There is something both incredibly heartwarming and deeply frustrating about Across the Spider-Verse‘s transness.
Let’s start with the heartwarming part: as a trans woman myself, as well as a Spider-Gwen fan who has for many years now interpreted the character as trans, there is a deep joy in seeing that the people who made this movie share the same vision, at least on some level.
I’d seen trailers for the movie before watching it, and therefore knew that it included Gwen’s “protect trans kids” flag in her room. I’d thought it a nice if rather timid nod, merely gesturing at a vague support of trans people (especially in the context of trans rights being more targeted than ever in the past few years in the US and around the world) without truly adding any actual sense of queerness to the movie. No part of me at that point entertained the possibility that an animated Marvel movie would make one of their most well-known characters canonically trans, despite no version of the character having ever been portrayed as such in almost 60 years of comic book history.
And to be fair: I was not wrong! At no point does the movie state that Gwen Stacy is a trans woman, nor does it include any other canonically trans characters. Instead, it conveys queerness in two other more interesting ‒ and yet more frustrating ‒ ways: specific visual clues, and general subtext.
I won’t spend too much time on the specifics of the visual clues to Gwen’s transness, as I think they’re most interesting when understood in the context of the movie as a whole rather than when investigating them in a Pepe Silvia-esque conspiracy theory board to try and pin down Gwen’s identity. However, it is still relevant to list them in order to understand both the intentions of the creative team and the counter-arguments of the people who would rebuke the possibility of Gwen being trans :
- A PROTECT TRANS KIDS flag in Gwen’s room.
- A trans flag pin on her dad’s police uniform.
- The colors of the trans flag permeating the background as well as Gwen herself in both scenes where she is confronting her father about her identity.
I’d like to examine the counter-arguments to these clues, as I think they are symptomatic of the general mindset around queer representation in superhero stories and mainstream media as a whole.
First, some people argue that Gwen might just be a trans ally. Fair enough! Although I’ll be honest, no ally I’ve ever heard of has two trans flags in their home, including one displayed above their bed and the other one on their parent’s work uniform.
I’ve also seen people argue the possibility that the Peter Parker of Earth-65 was trans rather than Gwen herself, and that the trans flags in her house are in his memory. To those people, I’d like to ask: why would you rather have the movie’s trans subtext be built around a dead character that is only part of a – in their mind – cis character’s backstory, rather than accept the possibility of having a major living trans character? (Also, why couldn’t they both be trans?)
As for the background colors changing to those of the trans flag, people have argued that pink has always been one of Gwen’s major colors, and blue might just signify the complicated feelings she’s going through in those moments. Once again, fair enough! But it is still strange that blue, pink and white are the only colors specifically in scenes where Gwen talks about only being able to share half of her life to the people around her, dealing with having two identities, and being confronted about it by a paternal authority figure. In a movie where so much story and characterization is conveyed through the visuals, and where so much attention is paid to those visuals in their every detail, it is hard to believe that this is anything other than an intentional creative choice of coloring Gwen’s story as a trans story. At the very least, it finds an emotional core and resonance in the experience of trans people.
So, is Gwen trans ?
That question is hard to answer because it has multiple, co-existing answers. The first one is that from a canonical standpoint, it is never stated that any character in the movie is either cis or trans. One could argue that this means every single character’s gender identity exists in a Schrödinger’s box where they are neither cis nor trans until the story goes out of its way to specify one way or the other; but that would be a conclusion that ignores real-life context, as Across the Spider-Verse is part of a predominantly non-queer film and comic book industry, where as a rule, every character is considered non-queer until explicitly, excruciatingly, and above everything else verbally proven otherwise. So on a purely dry, canonical level, no, Gwen isn’t trans.
But is this how we want to talk about fiction? Is this how we want to analyze queerness in media ?
