Trans Ordinary

Looking at film, games and television, Rowan Fortune explores depictions of transgender people in fiction. What role can depictions of trans life play in overcoming prejudice? How does that relate to comprehending oppression? And can transgender people simply be ordinary? With special thanks to Violette Lundsten for help in the writing of this essay.


The Elusive Normal

“Small minds are concerned with the extraordinary, great minds with the ordinary.” Blaise Pascal’s quip about the ordinary concerns the tendency for a focus on the macro to disguise a narrowness of intellect. Bigots demonstrate this tendency with alacrity; the subjects of their prejudice are not only nefarious but cataclysmically so. The stakes are not just high but superlative. The hated are denied ordinariness.

This dynamic is apparent whether a bigot’s fantasy concerns Jews supposedly “manipulating the planet”; “invasions” of non-white people overwhelming “innocent” Europe; “queer agendas” to create posthuman dystopias, etc. For the bigot, the Other deifies a divinely and state-sanctioned “normal”, it is the abnormal from which we must protect ourselves. 

This worldview is incoherent and unimaginative. It mistakes scope for grandeur, and the result is distorting and cheap: a terrible mythos absent of poetry and depth. The everyday niceties of life at the margins help comprise the totality of life, which is diminished when those on the margins are erased. To create extraordinary objects of hate, bigots subsist in a stale fantasy world of angels and demons. 

Transgender people are presently the subject of focused bigotry. Record-breaking instances of anti-trans legislation are pushed by the GOP in the States, while, reactionary opportunists like Modi, Erdogan, Sunak, Duda, Putin, Xi, and on and on and on are all keen to undermine trans existence. They ban us from civil society or create conditions that “merely” coerce us into obscurity, encouraging murderous hate crimes and discrimination.

In the media, stories about us not only stress trans “abnormality” but (as a corollary) our extraordinariness, whether that’s apparent in our alleged newness (Kit Heyam’s book Before We Were Trans undermines this myth) or the seemingly existential threat we pose to the cisgender ‘normal’.

“Transgender people are presently the subject of focused bigotry. Record-breaking instances of anti-trans legislation are pushed by the GOP in the States, while, reactionary opportunists like Modi, Erdogan, Sunak, Duda, Putin, Xi, and on and on and on are all keen to undermine trans existence.”

Wither Oppression?

While those who produce commodities are exploited, those who work in nurturing human life, including life destined to be exploited, are often even more undervalued. Moreover, all too frequently, the most abused are exploited in both economic and social reproductive spheres simultaneously, as waged workers and then on the double shift as homemakers. 

Justifying the undervaluing of social reproductive labour is the organic basis for patriarchies, as the policing of gender entailed by misogyny is the social basis for queerphobia. Ultimately, all social prejudice has its roots in how society is organised, to the relative advantage of some over others.

Liberal analysis of oppression sees it as rooted in ignorance because it has no agentive theory of class, which hinders it from theorising a social and historical basis for humanity’s troubles. Liberalism can only explain prejudice as a form of arbitrary ignorance, or naturalise the prejudice by absorbing it. 

Marxism offers an alternative. Class society sorts people into social positions with opposing interests. The two contending “great classes” (working and capitalist) can organise the world in their image, which is why they are classes, but there are other social layers than class. Various interests are rooted in the social reproduction of everyday life, in the lines created by class contests and obscured social relations.

Those from different social layers and classes vie with social contradictions (i.e. each other) to arrive at diverse understandings of the world and therefore at different values. Bigotries are modes of understanding; they are parochial and deny human flourishing, but a prejudice also tends to support the particular social existence of those who profess it. Prejudice is neither natural nor just arbitrarily mistaken. 

For marxists, what makes the working class perspective (one of the two contending classes) desirable above all others, from factions of capital (the other contending class), alienated workers or people caught between capital and the workers’ self-liberation, is that the working class has the potential to encompass and transcend class interests. It, therefore, has the potential to overcome the prejudices that prop up class society.

Workers have no stake in class society because its contradictions undermine their ability to reproduce their lives, acutely during crises. However, prejudices are complex and suffuse society: the working man often temporarily gains limited benefits by maintaining the class order that provides him with a wife to clean his house, cook his food, and for sexual recreation (often involving levels of implicit or explicit coercion). 

