I’m sitting outside at an Italian restaurant with two friends. The sun is setting and we’ve just been to an exhibition at the National Gallery. It brings together a series of Titian paintings on Greek myth, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, as a way of exploring mythology, transformation – which is so rife in the former – and the primal themes that give the exhibition its title. The paintings, normally scattered over Europe in different collections, are reunited in the National Gallery and, together, have a certain, totemic kind of power that comes from seeing the right objects all in one place at the right time. We’re talking about weird childhood crushes; actors, cartoon characters, that sort of thing.
I make a point of prefacing what I’m about to say with the sentence I wasn’t attracted to them, because I wasn’t and I’m not. But the first fictional figure I think of when it comes to the idea of formative crushes and fascinations is Frieza, the planet-destroying Emperor of the Universe from the 1990’s animated series Dragon Ball Z. It wasn’t attraction but a certain kind of fascination, of not knowing what was going on with this character, but wanting to try and find out. When I first watched Dragon Ball Z when I was a teenager, everything about Frieza, everything I understood about coding – even if I didn’t know that’s what it was called – made me read them as female: the lips, the voice, the slightly arch, affected gestures, like the elaborate pointing of an index finger before blasting someone into oblivion. I don’t remember the moment I discovered Frieza’s maleness, but I remember being disappointed by it; maybe it was something to do with attraction after all, and all the things I didn’t know about myself yet.
Everyone in DBZ transforms; it’s important not only for the ever-increasing power levels in the show – the “It’s over 9,000” meme seems partly funny because of how paltry the number becomes on the scale of power levels as the series progresses – but also for the development of narrative. Transformation is what shifts in storytelling shift on; they’re what make villains terrifying, and what allows the heroes to be heroic. Just as the depths of Frieza’s villainy are revealed by continued transformations, so many of which are designed to repress their power, in order to become the hero he needs to be, Goku also transforms in the climactic battle of the Namek Saga. What’s most interesting about these narratives of transformation is that the villains always do it in a way that’s more extreme, more physical, than the heroes.
I found Frieza’s final form a little disappointing, the movement from slender strangeness into a hyper-buff, hyper-masculine physical power. None of their other forms are defined by the kind of physical characteristics associated with maleness in anime, but this one is, and it undercuts the strangeness of Frieza, the thing that makes them so fundamentally alien. Their power, their presentation, is so far removed from how humans think about power. And power is the driving force of DBZ; the need for more of it is what makes people train, what makes them seek the Dragon Balls, what makes them destroy planets.
Zarbon, one of Frieza’s lieutenants who, with the gift of hindsight, is gay coded almost to the point of parody, also transforms into something large and male and monstrous in order to tap into reserves of power. DBZ isn’t exactly known for its roster of dynamic, powerful female characters; it’s a shame that so many of the ones that are coded as queer, femme, need to undercut this in order to become stronger. In trying to remember how to spell their name, I google Frieza and wait to see if I’ll be corrected; underneath a couple of wiki entries are other questions that get asked. Chief among them: Is Frieza male or female? The striking thing about this question is the desire to put binary human designations on fictional aliens, as if the only way to understand them could be through our own lenses – and all of the narrowness that might entail – instead of learning from them.
“Right it is to be taught, even by the enemy.” – Ovid
The transformations in DBZ have intersections with all kinds of genre fiction; the Great Apes are werewolves, the way that Cell or Buu absorb people is a kind of body horror, like the endlessly mutating body of Max Wren in Videodrome. The transformation of the villains is more interesting than the fancy new hair colours that come with climbing the endlessly expanding ladder of Super Saiyan designations. In the old DBZ fighting games that were a fixture of my misspent youth, whenever Frieza transforms, they disappear into a giant purple egg, emerging reborn in their new form. The constant physical changes, from growing in stature to the vulnerabilities in their body being covered by what looks like a kind of protective exoskeleton, there’s literal power in this act of transformation, pushing the limits of the body – a mainstay in DBZ and other battle-driven anime like it – but in a way that’s more subversive, more daring, more alien. The transformations of the show’s villains – Frieza, Cell, Buu – are much more rooted in embodiment, physical changes than those of the heroes.
