Transformers: Complex Gender Dynamics, In Disguise

‘Transformers’ is a multimedia franchise chronicling the timeless struggle of a sentient race of transforming robots. Since its first introduction into the public eye over 30 years ago, Transformers has become something of a cultural icon among western viewing audiences, defining childhoods back in the 1980s and then again in the mid 2000s with the explosive Michael Bay reboots.

Since Transformers is at once a series of cartoons, a line of toys, a CGI filled romp, a collection of graphic novels and even more beyond, attempting to define Transformers by any single one of its properties creates endless complications. Simply put, Transformers is not unlike other popular franchises by which the ‘canon’ material is whatever they are currently pedaling, and heck, Transformers has a LOT of re-imaginings. So the pretense on which I have set out to write this article is a simple one; how does the original G1 Transformers series communicate gender in a framework that seemingly does not support such a distinction?

I knew that there was female and male transformers in the canon, so the idea of exploring the intentional gendering of robots with no apparent need for gender was an admittedly fascinating pursuit. Given that G1 is the foundation by which all future expansions of the material were built upon, I have isolated it in the hopes that it will provide enough insight for me to begin to understand how gender fit into the franchise as a whole.

For the first season of Transformers, both decepticons and autobots (the two main ‘factions’ present throughout the canon) are transparently coded male. They speak in synthesized but decidedly masculine voices, maintain a masculine posture, and refer to each other with he/him pronouns. Additionally their characterization seems to mirror that of GI Joe (another Hasbro property) with scenes like Optimus Prime calling his allies chickens for not charging head on at a mounted laser gun. Yes, I’m not joking, and that could only ever have been the product of American military glorification blended with some classic toxic masculinity.  It’s a small detail perhaps, but a far cry from his later boding and paternalistic representations.

Taken that dinobots are introduced into the canon long before female transformers you can safely argue that the inclusion of a gender spectrum was more of an afterthought than a fore planned revelation in the Transformers canon. This is reinforced by the characters themselves, who, upon finally meeting female transformers, seem to make no acknowledgement of their prior absence. Nonetheless there is a concise amount of minutiae that G1 provides over its unconscious performance of gender.

Strictly speaking, the first female transformer appears in episode 10 of season 2, and isn’t really a transformer per se. Dubbed ‘Nightbird’, this ostensibly female robot is created by human scientists for the purposes of  research, and functions more or less the same as transformers do. Of course it wouldn’t fill an episode of the show if the decepticons didn’t then do a little ‘reprogramming’ to turn her into a shuriken throwing, lightsaber wielding, lasso loosing, flashbang dealing ninja. It’s a weird mishmash of tropes, but important to the subject at hand, she is explicitly referred to as female and accepted as such by all the characters.

How this assignment of gender is then performed by Nightbird is a little more obtuse. In ways aspects of her design such as the protruding chest, narrow waist, and wide hips borrow from secondary sex characteristics found in humans, and yet individually all these aspects are also found in the male designs, making their anatomy distinctly divergent at the same time. Likewise her voice is thoroughly synthesized to a similar tone and inflection as the male deception Soundwave, subsequently minimizing voice as a gender signifier that the transformers might discern from.

With regards to movement, it is admittedly a hard aspect to parse thanks to Nightbird’s primary functioning as a covert agent. At times her walk is rigid in a fashion similar to a military step, and yet at other times it’s almost daintily with wrists just hanging effortlessly in the air. The latter could potentially be interpreted as deliberately accentuated femininity, however this is more than likely playing off fictional depictions of ninja having soft spider-like movements.

Regardless, none of the transformers on either side of the conflict seem to express any shock at there being a female robot among them. In fact the decepticon leader Megatron even attempts to have Nightbird replace Starscream as his second in command. I would call that progressive for the 80s if only Megatron didn’t make it explicitly clear she was his “tool” to be brainwashed. Although at this point in the story, the lack of acknowledgement surrounding possible gender differences seems to imply that either a) Female Transformers are not a surprise to the transformers at this point in the story, or b) Transformers don’t register gender beyond pronouns (which chronologically speaking, humans apply first).

