Wonder Egg Priority and the (Missed) Opportunities of Trans Magic

Content warning: discussions of transphobia, dysphoria; brief mentions of self-mutilation and surgery

It’s a beautiful day in March, 2023. The morning air is crisp, shimmering in between summer and autumn. The sun’s rays melt through a low-lying mist, lighting the world in smudges of gold, as if on the edge of a dream.

It is two years since the anime season of Winter 2021, when a certain series called Wonder Egg Priority aired.

And I’m still thinking about it.

God damn it, I’m still thinking about it. C’mere. Get comfy. Can I get you a cup of tea?

The question of queer worldbuilding is one without a “correct” answer. As Malinda Lo writes, ruminating on her own sapphic fantasy novels, when working in a made-up world the author can choose whether or not to include the struggles and issues that queer people face in reality. In her own, very useful words which I’ve quoted all over the place: “There’s no trick to this. The author simply has to decide: Are the people in this fantasy world homophobic? Or not?”

There’s a lot of freedom and escapism in that idea, and that might be what you want. On the other hand, though, you might want something different: you might want to write a world where those familiar injustices do exist, so the reader gets to see familiar experiences reflected back at them. Maybe you even want your worldbuilding to amp those injustices up to 110%, using that exaggeration for social commentary. Think the dreamy, escapist fantasy of Euphoria Kids versus the grim yet grimly cathartic Out of Salem. Both are powerful (and enjoyable) stories in their own ways, and neither is better than the other… but their respective authors are clearly using the tools of worldbuilding to say and do different things.

There are all sorts of different facets of this to discuss, but today, I’m thinking about the idea of the gendered magic system: worlds where supernatural powers are dished out based on whether the characters are men or women. This trope can fall deep into gender essentialism, but it can also lend itself to some really interesting, playful fantasy writing—especially when it’s explored through a queer, and especially trans, lens.

When you start to query this idea of “boy’s magic” and “girl’s magic” you can pull up some intriguing questions. Like, alright, let’s take it as a fact of the universe that there’s boy’s magic and girl’s magic… but how does the magic know who’s a boy and who’s a girl? Does it draw on some factor of biology, or does it draw on an internal sense of self that it can intrinsically sense? These are questions writers can choose to address and play with.

If it’s the second one, the trope of a gendered magic system can be flipped around into something affirming. In Aiden Thomas’ Cemetery Boys (2020), magic abilities are clearly delineated by gender, with the men of the family gifted spirit-binding and ghost-banishing powers and the women with supernatural healing. Trans boy protagonist Yadriel is initially alienated within this system, with the adults in his community unsure where exactly to put him once he comes out.

But the magic itself is firmly on his side. Even before Yadriel himself knew he was a boy, trying the women’s magic backfired; and when he tries the men’s magic when he’s older it works seamlessly. As the cherry on top, when the patron goddess rocks up at the climax of the novel she sagely addresses him as her son. The human element of Cemetery Boys’ world is not always in support of Yadriel’s transmasculine identity, but the world itself—the supernatural element that underpins it—is. It’s queer affirmation at a cosmic level!

But what if it’s that first scenario—where “girl’s magic” and “boy’s magic” is determined by some physical characteristic? Here, a gendered magic system can be used to express the horror of dysphoria—offering not a reprieve from the identity you were assigned at birth, but a terrible, cosmic confirmation that you’re stuck with it no matter what. This seems to be the vibe in Andrew Joseph White’s The Spirit Bares Its Teeth (coming later in 2023), where the trans protagonist is not just marked “female” by his body but also born with the purple eyes that mark him as a spirit medium, a uniquely feminine ability and social role that suffers under the patriarchal system in which this magic exists.

Even from just this excerpt, this worldbuilding immediately invokes a visceral sense of claustrophobia. Silas feels—at the risk of using the cliché—trapped inside his body and trapped inside his magic. Whereas Cemetery Boys uses its gendered magic for a playful, affirming fantasy, The Spirit Bares Its Teeth uses its gendered magic for horror… and all the terrible, important things we can use horror to explore. A novel that opens with the protagonist fantasising about popping his own eyeballs out and giving himself a hysterectomy is probably not going to be a fun fantasy romp. But it is probably going to be a gutting and glorious commentary about the horrors of being trans in a binary, cisnormative world… with a binary, cisnormative magic system put in place to amp those horrors all the way up.

With those two examples serving as two opposite poles, where does Wonder Egg Priority lie on that spectrum?

In true Egg fashion, it shoots for the moon and lands in a broken heap. Considering Egg’s two trans characters, Momoe and Kaoru, it’s actually… simultaneously both of these.

