On Magical Transformations

When I was a kid I used to love fantastical stories such as the Greek myth of Tiresias in which men were magically transformed into women. That would have been such a convenient solution to my problems. But equally it was never going to happen. Dreams are all very nice, but if I’m looking for a story that reflects the reality of trans experience then magical transformations don’t cut it.

This post was prompted by a chat on Twitter this morning. Malinda Lo has discovered this book, Changers, which she thought sounded hopeful from a trans point of view. I wasn’t so sure, and I promised Malinda a post to explain why.

For context I should note that Malinda has written lesbian fairy tales; that is, fairy tales set in a world in which being a lesbian is seen as completely unremarkable. This sounds like a good thing to me. A world in which being lesbian (or gay, or bi) is unremarkable is something that I think we can legitimately aspire to. However, Changers posits a world in which some people change gender naturally. That isn’t going to happen any time soon. Nor does it necessarily give readers any sympathy for, or understanding of, trans people.

The trouble with magical transformations is that they sidestep all of the real issues of being trans. To start with there’s the question of how you are seen by others. A magical transformation is presumably complete. That is, everything about the person is changed. Surgery and hormones can’t compete with that. Perversely, therefore, a magical transformation can appear more “real” to a reader than a medical one (unless, of course, you posit Culture-level medicine). The reader may therefore accept the transformation in the book but still be unable to accept actual trans people.

Then again, there’s the whole psychological angle. Real trans people tend to spend a long time worrying about their gender identity. People who are magically transformed in fiction generally have no such doubts before their change, and for the sake of the story can’t spend too much time on angst afterwards.

What such stories are good at is exploring gender roles in society, and I’m looking forward to Changers on that basis. But I doubt that it will be the sort of book that can be given to people to help them understand what being trans is like.

By the way, a brief word here about Mark Charan Newton’s Book of Transformations. Mark does use magic in his story — it is a fantasy, after all — but it is the sort of magic that is effectively standing in for science. It is not “wave a wand and it is done” magic. Consequently Lan’s story unfolds in a similar way to that of a real-world trans person.

One thought on “On Magical Transformations

  1. I was at BEA last week and saw the authors presenting the book at a SFF Panel. When they talked about the transformation if felt to me – without having read the book yet – that the book might be going for laughs/adventure (hey look, omg he is a boy! Now look, she is now a girl!) rather than a thoughtful examination of…anything. Now, this could be a very unfair impression from that panel but it has definitely made me extremely wary of the book.

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