While Cisgender people argue over deadnaming Elliot Page we at Trans Writes instead choose to celebrate him and the trans joy of his role on The Umbrella Academy Season 3. Tristan Oscar Smith writes;
Season three of Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy hit our screens at the end of June, and as someone who has been a huge fan of the show since I first watched it in an attempt to fill my time during pandemic self-isolation (and have rewatched the first two seasons multiple times since then), I couldn’t have been more excited.
The fact that Elliot Page – who came out as trans in late 2020 – would become the first openly trans leading man in any mainstream TV show just made the excitement even greater.
After the confirmation that Page would be reprising his role post-transition, the question for many fans was if he would continue to play the presumably cis woman version of The Umbrella Academy’s Number Seven, or if the character would transition alongside the actor. There were an awful lot of takes about this online – some of them better than others – but it was all speculation until in the lead up to the show’s release, Page posted a screenshot of his character in this new season on social media with the caption ‘Meet Viktor Hargreeves’.
People – myself included – were more than just excited to meet Viktor, and it makes sense why. Think about it: how often do we get trans characters in mainstream media to begin with? Now subtract all of those who are a teachable moment for cisgender viewers, who are subjected to transphobia for no real reason, and whose storylines are solely about them being transgender. What are we left with? In the mainstream, pretty much nothing.
Before Page’s transition and this announcement, the most that I would have expected when it comes to trans representation in any show like The Umbrella Academy is in the realm of headcanons, drawing in varying degrees from subtext that was likely never intended to be put there.
From Klaus’s gender fluidity and nonconformity leading to non-binary headcanons to Ben, the ghost who was forcibly disconnected from his physical form by the biology in his abdomen, letting transmasculine viewers see themselves in metaphor to trans audiences simply pointing at their favourite members of the ensemble and saying ‘I like them and I want to imagine them as being like me’, that is how it always goes. We simply don’t get to see ourselves in mainstream media unless we put ourselves there.
Though I knew we’d be getting something real this time, I couldn’t know how it would be handled. Would the fast pace and surprise twists of the show grind to a halt so that cisgender viewers could have their hands held through an explanation of transness? Would the Hargreeves siblings, in their dysfunctional glory, use Viktor’s gender as a weapon in their verbal sparring matches? Would Viktor’s character arc focus entirely on his gender and nothing else?
I didn’t think so but I couldn’t be certain. I’ve been burned before, even though hopes for a positive portrayal were high. Seasons one and two both gave us onscreen queerness that was significant while still allowing their queer characters storylines that go beyond simply ‘this character is queer’. Their queerness was never the most defining part of them, and their relationships were treated equally as well as the cishet ones, even if that meant a degree of tragedy (although, side note: I am still holding out hope for a return from Dave, Klaus’s lover who was first introduced to us in season one and is the reason that Klaus will always wear dog tags despite his many outfit changes).
From all of the interviews I’ve read and seen, showrunner Steve Blackman allows his ensemble cast to fully involve themselves in the process of developing their characters. Page is a dedicated actor and as a trans man himself, I was sure he’d be invested in making sure that is well-represented. After I finished season three, I also learned that Thomas Page McBee, a transgender writer, was brought on board to help give Viktor the storyline he deserved and we never thought we’d get to have. All good signs.
I watched the show on the day it was released, and it was better than I expected.
I say that because Viktor’s gender was both present and largely irrelevant. It wasn’t just that he had bigger things to worry about – the third apocalyptic scenario in the space of a year will do that to your priorities – but that to Viktor, as to most real life trans people, we are whole people outside of our gender. But at the same time, those moments in which gender was a feature were centred entirely on joy and acceptance.
At the end of episode one, we see Page ditch the (honestly kind of terrible) wig that allowed audiences to pretend no time had passed between the end of season two – when Page, and therefore his character, had longer hair – and the beginning of season three. But it was more than just a haircut. It was the start of his character’s social transition.
To some, this might have felt sudden. But when you think about it, it makes sense. Prior to and during part of season one, Viktor was on a high dose of medication which suppressed his powers and his emotions alike. After he stops taking these pills, he is a little preoccupied with the discovery that he is, in fact, as superpowered as his siblings, and with the familial chaos which leads to apocalypse number one. He simply doesn’t have the time or the mental capacity to think too deeply about gender.
During season two, Viktor is dropped into 1963 with no memory of his life before. Quite literally not the time for gender revelations, although he is able to find love with a woman named Sissy in his amnesiac state. And it is this woman who sets the wheels in motion for Viktor to think about his own identity.
