How She-Ra, Steven Universe, and the World of Animation Speak to My Genderfluidity

When I was very little, I wanted to be a girl.

This was super useful because—according to the world—that’s what I was. When I watched The Little Mermaid, when I read books about Miss Rumphius, or The Moon Lady, or the little girl who wanted to give Corduroy a new button, I was perfectly happy in that skin. Being a girl was full of possibility.

But that feeling didn’t last.

*

Madeline was a favorite of mine when I was very young. She had red hair—I was a red-headed kid, so that mattered to me—and she faced down tigers, and caused a completely reasonable level of trouble for Miss Clavel. I read books with her name dashed across the cover, and I also had a VHS tape that had animated one of the stories. She had her own theme song that she sang herself, and among the spritely rhymes was the lyric:

I’m Madeline, I’m Madeline
I’m not afraid at all
I’m Madeline, I’m Madeline
And inside—I’m tall!

Sometimes, when I’m feeling nervous or uncertain, I sing those lyrics to myself quietly.

Inside, I’m tall.

*

Gender is a hard thing to talk about outside of the social norms that are drilled into most of us from birth. The reason it’s hard to talk about is because gender is simultaneously everything and nothing. Any woman or man or person can behave in any conceivable way, despite the gendered rules we are taught, and those behaviors may have no bearing on our identities whatsoever. But for some people they do. And as I got older, I realized something; my ability to identify with female characters was waning. I had stopped wanting to be a girl and started wanting to be a boy.

The complexities of that problem were never lost on me. Part of the reason I was itching against my gender was because I couldn’t find female characters who resonated with me the way that the girls or women in my children’s books had. The characters I encountered now all seemed to fall into two broad categories, when they were lucky enough to be given personalities at all: Hermiones and Buffys. No matter how well-rendered (and some of them were glorious), most of what I saw and read distilled women down into “The Smart One” or “The One Who Kicks Ass”, or maybe some combination of the two. And the older I got, the less either of those characterizations made sense to me. To be clear, I’m not saying that more nuanced female characters didn’t exist—they just weren’t being shown to me. So a weird era of alienation began.

When I got older and started to better understand the pervasiveness of sexism throughout the world, it occurred to me that the reason why I spent so many years wanting to be a boy was probably some form of internalized misogyny. I couldn’t relate to female characters anymore because I had decided at some point, deep down, that being “girly” or “feminine” was bad. I chastised myself for it because it seemed like I should, but it didn’t change anything. In time, that led to persistent feelings of guilt. You betrayed your gender, said a tiny voice in my head. You’re just contributing to a planet-sized problem.

Spoiler alert: Feeling like a “gender traitor” isn’t an uncommon theme among trans and non-binary people. (It does eventually start to feel cool, though?)

*

When Disney’s Aladdin hit theaters, there was nothing else in the world for me. On my birthday, I received an Aladdin play-set that was perfectly tuned to my cosplaying desires—it came with his sword, scabbard, and belt, the golden scarab beetle that led Jafar to the Cave of Wonders, and the Genie’s lamp. There was a period where I toted that lot around endlessly, as though its absence would unravel me.

Shortly after, my parents got me the Princess Jasmine play-set. I was excited by the costume pieces (Jasmine’s tiara and belt), but downright confused by the rest of it—a brush, a perfume bottle, and a mirror. It could have come with a small version of Carpet, I thought. Or a little stuffed Rajah, maybe, since he was her best friend. The brush and mirror and bottle sank to the bottom of the toy tub.

For my third grade talent show, I sang the Genie’s “Friend Like Me” to an auditorium of kids (and my friend, Katie, who kindly agreed to be Aladdin in this escapade). It was tough to do with a cold, but the number was still a big hit with the crowd. I was marginally disappointed that I hadn’t been able to paint my entire body blue, though. It seemed important in order to correctly convey how seriously I took the performance.

Have some of column A
Try all of column B
I’m in the mood to help you, dude
You ain’t never had a friend like me

Yeah… that should have been one of many clue-ins.

