Why is that one pink?
The odd 30 year history of Female Characters in Transformers
(Note: I will briefly touch on one storyline that includes a sort of forced-transition regarding gender, which may be sensitive for some.)
Transformers is back! This time with a Netflix miniseries that’s making old fans happy by drawing on material from the original series to re-tell the story in a provoking way. They’ve also given new fans a gift by making Megatron a handsome daddy dom. Everyone wins.
The story is roughly the same as the original show: bad guy Decepticons are conquering Cybertron but killing it in the process, good guy Autobots are resisting. During the first episode, we’re introduced to Elita-1.
She appears with little fanfare and is introduced as a competent warrior and maybe-kinda love interest figure for Optimus Prime. She also manages to be a meaningful character that isn’t built to look like she’s wearing a pink metal bikini, and that’s where I’m going to focus. This character showing up isn’t done in a weird way or with a lot of fanfare, and THAT is the result of a pretty remarkable journey of how Transformers has handled lady robots.
Elita-1 herself is a callback to an episode of the original cartoon, in which the Autobots return to Cybertron for some reason and it is revealed that the “resistance” there are all females who are presented as vaguely romantic connections. After the Autobots win and go back to Earth, the ladies are left on the disintegrating hellworld of Cybertron and never mentioned again. When the cartoon eventually spawned a movie, we were given Arcee. Whereas Elita-1 and her friends had fairly plain designs, Arcee is a hot pink space-convertible with lots of curves.
She spends most of the movie nagging the male characters and nursemaiding their obligatory human child companion, but gets a lot of screen time. Arcee stuck around in most Transformers fiction from that point onward, but at the time she wasn’t even considered important enough to be given a toy. There were prototypes of her throughout the years, but none made it to production. The first ‘Arcee’ figure didn’t release until 15 years later, and it was a Transformers Convention Exclusive which was just a repaint of another existing female character. There were some models, non-transforming statues, and some…other things, but never just a normal toy. In fact, it wasn’t until 2010 -almost twenty five years after her first appearance- that the first genuinely representative toy of Arcee hit the shelves.
When the original cartoon ended in America, it carried on in Japan for some time — although with some changes. In one series, a group of humans bond with dormant Transformers and we are given our second female recurring character: Minerva. The resulting toy made it to America, but was repainted and portrayed as a male character named Nightbeat who went on to be very popular and get a lot of attention in future Transformers fiction, but did not have a head that transformed into a schoolgirl. The beloved “Beast Wars” issued the good guys and bad guys one lady each: a hawk named Airazor and a giant spider named Black Arachnia. In both cases, male characters were infatuated with them — though Transformers had yet to explain the hows or whys of gender or romance in-universe. In the case of Airazor, she eventually merged with her boyfriend (sigh)”Tigatron” to create a single powerful character known as Tigerhawk. I chose to know things like this instead of algebra. Most Transformers shows from that point on included a lady or two, often a version of Arcee or Black Arachnia. Oh, and there was also something called “Kiss Players” in Japan: a manga with an incomprehensibly convoluted plot focusing around young and often-scantily-clad human girls who could “power up” their Transformer partners with kisses. Not great! Not gonna talk about it!
Running concurrently with the original Transformers cartoon and for a long while afterward was an accompanying comic in America and a British counterpart that often contained the same stories but sometimes ran entirely different arcs. Arcee featured in the British comics quite a bit, but barely appeared across the pond. The only developed female character in the U.S. run was ‘Circuit Breaker’, a human woman in a metal bikini who had electricity-based super powers and hated all Transformers. Marvel had designs on carrying her over into the rest of their comic universe, but it never manifested. The comics, however, eventually became where the big changes would start to happen.
