Who’s Afraid of the Gender Apocalypse?
The growing trend of stories about the disappearance of a single gender often negates the existence of trans people
We hold onto things more tightly when we feel they are in danger. We cling to a relationship as it falls apart; we know we must leave home, so we keep finding reasons not to. You see the same in pop culture trends. Consider the true crime boom of the last several years: as people begin to question whether we really need police at all, some of those who stand to suffer from their absence fixate on tales in which the police are the righters of wrongs, the defenders of innocents.
In a similar vein is the trope of the gender apocalypse. Lots of media might fall under this heading, including P.D. James’ 1992 novel The Children of Men and its 2006 film adaptation, or Naomi Alderman’s 2016 novel The Power—all of which tie the end of the world to some shift in gendered power. In most recent gender apocalypse stories, though, one gender (defined in various ways) succumbs to a plague, or falls asleep, or simply vanishes, leaving the rest of the population to deal with the fallout. This trope is not new—it dates back to Joanna Russ’s The Female Man in 1970 where, in the world of Whileaway, a plague killed all men centuries ago. Brian K. Vaughn’s comic series Y: The Last Man, which began in 2002 and was recently adapted into a TV show, is another example that predates our current moment.
It’s an established genre, but one that’s come to sudden and alarming prominence. In addition to the aforementioned Y: The Last Man adaptation in 2021, we have Stephen and Owen King’s Sleeping Beauties (2017), Lauren Beukes’ Afterland (2020), Christina Sweeney-Baird’s The End of Men (2021), Gretchen Felker-Martin’s Manhunt and Sandra Newman’s The Men (both 2022), all of which fit the basic definition above. If we broaden the definition to include Alderman’s The Power, or Torrey Peters’ Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones (2016; reissued 2022), we’ve gone from approximately one of these stories a decade to eight in the last six years.
It isn’t hard to see why. Our notions of gender are becoming more flexible, and so even well-meaning people are finding themselves holding more tightly to their beliefs. It’s been just over eight years since Time Magazine reported on the “trans tipping point,” the point at which trans people became represented enough in the media that cis people had a harder time ignoring their existence. Even outside the dubious barometer of representation, more and more people are identifying as trans and non-binary. It’s become common practice to share pronouns, to have all-gender bathrooms. Trans people are more visible than ever—which is a good thing, of course, but also threatens the status quo. Moreover, trans people can jeopardize a lot of the underlying assumptions, language, and power analysis that (again—well-meaning) people attempt.
All of the recent gender apocalypse media is, ostensibly, feminist. Most of it does not know what to do with trans people. In Beukes’ Afterland, trans women are killed by the same plague that kills almost all men; in Newman’s The Men, everyone with a Y chromosome disappears at 2:14 on an August morning. References to these trans women, or to the trans men who survive, are fleeting and uncomplicated. But these are books about gender. They’re trying to reckon with something toxic in the structure of society. Why wouldn’t trans people be a part of that? What fears are they reckoning with that don’t include trans people?
In Afterland, in the wake of the Human Culgoa Virus (HCV) which has killed almost all people with prostates, we follow Cole and her son Miles—one of the rare exceptions to the plague’s power—as they flee from a sort of lab-slash-prison that’s been experimenting on (and ostensibly protecting) Miles. The movement of men and boys—anyone with viable sperm—is heavily regulated in the post-HCV world, and other woman-made horrors exist outside of the governmental restrictions on travel. Cole’s rough-talking sister, Billie, pursues her and Miles across America, hoping to harvest her pubescent nephew’s sperm. Many of the horrors of this world are familiar to us: restricted travel, incarceration, climate change, religious extremism. Beukes takes pains to acknowledge that these are not predicated on the apocalypse itself. “In America, they steal kids from their parents,” reports the opening page. “This was true even before all this.” There are specific references to American Nazism, to police killings of Black children, the regulation of pregnant bodies. Beukes’ message is primarily that “women [are] capable of evil fuckery” the same as men are. These are not one-sided problems, Afterland argues. These power structures pervade America and persist, even without men running things. This is clearest in the character of Billie, who doesn’t care about exploiting her family to get rich quick. By book’s end, she is ready to kidnap her nephew and sell him to a woman who has lost her own son. She is ready to shoot her sister to get him. She is without sympathy, without love.
