More Than Meets the Eye: Transformers as Trans Fantasy

I learned about Transformers from my sister in sixth grade. Her English class had watched part of the first live-action movie, and she identified, correctly, that I would love it. I remember sitting across from her at the kitchen table and demanding for the umpteenth time she describe each robot again: what they looked like, what vehicles they turned into, the magnetizing shift of metal and circuitry as they transformed from one mode to the other. Over time, her account shifted from meticulous field notes to incorporate minor embellishments and substantial editorializing—not, I think, because she was getting fuzzy on the details, but because I was hungry for more than what was there.

When I finally watched Transformers several weeks later, I was already far more besotted with the mythology than anything I would see onscreen. It is the premise that I always return to, in near the decade and a half since, tumbling through different continuities and animated series and comics and the robust Transformers Wiki. It feels appropriate now that what I fell in love with was not anything concrete but permutations of concept—variable but still undeniably itself.

The strongest emotion I associate with my transition is relief. Relief that it was happening, or rather that I had made it happen and that things were not worse. That people were not worse to me. My family did not disown me. My closest friends threw a wonderful party (which included sweetly, ludicrously, Transformers decorations from Party City), and when my university insisted on printing my old name on my diploma rather than accept the court paperwork for my pending name change, they all pitched in to pay for the cost of a new one.

The minutiae were less positive, more painful, some avoidable and some not—I told the people closest to me, but started off trying to share my transition as minimally as possible. I changed my name on social media and the university database, and hoped for the best. That is not, of course, how transition works. “My name is different now, and you may ask no questions” is not an adequate explanation. So I avoided extended family and professors and neighbors whose clumsiness around change I did not want to be disappointed by. And I was grateful for the absence of the potential badness so it did not occur to me until later to be injured by the lesser hurt that did.

Transformers was created in 1984: Hasbro bought the rights to rebrand Japanese toy company Takara’s Diaclone and Microchange product lines, and hired Marvel Entertainment Group to develop a backstory. Transformers, or Cybertronians, are sentient robots from the machine planet Cybertron. The name Transformers comes from their capacity to reconfigure their bodies, to reconstitute components from their primary mode into an alternate one—a vehicle, an animal, a weapon or piece of machinery.

The explanation for this ability varies with continuity. In some versions, it is something the Transformers always could do. In others, it is an innovation spurned by the war between Cybertronian factions. (Most media properties follow the Autobots’ efforts to foil the evil forces of the Deceptions.)

And Transformers aren’t confined to one alternate mode: they can scan others at will, and use that new one instead. Although the characters generally select a new option similar in size and function (a car to a different car), there are sometimes radical changes, and it is seldom established in the fiction whether this is a hard limitation, a concession of ease, or mere personal preference.

All of these possibilities interest me—what is it, to be a species that has always known that enormity of change, or rolled it out seamlessly into the whole population?

I can’t even begin to imagine.

Queer tragedy is a genre inscribed so painfully and violently across so many of our lives that I think in fiction there is the desire to either reify it or erase it entirely. The narrative always goes something like this: The pain imposed on me can be made beautiful, and I will cut myself open to share it. Or else: In this imagined world, this pain does not exist and has never existed because the mechanism by which it would be created does not.

I am endlessly grateful for trans memoirs, whether they enjoy in joy or sadness. I am also grateful for the growing body of speculative fiction about transness. But I find works in the latter category nearly always render gender transgression or nonconformity as a nonissue. Trans characters are easily accepted by non-trans parties. Or they are nominally trans, without any narrative impact. Or they are rendered not-really-trans-at all, in the context of a post-gender society.

Gender utopia is deeply appealing. But it is not relatable to me as a trans person navigating transition in an extraordinarily gendered world. Something I think about often is that no one would have minded if they had always known me as a man—that all of the messiness comes from the figuring out of a new thing together.

One of my favorite things about the Transformers franchise is the expedience with which every human being learns and accepts a car is also a sentient biomechanical alien. Ten minutes into the first episode of Transformers: Prime, sixteen-year-old Jack Darby is dragged across town on motorcycle form Autobot Arcee as she’s pursued by Decepticons. Three minutes later they’ve picked up another human, Raf Esquivel, and Raf and Jack are watching the Transformers duke it out in robot mode. “What…what are they?” Raf asks. “Talking cars that turn into robots. Or the other way around,” Jack says. He’s by no means relaxed, but surprisingly level-headed considering the circumstances. Before the end of the next episode, Arcee is living in Jack’s garage.

