Notes Toward a Trans Speed Racer, by Jay Rachel Edidin
I've toyed for a long time with the idea of supplementing the podcast episodes with written posts, because there's always just so much to say. So when Jay mentioned the idea for this piece, I knew we had to publish it, because it is wonderful. I hope to publish more essays in the future, but I'm still working out the details of what, by who, and how often. For now though, settle in and let Jay change how you think about Speed Racer. —Elle
Earlier this week, when we were recording Episode 28 of Into It, Elle brought up the subject of trans readings of the 2008 Speed Racer film. We talked a little about that on the show—or, rather, the larger umbrella topic of gender in Speed Racer, and the fact that the movie is one of those rare franchises where you can swap out the gender of literally any character without changing the story at all.
And then the rest of the conversation bounced around my head for the next few days, and coalesced into the following (which is less a trans reading than a narrative thought experiment that’s rapidly resolving into headcanon, because I love the hell out of what it adds).
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So: Assume a trans Speed Racer. Since we’re sticking with the movie essentially as written, this Speed will be female-assigned and male-identified.
A female-assigned Speed’s early childhood is pretty much the same. In the Racer household, assigned sex informs very little beyond diapering logistics. Speed still grows up tooling timing pins. His parents dress Speed in sturdy, colorful clothes—mostly hand-me-downs from Rex—encourage his interests, and generally take him at face value.
Speed, meanwhile, discovers cars. From very, very early on, cars are everything; and everything that’s not cars is fundamentally secondary. So, when grandparents show up with dolls or ruffly clothes that are wholly impractical for the garage, Speed generally interprets this as a matter not of the gender they think Speed is, but of the fact that they don’t understand that cars are what matter.
Long before Speed cares about pronouns, long before Speed says--even to himself—that he’s a boy, Speed and Rex are brothers. Speed is adamant about this, and Rex is fine with it, and no one really wonders whether it speaks to larger issues of identity, because Speed always wants to be everything Rex is, and if Rex is Speed’s brother, then obviously Speed is also Rex’s. Rex is scrupulously careful to refer to Speed as his brother—and when he thinks about it later, he’ll think that maybe he was a little more clued in to what was actually going on than either of them realized at the time—but the relevant part at the time is that it’s important to Speed.
School is rough. Speed is weird in ways that don’t have a lot to do with gender--after all, it’s not like there are any other boys in the class named Speed, either—but gender compounds the social difficulties around them, because Speed’s single-minded fixation is the kind that tends to be tolerated much more in boys than in girls. The social dynamics of kindergarten mostly fly over Speed’s head: the other kids don’t know what to make of him, and he doesn’t really understand how to relate to people who aren’t his immediate family and/or obsessed with cars and racing. Again, gender stays on the back burner, one thread in the large tapestry of ways in which no one who’s not Speed’s family really gets Speed, and that Speed doesn’t really have the tools to bypass or articulate. And again, Speed tends to interpret the gender-mediated ways that his peers and teachers clash with him as byproducts of not understanding that cars are the most important thing.
Everything else stays pretty much the same. Speed wears red socks and flips the Mach 5 from Rex’s lap at Thunderhead. Speed writes GO REX GO on scantrons and turns the margins of his workbooks into car-crash flipbooks and gets funny looks for making race car noises during quiet work time.
When he’s maybe six or seven, Speed meets Trixie.
Trixie gets Speed. Trixie isn’t a Racer—or an honorary Racer, like Sparky; although she’ll become one pretty quickly—but Trixie, like the Racers, takes Speed at face value. She’s not as into cars as Speed is, but she’s into how into cars Speed is. She’s generally into the whole weird Speed package.
Trixie is also probably the first person to think to ask Speed if Speed would rather be referred to as a boy, which will also probably be the first time that Speed really coherently realizes that he specifically thinks of himself as a boy. On one hand: Speed knows and has always known exactly who he is. On the other hand: It’s sometimes a stretch for Speed to associate the things he knows and feels with words and concrete concepts. He’s thoughtful, but not particularly inclined to introspection. On the rare occasions that Speed thinks hard about who he is, what he mostly ends up with—and what matters the most to him—mostly has to do with driving race cars.