The way they transform, watching their bodies – often in close-up – change has echoes of a certain kind of trans narrative. The changing appearance of, and relationship with, the body, is something that’s rooted in a lot of trans narratives. Trans experience is rooted in these acts of transformation, big and small, and seeing them rooted specifically in narratives of power and self-actualisation – even for villains – feels like, looking back, it has an undercurrent of trans liberation, whether it was meant to be there or not. If anything, finding something where it isn’t meant to be seen is what feels most potent, transforming not just the characters, but the show itself.
One of the most striking things about Frieza is the voice. Theirs is one of the only voices in the Name and Frieza sagas that doesn’t sound male. It’s another one of those affectations, the ways in which Frieza’s presentation fucks with all the preconceived notions that the show has developed in its early sagas about gender, power, and the relationship that they have. Frieza doesn’t shout and dive in with fists flying; they keep a distance, and in doing so all of the affectations feel powerful – just approaching Frieza has the potential to be a death sentence. A flick of the wrist and a long, alien finger pointing skyward might be the last thing that you see.
Talking about that adolescent interest in Frieza meant trying to recapture the initial feeling of discovering the character. But the more I think about it, the more I think it’s about returning; returning to the character, that feeling of not knowing, and being able to look at it with something approaching clarity.
There’s something about queerness that feels non-linear, those moments where the lightbulb goes off and you understand where these fascinations came from. When subtext becomes text. For me, Frieza is one of those moments, one of those early turning points that, with hindsight, allow the present – and maybe the future – to make a little more sense. There’s a moment in Reverse Cowgirl where McKenzie Wark writes: “It fit a need, a hole, not a lack, a desire. Maybe it’s better that way”. I think she might be right. Frieza fits this; it wasn’t a lack that drew me, draws me to the character, but a need, something that needed to be filled in. This need was always there, on the edges of how I tried to understand the character and the show. It’s only in this act of looking back that it becomes clear that the need itself was in need; the idea, the feeling, it all needed the right alien to help articulate it.
I always play as the villains in DBZ fighting games. Their designs were always better suited for fighting games – there’s only so many things you can do with a dozen different characters who all shoot the same lasers – but, like in the anime, Frieza’s buff final form just wasn’t all that interesting to me. Here it was for practical reasons as much as aesthetic ones; the attacks for the final femme Frieza were more interesting. Frieza’s egg-based fighting game transformations are worlds away from the way that they change in the anime.
There’s a video on YouTube from September of 2020 called frieza’s all transformations. It’s six minutes and fifty-seven seconds long. The thing that’s most interesting about it in watching through them again, is the pain that seems to come with the act of transformation; watching Frieza’s body contort, expand, mutate, says more about narratives of transformation than ascending to Super Saiyan Godhood does.
Watching the agony and ecstasy of transformation, and the wry humour that comes with it – the first thing Frieza says after their first transformation is they hope it isn’t a disappointment – is something that strikes a chord with constantly experimenting with these ideas of transformation. While there’s something freeing in not needing to be the same way all the time, there’s a pressure, an anxiety, that comes with it too; the idea that you’re somehow doing it wrong, not looking Trans Enough. Even before I knew those words, before I knew what I was looking for in Frieza, I got the feeling that they were Trans Enough – in the way it took me a long time to work out their identity, and the small pang of disappointment that came with it.
One of the most common things to come from the ways in which people consume culture on the internet is the idea of headcanons; taking a character not as they’re written, but how you imagine them to be in your head, more of a reflection of you than the show itself. You could just say that this essay is to headcanon Frieza as trans, and there might be something to it. But it feels less about that, and more about coming back to the show, looking back at them and understanding how that got me from there to here, returning to shows from over a decade ago, and being able to understand why they stayed with me.
Even after both the Namek and Frieza Sagas, anime storylines where Frieza is the primary antagonist, their arc and reappearance is still defined by acts of transformation. After their apparent death on Namek, Frieza is brought back to life through technology. Frieza takes on yet another new form; part biology, part robotics, a cybernetic variation on one of DBZ’s most vital recurring themes, as transformation fuses with transhumanism. The character I’m so used to calling Mecha Frieza is, according to one entry on a wiki page for the franchise, actually Future Frieza, from an alternate timeline. But the page for Frieza still refers to them as being a Mecha Form of the character. The look of the character captures the in-between moments that are so powerful about the transformations in the Namek Saga; not all of the character is metallic – their legs, part of their chest, half of their head are all machine, but the rest is organic. I wanted to say man alongside machine, but the word doesn’t seem to fit right. This incarnation of Frieza, no matter how short-lived they were – – is again in the midst of finding themselves, their power.