In Bumblebee (2018), Charlie Watson unwittingly takes the titular character home from a junkyard in his vehicle mode. She spends a few moments in a panic after he transforms in front of her, but in a matter of minutes her fear goes from curiosity, to wanting to help, to a fierce protectiveness. Shock at recognition of change is always resolved within a few minutes of screen time; in every continuity, whoever bought the yellow and black Volkswagen Beetle that is actually Bumblebee decides, This is fine, actually. It might even be great. My car can turn into a robot. Them’s the breaks.

Whether a trans person self-conceptualizes as always having been their gender or as transitioning to it, there is the inevitable experience of trying to get our communities to reconcile our “previous” self with our “new” one. This reconciliation is arduous and long and sometimes unending. The most painful moments for me come not from mistakes, but from others’ choices around preserving my historical self. There was a sizeable period of time where my parents simply didn’t update people because it was far easier than explaining the change. I was hurt by the choice, but I was also hurt because I understood it. Digital information sharing eases many things, but I’ve yet to hear a name and pronoun update conversation between third parties in physical space that didn’t make me wince.

Shortly after I changed my name, I received a congratulatory text from a former cross country teammate. Everyone was happy for me, she said. But they all wanted to know if they could still use one of my old nicknames.

I said yes at the time. What fascinates me about this request is that it was not an interesting or special nickname. It was my old initials, used to distinguish me from two other girls on the team who had the same first name. I still wonder about the origin of the impulse. A place of nostalgia? Fear of erasure of our shared past?

I don’t especially want to pretend that I didn’t run on women’s cross country teams for nearly a decade of my life. But to acknowledge it is to potentially threaten the security and understanding I’ve worked hard to establish now. I want a present that subsumes the past without erasing the fact of transition—easier wanted than realized.

There is a Daniel Lavery quote I always come back to from an interview he did with The Cut right after coming out: “Part of what’s hard is that I don’t want anyone ever to have a reaction to me. I either want them to say, “You’re great, never change,” or “I’ve never seen you in my life, I don’t register you at all, you are covered in camouflage.” Sometimes it’s like there’s no reaction anyone could ever have that wouldn’t feel uncomfortable. Which as you know is not a possible way to be alive in the world.”

There are times I feel incredibly empathetic about cis awkwardness. There are many ways in which cis people behave with active harm or violence towards trans people—these are not the instances I mean. What I mean is that while trans people are becoming more normalized, transition is not; there is no script, let alone a homogenous one across trans experiences, for desires around the messy process of becoming known as yourself.

In Transformers (2007), no one says “Bumblebee, actually I liked you considerably better as a 1976 Chevrolet Camaro, all of the ways I knew how to interact with you are in fact based in the ways in which you were a 1976 Chevrolet Camaro, and now that you are a 2006 Camaro you are lost to me.” Because in the Transformers universe, transition is real and universally recognized and never insurmountable. All reactions can be overcome, the change is real, and afterwards is always effortless.

Transformers is not good. This is something I always tell people ruefully as I am explaining that I love it. Maybe this is to be expected from a franchise whose mythology was generated by the capitalist objective to sell toys. Much of the world-building is incoherent. Narrative conflict stems from control of the resource energon, which comes in any form and is used ubiquitously for fuel, foodstuffs, currency, explosives, other weaponry, alcohol…physics and chemistry do not apply to the Transformers universe. The live action films directed by Michael Bay are astoundingly bad, so much so that reviewing them is a spectator sport. And although they are alien robots who pre-date life on earth and reproduce asexually, Transformers are nearly always gendered. The media cannot escape the box it was created in.

And yet. I think Transformers acknowledges, however imperfectly, a perceived before and after. And treats that transition as not merely acceptable, but normal and good. Society is not only welcoming of that kind of self-refashioning, but built around it. The Transformers universe normalizes transition: there is radicalness in both the magical simplicity of transformation, and the unilaterally positive non-reaction to it.

I don’t know what that would look like for humans. I’m not sure it’s achievable, or even that I want it to be. I don’t know how you reconcile the simultaneous desire to be seen fully and completely and yet also to be entirely unknowable. Part of the appeal of biomechanical life forms and narratives, for me, is the luxury and ease of reconfiguration: it must be nice to scan a four-door sedan with your advanced alien eyeballs and then transform into one. And to have those around you say, I am unsurprised by this new state of affairs. I do not require it to be permanent or certain. I am wholly open to whatever comes next, whether it is quite the same or different than before.

C. J. Linton

C. J. Linton is a game designer and dramaturg from Los Angeles. He writes about robots, change, and making difficult choices in impossible circumstances. He is the co-designer of the science fiction tabletop roleplaying game Tomorrow on Revelation III. You can find him on Twitter @NearFutures. For more of his work, visit cjlinton.com.

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