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Cora Lee Oxley, 2024 2nd Place Foundations of Ethics and Diversity

Foundations of Ethics and Diversity submissions are open to essays completed for UF 200. Students are encouraged to submit an essay exploring civic, ethical, and/or diversity on a local, regional, national or international topic. If the essay is the product of a team project, all names must be submitted and all team members will share the award. Essays should not exceed 20 pages. Cora Lee Oxley wrote the 2nd place submission in the Foundations of Ethics and Diversity category for the 2024 President’s Writing Awards.

About Cora

Cora Lee Oxley

Cora Lee Oxley is a senior pursuing a Humanities & Cultural Studies major and an English Literature minor. She is interested in a variety of creative mediums including, poetry, music, and communal storytelling that focuses on emerging cultural paradigms. She currently works at the Boise State Special Collections and Archives where she is establishing the Idaho Music Archive.

Winning Manuscript – Visualizing Liberatory Magics: Transfuturism in The Sandman and Saga

An Invocation:

Teach me to be an intricate woman. // Muse, show me the wanderings of your days, // how you will remake your body and mind // with magics you sought, and powers you found // at the edge of the void. Return to us // to change our ways and offer your burdens // to the fires of today. We await // your stories of journey; we hear and stare, // eyes golden with flame. Now goddess, child of Death, // tell your new story for our anguished times. //

Wounds begin to heal.

Together, human beings are storytellers constantly and irrevocably shaping the ways of our worlds. We are visionaries of the heart, persistent in our willingness. We are dreamers of the mind, complicated beyond belief. We are prophets of the body, living portals for one moment and all the next. We are responsible and always responding to our creative powers and what we make of ourselves. We are each other’s Muses.

The act of storytelling brings with it a consideration for the realities of people who inspire, live, and relive the stories being told. Often in the history of transgender representation across modern mediums, storytellers have perpetuated offensive and unhelpful stereotypes of transgender people which elucidates the need for accurate, diverse, and sensitive transgender representation. Transfuturism, as described by Amber Johnson in “Trans Identity as Embodied Afrofuturism,” offers a means of evaluating the ability of storytellers to create generative collective futures by viewing trans people as an embodiment of actualization and tangible axes of change.[1] In this vein, two examples stand out for being on the cutting edge of positive and transformative trans representation for the time of their publications. In Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, Wanda is recognized by many comic book fans as the first trans character they remember being canonically trans.[2] She is caring, multifaceted, and courageous.[3] Petrichor in Brian K. Vaughan’s Saga graphic series is a current example of trans representation, as the series is ongoing.[4] She is a powerful character whose gender does not limit or define her agency, complexity, or acceptability in the eyes of the narrative. Wanda and Petrichor serve as two examples of white trans women that are written with care in order to advance a burgeoning body of positive trans representation. Both characters comparably embody the ways in which trans people are sacred, their existence demands gender innovation, and their bodies are the physical site of freedom in self actualization.

The Sandman graphic novels are already poised to give unique insights into transformative storytelling, as the series delves into the nature and nuances of dreaming. In “A Game of You,” Gaiman tells the story of Barbie as she ventures into the skerries of dreams in order to stop a parasitic entity called The Cuckoo.[5] Wanda, Barbie’s friend and neighbor, is left behind in the material world to guard Barbie’s body while she and three other female neighbors travel into her dream. Barbie, who represents the epitome of cisnormative womanhood, outwardly identifies Wanda as a woman, and in doing so, confers validity to her femininity. Queer theorist Judith Butler describes how cisnormativity defines female bodies by their being devoid of the phallus,[6] which functions to uphold their social legitimacy as feminine bodies. Legitimized feminine bodies go on to influence the scope and parameters of femininity through discourse, capable of obscuring or empowering modes of femininity. To inquire into the progressive nature of Wanda’s portrayal, Butler offers a litmus test: “If the [work] establishes the ambivalence of embodying – and failing to embody – that which one sees, then a distance will be opened up between that hegemonic call to normativizing gender and its critical appropriation.”[7] In other words, Barbie’s unconditional acceptance toward Wanda carves out a space of narrative sympathy for Wanda’s expressions of gender freedom to follow, rather than Wanda’s character being solely defined by her ability to assimilate to womanhood or not.