The portrayal of Gwen’s queerness in Across the Spider-Verse is such that, as seen previously, it can easily be denied by those who would like to pretend it doesn’t exist. And although this plausible deniability, whether intended or not, can feel a bit cowardly, here is something that cannot be denied: Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, at its core, resonates as a trans story.
The queerness of Across the Spider-Verse finds its roots in the queerness already inherent to the superhero genre ‒ and especially to one of its fundamental ideas, the secret identity. There is something undeniably trans about choosing a new name for yourself, building a new identity around that name, and feeling like you have to hide this new identity even to your friends and relatives in order to stay safe. As a queer person, it’s hard to read classic Spider-Man scenes like Peter Parker revealing his secret identity to Aunt May or MJ without seeing in it echoes of a trans person coming out to a parent or a partner, and all the anxieties that entails.
That thematic resonance is already present in the first movie, if you’re looking for it. “That’s all it is, Miles. A leap of faith.” Miles’ life changes in ways he feels he has to hide from his parents. He meets other people that have gone through the same thing and can understand what he’s going through, and he learns from them to not surrender to his fear of the people who hate him because of who he has become. The parallels are tenuous, but whether intended or not, whether consciously or not, they resonate with queer audiences. And if they don’t appear to non-queer people, that’s because we see in stories the reflection of our own lives and experiences, which for me and many others, includes seeing our own queerness in stories that parallel it, even when they might not portray any “canonical” queer identities.
But as I watch and rewatch Across the Spider-Verse, I can’t help but notice how the queerness of its genre feels more present, more intentional than usual. We’ve already talked about the visual clues to Gwen’s transness, but part of the reason they are so meaningful is that here, they echo the fundamental transness of Gwen’s story throughout the movie. Living a double life and having to hide half of who she is from her father, who always seems on the verge of finding out what is going on with her. The feelings of fear and anger that come from not being able to talk to anyone about it. In this context, Peter’s death can very much echo the tragically common losses suffered by the trans community again and again. Or, in the context of Gwen’s father blaming her for Peter’s death, the story reflects the ways in which transphobic parents will blame their trans children and the trans community for “killing” their younger cis selves, rather than accept that they were never cis in the first place.
Then, when she reveals her identity to her father, that decision is quite literally forced out of her at gunpoint, emphasizing the feeling of complete nakedness and weakness that coming out to a parent can cause. In that moment, Gwen’s life and death are entirely dependent on the reaction of her father; and the creative decision of having him still try to arrest her and refuse to listen to her feels heartbreakingly true. Especially at a time when trans rights are being threatened by law enforcement all over the US, using the argument of “protecting children” to endanger the lives of those very same children, in the same way George Stacy uses Peter’s death as an excuse to hunt down his own daughter. In the moment of their confrontation, metaphor melts into reality, as the story seems to shed all of its superhero sci-fi aspects to center its tension around something as brutally real as a police officer pointing a gun at a trans teenager.
“Dad… I’ve thought about telling you, but you can see why I didn’t want to, you can see why I didn’t want to tell you…”
“How long have you been lying to me ?”
“Can you just not be a cop for a second and be my dad here and listen to me ?”
“…are you really this afraid of me ?”
So Gwen has no choice but to run away, and find community with people that have gone through the same thing as she has. Even there, her dire situation is used by Miguel O’Hara, who only helps her as long as she’s useful to him and doesn’t get out of line. Queerness is only tolerable as long as it can stay quiet and profitable. Once again, the threat is not just that she might be kicked out of the Spider-Society: instead, it’s the very real situation of risking a return home after having been outed to her father in a way that potentially puts her life in danger.
When she comes back, the only resolution to her story can come from her father choosing her over his job and political views. Him quitting his job comes as a relief not just because it proves Miguel’s point about canon events wrong (as we will discuss further down), but also because it shows how allyship can only exist by actively choosing to question and reject the worldview you’ve been raised to believe all your life, and make the deep life changes that that entails to stop being an enemy.
