As a trans person who has been tasked to blog about some recent event or cultural text in terms of gender analysis, one thing that might immediately come to mind is that two trans-themed movies premiered quite recently. I will not write about these movies, because they are produced, directed, acted by and for cis people and are ultimately about cis people and cis peoples’ understandings of ~teh weird transes~. I will instead write about (and, inevitably, promote) a recent cultural text produced by queer and trans people for trans and queer people: the new horror visual novel game We Know the Devil , by Aevee Bee, Mia Schwartz, and Alec Lambert.
This post contains enormous spoilers. Due to the nature of the game and its surprises, it is not possible to write this analysis without revealing major aspects of the game’s endings.
The core conceit of We Know the Devil is that as its three central characters – Venus, Jupiter, and Neptune – interact with one another, one of the three is inevitably neglected. The characters are already multiply outcast: they are attending a summer camp for problem children, and as Group West, they are at the bottom of their camp’s pecking order. They are familiar with the relentless pressure to belong, and they each know deep down that they never truly will. But a connection forms between two of them, and a resentment boils within the third. In the magical realist tradition of literalizing metaphors, as the two rationalize their exclusion of the one – with assistance from the odd one out’s self-loathing – she is literally demonized: she gives in to the devil and transforms into a monster that symbolizes her true desire. This is their rite of passage to join society: by creating an Other, by knowing that the devil is somewhere outside themselves, in their former friend, they hide the aspects of themselves that are also demonized by that wider culture, and learn to assimilate.
If the player can balance the characters’ interactions so that no one is left out, a “true ending” is revealed where the characters support each others’ desires. Timid Venus plunges headfirst into a transformation, while Jupiter, usually the most self-reliant, holds back, clinging to the identity of “good girl”; the other campers gather outside Group West’s cabin, ready to fight them. Demonizing all three of them. The conflict between Jupiter and her friends begins to arc toward concordance when she truly looks at the inner self that emerged from the shell of Venus’s old body and finds herself correcting her habitual “he” to “she.”
This revelation makes clear what is only strongly hinted before: Venus’s character is an exploration of the particular yearnings that transgender girls experience prior to realizing that living openly as a girl is possible for them. (This is referred to fondly in some transgender communities as “eggmode.”) From the beginning, Venus reads only uneasily as male. Her extreme shyness and ambiguous appearance do not suggest any particular gender; the uses of ‘he’ and ‘boy’ toward her clash with the name and prominently-featured astrological symbol that our culture (though presumably not the culture of the gameworld) strongly associates with being female. She is clearly understood as a boy within the story world, but this understanding is deliberately muddled in the game’s overall communication with the player. As players, we accept it on faith, but it’s … not any kind of legible masculinity we are familiar with.
This is why Venus is so important.
We, as players, experience along with her the confusion of having everything internal about yourself scream “girl” while body and externally-imposed identity firmly declare “Boy.” and nothing concrete, external, or proveable can be latched onto to validate the feeling of “girl.” We, as players, eventually experience her apotheosis – if we work for it. (In the ending where Venus and only Venus becomes a monster, she is referred to once in text with female pronouns after her transformation, but as Jupiter and Neptune rationalize and excuse their exclusion of Venus, this quickly shifts to the dehumanizing ‘it’. The game keeps Jupiter and Neptune’s perspective and phases out Venus’s, so we see her in the demonic terms applied by Jupiter and Neptune’s intolerance rather than the monstrous but quasi-angelic depiction of the same creature that appears when Jupiter and Neptune accept her.)
This is part of the perspective we get with trans creators writing trans characters. It is a deep authenticity that can’t be matched by people without our experience or who have not lived immersed in our experiences. It is one thing to have Janet Mock or whoever on a talk show telling people that trans women and trans girls were never truly men or boys. It’s another thing to also be able to back that up with examples of how that can be true, examples with the clean clarity of fiction. The more truly trans-centric stories we get, the more *our* side of the story enters the public consciousness that depends so much on modern myth, on the stock characters of popular storytelling (primarily TV and movies) that are currently controlled almost entirely by cis people. (On that note: Watch Sense8! Jamie Clayton is amazing and Lana Wachowski … well, she is very imperfect but she is inventive and her stories are deeply meshed within trans experiences.)
Another portion of the trans experience that these trans-created stories can uniquely capture is the sense of otherness of the self; the profundity of being declared, in body, a monster or an abomination. Trans narratives that target the general population downplay these feelings. They highlight the ways that trans people are like cis people; often they even sidestep confronting the prevalence of lesbian and bisexual trans women. We Know the Devil, by contrast, was released into a loosely-defined culture where queerness and weirdness are celebrated. Venus’s “transition” turns her into a monster – into The Devil. It is a gloriously affirming moment. It is tremendous art beyond any sort of trans inclusivity it provides, and its power is rooted in queer community traditions of radical self-care: the celebration and love of the parts of ourselves we are taught to hate. This is what the game means by The Devil. It extends the metaphor beyond simple queer desire – Jupiter and Neptune each have their own experiences of abuse to match the abuse Venus experiences solely through the fact of being in eggmode, and those are not particularly connected to the two cis girls’ queer sexualities. But each one deeply desires something that they have been taught is deeply wrong by parents, by society – by the coalesced metaphor that the game calls God. To be the devil is to be queer, to go against the strictures imposed on us by our rearing.
What if something like this were written without the nuances that come from being created by people who are themselves trans and/or queer? That would be a train wreck. We need to support trans and queer creators. (It’s bad enough when cis creators are walking on eggshells to make Good Representation and bait all the oscars.)
There is a lot more depth to explore here. Through Venus, through the concept of mystical transition as embodied desire, I think a good look at eggmode reveals some gaps in our most beloved frameworks for thinking about gender. How is Egg!Venus’s gender defined in terms of performativity? (NOT performance.) Deliberate, studied avoidance of strongly female-coded performatives and mere passive acquiescence when directly commanded to do male-coded performatives again fails to add up to an intelligible female-type gender (and we know that it is one, that’s not up for debate – our framework just fails to interpret it). It doesn’t break performative theory, but it isn’t useful to apply performative theory alone to it. (It does break performance theory, but that was already broken.) Serano’s subconscious-sex framework explains the ‘why’ of eggmode excellently but it handles complex nonbinary identity poorly and even in terms of Venus, it doesn’t tell us a great deal about how to parse her without postmortem brain examinations. A suggestion that I think came from BootlegGirl’s criticism of subconscious sex (side note: her interpretation of *The Matrix* as an eggmode epic is a must-read) that meshes perfectly with We Know the Devil‘s conceits is a model of gender as desire, as a yearning to embody and encompass some ideal personal construct. I love this as speculation in part because of the ways it interacts with eggmode – with a weak socially acceptable desire deliberately and unconvincingly pasted atop a repressed desire, or with Venus’s and my own experiences of essentially being without desire, blank slates for others to move like dolls. I also find that it matches my experience of genderfluidity well. But I think at this point this is something to fully explore on another day.
For today, support trans art by trans creators, and make sure to know your local devil.