Monday, June 19, 2023

"Anything is possible": On Gwen Stacy, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, and finding allegorical trans representation in a multiversal superhero

 “Alright people, let’s do this one more time…”

I saw Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse in December 2018. This was just six months after I met up with a bunch of online queer friends in person for the first time. I was still so new to navigating the LGBTQIA+ community, I couldn’t say the word “bisexual” out loud, let alone comprehend my gender identity. However, getting to be around so many vibrant queer personalities who actually understood the specifics of experiences I’d gone through resonated deeply with me. It was magical. It opened up new horizons for what I thought was possible in everyday existence. It impacted me so deeply that it skewed my interpretation of Into the Spider-Verse.

For me, this feature and its saga about Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) discovering solitude in other Spider-people is a beautiful allegory for found families within queer communities. “And when I feel alone, like no one understands what I'm going through, I remember my friends who get it,” Morales says in the final scene of that animated masterpiece. It’s a terrific piece of dialogue that struck a chord with me and my own experiences in 2018. It was lonely to go back to Texas after that New York City trip and have to return to working behind a cash register at Walgreens. I had to be fully closeted and nervous about ever exhibiting any queer-coded traits that could set off homophobic customers. But I found comfort in reminiscing about spending so much time with my queer friends, much like Morales clung to his own memories with other Spider-heroes. Neither one of us was truly alone with those recollections of the past.

A lot has changed since both Into the Spider-Verse opened in theaters and my first in-person exposure to the wider queer community. Advancements in technology and increasing creative ambitions have led to the animation of Across the Spider-Verse breaking exciting new visual ground. Meanwhile, the scrappy Texas native who would quietly murmur about desires to wear a skirt has turned out to be a trans woman whose now out to the public as Lisa Laman. With these changes and my own previous deeply personal queer interpretation of Into the Spider-Verse, it was inevitable that Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse would also inspire queer readings in my mind.

This time, though, I’m not alone. The internet has widely attached itself to the concept of Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) being an allegory for trans experiences. Watching this gorgeous production for the first time at an advanced press screening, I got allegorically trans vibes from Gwen Stacy as well as allegorically queer interpretations from other characters and plot points. However, a second viewing was needed to fully comprehend what was going on with Gwen Stacy. It was time to dive right into every potential nuance of this fictional figure and how she could reflect the trans community.

“And he’s not the only one.”

The internet has already fixated on some of the clearer signals of Gwen’s relevance to trans people, like the colors of her dimension being the same as the trans pride flag or the “protect trans kids” banner in her room. However, the trans joys of Gwen Stacy’s plotline in Across the Spider-Verse go deeper than just those visual traits. Keeping trans allegories at the forefront of my mind during my second Across the Spider-Verse viewing, it wasn’t long before my eyes welled up with tears.

The very first scene of Across the Spider-Verse fixates on a noisy and passionate drum solo played by Stacy by set to a montage exploring her friend with Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. It’s a gangbusters way of kicking off a movie that immediately establishes the unique visual sensibilities of what’s to come. It’s also a gloriously maximalist way to get insight into Stacy’s psyche and her frustrations with her identity, past, and home life. The latter element involves her father, police Captain George Stacy (Shea Whigham), who is out to hunt down Spider-Woman, a vigilante he doesn’t realize is his daughter.

This vibrant kick-off to the whole movie immediately features complicated emotions and colors that evoke the trans community through delightfully over-the-top methods. This tactic allows Across the Spider-Verse to subvert the norms of trans representation in cinematic storytelling. So much of the history of trans folks in cinema has been…let’s be gentle and say bad. Often portrayed by cis-gendered actors and relegated to supporting roles where they either teach straight people life lessons or an object of ridicule, typical Hollywood trans characters have been defined by tragedy, treated like garbage, and often killed off without much thought. Their interior lives are never even glimpsed, the idea of trans people being human is such a foreign idea to the individuals making movies like Dallas Buyers Club.

As a stark contrast, here comes Gwen Stacy, who enter Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse loudly playing her drums and accompanied by imagery that vividly encapsulates her wants, pain, and emotional turmoil. Stacy is in the center of the scene, her feelings impossible to miss and her drumming (the only way she can get her frustrations out) dominating the soundtrack. Other movies minimize trans lives, but because of Across the Spider-Verse’s innate visual sensibilities, the movie makes Stacy’s trans-allegorical emotions as big as any comic book splash page. All those bright colors, all that noise, all that prominence in the frame, it’s something tragically missing from so many on-screen depictions of trans people in cinema.

