The Sandman: A Game of You

June 7, 2012

Oh wow. This is the one with the trans woman character! Like who has lines, and who dies! (Uh, spoiler, although if you’ve read what I’ve been saying about these books so far, you probably could have predicted that. Especially since she is the ninth dead trans woman in the series.) I was going to just hang out and write about it after I’d read this, but because it’s turned out to be even riper for hatred than I had remembered, I am going to liveblog reading this book for you.

And then put it in the queue for a month, so I guess this isn’t the livest possible blogging.

Anyway, trigger warning for gross transphobia, obviously. And hella spoilers.

The first awesome thing is that Samuel Delany writes the introduction. I was nervous, because I like Samuel Delany, and Smoot likes Samuel Delany the best, and I didn’t want to have to hate Samuel Delany for endorsing the transphobia in this book- especially given how fucking on point Delany has been in everything else I’ve read by him. But good news, I don’t! He pulls off this awesome trick in the introduction where he acts like he’s saying Neil Gaiman did a good job in this book, and that people who have accused it of being fucked up are wrong, when actually, he just spends the whole time talking about how fucked up it is. He builds on the introduction Clive Barker- another gay writer, interestingly?- wrote for one of the previous books, talking about how some fictional worlds are basically our own, into which some fucked up shit shows up, but other fictional worlds are entirely other from ours. Chip’s like, yeah, obviously this is the kind of fantasy world that isn’t our own, because oppressive norms about trans women (and other kinds of queers [although I acknowledge that not all trans women are queer]) are naturalized laws in Gaiman’s world. Chip is like, in the real world, obviously the moon doesn’t give a fuck about the chromosomes a trans woman has! He literally says it. I know that you don’t believe in moon magic things but that is not the point, the point is that in my imagination Chip got invited to write this introduction and he was like “aw, fuck, okay, this book is totally fucked, but this series is really important and interesting, how can I communicate that this book is totally fucked without having my introduction rejected,” and then decided to talk about how, as a frame, the fictional world is EVEN SHITTIER than the one we live in.

I dunno. I hope that it is okay for me to call you Chip, Mr. Delany.

So after the introduction and a brief frame story set in “the Land” (and by the way, I should make this a regular sentence instead of a parenthetical because it is a big deal, these comics were published in 1991, the same year that Nancy Burkholder was kicked off The Land at Michfest, prompting one of the longest, dumbest, bustedest feuds in feminist/queer everything/transphobia/etc; while it’s probably a coincidence that these things happened in the same year- or at least, like, an incidence of weird synchronicity instead of some intentional bullshit on Neil’s part- it’s still pretty intense that Barbie’s secret dream fantasy world, which Wanda, the trans character, can’t access because she’s trans, is called the same thing that Michfest has called its trans woman-excluding Land since the seventies), the first thing that happens is that there’s a contrast between Barbie’s hot cis ass and pretty round face and Wanda’s withered-up hands and bony trans face. The first thing Wanda says is “let’s go shopping.” She is a boring caricature of a trans woman. She talks about fucking a hunk on a bear-skin rug with “some hunk” and then expresses jealousy at Barbie’s cheekbones. Then Wanda tells us that she can’t make something as simple, and culturally coded domestic and feminine, as coffee; she can only make a fantastic chocolate souffle!

Because she is a fake woman.

To be fair, Barbie’s apartment is messy and her milk is moldy and gross. Wanda performs everything in broad, boring strokes, including saying that the milk is gross: “there’s only this carton of fuzzy green stuff in there that not even you could drink. You might want to donate it to science, or take it to you leader…”

Wanda goes to borrow milk. She is gross when Thessaly, the thousands-of-years-old witch upstairs, offers her soy milk. Then, she asks the lesbians across the way, who can’t do anything without checking in with each other (that might actually be kind of funny if I weren’t already, five pages in, so frustrated, and if Neil hadn’t created a world in which the only queers who get to live so far are gay men who are totally masculine when they’re not playing with femininity; are we looking at a femmephobic world in which the only acceptable femininities are certain specific kinds of femininity coded “natural” and “heterosexual?” This was certainly the case with Nada), like even answer Wanda’s annoying question about milking a soybean.