As for Nightbird, she is never seen again outside of this one episode appearance, but her presence serves as an interesting contrast to the later ‘official’ introduction of female transformers.

The next instance we encounter of a female transformer is again an indistinct one. This time in episode 33 “Sea Change”, which involves a human turned autobot via the ~ mystical ~ powers of the unimaginatively named “Well of Transformation”. It’s a bizarre episode for many reasons, not least of which is the human x autobot romantic pairing that develops between Alana (Human) and Seaspray (Autobot).

To spoil the riveting storytelling of an 80s children’s cartoon, Alana eventually ends up using the well to transform into…well…a transformer. Here’s where things start to get complicated, because it’s understood that the person using the well can shape the form they come out as, and this has to be factored in when considering Alena’s robot design. It’s strikingly similar to Alena’s human appearance, even carrying over the headdress she wears, and well, there’s not much you could say about it that you couldn’t also say about a conventional cisgender woman’s body.

Seaspray autobotsplaining to Alena

I hesitate to draw too many conclusions about this design because it was clearly the machination of Alena, but at the same time, Seaspray seems to acknowledge it as legitimate and continues to express attraction, so it’s quite possible that this side of female transfomers is considered valid. I think what’s most interesting however is that both Seaspray & Alena express a desire to return to the comfort of their original bodies, suggesting a kind of body dysphoria not dissimilar to how many trans people experience it. I don’t exactly read the interaction as queer, but you can certainly take that messaging from it.

As indicated, Alena does not stay a transformer, and since she basically adhered to a very binary feminine presentation before she even made the switch, I don’t feel there’s confident observations that can be made about transformers at large from how she presents.

Presenting…”The Search for Alpha Trion”, chronologically the 53rd episode of Transformers and the closest thing to an official introduction female characters get in the original series. It’s special for that very reason, and it is good that we have two different (if murky) examples to compare it to.

Token Pink Character
“Forced Diversity” crica 1986

Almost immediately we’re introduced to our fateful trio (As shown above and in order; Moonracer, Firestar, Chromia) as they undergo a stealth operation to steal decepticon supplies. This plan is spearheaded by the pink-sporting de facto leader of the group, Elita One, whose inclusion completes the fantastic four that Transformers was eager to offer.

Where to start. As we can see their designs have a fairly neutral range of colours, incorporating a mix of red, blue, orange and white. Moonracer in particular rocks a pale turquoise and would fit right in any pastal colour palette. However the most noteworthy character here is Elita One, who as previously mentioned ~loves~ pink. Transformers at least challenges the age-old notion of “Blue is for boys, Pink is for girls” by using two kinds of blue for it’s female autobots, but it’s worth highlighting that Elita One is the second of three times we will see pink be the primary colour of a female autobot. Meaning that the named female characters who wear pink are equal to the cumulative total of all other colours.

Amusingly all four characters wear some form of coloured lipstick (is it more accurate to say paint?) which looks about as odd as it sounds. To compliment this, the female autobots also have far more defined lips than the VHS shaped mouths of their male counterparts. Given that transformers don’t technically have a ‘complexion’ it’s fair to assume they wear this as a form of feminine coded self-expression.

Vocally the squad feature both synth and non-synth voices, but all have the typical patterns, inflection, ptich, tone and resonance traditionally associated with cisgender women. In terms of word choice, there wasn’t much in the way of ‘girly talk’ (as opposed to bro speak) and no real indication that female autobots could or could not have a spectrum of gender non-conforming voices.

Physically all four of the characters feature more pronounced curves in their designs, while also having slimmer figures, though the impression of this is minimized depending on the angle they are viewed. Surprisingly there isn’t anything resembling breasts in the chest area, and in fact based on the small sample size they trend towards being flatter and less distinct than the male chests. Elita One seems to have a pattern vaguely mimicking a bra, but this connection is strenuous at best. Additionally no discernible attempt was made to give them unique ‘hairstyles’.