First, I want to disclaim that discussing Momoe’s gender is a little complex. Many viewers note that there is some ambiguity in her depiction that makes it difficult to pin down her exact identity. Early episodes prompted some fandom head-scratching about whether we were meant to interpret Momoe as a) assigned male at birth but wanting to be recognised as a girl, or b) assigned female at birth and identifying happily as a girl, but often socially perceived as a boy or as boyish due to her handsome features and neutral fashion sense, a perception that makes her feel uncomfortable.

When we meet her she is leaning into a masculine heroic persona, albeit one she clearly has some complicated feelings about. We later learn that she attends an all-girls school where she’s seen as a dashing, androgynous figure that many of her female peers have crushes on; something she also has complicated feelings about. This is contrasted against the surprise and elation she visibly displays when Ai impulsively calls her “cute” and compares her to a pretty model when they first meet. The series’ wiki describes Momoe as being “often mistaken for a boy”, a vague but accurate statement that covers our bases whether we’re considering Momoe a trans girl or a cis one.

There are complexities here that possibly lend themselves to multiple readings, and that anti-binary fuzziness is satisfying in some ways even if it’s frustrating in others. Delving into these complexities is beyond the scope of this post… and alas, delving into these complexities is also beyond the scope of Wonder Egg Priority itself. For our purposes here, based on my reading of Momoe’s characterisation and coding throughout the show and especially in Kaoru’s episode, let’s consider her as a trans girl—and most importantly for our purposes here, let’s consider Momoe a trans magical girl. 

All the Egg Warriors (not their official name) are young women, and the Accas imply that girlhood is intrinsic to their connection and calling to the dreamworld. Wonder Egg Priority also draws on many elements of the magical girl genre, which means its use of an all-female team of monster-fighters makes generic sense. Momoe is one of the four main Egg Warriors granted the same magical girl-ish abilities as her companions—ergo Momoe is recognised as a girl by the concrete rules of the magic system and by the “rules” of the narrative. She’s “one of the girls” in the context of her friendship with the other protagonists and in the context of the show’s framing.

The casual inclusion of a trans girl in a genre work like this is pretty revolutionary, as is the suggestion that the universe itself affirms Momoe’s girlhood even when human individuals (and monstrous individuals, as seen with the Wonder Killer who tries to kick her out of the women’s train car) deny it. In this way, Momoe’s story aligns more with the Cemetery Boys model, in which the fantasy element—harrowing though it may be—provides a storytelling space where trans characters are given autonomy and affirmation via the specific rules the narrative has set up. Her newfound powers even give her the ability to fight, and win, against those who refuse to respect her in the real world (see aforementioned train-TERF Wonder Killer).

Now, maybe the magic system that allows for all this is a little vague, but that doesn’t matter. At least, it didn’t matter in the early episodes when the show seemed to be running on a surreal, liminal dream logic. Its wavy lack of rules were the rules, and allowed for a playful take on the cis gender binary among its many other topsy-turvy trips.

But then the contradictions begin. First, the “magic system” hits a certain point where it ceases to be magic and becomes overstuffed sci-fi. But I’ve already complained about that. What I want to talk about here is what happens when it introduces Kaoru.

The Accas also state that the victims inside the Wonder Eggs are always teenaged girls, giving some frankly pretty essentialist, sexist, “scientific” reasons. Still, we are (much to my confusion and chagrin) never given reason to doubt the Accas or consider them unreliable narrators, so let’s take their word that the dreamworld solely attracts the ghosts of young women. Every captured soul our heroines meet is a girl throughout the whole show, so this seems to track. Until we get to Kaoru—a character unambiguously depicted as a trans boy, but whom the magic system is treating as a girl.

In isolation, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing or a transphobic move on the storyteller’s part—as I mused above, with the case of The Spirit Bares Its Teeth, using a supernatural element to explore the constraints and horrors of a world that refuses to see your true gender can make very interesting and grimly cathartic creative material. But this is Wonder Egg, so, as with most of the cool ideas it throws at the wall in its short runtime, it does not give itself time to explore this.

Instead, Kaoru is another ghost-of-the-week traumatised and rescued within the space of an episode, vanishing before the narrative flies at breakneck pace into its next conflict (which was the introduction of Frill and her minions. Remember Frill?). And traumatised to a harsh degree, even by the standards the show had set thus far. Existing in a genre space does not free Kaoru from the pattern of schlock and horror that can (not always, but often) plague trans characters written by writers who don’t share that same experience. Which is kind of bizarre, given the show’s somewhat sweet and inclusive treatment of Momoe. You see what I mean about contradictions?