*

It was some time before I realized that I had miscategorized. Sure, there was a problem with the lack of variety I was perceiving in female characters in books, television, and film. But I didn’t dislike femininity—there were simply certain ways that I related to it better, and ways that I didn’t. And there were ways that I related to masculinity, and ways that I didn’t. And there were ways that I related to neither or both sometimes simultaneously. Being genderfluid can be nebulous in that way—it’s not always an acute sense of difference or otherness, but there are moments when I am keenly aware that I am this and not that. There are moments when I feel hyper feminine, or extremely masculine, or somewhere completely outside of the known gender spectrum (I usually call those my “robot” or “alien” days). Plenty of people feel that way, including cisgender people, but for my part, it’s not tied to any specific actions or emotional states. Sometimes I just am, and that’s the full sum of it.

Gender dysphoria (a general sense of discomfort, upset, and anxiety with your own body as it pertains to your gender) is a problem that many transgender and non-binary people experience. My personal sense of dysphoria is bound up in many other pieces of my person, chief among them being chronic pain and illness that I’ve worked hard to regulate for the past two decades of my life. But one facet of dysphoria for me is something that probably a lot of people can relate to: I’m incredibly short and small overall. I have tiny hands and little feet. I don’t take up a lot of space unless I’m working to do so. It’s a rough one for my brain to wrap itself around because there’s some part of me that thinks I’m supposed to be much bigger, and that comes with a whole heap of cognitive dissonance when I’m reminded of my stature.

Okay, most short people don’t enjoy being short; you don’t fit in many chairs comfortably, you’re constantly craning your neck to look people in the eye, it’s impossible to grab things off of high shelves at the grocery store. But being a generally smaller human also contributes to my dysphoria because it plays into people’s perceptions of me—when you’re short or petite and people perceive you as female, you’re often labeled “cute” or maybe even demure, and cuteness (while enjoyable on occasion) is frequently at odds with my gendered perceptions of myself. Women and AFAB (that’s “assigned female at birth”) people are generally taught to crave petiteness in every possible dimension, yet here I was, trying to find boots that made my feet look as big and clompy as possible. I’m not small, I would tell myself as I stared in the bathroom mirror. I’m only cute when I feel cute. I’m only tiny in order to mess with people’s perceptions of tininess.

There was a brief period where being perceived as female bothered me, not because I disliked my own femininity, but because I was having trouble locating it. I didn’t know what made me feel feminine anymore. I didn’t know what that feeling consisted of, or how to find it. This thing, which had been a given for the majority of my life, was suddenly invisible and indescribable. Eventually I found my way back to it, via a score of long talks with my trans partner and the careful application of every color of lipstick I could get my hands on. (Lipstick no longer feels gendered to me at all, interestingly. Now it’s just face-the-world art supplies.) I came out to people about the genderfluidity thing in short, random bursts, which was probably not the best way to go about it; despite an inherent sense of drama and a background in theatre, I’m incredibly awkward about that sort of attention.

*

I inflicted The Road to El Dorado on my partner when we first became friends in college, and it’s become a handy touchstone for us throughout the years due to how wonderfully ridiculous it is… and the fact that it is impossible to view with any sort of heteronormativity. (You can try to fight me on this one, but if Miguel and Tulio seem straight to you, there is no way we’ll agree on anything, ever.) Aside from one brief tune sung by the main characters, most of the film’s songs are background mood-setters sung by Elton John, as our magical omniscient narrator. One of them plays over Tulio and Miguel’s journey as they use the map to find El Dorado, aptly called “The Trail We Blaze”:

Pioneers of maximum
Audacity whose résumés

Show that we are just the team
To live where others merely dream
Building up a head of steam
On the trail we blaze

I mean… it could just be a song about following a map to the lost city of gold? But for two gender bandits, it’s always been a little extra sparkly.

*

Most characters in fiction don’t come close to my understanding of my own gender, particularly my sense of femaleness—I don’t expect them to, since genderqueer representation is limited out there and the experience itself can be incredibly specific. But there are moments, I’ve found, that are surprising and pointed and so real that they make me dizzy. They often come from animated series, several of which seem to be at a forefront of handling gender and identity and expression in recent years. The two of the most helpful shows for me in that regard have been Steven Universe and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.

Steven Universe is hardly a shocking place to look for this kind of representation; creator Rebecca Sugar recently went on record stating that she was a non-binary woman, and that all the Crystal Gems on the show were as well. (Seeing as they are a completely different species that didn’t originate on Earth, it is heartening to find their genders don’t quite align with human conceptions.) One of the show’s greatest strengths is how engaging each and every character is—particularly when it comes to the Gems, it’s hard not to find a bit of yourself in each one. And though our personalities couldn’t be more opposing, the one Gem who somehow seems to tap into all my particular gendered anxieties is Pearl.