Of course, women are responsible for nearly all the good in the book as well. They are nurturing, and quick-witted, and capable of taking over previously male-dominated fields of work. Equality cuts both ways: men and women equally good and equally bad.
Newman’s The Men has a slightly more optimistic view of its gynocentric world. There is an inevitable amount of chaos when everyone with a Y chromosome vanishes (pilotless planes crash, patients of male surgeons are left on the operating table mid-surgery); the narrator, Jane, is undone by the disappearance of her husband and son. But the void left by this chaos is quickly filled by a quasi-communist political party called the Commensalist Party of America (ComPA), run by the narrator’s old friend (and soon-to-be lover) Evangelyne. Jane describes a scene without men as “very sweet and fantastical: a world of lambs with no wolves.” Women celebrate the disappearance of the men who assaulted them, abused them, even as they mourn the loss of friends, lovers, sons. Here, the pre-vanishing world is held up as clearly the worse. Eventually all the disappeared men and boys and trans women appear in a series of videos streaming online—mostly of them wandering through a desolate wasteland version of the world, occasionally with them being hounded by animalistic monsters or devolving, themselves, into killing children. It’s revealed in time that this wasteland is not just some distant hell—it is “a future world in which men had never disappeared.” Men are not merely categorically awful, Jane believes, but will lead to a literal hell on Earth. But here, in the world without them, the ComPA and Evangelyne gain prominence and power, and by the book’s end it is a sure thing that Evangelyne will be the next president of the U.S. The book’s final conflict is a choice Jane must make between these two worlds: the utopian world run by women, or the ordinary hell—which will become full-blown hell—that includes people who have Y chromosomes. Inexplicably (insofar as it is not explained) she chooses the latter.
Both books are also explicitly conscious of racial politics in America and steeped in fear of what white women are capable of. In Beukes, we have Billie’s vicious pursuit of (and desire to quasi-enslave) her mixed-race nephew. But even before the world has properly ended, when Cole and Miles are attempting to leave America, they are apprehended in the airport and Cole reminds herself: “They shoot Black kids in America.” We have the aforementioned concerns about limited movement across borders, and separating children from their parents, and we see all this continue past the point of apocalypse. In Newman, much—but not all of it—centers on Evangelyne, a Black queer woman who was incarcerated for killing cops. She does so to protect her family, a new religious movement of Black intellectuals who are suspected of “every form of Islamic extremism and voodoo witchcraft.” When she’s incarcerated, she begins a mail correspondence with a white ethnic studies professor who seems kind and encouraging, who helps Evangelyne publish prison letters. Once she’s out and making a name for herself, the professor turns on her, treating her with hostility, invalidating her sexuality, and claiming Evangelyne’s book, On Commensalism, as her own work. And, as is revealed late in the book, it is Evangelyne’s childhood friend Poppy, a white girl, who is both responsible for the police shooting that killed much of her family, and for the book’s mass disappearance. Other aggressions—micro and macro—against people of color abound throughout the book. And it makes sense, post-2016 election, post-2020 protests, that people would be grappling with their positionality in fiction in these ways—just as we’ve seen an influx of fiction that grapples with masculinity (and white masculinity) in recent years. And whether or not the books do a good job with that grappling isn’t really for me to say. I bring it up not to comment on how well it’s executed, but because it’s important to recognize the ways these books are consciously about identity, about the fear of the power that white cis women have. An awareness that makes their exclusion of trans women all the more notable.
What do we have so far? Books that are concerned with the horrors that white people, including white cis women, are capable of; books that simultaneously want to insist that women are capable of the good things that men can do, and capable of greater goods; books that fear loss of bodily autonomy. They are both also about how much their women characters miss their men. Cole desperately misses her husband, to the point that her narration is often punctuated by ghostly, imagined interjections from him. The Men has multiple passages about how much women miss their husbands, brothers, friends. In both cases, the argument ends up being, essentially, #notallmen. It isn’t worth the exclusion of the good ones even if it means getting rid of the bad.