Plus, Stacy isn’t defined solely by her tragedy or struggles with getting a loved one to accept her identity. Though she navigates intimate exchanges that will resonate as deeply relatable for many trans people of various genders, Stacy also gets to fight costumed super-villains, throw out quippy one-liners, and save people. She gets to an exhilarating idealistic hero without sacrificing the ways she resonates specifically with trans folks. The default “passive” trans character in mainstream cinema is a distant memory when one is watching the allegorically trans Gwen Stacy beating up evildoers and rollicking through multiple dimensions. 

“Can you stop being a cop for just one minute and be my dad?”

Across the Spider-Verse’s version of Gwen Stacy resonating as relevant to trans audiences continues even when the feature slows down its pacing for a quieter, more devastating scene. That sequence taps into very real emotions of existing as a closeted trans person (albeit in an allegorical fashion) and concerns Gwen being forced at gunpoint to “come out” as Spider-Woman to her father.

So many of us in the trans community don’t get a choice in how we come out. Circumstances far beyond our control force us to reveal our identity before we’re ready. That was my experience with my mom, who stumbled on me wearing femme clothes when I was coming home from a date. I suddenly had to spill my guts about my gender in a scenario that was torn out of my nightmares. A core part of my identity was suddenly ripped out of my hands, at least in this one social context, which is utterly terrifying. A part of me that I was having such joy exploring was now connected to sorrow over an impromptu coming out experience. I’m sure Gwen Stacy could relate to that horror.

Her “coming out” moment to her dad is also the stuff of queer people's nightmare, especially once Captain Stacy reacts with horror to his daughter’s revelation (he incorrectly believes Spider-Woman killed that universe’s Peter Parker). “How long have you been lying to me?” the elder Stacy quietly asks his daughter in this intense moment. It’s a question that many LGBTQIA+ people are terrified of hearing the moment they open up to a loved one about their identity. Taking the time to feel prepared to be vulnerable can be misconstrued as “lying,” which just adds a layer of unnecessary shame to the coming out process. It isn’t lying to come out on your own timetable. Stacy also taking an important moment for his daughter and turning it into something that revolves around him (“how could you lie to ME?”) will also resonate as deeply realistic for so many queer and trans viewers from their own coming out experiences.

What really got me emotional here in terms of trans allegories is Gwen Stacy’s pained begging for her father to look at her. Stacy doesn’t want her superhero identity to drive a wedge between herself and her father. She loves her dad and just wants support. Captain Stacy, though, doesn’t see it that way. He sees his daughter as a liar, a murderer, a total stranger. The stand-in for a trans person here only wants affection, but the representation of a cis-relative refuses to accept that meager request. It’s a familial dynamic that will be familiar to many trans viewers, which is an impressive feat considering this exchange comes just a few minutes after a trio of Spider-heroes fought a Renaissance-era version of The Vulture. A glorious balance between heightened comic book mayhem and such raw discernible trans-relevant emotion is something Across the Spider-Verse executes with impressive finesse.

“It doesn’t end well for her.”

Stacy’s storyline didn’t just personally resonate with me as relevant to trans experiences in her interactions with stand-ins for cis-people, though. The moment that felt most evocative of trans existence in Across the Spider-Verse emerged during her first conversations with Morales in months. Another Spider-hero whose struggles with his identity evoke LGBTQIA+ experiences (just look at a fantasy sequence where Morales imagines an ideal version of “coming out” as Spider-Man to his parents), it’s no wonder Stacy finds so much comfort in just shooting the breeze and spinning webs with Morales.

During a talk held upside down and high in the sky, Gwen Stacy notes that one thing underlying her dynamic with Moralres is that “every version of Gwen Stacy falls in love with Spider-Man…and it doesn’t end well for her.” This is in reference to the famous 1970s comic book issue entitled “The Night Gwen Stacy Died,” which depicted Stacy’s demise at the hands of the Green Goblin and cemented that Stacy would be primarily known for her grisly death above all else. It would take until the introduction of Spider-Gwen in the 2010s for this character to finally gather extra dimensions beyond how her demise influenced Peter Parker.