Wanda: how do you milk a soybean?
Hazel: Hey fox how do you milk a soybean?
Fox: blah blah blah

It goes on like this. Wanda can’t deal with a cute frog mug. Foxglove calls her full of it. We see lots of shots emphasizing Wanda’s bony arms, her long chin, her big hair. Also her outfit is stupid, but everybody’s outfit is stupid except foxglove’s, because Foxglove is dressed like Madonna Duff McKagan. Wanda tells a woman who asks her for spare change to die. Barbie, a true woman who knows about empathy and nurturing, tells Wanda to be nice.

Okay: so: actually, I have to admit that then there is a thing that I love. So, in between telling Barbie the name she was assigned at birth and talking about her pubescent wet dreams, Wanda talks about having a total weird pubescent noodginess around these things that are clearly Bizarro world Superman characters. Maybe I am reading into this but it seems like a really believable and well-done bit of writing on Neil’s part? I don’t remember anything specifically like the Bizarros, but I definitely remember being young and trans before the internet was the internet and fixating on weird shit because it jiggled the handle of my feelings toilet or whatever.

(i can’t imagine ever writing a better sentence than that, btw)

Anyway, to move the plot forward, we find out that Hal- the drag queen landlord in The Doll’s House- has a friend named Scarlet who found Barbie the apartment in the building where Wanda lives. Is Wanda the landlord? Unclear, but it would be legitimately cool if “landlords who are male-assigned people who like to wear clothes coded as female” were a theme in the work of Neil Gaiman. I don’t think it is though.

A monster dies and it is sad; Wanda talks about how her family has disowned her, which I guess isn’t boring, exactly, but it is predictable. Barbie freaks out and Wanda does a shitty job of comforting her, because she’s not a real woman.

I mean, maybe this is a horror story? Maybe this is a story about Wanda in which her every insecurity- every predictable insecurity that a cis dude writer would assume a trans woman would have- is magnified out of proportion? Maybe. I’d choose to read this that way except that, y’know, that is an old story that’s been told a lot of times and it is harrowingly boring. Fuck that story, nobody needs to write that story, and if that is what is going on, then this is even less interesting than a spectacularly failed attempt at telling a story with a sympathetic trans woman character. So.

In chapter two, we find out that Hazel- one of the dykes from upstairs- is so dumb that she thinks you can’t get pregnant if you have sex standing up. Again: I think Neil means for this to point toward how gay she is, but it just reads to me as Neil thinking that maybe this is how dumb some lesbians are. Also: let’s be real about the fact that this is a heterosexual subplot in the life of what could have been a pair of lesbian characters who were just lesbians. But nope: heterosexuality intrudes! Again, that could be an interesting thing to write about if only it weren’t so normative on a larger scale- in this culture- but also on a smaller scale, in the scope of these books so far. How many gay characters have we had who were just gay? Judy dies. Hal is a drag queen and therefore doesn’t know who he is. Wanda is a trans woman who also doesn’t know who she is (which, as Chip points out in the introduction, must be a writerly decision, because if anything it is a much more common problem among trans women that we know too well who we are). Um, we don’t know if Chantal and Zelda are gay or not, I don’t think? But if they are, their main character traits are stuffed spiders and creepy veils; they are not, actually, characters, in any real sense.

So: dyke fucks a dude.

Hazel also doesn’t know about pregnancy tests- did she not know any straight women when she was younger, before she came out and moved to New York? Hazel, in a classic Michfest assumption, points out that Wanda doesn’t know from shit about that stuff. Once again, straight, good, heterosexual and naturally feminine Barbie puts her own shit aside to take care of Hazel.

I guess this is the last time I’ll harp on this but Barbie being framed as this paragon of princess femininity among all these freaks might be an interesting writerly choice if it weren’t, like, the most boring possible story to tell. Maybe what Gaiman is doing is taking it to a really intense extreme by having her princess femininity actually involve a magical Land with monsters and stuff, which is this like quiddity of normative cis femininity… fine, okay, sure. Cool, if that’s what you’re doing, that’s great, and it works, but my problem is what that does to characters like Wanda- like me. In order to tell that story, you have to code the trans woman male- you have to kill her- and that is a story that never needs to be told again, we get it. So I guess maybe I’m thinking about it in terms of being blinded by (say) cis privilege when you write this story so you can’t even see the norms you’re reinforcing by telling this story that doesn’t seem to you to be damaging. You know? Like it’s fine to be like “I’m going to tell a story that reiterates harmful cultural constructions about trans women,” but what the fuck are trans women supposed to do with that story? Suck it up and understand that it’s not for us?

