The Ethics of Headcanon

When you publish something, whether it ends up a New York Times Best Seller or it just gets a couple kudos on Archive of Our Own, your words impact people. In the majority of my posts to this blog, I refer to trans-related, traditional, self-inspired writing. However, I think it’s a good idea to focus on an incredibly popular medium: fan creation (fanfiction, meta-analysis, art, and more). This is probably not going to be the last time I talk about this, because I can’t just go through every aspect of trans representation in fanfiction in one meager post. There’s the consistent usage of transness, gender-bending, and cross dressing as a plot point; there’s the hypersexualization of trans people; there’s the fixation on the suffering of trans people. Today, however, I’m going to go point-by-point over the implications behind headcanons of certain types of characters as transgender when not aided by the context of other trans representation. It’s a great thing to envision characters as trans, however, when done carelessly, it can encourage transphobic stereotypes. If you take nothing else away from this, I hope you remember that it’s all about mindfulness.

1. Casting a Feminine Man as a Transgender Man

Trans men can be feminine–I am, for instance, in a number of ways. However, the choice to headcanon a feminine guy as a trans man is definitely iffy. Separate from any other trans context, it implies first and foremost that cis men can’t be feminine, or that they shouldn’t be. This sort of headcanon also intricately tangles itself with strict ideas of a gender binary and its relationship with biological sex. Ask yourself: Why does this character have to be the one I’m viewing as a trans man? Why not the more masculine character in the work? A good example of this is with non-stereotypically masculine men in anime. You’ll see dozens of fanfictions about how Midoriya from the manga and anime My Hero Academia [my anime nerdom is gonna come through pretty hard in this post] is secretly transgender, but not, say, Iida or All Might. Midoriya’s effeminate nature in this coming of age story is directly contrasted by his mentor, All Might. That effeminacy and his inherent prepubescence being a middle schooler ends up marking him as “less” than a full man. When a trans identity is applied to this sort of character, the implications are not good, to say the least. As I referenced before, the danger in this kind of trans-headcanon decision that I’m examining (like all of the others in this post) applies solely when it’s a singular character being depicted as transgender. There are also plenty of fanfics about how Midoriya and his rival/counterpart Bakugou are both trans men, which often have a lot of depth. [Personally, I’m a fan of Kirishima being a trans guy because he has a kind of adorable fixation on masculinity and what it means to be a man.]

2. Casting a Weak Man as a Transgender Man

This ties closely with the previous section, because being feminine in our sexist world is seen as being weak. Let’s use a different example for this one: In the Critical Role D&D show fandom, Caleb (played by Liam O’Brien) is often depicted as a trans man. The issue here is that Caleb is a wizard, which is in D&D the class with the weakest fortitude, to balance out its high magical power. This means he gets knocked out very easily in this combat-heavy game. He’s also a huge coward as a person and has major experiences with mental health issues (which is a-whole-nother can o’ worms). Rather than commonly depicting, say, Fjord or Grog Strongjaw–both of whom are played by Travis Willingham and are stronger and braver than Caleb–as trans men, it’s almost always Caleb. There are a few times when Fjord is written as trans, but even then, the pieces are often about his vulnerability. It’s not wrong, per se, to envision these kinds of weak characters as trans men–I’m a huge fan of fanfictions that make a deep cis character transgender, it’s great to have that representation! The problem comes in with the latent boundaries set by the implicit biases in the writers’ minds regarding who can and cannot be seen as transgender.

3. Casting a Physically Strong or Masculine Woman as a Transgender Woman

Similarly to feminine men being portrayed as trans men, headcanoning particularly buff or masculine women as trans women is dangerous. At its basis, it implies that cis women can’t have defined muscles and can’t be physically strong. It also marks the character as somehow “less” than a woman, in many cases. Going back to my earlier reference of Critical Role, people frequently portray Yasha, Beau, and Jester as trans women, but do not do so for Keyleth or Vex or many of the NPCs in the world. Yasha, Beau, and Jester are all incredibly strong, often physically overshadowing the others in the party. In fanfiction, these women are deemed to be fitting to take on the role of a trans woman, while Keyleth and Vex–who are plenty strong in their own ways, but generally more in charisma- or magic-based ways–are not. The question comes back around: Why does this character have to be the one you’re viewing as a trans woman? I understand the urge for trans fanfiction writers who see someone they connect with to re-envision them as trans; it’s completely reasonable and something I, particularly, can empathize with. However, when that headcanon enters the online world through fanfiction or art or analysis or role-playing, other people–trans and cis alike–will see and engage with it. There’s something to be said for creating content for oneself and for simply having fun, but everyone–regardless of their identity and background–needs to come to terms with their own impact on others. I would suggest imagining some of the other characters as transgender as well, in order both to add balance to the narrative being put forth and also to expand your own views of gender as a concept. Again: it’s all about being mindful.

