The Other Boy
The Other Boy (2016) by MG Hennessey is a middle-grade novel about a trans boy that doesn’t quite break ground, though I suppose it dislodges a pebble or two. It’s telling that two of the blurbs on the dust jacket are by other cis people who have also successfully capitalized off of trans representation, Jill Soloway of Transparent and Ami Polonsky, of a similar book called “Gracefully Grayson.”
What I find interesting about this book is how often it hints at the better book it could have been. It seems like Hennessey is trying so hard to make Shane, the main character, as boring as possible so readers don’t have to engage with the messy realities of a real person. He’s straight. He really likes baseball. He’s casually ableist*, racist**, and fatphobic***. All he wants is to be as close to cis as humanly possible, and parrots the “boy brain in a girl body” that is so prevalent. There are some confusing and mixed messages about whether or not Shane agrees with that interpretation, probably because we trans people don't all agree on it and Hennessey didn't want to make her characters pick a side.
And yet, there are a few hints of of a story that could be actually better. Shane is completely stealth in his middle school, made possible by hormone blockers and because he came out as trans in the third grade, before he and his mom moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles. He describes his coming-out process as relatively smooth, as a child with liberal, white, middle-class San Francisco family privilege. He says that no one cared that he was trans, and “By the end of third grade, it seemed like everyone was used to it” (94). He even got into a fistfight with a guy who "never would've hit a girl" (95). But he still claims that his friends “still behaved like I was fragile and had to be handled carefully” (96), and that being completely stealth in his new school helps him feel more authentically male.
But this is why the book is also so boring and so trope-laden. Of course, of course the main conflict centers around a bully finding out his “secret,” calling him a "tranny" (side note: would a middle schooler say that? I'm not sure. What do you think?) and outing him to the whole school. If he had stayed in San Francisco, maybe his story could have been about publishing the graphic novel he’s writing. Or adventures with his new girlfriend, who wouldn’t break up with him when she found out. Or actually meeting the trans girl in his stepmom’s family and, I don’t know, solving some mystery with her.
Similarly, Shane also has some trans community, which is nice to see. But again, the scenes where he’s with other trans kids hint at the possibility of something more interesting or complex, but nothing more. In his PFLAG group (and elsewhere) Shane talks about how many problems trans kids can have--depression, eating disorders, self-injury, abuse. But at the end of a support group scene Shane refers to a kid who “had talked about feeling lucky to have been born this way, because it made us unique and special. He said he wouldn’t change it if he could” (127). Of course, we never get to meet that kid. I’m really interested in his story, how the other kids respond, what his life is like, but instead the just get a passing mention from Shane. Almost as if the author doesn’t really know how to write a fully-fleshed out trans character, just knows that we exist.
Similarly, Shane has a trans friend he’s pretty close to, an older girl named Alejandra. She’s cool, I guess, but we never get the sense that Shane likes her that much. She pesters him with overly upbeat text messages, tells him that her life is way harder than his and he shouldn’t mope so much (I agree but also know that middle-schoolers will mope no matter what), and is always flirting with him while in a miniskirts. There’s nothing wrong with excited, vivacious trans teenagers embracing their sexuality, of course, but she feels a little forced. Like her whole purpose is just to be his opposite, while at the same time keeping it real for him. Like the kid in the support group, Alejandra doesn’t get the wholeness of character she deserves, because she’s too busy propping up Shane.
This book is very carefully constructed to avoid some issues common in trans representation, but that care is somewhat haphazard. For example, Shane never had to change his name, since his birth name is easily taken for male. On the one hand, it means that the author avoids “deadnaming” him, since his given name is also his preferred name is also his legal name. At the same time, though, I wonder if that was author choosing an easy way out. As if she couldn’t figure out how to show a respect for a trans character’s chosen name when it differs from a name that other people might call them. Like the only way to avoid deadnaming a trans character is to evade the problem completely. Which is fine, I guess, and I do know some trans people whose names work like that, but to me this still seems a little lazy.
The author also clearly wanted to take care in writing the obligatory locker room trauma scene. To her credit, Shane isn’t sexually or physically assaulted there. He’s not even verbally harassed, not quite. Instead, his best friend, trying to quell the rumors that Shane is trans, encourages him to pull down his pants and prove that he’s male-assigned. Shane can’t do that, of course, and humiliation ensues.
It’s clear that the author wanted to avoid the common trope of transphobic violence in gender-segregated spaces. Instead of assault, Shane is just humiliated and outed by default in this highly-charged space. It’s almost as if Hennessey wanted to avoid repeating a well-worn plot point but couldn’t conceive of any other way of framing this dramatic climax. She shoulder-checks the very trope she was trying to avoid, instead of just, I don’t know, going in a different direction. Points for trying? I guess? Nah, I don’t have any points to give anyway.
The Other Boy shows what happens when someone has the best of intentions, clearly worked very hard at avoiding offense, but still can’t imagine what a trans life can look like outside of predetermined stories. We’re at a point now where your average cis writer can successfully capitalize off of trans visibility and create something something realistic. But don’t readers deserve more than just coming out, disclosure, and shame? Why can’t we have stories about everything that a trans life could be? And why is it so much easier for cis people to succeed telling their ideas of our stories, when art created by us is allowed to languish?
* “I wish it was different, but it could be worse. There was a kid in my old school who was born with cerebral palsy; every move he made was jerky and wrong, and he couldn’t play sports or anything. That would really suck.” 43
**”His [Shane’s Chinese best friend Josh] mom...pretty much only cooked Chinese food, it always reeked.” (105)
***"'Dude, check it out. Fat Spider-Man,' Josh said.... 'Hey, you know what would be awesome?' I said. A superhero comic where they were all totally out of shape.' 'Yeah,' Josh agreed. 'The Legion of Horrible.'" 128-129.