And I think, especially in Newman’s case, this is what she believes she’s getting at by disappearing all trans women to the hellscape future along with all men. “Now this,” the narration reads after trans women appear on the haunting live stream. “Those trans girls gone like men. Just another way God fucked you.” It’s not fair, so says Newman, to lump trans women in with men. They should have gotten to stay on Earth, surely! There’s nothing wrong with trans women!
Beukes’ treatment of transness is meant similarly, probably. Notably, she edited small sections to make them less transphobic between the hardcover and paperback editions—laudable that she took criticism to heart, even if I don’t think it ultimately fixes the book’s problems. (I am going to quote from the more transphobic version, because I am more interested in what is done out of instinct than through measured consideration.) A section explaining the apocalyptic virus reads: “Unlike your racist Fox News-lovin’ grandparents, you’ll be pleased to know that HCV does not discriminate on race, class, religion, or sexuality. You just need to have that Y chromosome. Sorry trans sisters, peace out: It’s the equal-opportunity fuck-you we’ve been promised since the dawn of the first mitochondrial collision.” The almost cheeky apology: so sorry, would’ve kept you if we could, didn’t work out that way. Had to do a small genocide instead.
Of course, in both cases, the disappearance or death of (nearly) everyone with a Y chromosome is a non-human phenomenon. It’s something as natural as a virus, or something as otherworldly as demons banishing evil from the world. It isn’t a neatly planned war crime, it’s just biology. Beukes and Newman could as easily have left trans women on this side of existence. It’s not hard to see that the inclusion of trans women could have furthered the examination of many of their concerns. How are trans women treated in a world where they are the only ones biologically capable of producing sperm? Have some or all of them been made sterile by HRT? White cis women are capable of awful things where trans women are concerned, too; as I write this, I see evidence of that on the news every day. So if these are the core concerns the books address, why not bend their self-imposed rules?
No surprises here: whatever their good intentions, Newman and Beukes both fail to see trans women as not, sort of, men. Both books make mention of trans characters, sure, but it ends up being the literary equivalent of Oreos tweeting “Trans people exist” without further comment. I think both books fundamentally misunderstand the relationship between trans women and power. Between trans women and themselves. In attempting to write a feminist future, they have conjured up a future that can avoid the complexities and nuances that trans women bring to our understanding of gender and power.
Consider, in both cases, the emphasis on the Y chromosome. The thing that determines whether you live or die is so essential to your bodily makeup that it is baked into DNA itself. It is something that cannot be transitioned away from, a link between trans women and men. And though it’s an essential commonality, it’s also meaningless. A trait that men and trans women share that has little to do with the experience of living in the world as either.
The two mentions of trans people quoted a few paragraphs above illustrate how each writer considers trans bodies. Consider Newman’s claim that being vanished from the planet is “just another way God fucked” them. It’s almost impossible to read this without assuming that the primary way these trans women have been “fucked by God” is by not being born cis women—a stance that, to my knowledge, only the absolute most blackpilled of trans women would buy into. Trans people of all varieties are not made unhappy by being trans; they are made unhappy by lack of access to the medical care that helps them live comfortably in the world, by the hostility with which cis people treat them, by attempts to legislate them out of existence. Newman’s framing in conjunction with her worldbuilding is revealing: there is a biological problem with trans women, a perennial longing to be something they can never be, which is to say, women. (Consider, in contrast, trans writer Julian K. Jarboe’s tweet about God and being trans: “God blessed me by making me transsexual for the same reason he made wheat but not bread and fruit but not wine: because he wants humanity to share in the act of creation.”) In ridding the world of everyone with a Y chromosome, in order to rid the world of evil, the narration occasionally shakes its head and says What a shame the trans women had to go as well. But it denies us the chance to see them as women, rather than as members of the horde of men tramping across the desolate landscape.
