Tackling existential questions of the apocalypse through a gendered lens tempts plenty of creators, though several of them fall into trappings of biological essentialism in their attempts. This problem — along with straight-up transphobia expressed in the story — is arguably the weakest element of Brian K. Vaughan‘s and Pia Guerra‘s Eisner-winning Vertigo series Y: The Last Man, which began its run in 2002 and ended in 2008.
Now that FX is adapting the story for television with its upcoming series Y, the studio is seeking to update the source material to reflect a less binary understanding of gender. According to reports, Y is seeking a transgender actor to play Sam, a new original character described in the casting call as “a kind but sarcastic transgender male in his 20s-30s.” This could be a huge step for trans representation in the sci-fi genre, especially on-screen — but the story’s premise still creates some potential pitfalls.
In Y: The Last Man, Yorick Brown (Barry Keoghan) and his pet Capuchin monkey Ampersand are the only men to survive the apparent global androcide. Although the story makes reference to transgender people, they are often referred to in a derogatory way, and no transgender character ever makes a meaningful appearance on the page. The introduction of Sam will change this, especially since SlashFilm reports that he will be a regular character.
Ideally, Y will handle Sam with nuance, though the overall story premise may make this difficult. Stories based on a binary understanding of gender often boil down to rudimentary science that isn’t even accurate; this Last year, more than 1,600 scientists released an open letter to the Trump administration condemning a memo erasing legal protections for trans people; as reported by Katelyn Burns for Rewire News, letter includes signatures from over 700 biologists, 100 geneticists, and nine Nobel laureates. In part, the letter pushes back on the administration’s claim that sex is defined by observed genitals at birth:
“This proposal is fundamentally inconsistent not only with science, but also with ethical practices, human rights, and basic dignity. The proposal is in no way ‘grounded in science’ as the administration claims. The relationship between sex chromosomes, genitalia, and gender identity is complex, and not fully understood.”
So the question is: can Y treat a trans man with respect, without making the claim — directly or indirectly — that Sam survived the apocalypse solely because he was assigned female at birth? Will viewers meet trans women, or non-binary people, or intersex characters? If the series can go beyond the definition of sex and gender from its source material and find a way to represent all of these groups, it will be a feat worth celebrating, as well as a prime example of how creators can (and should) incorporate trans stories into gendered apocalypse stories.
So far, it looks like the Y writers’ room wants to get this story right. The series tapped transgender author Charlie Jane Anders to write for the show, which puts at least one trans voice in the decision-making process.
At last I can talk about what I've been doing in LA! I have had the outstanding good fortune of joining the @YOnFX staff, working with the ultra-talented Eliza Clark and some of the most brilliant writers ever. So thrilled to help adapt Brian K. Vaughan and @PiaGuerra's vision! pic.twitter.com/OuGXQOZOV9
— Charlie Jane Anders (pls subscribe to @OOACpod!) (@charliejane) August 7, 2019
The title change from Y: The Last Man to simply Y also removes some of the chromosomal falsehoods perpetuated by the comic’s concept, at least on the surface. Here’s hoping Sam is given a storyline that doesn’t misgender or undermine him, and that the Y writers challenge viewers to understand sex and gender through a new, more nuanced, reality- and real science-based lens.
In addition to Barry Keoghan as Yorick, Y also stars Diane Lane, Imogen Poots, Lashana Lynch, Juliana Canfield, Marin Ireland, Amber Tamblyn, and Timothy Hutton. Stay tuned to The Beat for more as series news continues to develop.