Can We Cool it With the “Woman Disguised as a Man” Twist Already?


During the summer of 1997, Mulan was seven year old Vrai’s very favorite movie; during the fall of 1997, it was therefore assured that a costume from the movie. What that small child quickly found, however, is that while they wanted to dress up as Ping, all that the stores were selling was the matchmaker dress. Nobody thought it worth selling the masculine clothes when obviously the girly girl no really totally a girl bit was obviously more appealing. This trend never stopped. Your author just got more bitter about it.

As for why it’s come up now, a story: I’ve been inundated lately with comments about how I should watch Voltron: Legendary Defender. It’s the Legend of Korra writing team. It’s really clever and adorable. And, most alluringly, it supposedly had a canonically non-binary character. I’m nothing if not predictable.

[Minor Voltron spoilers follow]

But the thing is, as I found out very quickly, Voltron doesn’t have a non-binary character. Perhaps you’re already putting the pieces together from the title of this article, but just in case: what the show has is a character (Pidge) who passes as male for the first few episodes, only to reveal to her friends that she is actually female about halfway through the series. At which point I walked away from anything breakable in my house.

The next point of order, of course, is “how could you possibly be upset about this, when it’s your own dumb fault for getting taken in by rumors?” And you know, there’s a certain truth to that. The recommendations were well intentioned, seeming to stem from stories that the writers had described Pidge as “they” in the writer’s room to try and preserve the twist, which they quickly backed off from once they realized that “they” is an actual pronoun actual people use; and a screenshot in the comic where Pidge is on panel and referred to as “they” in a sentence which might also be describing all the pilots. The writers, meanwhile, have been hitting the point almost comically hard in interviews about how Pidge sure is a girl, and isn’t that great.


Which, fine. In truth, Pidge is written with probably the best “post reveal” fallout I’ve ever seen with this trope. No one really refers to Pidge with any pronouns at all after the conversation occurs, and no one treats her differently. This is a far cry from revealing that the trans character in Fushigi Yugi was “only” presenting as female to honor her dead sister’s memory, after which she was summarily killed off. It’s not even “we’re trying to say a feminist thing about a male-dominated field, but also you need to embrace your femaleness in very socially acceptable ways; and let’s throw in a reference to body alteration as a threatening, horrible potential outcome,” fuck you very much Persona 4.

Pidge is a fun, endearing character; heck, she’s even written in such a way where the writers could decide to explore the subject of non-binary identity in future, even if I doubt they will (not everyone figures out their identity instantly, after all, especially in such an uncharted area). So I’m not really mad at Voltron, in the end – although I rather wish they’d appreciate that queer representation is important and rare enough in all-ages media that they’d come down a little more firmly than a lukewarm “well maybe, we’ll see.” But it has made me realize how much I long for the death of the “cis woman masquerading as a man” plot altogether.

It’s one of the oldest tropes out there, made hugely popular in a number of Shakespeare’s plays and reaching back even further than that. And while implying that trans identity is a costume or a phase is becoming easier to critique and root out with the “men in dresses” trope, which is almost always used for belittling comic effect or to queer-code a villain, “women in drag” is a lot harder to pin down. Unlike its counterpart, having cis women disguise themselves as men is far more likely to be painted as a heroic motivator, and a means of trying to interject a woman into a story and demonstrate her competence alongside the male characters. It’s ostensibly a good trope, and even the Voltron writers talked about it in terms of “showing that a girl can be just as good as the guys.”

Which is a really optimistic way to come at it. But let me describe for a moment how it reads from out here, so far outside consideration that the thought never crossed anyone’s mind. First off, it implies that an AFAB (assigned female at birth) person would only ever choose to present as masculine if there were some kind of dire stakes that pushed them to this UNHEARD OF, EXTREME MEASURE. And when you tie that presentation to a quest, it naturally implies that there’s an endpoint – that the character’s presentation is a means to an end, and once they’ve achieved their goal they’ll go back to acting “normal.”

It’s not intended. It’s almost never intended. The average person doesn’t look at these tropes (including TvTropes, which loves lists a lot more than context) and think “wow, I sure can see how this came out of a fear of an Othered group and how its history might be fraught.” Unless you’re affected by it, chances are good the implications will just pass you right by.

I’m not entirely naïve. The reaction to the new Ghostbusters certainly proved that there’s a subsection of the viewing populace that apparently needs female characters snuck into their media like vegetables hidden on a spoiled child’s plate; but we’re in an age now where it’s time to call some intersectional critique into things too.

fuck you tho

When I bring this up, it’s not really because I want to burn all my copies of Twelfth Night. I think disguises can lead to interesting stories about gender and presentation, if the writer is willing to bend outside of seeing cis identity as the default one. Monstrous Regiment remains one of my favorite novels. But not when it’s every portrayal of an AFAB person in masculine clothes. Not when you know there’s no point in hoping, even though you can’t stop yourself – those breathless recommendations came from a place of hope, not cruelty, after all. Even when the story always ends with saying, “but you’re really this,” and you go back to feeling invisible.

Bioware was pretty great when they wrote Krem, but one character is not keeping me from drowning. Krem wasn’t there when I was 18 and thought I’d found a kindred spirit in Naoto Shirogane only to wind up crying myself to sleep. Krem by himself can’t erase repetition after repetition of feeling like a plot device and not a person. I know it’s a slow process. I know because I’ve had writing rejected specifically because editors were worried about inducing confusion with singular “they” pronouns. Because people still refer to Stevonnie as “she.” Because I am still so tired.

