Saturday, January 4, 2014

He-She: the Curious Story of a Thing without a Soul

"This is the story of a thing - 
Neither man nor woman.
A person? Yes. With a soul? No."
Charles Biro, Boy Comics #9

He-She appeared in Boy Comics #9
created by Charles Biro
as a villain for Crimebuster (Chuck Chandler),
published by Lev Gleason in Spring 1943

Things Unknown

Things transform, but souls are supposed to endure for eternity. This paradox of permanence in an ever changing world rests at the heart of all projects of identity & ontology; including most recently in trans & thing studies.

Transformation depends on the coincidence of competing positions: that (1) a thing becomes another thing, while (2) remaining the self-same thing. If difference over-ruled all, then change would involve the radical break (a sort of death) where the prior thing is lost to oblivion at the birth of the new thing. If stability held all things in eternity, then change would be simply the deceptive play of appearances (or relations). 

If we were to take seriously both the shifting relations and ontology of transformation, we need to accept the paradox of contradictory things existing together: the past and present, change and constancy.

Narratives of transforming gender, trans-gender, likewise call us to recognize the coincidence of a body across delimited spaces of identity. While feminist and queer theory has done a good job in under-mining these boundaries of gender and sexuality, trans theory pushes us to see how these boundaries continue to operate and how trans-gender works both sides.

The danger of trans theory is that it works. It operates on both sides of debates. It works for change, as well as for the persistence of gender categories. It works for the queering of sexuality, as well as for the denial of same-sex attractions by settling one partner on the other side of a heterosexual pairing. It allows for trans people to become known to society, while withdrawing both from attempts to understand them as men or as women.

The epistemological problem of trans-gender is not that we do not have modes of knowing it, but that we have too many contradictory ways of knowing that are all partially true, and partially insufficient. In this way, trans-gender brings us back to how trans-formation requires us to contact things unknown without trying to fix them (into definable states of being or relating).  We fear trans things then because we cannot fully know them or control them. They are mysteries and traitors. In other words, they make for great villains!

Printed in 1943, Boy Comics presented a single-shot villain called the He-She, an enigmatic manipulator and murderer that uses its half-female half-male traits to perpetuate crimes before being caught and put to death. 

Through mystery, the story of this trans "thing" can demonstrate "the inner secrets of its existence," while nonetheless perpetuating trans-phobic relations to trans* genders (including transgender, transsexuality, transvestism), various forms of intersex, as well as queer sexualities (including drag queens, butch lesbians).

Queer Motives

Every act of the He-She is shrouded in deviance and mystery. Extortion, seduction, theft, and murder are all committed by the He-She without sufficient pre-text or context for their motivation. What He-She does tell its victims is that they are being punished for their "curiosity."

Each act of aggression comes in response to attempts to determine what the He-She is: man, woman, both, neither. While the narrative promises insights into these secrets, the He-She's life depends on epistemological uncertainty. The He-She depends on the ability to be many things at once, to seduce women as a man, seduce men as a woman, to defend herself as a man, and to call for help as a woman.

Attempts to map the He-She's identity or body are dangerous. The response of every person once they become aware of this illicit gender contradiction elicit a violent repulsion. The He-She's wife denounces his manhood, their love, their marriage and threatens to cut him off financially. After grabbing hold of him and forcibly undressing him, the He-She reacts violently against he intrusive curiosity. A deplorable murder, but one that comes in response to another's aggressive act to fix it.

Later, when the Crimebuster investigates the murder, the young boy runs into the He-She. At first he sees the He-She as just a beautiful woman. When his monkey companion "Squeaks" pulls her head around, revealing the He-She's paradoxical nature, the boy immediately attacks it with the cry "What is this?" Again, the He-She strikes back at the assault to its identity and body with violence.

The only acts of violence that don't seem directly following an invasion of the He-She's epistemological and physical space is its characteristic abuse against animals. While we could read the He-She's kicks and punches at cats & monkeys as a method of setting up the He-She as a villain, this ignores the active role that animals play in the story. 

Previous to being hit, the cat has been roaring at the He-She, signaling that even the "natural bodies" of animals can pick up on the He-She's unnatural body. The cat, "Kitty," then jumps in front of the He-She, causing it to turn about. Turning is a risky move for the He-She as it is how she changes gender. One side of its face is masculine while the other is feminine. This ability to play both sides causes the He-She to typically only present one side of its face at any given time. The tripping turn that the cat forces threatens to unveil and undo this mystery.