Stacy’s lasting legacy of being just a dead body is clearly lingering in the mind of Across the Spider-Verse’s version of Stacy. It’s also an entity that parallels how normalized misery is for trans folks in pop culture. As a trans lady, I’m well aware of how way it so often feels like grisly ends are a predetermined fate for people in my community, especially for trans people of color. Our corpses line up the plotlines of countless crime shows. Our deaths are played for amusement and mockery on right-wing podcasts and in comedies. Our bodies are spectacles to be either fetishized or demeaned by cis-people. Aggressive transphobia is just something that seems to come as part and parcel of daily life, with the onus often put on trans folks to just tolerate all the cruelty.

With all this dehumanization swirling around in mainstream society, it can feel overwhelming to even try and exist as a trans person. Just as Stacy feels restricted by how other versions of Gwen Stacy are “supposed” to function, so I’ve often been paralyzed with fear over society’s perception of what trans people look like, sound like, or even are “worth.” Some days, when news about transphobic legislation is rampant and I’ve had to deal with another Uber driver who feels free to challenge me about my gender, I feel like I wanna be like Gwen Stacy: sullen, aloof, detached from everything. Societally ingrained homophobia and the normalization of transphobia have made transphobia so rampant that it impacts my mind whenever I leave my apartment.

I’ve often told my therapist that if there weren’t systemically informed manifestations of transphobia everywhere, so many of my concerns and anxieties related to being trans would vanish. Being trans isn’t the problem, it’s how other people and institutions respond to it. Similarly, Gwen Stacy loves being a Spider-hero, it’s how her dad responds to it and the larger legacy of other Gwen Stacy’s that casts a dark shadow over her identity. The complexities of carving out an idiosyncratic identity while dealing with societal norms that incorrectly say you’re destined for just misery…that’s what Stacy’s grappling with. It’s also a scenario trans viewers can relate to on a profound level. Through referencing a famous comic book event, Spider-Man Across the Spider-Verse delivered its most emotionally potent example of Gwen Stacy functioning as an allegorically trans character.

“Anything is possible.”

On Friday, June 16, 2023, I went to a gay club for the first time. Now, I’ve been to a few gay bars (including Sue Ellen’s, the biggest lesbian bar in Dallas, TX), but not a proper club, with loud music that makes your muscles vibrate. I didn’t go alone, though. I went with a bunch of autistic queer friends, all of whom were also trans. Five years ago, I had to travel all the way to New York City to bound with other queers in person. Cut to 2023 and I now have several queer pals in my own backyard. I went out in a bright pink dress (two different people said I had a “Barbie vibe” going on, which I was honored to hear), the kind of outfit I couldn't have even comprehended trying on, let alone wearing for hours on end, in 2018. The same woman who was too nervous to say "bisexual" aloud in 2018 was now writhing around on the dance floor with friends, bellowing out lyrics messily, and even just hootin’ and hollerin’ in joy.

Afterward, I told a dear pal of mine that, sometimes, I’ve thought that the world would be better without me in it. My thoughts would be dominated by the idea that I’m not worthy of being seen or that I'm exclusively a burden on other people. I’ve often felt alone and drastically self-critical in my life and for many years I never had the language to crystallize why. Naturally, I would turn to movies to find not only escapism but especially a sense of connection. Seeing art about other isolated outcasts from society reminded me that, even as my brain said that I was all alone, there were others out there who understood what was happening to me. Even as I’ve embraced my gender identity and come to terms with larger psychological conditions that I deal with on a daily basis (namely depression), I haven’t eschewed all those self-critical or catastrophizing thoughts from my mind. However, I now have the resources to be myself and at least access moments where I feel truly happy and connected with other people. 

I felt that way on the dance floor of that club with all my friends that felt Friday night. 

I felt that way just a few days ago, when my mom, two years after she found out about my gender identity, was able to nonchalantly chit-chat with me while I was wearing a dress. 

And I certainly felt that sensation during my Across the Spider-Verse revisit realizing just how many of my trans experiences were reflected so vividly in Gwen Stacy’s storyline.

When you’re able to be seen and connect with others, well, anything’s possible.

