To distract myself from last week’s election, I sat down and made my way through Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodríguez’s comic, Locke and Key – perfect, I know, given that it’s a supernatural horror comic. But this post isn’t about politics, nor is it going to deviate from this blog’s original vision: to critically analyze nerd media beyond evaluating whether or not something is good or bad. I’m going to plow ahead and look at my main interest (gender) in the context of this comic, primarily through the object called the Gender Key.
In case you haven’t read the series, Locke and Key tells the story of the Locke family following the brutal murder of the father, Rendell. The family moves into Rendell’s childhood home in the aptly named Lovecraft, Massachusetts, a home called “Keyhouse” where there are hidden keys hidden throughout the building. These keys open various doors and locks, all of which are supernatural: there’s the Ghost Key, which allows the user to become a ghost when they pass through a certain door; there’s the Head Key, which allows users to open up someone’s skull so that thoughts or memories can be added or removed from the mind; and there’s the Omega Key, which opens the Black Door to… somewhere (spoilers!). By far, the most interesting key to me was the Gender Key, which allows users to change gender when he or she walks through the Gender Changing Door. Our main villain, Dodge, uses this door to disguise himself numerous times, thus leading our heroes to believe an evil woman is after them when in reality, it’s their best male friend.
There’s so much I can say about this key and gender, so I’m just going to jump right in. Overall, my goal is to explore the ways in which gender shifts in this comic to force us to confront our expectations about gender binaries. The first section will analyze the origins of the Gender Key and the user’s ability to use it to escape certain societal expectations. The second section will analyze evidence of Dodge’s gender identity and investigate to what extent we can understand him as a genderfluid character.
***WARNINGS for discussion of rape, assault, homophobia, and transphobia below.***
(If I mess up pronouns, please correct me.)
Biological Sex and Gender
According to the Guide to the Known Keys that accompanies the comics, the Gender Key was fashioned by Benjamin Locke (an ancestor of the Locke family) in the 18th century in order to protect his sister from English soldiers. The entry reads: “my sister – or should I now say my brother!-fights the shadow war with Crais in the streets of Boston whilst I wait at home, like a helpless maiden, praying to the ALLMAIGHTY! for her safe return. When first I fashin’d the key, I imagained she maight trainsform to a boy to protect her, if necessaire, from the unsavorie lusts of ENGLISHMEN should the King’s foot-soldiers return to Lovecraft to abuse God fairing womain. Never did I think she wouldst WILLENGLY caist off the wardrobe of her femininitie for this ruggaid liberation among men…”
Benjamin Locke’s description here is notable for its implications about gender and femininity. At first, he says he made the key in order to protect his sister against lust and rape, which is all well and noble. But let’s pick apart this paragraph more carefully. After fashioning the key, Locke describes his sister (now brother) as the one who fights in war while he sits as home “like a helpless maiden.” Not only has the key swapped the gender of Locke’s sister, but it also seems to have swapped his own gender role as well, sending her (now him) out into the street while he acts in the role of a woman, staying at home. His tone here is resentful – femininity is not prized, and it’s mainly associated with feelings of helplessness and uselessness. This feeling is compounded in Locke’s description of his sister willingly casting off the “wardrobe of her femininity” in favor of “liberation.” In this passage, the “wardrobe” can mean literal clothes (his sister discards a dress in favor of breeches or whatever they wore in the 1700s), but it also brings up the possibility of gender identity as something that can easily be discarded, like clothes. Discarding femininity is associated with “freedom” and “liberation,” just as discarding clothing can be seen as a kind of freedom (yay for liberation in nudity?). On the flip side, femininity is signaled by enclosure (in a house) and barriers – after all, doesn’t Locke create the key to essentially lock away his sister’s virtue and keep it away from violation?
It would appear that there’s evidence of a gender binary, but what’s interesting about this key, though, is that it allows for characters to move back and forth between genders without actually changing who they are fundamentally. Although the key appears to change Locke’s sister by making her more brave and combative once she becomes male, I would argue that the Gender Key is less a tool to change the person using it and more a tool to manipulate the people around a character. Locke’s sister did not suddenly become brave and willing to fight because of her sex change – she was “liberated” and she “willingly” cast off the restraints put on her by society for being female. This says less about how the key can change the personality of a person and more about how society places limitations on people based on gender expectations. Locke’s sister wanted the freedom to fight, but as a woman, society would never allow it.