Similarly, consider Beukes’ claim that her virus is “the equal opportunity fuck-you we’ve been promised,” a stance that is put in direct opposition to “racist, Fox News-lovin’ grandparents.” Perhaps this is meant to suggest everyone being brought low together; cis white men wiped out in a genocide the way they might have wished on trans and Black and brown folks. But of course, there’s not actually anything equal about that, any more than, say, affirmative action-less college admissions would be. It is further punishing people who have been the most vulnerable, creating new harm on top of old. The only conceivable way in which this is an equalizing force is if these people are all, again, sort of men. You see this explicitly in a scene immediately after: in a camp for survivors of HCV, we meet “Joe,” who “introduces himself as Josie.” She is “a shy guy, or maybe a wary one, with…beautiful lips—girlish.” Josie is continuously misgendered by the narrative and her partner, treated as an object of pity in her turquoise dress and denim jacket. It’s narrative confirmation that the book–in its hardcover edition, at least–does not distinguish between trans women and men. Instead it coos, Aw look, he thinks he’s a woman!
It is these very beliefs and concerns about trans women that underpin Gretchen Felker-Martin’s Manhunt. Just as Afterland makes the political problems of the present the problems of its apocalypse, much of the conflict in Manhunt stems from the treatment of trans women as man-adjacent. In Manhunt, the plague that has decimated the population of men—turning them into slavering monsters—is triggered not by anything innate or chromosomal, but by testosterone levels. Trans women, like the main characters Fran and Beth, survive by extracting their exogenous hormones from the testicles of men that they, uh, hunt—but so, too, do cis women with hormonal disorders like PCOS. Members of the “New Womyn’s Commonwealth” emblazon themselves with an XX insignia to distinguish their cis womanhood from the trans women they hope to build a world without. “We will no longer let the men who wear our identities and steal our history for their own sexual gratification dictate how we live and what we’re allowed to believe!” rails one of the New Womyn’s members. “We will no longer let them prey on our daughters!” Trans women who pass well, like Fran, are treated better than trans women like Beth, who don’t—a weaponized hierarchy of femininity that’s used to drive them apart once they’re living in a billionaire’s bunker hideout. But no matter how they’re treated in the short term, there’s always the threat that the cis women who run this new world will turn on them. Or as Beth puts it, after a cis woman becomes uncomfortable around her when they hook up: “I’m a girl until a real one decides I’m not.” Trans women are allowed to exist in this world so long as they’re useful: they do manual labor, or sex work, and when they outlive their use, they’re killed. And they’re always treated as a timebomb, as though the testosterone their bodies produce will turn them into monsters at any moment. Of course, as in real life, this threat is mostly an excuse to other them. To treat them as infiltrators into the safe enclaves of cis women. They aren’t the only ones who rely on exogenous estrogen—they aren’t the only ones who could theoretically turn into the testosterone monsters—but it’s their lives that are constantly under threat. Not, in this case, by an inhuman plague, but by the dehumanizing efforts of the cis women around them.
And ultimately, that’s what The Men and Afterland boil down to. However you cut it, whatever Beukes and Newman are attempting to do in their books, the fact remains: these are books that purport to be about womanhood that have no interest or ability in including trans women in that category. They are more interested in defining trans women by what they have in common with men than what they have in common with women. To include trans women would undermine Newman and Beuekes’ claims about womanhood and white womanhood. Women can do anything (good or bad) that men can do is jeopardized by trans women if you cannot quite see them as real women. It is a simplifying move, then, to exclude trans women. These writers attempt to undermine gender binaries but ultimately, by their trans-exclusion, only succeed in reinscribing them.
I’d like to believe that Felker-Martin will put the nail in the gender apocalypse’s coffin. Her book lays bare all the fears that underpin other gender apocalypse media—fears that the writers insist they do not intend to hold (and I believe them that their intentions are good) which nevertheless encourage a view of the world that lumps trans women and men into a single category. I hope that, as we see legislation pass that aspires to prevent trans children from transitioning medically or socially, more writers will recognize the need for stories about gender that do more than simply acknowledge that trans people exist, and acknowledge better our lived realities. But I fear that, just as the wave of true crime has not abated since the protests of 2020, that we will see people holding more to the retrograde ideas they’ve absorbed. That, disseminated widely by well-meaning liberal writers who want to do the right thing but fail to, those ideas will only take firmer hold. I’m afraid of what the gender apocalypse represents—about our present moment, but even more adamantly about where we’re headed.