At some point during all of this, Rex leaves. Speed spirals. He’s always been kind of disconnected from his peers; now, he pointedly withdraws. He gets into fights—mostly, but not always, about Rex. He defends his brother incessantly and in the face of clear evidence—to his peers, to their parents, to total strangers. He wears Rex’s clothes, sleeps in Rex’s room, and carries the Mach 5 keys with him everywhere—school, bath, bed.
Rex has been dead for about a year when Speed comes out to his parents and Sparky. It’s brief and not a very big deal in the scheme of their lives: Speed is Speed; for him, coming out is mostly a matter of describing something that was already clearly there.
(The universe of Speed Racer operates somewhat differently from ours, so—for the sake of expedience, and because it makes me happy—let’s say it that universe has significantly fewer social and legal barriers to transition; and is perhaps generally somewhat less strictly gender-essentialist and binary. Getting Speed’s birth certificate changed and making sure there’s an M on his driver’s license is mostly a matter of paperwork. His school won’t care as long as the right forms are filled out. Mom takes care of it pretty much as a matter of course—Mom handles most of the paperwork in general, and all the school meetings--and Speed is pretty much oblivious to the process.)
When Speed tells her that he’s a boy, Mom hugs Speed a lot and tells him that they both love and support him no matter what. She worries, and she probably asks a few times if he’s sure, and then she dives into the practical stuff: fills out the paperwork to get Speed’s birth certificate changed, meets with his teachers to make sure there won’t be any trouble. Mom and Speed have conversations about binders that are roughly parallel to the conversation Mom had expected to one day have with Speed about bras; and Mom does a lot of research and nags about safety and fit.
(Mom probably also makes some noises about medical transition at some point—at least to periodically remind Speed that it’s an option if he wants it. Speed, I suspect, isn’t really interested. That may change eventually, but probably not until he’s much older, if ever; and when it does, it’ll be more a matter of convenience than anything else. Speed is Speed, Speed is male, and Speed’s body is male by virtue of being Speed’s; and when it comes to his body, Speed’s main priorities have to do with what it does behind a steering wheel. Again, that might change over time, but right now, Speed’s running through life at a breakneck pace, and he’s not going to stop to catch his breath until he’s got a few Grand Prix wins under his belt.)
It’s harder with Pops. Pops shuts down. He doesn’t refer to Speed as his daughter anymore, but he doesn’t call Speed his son, either, or use a lot of pronouns at all. When someone challenges him on it—usually Mom or Sparky, because Speed won’t ask—Pops grumbles that Speed is too young to know a goddamn thing.
But that’s not actually the problem. Pops has trouble accepting Speed as male-identifying for the same reason he’s dead-set against the idea of Speed racing. (That’s mostly a detail from the cartoon that could reasonably carry over to the pre-canon movie continuity: in the cartoon, Pops has forbidden Speed from racing, and Speed finally enters his first race secretly, under an assumed name).
Which is to say: Pops doesn’t give two hoots if his kid is trans: he’s scared that Speed is trying to fill Rex’s shoes, and he’s terrified that he’s going to lose Speed the same way he lost Rex.
This, by the way, is the context for the very few, very subtle changes I’d make to the dialogue of the film to reinforce this reading. I’d keep Pops’s language neutral for most of the movie—have him refer to his “kids” rather than his “sons,” and dodge pronouns altogether when referring to Speed—and then return to the script as-written with the scene where Speed is sneaking out after Casa Cristo:
POPS: I want you to know I acted rashly, I said things I wish I hadn’t. Your mother usually protects me from making an ass out of myself, but I was determined to do it this time and I guess I did a pretty good job of it. I wanted to make sure you understood how sorry I was.
POPS: The truth was, I couldn’t have been more proud of you. Not because you won, but because you stood up, and you weren’t afraid and you did what you thought was right.
SPEED: It didn’t amount to anything. It was completely meaningless.
POPS: How could it be meaningless? I saw my son become a man. I watched him act with courage and integrity and drive the pants off of every driver on the road. This is not meaningless. This is the reason for a father’s life.