In terms of mannerisms, there are some noticeable differences. Like with Nightbird, the female autobots tend to make a lot of smaller softer movements that at times feels reminiscent of the “dames” in old spy films, though this might have more to do with eliciting a feeling that they are trained covert operators than just being ‘girly’. That said, there is a small amount of hand clasping and daintily pressing their hands to their chests, which could be trying to communicate a very stereotypical ‘princess-like’ kind of femininity.

In the context of the episode shockwave remarks “female autobots, I thought they were extinct”, which is mildly interesting as the specific phrasing of “autobot” could mean ONLY autobot women were thought to be extinct, and that decepticons already have women in their ranks. This would conveniently explain why they were so unfazed by Nightbird before.

In the social arena of transformers there are some crossovers from our very binary-orientated society. Ironhide makes sure to say “Where are my manners, ladies first” which makes explicitly clear that Transformers have traditional gender roles, or at least language informed by gender roles. Having said that, the actual transformations don’t adhere to such a system (e.g. male characters turning into sports cars or construction vehicles) as Firestar happily becomes a truck, and the rest become some kind of fast car. Pronouns do still of course adhere to he/him & she/her however, effectively sealing off the potential for explicitly non-binary & gender neutral identification, which is disappointing if not entirely expected.

Overall there’s definitely a clear undercurrent of feminine expression that seeps into the official representation of female transformers in the series, but in ways it’s more subdued than might be expected. The lipstick example is a clear case of the Ms. Male trope and the involvement of gender role driven terminology is certainly odd, but I was also surprised to see that their appearance steered far away from boob-plate and mega-hips.

…That phrasing now has me picturing Megatron in drag doing the sassiest strut down the catwalk, and that, dear reader, is my gift to the world.

From this point female transformers only appear infrequently in the series, largely as background characters and as romantic pairings, staying familiar to the representations we got in The Search for Alpha Trion. The most notable of these appearances is Nancy from “The Big Broadcast 2006”, who is a ‘Junkion’ capable of reconstructing herself from scrap parts. The innate destructibility of her body raises questions over whether her appearance has a defined ‘gender blueprint’ that must be built around, or whether she can (or would) break from gender conformity if the situation presented itself. It’s never answered of course, but I feel it’s the closest Transformers comes to commenting on the notion of a broader spectrum of identity than it otherwise communicates.

The third instance of pink…and the first instance of Fu Manchu

In conclusion there’s a lot of adherence to binary ideals with limited space for trans or gender neutral expression in the Transformers G1 show. It’s not entirely unexpected of an 80s children’s cartoon, but given that Transformers has Trans in the title, it would have made for some great wordplay in this essay. I kid, but the original question that spurred me to examine the property was “what relevance does the gendering of characters have for a species with no apparent need for gender?” and given the premise of that question supposes gender is unnecessary, let alone static, it would have been nice to see a broader spectrum of experiences represented.

However that isn’t to say it’s all bad. While it still never answers that key question (and arguably raises more with the inclusion of Junkions) it never fully commits to the gender role/binary train, and that’s evidenced in the deviation from sexually dimorphic design conventions that otherwise would have made for a quick shortcut if just displaying a male/female divide was all Transformers cared about.

Additionally, while the scope of this essay was specifically limited to Transformers G1, it would be remiss of me not to mention that more modern additions to the franchise have actually begun to address the topic of trans transformers. I couldn’t possibly chronicle all of these instances on my own, but if you’re interested, there’s plenty of it out there!

If you’ve made it this far then I hope you found this exploration insightful, or at least slightly interesting, and if you have any thoughts to share please do let me know!

Thanks for reading!

Note: It was not the intention of this write-up to promote gender essentialist beliefs, and I sincerely hope that my writing makes it clear that I do not believe how one presents – or how certain aspects are typically gendered in society – decides what your gender is.

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