This weekend at Comic Con, Supergirl announced that the transgender actress Nicole Maines will join the show, making her character the first trans superhero on TV. As more and more of my transgender friends shared the story, I noticed a common theme in their words: Having a trans woman portrayed in this genre, they wrote, feels immensely validating. (We wanted to be superheros, too, you know.)
Growing up in the 90s and early 00s, superhero stories were everywhere. Naturally, transgender representation was not, which meant that many people like me grew up without knowing that our kind existed beyond Mrs. Doubtfire. The closest thing I had to trans representation in superhero movies was Danny DeVito’s godly portrayal of The Penguin in the 1992 film Batman Returns, where he dazzled my child heart with a filthy fully white onesie, running about the sewers with his top hat and cool hands.. I’m not complaining, but surely a more relatable—and even heroic—transgender character would help young trans people feel connected to mainstream culture, and help nontrans audiences see trans people in familiar roles..
Maines is cast as a hero called Nia Nal (aka Dreamer), who is a new take on an existing character in the DC Comics universe. The new Nia is transgender and, based on the original, will probably be a scientist that has telepathic powers and can see the future.
There have been plenty of horrific trans villain narratives in television and film. As Hollywood continues to reflect the cultural change occurring within transgender representation, it was only a matter of time before someone like Maines would achieve this kind of mainstream success. And it makes sense for Maines to play a superhero—because she actually is one a superhero in real life. During her early teens, Maines experienced institutional discrimination by her school for being transgender. She fought back, going through a five-year legal battle. and Until now, she was is best known for that early activism; in 2013, she brought her fight against anti-trans bathroom policies to the the Maine Supreme Court and won.
I managed to scrape by off of the feminine vibes that characters like The Penguin communicated to me, but kids today get to grow up with a rich, wide, representational assortment of fantasy characters to celebrate, obsess over, and identify with. Some researchers believe that a lack of representation in media could have serious negative effects on consumers. On a personal level, growing up without any cultural icons to associate myself to, I was effectively in arrested development until I managed to find the missing pieces of my identity on my own.
My generation is the last generation to have come of age in the United States without positive mainstream representation of transgender people. Today, young people can turn on The CW to see a transgender character, portrayed by a trans actress. There are lots of cool, groundbreaking projects that involve trans people today— Supergirl is special because it’s part of an industry of superhero filmmaking that never stops churning out content to serve a nation fixated on the genre. At their best, superhero stories can teach us that we can survive arduous times, and that our differences are special—a lesson that feels more important now than ever.