Dodge and Gender Identity
It’s almost ironic because the opposite change happens throughout the comic with Dodge. When we first meet Dodge as “Echo,” she is female. She later uses to the Gender Key to revert to her original gender, male. However, from time to time, he uses the Gender Key to become female again in order to disguise himself when performing evil acts so that the Locke children don’t suspect their male friend is actually their enemy. It’s easy to say the motivations behind this gender change are simply for practical reasons: Dodge needs a disguise, so he changes his biological sex. Sex and gender are thus a costume, much like the wardrobe Benjamin Locke mentions. But in the story we are given, Dodge is able to be more overtly threatening, more true to his aims when female. As a female, she is more openly violent and has no need to sneak around, whereas as a male, he must be careful to keep the social balances around him intact. It is the male version that is bound in this scenario: male Dodge must keep up appearances, be friendly to his enemies, etc. Female Dodge is free to fight and advance the overall evil plan (the opposite of what Locke’s sister turned brother does – the male version fights, the female version is enclosed in the domestic sphere).
It’s hard to determine whether or not this is an upset of traditional gender expectations, but regardless of biological sex, Dodge is heavily coded as feminine or effeminate throughout the entire comic. He’s drawn as feminine, even in panels where his biological sex is clearly male: he tends to have softer features (associated with comic book femininity) and his eyes seem to be more angular and have heavier lashes than other male characters. Look at the following graphics, for example. Note the eyes and the shape of the face, as well as some outfits that are associated with stereotypical portrayals of gay men. (Sorry for crappy quality – no scanner in sight for me.)
He is even portrayed as an expert fencer, a form of sword fighting that is today considered a less masculine form of combat (compared to other forms of sword fighting or more masculine sports, which typically have some violence or contact in them, such as football or hockey). At one point, Tyler calls fencing a “weenie sport” (which can be interpreted as slang for effeminate) and “dinky.” Granted, Jordan tries to masculinize it, but she instead makes it seem rather homoerotic.
This combination of male and female traits is compounded by further graphic evidence that Dodge is neither one gender or another, but frequently both. Take these graphics, for example:
The first shows Dodge’s soul in ghost form being able to change gender in appearance. As a disembodied spirit, there’s no need for gender (at one point, a character named Rufus asks Bode why he doesn’t have a penis in his ghost form), but Dodge is able to manipulate his/her gender anyway. Eventually, Dodge settles on male for most of his time as a ghost, using a female form to entice another ghost, Sam, into working with him. The second graphic shows Dodge after taking possession of Bode’s body, and there’s clearly a male and female shadow on the floor. While it’s possible that they signify Dodge’s two-facedness and trickery, it’s also significant that both gendered forms of Dodge’s original body are portrayed in this panel. The third graphic shows Dodge being forced out of Bode’s body, and as you can see, both the male and female faces of the character are present. That both forms of Dodge are present shows that it’s not sufficient to show him/her as only one gender at a time. Dodge is not beholden to a binary that separates male and female forms or even male and female traits. Dodge is simultaneously both throughout the duration of the comic.
Jenn for The Nerds of Color looks at these things and argues that Dodge’s gender shift falls in with the overall theme, that identity is a construct, and also, that the gender shift reminds us that gender and sexuality are spectrums: “The basic idea of Locke & Key is that identity is an artifice: influenced by both lived experiences and our own concepts of identity. To that end, the Keyhouse kids are able to literally transform themselves — into animals and mythological creatures but also their gender (and race) — with the quick turning of a key. One character literally lives a double life using the Gender Key, being introduced to the protagonists as both a man and a woman, each with distinct (and distinctly gendered) personalities and sexualities; and the reader can’t help but wonder if the switch in gender has changed the identity of the character, or vice versa… I think this has to do with our idea that gender and sexual identity is not made up of fixed points — male or female binaries; instead, contemporary gender theory asserts that gender identity and sexuality is a spectrum upon which we find ourselves somewhere closer to (or distant from) either extreme of masculine or feminine, hetero- or homosexual. The character who uses the Gender Key to switch between male and female is portrayed as brash, athletic, and with a strong (hetero)sexual appetite; but he is also lithe, thin, and with facial features that are typically reserved for depicting female characters in the book’s anime-inspired style. In short, he is an integration of traits conventionally both masculine and feminine in the comic book medium, and so it is more easy to accept that his gender identity is fluid.”
In some ways, I agree. I love the ease with which Dodge can change genders and not be bothered by it at all. There’s no disgust thrown at either gendered form. At no point does Dodge despise her female body, and at no point does he consider the male body to be the base and superior form. But I also disagree with Jenn in that I don’t think the personalities of male Dodge and female Dodge are so different. Yes, male Dodge and female Dodge live a double life: male Dodge is the one to sneak around and keep up appearances, while female Dodge advances evil plans. However, both are physically violent and use sexual violence. Both are manipulative and cunning. If there’s any kind of gendered experience, I’d say it would only be in the moments where Dodge uses her appearance as a female as a weapon against straight men, but male Dodge also uses sex as a weapon, though in the form of rape (or threats of rape). Otherwise, the gendered experience is precisely the opposite of the description we get of traditional gender roles in the story of Locke’s sister.
