A Game of You: So about Wanda…

Cover of A Game of You Author: Neil Gaiman

Illustrators: Colleen Doran, Shawn McManus, Brian Talbot

Year of Publication: 1993

LC Call Number: PN6728.S26 G35

The fifth installment of Sandman is a really strange one; the tone is very different from the rest of the series, and the subject matter, while related, seems different, not least because Dream himself plays such a minor role.  At this point in the series, there are many established characters who have drifted in and out during various storylines. A Game of You, however, is structured around a formerly minor human character, Barbie, last seen in The Doll’s House having detailed dreams in the mode of high fantasy.  She’s left her boyfriend Ken (yup) and has moved from the strange house in Florida where Rose Walker became the vortex to a seedy tenement in New York. She’s stopped dreaming, and the volume focuses on her relationship with the dream that we saw in her earlier appearance.  Morpheus is barely seen; he puts in an appearance early on to comment that one of the skerries of dream is about to disintegrate, and of course he arrives at the end to put everything right—not because he is a deus ex machina so much as because this is his job. By this point in the series, we expect that.

Because the volume pulls in a minor character and focuses on her story, the moments in this volume which call back to the prior stories feel less like continuity and more like references.  There is Barbie’s dream, of course. When Foxglove turns out to be Donna, Judy’s friend from Preludes and Nocturnes, this is enlightening not because it tells us anything about Fox herself, but because it reminds us of the events in the diner that Judy experienced, and the feeling of trapped helplessness that went with it.  The reference to Rose Walker doesn’t pull the story into a neat line with the rest of the series, especially since it’s made to a character who has no way of understanding it;  it does, however,  inspire an oddly ominous sense that everything is weirdly interconnected in this world through a series of uncanny (in the Freudian sense) coincidences.

I enjoy this sort of story, and the sense that it is set aside from the main storyline, although of course it can be executed more or less well.  However, I can’t focus on this in my post because I really need to write about the portrayal of Wanda.

Wanda is Barbie’s best friend and another occupant of the building.  She is Barbie’s confidant in the early pages of this volume and, when the dream attack occurs, it is Wanda who provides entry into Barbie’s apartment and stands guard over her body as the other characters try to follow her into the dream world.  Now.  Wanda is transsexual, and I’m not hugely impressed by how her gender identity is handled in the book.  The portion of the plot that occurs in the “real” world mostly happens at night after the characters have been unexpectedly awakened by Thessaly’s detection of the dream attack.  She gets all the other inhabitants of the building out of bed and brings them downstairs to the culprit’s apartment, where she has murdered him.  The group includes a lesbian couple (Foxglove and Hazel), Thessaly (who turns out to be a witch), Wanda and Barbie, who cannot be awakened. All the characters but Wanda have either thrown on bathrobes or are wearing pajamas, but Wanda is wearing an undershirt and panties.  It’s reasonable and realistic that there would be some variety to what the characters choose to wear to bed, of course, but because this is a graphic novel, this means that Wanda’s body is put on display for the reader to examine for signs of femininity or masculinity.  The other characters are not so exposed. There are a few panels of Foxglove before she puts a on a shirt, but that lasts for a much shorter portion of the book.  Furthermore, Wanda’s gender and her body are discussed by several of the other characters in these scenes.  The reader is thus implicitly invited to notice these characteristics of her body. She hasn’t had surgery—her dream suggests that she is afraid to be operated upon—so her body does have some characteristics generally associated with masculinity, including a penis. In fact, Hazel, who is, ah, somewhat anatomically naïve, points at it and says “you have a thingy.” The art here makes me think back to Whipping Girl (see my post), in which Julia Serano writes about how, when she comes out to people as trans, the get this look on their faces as if they are examining her body closely for signs of masculinity. I can’t help but feel that the same thing is happening here.

