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  • TransFormers:“Identity” Compromised
  • Ellen Kirkpatrick (bio)

Gender is just one of several intersecting axes by which the concept of identity is contested. Gender talk echoes through everything—critically, culturally, and within popular discourse: from restrooms to boardrooms, classrooms to bedrooms, hospital wards to prison cells. Gender identity is at a “tipping point,” at a threshold in the cultural imagination, moving inexorably toward a moment of sociocultural evolution.1 And, as at all such moments of social evolution, some are more welcoming of change than others. Trans theories and communities may be at the vanguard of this debate, but it is a conversation within which we are all implicated, even those resistant to or not cognizant of it.2 As debates go, it is dynamic rather than coherent, with myriad voices, visions, and realities calling out within analogous, as well as opposing, perspectives.

The following discussion indicates ways in which superheroes speak to aspects of this debate. It does so not to merely narrate the subversive potential of superheroes, or set them up as “good” or “bad” examples, but to show how they coincide with the current zeitgeist. By indicating how normative representations of Western superhero identities [End Page 124] demonstrate trans and borderland theories, identity expressions, and experiences, I wish to initiate a dialogue between the fictional and the lived, and in so doing broaden out the ways in which we conceive (gender) identity and its representation within the superhero genre. Concentrating on the effect of the (changing) visuality of the body within such debates, my goal is not only to support a rethink of genre protagonists away from simple binaries but also to show how they speak to the range of voices within the gender-identity debate. At the same time, I also indicate how superhero characterizations express the often contentious character of identity theorizing.

Identity is a problematic concept, caught up in notions of binaries. Contemporary identity theory demonstrates the limitations, and naturalizing effect, of binary identity, and offers ways to advance our understanding of “identity” beyond a limiting binary model out toward more pluralistic accounts. Chicana/o feminism, for instance, advocates and offers a more useful, more sophisticated idea of the binariness of identity, one that tests the customary and oppositional posturing of identity as “either/or.”3 Chicana/o feminism offers such resistance through its conceptualization of the borderland, or mestiza, consciousness.4 Subjects, in proactively and perhaps provocatively adopting borderland positions, can no longer be accommodated or safely resettled within the binary, and so rankle systemic binary ordering. For if it can be reasoned that identity is a series of similarly phrased authentic identity moves (e.g., citizen to costumed hero to citizen and so on), then borderland thinking, for example, takes the binary system and literally, through constant, repeated circular movement, spins it into something new.

This idea evokes the spinning transformations of the superhero character Diana Prince / Wonder Woman (DC Comics, 1941–). To “spin” is to form something: to spin a thread, tale, or truth. Notably, the famous spinning of Wonder Woman’s transformations originated not within the comic books but instead within the live-action television series Wonder Woman (ABC/CBS, 1975–1979). The transforming spin visualizes the identity moves performed by this character as she transfers through subject positions, from Princess Diana / Diana Prince to the Amazonian Wonder Woman ad infinitum. The concept of the parity of authenticity within these subject moves is central. It is a clear illustration of dynamic subjectivity, of identity in transition.

Through her spinning transitions, this character literally and visually narrates and retells herself; she also literally spins herself new threads, clothes, to match her performances. To spin a tale also suggests the story has an element of the fantastical. In working with such ideas, I am not immediately concerned that subjects move through positions, but rather with the ways their moves transform our ideas of subject positions. I am also interested in gauging the effects of these new, transformed spaces and [End Page 125] their disruptive force within the theoretical landscape. In the spirit of Judith Butler’s work on drag, I engage identity within the superhero genre not to reveal examples of “subversion” but...


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pp. 124-133
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