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Apr 26, 2023

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In Across the Spider-Verse, Gwen Stacy has a "protect trans kids" flag in her room and her dad has a trans flag on his uniform.

At any given moment there are a million things happening in Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse — we’re pinging around the multiverse, meeting dozens of Spider-Man variants, visiting Mumbattan, learning about Spider-Man 2099's Minority Report-esque police force, and so many things in between. It's a movie that requires multiple viewings to catch all the details stuffed into every gorgeous frame.

For a certain group of fans though, there's one stand-out, joyful detail you just can't miss: Gwen Stacy's support for transgender people.

In the wake of the movie's massive box office success, eagle-eyed Across the Spider-Verse devotees have pointed out that the Spider-Woman is literally — e.g., has a trans flag in her room — and symbolically — e.g., experiences the allegory of coming out — depicted as a trans ally, if not trans herself. There's a dearth of LGBTQ superheroes depicted in mainstream, blockbuster movies, so Gwen's possible transness — and even her allyship — is a big deal. If superheroes are queer, it's often addressed obliquely, mostly in postscript interviews and only in the faintest of gestures on-screen. Coupled with the current, hostile climate toward trans people in the US, the heroine of the biggest movie in America being trans would be monumental.

I reached out to Sony to see if the writing team, directors, or artists who created the movie had a comment about how Gwen Stacy has resonated with fans but haven't heard back. In the meantime, here's what those fans found, and why at the end of the day it might not matter to these fans what the official word is. For them, it's something special about this character that can't be taken away.

While the question of if Gwen herself is trans is more complicated, her support for trans people is literal and obvious: the movie's artists drew a "protect trans kids" flag in her room.

Gwen's flag signals that in her world, trans kids are being targeted and this issue is important enough to her to take up space on her bedroom walls.

Fans also noticed that Gwen's father, policeman George Stacy, has a transgender flag that he wears on his uniform. That's notable for a couple of reasons. One of those is that in the real world, trans rights advocates have said that trans people, especially Black transgender people, often face discrimination from law enforcement. Said discrimination is a huge reason why trans people don't feel comfortable asking police for help. Captain Stacy's support for trans rights seems like an anomaly when compared to the real world.

Story-wise, there's a question of why Captain Stacy is so supportive and what that means about their world, Earth-65. If trans kids need protection, as the flag in Gwen's room suggests, it seems like trans people are still persecuted and discriminated against, and possibly that support for transgender people is a minority viewpoint. The police force that Captain Stacy heads likely isn't unanimously for trans rights if he still has to wear a flag on his uniform.

That raises the question of why Captain Stacy wears the flag. Is this a story of a father supporting his daughter? Does the support for trans rights stem from him to his daughter or is it because Gwen taught him how to support trans rights?

In Gwen's characterization on-screen in both movies, the character never explicitly identifies as transgender or cisgender, but artists in Across the Spider-Verse drape the character in the colors of the transgender flag — light pink, light blue, and white. They show up in her constantly changing hair, and around her in her room. These colors are especially pronounced when Gwen is in her own world, where the artistic conceit is that the colors around her reflect her feelings. In a sequence where she talks to her father about her secret identity, a moment where she's afraid and anxious, the room she's in melts away into those pinks, blues, and whites. Perhaps it's all a coincidence, but these artists — the same ones who deliberately put the "protect trans kids" flag in Gwen's room — are aware of the symbolism of these colors.

There's a long history of superheroes — the X-Men particularly — as stand-ins for outsiders, and queer people especially. Seeing the trans and queer subtext in the details of Gwen's story isn't that different from picking up LGBTQ or civil rights themes with superheroes of the past, especially since Across the Spider-Verse very much leans into an allegory anchored in queer subtext.

Compared to other Marvel superheroes, Spider-Man is unique — whether it's Peter Parker or Miles Morales or any variation of Spider-Man — in that Spider-Man needs to keep his identity a secret. Heroes like the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, and Captain America are treated like celebrities — the public lionized the latter two in the MCU — or well-known figures. Those heroes are also adults.

When Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created the Peter Parker version of the character, they wanted to speak to the fears and the joys of being a teen. Parker's journey was different than his adult peers in the Avengers, or the Fantastic Four, or the X-Men, because he was balancing fitting in in high school, falling for his first love, getting As, making friends, trying to be a good kid for Aunt May — trying to live that "normal," already anxiety-ridden teen life, all while being a superhero.