At the risk of making assumptions about a book I haven’t read yet, it strikes me that, while similar in some ways, The Spirit Bares Its Teeth approaches its trans protagonist’s trauma from a vastly different angle; a vantage point that’s only possible because Andrew Joseph White is himself a trans man (as is Aiden Thomas). While I never want to decree that cis writers are “not allowed” to craft transgender characters—and I certainly don’t want to reduce this to “oh, Wonder Egg flubbed this arc because the writers are cis and for no other reason”—I approach their works with a wariness I don’t necessarily carry when approaching works by trans creatives.

The speculation in trans-authored speculative fiction is simply, by nature, going to come from a different place; and there is a lesser chance of the narrative falling into tragic and violent tropes simply because they’ve become familiar in popular media. Trans creatives, let’s assume, are also approaching their questions of gendered magic from a different perspective and may ask (and answer) different questions about the intersection of gender and fantasy.

What’s going on with the magic system if it recognises Momoe as a girl due to her felt sense of gender, but misgenders Kaoru and interprets him as a girl despite him clearly identifying as a boy? I want to believe there could be a logistical worldbuilding reason for this, or at least a narrative reason. Maybe it’s a commentary on how trans women are hyper visible in the media and in public discussion but trans men are often hyper invisible?

Alas, I feel like that’s asking too much—if anything, Wonder Egg falls into that trope rather than making any attempt to critique or even acknowledge it. I don’t want to assume that this writing decision was an act of deliberate malice, but, well, maybe it was. More likely, I think, is that this was a clumsy oversight by a creative team who didn’t share Momoe and Kaoru’s perspective and didn’t realise the implications nor the questions they were leaving unanswered. One of the many baffling, disjointed creative decisions that define the back half of the series as the story veers in all directions, getting distracted by shiny new ideas, introducing more characters than it knows what to do with, and ultimately losing empathy for the very teenagers whose traumas it portrays.

And that grinds my gears because, among all the other frustrations that this schlocky and surface-level representation presents, the mishandling of Kaoru is also a massive missed opportunity in terms of Wonder Egg Priority as a piece of queer teen fantasy. There is a story there, in both him and Momoe, that hooks into and plays with genre conventions to explore gender and what it means to navigate gendered spaces.

There is potentially an affirming adventure in the story of Momoe the trans magical girl, recognised as a woman by a magical dreamscape and granted the power to fight for justice in a cruel world. There is also potentially a harrowing but cathartic horror in the story of Kaoru the trans boy trapped in a liminal nightmare dimension that insists he is a girl. Each of these stories—and hey, maybe even the crossover between them, when Momoe rescues Kaoru in an act of solidarity just like in the show—could be used as a platform to explore different ideas and make different statements, using the framing of their respective genre and worldbuilding rules to their advantage. There’s potential here. There’s just not time.

Momoe and Kaoru’s fate is similar to so many of the show’s sidelined, undercooked characters and concepts, but it feels especially tragic. This was something that frustrated me about the show back when I first watched it, but I was not quite able to articulate why until I considered examples of works that tread superficially similar ground but engage with those ideas much more thoroughly and much more effectively. There is great potential for all sorts of gender-funky storytelling in the fantasy genre space, whether writers are creating utopias or dystopias, whether they want their readers to sigh happily or let out a primal scream of recognition.

With all this possibility in the air, and with more and more works coming out that do make the earnest attempt to play in this space, I can’t help but cast my mind back to Wonder Egg Priority and all its misfired ambition and missed opportunities. Don’t get me wrong: I hold Momoe and Kaoru close to my heart. I just can’t help but grasp at the shimmering dream of what they might have been in a series that afforded them more time, more care, and more willingness to explore the possibilities of queer fantasy and trans storytelling.

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Filed under Archetypes and Genre, Fun with Isms

4 responses to “Wonder Egg Priority and the (Missed) Opportunities of Trans Magic

  1. I haven’t seen the show, but I think you raised some interesting points about trans identity in fantasy settings. I feel like so much of “being trans” is informed by, or is in opposition to, the binary definitions of male and female that have pervaded western culture for the past 500-ish years. Like, the term non-binary only makes sense if there is a “binary” to be not a part of. I wonder if in a fantasy world where the culture/society is different from our own, would we even see being trans in the same way? Would people even make a distinction between trans and cis, or would they just see everyone as different parts of a gender spectrum? In short, what does it mean to be trans, or to write a trans story, in a world where transphobia/cisnormativity doesn’t exist?

    Also, I chuckled at the title of a trans anime being “Egg”. Very on the node there 😛

    • Absolutely! These are such interesting questions to play with, especially if you’re creating a whole fantasy world from the ground up. And if you create a world that sees gender significantly differently to our own, do the characters still read as “trans” to contemporary readers? Ah, it’s so cool.

      Ha – I can’t believe I missed the opportunity to make that joke!

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