The Ballad of Xavin and Karolina

Posted: 12/16/2010 in Comics, Queer
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Something that’s been dogging me like a splinter I can’t dig out for what feels like a couple years now is the incredibly problematic nature of the relationship between Karolina “Lucy in the Sky” Dean and Xavin, her Skrull spouse through arranged marriage in Runaways. When the pair re-joined the group as a married couple and Karolina continued to demand that the normally male-presenting Xavin appear female around her, it started to gnaw at me despite the fact that Xavin had nonchalantly said he could switch to female for her because she is a lesbian. This was before I had figured out my own gender identity or had read anything of substance about transgender issues or gender studies, so I lacked the tools or perspective to properly unpick why it was bothering me so much. Every time the issue came up, I tried again to untangle it and came away defeated and unsatisfied, but always feeling a little closer to the truth. I’ve seen so many different interpretations and appropriations of Xavin and Karolina that it eventually became this big ugly white noise generator of cognitive dissonance, and I just ignored that there must be a signal buried somewhere deep in the background. Until I found my footing in queer theory and got comfortable enough with the tools it provided me to properly deconstruct the situation.

Karolina was raised in a household that did not deviate in any way from typical American gender and sexual binaries. There is no evidence in any text anywhere that she was not raised by heterosexual cisgender parents who raised her according to her gender as assigned by her sex at birth. It doesn’t matter (for the sake of this discussion) that Karolina is an alien because she was socialized exactly like a white American human child. Karolina is perhaps an immigrant, but her parents assimilated to white American standards completely, so whatever possible other gender expressions there are back on Majesdan is completely irrelevant to Karolina as she was born and raised on American soil as an American. It’s really that simple. Also, Karolina and Xavin were chosen by the respective ruling classes of their species to be married based on what they both considered to be a heterogender, heterosexual pairing.

Xavin is complicated and vaguely convoluted by the completely irrational way that the Skrull species has been portrayed in 616 since they first appeared, but there’s absolutely nothing to suggest that Skrulls cannot be understood and explained using the terminology of real world gender studies, especially once you remember that the notion of a gender binary exists in humans only in the imaginations of cissexist bigots. Anthropology and psychology bear this out again and again and again. Where Skrulls differ from humans is that they have an assigned gender but no fixed sex. Humans- in contemporary America- are generally assigned a gender based on sex because aside from those born intersex they have a clearly defined sex. Simply put, you’re either born with a penis or a vagina and you’re socialized based on that.

What is completely baffling about Skrulls is how, why, and when they assign gender. I’m assuming that despite their ability to physically change sex at will they’re born with either male or female genitalia, but as far as I’m aware that’s never been discussed in canon. What we do know is that Skrulls (in 616) use gender based pronouns for each other and are easily read as male and female in their natural form outside the presence of other species.

We also know that Xavin is the only known Skrull in an open inter-species relationship who doesn’t have sex according to their assigned/preferred gender, and I’m pretty sure that all of the Skrull infiltrators in Secret Invasion who were instructed to have sex with their targets were disguised as heroes who matched the infiltrator’s assigned/preferred gender (which we know because they reverted to their original Skrull form at death). Thus the designation of transgender from both a Skrull perspective and based on a reading of Xavin prior to meeting Karolina- despite his unique biology- would be incorrect. Xavin’s preferred gender is the one he was assigned (presumably at birth) by his own culture on the Skrull home world, and thus is cisgender.

Where things get strange, and eventually incredibly disturbing, is how Karolina views and ultimately manipulates Xavin’s biology in spite of his chosen gender. The Skrull ability to change sex is almost exclusively used for diplomacy and subterfuge in interactions with other species. Skrulls are no more transgender than drag queens. They only change sex as a performance. Thus Xavin is cisgender male and referring to him using non binary pronouns would be inappropriate.

Which brings us back to the question of Karolina’s choice to continue to self identify as a lesbian despite Xavin’s chosen gender.  There is actually a real world analogue to this situation, which is the phenomenon of lesbian identified women dating transmen. A person’s self identity can in fact demean and effectively erase their partner’s identity. By referring to herself as a lesbian, the woman denies her partner’s chosen gender which is quite literally what Karolina does to Xavin. She forces him to present and identify as female when his preferred gender is very obviously male. Thus what we’re left with has all the same elements in common with a white cisgender lesbian emotionally abusing her POC trans* partner.

Irrespective of biology, the right thing for Karolina to have done would be to respect Xavin’s chosen gender by identifying as bisexual because as Kinsey states, there is more than one usage of the term bisexual, despite the assumption that it can only mean that a person is attracted to cisgender members of either sex instead of say (pre-op and/or non-op) transmen and cisgender women.

Either way, no matter what the original intent behind Xavin’s introduction was, there was an incredible and unique opportunity to explore privilege and intersectionality in queer relationships in a comic targeted at a youth audience that was completely squandered. Never was the issue of Karolina’s emotionally abusive demands for Xavin to look and behave the way she wanted him to ever meaningfully or intelligently discussed. Xavin’s perspective on the erosion of his ability to present as male- as was always his preference- was never presented. His narrative was essentially to acquiesce to whatever Karolina’s demands were and to eventually die for her. The result is alienation and pain for both the trans* audience, groups that absolutely do not need to be marginalized even further in a medium that tailors itself to the most privileged class it can. Imagine if you will, a transgender youth reading Runaways and seeing this character that they very badly want to appropriate. Xavin presents this wonderful opportunity for transgender youth to imagine a mode of being that is free of binders, back braces, taping, shaving cuts, HRT, and all the other hardships they face and then everything goes wrong. The fluidity of his gender becomes about his partner’s preference until he loses all agency, and then he’s fridged to tie up the loose ends in her origin. It’s potentially crushing to youth who are not only confused about who they are but potentially face hate and violence wherever they turn. Way to go, Marvel.

  1. S.Matt says:

    Y’know, this is something that’s been bugging me since I first encountered the relationship. I didn’t feel I should jump in to the conversation in the other arena, but I feel like I’m getting more and more perspective on it. I always appreciate that you present new ways of looking at things for me, I feel like I grow as a person because of it.

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