Trigger Warnings: This article in general discusses transphobia, not limited to but including misgendering and violence towards trans individuals.
Last January, a reviewer asked me to read Shanghai Red. “I don’t have proper perspective to know if it’s well done or insulting,” he told me. Oh goody, I thought, before proceeding to Not Read It for four months. Now, closing out on Pride Month, I’ve finished reading it, and I can firmly say it’s somewhere in between. When I shared my thoughts with the CW staff, that reviewer – and my editor – and a dear friend – and later my therapist (yes, reader, my f***ing therapist!) – encouraged me to write something lengthier about it. Weeks later, here we are. If it isn’t clear yet, this article will irreparably spoil Shanghai Red if you haven’t read it, and may ruin it in other ways even if you have.
Shanghai Red (written by Christopher Sebela, with art by Joshua Hixson) is the thrilling tale of a man named Jack. Jack gets shanghaied/crimped (kidnapped and sold into three years of servitude on a ship) in 19th century Portland. And Shanghai Red is the story of Jack’s return, how he searches for his family, and how he gets his revenge. It’s a story with striking, bloody art that feels reminiscent of listening to The Decemberists (a sea shanty-obsessed Portland band). But Shanghai Red is also something more, and it’s the “more” that brings us here: Jack is trans (transsexual/transgender).
As a trans person, I loved having a trans protagonist (not a villain) who had a story outside of their trans identity, who didn’t suffer violence because of their gender, and who lives until the story’s end. Jack’s gender is never a joke. For trans readers, seeing a trans protagonist like Jack finding himself while tearing Portland a new one may be accepting, affirming, and even therapeutic. However, in my own journey reading Shanghai Red, Jack’s gender identity became an unavoidable problem. For all of its empathy and nuance, Shanghai Red is still a book made by cis (cisgender, identifying as one’s assigned gender) creators catering to a cis audience, and as such, has pitfalls.
As we dive into trans representation in Shanghai Red, please keep in mind that most of the book’s problems aren’t specific to it. While I take it as an example, it’s still representative of problems endemic to storytelling and publishing, both in comics and beyond them. If anything, it serves as proof that even well-meaning cis writers aiming to write trans protagonists can fall short in their representations of us in ways that are hurtful. It also acts as one of many examples of why the comics industry sorely needs to place more focus on publishing “Own Voices” books – trans authors writing trans characters – rather than promoting works by cis writers that a cis readership believes portrays us “accurately.”
Frustratingly, Shanghai Red’s problems begin before the book does: in its advertising. At time of writing, blurbs for individual issues and the trade paperback misgender (refer to an individual with the wrong pronouns or as the wrong gender) the protagonist (and arguably deadname, aka use the trans character’s given name at birth that they have given up). Below is the synopsis from the collected trade paperback:
“Red is one of hundreds of people who were shanghaied out of Portland in the late 1800s. Drugged, kidnapped, and sold to a ship’s captain for $50, she wakes up on a boat headed out to sea for years, unable to escape or reveal who she is. Now, she’s coming back in a blood-soaked boat to find her family and track down the men responsible for stealing her life out from under her.”
Noticeably, Shanghai Red isn’t sold as a book about a trans man, but as the story of a woman seeking revenge while disguised as a man, which is a very different thing. Additionally, the book sells itself as part of the “feminist” genre on Image’s site, which partially implies Jack is a woman saving women. Shanghai Red can either be a book about a trans man saving women, or a book about a woman saving herself and others. Both historical fiction about trans people and stories about crossdressing are worth telling, but Sebela’s approach, in my opinion, does disservice to both. While Shanghai Red more generally aims to approach and question gender, a cis person exploring their gender is far different than a trans person coming to terms with theirs. This book could have remained the story of a female crossdresser exploring her gender identity, but it isn’t. Shanghai Red is a liberation narrative trapped between the story of how cis women have historically used cross-dressing to achieve liberation and the story of a trans character freed by the ability to be himself.