In this newly opened distance, Wanda acts as a harbinger for the failures of cisnormative womanhood. When three other female characters form a ritual trinity to travel into Barbie’s dream via the moon, Wanda argues that she should be able to go. She asserts that she is in fact a woman and should be allowed to help her friend. It is unclear if the moon rejects Wanda’s claim, if she resigns herself to staying behind to protect Barbie, or if the exclusion of the other three women are to blame for Wanda being left behind. The moon, a symbol of feminine magic whose essence is a transformative power, illuminates the malleable and cumulative nature of identity. No one and everyone is narrating in this journey of wavering beams across the night as “identity blurs on the moon’s road… In the pale light of the moon I play the game of you. Whoever I am. Whoever you are.”[8] In such a liminal space, Wanda’s identity dissolves limited ideas of womanhood and self by first “refusing to accept cisgender performances as normal, natural, and preferred.”[9] However, the three cisgender women refuse to allow Wanda’s understanding of womanhood to expand their own. Wanda is excluded from the covenant of womanhood. She is denied the transformative power to change definitions of womanhood or affect the outcomes of her and her friends’ story. Wanda dies in the wake of their choice, facing the consequences of their neglect and ignorance alone. This scene exposes the gaping wound that trans women exist in socially, and in this story, cosmologically.

As the story ends with Barbie recounting a dream, she shares a vision of Wanda being greeted warmly by Death. Some fans note, “it’s odd Wanda would find no affirmation of her gender among the numerous deities present in [the series].”[10] But Death is the great equalizer, the aspect of cosmology that welcomes all beings and represents a different kind of transformative power. While it often manifests through stories of tragedy, the very same gaping wound that trans women are abandoned to by cisnormativity is a space from which they may emerge reborn. Susan Stryker speaks from her own experience of this self alchemy that Wanda embodies: “We have done the hard work of constituting ourselves on our own terms, against the natural order. Though we forego the privilege of naturalness, we are not deterred, for we ally ourselves instead with the chaos and blackness from which Nature itself spills forth.”[11] This chaos and blackness of Death is inherently a creative force to which no one can be denied access.

The Saga graphic series follows Hazel, the daughter of a couple from both the planet Landfall and its moon it is at war with, Wreath. The series invokes the chaos and blackness of war, again orienting toward rifts in social fabrics as fertile grounds for radical healing and change. Hazel and her family live on the run, making sure to hide the combination of wings and horns that indicate her mixed heritage. When Hazel is separated from her parents and held in a Landfall enemy noncombatant detention center, she meets Petrichor. Unlike Wanda, Petrichor is introduced with nothing left to the imagination when it comes to her anatomy, courtesy of artist Fiona Staples.[12] Through the curious eyes of protagonist Hazel, the reader sees Petrichor showering fully nude in the first panel of her appearance. When Hazel asks, Petrichor explains that she is a woman, ‘in here’, pointing to her head. Hazel recognizes that Petrichor’s homeland, Wreath, does not accept Petrichor as a woman, but also notes that the people from Landfall have placed her in the women’s center. This encounter leaves Hazel inspired by Petrichor’s radical self acceptance; she wonders if her own unique body is not as unacceptable as she has been led to believe. Petrichor demonstrates to Hazel that the body is a space of freedom in self definition, and practicing honest self expression is “imagining the body into a future without domination.”[13] In the following scene, the full page image of Petrichor is mirrored by Hazel as she reveals her hidden wings to her teacher in an act of complete faith and vulnerability. The narrator speaks to the moment in which children, and people in general, “begin to understand that they possess more agency than they ever dreamed.”[14] When Hazel defies the limitations placed on her body she creates a space for liberatory potential and, in fact, inspires the teacher to help her rejoin her parents. Petrichor’s introductory story arc establishes her character foundation as an important friend, diviner, and teacher of liberatory magics.

In Saga, as in The Sandman, magic is synonymous with transformative power. Over time, Petrichor helps teach Hazel how to use magic, further expanding Hazel’s potential to be empowered in shaping herself and the world around her. Petrichor’s very existence is enacting “a futuristic and critical performance of embodied social identity that creates strategic space for transformation.”[15] In a rare moment of solitude, Petrichor uses her magic to shape the threads of fate in her own life. She burns an image of her last love, offers a blood sacrifice to the fire, and asks the “Saints above… Please. Send me someone to fuck.”[16] Spoiler alert: it works. This moment demonstrates Petrichor’s agency to not just perpetuate the plot or make choices that benefit others; she pursues and gets to experience the manifestation of her own inner desires. These examples are in stark contrast to Wanda’s story, where tragedy befalls her because of the negligence of others constantly placing her in a position of disempowerment. Petrichor is a profound representation of trans women because she is powerful, self determined, essential, and entirely welcomed by the narrative exactly as she is.