I admit I went to Cortega because I was afraid that what happened to Rex was going to happen to you. And I just couldn’t take that. I couldn’t lose another one of my boys like that again. But what I realized in Cortega was that I didn’t lose Rex when he crashed, I lost him here. I lost him when he walked out of this house and I let him go without telling him how proud I was of him and how much I loved him. I let him think that a stupid motor company meant more to me than he did.
You’ll never know how much I regret that mistake, but it’s enough that I’ll never make it again.
Cause, see, here’s the thing: Speed’s story is superficially about cars and racing, but mostly, it’s about growing up. Early in the movie, during the first race at Thunderhead, one of the announcers describes Speed as “chasing the ghost of Rex Racer.” Rex—or Rex’s absence—defines Speed through the first two major arcs of the movie: at Thunderhead, where he’s literally racing his brother’s memory; at Casa Cristo, where (as far as Speed knows) Rex died. Even after he gets through Casa Cristo, Speed keeps walking in Rex’s footsteps, acts out the same scenes, until that conversation with Pops.
And then, the story becomes Speed’s.
Think about how a trans Speed deepens that narrative: what more it means to have lost the one person who really totally got him. More: think about what it means to have lost his idol, the man he wants to be; what more it means to try to find and make his own identity as a man.
Which brings me to Racer X.
Speed never got the chance to come out to Rex. Maybe Rex always knew on some level, but never explicitly. Rex finds out that his brother is trans when a male-presenting Speed starts racing professionally.
And there’s no time Rex regrets becoming Racer X as intensely as he does just then: because he knows how much his approval means to Speed; because there’s nothing in the world Rex wants more than to tell his brother that he knows and he’s proud of him and who he’s grown up into.
But of course, he can’t.
Rex goes back home as Racer X, and watches Speed’s back at Casa Cristo. When ninjas attack them in the hotel, Rex ends up in the Racer family’s room, and sees Speed in his pajamas, without a binder. And for the first time, Speed is really, really scared about that—because this race is all about having something to prove, and somehow, that bleeds into everything, even the things he hasn’t really worried about before, and his whole family is there, and it’s the race where Rex died, (and he’s already started to suspect that Racer X is Rex, and that raises the stakes of everything) and it’s all he can handle without this, too. But Racer X doesn’t say anything—not then, not later.
Everything goes to shit after the race, and Racer X finds Speed at Thunderhead. All Speed really wants is his brother back, and Racer X can’t give him that; but he can at least tell Speed that Rex would be proud of him—and because of what happened at the hotel, it’s pretty clear that he’s not just talking about racing.
And that is the story of that.
Ultimately, a trans Speed changes almost none of the surrounding narrative. Speed is a weird, car-obsessed kid from a weird, tight-knit, loving family. Speed’s early life is defined by his older brother’s presence and then absence. Speed is earnest and dedicated and loves his family more than anything in the world; and fights ninjas; and wants to win races not for the glory but because it’s the only way to make sure he gets to keep driving. Speed wins the Grand Prix, and exposes Royalton and Cannonball Taylor, and shares the milk with Sparky, and kisses Trixie in front of a million flashbulbs.
And certainly making Speed trans, deepens and reinforces some of the themes that are already present—especially the depth of Speed and Rex’s relationship—but the movie itself still plays out almost precisely as written. I love that.
I mentioned way back at the beginning that one of the many things I love about Speed Racer is that it’s a functionally gender-agnostic film: make Rex female or Mom male or Sparky genderqueer, or any characters trans, and within the world Andy and Lana Wachowski built, you still have exactly the same story. Gender is present in the characters and world of Speed Racer, but it’s a secondary consideration; and the super-saturated, dialed-up-to-eleven nature of that world makes most aspects of public identity as much a matter of performance and costume as anything else. Masculininty and femininity in Speed Racer are very much performed, and—I think—performed in very gender-agnostic ways. From a more personal standpoint, that’s part of why I love Speed Racer: in a mass media landscape that even at its most progressive often feels aggressively binary and heteronormative, Speed Racer relates to and interacts with gender in the same ways I do.
