The following feature is written by video game, comic and pop culture critic Mia Violet. She can be found on Twitter at @OhMiaGod.
Overwatch’s Zarya is a trans woman. At least, it looks like she might be anyway. I should disclose that yes, I am a trans woman myself, so I have extra incentive for wanting this to be the case. However, there are a few curious hints that back up this theory, beyond my fervent wishing. If you’ll allow me a few moments, I’ll elaborate as to what evidence there is that our favourite pinkhaired Russian is transgender.
Why it’s true:
Let’s begin with the newest piece of evidence. Ana was recently added to the game as Overwatch’s newest hero. Her original announcement brought with it a couple of new trailers, nestled within one is a new piece of artwork, a group photo of some of the game’s characters. In the photo, which is set during the game’s backstory, we can see R eaper (precreepy costume), Ana and her daughter Pharah, Soldier 76, Torbjörn, Reinhardt, Mercy and McCree. At either side of the frame we also have two new mystery characters.
Humour me for a moment, is the “guy” over on the left actually Zarya, pretransition?
They’re the right build, have the right facial features, and even a similar choice in hairstyle. As soon as I spotted them, my mind went to Zarya.
Interestingly, the person in the photo bares a resemblance to an earlier piece of artwork for the game:
That slicked back spiky hair, those muscles? Seems like it could be the same person right? Well, that silhouette is Zarya, during her bodybuilding days. This was a piece of promo art done to tease her announcement back in 2015. Could this be a pretransition shot of Zarya?
Looking outside of the game and its lore for a second, there’s more evidence that Zarya in particular is a likely candidate for being a queer character.
When she was revealed, Blizzard specifically explained they were listening to the audience’s desire for broad er diversity in their games (reference). Of course, transgender characters are woefully underrepresented in games, with practically none to speak of when it comes to other AAA titles in Overwatch’s league. Blizzard have to be aware of this and I’m certain they’ve at least entertained the idea of a transgender character.
Separately, Blizzard also said that at least one character is gay. Rather than just outright state sexualities, they’re apparently intending to reveal the information in a “natural” way, presumably as incidental information in videos and stories. Perhaps they’re doing something similar with Zarya’s gender identity?
Finally, the last piece of evidence requires a lot less elaboration: her gun shoots the trans pride flag colours.
Folks, seriously, just look at it. That’s pretty blatantly the trans pride colours in arrangement and shades. So Zarya runs around the battlefield shooting a giant trans laser.
Why it’s not true:
It would be careless of me to not cover a couple of little flaws in my beloved theory. The first of which is the fact that nobody has ever said Zarya was a member of the Overwatch taskforce.
For those who’ve not dug into the lore, Overwatch was the peacekeeping organisation that a portion of the game’s cast were formerly members of. As of the game’s present day time period, the organisation has been disbanded.
The aforementioned photo is of official Overwatch members, we know that much. Although it’s possible Blizzard may have just glossed over this part of her history, nothing in the lore says Zarya was part of the Overwatch team. Going by the information we have on her, she went from bodybuilder, to soldier in the Russian Defense Forces, there’s no mention of her having held membership in Overwatch along the way.
The reason we don’t hear about Zarya having been a member of Overwatch, is because Zarya is only 28 years old. By contrast McCree is 37, meaning if the person in that photo is Zarya, there’s a 9 year age gap between the two of them, which seems like a stretch when they look about the same age.
Things become harder to explain when you consider that Pharah, clearly a child in the photo, is older than Zarya. Though oddly Pharah is only 5 years younger than McCree, who certainly looks much, much older than her in the photo. But either way, if we use the official character ages and apply them to that photo, the theory doesn’t add up.
That said, in a world where Widowmaker’s slowed heart and altered physiology have seemingly affected her age, while Mei went unaged and frozen in cryostasis, it’s not entirely impossible, right?
Whether Zarya is or isn’t the person in the photo, she still could be a transgender character. For now, I’m choosing to believe that she is.
Something we’ve danced around here is the political implication of this being true. Russia is a very conservative country with a poor track record for LGBT rights. Blizzard would be making a powerful and supportive statement to queer fans, especially Russian ones, if they made their only Russian character transgender.