Spider-Man was a hit, and has continued to be such a beloved character because his existence assured teens and everyone who's ever been a teen, that all those parts of growing up and all the emotions attached to them are true, serious parts of our own stories.

Spider-Man doesn't tell his friends and family that he's Spider-Man because he wants to protect them and wants to, as much as he can, be a regular teenager. He keeps this fantastical, powerful secret from the people he loves and it creates a tension that eats away at him. The closest people in his life don't know his secret life. Canonically, Spider-Man — in the movies we’ve seen and the most popular iterations of the character — is straight but his narrative identity operates with a lot of components of a coming-out story.

LGBTQ people were probably not top of mind when Lee, Ditko, Jack Kirby, and the godfathers of Marvel comics created their stories some 60 years ago. But those artists told their own experiences of being outsiders through allegory, and that's why their superhero stories resonate with anyone — LGBTQ people, people of color, and so many people who these creators probably never understood they were reaching — who has ever felt like they don't fit in.

The Spider-Verse franchise has leaned into that subtext and it hasn't gone unnoticed. It's even more prominent in the sequel.

Early in the movie, Miles's guidance counselor tells Rio, Miles's mom, that he's lying to her about something. Because Rio is a good mom, she already knows. She also doesn't push him on it. When she and her husband catch Miles with Gwen, she gets a moment alone with him. She gives Miles a touching talk about how she sees him, how she knows he's keeping a secret, and how her biggest worry isn't that Miles is a bad kid or getting into trouble, but that the world around them won't love her son the way she loves him.

Rio's worries about her son mirror so many fears that parents of LGBTQ children have — mainly that family acceptance is the easy part and it's that not being able to protect them from the world they live in is much more difficult. She knows he has a secret and she’ll love him no matter what. But she also knows that not everyone will accept her son as much as she does.

In Across the Spider-Verse, one of the core ideas is that anyone can be a version of Spider-Man. This helps to further the LGBTQ allegory. The multiverse operates in a way that there are seemingly infinite Spider-People across all these parallel timelines and being a Spider-Person transcends gender, age, race, or even being human (see: Peter Parkedcar). Even if the main leads of Across the Spider-Verse aren't LGBTQ, this vast multiverse ensures that there's someone who is and who is a Spider-Person.

And therein lies perhaps the biggest question: If there's all this possibility within Across The Spider-Verse, then why not just go for it and give us a trans or LGBTQ Spider-Person? The story allows for it. The world logic is sound. Why not just have the subtext be text? Why do we need decoder rings?

The answer, as movie studios have exhibited time after time, is that box office and profit always drive decisions. In China, censors regularly remove LGBTQ content. With that in mind, studios want to be able to show their films in China, unlocking millions and millions of box office dollars, so it's in the studios’ best financial interest to play it safe with LGBTQ themes or risk not being able to show there.

The current political climate in the US isn't that different. Companies like Budweiser and Target have been singled out and boycotted by right-wing groups for featuring LGBTQ people. Those boycotts operate in bad faith, connecting the support for gay and transgender rights with condoning child abuse. Having a trans character in an animated movie for kids would invite those boycotts on a scale that we haven't witnessed.

That in mind, studios have tried to parlay small bits of LGBTQ diversity into selling points. Disney was, for a time, pushing milestones like "the first openly gay animated character" which turned out to be a lesbian cyclops in Onward who mentions her partner in a throwaway scene. The first "gay" character in a Marvel movie was just some guy (played by director Joe Russo) in Avengers: Endgame with a similar forgettable line about going on a date. Similarly, the "first gay superhero" in Marvel was hyped up to be Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) from the Thor franchise, which was more of a talking point during the press tour than anything was shown on-screen.

These bits and pieces of LGBTQ "representation" are a way for studios to court liberal and LGBTQ audiences while still straddling the line when it comes to China or conservative ire.

Corporations will not save you if they need to make money! A movie's giant box office isn't going to make anyone's life better, outside of the people who get paid for a movie having a giant box office. If only changing the irksome bits of reality was as easy as giving corporations money.

At the same time though, it's worth noting that Sony hasn't been trying to parlay Gwen into a marketing tool or stunt.

The trans support for this movie feels like an organic fan movement that audiences noticed, and sought out. Clearly, it's brought people joy. There's a limit to how much representation can do, especially representation that isn't even being claimed by the studio, but that doesn't change what these fans see, or what it means to them. If having Spider-Woman in your corner makes this particular universe a little easier for some, that's something worth seeing.

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