So can we give it a rest, world? Just for a little while?

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8 replies »

  1. I think you should give Robin Hobb’s “Realm of the Elderlings” a try. It has a canon non-binary character, who, I think, could be called a main, even though books are mostly written in first person pov. Their reveal goes roughly like this: “You thought he’s a man? No, they’re non-binary”, then “You thought she’s a woman? Nope, non-binary”. It’s also an excellent fantasy series, even if it’s a lot of books to read.

  2. Reading this post, even though I know it’s a small part of it that’s dealt with in the first episode, makes me really want to see your take on Ouran High School Host Club. (Aka “my favorite thing ever that is also hella problematic.”)

    • I haven’t revisited it in depth since high school, honestly. I have a certain fondness for it (and genderfluid Haruhi….and Kyoya/Tama/Haruhi as an OT3), but it never really thought very hard about non-normative gender stuff (yeees a little with Tama and Haruhi, but it’s still A Straight Romance in the end)

      • I agree with you about that OT3 completely, haha.

        I would be curious if you think it stands up at all with how it deals with gender roles. I still think it does a lot of genuinely progressive things (if my multiple articles I’ve written about it for ANN aren’t an indication, lol) but of course its writers don’t go as far as they could, and it’s still limited by the confines of its genre.

        And that’s interesting also in light of the fact that its head of story also wrote a lot of Utena (Yoji Enokido), which boldly confronts a lot of the stuff that Ouran seems to be afraid to do more than dance around.

  3. Honestly, I’ve always read Pidge as a trans girl, for a couple different reasons.

    The first reason is Pidge’s reactions of relief, not shock or anything else, when people tell her they already know that she’s a girl. In playing it like that, the writers made it seem like Pidge had been struggling with admitting her identity when there’s the chance that the people she’s grown to trust would dismiss it or not believe her.

    It’s entirely possible a cis girl Pidge would feel the same, especially due to the fear that people would see her differently simply due to gender norms. However, her main reason for hiding her identity has been left behind, quite literally, on Earth, and telling everyone that she’s a girl as soon as she’s sure that she’s far and away from the Galaxy Garrison should be fairly easy if that were the case – more half of the people barely even know her at the beginning of the series, two of them being aliens who most likely don’t even know the gender norms of Earth and another one being a human who’s already spent a year with aliens and doesn’t get freaked out by much.

    Her hesitancy and relief, however, make a lot more sense if she’s trans – even in coming from a loving and accepting family (that, in this interpretation, were okay with her padding to look like she had breasts), she would more than likely know that not everyone is going to be alright with her gender identity should she outright admit it.

    By going with her level of comfort even when wearing things that don’t make her look obviously feminine after she comes out, like her power suit, it seems like at times she would have been more than willing to put on more masculine wear and venture out into the world while still identifying as a girl. Depending on the situation, that definitely could have brought her up against transphobic individuals. Presenting in such a feminine way with long hair and everything makes a whole lot of sense while still on Earth, as it makes it more likely for people outside of Pidge’s family to automatically assume she’s a girl. So her delay in admitting she’s a girl and subsequent relief in most of them already realizing her gender comes from a stance even more justified than if she were a cis girl who was afraid they were going to judge her based simply on societal norms.

    Similarly, this can be seen in the level of hesitancy we see in the ‘cutting her hair’ flashback. Yes, it’s true that there are cis girls out there who are incredibly attached to their long hair and this scene could be made sense of in terms of a cis girl Pidge mentally preparing herself to take on an identity and gender she herself doesn’t identify with. But the scene gains another level of meaning if taken from a ‘trans girl Pidge’ perspective – she’s forcing herself to let go of identity that she had to advocate for and also the identifying marker that makes society see her as a girl, and return to those feelings of dysphoria in order to get one step close to saving her brother and father.

    Which plays into the second reason I view her as a trans girl: it would give her a more substantial reason to pretend to be a boy while with the Galaxy Garrison. As you said yourself, the whole ‘girl-pretends-to-be-boy’ tends to be shown as a dire, extreme measure that said cis girl will stop doing and eventually return to ‘normal’, which has a lot of unfortunate implications. The thing is, as a cis girl Pidge would have no need whatsoever to pretend to be a male, as we see plenty of female cadets at the station. It wouldn’t take much more than a hair cut, the canon glasses, and and a dye job to make her look different.

    Why would she instead put herself into a role that forces her to be on constant high alert of people noticing the fact that she binds to keep her breasts from showing, or any medical doctor from the Garrison who wants to give her a physical to see how healthy she is?

    While it could be entirely possible to put together an explanation that fits for cis girl Pidge, the more simple explanation is actually that she’s trans. In a lot of ways, the Galaxy Garrison models our day military system, which has allowed women in it since 1948 (which doesn’t get rid of the many problems that still exist today for women in the military system, but I digress). Trans representation in the military, on the other hand, has only become an often-discussed issue in the last few years, and doesn’t even begin to broach the topic of potential discrimination troops of trans individuals could very well end up facing while in the forces, which has tended to sway towards the conservative side. With that in mind, it wouldn’t be surprising if a trans girl still felt the need to pretend to be male while in the military so as to get the same respect and treatment as their peers.

    Since the Galaxy Garrison seems a lot like the military, it seems much more justified for Pidge to pretend to be a boy if she’s trans rather than if she’s a cis girl.

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