A hail of bullets, each as fast and dull as the next, fly through the air. They are definitions, periods, punctuation marks. Our hero answers with a word, an open hand. Time freezes. Horns swell. Bullets stop. The coding that makes up the world glimmers, bright and brittle. You say your name, your real name, and the world bends towards you.
In this essay, I’m interested in exploring a particular type of trans aesthetic, the depiction of the trans body as one that exists outside of a traditional or objective reality, and which is able to control that reality. The metaphor is somewhat related to standpoint theory, as in, the conceit that marginalized people are in a unique position to help navigate the world. The metaphor often serves to tie transness into a self-discovery, an empowering narrative, something in which a trans character proves their self-knowledge by defying an attempt to exert power over them. Speculative fiction enables that metaphor to be depicted as a literal one, and one particular aesthetic has emerged as a key representation of this particular conceit.
This aesthetic was most notably visualized by Lana and Lily Wachowski in The Matrix, as well as the film’s two subsequent sequels, Reloaded and Revolutions. To read The Matrix as a straightforward metaphor about transness, it is that outside-ness that allows Neo to circumvent the systems. The literalized versions of computer programs which appear throughout the film series, bound to their own programming, contrapose Neo’s ability to move fluently within, around, and through them. Bullet Time itself serves as one of the key images in this aesthetic. As Cael Keegan observes in their book on the Wachowski sisters, while it has its precursors, the crucial innovation of the technique’s deployment in the Matrix films is “its affective impact as a sensorial idea: the awareness that ‘the real’ is a manipulable construct.” The real is simultaneously crystalized and destabilized, revealed for the brittle thing that it is.
This conceit is also frequently visualized in comics, whose formal presentation as frozen moments of time lends itself neatly to the aesthetic. One of the most prominent examples comes in Grant Morrison’s Invisibles (itself a purported inspiration for the Wachowskis), with Lord Fanny, a trans woman who serves as the group’s shaman. In the early issues of a book that wastes no time in taking leaps across times and realities, Fanny acts as a guide to the variable both for the readers and her fellow Invisibles. Although the de riguer jokes about a trans character from any 90s comic book are there, Fanny’s sense of self and her place in the world is the source of her power, allowing her to navigate the winding road of Morrison’s storylines fluidly. In the arc where Fanny takes center stage, Apocalipstick, she finds herself reliving her memories as an impending danger forces her to complete her initiation as a witch. The arc is marked by Fanny experiencing time non-linearly, climaxing in issue 14, when she is held at gunpoint by Brody, an agent of the enemy who picked her up under the guise of a sexual advance. Wandering through the land of the dead, Fanny relives her initiation into witchcraft, and sees the totality of her life.
“I’m eighteen years old in Rio. Everything feels like broken glass inside me. I’m eleven years old in Mexico. Grandma and Aunt Marta are watching me from the treeline. I’m a prostitute in Hell. I understand the secret of magic. I am here in Mictlan where I belong. And Grandma and Aunt Marta will always be there, watching from the trees.”
During her initiation, Fanny’s experience resembles Keegan’s description of Neo in the Matrix sequels as a “quantum trans body that shimmers across multiple spaces inside time endangered by an impending collapse into historical determinism.” For Fanny, this determinism takes the form of the sickeningly common narrative of trans women, particularly trans women of color and trans sex workers, who are killed in acts of transmisogynistic violence. Against the background of imminent threat, however, Fanny’s magic makes the real a manipulative concept. At the arc’s climax, after she has completed her magical initiation, Fanny stares into the gun barrel of her would-be killer, Brody, and whispers to the god Mictlantehcutl: “This one in my place.” Brody’s gun then jams and she seizes the opportunity to stab him in the groin. Fanny collapses the predetermined narrative against Brody, using it as a weapon.
Yet while an exploration of the trans viewpoint as a power fantasy is compelling, it’s only one aspect of the metaphor. What’s also fascinating about the metaphor is its use as a way to depict the limits of this view, as well as the limits this view places on us. Which is to say, just being able to see and recognize these patterns doesn’t necessarily translate into an adeptness at manipulating them. There is a certain pathos in being outside a system, able to view it, and yet to be totally frozen in oncoming headlights. (As the old joke goes, gender is a social construct, so is a traffic light.) As the trans aesthetic has developed across media, transphobia has become more structurally visible — see the recent cruel laws in several U.S states, outlawing gender affirming care for trans youth and imposing legal penalties for drag shows. As the structures of transphobia make themselves more crudely and bluntly apparent, the mere fact of existing doesn’t have the revolutionary potential it once did.
Which isn’t to say the metaphor hasn’t been challenged and explored further. Take, for example, the way that the later Matrix sequels problematize the liberating power that Neo has in the original film. Throughout Reloaded and Revelations, Neo is threatened by the idea that his power, his vision, might be absorbed and subsumed into a narrative that only further maintains the status quo. A grid of infinite Keanus in The Architect’s room, capturing Neo’s every moment through spacetime, reducing his performative rebellion to something pre-recorded. The brawl between Neo and the dozens of Smith clones in Reloaded is a frightening vision of the system relying on its challenge. Each Smith clone as identical and dull and deadly as a bullet, all of whom claim that Neo’s resistance is itself “part of the system.”
