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Lithium Local trans guy binges every Elliot Page project

Mar. 4, 2021
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After I read Elliot Page’s coming-out post, I couldn’t stop smiling for the rest of the day.

He’s always been one of my favorite actors; I rewatch Juno about once a month; he’s the main reason I watched the X-Men movies; my go-to comfort video is one of him singing a Britney Spears song while his partner dances in the background. As a transmasc person, seeing someone I look up to become someone who shares such a similar experience to me was a big win. The fact that there’s now a prominent figure in the film industry who sits solidly outside the gender binary and uses multiple pronouns is an even bigger win. I’ve been rewatching a lot of his projects lately—partially out of celebration, partially just to see his new name on the Netflix listing, partially because I just really enjoy everything he’s done—and I’ve noticed how many of their roles fit so neatly into a trans allegory. My love for Juno and Umbrella Academy has always been connected to my experiences with gender, but I hadn’t stopped to really think about why until now. In honor of Page’s coming out and because I love talking about movies almost as much as I love watching them, though, I’d like to go through a couple of his roles and explain why transmasc people found a home within them long before he came out, and will continue to find one long after.

Before we get into why Juno feels like such a good movie for transmasc people, I’d like to take a moment to talk about why it’s a good movie, period. There’s something about the humor, the way that the film manages to be both aggressively quirky and deeply familiar, and the optimistically angsty soundtrack it’s all set to that makes it close to the perfect coming-of-age story. All of that excellence is, of course, wrapped up in Page’s performance of the titular character; he sets Juno up as seperate from the world around her, but manages to avoid alienating her or making her unrelatable in the process. He walks a line between apathetic and emotional so true to the high school experience it almost hurts. 

It’s especially true to the queer high school experience, and this is where I turn Juno into a trans allegory. Juno MacDuff’s story is centered on a fundamental change in her—and everyone’s—relationship with her body. Obviously the social and medical implications of pregnancy and gender transition are different, but they’re similar enough that it’s easy for a trans person to see themself in Juno. She feels a growing, fundamental disconnect from herself and the people around her as a result of a physical change that she could have avoided (through abortion, or through a trans lens, repression) but chose not to. She has parents who are supportive but not understanding, loving but lacking resources, ready to both defend and criticize her at a moment’s notice—in other words, the common dynamic of families with trans children. The movie ends with Juno giving birth, effectively coming into herself and ending the disconnect she’s felt through the entire movie. She feels like herself, and goes back to doing all the things she did before the pregnancy, but there’s a newfound security that mimics that of somebody post-transition. And it’s all tied up with a romance with Bleeker (Michael Cera) that is at turns avoided and sought out depending on how Juno thinks he’ll perceive her. Every coming-of-age movie is focused on a major change in a young person’s life and the way that it causes them to reevaluate their sense of self, but between Elliot Page’s acting choices and the plot itself, Juno lends itself to the unique experience of trans disconnect far more easily than other films in the genre. 

Page has also spoken to a darker side of that disconnect in their role as Vanya Hargreeves on Netflix’s the Umbrella Academy. Superhero media has always held a place in the queercoding hall of fame: between the concept of secret identities, the discovery of special abilities that must be hidden from a hero’s friends and family, and the found-family trope that can be found in groups like, say, the X-Men (which, not for nothing, Elliot Page was also involved in, playing Kitty Pryde). Vanya, just like Juno, manages to grab hold of an already-trans-adjacent storyline and take it a little further; her abilities are repressed from a young age, under the guidance of the Hargreeves’ adoptive father and the guise of mental illness. She grows up firm in her belief that she just wasn’t gifted whatever the people in her life have that allows them to move through life so easily (in the case of her family members, it’s superhuman abilities; with others, it’s some unknown element of talent or social clout). Once she realizes that isn’t the case, that she is “extraordinary” and does have superpowers and should have been treated as an equal from the beginning, everyone goes from ignoring her to treating her as a threat within the span of about half an episode. If my gender crisis had involved unlocking supernatural abilities, I might have caused an apocalypse, too.

That’s the other side of Vanya’s character. While she isn’t the antagonist, she is the thing our heroes are trying to stop—the central concept of season two boils down to the line “Vanya is the bomb,” and that’s not meant as a compliment. Queer people tend to gravitate toward villains, both because of the rampant queercoding of “evil” characters and because, if presented with the choice between a character who will give their life to uphold the status quo and a character who is happily living outside of it, well, we’re generally going to pick the latter. Vanya is in the unique position of checking off all the boxes of a solid queercoded villain—beyond coding, she literally has a girlfriend in the second season—without ever being denounced as morally wrong. In fact, it could easily be argued that she’s the least manipulative member of the Hargreeves family. She’s powerful, underestimated, independent, unabashedly gay, and manages to end the world without actually being at fault. 

What’s more, Vanya (and by extension Page) does all of this with a style of gender-nonconformity that stands in much-needed contrast to her brother Klaus. Now, I love Klaus—so does every transmasc person—but that doesn’t mean that I won’t acknowledge that his character is cobbled together out of a mess of stereotypes, underdeveloped backstory, and a bury-your-gays storyline that the writers consistently prioritize over his recovery arc. We see so much more of Vanya’s struggle with her identity growing up; we see her discover her powers and then her sexuality as an adult, and we see her making conscious decisions to exist outside of traditional definitions of womanhood. I think that Klaus has given a lot of transmasc people a chance to see an unconventional kind of masculinity represented on screen, and that’s a great thing. I also think that Page’s subtler take on Vanya hits a little closer to home.

I’ve said before that trans people are generally drawn to gender-nonconforming celebrities, even before those celebrities stop conforming. The Umbrella Academy’s creator, Gerard Way, had amassed a cult following of young queer people before he came out as nonbinary, the same way that Harry Styles was a favorite in the community back in his One Direction days. Elliot Page hasn’t been any different; they managed to bring a level of gender-related contemplativeness to their roles before their transition. The allegories in their projects have always been there, and it’s a joy to be able to revisit them knowing that the actor on screen meant every ounce of subtext he was giving, subconscious or not. 

Illustration by Joy Velasco