All that this LGBT+ superhero novel has to its name, unfortunately, are dreadfully shallow characters in a paper-thin universe.
Dreadnought is a novel about Danny Tozer, a 15 year old transgirl. After a series of unfortunate events, Danny is gifted the powers of the all-powerful superhero Dreadnought. When she is given these powers, her body is changed, physically, into one of a biological female. She is thrilled! Except now she has to handle the existence of her transphobic parents, and the judgement of superheroes who don’t believe she is capable of taking on the mantle of the city’s best known superhero.
This novel is very much like any other superhero origin story. It details how Danny came to be a superhero, whilst struggling with her own gender identity along the way. The premise of the novel was incredibly promising, however, it didn’t quite live up to the hype that was created online. Whilst I enjoyed the book, it was far from perfect. The pacing was very stilted, and there were definite moments where things felt incongruous and out of place in the timeline of the novel.
the reason why she sees herself as fundamentally female… only further divides the sexes by these arbitrary details
The actual story was simple enough to follow. It begins very strong, setting up a bitter, annoyed teenage character going through the struggle of coming to terms with her own identity. She hides in the bushes painting her toenails in an attempt to retain her sanity, especially during a time where she is going through puberty, and is forced to gradually become more masculine. It’s a very down-to-earth depiction of the everyday struggle of a transgender youth, trying with all her might to find normalcy in a highly volatile time.
However, when it came down to exploring Danny’s gender identity, it fell short for me. A lot of the times the ‘reasons’ felt shallow and rather sexist in its own right. Danny, at one point, explains why she feels she is a girl, claiming that by holding her books in front of her chest and crossing her legs, it made her a girl rather than a boy. It was these descriptions of stereotypically ‘female’ actions that made it feel shallow, as if boys who acted slightly feminine were clearly female. In my opinion, it really felt like it was adhering to strict forms of ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’, as if doing anything the slightest bit feminine makes you immediately non-masculine. The book, rather subconsciously, pushes the stereotypical gender binary, invalidating those who may lie between ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’. I understand the story focuses solely on Danny herself, but by only describing these physical details as the reason why she sees herself as fundamentally female, in my opinion, only further divides the sexes by these arbitrary details, like how you hold your books, or how you sit, or how you walk and talk.
strangely transmisogynistic in a way I did not expect from an otherwise progressive and interestingly written story
April Daniels identifies as a transwoman, using her own knowledge and experience to make Danny’s story more real. However, Daniels states in an old blog that she only began to come to terms with her trans identity in her 20s, much later in her life than 15 year old Danny Tozer. It seems that, in retrospect, Danny was given traits that Daniels associated with her trans identity, but not necessarily reasons why Danny believes she is fundamentally ‘a girl’. For a book that is connected with the #ownvoices ideal, it felt so shallow, as if it were trying to simplify the trans identity in an attempt to make it more palatable for cisgendered readers. By oversimplifying the reasons and the feelings Danny was having about her own identity, reducing it to the way one sits or holds things or talks, it reinforces gender stereotypes and makes Danny seem more superficial than it should. Danny, in essence, seems to be a transgirl character written for cis people to understand using gendered associations and stereotypes. It is a difficult story to write, and in my opinion something that Daniels almost reaches but falls short.
One line in the novel hurt me more than I can properly explain. Danny, who is perfectly happy with her female body, is being pressured by her parents to go through gender reassignment surgery back to being male, which she refuses. There is a moment where she smugly states “my body is going to have undeniable evidence of femininity until the day I die, no matter what we do”. To her, this is a huge victory since she feels at home in her female body. However, to any person who may identify as a transgender male, this line undermines and trivialises their own identity. Whilst, once again, this is only Danny’s point of view, it was a line that made my heart sink. It unconsciously trivialises a part of the readership that may not want that ‘undeniable evidence of femininity’, making it seem as if the only aspect of gender identity that is important is physical appearance. This line was strangely transmisogynistic in a way I did not expect from an otherwise progressive and interestingly written story. I do not expect for a novel about one character’s story to encompass every single gender identity, but I did expect for it to be a little more sensitive and nuanced towards the topic in general. The worst part of this line was the triumphant and smug intonation. This is the one moment in the novel I think could have been completely removed. It added nothing to the story, nor did it really add to Danny’s own emotional and mental journey, but instead just undermined part of the community it was supposedly supporting. I actually found myself putting the book down because of the sexist undertones throughout that made me feel too uncomfortable to push onwards.