In young adult fiction, a book by Mackenzi Lee – Madness Blooms – faced/faces a similar problem. Madness Blooms, like Shanghai Red, is a historical fiction book about a trans man – or it tries to be. Madness Blooms was advertised as a book about a crossdressing lesbian, referring to its protagonist exclusively with feminine-coded (she/hers) pronouns (like Shanghai Red) and the birth name he abandons. Lee’s book faced further criticisms from the queer community in its portrayals of trans identity and sexual orientation, and in how it passed off transphobic and homophobic violence as “historical accuracy,” all of which have led to a later release date. While I don’t think Shanghai Red’s sins are as damning as those of Madness Blooms, both attempt to subvert the historical fiction trope of cross-dressing women to surprise their audiences with trans men (surprise!) while still being sold as stories about Strong Female Protagonists. Trans-ness becomes a plot twist.
As explained by Rose Fox on the Q&A blog Story Hospital, the “trans reveal” plot by turning trans existence into a plot twist or surprise rather than something known from the story’s beginning “comes from paranoid allo-cis-het fantasies of being fooled or tricked by evil queer and trans people.” While not all “trans reveal” plots have the animosity of Dressed to Kill or Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, both of which have “plot twist” trans villains, a well-meaning cis writer can nonetheless feed into this toxic trope. This trope, in real life, is often used to justify violence towards trans people: the “trans panic defense” is only illegal in eight US states. Often trans people themselves are depicted as violent, though we experience much higher rates of violence at the hands of cis people. (The most affected are transfeminine BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color).)
Historical fiction is always selective – even history without fiction does this. There will never be room for every fact, and this makes it even more important which facts are passed on. For example, while Sebela writes about crimping – part of Portland’s unseemly past – he ignores the fact that Oregon was so racist that Black people weren’t allowed to live in the state when it was founded. (I won’t be digging deeply into the way this book approaches race because, as a white person, I don’t think it’s my place to do so.) That said, I’m grateful that he wasn’t “historically accurate” to the treatment of queer people in 19th century America.
Historical fiction that includes or is about trans characters is incredibly important because it acts to remind its audience that we existed before more recent terminology, and existed before it became supposedly “popular” to be trans. Non-binary people existed globally long before colonization. There are plenty of examples of American trans men like Jack in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Joseph Lobdell, Jack Bee Garland, Harry Allen, and Alan L. Hart, among others. All lived vastly different, complicated lives. Garland was a gay Army sailor and Hart pioneered usage of X-rays in detecting tuberculosis. Their stories and stories like theirs deserve telling, and they deserve to be told properly, and due partially to the transphobia they experienced, these aren’t stories I want cis writers to claim as their own.
Masc On, Masc Off: Into the Closet
Among Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs), there is a mantra (recently reiterated by a Famous Author Who Shall Not Be Named): gender isn’t a costume. Their implication is that trans identities – specifically those of trans women and transfeminine people – can be taken off. This idea, of trans-ness as costume, is one constantly reiterated by cis representations of trans-ness whether intended or not. And here’s the thing: gender isn’t a costume. All gender is socially constructed but nonetheless perfectly real: my gender and those of my trans siblings are just as real as yours, cis reader.
This isn’t to say that clothes don’t play an important role in gender presentation or gender experience: they often do. Clothing can be a source of power and identity and gender euphoria – or dysphoria. (Side note: trans identity doesn’t require that an individual experience gender dysphoria or euphoria.) However, our clothing in relation to our bodies is heavily policed: how we dress can mean “passing” (aka not being perceived as trans), “trans enough,” and even “too trans.” Cis people are fascinated by our clothing but the body under it even more. Because there is a belief that trans people can be de-masked, there is an obsession with what we wear and what we are when it comes off. What’s in your pants? Have you had The Surgery?
