matter. Inside I’m a woman.
George: She doesn’t seem to think so. And to be honest uh well even if you had uh had the operation it wouldn’t make much difference to the uh moon. It’s chromosomes as much as uh anything. …It’s like uh gender isn’t something you can pick and choose as as uh far as gods are concerned.
Wanda: Well, that’s something the gods can take and stuff up their sacred recta. I know what I am.
Wanda: Why are you telling me this?
George: Oh, you know. It’s uh nice to have someone to uh talk to. And us guys should stick together. (source: Sandman #35, pages 19 + 20)
Wanda’s last remark there rings awful hollow. She’s talking to a man who’s been brought back from the dead, with otherworldly knowledge, with no perogative to lie. At least from that conversation, it seems that all of the structures that shape her life are cissexist for no good reason.
So answer me: what’s the bloody point of not treating Wanda as a woman? She’s reduced from a character, with her own hopes and dreams, to exposition; her presence is only required to give the All Knowing Dead Guy someone to talk to.
Though… The cynical part of me thinks that Wanda’s presence was “necessary” in that scene just so she could detail the steps she’s taken in her transition. After all, trans* people’s portrayal in fiction has come so often at the cost of painstakingly detailing the process some of us undergo to ease feelings of dysphoria. It gives the impression that this is all we are, that this is all we can be, and that this is all we should be — bodies altered by kilograms of drugs, and operations to add/remove organs; campy caricatures of what “True” men/women are.
Wanda herself echoes that view — that she won’t be complete until she goes “all the way” and gets bottom surgery done. Based on how she’s characterized, it’s impossible to judge whether that’s Wanda-the-trans-stereotype, which says that no trans* woman is complete until they’ve undergone all posible operations and jumped through all the hoops available, or Wanda-the-person talking, who actually wants the operation because it’ll ease her dysphoria.
Being treated like this in popular culture turns us at best into zoo animals, or blow-up dolls, and at worst into monsters. Our pasts, our struggles, the people who love and hate us, are meaningless. Our bodies, our identities, are meaningless, because some of us have the gall seek out medical intervention needed to save our lives.
Pacemakers, blood donation, vasectomies, none of these are fetishized to the same extent as medical transition. The only other procedures that do get this sort of in-depth, objectifying scrutiny are also unique to marginalized people — for example, breast cancer treatments/awareness campaigns, and abortion.
How society treats us is predicated on the idea that we — trans* and genderqueer people, women — are the Other in society, and that we deserve more scrutiny. The never-ending “religious” appeals to control what must go into and grow inside of people’s bodies, Jessica Luther’s description of how society reduces women with breast cancer into disembodied breasts, and Wanda’s conversation with Maisy Hill about “Billy,” her trans* granddaughter, are all symptoms of the same illness: society not being able to take our experiences seriously.
Plus, this bothers me also for the simple reason that since this is a cancer that mainly strikes women, it has to be about the body part, a body part that is so hyper-sexualized in our society that breastfeeding a child is a salacious public act. Oh, what would the menz do without the boobies to look at, fondle, and drool over? Save those tatas, ladies! (source: No more “Save the Tatas,” please, scatx.com)
Maisy: Hmph. So what’re you? A guy or a gal?
Wanda: I’m… I was born a guy. And now I’m a gal. Only I haven’t gone all the way…
Maisy: Yeah. My grandson, Billy, he was like you. He was a cute little thing. He’d sashay around sweet as anythin. He was savin up fer the operation. His maw used to say he was the daughter she’d never had.
They found him inna motel room in Queens, five years back. Someone had crushed in his head with a monkey-wrench. Done other shit to him He’d been dead for like a week. Everyone tol him not to go with strangers. There never was tellin that boy anythin… (source: Sandman, #36, page 24)
We are far more than incubators, stimulation vehicles, or t****y gags, and we have more needs than you think. We are not objects, as much as we are treated like such in “religious” rhetoric, pink-ribbon advertising campaigns, or transploitation rags.
Even if that “rag” is Sandman, one of the best crafted graphic novels I know of, by a writer I trust (or maybe that should be trusted?) deeply.
But that’s not the end of it. There’s also the matter of Wanda’s funeral.
I won’t criticize her parents or her aunt — they’re transphobic assholes and its obvious that they’re supposed to be distasteful and dishonest and bigoted beyond belief. I won’t talk about how her parents mutilated Wanda’s body before the funeral, or about how they want to overpower her identity with the lie that she was a cis man all along — it’d just be too painful to do so, as that is one of my own worst fears.
I want to talk about Barbara — and in a meta way, about Neil Gaiman — and what an appropriate sendoff is.
What exactly is the ending trying to communicate, aside from “take your goodbyes whenever you can”?
No matter how unpleasant your life, everything will be fixed by dying?
However badly you’re treated, there will be something magical in the end to make things seem worthwhile?
It doesn’t matter if your existence has been obliterated as long as someone makes a tiny, temporary gesture in your favor?
Your life will only get better if other people do stuff to/for you?
I’m disappointed. That’s probably the only way to put it. Sandman is a series that up to now has promoted agency, hope, and individual power. Lucifer Morningstar shut the very gates of Hell to go wander around the various realms of reality, but a mortal trans* woman couldn’t have any agency, or even personality, in a story?
What makes us so different, or so unworthy?