The Problem With Cis-to-Trans Fan Art and Headcanons

By Levi van Wyk

Words you may be unfamiliar with:
Canon: Official traits given to fictional characters by the original creators. Example: “Superman has a muscled body”.
Headcanon: Unofficial traits given to fictional characters by fans, usually just for fun or creative exploring. Example: “Superman’s muscles are actually just sponges stuffed into his costume to make it seem like he has a muscled body”.

As an artist myself, I definitely understand the need for creativity and ideas to be applied to works of fiction and its characters. People generally enjoy fictional characters most when they are relatable or convey commendable behaviour. Unfortunately, a lot of fans tend to take their creativity too far by forcing ideas onto creators, their creations and other fans.

Recently, I’ve noticed a rise in artists and fans turning cisgender fictional characters transgender, as part of creative fan art projects and headcanons for fun. While it’s great to see the transgender community being represented in the creative world, it also brings a lot of problems to light.

The “obviously transgender” character

I absolutely loved the idea of taking original fictional characters and drawing them as LGBT individuals for fun. However, I recently noticed that almost all fan art featuring a cis-character-turned-trans, make it blatantly obvious that the character is transgender. Cis male characters are portrayed wearing lipstick and makeup while showing off a fabulous beard and wearing clothing generally found in the female section of a clothing store. While we try to erase gender stereotypes where we can, some things will always be gendered because of society’s way of sorting everything under labels, and the transgender community is very well aware of this. A part of the transgender community constantly asks the “do I pass?” question, while trying to match their gendered clothing, mannerisms, physical appearances and way of living to a gender-type. This may exclude agender and non-binary individuals, as they are more flexible with the previously-mentioned concerns. Unfortunately, to the entire world, gender stereotypes will most likely never be erased.

Fictional characters that seem “obviously transgender” in appearance, insinuates that transgender individuals make use of gender stereotyping to only add to their original traits, such as wearing bright pink lipstick while being unable to help the fact that they still grow beards, if the character is a trans female. I’m perfectly fine with harmless fan art, which is probably what it is, but artists and fans also need to remember that art gets seen by everyone if it’s posted online, and the general public, who probably doesn’t understand much about transgender lifestyles, might get the wrong idea. Not all transgender individuals are “out” to the public either, where the characters in these artworks scream “look at me, I’m transgender!”. More often than not, a transgender individual will not make it obvious that they are transgender to the public, unless if they feel safe to do so. I do feel like cisgender artists and fans need to go out of their way to research transgender lifestyles, join transgender groups online, talk to multiple transgender individuals and ask enough questions to fully understand the transgender community. That being said, by no means am I attacking fans, artists or their creative pieces – I’m simply noticing the problematic aspects of something that could be deemed as “harmless media”.

CIS-TO-TRASN HEADCONS

Harassment and death threats

Whenever there’s drama somewhere on some type of social media website, everyone seems to know about it, except, apparently, for the harassment and death threats people receive from creators of “this cis character is trans” posts, if they disagree with the posts. Personally, I tend to feel annoyed with these types of posts, even though I grant people the right to create headcanons and be creative. I recently asked members of a few transgender Facebook groups what they think about said headcanons, and the majority said they don’t like it or just ignore it. I’ve seen a lot of transgender individuals disagree with these types of headcanon posts, only to be met with a barrage of insults, name-calling, harassment and death threats, usually from the creators of the posts themselves. Ironically enough, after doing some digging, I’ve found that most of the creators of these posts identify as cisgender, but are a part of the LGB communities. There’s nothing wrong with this, however, the problem comes in where transgender individuals state that they disagree with posts relating to their identities and community, and are then immediately attacked and called “transphobic”.

I feel that if a transgender person states that they do not agree with something transgender-related, which was created by someone outside of the transgender community, they should be respected, instead of attacked. A lot of transgender individuals on these groups mentioned that they usually get attacked by cisgender individuals, and told that they house “internalized transphobia”. To me personally, it makes no sense for someone outside of the community to tell someone belonging to the community that they are transphobic, even while it could be a possibility. Once again, people have the right to be creative and make headcanons for characters, but they shouldn’t attack others for disagreeing with them. It’s fine to say “I think this character could be trans, because-”, but it’s wrong to say “This character is trans and if you disagree with me, you’re transphobic-”, because headcanons are fan-made and unofficial.

Gender identity is NOT an aesthetic

Carrying on from the previous topic, “cis to trans” headcanon posts and art generally have this strange type of fantasy and fairytale vibe to them. Again, this is fine, except for the fact that it makes it seem like being transgender is some sort of aesthetic, a fairytale one can only dream of living. This, of course, is not what being transgender is about at all. Being transgender can be a struggle, even in the smallest of cases. Transgender individuals experience gender dysphoria; fear of passing in gendered public spaces such as restrooms; severe bullying in the form of verbal, psychological or physical abuse for identifying as transgender; depressive and anxious episodes; and so forth. Of course, cisgender individuals experience some of these issues as well, but they’re still very different to what transgender individuals experience. For example, one of the posts featured a character who got bullied a lot because of his nerd-like personality, big glasses and interest in science – a typical trait in fictional universes, given to characters who apparently need to experience “character development”. However, the creator of the post stated that the character is transgender, which is why they constantly got bullied. While this is an interesting theory, it’s highly unrealistic, unless if the character explicitly stated that they are transgender and the bullies knew, but they didn’t, as far as I remember. Again, not all transgender people are “out” to the general public. One of the people who commented on my questions in the transgender groups, said that they feel as though the creators of these headcanon posts make it seem like being transgender is some cute way of living, with the featured character experiencing hardships and then ending up a hero of some sort in the end. Once again, I’m perfectly fine with people expressing their creativity, but research needs to be done, and creations need to be realistic in terms of being transgender, because any creations posted on the internet can be seen by the whole world, and misinformation can be spread extremely easily.

