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Is Grelle/Grell Sutcliff a Positive Trans Woman Portrayal

6 January, 2014

The question of whether or not Grelle/Grell is a trans woman (please remember it is proper to put a space between trans and woman) is one that is not up for debate. In the text (the manga) it is specifically stated by her “I’m a lady,” that she is upset to have been assigned male at birth (AMAB), and her “biggest complaint since birth” has been she was not born with a female body and she believes “god made a mistake” in giving her a male body. She adds, “That is why right now, the thing I want to do most is have a sex ❤ change ❤ I’m serious, you know?” She even adds she is serious because she knows that people will not take her seriously, as she hasn’t been taken seriously by anyone in the continuity of the story-verse or by most readers.

Here are links to the pages I mention (the first is a two panel spread with the appropriate sections highlighted and the next two are individual close-ups):

Two page spread (highlighted)

Page one close-up

Page two close-up

Therefore, the issue is not whether or not Grelle is a trans woman, but rather, is Grelle a positive representation of a trans woman. The most stated complaint about this is her obsession with Sebastian (or with sex), which might lend to the depiction of trans women as hyper-sexed (an inaccurate accusation hurled at trans women by opponents from the medical community, gatekeepers, second wave feminists, and the general populace). I will admit, that I was, at first, bothered by this as well. As a full-time trans woman, who has completed her transition, achieving my transition goals was difficult. It was compounded by medical accusations of autogynephilia by the doctors and therapists I first sought treatment from and accusations from friends and family of my really being a gay man who wants to trick straight men into having sex (this is the definition of “trap” and the reason why that is such a vulgar and offensive insult to many trans women). Because of my personal experiences transitioning I was first inclined to see Grelle as a negative stereotype.

However, as I thought more about the show and what was happening with other characters, I realised this was not a stereotyping of trans women as much as it was a consistent portrayal of the story’s reoccurring characters. All of the characters have an obsession, that’s part of what the story is telling us about people.  Ciel is obsessed with revenge; Sebastian is obsessed with eating Ciel’s soul; Mey-Rin, Finnian (Finny), Baldroy (Bard), and Tanaka are obsessed with overcoming their past traumas and serving the young master; Elizabeth is obsessed with making Ciel happy and seeing him smile again; Lau is obsessed with power and self-gratification; Madam Red is obsessed with her inability to have children (to tragic ends); Arthur is obsessed with learning the truth; Queen Victoria is obsessed with the love between her and King Albert; William T Spears is obsessed with rules and order; and Undertaker demonstrates a peculiar obsession with jokes and laughing. Even minor characters such as the Indian Prince, Soma, and his servant, Agni, demonstrate obsessions with pride and loyalty, respectively. So, of course, Grelle demonstrates an obsession and, I suppose, sex—like orderliness and laughter—is an archetypal, primal, obsession appropriate to the Reapers.

Another argument raised against her as a positive depiction of trans women are some of Grelle’s more violent aspects. These are not a condemnation of trans women as violent or having male privilege but are part of the Reaper nature necessary for performing their allotted function in the story-verse. This is not a characteristic limited only to Grelle, though in her young, quirky way she seems to relish it more than her older counterparts in the job (in their final battle William T Spears seems to enjoy it quite a bit, as well).

A final argument I have heard raised against Grelle being a positive portrayal of trans women is her flighty/flakiness. Yes, she is quite flaky, but this is not a representation of transmisogyny, but of the misogyny inherent in the show. Elizabeth, Mey-Rin, Madam Red, and Elizabeth’s serving girl, are all depicted as flighty, incompetent, and incapable of completing actions on their own (with an obvious exception for Mey-Rin late in story). I’m not excusing this depiction of women, but I am stating it is not specific to the trans woman only.

So, are there positives to this inclusion of a trans woman in the story? I believe there are. First, she is a dynamic character with self-autonomy. It is rare to see a trans woman depicted as anything other than a sex object, a “trap,” or a joke and Grelle is none of those things. She actively pursues her interest in Sebastian instead of being the focus of his interest; she is upfront with other characters about who she is stating she may have been AMAB (as much as we can apply the term to a Reaper) but she is woman, and not just any woman, but “a lady;” though she is made fun of and misgendered by the other characters in the show, she does not waver in her convictions or her self-identity. She is a strong, independent trans woman, and for that alone she can be seen as a positive representation.

Second, she is conventionally attractive. Although I do not believe this is a prerequisite for a positive character be they female or male, trans or cis, I think this is an important part of her character. She has worked at creating her presentation, she dedicated energy to gaining passing privilege, and the idea of being taken seriously as both a woman and romantic possibility. Further, she does this not for the sole purpose of “catching” Sebastian, but for the sake of herself and to be herself. She is a trans woman who works at being beautiful because it make her happy to be so. Again, independence and autonomy.

Third, and most important, she is likable. The audience, for as flamboyant and “out-there” as she is, cannot help but like her. She is engaging and relatable. She is someone who, despite her flaws (and she has some serious flaws), the reader/audience cannot help but desire success and happiness for. She is fun, a bit flirtatious, and, frankly, adorable. And, even in the day of Orange Is the New Black, a trans* character who the audience can relate to, is a rare thing.

As a trans woman, who rarely sees herself reflected in characters in stories and almost never in a trans character in a story, I’m asking you to consider what you are taking away from the trans community by denying or glossing over Grelle’s status as a trans woman. Is she the most perfect representation? No, but none of them on the show are. Is she a character that I can gpoy? Again, no, but I can still see aspects of myself and my strengths in her. By ignoring who she is, by ignoring the canonical fact she is a trans woman, you are taking what little representation there is for trans women away from them. You are saying, your personal feelings matter more than their right to be represented in the media they enjoy.

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