Rise of The Gender Novel: It’s Complicated

At The Walrus, Casey Plett calls for more depth in transgender characters in contemporary literature, arguing that cisgender authors writing sympathetic, yet trope-laden transgender narratives might be doing more harm than good.

To get it out of the way: the Gender Novels fail to communicate what it’s actually like to transition. Their portrayals of gender-identity struggles are ham-fisted, and despite the authors’ apparently good intentions they often rehash stale, demeaning tropes: a coy mix-and-match of pronouns; descriptions of trans women as fake and mannish; the equation of gender with genitalia and surgery; a fixation on rare intersex conditions that allow for tacked-on, unrealistic transition narratives. (Many intersex people, those born with atypical sexual or reproductive characteristics, don’t transition from one gender to another; as well, Wayne’s self-impregnation—a major plot point in Annabel—is a medical impossibility.)

All of which is frustrating but unsurprising. What’s surprising, even flat-out weird, is how alike all the protagonists are. Their lives unfold almost identically: they grow up in unsupportive families; their fathers are domineering or distant; their mothers are kind but frail. When they come of age, they leave humble hometowns to find new lives in the big city. They rent crappy apartments, work menial jobs, detach from their families, and fall in with crowds good and bad. Most of them are physically or sexually brutalized.

Each protagonist is a chosen one, a lone wolf plodding on against adversity. They do no wrong; they remain gentle and stoic in the face of difficulty. Whatever imperfections they show are forgiven, usually by dint of gender trouble…This might make for inspiring reading, but it’s odd to spend a few hundred pages with someone who goes through hell and emerges with all the flaws of a Disney hero. The reader scarcely knows anything about the characters’ inner lives.

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