## “This moment contains all the horror and exaltation of the body’s political power.” -Paul B. Preciado
The contrast here is with Meta-Cooler, from the 1992 TV movie, Dragon Ball Z: The Return of Cooler. I have a vivid memory of watching these TV movies on Friday nights; my first introduction to the villains that I would keep returning to in video games for over a decade; Meta-Cooler, the alternate Future Trunks that kills Mecha Frieza, Broly. Unlike Mecha Frieza, Meta Cooler is entirely mechanical, a clone of the original, organic creature, made countless times over by the planet-sized artificial intelligence called the Big Gete Star. As with so many villains in the franchise, the relationship between Cooler and the Gete Star is one to do with power. The star attaches to planets, draining them of energy.
One of the most common trends in queer coded characters is the idea that they’re villains; Frieza was an example of this before I knew what it was. The most common culprit of this trope is Disney; the animated films from the 90s – which I was watching alongside Dragon Ball Z – with characters like The Lion King’s Scar and Aladdin’s Jafar being defined by both their villainy and their effeminate, camp characteristics. Most famously, The Little Mermaid’s Ursula was based on the famed drag queen Divine. Returning to these monsters is an act of reclamation, of acceptance; looking Frieza in the eye and being able to see myself. The idea of seeing yourself, of self-acceptance, is one of the things that allows Goku to defeat Frieza in the first place: by making peace with his lineage, his race, and his relationship with Earth. It’s his friendship with the people that Frieza kills that open the gates to his true power.
There’s always something heroic about this kind of narrative, a classical Hero’s Journey that ends with the Hero accepting the truth about themselves, after spending the last two or four acts – depending on the version that you’re reading – of the story trying to run away from it. Returning to Frieza, and seeing myself in those affectations, that indefinable voice, that fluid, changing body, feels like an echo of this, and doing so through a villain feels like a reclamation. The idea of good representation, however admirable it might be, seems to thrive on oversimplification; the idea that any queer, or even queer-coded character, needs to be nice and palatable to a cis, straight audience in order to be worthwhile. But looking at a character like Frieza from a queer lens, being able to understand the strange curiosity that someone like that can ignite, is more important than simply treating them as the idea of being good or bad. Returning to these villains, their morality becomes less and less important, and what’s worth keeping simply becomes the fragments that help you understand where you came from, and how they led the way to where you are now.
One of the things about Dragon Ball Z that seemed frustrating the first time I watched it was that the stakes were temporary: all you needed to do was assemble the Dragon Balls, and you could wish things back to the way they were, wish people back to life. Or, if you’re a villain, wish for the power to snuff out that life. And so much of what made the 2010s a seemingly unprecedented decade for TV was the fact that – sometimes – when characters died, they stayed dead. But the more I think about DBZ, with its narratives so defined by the idea of the next form, the next power level, that rebirth is a perfect storytelling device for this kind of show. The deaths of characters don’t need to be permanent in order to matter; their time in liminal spaces – afterlives, the Hyperbolic Time Chamber – informs the new version of them that emerges when they’re reborn through a wish granted by Shenron. These are characters that are constantly, on existential levels, being transformed. Constantly returning to a place they thought they left behind, while they’re changed profoundly.
These ideas of rebirth, returning, transforming, all feel inherently queer. The wonderful irony – and brilliant storytelling – behind Frieza’s transformations is that the new forms that they constantly reach for aren’t about attaining new levels of power in the way that they are for a Saiyan like Goku. Instead, they’re about reaching what’s seen as Frieza’s baseline power, their true self. That throughout these sagas, where they’re seen as the most feared being in the universe, they’re still holding back. This is what queer transformation is about, rather than becoming something new, about finding your way – through pain, rebirth, and returning, like I’ve returned here – to the person that you’ve always been.