This weekend was the Emmys, and usually, nothing much interesting happens at the Emmys aside from the opening monologue. However, I was ecstatic to hear that one of my very favorite TV shows from this year, Master of None, won the Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series. The episode nominated, “Thanksgiving,” was about the story of protagonist Dev’s queer Black friend, Denise, coming out to her family through the years and was co-written by Lena Waithe, herself a queer Black woman. In Waithe’s acceptance speech, she said:
I see each and every one of you. The things that make us different – those are our superpowers. Every day when you walk out the door and put on your imaginary cape and go out there and conquer the world, because the world would not be as beautiful as it is if we weren’t in it.
Waithe’s words are both true and a rarity in today’s world, which generally pays lip service to LGBTQ+ solidarity but hardly ever celebrates the stories of actual (non-white and non-male) queer people. The idea of LGBTQ+ people being superheroes in their own right, not in spite of but because of the parts of themselves that mainstream society often doesn’t accept, is something that many queer youth need to hear and which many superhero stories need to understand.
Many superhero stories will rely on faulty allegories for the LGBTQ+ experience, like the X-Men hiding their abilities from their parents, despite the fact that queer people are not inherently dangerous. These stories often have little to no actual representation, and they almost never show the LGBTQ+ experience in an authentic, realistic light. Fortunately, the world of publishing is slowly pushing itself towards diversity, and one of the fruits of this labor is the 2017 novel Dreadnought by April Daniels. As a superhero story about a transgender protagonist written by a transgender author, it’s every bit as real as Master of None’s “Thanksgiving” and is a beautifully written novel that shows how a superhero story can be more than just another coming-of-age tale.
Minor spoilers for Dreadnought and trigger warning for transphobia/internalized transphobia after the jump.
Danielle Tozer is a fifteen-year-old transgender teen trying to paint her toenails in secret behind the local mall one night when the superhero Dreadnought crashes into the wall next to her. Dreadnought is the superhero to end all superheroes — as Danielle thinks to herself, he’s the most famous person in the world — and somehow, he’s been attacked by someone so badly that he’s dying. Danielle helps Dreadnought get to cover, and in return, Dreadnought passes her all of his powers before he dies. Not only is Danielle now able to lift planes and fly into orbit, she also now has the body she never thought she could have. Accepting Dreadnought’s powers has somehow granted her an immediate version of gender affirmation surgery.
This presents a number of problems for Danielle. No one knows her new superhero identity, but she can’t hide her new appearance. Though Danielle says that everyone can still call her “Danny,” her friends and teachers at school at first refuse to believe that she’s really a girl and one of her male friends hits on her and threatens her with sexual violence. Her parents believe that the transition was some kind of side effect from being in close proximity to a superhero battle, and her dad assures her that they can “get her back to normal.” When Danny finally tells her parents that she doesn’t want to “go back to normal,” her father calls her sexist, homophobic, and transphobic slurs and kicks her out of the house. Even Legion, the local superhero group, aren’t that friendly: though a few are accepting, the leader of Legion questions if a girl can be the new Dreadnought, and another is openly transphobic, saying that Danny is just “pretending” to be a girl and will never be a “real” girl because she doesn’t have a uterus.
In fact, most of Danielle’s conflicts come not from her superheroing but from her gender identity. Most, if not all, superhero stories have the protagonist coming to terms with their new power and the mindset that that involves. Spider-Man starts out as a bullied, nerdy teen who gets superpowers and promptly misuses them, causing his uncle to die and leading Peter Parker to accept the fact that with great power comes great responsibility. The MCU’s Tony Stark starts out as a weapons dealer who realizes that weapons actually kill people, and Iron Man’s first movie ends with Stark letting go of his billionaire CEO persona and accepting the mantle of a peacekeeper, telling the whole world that he, Tony Stark, is Iron Man. But this isn’t the way that Danny’s narrative goes. Her powers are easy to accept; her own identity is somewhat harder for herself to embrace.
When Danny stands up at her own press conference, she tells the reporters her name and her superhero name straight away. Though her identity as Dreadnought is at this point known to everyone, as her cowl fell off in the final battle, the mantle of Dreadnought is something she’s eager to claim. In a world where her parents and friends have abandoned her, being Dreadnought is a source of confidence and power. What’s more important is what Danny says at the end of her press conference. Similarly to Tony Stark saving the best for last, Danny holds all the reporters back to tell them one last thing: she’s transgender, and she’s a lesbian, and she’s not ashamed of that.
Danny’s gender identity is far from incidental. Danny’s story is about accepting that she’s a strong enough, good enough person to be the next Dreadnought, but it’s more importantly about Danny throwing off the shackles of her transphobic society and learning to accept herself. In a world with so few LGBTQ+ superheroes, it’s beyond refreshing to see a new superhero who is transgender and doesn’t just “happen to be” transgender. Danny’s strength of self comes from her transgender experiences. She doesn’t have to be a person who uses her powers willy-nilly and is unwillingly taught the error of their ways; Danny’s grown up in the war zone that is her house and already understands how much her new powers could ensure her own survival. When Danny fully accepts herself as Dreadnought, she’s not just coming to terms with her new powers and a new life as a superhero; she’s also accepting the fact that a transgender, lesbian girl is just as worthy of being the most elite of superheroes—which, to me, is much more emotionally fulfilling than previous superhero character arcs we’ve seen. I hope Dreadnought flies the skies for a long time to come.
Dreadnought and its sequel Sovereign are out now. Go check them out if you have a chance!