Queer and trans people seek metaphors and allegories for our experiences in the media we encounter because so often we are not represented explicitly. Instead, we become deep readers, seeking out themes that resonate with our lives. Finding trans characters featured explicitly in videogames, especially at the AAA level, is rare. Representation in media matters, and videogames are no exception. We need more trans voices and characters who represent a wider variety of the archetypes in our communities. Until then, we will just have to keep reading between the lines. Something I’ve been doing for a long time.
In the PlayStation 2 video game series, Xenosaga, the android KOS-MOS represents a savior for humanity. The series contains deep philosophical and religious themes. KOS-MOS is no exception, serving as a vessel for the soul of Mary Magdalene. Her entire existence is meant to bring about massive change for humanity, unlocking a path to the original Earth, long lost and forgotten. KOS-MOS is the ultimate weapon to fight the Gnosis, monstrous beings embodying fear, violence, and destruction. She’s also a trans lesbian icon. Or at least to me.
In many respects, KOS-MOS is feared as being powerful beyond control. Her awakening and autonomous action strikes fear in her creators. Despite their attempts to subdue and contain her, she operates independently. There are no restraints capable of quelling the power contained within.
This fear of being uncontrollable is reminiscent of the way society attempts to subdue the transformative power of the trans experience. We embody the antithesis of the rigid binary, defying the expectations placed upon us at birth, not adhering to our predestined social role. Restraints and controls are placed upon us through coercive attempts to saddle us with this preordained gendered identity, cissexist media portrayals of trans people as monsters or pathetic attempts and poor substitutes for so-called “legitimate” embodiment and identity. When we rise up despite this and gain visibility, the society that forced the roles upon us that we now defy becomes fearful, seeking to stop the “contagion” of our self-awareness and independent action. This happens through further entrenchment of anti-trans bigotry. What was once social ostracization and humiliation changes form to legislation, codifying the limits of our acceptability. Yet, we continue to gain power, with the transphobic abuse fueling our rage at our circumstances, making us stronger and more resilient through constant inoculation.
Of course, one of the main reasons for her activation is to protect Shion Uzuki, one of the lead programmers responsible for her creation. The two have stories that intertwine deeply, stories that could be read as love, affection, and commitment. While not outright stated, it seems that all other relationships in Shion’s life pale in comparison to the deep connection she shares with KOS-MOS. Shion is the only human KOS-MOS demonstrates much warmth toward in the entirety of the series.
Is it fair to call this lesbian love? Would a mother-daughter pairing be more apt? Both are legitimate questions, and ones open to interpretation. Our individual lenses are what determines our interpretation, as this essay attempts to suggest. Yet, it is undeniable the magnetic connection the two share. Even some promotional imagery seems to suggest that the two are more than “just friends.”
While KOS-MOS is created by science, she operates at a supernatural level, containing an essence beyond her mechanical parts. She is powered by an esoteric connection to the all and nothing of the universe, U-DO—a source of limitless power. Given that she was created by man, it’s fitting that KOS-MOS is nearly a standard issue anime archetype, with long blue hair, massive breasts, high-heeled thigh-high boots, and a curvaceous hour-glass figure. In each iteration of the game, she undergoes enhancements that leave more of her skin exposed. Exposure is akin to power, and also suggests that sex appeal is an essential part of a feminine-coded weapon. Her true strength, however, comes from the essence within. At many points in the series, KOS-MOS unveils a power even her creator is unaware of, destroying an entire army of enemies, absorbing them into her core.
Reliance on the technology of man for transformation is something that many trans people can understand, particularly those of us who have pursued medical treatments to align our bodies with our identities in the modern era. Susan Stryker, in her 1994 piece “My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix,” argues that the transsexual body is a form of “technological construction.” She identifies with Frankenstein’s monster deeply, sharing that her “exclusion from human community fuels a deep and abiding rage in me that I, like the monster, direct against the conditions in which I must struggle to exist.” In other words, it is not the condition of the self, but the treatment of the self by others that creates much of our suffering. If we lived in a society where being transgender was viewed as positive, the maltreatment would cease to exist, replaced only by celebration and respect. Our bodies are a construction, sure, but so is our monstrosity. We must endure the attacks of our adversaries, and like KOS-MOS, we often absorb them to become stronger if we are to survive amongst the cruelty of our culture at all.