A worker in an imperial core country can likewise benefit from colonialist and neo-colonialist domination; a heterosexual, cisgender person from protecting the gendered lines that supply him with authority over women and children, and so on. 

The point of this digression is to underscore something critical: the trans ordinary, as a facet of representation politics, is easily denigrated as unimportant to a left-wing project, a secondary concern or distraction. Class society can offer tokenistic representations of marginalised life as a substitute for vital “material” improvements we should prioritise. This is mistaken; prejudice both emerges from class society and reinforces it. 

A confident, emancipatory working class that seeks its abolition in the abolition of class conditions is the only final antidote to bigotry. Such an act of liberation is rooted in an ethos of solidarity as both its means and its end. Artistic output can be (should be) a part of that, even if it cannot be the totality of the struggle. 

Leaving class relations intact while making marginalised people increasingly ‘visible’ in art will never undermine the social roots of bigotry. People will still be divided into petty, often paternalistic, atomised units. However, creating new types of visibility for the marginalised cracks the facade of normality class society needs to obscure its dehumanising logic.

From Hypervisible to Visible

The perceptive Netflix documentary Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen (2020) is a useful reference point. Trans people have always been a rich influence on cinema as well as victims of depictions that not only reinforced but created dangerous tropes. This film explores that history. 

There are many ways cinema has dehumanised trans people. It has happened through cisgender men shallowly portraying trans women and in the visceral disgust cisgender characters display after encountering trans people – especially in sexual contexts. Hollywood has helped create the popular image of the trans person as a deceiving predator at worst, and foolish victim at best. Egregious examples include the horror The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and comedy Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994).

While trans men have historically struggled with invisibility or a begrudging, condescending pity, trans women have been extremely visible – as monsters. Liberal analysis, for all its faults, can perceive that such a hypervisibility is a problem, but it then offers a bad corrective: not the trans ordinary, but merely a partial and mutilating acceptance into capitalist normality. 

Unlike ordinariness, which admits us into the everyday, normality admits us only into the governing norms of class society. The gift or normality is more often than not a poisoned one for those marginalised by class society. If the trans ordinary is trans life in all of its diversity, the trans normal is trans life trying the fix itself within a cisgender mould. It offers salvation for a few at a devastating cost.

The normal is prescriptive; it reflects what is and is not acceptable. Ordinariness, however, is an acknowledgement of inclusion in the domain of sensuous life to which all humanity belongs. The ordinary is at work when those on the social margins are absorbed into the textured existence of what is daily encountered as pregiven. 

“The normal is prescriptive; it reflects what is and is not acceptable. Ordinariness, however, is an acknowledgement of inclusion in the domain of sensuous life to which all humanity belongs.”

Trans and marginalised people can be ordinary without being normal because to be ordinary is to belong in our humanity to the social world. However, to be normal is to fit a set of distorting reactionary conventions, ones that pose the world as caught in some extraordinary conflict between moralistic forces of good and evil. 

The Other Side of Silence

To see what the trans ordinary in art looks like, let’s examine the film Bit (2019), the computer games Baldur’s Gate III (BGIII) (2023) and Starfield (2023), and the second season of Amazon’s show Good Omens  (2023). 

All of these engage positively with transgender life without frontloading their engagements, without boxing transness into a cisgender ideal of normality or leaning into the related “extraordinary” hyperboles on which bigotry thrives. However, while they each succeed as examples of the trans ordinary, it is interesting to examine how they have limitations.

BGIII has earned accolades for its trans-inclusive character creation, which parses identity from body and voice types and allows various configurations. The result enables players to unproblematically inhabit transgender adventurers without bending the game’s logic, but more than that, it understands with sensitivity many of the nuances of trans embodiedness.

A simplistic engagement with character creation might allow conventional views of transness to be inserted into a game, for instance, in linking pronouns to voice options as Starfield does. However, BGIII creates many options that, in their application to characters, reflect much more of the diversity of transition journeys. 

That is not to say that this game is the final word, and indeed, trans men have already modded BGIII to match it to their unique embodied realities. Later games might add more options to reflect transition as a living process, where embodiedness is not statically determined after an initial point.