Guess what, none of this culture is for us, and if you’re producing culture that doesn’t resist those norms, then fuck the culture you’re producing.

Barbie is wearing a short pink bathrobe with white trim. She looks tired but she has a big beautiful casual blonde ponytail while she talks to Hazel.

A guy with birds instead of guts is a good monster and an interesting choice for a villian in an apartment building full of women.

Oh! Then Wanda dreams about dresses and then we find out that she is afraid to have bottom surgery! Never mind that she is too broke to even go shopping- Sex Change Surgery is a thing that anyone can access, no matter what their economic status. I guess maybe it’s kind of interesting that Wanda is afraid of surgery, because that actually isn’t part of the normative story about trans women- trans women are all assumed to be desperate for THE SURGERY- except, y’know, surgery is a legitimately scary thing. So.

We get Wanda’s birth name a few more times, and then we see her naked from the waist up, muscley, short hair, a dude, which again would be a legitimately scary thing to dream about if showing trans women As They Really Are Without All That Shit On weren’t such a normative thing to do- if it didn’t do the same thing in terms of story that before and after pictures do in every boring TV show or magazine article. Like: Neil has figured out a way to give us a Before picture of Wanda.

Hazel’s dream about carnivorous dead babies rules.

Foxglove’s dream also reveals her Real Name, and we find out that she’s the one who Donna hit the night before 24 Hours in the first book. Every Queer Knows Every Other Queer, this much is true, although it’s interesting how invested Neil is in letting us know that Foxglove is a chosen name and that Foxglove, too, feels anxiety around being called by the name she was assigned at birth.

Wanda cries about her feelings and then punches a door about them. She also opens the door without any pants on? That could be a badass ‘i don’t give a fuck if you know i’m trans’ or it could be an opportunity for Hazel to be like ‘oh, you’re trans’ and then say ‘this is turning into a really weird evening.’ Guess which happens.

Thessaly, the mousy and humorless witch, totally rules.

There are many panels of Wanda and the outline of her outie. She is the only one without a bathrobe. Somebody made the decision to have Wanda spend most of the story with her junk sort of exposed. Again: brave character or boring writing?

The part where Thessaly skins the dude’s face recalls some of the stuff from the serial killer convention in The Doll’s House really nicely.

Oh yeah: Thessaly sucks. “Wanda’s a man,” she says.

Oh yeah the Shakespearean fool homeless woman of color!

Commenting on the way Hazel and Foxglove just took to the Women’s Mysteries, Wanda says, “Maybe I’m not the woman I thought I was.”

Okay so Barbara goes to fantasyland and that’s cool, whatever, but when she’s in The Land we’re also reintroduced to Nuala of Faerie, who’s been stripped of her glamour and become a timid little creature because of it. I guess that’s what happens to glamorous women when they’re stripped of their glamour? See also: Wanda, I think. Femmephobia, aka misogyny. Suck it.

The net time we see Barbara, she’s arguing with George’s face about whether she’s a woman. (She argues yes.) I guess trans women spend a lot of time having these conversations, Neil? George points out that she is a man because she’s got a dick, but that also the that the moon and gods care about chromosomes so even cutting off your dick wouldn’t solve anything.

We’re also introduced to the fact that Thessaly doing moon magic is causing a hurricane, implying that her women’s mysteries are hella dangerous and that she’s being irresponsible to do this magic. I want to read this as “Thessaly is so badass that she doesn’t give a fuck, she’ll destroy New York to get revenge” … so ha! I’m going to. You can interpret that however you want to, though.

On the Land, the cuckoo teaches us about the difference between boys and girls: it is about the kinds of fantasies they have. So… the moon and gods care about the kinds of fantasies that you have when you’re a kid? Or is it chromosomes? I apologize for doing a structuralist analysis here but honestly, I know the cuckoo and the moon are different, but over the course of this books there seems to be some consensus among nonhuman/immortal characters about how magic works and what happens, so I’d imagine the cuckoo is either supposed to be speaking some sympathetic truth or some harsh truth. I mean, it doesn’t read as intentionally slanted either way, but… what is this speech doing, what Does it Do, in the text? We’re reading a story about gender, obviously, and it seems to me like what this speech is doing is that it is reinforcing the idea that all Real women share a specific kind of girlhood- in the same way that transmisogynistic pseudofeminists have been arguing since the early seventies. I can’t think of a generous reading of this passage. I mean… the cuckoo is evil and therefore says fucked up shit? Well, the fucked up shit she’s saying is consistent with the fucked up shit that the moon is perpetuating in this story. Am I to read it like “well trans women who imagine they are secretly princesses are to be validated in their womanhood by this story?” Uhhhhhhh I am not interested in building my own loopholes, and given the considerable ill will Neil has accumulated so far in this series, I can’t help but read this as a “shared childhood” argument.