Further comparison between Wanda and Petrichor shows how the aims of trans representation in The Sandman provide opportunity for Transfuturism in Saga to scaffold on its aspirations. “If our hope is for a monstrous world without gender, then trans bodies are the growing seedlings of that vision,”[17] regardless of their differences. In the eyes of other characters, Petrichor’s identity goes unchallenged partly because she passes as female and partly because those who know respect the fact that she is a trans woman.[18] In contrast, Wanda’s identity is undermined by the trinity of women, her family, and others. However, these two approaches still validate both characters’ knowledge of themselves as trans women. Wanda confronts complicated feelings toward aspects of her identity, but these are portrayed as opportunities she takes to deepen her self acceptance. Petrichor also fully embodies her transness in her own right and in her own way, exemplified by her self confidence, established personal style, and the agency she has over her own life. Both characters are instrumental in the power of Transfuturism to tell stories that envision a future where trans women are not just accepted but are known to be sacred, powerful, and free.

In varied ways, both of these series are effective at extrapolating the vast potential for collective change that transgender people embody. While the characters are granted different amounts of power and agency to affect the outcomes of the story and their own circumstances, they both add to the legacy of power that is Transfuturism. Characters like Petrichor and Wanda contribute to broadening discursive spaces that go beyond listening to minoritized people about their own experiences, and further into imploring audiences to learn from them and participate in the manifestation of healing futures. The responsibility for these futures rests on us all, though white authors, characters, and bodies currently exist in social fault-lines with lesser consequences than Black bodies and face lesser consequences in telling liberating stories. Saga and The Sandman are brilliant storytelling efforts that empower trans characters as forces of magic and transformation, contributing to the inspiration and actualization of new and necessary futures. Creators and listeners of all kinds can and should tend to the ancient communal magic of storytelling for the sake of us all becoming better muses, diviners, and harbingers.


[1] Johnson, Amber. “Trans Identity as Embodied Afrofuturism.” African American Arts: Activism, Aesthetics, and Futurity, edited by Sharrell D. Luckett, Bucknell University Press, 2019, pp. 15-28. Google Books, Accessed 29 October 2023.

[2] Gaiman, Neil, and McManus, Shawn. “A Game of You.” The Sandman Book Two, United States, DC Comics, 2022.

[3] Scott, Suzanne. “Trans Representations and Superhero Comics: A Conversation with Mey Rude, J. Skyler, and Rachel Stevens.” Cinema Journal, 2015. pp. 160-168.

[4] Vaughan, Brian K and Staples, Fiona. Saga. United States, Image Comics.

[5] Gaiman, Neil, and McManus, Shawn. “A Game of You.” The Sandman Book Two, United States, DC Comics, 2022.

[6] Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.” New York, Routledge, 1993. p. 135.

[7] Butler, p. 137.

[8] Gaiman, Neil, and McManus, Shawn. “A Game of You.” The Sandman Book Two, United States, DC Comics, 2022.

[9] Johnson, p. 19.

[10] Scott, Suzanne. “Trans Representations and Superhero Comics: A Conversation with Mey Rude, J. Skyler, and Rachel Stevens.” Cinema Journal, 2015. pp. 160-168.

[11] Stryker, Susan. “My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage.GLQ, 1 June 1994, pp. 237-254.

[12] Vaughan, Brian K and Staples, Fiona. “Chapter 31.” Saga, vol 6. United States, Image Comics, 2016.

[13] Johnson, p. 15.

[14] Vaughan, Brian K and Staples, Fiona. “Chapter 31.” Saga, vol 6. United States, Image Comics, 2016.

[15] Johnson, p. 20.

[16] Vaughan, Brian K and Staples, Fiona. “Chapter 44.” Saga, vol 8. United States, Image Comics, 2017.

[17] Johnson, p. 21.

[18] Vaughan, Brian K and Staples, Fiona. “Chapter 37.” Saga, vol 7. United States, Image Comics, 2017.