Such inclusion might seem a small gesture, but it is essential in a world in which games are a major (and uniquely immersive) narrative media. Players inhabit a character as in no other art form, and limiting those characters not only erases people but coerces players into participating in harmful norms. 

In narrative terms, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens goes further. While the second season focuses on celebrating the sexuality side of queerness in moments of joy and pathos, it is also replete with gender queerness so suffused it becomes part of the show’s background. From the gender ambiguity of demons and angels alike and use of they/them pronouns to a human transgender minor character whose identity is firmly integrated without being hidden. 

Disagreements exist on backgrounding transness in art; on whether it returns trans life to simple invisibility. It is noteworthy, however, that the show’s fantastical dimensions do not heed it from talking indirectly about queer struggles, including trans ones. (Albeit often through allegory.) For instance, in the difficulty of forming life-sustaining relationships in a cisgender heterosexual world.

Bit is a twist on the lesbian vampire comedy in which the protagonist, who becomes vampiric early on, is perhaps secondarily trans. She could be cis and the story would be largely unchanged. However, the transness is not thematically incidental, the film would be weaker without it as most of the subtler resonances would be lost. 

Bit Vampire film
Still from the movie Bit

Laurel (depicted by transgender actor Nicole Maines) is catapulted into a nighttime world of hedonism and righteous violence after she is reborn a vampire. However, that mirror world inevitably, if fantastically, reflects the human one from which she escaped (especially in its restrictions and prejudices). This results in the film’s anti-conservative ending—a rarity in monster flicks—in which she changes both of these world’s coordinates rather than returns everything to a ‘normal’ status quo.

While hampered by bad production values, Bit points ambitiously in the best direction for trans representation. Unlike the similar handling of transness in another genre film The Craft: Legacy (2021), Bit breaks convention and posits that radical change is the only path to salvation. The goofy premise frames moments that are not only ordinary but poignant. The humour, such as Dracula finding transness surprising but quickly accepting it, is great. 

Starfield is a more ambiguous effort than the others; it also follows the trend in RPGs to add trans options in character creation (prominently, here, pronouns), which is admirable even when stopping far short of BGIII’s achievements. However, it ties these options to voice, which shows a lack of understanding or carelessness. The gesture is still consequential, however, as reactionaries signal by decrying the game in a typically over-the-top fashion

Unfortunately, the game’s creation is also plagued by credible allegations of corporate transphobia directed at a former employee, which depressingly showcases the extreme limits of representation. While art can aid in undermining prejudices, superficial displays of anti-bigotry, often doubling as marketing ploys, are also a convenient cover for prejudice within companies. Bigotry is resourceful.

The examples of the trans normal given here are baby steps in a new world of trans representation. Trans people, our insistence on our humanity, is propelling new art. While politicians everywhere compete over who can malign, denigrate, and hurt us most effectively, we see a contradictory social shift in artistic creations. 

The days of casually transphobic 90s television are alien to contemporary pop culture, but the transphobia such television helped inspire has paradoxically found deep roots in the halls of power. 

Transphobic comedy writer Graham Linehan can no longer get jobs for TV, but has marshalled a cult of hate against the marginalised. It is good we can glimpse (however dimly) what a world of the trans ordinary might look like, but creating that world is beyond the purview of aesthetics alone and, despite glimpses, looks increasingly distant.

“The days of casually transphobic 90s television are alien to contemporary pop culture, but the transphobia such television helped inspire has paradoxically found deep roots in the halls of power.”

In her novel Middlemarch, George Eliot wrote that ‘if we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrels heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.’ Eliot embodied Pascal’s great mindedness in her straining to hear the other side of silence, often painful in intensity. For art today, the trans ordinary is a deafening howl.

Trans life needs artists (cis and trans) with a keen and feeling vision of the ordinary, not because that alone can free us, but because it can show us (and cis people) that our humanity (again, the humanity of cis and trans people) merits freedom outside the prescriptions of the normal.

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Rowan Fortune authored Writing Nowhere; edited the anthology of utopian short fiction Citizens of Nowhere; and contributed to the collaborative book System Crash. It writes on utopian imagination, revolutionary theory and trans* liberation.

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