Likewise, when the He-She passes by the Crimebuster, his monkey immediately jumps at it, bringing He-She to his attention. The monkey then climbs onto He-She's shoulders and attempts to forcibly turn its face so Crimebuster can see the dual gender roles. The monkey's role here is more than just an agent of nature, but an agent of the state, helping Crimebuster to locate queer bodies and then abuse them. Animals are hardly passive objects in this story and the He-She's attacks are not purely villainous.

Sexual Exchanges

The sexual anxiety around the He-She's gender change is evident in the seduction of both women and men throughout the story. The seduction of the He-She's landlady to become his wife and her murder after the discover of his trans-status plays out the catastrophic fears surrounding ambiguous gender and sexuality. 

As the story continues, the He-She switches to male targets, using her female half to seduce them into helping her. When the men move in to lay hands on her body for "a little smack smack," the He-She reveals its trans embodiment and violently rebuffs their advances.

In all cases, the eruption of violence fits with the associative affects of the traumatic discovery that one has engaged (or would have engaged) in a sexually ambiguous relationship. Whether or not the reader knew about transvestism or transsexuality, evidently the author was unable to imagining the possibility of gender change without associating it with sexual deception, panic and violence - a phobia that continues to play out in crime stories today.

As many crime television shows demonstrate, trans-gender persons are great for providing mystery both because they allow for a third act plot twist and because their gender ambiguity allows for sexual tension to develop and immediately turn to hatred (see CSI, Bones, Diagnosis Murder, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and NCIS). 

The arousal of "trans-panic," like "gay-panic" is one of the most common affects and events in many narratives about trans-gender (that are not centered around the trans person). The worry that the "woman" one approaches is "not really a woman", mirrors the fear that the "man" one counts as a buddy may have more than platonic feelings gives many narratives surprise, drama and excuse for violence.

Trans-phobia would not mean exactly trans-gender phobia in the context of He-She during the 1940s when Boy Comic #9 was published. The word transvestite was in use form the 19th century to describe a form of sexual deviance among men and women who dressed in non-gender conforming clothes. Gender reassignment surgery (GRS) was pioneered in Germany in the 1930s but did not make its way to the United States until the 1960s. GRS was primarily used on children born with ambiguous genitalia but soon began being performed on adults who wanted to transition, giving birth to the term "transsexual." Transgender as a word would not be used until the late 80s & 90s with movements (simultaneous but not coinciding with the Intersex movement) to refuse GRS as an essential part gender transition.

Despite this technically in language which makes it unlikely that the author or readers of Boy Comic #9 in the 1940s would have understood He-She in terms of trans-anything, we can nonetheless read the "trans-phobia" of the text in the terms of an uneasiness about things that transform; including gender and sexuality.

Incarcerated Bodies

Boy Comics directly documents the He-She's criminal activities and capture by Crimebuster, while only suggesting at the context and motives that propel the acts. A need for money and the fear of policing (particularly through hands-on abuse) seems to undergird all the He-She's actions. These motives are painted as an inordinate response to innocent "curiosity." By keeping the violence against He-She indirect, their actions can appear as causeless and rooted in the unnaturalness of sociopathic bodies.

The United States in the 19th and 20th centuries widely criminalized trans bodies by making "cross-dressing" and "sodomy" illegal, denying insurance coverage and legal recognition to those that sought gender transition, pathologizing gender dysphoria through a formal diagnosis in the American Psychiatric Society's Diagnostic and Statistics Manuel (the DSM), and institutionalizing vast numbers of trans people in prisons and state asylums. 

For more on the history of these the criminalization and great confinement of trans bodies, several texts have recently hit the market. Susan Stryker's Transgender History (2008) traces the long road of outlawing transgender throughout the 20th century. Dean Spade's Normal Life (2011) presents the startling statistics of administrative violence targeting trans bodies. Eric A Stanley's Captive Genders (2011) breaks open the industrial prison complex's increasing hunger for trans institutionalize. 

This process of criminalizing trans-gender are not always performed directly, but work by forcing the hands of trans bodies into activities targeted for policing, including: 

  • denying insurance coverage and pushing trans persons towards illicit inexpensive drugs from the black-market; 
  • denying insurance, housing and jobs to trans persons and pushing them towards illicit work opportunities including prostitution and theft;
  • perpetuating phobic environments for trans persons, causing them to react with self-isolation, fear and violence.

