Spoilers ahead. Man-Eaters marches on today, and this week’s issue introduces a twist that is particularly shocking in the wake of the criticism levied at series writer Chelsea Cain just three weeks ago. After Cain apologized, tweeting, “ME can’t be inclusive of every experience,” Man-Eaters #10 introduces precisely the character many critics were asking about: a trans boy. A trans boy, Kevin, who has been protagonist Maude’s best friend (as Sophie E.) for the previous nine issues, which Maude tells us upon Kevin’s big reveal.
Cain herself has been adamant that Man-Eaters isn’t a story about a world and everyone in it, but a story about a particular experience of womanhood — an assertion she made even in the replies to the critical tweets republished in Man-Eaters, sparking the most recent wave of criticism.
Cain’s reputation and indeed the initial response to the book were based on her extremely public feminism, both as the writer of Man-Eaters and in the wake of Mockingbird, which had an “Ask Me About My Feminist Agenda” variant cover that sent sexist trolls pouring into Cain’s social media mentions. Man-Eaters critics argued that this broad feminism was taking a myopic turn in a book centered on a view of gender that reduced gender exclusively to reproductive organs.
As a trans masc person myself, I wasn’t ever necessarily looking for Cain to be the one to tell my story, as much as I wanted the Man-Eaters team to at least acknowledge my story existed, or potentially give other trans creators along and outside the gender spectrum the opportunity to explore what it would mean to live in the world of Man-Eaters as a trans/non-binary person. It’s the weight of that line of thought that makes the inclusion of Kevin feel so particularly odd; Man-Eaters is a light-hearted book in general, but Kevin’s introduction feels fleeting, glib and strangely tacked-on.
Prior to our introduction to Kevin, there are four references to trans or non-binary folks in the world of Man-Eaters, and all of them are awkward. The first is issue six, where a warning letter about a “menstrual event” in the girl’s bathroom admonishes that “any males with female sex organs” should report for a puberty check. The second is a description of a play Kevin wrote about “a taekwondo master who discovers she’s a girl,” and two are in “classroom exercise” excerpts from a satirical book about puberty, where there are references to trans, GNC, and non-binary folks as part of who can participate. There’s also a very strange editorial about boys’ fears of all-gender bathrooms in one issue, where the author notes an all-gender bathroom at Maude’s school was scrapped after Kevin/Sophie E.’s disappearance from a bathroom stall.
None of these moments feel particularly well thought-out. Bathroom panic is real, but the article is using dangerous cis panic about trans women to titter at cis men being afraid to pee in the same room as a cis girl. The reference to trans, cis, or non-binary people as part of who can participate in a classroom game about panther attacks is an odd addition; the second one, to an audience of cis men and a cis or trans woman facilitator in an exercise about gendered violence, makes slightly more sense, but the exclusion of trans and non-binary folks who aren’t binary women makes it feel like tokenism, and it’s unclear whether discussing binary trans folks as if they’re a separate gender — boys with girl parts — is intended to make this world look hurtful, or is an unintentionally hurtful choice by an under-informed team.
Kevin’s play is the closest the Man-Eaters team gets to foreshadowing — a trans person inventing their own trans OC is a pretty common experience — but the payoff is lackadaisical, doing nothing to show how trans folks are impacted by this world, but letting us know that Maude is definitely not transphobic. Kevin announces he’s still down to smash the patriarchy (rad) and that’s the last of it.
It’s strange that Cain and the Man-Eaters team didn’t give any indication that this big reveal was happening, not even a, “I hope you’ll keep reading, you might be surprised.” But maybe Cain anticipated that this reveal would be insufficient. Man-Eaters never really engages with Kevin in any meaningful way; he’s presented as “the weird unicorn girl,” and often seen in a unicorn mask, presumably to hide that he’s really a boy.
Maude harbors him when he runs away, but we don’t see that until right before Maude is sent off to pantherism rehab. The scene where Kevin comes out is the first one-to-one conversation they have; it’s in front of other people, and it’s mostly centered around the anticipation of Maude’s response and, fleetingly, the anticipation of whether or not being a trans man means Kevin will still help them in their cause.
“You’re still you, you’re still my best friend,” she tells Kevin. “Sorry I didn’t notice you were a guy.”
The introduction of Kevin raises more questions about the world of Man-Eaters than answers, and with only two issues left, it’s unlikely the creative team has enough time to answer them in any way that demonstrates they did, in fact, want to make a story inclusive to some kind of trans experience. Kevin is startlingly glib for a trans boy forced to ingest estrogen. Was he out to his parents? Did they not want him to be a boy? Why did he run away? What happens to him after the revolution?
This story is based on men’s fear of women’s reproductive systems, full stop, and introducing a trans masc character and never getting into anything specific about what that premise means for him doesn’t actually do anything to address the fundamental critiques of Man-Eaters. Kevin exists to be Maude’s trans friend and Man-Eaters’ shocking reveal, not to be a fully-realized person in his own right. Man-Eaters can’t win for losing, and these attempts to play at trans-inclusivity are a murky middle ground that does the book more harm than good.
Just say it’s a book for cis women. That, or make a genuine effort to engage with trans critics across the gender spectrum to help make the book a more inclusive and multi-dimensional experience. Engage with sensitivity readers up front, not as a last-ditch effort to sign-off on a plot twist that was likely already on its way to the publisher when Cain made her call three weeks ago.
Plenty of Image comics offer backmatter to build out the world; this would have been a perfect opportunity to offer any number of creators a page or two or four to tell a short story about one person’s life in a world where “hormone therapy” is freely available in the worst possible way. Do it right or don’t do it at all. Man-Eaters does neither, failing in a way that suggests a whimpering end to a series that launched with a bang.