Really that cuts to the heart of why I want Zarya to be revealed as trans. It’d be a small revelation comparatively, with no impact whatsoever on the state of the game, but to trans fans it would be groundbreaking. It would mean a lot to see someone like us centre stage, as an instrumental member of the cast.
There’s a long history of fans “queering” their favourite media, including video games. For decades queer fans have used their own theories, art and stories to imagine broader representation where it’s originally lacking. Overwatch has been no exception, with a notably vocal queer fanbase already. If Zarya’s gender identity becomes part of the official lore, it’ll be exactly the kind of gesture that Blizzard say they’re trying to make. It’ll be a step towards a more inclusive franchise, where everybody can see themselves reflected in the cast, without the need to headcanon their way in.
Until it’s confirmed or not, I’ll be here with fingers crossed.
Lengthy but Interesting and Important Addendum
Firstly I want to say thank you to the people that reached out to give feedback on my above article, on why Zarya could potentially be a trans woman. Lots of folks said they enjoyed it or found it interesting, which is always lovely to hear. I also really appreciate those who took the time to explain why they had an issue with it. Discussion and differentiating opinions are obviously healthy, I didn’t expect (nor want) everyone to agree with me.
However, I noticed that there was a particular reason most of the negative comments cited, which made me realise something important. I made a pretty big omission in the original article. In hindsight, it’s painfully obvious and creates an entirely understandable gut reaction to the premise. It’s one I should have seen coming. So firstly, I’d like to apologise for not catching it.
Secondly, if you’ll allow me a moment, I’d like to elaborate as to why Zarya is actually the most progressive, surprising and significant candidate for being transgender.
As a muscular woman with traditionally masculine traits, many people had a perfectly justifiable response to what I said about Zarya. An assumption that by proposing the theory that she’s a trans woman, I was drawing from her physical strength, height and boisterous appearance to claim that she’s queer and especially likely to be trans. In actuality, these things make her potential identity as a trans woman less obvious and more refreshing. But without context, I know that sounds ridiculous.
If you’re a trans woman, especially a British one, you likely know where I’m going with this. For everyone else, stick with me and I think you’ll see where I’m coming from in a moment.
The first person I came out to as trans was my mother, I was 14. She was unprepared and completely uneducated on what it meant. Her reaction was to claim that it was impossible, it didn’t make sense, because I was too masculine to be a girl. Unfortunately for a long time I believed her, but that’s another story.
Anyway, I feel it’s important to add that I was a quiet and timid child, one who hated sports and didn’t fit in with boys. I certainly was not a masculine kid. But I also liked video games, action movies and comic books, which apparently negated everything else. I know what you’re thinking, saying only boys like video games and comics is ridiculous. Gendered stereotypes around hobbies are completely silly and don’t matter, at all. Except when you’re trans they do, they matter a lot. They probably don’t matter to you, the person who’s finally discovered their gender, but they sure matter to everyone around you.
When you tell someone you’re transgender and you want to transition, at any age, the reaction is often judgement. People will scan their memories to see if you sufficiently fit or rejected stereotypes at appropriate times. Next they’ll often tell you what they think, which could be outright denial of this precious and fragile revelation that you’ve come to.
If you can push through the denial, some particularly unsupportive people will even directly warn you away from transition, telling you such a destructive choice is wrong, too dangerous. The worst will still refuse to accept it. They’ll tell you that you can’t be transgender, as it would have been obvious in the past otherwise.
Essentially, if you’re unlucky, from day 1 you’ll be fighting to prove you’re not a fraud. Coming out means stepping onto a stage, whether you want to or not. By society you’re now being viewed as a trans person, with all the connotations that come with that.
When you begin your transition as a trans woman, the consequences of showing masculinity can be devastating. That’s never more obvious than when it comes to healthcare. Here in England for instance, the wait lists for our gender identity clinics range from 2-4 years, that’s for your first appointment. If you’re not lucky enough to be able to pay for private healthcare, then these clinics are where you’re required to go for every aspect of your medical transition. Unless you’re astronomically lucky, your local GP will not hand over a prescription for hormones. You have to get in line and wait.