All in all, the trans subtext of Gwen’s character anchors its fully fictional, sci-fi aspects in real-life queer experience that only makes her story stronger, have more weight, more emotion. In that way, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse feels like one of the rare superhero stories that understands the potential of its genre incredibly well, using colorful worlds and fantastical ideas to relate true human experience by blowing up its proportions. Superheroes are nothing if they forget to mirror humanity, including its queerness.
So Gwen’s story is a trans one. But is that also true of Across the Spider-Verse as a whole ? After all, she’s not even the main character.
Let’s talk about Miles Morales.
Most of the trans analysis of Across the Spider-Verse has been focused on Gwen, for all the very valid visual and thematic reasons we’ve discussed so far; but I don’t think it’s possible to fully analyze the movie’s trans resonance without acknowledging that a lot of the queerness present in Gwen’s story is also present in Miles’, even if it is not emphasized by the visuals in the same way.
Like with Gwen, a lot of scenes depicting Miles interacting with his parents can very easily be read as queer, including a scene in which Miles imagines what would happen if he were to come out to his parents, and several others that create tension by almost having him reveal his secret identity before deciding not to. We find Miles at the beginning of the movie as a teenager living a double life, and like Gwen, like many trans teenagers, hiding a big part of his identity and living a lie because he doesn’t feel safe telling his parents the truth about himself. Not that his parents are portrayed as bigots (or “Spider-Man haters”), as it is clear to us as the audience that they are incredibly loving and accepting ‒ his father now even having a working relationship with Spidey as opposed to deeply distrusting him in the first movie ‒ but there is still that uncertainty, that fear of making yourself so deeply vulnerable to the people whose reaction has the potential of hurting the most, because you just never know.
All of these elements of secret identities as a source of interpersonal drama can also be found in the comics, in which Peter or Miles make the continuous decision of not telling anyone about who they are for safety reasons, until someone else figures it out on their own or by accident, usually only for a little while. In Across the Spider-Verse however, the weight of Miles’ secret identity feels omnipresent, as the dialogue and acting implies it to be on his mind in every single scene of him interacting with his parents. The problem isn’t that he has decided to not tell them forever, that would be easier. The problem is that he desperately wants to tell them, but just doesn’t know how. It isn’t about a superhero scared of putting their family in danger of being attacked by a supervillain, instead it is simply about a child who wants to tell his parents about an important part of who he is that he’s been hiding from them.
Then, when Miles is confronted by Miguel about the consequences of his actions, very strong parallels to the fight for trans rights emerge. Miguel’s doctrine for the Spider-Society is that the unending tragedies caused by canon events should not only be accepted, but enforced in the name of security. According to him, Miles’ refusal to accept those tragedies as the norm is enough to mark the young spider-hero as an enemy, because the reliable tragedy of the status quo is seen as better than shaking things up to try and achieve something better.
Miles refusing to surrender to a narrative of doom and of the necessity of tragedy resonates incredibly deeply with the current situation of trans people in the US and around the world. In this parallel, Miguel even seems to echo the mindset of some cis queer people such as the LGB Alliance. Although he has gone through the same things Miles and Gwen have, he seems to think that reaching safety legitimizes sacrificing those who aren’t deemed to be part of the “natural order of things”, who “jeopardize the community because they insist on being different”; a mindset that does nothing but empower the actual enemies of the community. Miguel fears an invisible hand of destiny that he hopes to escape by letting it rule him, whereas it seems like only Miles sees clearly that the threat isn’t to be found in the rules of the multiverse, but in the actions of individual, hateful people (in this case, Spot). To legitimize his position, Miguel invalidates Miles’ very identity as Spider-Man under the pretense that he didn’t get his powers “the right way.” An argument that only makes sense to someone who has accepted relinquishing freedom of identity to embrace meaningless, repressive rules about who can call themselves what.
So why the specific focus on Gwen?