4. Casting a Tomboyish Girl as a Trans Guy

This one, in my opinion, is not dangerous for trans people unless it’s written with an extreme lack of tact. One of the best examples I can come up with is Haruhi from the anime and manga Ouran High School Host Club. From the beginning, she has a different view of gender because of the fact that her father is a trans woman (she still refers to herself as Haruhi’s father, so I’m going to stick with that). In fact, there are a lot of readings one can have of OHSHC where Haruhi is nonbinary. Now obviously, in canon, this gets more complicated as time goes on and she takes on a more feminine appearance. However, having an alternate universe setting or a canon divergence setting where Haruhi actually comes to terms with her gender in a non-cis way is certainly a viable choice even without other trans characters for balance. I can certainly also see this going wrong if not well-considered, such as if someone goes the route of Haruhi being closeted. Often, when it comes to stories about closeted trans people, the story only revolves around them struggling with their transness or taking the leap to come out as trans. This goes back to the struggle narrative/trauma porn. It’s definitely a way for a trans writer to work through their own feelings about it, but I generally urge cis writers to stay away from anything approaching that.

5. Casting an Effeminate Man as a Trans Woman

Likewise, imagining a feminine guy as a closeted trans woman can be wonderfully done, so long as it is written with care. The potential for it straying into the territory of trauma porn still remains, of course, but this sort of character can really fit with how trans people feel before realizing their gender identity. That’s not always the case, of course–I wasn’t interested in sports or whatever as a child, so not all trans men were seen as tomboys and not all trans women were feminine as children. It would be a good idea to envision other characters who don’t fit this archetype as closeted trans people as well in order to ensure you’re not stereotyping. I will say, though, that in both this case and in the case of a masculine woman as a closeted trans man, there is an underlying threat that I have not yet mentioned: the implication that trans men are actually women and that trans women are actually men. When the reader finishes the fanfiction where the character is a trans woman, then goes back to continue reading or watching the original content and sees that character as a man, it can latently enforce that transphobic belief. It is much like how a cis man playing a trans woman in a film is insensitive, inaccurate, and all-around insufferable. I don’t think any of the people writing these sorts of headcanons holds this sort of transphobic belief on any conscious level, unless the piece is incredibly fetishistic or blatantly transphobic. It is something to keep in mind, though, if your audience is predominantly uneducated cisgender people. But, this sort of headcanon still does have value in that it is a narrative that many trans people identify with.

6. Casting a Robot/Alien/Demon/Inhuman Entity as Nonbinary

I’ve said in previous posts that it makes sense for non-human people to have nonbinary conceptions of gender, but there’s a big flaw in that. Like I said earlier, these are all considered out-of-context from other potential trans narratives in a hypothetical fan created piece. If everyone else in a universe is cisgender or binary trans, (other than being incredibly unrealistic) it’s troubling, to say the least, for the only nonbinary representation to be alien or robotic or devilish. All of those things are non-human and often unnatural, making the implication that those nonbinary individuals, too, are unnatural. In general, if you’re centering a species or non-human entity as nonbinary, make sure to approach nonbinary humans in the text itself, even if you do so simply by having the non-human entity aware of their gender in relation to human gender concepts.

7. Casting a Villain or an Evil Person as Transgender

This one is a bit obvious, but I want to go into it a bit. Yes, it is bad to have a trans person be an evil person if there are no other trans people in the piece. However, I can completely empathize with trans people who do this in their own writing, because we as a society have been conditioned to do so. Disney, particularly, is known for doing this in their animation for a very long time. The most iconic, of course, was Ursula from The Little Mermaid, who was based off of a drag queen. However, if you go back and watch disney films and look for LGBTQIA+ undertones, you’ll see that many of the villains have certain non-cis, non-straight characteristics/stereotypes. I suggest you take a minute to google “gay-coded disney villains”. Aside from that, this sort of villainous/monstrous representation in media has been prevalent for quite a while. Greek and Roman playwrights would often have villainous or joke characters be gay (Dionysus in The Bacchae is a pretty good example), or would portray real-life enemies as gay or some other gender (Alcibiades, the Persians, etc.) No, we do not currently live in ancient Greek or Rome, but these sorts LGBTQIA+ representations have had major impacts on western cultures, because much of our own views of gender and sexuality are rooted in Greco-Roman values. That being the case, the question to ask yourself now is this: Why repeat the same tropes that have been causing harm to the LGBTQIA+ community, when you can do something wholly new?

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