Thus, it’s troubling that Jack begins, narratively, as a costume – an assumed identity, something a woman – Molly, or Red – has been forced to take on in order to survive and to be free. Shanghai Red’s flashbacks portray “Molly” being taught traditionally masculine roles by a father disappointed in having “only daughters” and then teaching his “daughter” to take on masculine roles. When his father leaves, Jack supports his mother and sister as a man, then continues to be Jack to survive three years kidnapped at sea, and finally as an identity that can bear the burden of multiple murders so “Molly”/“Red” doesn’t have to. Through all of this, Jack occasionally mentions feeling “lost” when “not being” Jack, but simultaneously seems to feel constrained.
When readers are first introduced to Jack, it’s via a murder-spree. (Associating Jack with violence emphasizes a troubling trope of depicting trans people – usually trans women – as violent, even if Jack’s violence feels understandable and justified.) In a striking and cinematic sequence, Jack brutally kills his captors as the other crimped men watch in horror. Then, to the crew’s astonishment, Jack rips open his shirt to reveal his bandaged chest and tells them “[My name is] Molly. Call me Red if it’s easier.” Jack’s original “reveal” as a woman in the opening pages does give Jack agency within the narrative, but this “reveal” is still more so his author’s choice, and still played for shock value and played as a very literally liberating, empowering moment. (On some level, I’m caught by how difficult – impossible – it would be for a trans man, or for a cis woman pretending to be a man, to last three years on a ship without anyone knowing. Simultaneously, I’m grateful that the story here doesn’t get further into Jack’s pants.) This entire scene, of course, is problematized by Jack’s later disclosed trans identity: Jack has never been a woman at all. (Surprise!)
Throughout the comic, the “camera lens” follows Jack’s body through acts of dressing and undressing. A ubiquitous version of the Trans Dressing Room Scene is of trans women and transfeminine people putting on wigs (i.e. the protagonist of Alters). That said, this concept extends to trans men and transmasculine people as well. The objectifying “behind the scenes” moments follow Jack taking off his shirt (multiple times), getting dressed after washing, and offer the momentary reveal of Jack’s hairy leg under a skirt when grabbing a gun. There is also a (dysphoric) scene in which he falls asleep drunkenly outside of the brothel where his sister works, only to wake and find himself “kindly” put to bed in a dress. He is then forced to dress in feminine clothing to meet the brothel’s madam. By the time we reach the brothel scenes, it feels clear that Jack has no desire to return to being Molly, if Jack ever was.
Even in the midst of Jack’s semi-poignant coming-out scene to his sister (as he plans another night of revenge killings), they are in front of a mirror and she is helping Jack get dressed after she attempts to dress him in a dress again. He metaphorically “comes out of the closet” with clothing. This is Jack at his most emotionally and physically vulnerable. She helps him blacken his hair and bind his chest as he tells her “You’ve never met Jack. He’s different.” While this scene is meant to seem vulnerable and even badass as Jack holsters his gun, it nonetheless presents Jack-as-costume. Additionally, Jack’s coming out is a moment of liberation, and a clear reversal of Jack “coming out as Molly” when achieving freedom at the beginning of the book. While these are enticing parallel scenes, they are both in some sense used as plot twists and the existence of Jack’s coming-out makes the “Molly coming out” moment feel all the more unnecessary.
The one time “cross-dressing” is shown unrelated to Jack is when the liberated sex workers join the crew of Jack’s ship and all immediately begin wearing shirts and slacks, connecting dressing masculine as ultimately freeing and the clothes every woman wants to wear, further problematizing the comic’s portrayal Jack’s gender identity and simultaneously equating masculine clothing to women’s liberation. Is Jack really Jack after all, or simply Jack because it offers him more freedom than he would have as a woman?
Out of the Closet
It’s crucial to say that all of us — by us I mean trans folk — don’t know our gender identities early on, and that even if we do, it can be difficult and even dangerous to come out of the closet.
Alongside the toxicity of the “trans reveal,” the coming out scene, and the trans plot as a whole, represents a far larger problem: the idea of the Trans Story™. I call it the Trans Story™ because it is an inescapable monolithic narrative in media that cis writers – even well-meaning cis writers – seem overwhelmingly obsessed with telling. Trans Stories™ are the revelation narrative: they encompass the first eureka moment; the coming out; the transition! They aren’t simply stories starring trans characters or even later-life trans stories, but stories about Trans-ness. Compared to more blatantly harmful tropes, the Trans Story™ seems innocuous, even celebratory. Yet, this story – the cis version of this story – is tired. It is tiring.