Also, I was going to be like “nice fucking analysis of cultural momentum and the ways that we are inculcated into hegemonic transphobia there, cuckoo,” but thinking about that made me realize something even more insidious: of course the cuckoo isn’t going to do a modern feminist cultural analysis, because what Neil has been working to do this whole time- through the whole series so far, by including all these different mythological and religious figures, and Shakespeare, Eve- is to place this story into a kind of panmythological paradigm. By incorporating all these mythologies, the thrill of reading these stories (at least for me, when I was fifteen) is that it felt like they were expressing some pancultural truths about being human. Right? But here we can’t help but notice that the truth about humanity that’s being expressed is a cissupremicist, masculinist truth. Gross!

Meanwhile the Real Women who are lesbians decide to stay together and keep their baby. Hazel’s partner decides that they’re not only going to stay together but that they’re going to keep it and raise it together. These queers do not communicate at all! And listen while I know that lots of straight people in straight relationships communicate with each other very well, this is the essence of heteronormativity: we know our roles so well that we don’t even need to talk anything out. Gross!

Next up, George calls Wanda a queen and then Wanda goes outside to help the homeless lady she was mean to the day before. THIS IS A FUCKING GOLDMINE, by the way, because we are 3100 words into this essay and I keep finding fascinating shit to write about: I had remembered Wanda as being the ninth dead trans woman in this series, but after Wanda brings Maisie- a cardboard cutout of a Southern black woman who takes Christianity very seriously- into the house, MAISIE GIVES US THE NINTH DEAD TRANS WOMAN! Turns out Maisie had a “grandson” who was a trans woman. She uses the wrong pronouns for her for a while and then lets us know that “they found him inna motel room in Queens, five years back. Someone had crushed in his head with a monkey-wrench. Done other shit to him. He’d been dead for like a week. Everyone tol’ him not to go with strangers. There never WAS tellin’ that boy anythin’…”

So Wanda will be dead trans woman number ten! Way to get up to double digits in the first half of the series, Neil.

As the Land comes down, the cuckoo is like “the stars are falling,” which is one of my favorite phrases and pieces of imagery ever. Kind of like “the moon is down,” from the imaginary Nirvana-song-from-beyond-the-grave in Ex Machina, I wanted to get a tattoo of that with Rach in 2005 but she wasn’t into it.

Anyway, Wanda is into the Velvet Underground, and then Lou reed plays on the radio.

Barbara makes it explicit that “I, too, had been one of the servants of the cuckoo, felt the overpowering need to protect and nurture her; to do anything that would make her happy.” We are not surprised that Neil is making the impulse to be a mother read as natural and inborn and essential in all women; even the dykes can’t resist raising a baby!

Wanda dies. Ten dead trans women, zero alive trans women.

Maisie also dies. Two dead black women, zero alive black women.

The next chapter/issue starts with Barbara in a women’s bathroom, putting on makeup. We see Barbara- the woman with the most natural femininity, and the most heterosexual- shut down Thessaly, the most powerful. “Shut up, Thessaly,” Barbara says.

Dudes sexually harass Barbara and then, haha, we find out that Wanda’s last name was Mann, are you fucking kidding me. We find out that Barbara survived because Maisie’s dead body protected her, are you fucking kidding me. We see Wanda’s corpse in a body bag, are you fucking kidding me. Her body doesn’t look that squashed by the building that apparently fell on her- it’s like, literally, the narrative needed her to die, so she just died. Maybe her heart exploded. Oh everybody is calling Wanda by the name and gender she was assigned at birth here. Barbara is using Wanda’s real name and pronouns in a way that foregrounds, still, both in the conversation and on a textual level, the fact that Wanda was trans.

Barbara cries about wanting to protect Wanda, because she is so nurturing. This is a story about how nurturing Barbara is; the person she who she is nurturing is irrelevant. Dead trans woman, though.

Barbara explicitly rejects Wanda’s aunt’s speech endorsing essentialism while the text of the book supports it.