Dodge is also a villain, so we must also address the possibility that the ease at which he/she can change genders and the disrupting of traditional gender norms are examples of queer coding. Ren Martinez, in writing of queer coding in Disney films, defines the term as “the idea that a character is imbued with traits commonly affiliated with the queer community,” including “delicate voices, flamboyant mannerisms, impeccable fashion sense, willowy builds, general prissiness, and/or a fondness for cats.” Martinez notes that in Disney films, queerness is especially reserved for villains, but the same can be true for entertainment and media in general. Some examples can be Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter, Xerxes in 300, and Raoul Silva in Skyfall. For Dodge, the effeminacy of his male form may point to queer coding and the underlying threat of queer villainy. The male identity, the one that is effeminate, is the “artificial” one – it’s the form which is pretending to be friends with the Locke children, the more dangerous form because it grants access to secrets and keys and other tools that Dodge can use to advance his evil plan.
But there’s also a case for reading Dodge’s moments of binary masculinity/femininity as the real moments when villainy and danger come to light. As a woman, Dodge is frequently able to manipulate homophobic and sex-obsessed men, playing on their belief that women are sex objects. Consider the following panel:
This is perhaps the most interesting of all the panels, in my opinion, because it is one of many examples in which Dodge uses heterosexual appetite to his/her advantage. The above image depicts a flashback to when Dodge killed a number of teenagers in the 1980s, and in her female form, Dodge assures Mark Cho that there’s no homosexuality involved, no cross-dressing, no claims that she is a man in a female body. I’m well aware that sexuality and gender identity are separate concepts, but here, Dodge insists on binary gender in order to take advantage of it. Dodge is being manipulative and assures Mark that her body is real, underscored by some rather transphobic language. She says that she is “all girl,” that her body feels and responds “like a girl” and “not a man.” There’s an utter rejection of masculinity in this panel, especially in the phrase “all girl,” which is at odds with Dodge’s later gender identity of being a mix of masculine and feminine traits. (I’d also like to briefly point out that the issue of clothing comes up again – so clothing and appearance is very prevalent here and harkens back to the description of the Gender Key I discussed above). By claiming transsexuality to be a disguise and transwoman to be “a guy pretending,” Dodge is able to take advantage of Mark’s homophobia, only to lead to his downfall (Mark gets a boner after Dodge assures him that her body is real, and because of that boner, Mark is embarrassed enough to give Dodge a window in which to drive a knife through his heart). Such a binary look at gender identity, therefore, seems to be the real danger in this part of the plot.
But this is not to say that Dodge is a hero (or antihero) that blazes a trail for gender acceptance. As a man, Dodge is at his most dangerous when he exhibits more aggressive, violent masculinity. He is sexually violent towards women, frequently raping Ellie Whedon and threatening to rape Kinsey while shoving a hand down her dress at one point. He also uses derogatory terms like “cunt” and “bitch,” terms which are gendered and assert Dodge’s masculinity by treating women as the Other (the thing he is not). In these moments, Dodge rejects femininity and women, showing overt distaste for the “weaker” sex. This is not to say that genderfluid people can’t be sexist – they can. But Dodge’s use of masculinity and male gender identity is different than his use of female gender identity in that his male form relies on aggression and overpowering his victim, whereas her female form relies on deception and using her victim’s strengths and weaknesses against them.
Regardless, I’d argue, it’s in these moments where gender identity is asserted as a binary that Dodge is at his/her most dangerous or most vile. As a reader, I hated the moments when Dodge was sexually assaulting his victims or relying on sexist assumptions about the female body to get what she wanted. Instead, I was more interested in the moments where Dodge exhibited a kind of villainy that wasn’t dependent on gender identity. Moments when he/she commanded an army of shadows, fought with ghosts, etc. It’s also in these moments that as a reader, I was frustrated with the Locke children for failing to see that male Dodge and female Dodge are the same person. Because the Locke children were so focused on the two extremes (male vs female), they completely missed the other signs that Dodge was up to no good. The critique, then, is the expectation of gender norms and binary gender identity, the tendency to see Dodge’s two bodies are separate, not the same, or the tendency to see Dodge as either male or female and not both.
Of course, depending on the reader, it’s always acceptable to read Dodge as a negative example of queer coding and queer villainy. Every reader is going to approach gender and sexuality in fiction differently, and I in no way want to invalidate those readings. However, I would argue for Dodge’s genderfluidity as a more positive attribute, since there’s a sense of pleasure and fun that results from watching him/her flip from one gender to the other. Dodge is at his most fun when he sneaks around looking for keys or when he sheds his male body and becomes female in order to further his evil plans, and he’s at his least fun (and most monstrous) when he’s threatening other characters with (hetero)sexual assault and using sexist language. Thus, I read Dodge as a character that forces readers to reckon with gender binaries and, ultimately, reject them as “artifices” that are accompanied by societal expectations. The Gender Key, therefore, allows characters to move through these binaries and exploit the expectations that accompany them, and this exploitation reveals the ridiculousness and danger of insistence on rigid gender identities.