Transgender rage is a form of power that we can transform into positive good, as Stryker proposes. It can be the fuel on which we run, representing a connection to a deep well similar in nature to KOS-MOS’ connection with U-DO. In fact, U-DO is thought to be genderless, a collective being that is stronger and more powerful than any singular entity. A common activist theme applies: when we unite, we effect change. Together, we can transform society, freeing us all from gender oppression, cis and trans people alike. But it is our retention of the plurality of gender that gives trans people a deeper, nuanced understanding of the human condition. We’ve seen two or more sides of the many-faced die, experiencing first hand the reality faced by people in other genders.
KOS-MOS represents a dichotomy of gendered expression, at least in terms of common gender stereotypes. As described before, KOS-MOS is the archetypical female in form, yet, her personality (of course, she is programmed this way) is that of strength, power, calculation, logic, decisiveness, and protection. Certainly, these traits are common in women, too, but often they are coded masculine in American culture. KOS-MOS shows a dualism of identity, confidently exhibiting function at odds with her form.
Despite her mechanical nature, there are moments in the series that seem to indicate that KOS-MOS is more than just an android, she is in fact a deeply spiritual being. Her eyes switch from their normal red hue to the blue hue of Mary Magdalene. These moments of divinity show an ethereal understanding of reality, a connection to the soul of the universe and all humanity with it.
It is in this manner of challenging the expected gender roles of her form that KOS-MOS displays the social power of transgender identity. Whether we are masculine, feminine, or androgyne in appearance, we often reject the notions that we must perform our gender in one strict fashion or another, or at some point in our lives, we have displayed a form of gender expression at odds with our outward appearance. In essence, we prove the binary false and render the association of gendered characteristics as tied to sex and gender expression meaningless. We are multi-faceted, and can be many things at once.
The duality of KOS-MOS extends to her conflict with her supposed replacement, T-elos. While KOS-MOS contains the soul or will of Mary Magdelene, T-elos is made of her body, enhanced with cyborg technology. (Let’s just set aside that Magdelene has been dead for, oh, nearly seven thousand years… that body had to have been in bad shape!) T-elos is seen as having the upper hand in skill and power, the implication being that the body is the victor in a war against the mind. When she is introduced, it is claimed that her power is three times as great as KOS-MOS, and later, more than four and a half times as strong. Ultimately, KOS-MOS defeats T-elos after numerous challenging battles. The soul is in fact more powerful than the superficial body, the flesh through which it interacts with the world. Our souls, our minds, our wills are what give life meaning and value. Our body is just the vehicle (or A.G.W.S. if you will) we pilot through this life.
When KOS-MOS defeats T-elos, she embraces her, combining both of their essences into one being. It is in this moment that we see the trans allegory come to its ultimate conclusion: a reconciliation with the body—a reconciliation that creates a new path forward. Through mental, emotional, spiritual, and sometimes physical, work, we are able to be at true peace and face the world as a whole being. It is easy to feel at war with the body, to feel it is our enemy and challenger, dooming us to a life of misery. That it threatens to overcome our sense of self, and prevent us from self-determination. Some of us may choose medical and surgical alterations, but all of us must come to grips with the psychological connection to our body. It is unavoidable. We are the body as much as we are the mind. The two are intertwined and inseparable. Except in anime-styled space operas, of course.
So you’re probably thinking, well this is all a bit of a stretch. KOS-MOS isn’t trans, she’s a robot, and a fictional video game robot at that. And that’s true, and exactly my point. This exercise is about finding trans allegory and meaning in non-trans media. Because we do not exist explicitly, trans people craft that narrative on our own. And while transition is often depicted as a physical experience, isn’t it really about our spiritual journey: facing other’s concepts of ourselves, defining life for ourselves, defeating our inner demons and learning to cope with the outer ones, and seeking ways to find strength during struggles? Isn’t that what KOS-MOS’s story is all about?
Transformation is possible, but only through the reconciliation of the self, the channeling of energy for positive good, and a rejection of the limits placed upon us at birth. This is the power we have as trans people. To open a gateway for people of all genders to feel comfortable and confident expressing themselves in the world. We serve as catalysts for change, bringing with us the enlightenment that comes from crossing the gender line. While no individual trans person will abolish gender or destroy the binary, all of us play a role in freeing humanity, cis and trans alike, from the oppressive confines of limited expression, fear, and violence—the Gnosis of our story—expanding the amplitude of possibilities for all.