Of course, there’s also the textual aspect of the story, which is somewhat equivocal.  As mentioned above, the other characters frequently comment on Wanda’s gender. Thessaly, who emerges around the middle of the volume as the only character with any knowledge about the dream world, dismisses her as a “man” and doesn’t ask her to walk the moon’s road with the others.  George, formerly a servant of the Cuckoo (that is, the villain of Barbie’s dream) and presently a severed face nailed to the wall (yes, this is pretty gross), explains to Wanda that this is because the moon won’t accept her as a woman and that her subjective gender identity doesn’t matter to the gods.  It’s a complicated scene to analyze because, while the reader is very sympathetic to Wanda’s rage, the scene also establishes the other world as one that enacts its own notions of what gender is and means, and in a nondiscursive way, no less. When Wanda states firmly “That’s something the gods can take and stuff up their sacred recta. I know what I am,” it’s a moment in which you want to cheer for her, but it’s also an expression of an impotent rage against something that won’t change.  This is just after Wanda has a Cuckoo-induced dream in which her body becomes increasingly masculine while she is about to be forced into surgery (and is misgendered by superheroes).  Later, in the dream world, the Cuckoo explains that girls are different from boys because they engage in different fantasies, different dreams. So it appears throughout the volume that the supernatural half of reality is not only bounded by gender but also regards gender as a fixed quantity which is determined by it, not you.

BUT.  There’s a late save.  All the commentary in which characters engage concerning the nature of gender earlier in the volume is just that, commentary, and is not proven.  The only time that Wanda interacts directly with the supernatural is when she is seen with Death. And Death, who is probably my favorite character in all of Sandman, gets it.  At this moment, Wanda’s body is transformed; Barbie describes her as “perfect.”  Death doesn’t reject Wanda but rather takes her in as the version of herself that she (Wanda, I mean, not Death) presumably imagines and desires.  Now, this could just be because Death is awesome. It’s obviously very difficult to tell whether this happens because Death’s magic is very different from Thessaly’s moon-magic and the dream world,* or because Thessaly is actually wrong.  What is suggestive, though, is that this takes place in Barbie’s dream. So—it’s not clear. It leaves the rest of the book in question, which is good—but it’s not entirely satisfying.

The non-supernatural characters also react to Wanda in differing ways. Thessaly’s already been mentioned. There’s also the homeless woman who questions what Wanda is and doesn’t seem to totally understand, but is at least nice to her.  And then, of course, there’s Wanda’s horrible family, because apparently there is some law that trans characters can never have even vaguely supportive families in fiction.  Sigh. But the last part of the volume is about Barbie, who truly is a friend to Wanda, interacting with Wanda’s family and trying to maintain some integrity by not entirely complying with their demands that she refer to Wanda by a masculine name and pronouns, etc. Ultimately, she engages in a small act of defiance that’s really as much about her as it is about Wanda, but it is meaningful in its way. So I guess I’m not sure what to make of the way Wanda is handled in this side of the story, either.  If I go back to Serano, who complains that there are really only two ways that trans characters are portrayed in fiction (by cis people, anyway), Wanda’s very much the tragic figure—but at least she has some character beyond that.

The thing I wish I could do is put this in context with the rest of the volume, because it does change things.  This is really a story about gender in lots of ways. The central character is Barbie. We’ve already met her in another volume in which her femininity seemed rather extreme and a little unsettling—she’s not called Barbie for nothing.  The way she works through her childhood and her own gender throughout the book is pretty important and not something I’m able to readily make sense of. There’s the fact that most of the characters in the book are female, and it’s all about how they interact with each other, sometimes to protect each other and sometimes with their own agendas.  There’s the pregnant lesbian, and the witch who does exclusively feminine magic. But I can’t really do that analysis well, at least not on a single read, partly because I’m distracted by my wish to analyze the way Wanda is portrayed, and partly because I just don’t have room. So I’ll just note that there is more to it than this and leave it at that.

(interesting that there’s much more than I can cover, even on that particular topic, in what is really a very short book. Is this because it’s a graphic novel, or because it’s just that deep? Or because I’m inefficient? NOBODY KNOWS.)

*these are also separate realms and different kinds of magic, in case that isn’t clear.

1 Comment

Filed under Literary thoughts

One response to “A Game of You: So about Wanda…

  1. Pingback: Arthurian Romances: Old Stories Are Strange Stories | onereadleaf

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