Transformers had started as a means to sell toys to little boys, but culture had shifted. Very Smart People realized one day that girls and women also have money and also sometimes like things. Soon after, they realized that boys and men will sometimes like female characters and even spend money on them. Given renewed mainstream attention by the Michael Bay “movies”, the Transformers comic rebooted for the 3rd or 4th time to start an ambitious new continuity that would be told over the course of hundreds and hundreds of issues spanning at least a dozen different individual titles. This would be set in the ‘Generation 1’ style with all the familiar characters, but work in some more complex stories and worldbuilding suited to the now-adult audience who’d grown up with the franchise. It would be in this series, told over the course of several years, that Transformers started to really ‘get there’. Their first step was to completely blow it, as one does.
We never knew why Arcee had boobs and great legs when every other Transformer was built like boxes stacked on paint cans. Does this ancient and distant race of robots reproduce? How does gender even work for them and why would they seem to be based on humans as a template? Writers saw a way to answer these questions while re-introducing Arcee to the continuity. We were told that a mad scientist on ancient Cybertron saw gender in other species and wanted to duplicate it in Transformers. The resulting origin story is a sort of forced-transition body-horror tale mixed with psychological torture in which Arcee is ‘made’ into a female. The writers then gracefully explain that this has made her an insane vengeance-driven sociopath who went to robot jail for being too hysterical and emotional. Not great!
Folks were unimpressed, but the bell had been rung. Writers couldn’t quite undo the origin story, so they basically just never mentioned it again and quickly had Arcee develop into a more fully-realized character. When Cybertron discovered several ‘lost colonies’, writers had their next opportunity to introduce some ladies and handled it more gracefully: there were lots of lady Transformers all along, actually, but most just happened to be off-world! While some of these new characters were still oddly curvaceous and possessed of curiously pouty robot-lips, others looked like “normal” Transformers.
These characters were treated fairly normally and, while still a distinct minority, were given important storylines and realistic personalities. Among these characters was the winner of a contest in which fans could vote on designs for a character who’d be in the comics and get a toy.
They chose Windblade, a curvy space-geisha with a samurai sword lightsaber. Immediately after selecting her, the fandom promptly started arguing about her with a furor not seen since the Beast Wars era “TRUCK NOT MONKEY” fight. Some people thought it was a good idea to introduce more female characters and most didn’t care, but a few thought that this was part of a larger SJW agenda to feminize the noble Transformers property and ruin western civilization(it remains to be seen if this will pan out). It’s perhaps not entirely coincidental that the controversy was happening right around when the ‘Gamergate’ thing was starting up.
Windblade became a popular character despite all the nonsense. She was featured prominently in the comics and is now a staple in Transformers fiction moving forward. Her best friend and bodyguard ‘Chromia’ was even a re-imagining of one of the ladies from that original 80’s cartoon episode. Speaking of that episode, Elita-1 finally made a proper comeback around this time.
She’d appeared here and there in fiction, usually as a repaint of an Arcee toy, but now she was a fully realized character who was not Optimus Prime’s maybe-girlfriend but instead the battle-hardened commander of a massive ‘titan’ and the colony of Transformers inside. She seemed primed to be a major antagonist but the writers promptly forgot to do much with her as the comic run was wrapping up; oh well!
Before that comic series closed, though, they managed to explain a couple key questions: Transformers can have romantic relationships and enter one by deciding they like one another a lot and don’t seem to have a concept of orientation. Transformers just innately know if they are a ‘he’ or a ‘she’ and no one bothers to question these pronouns(because doing so would be a pretty stupid thing for someone to do!). Arcee even convinces a fire-breathing Triceratops named ‘Slag’ to change his name to ‘Slug’ because ‘slag’ is a derogatory term for ladies in the real world and no I am not making this up.
And now here we are. The comics were rebooted, allowing them to leave all baggage behind and introduce female characters in a normal way without clumsy explanation. The new show on Netflix does much the same. Elita-1 is not treated as a token or a gimmick, nor is she introduced with lots of pomp or special attention, and that is what makes it a noteworthy moment thirty-plus years in the making.