When you finally arrive at a GIC, you’re assessed by two different members of staff, in two different appointments. Anyone who spends a moment of casual research will find that the advice for trans women visiting GICs is the same: dress feminine, downplay any interests you have which might be seen as “masculine” (like video games) and stick to stereotypes. I’ve been told by other trans women to say that I dressed in my mother’s clothes and played with dolls as a child, whether it’s true or not is irrelevant. It’s vital that I give everyone at the clinic the impression I am a woman and always have been, by relying on patronising stereotypes and laughable ideas of gender roles. The worst case scenario in all of this is that you will be discharged, kicked out and denied your hormones. Which can happen, it happened to someone I know even. It means you’re put back to the end of the queue to try again somewhere else, that’s if you have the strength of will to even try again.
Meanwhile in everyday life, many trans women are in environments where showing masculine qualities is a risk. Incredulously the “trans panic defence” is still often used. An explanation often used by those on trial for murder or assault, it relies on the fact that the reality of who we are can send unsuspecting men into a frothing, murderous rage.
When out in public we’re told not to be proud. Pride is dangerous, be quiet and unremarkable. That’s how you avoid becoming a spectacle in the street, or worse, a victim.
Exhibiting masculinity around unsupportive workmates or family members risks having them believe our transition is fake, fetishistic, frivolous or an outright mistake. The advice to deal with these people is often the same: blend in, eyes down, talk soft, wear unassuming clothing and especially avoid heels, because God forbid we might look even taller. It’s an atmosphere of shame and embarrassment, one many of us passionately reject, yet it permeates in many places in the transgender community. Browse through some Facebook groups, pop over to Reddit, or even visit a support meeting, chances are you’ll come across these attitudes.
Physically, hormones will eventually reduce muscle mass in trans women, something we’re intended to celebrate. In our apparent quest to become smaller more stereotypical women, physical weakness is a triumph. Many of us are also tall, which we’re supposed to resent, while shorter trans women are praised as the lucky ones.
All of this combines to dictate how we’re portrayed in the media, regardless of how many of us fight back against this narrative. To be a successful trans woman you have to conform to femininity. That’s what we’re taught by fiction, by the blatant lack of any trans woman who doesn’t fit the mould, but it grimley mirrors real life too. Being a masculine trans woman is career poison, unless you were lucky enough to become famous first, then you have a chance to stay relevant in the public eye. But when an organisation wants a token trans woman to talk to, they go to the pretty young ones first, those who look the least threatening, the least different, the least queer. That’s who we’re supposed to see as our role models. Those are the visible women our family and friends measure us by, their point of reference for what being a trans woman is. Society’s definition, a safe heteronormative demonstration of womanhood.
What does all this have to do with Overwatch? Well, Zarya is a woman with short hair, muscles, a bodybuilding career and a confident proud attitude. The opposite of what we’re told to be. If she was revealed as a trans woman despite these qualities, it would be astounding.
Some have argued that characters like Mercy, who are pretty and unassuming, would be better candidates to be revealed as transgender, because they lack qualities coded as queer. I understand where this line of thinking comes from, but I completely disagree. Mercy is a tall, blonde, thin, attractive woman with long hair, as a conventionally beautiful woman she’s the most boringly obvious candidate in the cast. She is exactly what trans women are supposed to aspire to be. At least, she embodies who our role model is supposed to be according to gatekeeping doctors, and a media industry obsessed only with trans women who look cisgender.
Instead, let’s imagine Zarya is a trans woman, it would make her one who doesn’t care what people expect her to look like. She’s shunning stereotypes, ignoring what people say she has to be and instead owning who she is with beaming confidence. She’s showing the world you don’t have to look and act a certain way to be a trans woman, you can be tall, you can be shorthaired and you can be brash. You can even build your muscles and embrace your size. She’s not ashamed of who she is, she’s proud of herself, regardless.
That is the reason I want her to be a trans woman.
I’m sick of being told I have to be petite, pretty and weak to be a good trans woman. In actuality as trans women we can look however we please, no matter our relationship with “masculine” aesthetics. It doesn’t endanger or erase our identity when we step outside of those boundaries. That’s what Zarya could stand for as a trans woman, challenging what everybody else is telling us we have to be. The very qualities that supposedly disqualify us from being women, qualities that we’re supposed to reject are what Zarya embodies.
I’ll take her as my role model any day.