Another little sexist jab that was mentioned was when Danny – as she has an emotional breakdown because of all the antagonistic people in her life not accepting her – blames having ‘more oestrogen’ as the reason why she is ‘more emotional’. The way it was phrased, in the context of everything, felt so shallow and sexist. As if having higher oestrogen was the biggest factor to her emotional breakdown, because it clearly had nothing to do with her abusive, intolerant father, or the team of slightly intolerant superheroes that look down on her, or the constant stares of disgust from others. Clearly it’s none of those factors that truly make her emotional – no, it’s just the oestrogen.
The entire novel is incongruent and adolescent at points, gesturing vaguely towards a bigger meaning without ever truly exploring it
On the topic of her intolerant family, an aspect of the novel that felt so incongruous to me was Danny’s name. Her name, Danielle Tozer, is her deadname, Daniel, with an extra ‘le’ tacked to the end to make it feminine. I understand that she wants to keep her nickname, but with the name Danny having so many negative connections and connotations, especially linked to her abusive homelife and awful father, it felt incredibly strange to have her keep the same name. Despite her father’s incredibly harsh, over-the-top, insults towards her throughout the novel, she decides to keep a name that is so deeply ingrained in her past. This is not to say it’s not something that cannot happen, as many people enjoy retaining nicknames, but rather it felt so out-of-place in the context of Danny’s story.
Outside of the LGBT+ aspect of Danny, she is simply a badly written character, bordering on a pure Mary Sue. She is basically perfect in every way, she is super strong, stands up to authority, and there is no real drawbacks to anything she does. Heck, she saves a plane from crashing when she’s only just getting used to her powers! It’s even stated that, physically, she quite literally becomes the physical embodiment of female perfection, because of the highly skewed perception Danny has had growing up on media’s presentation of women. Instead of looking into this idealised and almost fetishised aspect of Danny’s perception of women, the book glances over it and ignores it, just as a way to explain why Danny is physically perfect, rather than to comment on the issues in media’s presentation of women in particular. Danny has no real flaws as a character. Her only problem (I use the word ‘only’ loosely in this context) is being transgender, and even that was not very eloquently or sensitively explored, as explained above. I understand that she’s a 15-year-old girl, but everything she complains about is excessively trivial at points. Daniels does not do Danny justice, instead the writing makes her seem hollow and shallow, so focussed on appearances rather than anything else. Even near the end, there are no real repercussions to what she does. She isn’t the one that gets the most injured, nor does she ever really deal with the guilt of being the cause of hurting others. No, because Dreadnought is a heavily romanticised image of superheroism, with a lot of gore thrown in to show the dark, edgy, violent side. We can’t have a heroine that’s been affected deeply by what she’s done, that’d be too much for a 15-year-old! That should have been the point. Rather than constantly showing the audience that Danny is struggling, she just tells us that she is having a hard time when her actions do not coincide with this. The entire novel is incongruent and adolescent at points, gesturing vaguely towards a bigger meaning without ever truly exploring it.
she was indeed just a stock character filling the gap of the transmisogynist feminist
The novel introduced a huge mass of characters, many of whom were immediately forgettable. However, none of these characters were truly developed. They all filled their specific tropes and expectations: Doc Impossible plays the immediately supportive and welcoming mother figure; Sarah is the cool, slightly extremist vigilante friend; Danny’s father is the classic incredibly intolerant, incredibly abusive, and incredibly caricatured familial antagonist; and Graywytch is yet another caricature of a hardline trans-exclusionary radical feminist (or TERF). None of these characters truly get much development, outside of Doc Impossible. They are all just the most basic stereotypes of characters used to push Danny’s plot forwards. Never mind the sexy lamp test – if you replaced Graywytch with a talking insulting lamp, it would do the exact same job. The characters are incredibly flat and undeveloped, fitting perfectly with the rather undeveloped and bratty protagonist.
