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PAGEBOY: A Memoir, by Elliot Page
There’s a scene in the third season of Netflix’s hugely popular “The Umbrella Academy” where Elliot Page’s character, sporting a new, short haircut, walks up to the other members of the titular superhero team to suggest a plan.
There’s a derisive response from one of them: “Who elected you, Vanya?”
Page glances around, slightly tentative. “It’s, uh, Viktor.”
The subtitles describe “dramatic music playing” as members of the group eye one another. Page hesitates for a second. “I am. It’s who I’ve always been.” Another beat. “Uh, is that an issue for anyone?”
There’s little hesitation: “Nah, I’m good with it.” “Yeah, me too.” “Cool.”
And thus plays out what might be the most mundane — and yet quietly empowering — depiction of gender transition in popular culture I’ve ever seen. Were Page’s real-life journey to transition only as simple, straightforward or well received.
Instead, as he details in a brutally honest memoir, “Pageboy,” his life story was marked by fear, self-doubt, U-turns, guilt and shame, before he ultimately seized control of his own narrative.
A child actor from Canada who burst onto the scene at the age of 20 with a breakout performance in the title role of “Juno” in 2007, Page went on to take roles in films that ranged from indie (“Whip It,” “Freeheld”) to blockbusters (“Inception,” “X-Men: Days of Future Past”).
But fame didn’t free him to explore his identity; instead it trapped him into a role studios wanted him to play, offscreen as well as on, as an attractive young starlet.
Much of the memoir — told in non-sequential flashbacks and flash-forwards — centers on Page’s path to understand who he really was, against a backdrop of bullying, eating disorders, stalking, sexual harassment and assault. Page grew up in Nova Scotia, the child of divorced parents — a less than loving father and a mother hoping against hope for a more conventional child than the gender outlaw she seemed to be raising.
“Can I be a boy?” Page asked his mother at the age of 6. He found escape in solitary play and a rich fantasy life that ultimately blossomed into a career as an actor.
The nonlinear structure makes following a clear narrative difficult, but that’s less important than seeing, through his eyes, how Page slowly pieces together a clear sense of himself. In that, it follows a tradition of trans memoirs, from Jennifer Finney Boylan’s “She’s Not There” to Janet Mock’s “Redefining Realness” to Thomas Page McBee’s “Man Alive,” among others, that explore how we explore our identities.
From furtive, closeted relationships — he relates how he held hands under a blanket with his then-partner as they were bused from location to location while working on a film together — to coming out as gay in 2014 (“more a necessity than a decision,” he writes), Page flirted with, but backed away several times from, the notion that he might be trans.
“My shoulders opened, my heart was bare, I could be in the world in ways that felt impossible before,” he writes of coming out as gay. “But deep down an emptiness lurked. That undertone. Its whisper still ripe and in my ear.”
It’s in that tortured, contradictory internal monologue — familiar to other trans people as we contemplate what seems to be an extraordinary, unimaginable truth — that “Pageboy” is most powerful. Page doesn’t really delve into questions of masculinity, or what it means to be a man, but he brings to life the visceral sense of gender dysphoria, or at least one type of dysphoria: the sense that your body is betraying you. It’s an utterly alien sensation for those who haven’t experienced it:
Imagine the most uncomfortable, mortifying thing you could wear. You squirm in your skin. It’s tight, you want to peel it from your body, tear it off, but you can’t. Day in and day out. And if people are to learn what is underneath, who you are without all that pain, the shame would come flooding out, too much to hold. The voice was right, you deserve the humiliation. You are an abomination. You are too emotional. You are not real.
Moments of joy pierce “Pageboy” as well: his first real queer kiss; scenes of passionate sex; the blossoming of his relationship with his mother after he came out; the reflection of his flat chest in the mirror.
Page disclosed his transition in December 2020, a few weeks before I did the same. I suspect he, like me, had been prepared for a future where trans lives would be broadly accepted, or at least tolerated, albeit with sporadic incidents of hate. Both of us inhabit left-leaning spaces (media, movies) where the appearance of support is de rigueur.
How could we have expected instead the tidal wave of anti-trans animus that is surging across the right, with hundreds of bills proposed — and some passed — in state legislatures that would in some cases bar adults from accessing trans care; undermine private insurance; allow medical personnel to discriminate against transgender patients; and restrict performances by drag performers and trans people, including possibly Page.
Trans men and women are attacked in very different ways. Trans women are demonized as sexual predators; trans men, when people think of them at all, are portrayed as misguided and misled girls and women, confused and unable to understand their own identity. “When I came out in 2014, the vast majority of people believed me, they did not ask for proof,” Page writes. “But the hate and backlash I received were nothing compared to now.”
It was an unwelcome regression to a time studios controlled his public persona: “I am sick of the creepy focus on my body and compulsion to infantilize (which I have always experienced, but nothing like this). And it isn’t just people online, or on the street, or strangers at a party, but good acquaintances and friends.”
Still, Page has no shortage of fans as well, vociferous defenders of possibly the most famous trans man in the world, and one whose onscreen portrayal of a superhero offers an alternative conception of masculinity rooted in inner strength and sensitivity rather than brawn and muscles.
His character’s arc from Vanya to Viktor offers hope, too, of a world where transition is matter-of-fact, accepted — and incidental. “Truly happy for you, Viktor,” another “Umbrella Academy” member concludes.
Page and the showrunner Steven Blackman were at pains to ensure his character’s journey reflected the nuances of real trans lives, not least that being trans was a character trait, not the defining one. They brought in McBee to weave an authentic narrative into what was then an already tightly packed and carefully scripted season.
In the memoir, Page reflects on his complex relationship with store windows, and his image in them — a reminder, pre-transition, of a body and identity he saw but did not want to inhabit. McBee crafted that memory into another telling “Umbrella Academy” scene, where Page’s Viktor pauses in front of a storefront and is asked what he sees.
“Me.” A smile and a shrug. “Just me.”
Truly happy for you, Elliot.
Gina Chua is the executive editor at Semafor.
PAGEBOY: A Memoir | By Elliot Page | 271 pp. | Flatiron Books | $29.99