In season three, we are shown flashbacks of Sissy telling Viktor that he has “given [her] the greatest gift of a lifetime. [He] made [her] feel alive for the first time,” and about how “you don’t even notice the box that you’re in until someone comes along and lets you out”. These lines are initially in reference to Sissy’s own identity as a queer woman. But these lines work for all forms of queerness, and allow Sissy to be that same catalyst of self-discovery that Viktor was for her. It is a beautiful moment of mutual care and support in queerness as well as in love.
Back in a relatively safer time and without (to his knowledge) an impending apocalypse, it is the perfect time for Viktor to decide who he wants to be in this new timeline. And who he wants to be is himself.
He comes out to three of his siblings, Diego, Five, and Klaus, in episode two, in a scene that is wonderfully unemotional. He corrects Diego on his name, and asks if this is going to be an issue for any of them. The responses he gets? “I’m good with it,” from Diego, “Yeah, me too. Cool,” from Klaus, and “Truly happy for you, Viktor,” from Five. Then they move on, right back to the main point of the discussion. There is no need to make Viktor’s gender more of a focal point than anyone else’s.
I don’t watch The Umbrella Academy for a melancholy coming out or heart-wrenching reflection of the struggles of queer identity. When I came out to my mother for the first time, she cried. My coming out at this point was perhaps atypical in that I didn’t feel safe enough to ask her to start using my name and pronouns in everyday life just yet, but I’m not sure that would have made a difference. And while I don’t blame her for and am not angry over her reaction, I think I would have liked it to be a non-issue. Very little about the Hargreeves family is ideal, but they truly have their moments.
One of these moments which hit me particularly hard was in episode three, when Luther and Diego are discussing Viktor’s coming out between themselves. But they are not lamenting how hard the adjustment will be; they’re discussing what the best way would be to show support.
Luther’s perspective is that they should celebrate and, to use his phrase, “Welcome him as brothers”, while Diego seems reluctant to make more of a deal out of it than is strictly necessary. Neither are objectively correct in their approaches; trans people are not a monolith, and there are benefits to both approaches.
But it’s when Viktor interrupts the conversation that made me have to take a moment out of watching to feel the kind of trans joy that no other piece of media ever has.
Diego: Luther wants to throw you a big, stupid party so you feel loved.
Diego: Do you feel loved?
Viktor: Yeah, I do.
Diego: Good. You are. Can we all get back to saving the world now?
The moment of kindness and consideration in a dysfunctional family facing yet another apocalypse was brief, but meant so much. It was the perfect balance of making space to honour trans identity without turning it into a large, unwieldy stumbling block.
His coming out to his sister Allison is that bit more emotional, although most of it occurs off-screen. The viewers are brought in only to witness the aftermath of Allison saying “Why didn’t you tell me sooner? I can’t believe I never realised. I feel like such an asshole”. Not only does this avoid pausing the plot in order to explain trans identity, it also subverts the almost voyeuristic entitlement which some cisgender audiences have when it comes to trans identities and journeys.
They may want to ask how we know, how we can be sure, what makes us think we’re truly trans (even when they barely know us!), but they don’t get to have that with Viktor. But that’s not all. This line also centres Allison’s desire to respect and accept her brother, a point driven home by her final line in this scene: “Thank you for trusting me with this. You’re family, Viktor – and there’s nothing that would make me love you less”.
Even when their relationship fragments later in the season, gender and transition are neither factors nor weapons. Viktor’s identity is never treated as a privilege that can be revoked, not even in the most vicious verbal battles. He is not misgendered, and no one laments how hard it is to adjust or probes him for intimate details of his personal relationship with gender.
For the rest of the show, he’s just another one of the boys; his identity as a man perfectly and seamlessly integrated into his character with no need to mark him as different. We don’t have to see him suffer and struggle because of his gender – and thank goodness, because that whole family has enough suffering and struggles to span at least four timelines. Yes, the standard is low, but it’s low because it has to be.
How often in mainstream media do we get a truly developed trans character played authentically by a trans actor, whose transness is recognised, respected, yet ultimately irrelevant to the plot? It’s rare, and having had a taste, I’m hungry for more.
I’d ask if this is how cis people live, but I know it isn’t. A fish isn’t going to notice another glass of water being added to its tank, but a man dying of dehydration will absolutely notice being given one. Yet that fish won’t ever be able to experience this kind of joy and that, at least, is something.
The world is not kind to trans people right now. From news to opinion pieces to comedy specials, it can feel like we’re in our own form of an apocalypse. But we can learn from Elliot and from Viktor, and not let that stop us from finding our authenticity and those moments of joy.