That’s a sentiment Gwen Stacy clings to in the cliffhanger ending of Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. In this conclusion, Stacy and her father reconcile (he quits his police captain job to protect his daughter) and she makes a promise to the parents of Miles Morales that she’ll find their son. As she leaves for this rescue mission, Stacy tells Rio and Jefferson Morales that Miles taught her something important: “anything is possible.” With Across the Spider-Verse cutting to black on a shot of Stacy charging into battle alongside other Spider-heroes, we don’t know where she’ll go next…but she’s confronting the future with hope and other people. The Gwen we saw at the start of the story, all bottled up and alone, is not the one that closes out Across the Spider-Verse.

I never thought I’d be able to go to a club. I never thought I’d wear pink dresses in public. Gwen Stacy never thought she’d be able to “come out” to her father. She also never thought she’d be able to break the rules Miguel O’Hara/Spider-Man 2099 established for her. But she can.

As pointed out by Willow Catelyn Maclay in her own excellent essay on Gwen Stacy as a trans allegory, there haven’t been a lot of mainstream escapist movies like Across the Spider-Verse that have featured characters who seem so relevant to trans experiences. The scarcity of similar big-budget features (exempting ones directed by the Wachowski Sisters, of course) with such representation is one key reason why Gwen Stacy’s resonated so much with trans folks. But this ending makes me think the biggest factor of all that makes Gwen Stacy so relevant to trans viewers is that she epitomizes the phrase “anything is possible.” There’s hope there for connection, for autonomy, for visibility. So many trans people are deprived of those things through a variety of factors, like larger systemic forces or the living circumstances they were born into.

Through Gwen Stacy in Across the Spider-Verse, though, trans viewers can witness a character who experiences turmoil relevant to our lives but also demonstrates a form of hopefulness we can strive for. An early scene of Stacy and Morales reuniting for the first time in months and just swinging through the streets of New York City is filled with all the exhilaration of finding like-minded souls to be comfortable around. I could see on the screen the kind of joy that filled my veins on my New York City trip years ago or motivated my feet to keep dancing in that club on that fateful June night. That upbeat atmosphere tied into trans experiences is no anomaly in the runtime of Across the Spider-Verse.

By the end of this movie, Stacy is staking out a new existence far removed from the traditional lives of Gwen Stacy’s of other universes. “Anything is possible” for this character just like “anything is possible” within the trans community in terms of the activism we can accomplish, the ways we express our genders, the joys we can experience, and so much more. I am always so astonished by the resilience, perseverance, and glorious compassion expressed by members of a community I’m proud to belong to. These qualities of a fictional character like Gwen Stacy don’t make the systemically ingrained challenges facing trans folks immaterial. However, they do remind trans moviegoers that we’re not alone. That’s a powerful sentiment, as seen by that fateful final line from Into the Spider-Verse:

“And when I feel alone, like no one understands what I'm going through, I remember my friends who get it.”

There are countless joys to be uncovered in the cinematic gift that is Across the Spider-Verse. Given the queer allegories of its predecessor, it’s no surprise that one of its many virtues is also resonating as an LGBTQIA+-relevant text. However, nothing could prepare me for how profoundly this movie’s handling of Gwen Stacy would resonate with me. It’s always a transcendent experience to see a movie that captures parts of your reality that you previously never even realized you wanted to see in a movie. That’s an artistic feat worthy of all the synonyms (Spectacular, Amazing, Superior, etc.) that Spider-Man has taken on in the titles of his comics. Come to think of it, those same words would be apt to describe the glories of the trans communities and all the wonders that unfold when day-to-day lives in this population are reflected in art.

Postscript: Gwen Stacy in Across the Spider-Verse being an allegorically trans figure does not diminish the importance or emotional impact she’s had on trans viewers. However, it’s also important for people to watch movies made by and/or starring actual trans artists. I wanted to close out this piece by highlighting just a few such movies y’all should watch during Pride Month and every month of the year: Tangerine, Monica, Dressed in Blue, Lingua Franca, Drunktown’s Finest, A Fantastic Woman, Cowboys, and Paris is Burning, among many others. Also, keep your eyes peeled for the new documentary Kokomo City, which hits theaters at the end of July. I haven’t seen it yet, but everyone I know who caught it on the film festival circuit says it’s incredible. Trans lives can look like anything and everything. The wide variety of cinema occupied by trans voices captures this reality beautifully.

No comments:

Post a Comment