Fan art and headcanon posts also tend to have a strange insinuation that transgender individuals are “special” beings, living “special” lives. While our lives may differ to cisgender lives in a lot of ways, we’re still normal human beings. Once we accept and allow ourselves to live our identity, we live normal lives, with a few exceptions and a few changes. I understand the problem with censorship and being afraid to be creative as an artist, however, if art and creations tell an unrealistic story and have a false sense of what its featuring, it becomes a problem, especially if real-life groups of people are included.

Consumer becomes creator

Those who are familiar with “fandom culture”, will know how problematic it is on its own. Fandom culture is a type of “culture” formed around a certain fandom, where fans usually influence each other’s way of viewing characters, agreements and disagreements arise, unwritten rules are laid down, and strong opinions are generally thrown around. Fandoms can be great, but once fandom culture is implemented, general toxic behaviour and discourses arise from some fans. It does, however, also have lots of positive traits, such as meeting new people with similar interests, sharing ideas, sharing art and humour, and so forth. Unfortunately, people tend to only see the toxic side of fandom culture, and unfortunately, I will be focusing on one of the worst traits fans have developed within certain fandoms: forcing opinions and headcanons on the original creators of a creative project.

Many creators keep an eye on their fan-bases via various social media sites. Creators take note of how characters are portrayed by fans, creative alternate universes for different characters, fan-made relationships, and so forth. Personally, I believe it’s great that creators interact with fans and add certain special traits to characters based on popular opinions from fans. The problem here, is that some fans take it too far. It’s a common problem for creators to have certain traits of their characters set in stone, only to have fans demand a change in those traits. This, unfortunately, includes the fact that fans take cisgender characters and turn them transgender, while forcing others to accept this change. If fans did this for fun, it would have been fine, but unfortunately, as previously stated, things get pulled out of proportion. As a creator and trans male myself, I naturally feel the need to include LGBT characters in my work, but I also know that fans won’t respect the traits I give to my characters. This puts a lot of pressure, not just on me, but on a lot of creators in the world. We want to include more LGBT characters, but we know that fans will just ignore their identities and orientations either way. This goes for cisgender, straight characters as well. It’s very common for fans to take straight characters and make them LGB, or, as discussed in this article, cis characters, and make them trans. Again, this goes for when creators state that a character has a definite orientation or identity. Recently, Wonder Woman has been confirmed to be bisexual, and some fans still insisted that she’s lesbian, while there’s a difference between the two orientations. Thankfully, her orientation hasn’t been changed to please fans, and still remains as bisexual.

Of course, we’re talking about fictional characters here, so a lot of people might wonder what the problem is. While characters are fictional and shouldn’t necessarily be taken seriously, traits such as orientations and identities, should be. The reason for this is that, as explained earlier, everyone who gets introduced to the character, gets introduced to their traits, and if those traits are unrealistic or thrown around to be changed by fans, people will get confused, annoyed, indifferent or ignorant about those traits. In my personal opinion, fans should stop trying to force creators to change their character traits just to please a small amount of fans. There’s a big difference between a “what if” for fun, and a “this is how it is, because I said so”. It’s disrespectful towards creators and communities of people with similar orientations or identities.

The rise in LGBT representation

Personally, I absolutely love seeing more and more LGBT characters included in games and movies, however, there’s a problem with this as well. Because of the high demand of having LGBT characters in media, companies have started to do just that – include LGBT characters in their creative projects. I can’t, however, shake the feeling that this could also just be because of high demand, and that including LGBT characters in creative projects, will make it sell. This doesn’t include all companies, of course, but I feel that people should understand that a rise in LGBT representation will be seen simply because of the demand from the market. While it’s great to see said representation rise, I also feel that characters should be legit. Characters should be made a certain way, because it fits their character, not to please the audience. Of course, this type of thinking will lead to fewer sales, seeing as “audience-pleasing” has been a thing for years, even through thousand-year old storytelling.

The solution

Instead of taking existing characters and changing their identities, rather make new ones. Fans can easily create new and original characters matching their creative needs. Companies, whether doing it as part of a crowd-pleasing project, or including certain character traits because they really want to represent more communities worldwide, already do this. Examples such as Steven Universe and Overwatch have been doing an incredible job in LGBT representation, and while it sold, it also seemed to be legit – it’s simply how things are in those universes. Anyone can create a fictional world representing different people via different character personalities, nationalities, orientations and identities. I personally believe that it’s better to create complete new characters or worlds when including LGBT characters, instead of simply adding to old and existing worlds where LGBT is unheard of.

In reality, orientations and identities can change, but in the fictional universe, creators have the final say, and it’s best to respect them and how they portray their characters. If an official creator changes a character’s identity, then that’s how it is, but it’s different when fans assume a character has a certain type of identity and then force their ideas on everyone else.

I believe that all orientations and identities should be respected. Fan art and posts for fun and discussion make great additions to fandoms, but those posts and ideas shouldn’t be anything more than creative discussions and “what ifs”.

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