As a corollary to the preceding: my version of the trans-specific elements of Speed’s story are pretty low-key and non-traumatic. Some of that is a matter of what I think realistically fits the character and his family as established canonically. Some of it is that I think we need more trans narratives in popular media that aren’t about trauma. I don’t remember the exact quote, but I remember Sfé Monster talking about this pretty extensively in context of Kyle and Atticus: the importance of stories about trans kids with supportive and loving families whose transness is presented as one part of a much larger spectrum of identity, experience, and narrative.
Go, Speed Racer, go.
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Miscellaneous narrative side notes:
- When Speed comes out, Spritle either hasn’t been born or is still very, very young. He grows up with Speed as his big brother, and while his parents don’t make a big deal of it, they’re very careful to answer kid questions about anatomy in nongendered ways. Spritle will probably work a few details out eventually, but it’ll never really matter to him. Spritle is Spritle in much the same way as Speed is Speed.
- Once Speed is out, he and Sparky will figure out a lot of guy stuff together as they’re growing up. Sparky’s a bit player in the movie, but he and Speed are roughly peers and really close friends in the cartoon, and I like that dynamic. Traditional masculinity isn’t something that seems to come very intuitively to Sparky, and I dig the idea of the two of them casually puzzling this stuff out in the backgrounds of their lives.
- Trixie and Speed are very reluctant to define what they are to each other, not counting the brief period when Speed was seven and he proudly proclaimed to everyone who would listen that when he grew up he was going to marry Trixie and live in a helicopter. (That’s still basically Speed’s long-term plan, although saying it aloud after they hit puberty feels weird enough that he generally doesn’t.) They’re definitely more than best friends--and always have been--but it’s not really until the arc of the movie that their relationship moves definitively into explicitly romantic territory. The “maybe we should practice” scene is pretty generally representative of how it usually plays out.
- Bearing in mind the above notes regarding the world Speed lives in, his assigned sex has never really been an issue in racing. Speed is really young compared to most professional drivers, and that gives him a lot of insulation from norms: his family hovers, he stores his stuff in the locker room but doesn’t change there, and he avoids the after-hours and hookup scenes almost entirely and for reasons that have nothing to do with gender.
- It would be easy to use Speed’s gender identity to underwrite Royalton’s villainy. I wouldn’t. He doesn’t give a fuck what pronouns Speed uses. Royalton is, in some ways, the equal inverse of the Racer family: he’s really only interested in one thing, and all other considerations are secondary.
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Miscellaneous side notes about some other stuff:
- Speed Racer is objectively the greatest movie of all time, and if you talk shit about it, I will fight you.
- It should go without saying that gender, gender identity, questions of social and medical transition, and all that stuff are super personal. The above notes are to be understood as story, character, world, and writer-specific.
- Regarding the last of those, it’s also probably worth mentioning that—while my gender identity is not, for the most part, something I’m willing to discuss publicly—my postulation of a trans Speed Racer involves a degree of personal projection, as such things are wont to do. In particular, a lot of Speed’s early understanding of and relationship (read: obliviousness) to his own gender is drawn pretty heavily from my own experience, which I understand as fairly common to a lot of variously non-gender-normative kids on the Autism spectrum. (The whether-it’s-reasonable-to-read-Speed-Racer-as-Autistic conversation is a whole other one, to which my answer is an adamant yes, but you do you.)
- This essay and the thought experiment that informed were inspired in part by “Your Fixed Point” and “Another Universe,” a pair of works postulating a female Tony Stark--whose narrative, I should note, is mediated by gender in many of the ways the Speed Racer’s is not. You should go read both of those stories, because they are brilliant, and they will make you think while they break your heart.
Jay Rachel Edidin is a writer, editor, and journalist. A ten-year comics-industry veteran, Rachel has written about arts, science, and pop culture for Wired, Playboy, Kotaku, Comics Alliance, and elsewhere; and is marginally Internet Famous as @WorstMuse and half of the podcast Rachel and Miles X-Plain the X-Men.