Systems and cycles are a recurring fixation in Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s comic The Wicked + the Divine, in which a pantheon of young people are chosen every ninety years to act as ‘gods’ and given the power to inspire and enrapture audiences at the cost of being left with only two years left to live. Cassandra “Cass” Igarashi, the series’ deuteragonist and sole explicitly transfemme character, is introduced as an in universe critic and skeptic, who ascends to become an embodiment of the Norns, the fortune tellers of Norse mythology. Cass’ transness is an integral part of her character, and informs her character throughout. At the point of her ascension, Cassandra, unlike the other members of the Pantheon, makes it clear that she’ll be keeping her name. Cass’ ability to view the world differently is also a major part of her character. For most of the series, Cassandra is unique among the cast in that she is unaffected by the magical ‘performances’ of the other gods. In issue 28, Cass’ transness is directly connected to this skepticism. Speaking to Dionysus, a fellow god, Cass describes her history prior to godhood:
“Growing up was hard, for obvious fucking reasons. I mean it is for everyone, but the dissonance between how I felt and how I was treated? I could never relax. Not in this world. It’s not right.”
Along with this, The Wicked + The Divine also gives us one of the more poignant visualizations of the trans aesthetic. Shortly after Cassandra takes up the mantle of a Norn, she is compelled to put on a performance. Cassandra takes the stage at the annual concert – Ragnarock — and puts on a performance intended to excoriate her audience, to strip away their enjoyment of the suicidal hedonism embodied by the gods and reveal it for what it is. Throughout the rest of the series, artist Jamie Mckelvie and colorist Matt Wilson have previously depicted the other gods’ performances as colorful and full of motion. Sparks leap off the gods as they take the stage, and even in performances which are depicted in splash pages, the show itself is a living thing.
The performance of the Norns, in contrast, is presented in stark, brutalist black and white. The Norns are striking a pose at the center of the image, while the crowd is presented as frozen silhouettes. Again, we see a trans aesthetic presented as a beat which freezes the moment, which separates the fluid, the living performers of transsexuality from the ‘real world’. Phrases, cold and blunt, like “It’s so cold,” “It’s all there is,” “Nothing Means Anything,” streak out from the seers like bullets frozen in air. The crowd is suspended, unmoving; the Norns are the source of the only suggestion of kineticism in the image, dancing in the exit wound at the heart of the world.
The next panel takes us to the crowd. For a moment, they’re frightened. Of course, in the very next panel, the crowd immediately starts cheering. All Cassandra’s attempts to articulate the imminent fear and loathing around her is instantly processed by the audience as just another spectacle. The reaction breaks Cassandra, and she immediately retreats to her trailer to hide from, and swear at, the concertgoers. I adore this beat, especially following the splendor of the previous image. Cass’ position in the world doesn’t automatically grant her the ability to articulate it, even when amplified by god-power. All her criticism is instantly absorbed by and processed into the real world. The audience? They might as well be a grid of televisions, excited to tell her how much she’s always been accounted for.
Cass’ earlier failure lends a lot more weight to the moment when The Wicked + The Divine returns to that familiar plot beat. Partway through the series, another god in the pantheon attempts to mind-control Cassandra. They use the collective consciousness of 44,444 rave-goers being channeled by Dionysus’ hivemind, flattened from its customary neon rainbow of amorphous forms into Woden’s signature green. The image hearkens back to the dozens of Smiths in the Burly Brawl, the threat of assimilation — Cass’ crowd nightmare taken up to the frightening extreme.
Cassandra, by this point, is able to resist this beat, taking his material apart with literal deconstruction. She’s found a way to use her narrative in a way that refuses to be assimilated. Still, the cruel beat, on the next page is that still, even here, the crowd ends up chanting for one more song, one more performance. In this episode Gillen and Mckelvie display the uneasy relationship that many have with that kind of aesthetic, with the ability to use it — to direct it —- while still remaining keenly aware of your role as a performer.
Yet while The Wicked + The Divine is notable for its eagerness to engage with various aspects of this aesthetic, the most strikingly effective example of the aesthetic from the last few years has been, fittingly, Lana Wachowski’s return to Neo and Trinity in Matrix Resurrections. While the original trilogy portrayed a series of structures being placed around Neo, none of those were as striking as the scene halfway through the film where Neil Patrick Harris’ Analyst – frustrated by Neo’s refusals to allow therapy to keep him just happy enough to not question who he is or wants to be – uses bullet time on Neo. By engaging directly with the core metaphor of the trans aesthetic, the device acts as a sharp reminder that the social constructs that are made visible to the seers can still be weaponized and used against them – or worse, that the ability to articulate them can be robbed from us. As Sam Bodrogan describes it, the beat is “an apt indictment of the state of queer cinema, stuck in perpetual fear, of unconsummated touch, of death, of using the exact thing that defines you to control you.” Years after the original movie pioneered a certain trans aesthetic, Resurrections shows that there is still space for exploration in the metaphor.
Jean Brigid-Prehn is a writer & reader. She can be found in some bar or basement in Philly, or at @deniminvasion on Twitter