Graywytch in particular is a terribly written antagonistic character. She is the embodiment of transphobic feminists – those who believe in feminism but will not accept transwomen as part of the female community. However, she is so far overblown and exaggerated that it’s hard to believe someone like her exists. Daniels pulled so many punches when writing this supposedly awful character, that even her insults often lacked the impact expected. Graywytch questions the legitimacy of Danny’s gender, asking, “Have you ever used a tampon before?”, as if that is the most relevant question to ask any woman you come across on the street. Daniels claims that these insults were from her own experiences, however it felt incredibly incongruous within the context of a novel. Why would a grown woman be asking any young lady that type of question? And what of the women who don’t wear tampons during their period, are they also not women? It made no sense, and was an insult that just made me shake my head and sigh at the immaturity of parts of this novel. In addition, Graywytch firmly believes that transwomen ‘taint’ the purity of womanhood and are an insult to womankind. Instead of exploring her intolerance, she’s just wrong. There’s no nuance in this novel, there are the good (those who support Danny) and the bad (those who do not support Danny). Even Graywytch’s jargon seems so incongruous to her character. Despite her using strangely archaic language sometimes, she still refers to Danny as a ‘transwoman’, despite sometimes calling her ‘young man’ (to you know, constantly remind the reader that she does not see Danny as a woman). She states that the ‘Dreadnought mantle cannot be held by a transwoman’, which felt so strangely politically correct in the phrasing, despite coming from an awfully intolerant character. Everything about Graywytch felt strange and incongruous, as she was indeed just a stock character filling the gap of the transmisogynist feminist.
if you’re looking for a groundbreaking novel about LGBT superheroes, this is not it
Characters are not used to their full potential in Dreadnought. Rather than exploring how regular people react to Danny, Daniels only shows the extremes. Danny is the victim, and everyone else who disagrees is the asshole. There are no characters that question Danny’s gender not because they are intolerant, but because they are ignorant and want to understand. That is completely tossed aside and forgotten, because clearly if you are not 100% aware of every type of gender identity in the world, then you are clearly one of the bad guys. There is no nuance in the novel; everything is at the opposite poles of the spectrum. Daniels had the perfect opportunity to explore not just how everyday people react, but how Danny copes with this. Danny could have had a great moment of maturity, slowly learning that not everyone understands her, and the best thing she can do is not shoot them down for not understanding, but to cure their ignorance. But nope. Apparently in this universe you’re a transmisogynist abusive asshole, or you accept Danny. There’s no in-between here.
Dreadnought had some decent action near the end. I put the book down ⅔ of the way through, as I felt too uncomfortable to continue. The slightly sexist undertones of the novel made it very difficult to keep reading, but I trudged through in the end to see if the ending was any better. Needless to say it was lackluster. The action was decently written, but made me question how quickly Danny was able to master her superpowers, when the entire book beforehand was about her struggling. Honestly, there was an almost excessive amount of gore in the ending. It was pointless fluffy gore that was supposed to show the ‘reality’ of superhero life, and how it can lead to death and pain and blood. But seeing as Danny is nigh indestructible, it felt like there was no real risk. Danny fought an army of mechs all on her own, and came out mostly okay, though bleeding in spots. There was even a twist ending that was completely unpredictable, and not in a good way. A twist should be something that people could anticipate, and maybe be foreshadowed in a way that people can expect, not a sudden revelation that is coupled with, “I remember those few chapters back when she said this! I didn’t know that was a suggestion that this would happen!” It felt incredibly contrived and made the ending even less spectacular.
Overall, as a superhero origin story, it didn’t deviate far from what I expected – a young teen gains powers and slowly learns how to use it whilst learning how to life. It was unique in the types of characters that were introduced and the setup of the story. However, the LGBT+ aspect of the story fell short in many areas, undermining the heart and soul Daniels put into making Danny a believable character, making her identity seem shallow and superficial instead. It felt like a book that didn’t go through much editing, as there were many unforgivable mistakes made by Daniels in terms of describing and putting across Danny’s insights on her gender identity. It was a decent book, but if you’re looking for a groundbreaking novel about LGBT superheroes, this is not it.
Image: April Daniels / Tumblr