State and private industries can thus be directly responsible for not only the incarceration of trans person, as well as indirectly responsible for provoking the actions that make them targets for the police.

We should go further than simply peering around the environment of He-She; directions that the mechanisms of the text do not want us looking. By peering closely at the final words of the He-She we can find a moment where even the text directly offers the potential for sympathy.

Pictured behind bars, the He-She cries out: "Let me outa here! Do you hear! Let me outa here!" The He-She calls out for liberation. The He-She calls out for a voice. Then again, the He-She calls out for liberation. In previous scenes, we have heard He-She justify itself as paying back its victims for their curiosity. This demonstrates a strong (if extreme) impulse for justice; i.e. the proper consequence for a sequence of acts. 

Can we hear in these pleas, the voice of one crying out in the dark for justice? Of the poor for liberation from an abusive system? Of the silenced for a voice? Of the imprisoned for liberation for industrialized incarceration? How many voices are possibly calling out beside the He-She? Resonance and sympathy are powerful means to opening up direct statements to the echoes of all that is going on in the shadows of the environment.

Soulless Dreams

Boy Comics is not aimed at the liberation of trans bodies, however it might open up moments for sympathy. It is a story about policing outlaws (of gender). The He-She is made a villain not simply because of the acts that get it incarcerated but because of what it is. We have seen how the work of being trans marks the He-She's unnatural relations (between man, woman and animal) and result in its incarceration. The story goes further, however. The He-She is killed. It is not enough for the text to control those who cross gender (i.e. those who "trans" gender), it must destroy the thing that it imagined.

However personified the He-She is, it is a thing without a soul. The narrative suggests a variety of meanings for soullessness: immoral, acts without reason, mutable/mortal. In this way, the text understands the soul as Aristotle's "Rational Soul" or the highest in a three-part hierarchy (On the Soul, 3. 7-9). The positioning of the He-She as human-like without being full human (defined by reason) is underlined when referred to as an "it" or a "thing". Without this soul, the He-She is not fixed in eternity. It transforms too dangerously. It is too much body. It is too alive here and now to be possessed of an afterlife.

Trans bodies resist being fixed to one form of life, yet neither are not readily reduced to death and nothingness. Mutability means more than mortality. We can hear Michel Foucault's cry "the soul is the prison of the body" shaking out of the second to last frame, where He-She calls out for liberation (Discipline & Punish, 30). Other orders of thought and embodiment exist beyond and across normative definitions of reasonable being. Yet Boy Comics does not recognize such alternatives. It cuts a fissure between soul and soulless, cutting He-She away as a thing outside the limits and protections of the state. Soullessness may have set He-She free to exist for a time outside these limits, but also made it a target for state-sponsored annihilation.

This soullessness thus designates the supposed degrees of human value and sympathy. In other words, the He-She is killable. What then do we make of the He-She's final pleas? "No, No! I don't want to die! I'm too young to die!" This voice is too much person to be a merely inhuman. In giving this final voice to the He-She, even as it brings it to destruction, the narrative reveals the desire and despair of a life denied recognition as livable.

These outcries remain dreams for He-Shes. These dreams bring readers to imagine their existence and possible futures. If the He-She dies "too young," what other futures does it demand? Set in the 1940s, these dreams are not limited to the history which is now our past. The acceptance and rejections in queer communities (Stonewall), the location (the DSM) and refusal of crip alliances (the Americans with Disability Act, section 12211), the passing of landmark State integration (California, Department of Managed Healthcare) & state exclusion laws (Arizona SB 1405) did not happen out of necessity. They did not have to happen that way. These events are the results of many dreams, desires, reasons, madnesses, contradictions and confirmations. Each of them are the result of lives that were ended "too young" and each one demands that we hear their cry to open up our world to foreclosed possibilities.

We should not say that the dreams of the He-She has been realized or failed in the past decades. These dreams of the future do not simply look to us, but past us. He-She attests that we must ever attend to the questions of transformation: What has changed? What remains the same? How can differences coincide? How do we live with contradiction? How do we give justice and dignity to those things we mark outside of humanity, reason and value? How do we touch the secrets of transforming existence without fixing them in the eyes of the state or reducing them to nothingness? How do we provide for the life and liberation of the soulless?


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