At the funeral there is a boring caricature of Southern/rural conservatism.

Barbara realizes that she’s already forgetting what Wanda looked like, which neatly sets up the scene in a couple pages where Wanda, after dying, looks cis: the important thing, after all, is what dead trans women look like in the memories of cis people.

Barbara gets sexually harrassed again.

Barbara scratches out Wanda’s birthname on her tombstone and writes “Wanda” in an ugly shade of lipstick that used to be Wanda’s favorite. When she was alive. Which doesn’t mean anything to Wanda, who has dead, but which is deeply meaningful to the cis person who has survived her. And Neil’s assumedly cis readership.

Then she tells us: “I dream of Wanda. Only she’s perfect… And when I say perfect, I mean perfect. Drop-dead gorgeous. There’s nothing camp about her, nothing artificial. And she looks happy.” See, Wanda is happy because now that she is dead, she looks cis. Again: not only does this reinforce cissupremecist beauty standards, but what does this say to a trans person who’s reading this: you will look pretty when you’re dead, but since you’re alive right now, … that must suck for you?

It breaks my heart to re-read this because this was my favorite scene in the whole series when I was younger. I felt SO FUCKED UP when I read it. It was SO BEAUTIFUL, she finally got to be pretty, she finally didn’t have to be trans any more, she got to wear a pretty pink princess dress (like Barbie!) and wear subtle makeup and her big red hair didn’t look absurd, it looked natural!

I remember very specifically going with my friend Kerry to Borders on a confusing teenage not-date and being like “do you want to see my favorite panel in this whole book?” Because she was really into these comics, too, I think I mentioned that she made Death shirts in her graphic class. She was like “what is it, the one where the guy’s face gets nailed to the wall?” Which is a fair guess, if you know me and gory movies, and if I haven’t come out as trans yet, but I was like “no” and showed her these panels on the second-to-last page of this book. It was SO HARD and terrifying and it was one of a million times where it felt to me like a huuuuuge step toward coming out as trans that didn’t read as anything out of the ordinary to anybody else. Does that make sense? I was this androgynous teenager- six feet tall and skinny, long shapeless brown hair past my shoulders, shapeless clothes- I was whats-her-face.

But I didn’t have any tools to understand that I was trans or whether I could do anything about it, I just felt fucked up and intense around things like this- specifically this thing, I guess, although of course around a million other things that had to do with gender, too. And we live in the kind of culture that reads you as cis by such a strong default that even years later, when I asked Kerry if she remembered the thing at Borders, she was like “uh, nope.”

Maybe I dreamed it.

Whatever, though. It feels shitty for me to take this book down this hard because, honestly, it was one of the things that got me through high school, through college. A trans character- even the most cissupremecist construction of a trans character, in the most cissupremecist story- was so much better than having no trans characters in my life.

I don’t remember that much of high school. I mean, I guess I remember a lot, I remember taking a lot of drugs and throwing up a lot of the times I took drugs, and I remember playing punk rock songs in Jen’s basement with her brothers and some other folks. I remember when my car’s engine caught on fire in the McDonald’s drive-through and I know Rob and Joe and I spent a lot of time playing Nintendo. But I can’t really remember the emotional experience of high school, and when I try to dredge it up, it is like the most intense, overwhelming sense of melancholy. I was doing everything I could not to feel shitty, so I wasn’t feeling much. I was investing in the things that didn’t feel totally horrifying for me to invest myself in- books, music, Nintendo, letting friends in the teensiest little bit but not really at all- and, of course, most important, desperate feelingsy BUFU relationships with the girls in my life. Like, I lived for long cathartic nights in which I would let somebody in a couple inches deeper (just to be clear this is a metaphor, I am not talking about fucking) than I ever let anybody in and got to feel present and seen and loved and stuff, even though I never really let anybody anywhere near the trans stuff I was working so hard to protect.

When I put it that way, except for the trans stuff I guess this was everybody’s teenhood.

I don’t know where I’m going with this. We live in a culture that poisons the shit out of everybody for the first twelve or eighteen or twenty-two years and then we all spend our lives trying to recover from being poisoned, so it’s not like this is specific to being trans, but it just hurts my heart a little bit that we give trans kids like I was such shitty tools with which to be trans. You know? I guess it is many years later, maybe shit has improved a lot, it just still makes me ache in my ribcage to think about.

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