My Default State is Phased

Curator's Note

A few Marvel mutants are literally trans: Escapade and Morgan Red,[1] and Jessie Drake.[2] Other characters make sense if you see their stories as, sub rosa, trans stories.[3]

Kate Pryde isn't, for me, exactly, one of those characters. When I reread stories that center her-- which I do, arguably, too often-- I don't see her as trans like me. Instead, I see her as a cis, bisexual, Jewish, white, American girl and then a woman whose troubles and joys reflect, and resemble, those that come to me in my transgender life: allegorically or analogically available for, trans girls, in particular, in at least four big ways.


1. Derealization and disembodiment. That's the feeling that you don't have a body, that your body's not real to you, that it is (at best) a facade. Closeted trans people feel that way all the time (Zinnia Jones writes especially well about it).[4]

For Kitty, it's literal: sometimes her default state is phased, and she must concentrate to stay solid, after the Mutant Massacre, in Fantastic Four vs. X-Men (1987), and when she returns from Whedonspace, beginning with Uncanny X-Men 522. Thanks (but no thanks) to the trauma she's undergone, and the way she's had to stay phased to survive it, she can't get out of her disembodied state: an asset if you want her to infiltrate, but a disadvantage if you want to eat a sandwich, or hug your boyfriend.

2. Or your girlfriend. Kitty, like most of the other women with starring roles in X-comics during the Claremont run, enjoys what readers alert to subtext would call same-gender romance. But she can't say as much. Not clearly, and not on-page. There's nothing exclusively trans about having to keep a romance secret. Especially not in your teens, and not if you're gay.

At the same time, there's something trans about the relationships we see on-page between Kitty Pryde and Illyana Rasputin, and later between Kitty and Rachel. See, for example, how Illyana and Kitty together phase through the bed in X-Men and Micronauts no. 1 (not on Marvel Unlimited, but you can find the panel on the Internet), or how they sit facing each other and belong together in New Mutants 63. It's as if Kitty knows that no one else around her would even have words for the romantic bonds they share. She can't explain; they wouldn't understand. That's a feeling that those of us who have hatched, and who remember ourselves as eggs, know well.

But it's also something we know we missed. Part of trans girlhood and trans womanhood-- unless you're lucky enough to transition quite young-- is having missed out on the legendary, intense, sometimes ridiculous solidarities of girlhood. Identifying with Kitty allows trans girls-- OK, some trans girls; OK, at the least, me-- to experience those kinds of bonds vicariously.

3. That said, Kitty's usually bad at being a girl, and bad at just being herself in groups of peers. In Uncanny X-Men 139, she enters Stevie Hunter's studio for the first time. "My peers are in the ninth grade, an' I'm taking college level courses. Academically we don't fit. Dancing is how I balance the scales. ... I can relate to kids my own age as equals." So she tells Storm, in dialogue that also balances co-creator John Byrne's stated aspiration that she be a normal teenager and Claremont's usual plan to create a queer misfit.

That attempt to balance the scales, to be a girl who is like other girls, keeps going until Kitty becomes an adult. Everyone mocks her lack of fashion sense. Boys her own age, in New Mutants 45, won't dance with her. She's not even a New Mutant. She doesn't feel like anyone's peer, and doesn't belong in any group of her peers, except, briefly, in the overtly parodic single-sex environment of "Girls' School from Heck." No wonder, in Mekanix, she has to try to find herself-- and to wear oddly revealing, setting-inappropriate outfits-- after others her age have already (if that's the right word) grown up.

4. At least she gets to grow up: for a while it was touch and go. Mature Kitty, and mature Kate, are just as much "my" characters as teenage Kitty. They're just as interested in being (on page) Jewish, and American, and romantically attached to both women and men: see, how late Claremont writes Kitty and Rachel, or how Brian Michael Bendis, when he's not making a match with Star-Lord, writes Magik and Shadowcat. That said, grown-up Kitty does fewer things that seem to allegorize trans ways of growing up: she's already been through it.

And one thing she's been through is an experience all too familiar to many trans readers: she's felt like a burden, and wanted to end her life. In Uncanny X-Men 170, she seems willing to sacrifice herself, to become Caliban's bride and stay underground. And once she gets stuck in her phased state, requiring medical assistance to transition (see what I did there?) back into solidity, she wonders whether she isn't worth all that trouble, whether her chosen family would be better off if she faded away.

The panels depicting that choice-- and her near death-- in Fantastic Four vs. X-Men 3 are the best depiction I've seen in comics, and one of the best depictions anywhere, for that particular kind of drive to self-harm. Not active self-hatred, not the wish for attention, not intolerable pain, but the feeling that life isn't working for you, that you will never (or never again) have a body, and that the people you love would just be better off if they didn't have to make all that effort on your behalf.

It's not true. It's never true. And it's a temptation that Kitty resists only when Franklin Richards, the kid she normally protects and nurtures, shows up to psychically nurture her. May we all be so lucky. Especially if we're trans, as Kitty is not. Or not quite. Or not literally.

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