Pearl is the most practical and responsible of the Crystal Gems. She likes order and discipline and focus, and she’s an incredibly skilled warrior—but she frequently has difficulty in getting people to view her the way she wants to be seen. In the first season’s episode “Coach Steven,” Steven insists on physical training to get stronger, after watching Amethyst and Garnet fuse into the brutal Sugilite. When Pearl tries to point out that strength is not a homogeneous state, he replies “I want to be strong in the real way.” While Steven eventually comes around to Pearl’s way of thinking, and recognizes that she is incredibly strong herself, this theme continues to play out in Pearl’s arc in often painful ways. In season two’s “Cry For Help,” Pearl tricks Garnet into fusing with her under false pretenses, leading to a major rift in their friendship. While the episode is tackling many themes—consent, intimacy, honesty—Amethyst also knows that Pearl wanted to fuse with Garnet because it made her “feel stronger.”

The show eventually offers another dimension to Pearl’s preoccupation with her own strength and capabilities; in later seasons, we learn that all Pearl gems are essentially made-to-order slaves for the high-ranking Gems in their society. Pearl was expected to be demure, obedient, and dainty, and when given the chance, she chose to be something else entirely. It’s hardly surprising that the way others perceive her is grating—and that is completely in tune with how I feel most days, since there’s no handy personal signage I can use to communicate my identity safely at all times. (I do have a bunch of enamel pins for the days when I’m feeling brave.)

She-Ra and the Princesses of Power adds another layer to this particular alignment chart with a different sort of transformation. While the Crystal Gems fuse to become new, combined entities, Adora finds the Sword of Protection and gets her own fancy music cue as she grows about a foot taller and gains all of She-Ra’s powers. Trans and queer people have long had an affinity for transformation sequences, as they tap into a power that some of us wish we had for ourselves, but this dynamic is more complicated for Adora/She-Ra as the show continues. It becomes clear throughout the first season that Adora is relying on her ability to transform as a “cure-all” for any problem she and her friends encounter. This comes to a head at the end of the season in “The Battle of Bright Moon”, when she insists that she can fight off the Horde alone as She-Ra so no one else needs to be put in harm’s way. Bow tells her that’s not the case, that even She-Ra isn’t powerful enough to defeat a whole army on her own, and Adora snaps back, “Then what good is she?”

There’s an expectation for trans and non-binary folk that once we’ve “figured out” our genders, everything is suddenly clear to us. That any difficulty we were having is solved, and we immediately become some “best version” of ourselves. But people are always changing and growing, and in that moment watching the show, my breath left me in a rush. Even if you feel more secure in your identity once you’ve better learned to define it—if that doesn’t solve all your worldly problems, then what’s the point?

Then what good is she?

I took another breath, and noticed that some small, terrified part of me had suddenly chipped away. I cast it aside and searched for something else to replace it with.

Adora learns to balance the part of her that is She-Ra by the end. She learns what good she is. And she has people surrounding her who love and support her, which is always the most potent balm. But for me, even though the struggle Adora was facing came down to a magical sword and an alter ego, it felt true in a very personal, very raw way. And it felt incredible that there was a space, any space at all, to find that for myself.

*

In Steven Universe, there’s an episode called “Island Adventure” where Steven accidentally strands two of his pals—Lars and Sadie—on an island while trying to fix their friendship. He sings a song to lift their spirits since they’re stuck somewhere they had no intention of being, but as with all songs on that show, the lyrics never apply to just the situation at hand. As he comes to the end of his little ditty about living in the moment, he ends on this thought:

Why don’t you let yourself just be somewhere different?
Whoa, why don’t you let yourself just be whoever you are?

Oh, Steven. You’re not wrong.

*

When I was very little, I wanted to be a girl. And then I wanted to be a boy, and then I wanted to be both and neither simultaneously, and then all those things were possible. It’s still confusing, and it’s awkward, and it’s frequently hilarious, too. But looking back on it from here, years from where I started, it feels like all my lyrics are finally coming together. Maybe someday I’ll have that song polished, and I’ll play it wherever I go.

Emily Asher-Perrin loves all the pronouns, and did dress as Miguel to their partner’s Tulio two Halloweens ago. You can bug him on Twitter, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

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