I know, I know. You’re probably wondering if this article was an accidental mis-post intended for my DeviantArt or Fan Fiction dot net account.
You’re rolling your eyes and expecting some obscure premises strained to the point of tearing. As many similar articles have prefaced, trans folks just haven't been allotted much in the regard of representation. And, yes, lately it could be argued that in response we’ve developed a bit of pareidolia in regards to seeing our narratives reflected elsewhere.
But seriously: hear me out. I’ve got a pretty solid argument here. The events that play out near the end of this series make way more sense with my explanation than the one given.
From 1983-1985, CBS had a cartoon based on the seminal tabletop role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. You either never heard of it or thought it was the greatest thing ever, in part because the focus put on it by good old 1980s Satanic Panic.
The series was about a group of teenagers sent to a magical land of contemporary pop culture fantasy, a fish-out-of-water premise also visited in the 80s Saturday morning cartoons Kidd Video and later Captain N The Game Master. Dungeons and Dragons had a bit of a dour, morbid streak in comparison to the other two, however. In 1985, the National Coalition on Television Violence declared it “a worship of violence” and unfit for network television. It certainly found an odd place in the cultural zeitgeist of the time, inspiring fantasies of imagined episodes where the kids eventually go home or it’s discovered they’ve been dead the whole time, stuck in a high-fantasy purgatory.
That sentient lump of people-colored Play-Doh pictured above is the Dungeon Master, and his role in the cartoon was sending a gang of teenagers lugging heavy enchanted weapons to their doom and disappointment over and over for three seasons.
It's also hinted at in the series that he is Venger's father, and considering Venger is half-fiend, that implies Dungeon Master had sex with one or more of these unpleasant creatures. For some reason he's considered one of the good guys.
Venger is the villain of the series, a seemingly gender-ambivalent shapeshifting witch-monster driven to acquire greater and greater heights of magickal power and balking at seemingly arbitrary expectations of morality and decorum. If you're wondering why I'd be so inclined to include a villain as a canonical trans woman, read the second half of the previous sentence.
Voiced by pre-Optimus Prime Peter Cullen, Venger is a badass icon of 80s cartoon weirdness on so many levels.
I've written about Venger's daring fashion sense and flaunting non-conformity of gender norms before. Since then, I have spent more time looking over episodes for personal nostalgia, entertainment, and sharing my gift of snark with the world. Reviewing the way these story arcs come together holistically, outside of an episode-to-episode context, brought me to the conclusion Venger is a trans woman, rather than (or rather in addition to being) genderqueer.
I mean come on; you have a flamboyant gender-non-conforming goth-witch in a dress with well-established daddy issues–
And yes, that is clearly a dress. When have you ever heard of a pleated wizard robe? Never. That's when.
On a more serious note to present my premise, we need to consider the final episode Venger appears in. No, I'm not talking about Requiem, the lost episode where Venger goes back to being a noble good human. Get serious; nobody wants Venger to be a good guy. They didn't even bother to film the episode. I'm talking about Citadel Of Shadow, which has massive glaring plot holes that I believe only be filled meaningfully by viewing them through the lens of Venger being a trans woman.
Sorry for spoilers for a Saturday morning cartoon from three decades ago, but–
the plot of the episode is that Venger has a "sister" named Kareena–that pretty much looks exactly like him. She even fits into his clothes with no problem (which I'll get to later). Venger supposedly had this "sister" locked away where nobody could find her, but she is released. She immediately assumes his throne, but has trouble gaining the respect of Venger's soldiers. Venger and Kareena have a final showdown and Venger is banished away AND IS NEVER SEEN AGAIN IN THE SERIES.
We're talking about a character that has been bodily disintegrated six times, buried under rubble, banished to alternate dimensions and done away with in all sorts of manners.
The episode starts with the adventurer kids finding themselves herded by orcs into a strange barren craggy enclosure called the “Hills Of Never” that even the orcs won't follow them into. Menacing gargoyles are perched around, warding off visitors. They find a girl trapped by a spell in a cave within the enclosure, which gets increasingly Freudian. Venger senses immediately when the girl in the cave is freed, and is visibly distressed.