Both Miles and Gwen’s stories, in their personal conflicts with their families as well as Miles’ ideological conflict with Miguel, can hold deep queer resonance. However, of the two, only Gwen holds visual hints of transness. In a movie that carries so much characterization in its visuals and where every artistic choice has very intentional meaning behind it, it is clear that Gwen’s transness is no mistake; and that whereas Miles’ queer themes resonate around him as more metaphoric, Gwen’s feel like they permeate her entire character in a way that cannot be ignored.
It is also important to not absolutize the queerness of Miles’ story, and recognize that a lot of the themes of marginality and resistance in the face of tragedy and oppression that are present in his story, although they can resonate as queer, are first and foremost rooted in his identity as a person of color (down to characters like Miguel denying him the identity of Spider-Man in ways that echo the racist backlash that frequently happens around non-white legacy characters in comics). It doesn’t mean that this is antithetical to his story being queer ‒ especially when it comes to his relationship with his parents and the various coming out scenes that come with it. But discussing that queerness should never in any way ignore the fact that his story, both in this movie and in the previous one, is rooted in him being a Black Latino teenager from Brooklyn, struggling with his family’s expectations against the pressures of a world he feels isn’t made for him, until he grows to realize that he doesn’t just belong to that world, he’s better than it.
“I saw all these amazing places, and met all these amazing people, but… they didn’t want me. I didn’t let them have it. I beat them all. I know how strong I am now. I’m strong because of you, and dad, and us.”
Under this angle, Gwen and Peter appear clearly as failing white allies – especially compared to Hobie and Margo, the only other Black spider-heroes (except for Jess) in the movie, who are the ones to actually help Miles escape. When his white friends turn their backs on him, black solidarity from people he barely even knows is what saves him. Meanwhile, for most of the movie, Peter and Gwen fail as Miles’ allies because they just can’t let go of their attachment to the status quo, in a somewhat similar way that Gwen’s dad can’t. (read Omar Holmon’s excellent article about the movie, which talks about these themes of Black solidarity and false white allyship way better than I ever could.)
Maybe this is Across the Spider-Verse‘s greatest success, the ways in which it fundamentally understands and fulfills the potential of superhero stories as empowering fiction for marginalized groups. An understanding that, frankly, puts to shame most superhero comics, as even X-Men has more often than not only used the mutant metaphor to try and equate fully fictional superhero stakes to real-world social issues without taking the care to actually understand their inner workings. Spider-Verse opts to make its themes stronger by resonating with those real-world issues through subtextual resonance, in ways that allow for separate but co-existing readings. It is just as true to say that Gwen’s story resonates as that of a trans teenager struggling after having been outed to her cop father, as it is to say that Miles’ story is one of refusing to submit to the crushing weight of institutionalized racism and being disappointed by white allyship, as it is to say that the movie is about superheroes in colorful suits trying to save the multiverse. All of these ideas connect, intermingle, and reinforce each other – without ever needing a character to point out those connections in-universe – in ways that superhero movies rarely, if ever, manage to do.
Yes, I am disappointed that the movie doesn’t go as far as outright saying that Gwen is trans; and I refuse to accept the narrative that we should let go of trying to hold huge media corporations accountable for chickening out of real representation just because “it’s never going to happen, so why even bother.” There should be real representation in blockbuster movies; and while we should absolutely be looking at the independent art that is actually created by under-represented people from marginalized communities, it’s obvious that seeing the same representation from incredibly popular stories such as Spider-Man would go a long way to pushing the limits of what can be done. While the movie does contain queer themes, it’s frustrating to see ourselves be left out of our own stories in this way.
But even so, I can’t help but want to celebrate how much of myself I saw reflected back through Gwen Stacy, and how much I’ve seen queer people be able to see themselves in Across the Spider-Verse. Each fanart of Spider-Gwen holding a trans flag, each trans person feeling euphoria in a spider-suit shines as a reminder of how cool it is to see a Spider-Man movie that acknowledges who we are, even if that should by all accounts be the norm rather than the anomaly.
After all, if anyone can wear the mask, why couldn’t we?