Earning the Hindsight Badge: On Jo from ‘Lumberjanes’ #17
This week, in Boom Studios' Lumberjanes #17 by Noelle Stevenson, Shannon Watters, and Brooke A. Allen, fans got a very pleasant confirmation of a long-rumored background detail on the character of Jo. Spoilers ahead if you're not caught up.
The sequence above confirms something what many fans had already assumed to be true; Jo is transgender.
What's nice about this sequence is that while it is technically a capital-r Reveal, it's not treated as such. It's implied heavily that each of the Lumberjanes knows already and accepts Jo, which is why it's never come up; it only surfaces when Jo talks to a questioning Barney, with the gender-coded Scouting Lads and Lumberjanes standing in for opposite poles of the gender binary.
It fits entirely into the queer-friendly universe of Lumberjanes, where Jo's parents can both be men and it's 100% accepted, and where Mal can carry a crush the size of the moon for Molly and no one bats an eye.
It's also notable that Jo is a transgender woman of color, because often in the transgender community, the unique challenges of transgender people of color aren't detailed or communicated as well as they could be. At the Lumberjanes camp, those challenges fade away, replaced by challenges involving tests of strength and cunning against mystical powers and forces of legend.
In a world where LGBTQ youth still struggle for acceptance, it may not be that realistic to present a world this accepting of the marginalized --- but then again, shamanistic bear-women and Greek gods aren't that realistic either. Depicting a world as we want it to be is a fine calling for fiction. I wouldn't want every story featuring LGBTQ youth to be pure escapism, but I'm glad that this one is.
What's also nice about this is the way it's been built up to, and how it lends previous scenes a new context. A lot of people have pointed out this picture from issue #12 with Jo as a child, presenting as a boy --- but what sticks out to me goes back even further, to a couple of scenes in issue #5.
The issue opens with Jo suffering an anxiety dream, where the other Lumberjanes have succumbed to the possession that has wracked the Scouting Lads. In hindsight, it's hard not to spot the gender subtext here, with Jo as the only Lumberjane unaffected from a curse that in real life seemed to cut across gender lines. There's no clear one-to-one metaphor – is Jo worried about being different from the others and them turning on her, or is she worried that the possession that's struck the Scouting Lads will affect her? Nothing's clear, but dreams are often like that.
What's clearer is Jo's anxiety when the Bear Woman confronts her and implies she's hiding her true identity. Of course, Jo's true identity is Jo, and nothing else – but what trans people know about who they are, and what others choose to believe, are not always the same thing. In light of knowing that Jo is transgender, it's easy to see why she's anxious in this scene – being confronted and challenged about "who we really are" is a deep-seated fear with transgender people, even if it turns out the accuser was really worried about a demigod acting as bait for dinosaurs.
So rather than coming out of nowhere, this reveal plays out naturally and lends new context to Jo's actions and characterization, which is the mark of a well-planted story seed.
Lumberjanes gets a lot of praise and deserves every word of it, and with this reveal about Jo, it's gone from strength to strength again. There is a tendency in social advocacy criticism to play "problematic portrayal whack-a-mole," smacking down wrongheaded fictional portrayals as they come up. But it's equally important to highlight the good and the worthy, and I'm pleased to say that Lumberjanes, with this latest issue, has done well by transgender people in my estimation.