In an article addressing the Trans Story™, Constance Augusta Zaber ponders where the cis obsession with this sort of narrative comes from and posits that “[m]aybe it’s just that cis people simply don’t know any other way to tell trans stories. Maybe all this repetition of the same story over and over again has convinced cis people that this is the only story there is to tell.” Yet, as Zaber explains, “[b]y only telling stories about this one moment in our lives we end up erasing trans people who aren’t in the process of coming out and transitioning… Our lives continue after we transition and for most of us our lives continue to be trans lives. After coming out, our lives continue to have joys and struggles that are unique to our lives as trans people.” While Shanghai Red’s primary plot keeps the book from being fully a Trans Story™ (for which I am grateful), it’s still secondarily one, in a genre I wish would be left to trans writers if written at all.
Walking in Our Own Shoes: #OwnVoices
For well-intentioned allies now trying to write their stories more diversely, it can be difficult and conflicting to then hear something like “please do not write a trans/disabled/Black/etc. protagonist” or “this story isn’t yours to write.” The issue isn’t “should I include a trans/gay/disabled/black/desi/etc. character in my book?” (Yes! By all means!) It’s when you write a story or protagonist from a point of view that you don’t have the life experience to understand that things get troubling.
At worst, writers with the best of intentions can make harmful presumptions about how minorities they aren’t part of want to be represented, i.e. when Daniel Kibblesmith named Marvel’s first non-binary hero Snowflake. When authors are looking to write diverse characters more realistically, they are often advised to use sensitivity readers who can help them avoid harmful language, tropes, or clichés. Shanghai Red is a case of a book which did have sensitivity readers for early drafts. (Whether this was Sebela’s choice or Image Comics’, I haven’t a clue.) However, sensitivity reading isn’t without its problems: it can be used to protect a book from due criticism, and sensitivity readers aren’t always paid for emotionally exhausting and time intensive work. As trans writer Devon Price bluntly puts it, “We get brought in after the work has been done, to plug the holes and correct the errors and make the cis person look smarter and more sensitive than they actually are.”
The question I’d like cis writers interested in writing trans stories to ask themselves is this, as phrased by Price: “Why do I think I, a cis person, should be the person to tell this story?” Price continues to explain that while there are countless trans creators, we are rarely offered a place at the table: “If you, as a cis person, choose instead to give that place to yourself, you are implicitly claiming to have more of a right to be there than any of us do. Are you really comfortable with that?” For all of the “putting yourself in their shoes” a writer can do, writers outside of a minority will almost certainly fail when it comes to capturing the nuances of lived experiences. This is true not only for cis writers assuming how trans people experience trans identity, but for straight writers writing gay characters, non-disabled writers writing disabled characters, and white writers writing BIPOC. It is often better to leave narratives like these to minority voices, whose work is often turned down for “lacking authenticity” because of an assumption of how “authenticity” should look. In a manner of speaking, let us walk in our own shoes instead of stepping on our toes.
In 2015, Corinne Duyvis, a Danish SFF author, began a hashtag on twitter: #OwnVoices. Duyvis, a disabled bisexual woman, did so with the intent to start a conversation around and the promotion of “Own Voices” books: books where creators share a marginalized identity with their protagonist. The “Own Voices” book discussion is most prevalent in children’s and young adult literature circles, it is a discussion topic sorely needed in the comics industry.
Trans writers in comics, as with many minorities, are vastly underrepresented. This is partially because “Own Voices” books often go outside of the stories minority writers are expected to tell. Publishers often default to hiring and promoting minority writers to write specific kinds of “own voices” stories: “trauma porn” and “inspiration porn.” “Inspiration porn” is incredibly common in disability-centric stories, which focus on overcoming adversity and framed for a non-minority audience as “if they can overcome any barrier or adversity, so can I!” (with the implication that minorities who continue to face problems simply aren’t trying hard enough. But that’s something for another time.