Once free, the girl begins to display traits of her “brother” Venger, even having the same shadow
There's an implication from Dungeon Master in a later scene of a struggle between Venger and Kareena, which Venger won.
Keep in mind that at literally no time in the entire series has Dungeon Master ever explained anything in a straightforward manner; it's always been allegories and riddles. Shortly afterwards in the same scene, when explaining yet again how the kids might be able to get home this time (a fairly important thing they’ve begged him for every episode for three seasons now) he mumbles a riddle about “one of them having to be more wrong than right” and vanishes. The possibility of him breaking the act to relay any sort of information directly is pretty slim; he appears to take a perverse glee in being incomprehensible.
Why is he considered a good guy again?
Also keep in mind that DM, being Venger's dad, is also Kareena's. How has he not checked on her or attempted to rescue her in three seasons of episodes? To drive the point home, when we see Kareena again, she's dressed like this.
This episode does not fuck around.
Does...Venger keep a version of his trademark outfit re-fit for a more feminine body just lying around in a closet somewhere in that castle? Does he just hold onto his “sister's" clothes? There's no explanation for that outfit that makes sense—this scene happens at most a day since we last saw Kareena. And even if you could come up for a reason for the outfit, how about an explanation for the wings that is less complicated than her being another form of a well-established shape-shifter.
At the end, they manage to trap Venger with some allegory about “acting from the heart”, the act itself which should be taken with a grain of salt. The magic rings the kids acquired and hoped to use to get home are thrown at Venger in sacrifice to save Kareena, and *poof* he vanishes. As far as “defeating Venger” tactics go, it’s surprisingly lightweight, almost like he stopped trying.
Over the course of the series, Venger has been disintegrated, exploded, burned alive, crushed under an entire castle and trapped in any number of magical prisons nearly every episode.
Dungeon Master welcomes the no-longer-evil Kareena "home", which is a little odd to say at that point. Where was his wizarding ass when she was supposedly stuck in a cave for some untold amount of time? Did he think Venger and Kareena’s feud was none of his business? Where is Dungeon Master welcoming her “home” to? Was Dungeon Master giving Venger's castle to Kareena as her new home? On what authority? I mean yeah, Venger has castles to spare, but how can they be so sure Venger won't return to reclaim it?
Unless, of course, this whole conflict was a resolution of the shapeshifting wizard's gender identity. The end of a seemingly endless cycle of self-destruction and alienation, masochistically setting oneself up for grand failure every episode cycle. An embrace of empathy and self-acceptance that had been denied.
Perhaps Dungeon Master was welcoming home a more confident, authentic form of Kareena over the agonized, paranoid and ultimately unhappy Venger.
This is actually a deviation from the way such coming out stories wind up; usually coming out as trans complicates family life and much awkward “comedy” revolves around the period of adjustment for the rest of the family to overcome their own internalized misgivings and prejudices (or not, with also “hilarious” results).
Dungeons & Dragons is able to skirt this–again, where have you seen a pleated wizard robe?–possibly because Kareena is introduced from the start as a black sheep with nowhere further to be alienated from the family embrace, or maybe because this takes place in a fantasy realm where a shapeshifter reconsidering her preferred form is not met with any sort of religious or ethical incongruencies.
Maybe Dungeon Master left Kareena to her own devices (and self-inflicted anguish) not out of neglect but to allow her to grow organically without his (potentially resented) influence.
Maybe, just maybe, DM isn’t such a bad dad after all.
One of the more challenging aspects of the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon (comparative to other Saturday morning cartoons of the era) was the unusual levels of empathy expected from the audience for even ethically complicated characters. As a canonical development, this revelation/resolution of such a fundamental and painful struggle within a character widely regarded as a pitiless nemesis (that the “good” protagonists even considered murdering early on in the series) takes that challenge to a whole other level.