The other end of the spectrum is “trauma porn” aka “pain narratives.” It’s a concept found in LGBTQ+ stories, stories by BIPOC, stories by disabled authors, and those belonging to other minorities. In Trans Stories™ this appears via our misgendering and dead-naming and harassment and in our deaths. “Trauma porn” contributes to a cis audience’s idea of what a Trans Story™ should be. This makes the book meaningful or “accurate.” And, as Rose Fox notes, “There’s something tacky about even very well-meaning cis people making money off of trans pain, and there are so many clichés about trans misery that it’s hard to avoid bolstering them if you aren’t writing from your own experience.” That said, trauma narratives and Trans Stories™ are also the only stories that trans people are expected to write (because they are the only stories cis people are familiar with from other cis people writing them). When we write our stories, they must be stories about our pain – collective and individual, stories about our courage or the stories about Good Cis Allies who mourn us because, at the end of the book, we die. Life isn’t simply shown as boring after transition, but as well and truly ending.
In her article, “The Role Publishing Plays in the Commodification of Black Pain,” L.L. McKinney explains a similar problem between publishers and books by Black authors: “In the industry, stories about police brutality, the struggle, poverty, etc. have been dubbed ‘issue’ books, and it’s a not-so-secret secret that if your book doesn’t fall into this category, it won’t get any real push or marketing… this laser-like focus on the ‘right’ books sends a clear message to Black authors, Black readers, and Black people as a whole: your stories aren’t worth much if you don’t bleed on the page for us.” Ultimately, blame for these sorts of stories shouldn’t be placed on “Own Voices” writers but on an industry with a specific idea of what an “Own Voices” book is. Writers should be allowed to tell stories about their pain. It’s when all “Own Voices” books that the industry promotes (emphasis on the industry’s role) are pain and trauma that we once again enter dangerous territory.
Occasionally, large comics publishers do promote “Own Voices” books that aren’t simply “trauma porn” or inspirational memoir. (Ones by Black writers currently published by Image include Excellence, Bitter Root, and Tartarus.) In superhero comics, Marvel’s more recent Black Panther titles have notably been “Own Voices” books, written by writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Roxane Gay, and Nnedi Okorafor. Both of Ms. Marvel’s writers, G. Willow Wilson and Saladin Ahmed, are Muslim like the comic’s protagonist, but this Ms. Marvel began with Wilson as a new character wearing the title. Crucially, minority writers, whether they be LGBTQ+, BIPOC, or disabled, are rarely given work on mainstream superhero titles like Superman, Batman, or Spider-Man. And “Own Voices” becomes an excuse not to let us write them. There is also a double-edged sword with “diversity hires” where minority writers are either hired by companies to show how conscious they are of social justice issues, but can also be held to a standard of only getting gigs with a NYT Best-Seller under their belt first. These latter examples, I’d argue, aren’t the point of “Own Voices,” but rather a marketing ploy by large publishers to cover for the fact that a majority of their writers are still cisgender, heterosexual, white men.
Rather than pigeon-holing us into inspiration or trauma narratives, in the case of trans people the Trans Story™, let us tell the stories we want to tell. Offer us a place to tell them. Recognize that the stories that you read or write or publish may not be the ones we want or need – and that if they are, they are stories you will often lack the perspective to tell properly.
I appreciate the story that Sebela and Hixson tried to tell with Shanghai Red. Yet, while it’s compelling and sympathetic, and attempts nuance, I’m still left longing for the book I wish it was and for tales I know only a trans writer can tell. It may be the story of a trans man seeking his revenge in 19th century Portland, but it is also a reminder of who gets to tell trans narratives, and which stories are erased and ignored, a reminder that even compassionate creators can still let down minorities they try to portray, and a reminder of how #OwnVoices comics remain vital and but overlooked.