queerview: “We’ve Never Felt Whole” — Non-Binary Binaries in Season 2 of Chucky
[Spoilers for pretty much the entire Child’s Play/Chucky franchise.]
As a child, few things terrified me more than when I would catch a glimpse of dollified serial killer Charles Lee Ray during a late-night cable TV showing of any of the early Child’s Play films. Even a brief encounter with an on-screen Chucky would send me off to hide behind the sofa, followed by disrupted sleep and an anxious fixation on whether the murderous doll had somehow snuck into my bedroom.
Flash forward a few decades, and little vinyl representations of Chucky and friends adorn everywhere from my bookshelves to my bathroom. Part of my regular aftercare routine at my local dungeon involves cuddling with a Chucky plushy—a plushy that doubles as a bedtime body pillow, clutched tightly every night as I drift off into sleep. No longer an instrument of terror, Chucky has become an object of genuine comfort.
Part of this comfort comes from connection, and part of that connection comes from just how queer the Child’s Play and Chucky franchises have become. Putting aside Lars Klevberg’s regrettable attempt at a reboot in 2019, the other seven films and two seasons of television form a narratively continuous whole, all tied to the creative mind of queer writer, director, and producer Don Mancini. [Mancini co-wrote Child’s Play (1988); wrote Child’s Play 2 (1990), Child’s Play 3 (1991), and Bride of Chucky (1998); wrote and directed Seed of Chucky (2004), Curse of Chucky (2013), and Cult of Chucky (2017); and has served as executive producer and occasional writer and director for both seasons of Chucky (2021–2022).]
The earlier films in the franchise admittedly invited queer readings in slightly more but still much the same way that most monster-based horror does, given the almost inescapably queer-coded leanings of the genre itself. Starting with Bride, however, the camp was turned up, increasing to a point that almost sank the franchise after the comparatively poor reception of Seed. Audiences tuned in hoping for a bloody slasher romp, and were met with self-referential and parodic irreverence, increasingly meta-fictional camp, and the introduction of the titular “seed” of Chucky: Glen-or-Glenda, an early and exploratory instance of genderfluid representation in popular culture. (An even earlier instance of such representation is the lead character in Ed Wood’s semi-autobiographical 1953 film, Glen or Glenda, from which our seed of Chucky gets their name.)
Following the disappointing reception of Seed, Mancini put the franchise on hold for almost a decade before “returning to form” with the significantly more straight-laced Curse and Cult. This duology retained the campy irreverence, the meta-fictional leanings, and some of the queer-coding, but to a degree far more subdued than what we saw in Seed or even Bride. Notably, the franchise’s flagship queer character—Glen-or-Glenda—was nowhere to be found.
With the advent of the first season of Chucky in 2021, the dive back into not just queer-coded, but overtly and explicitly queer territory was clear. The show’s lead protagonists explored a gay relationship, and homophobia was presented as a more frightening villain than Chucky himself. In a brief but noteworthy reference to Glen-or-Glenda after the character had been effectively erased from continuity for over a decade and a half, Chucky clarifies to queer protagonist Jake Wheeler (portrayed by Zackary Arthur) that despite being an unrepentant mass-murderer, he still affirms his genderfluid child’s identity: “I’m not a monster, Jake.”
For my non-binary trans little self, the thought of Glen-or-Glenda returning to the screen in season two was simultaneously exciting and worrisome. The last time we saw the character was in 2004, and while that depiction was clearly ahead of its time, it also hadn’t aged particularly well. This is no fault of Mancini’s: in terms of popular media and public consciousness, depictions of this kind of gender-noncomformity were largely unexplored territory. It could be forgiven, then, that a concluding part of the character’s arc involved them being split into two human bodies and, consequently, distinct human persons: a young female-coded Glenda alongside a young male-coded Glen—the unfortunate implication being that identities outside of the binary are ultimately just internal amalgamations of distinct masculine and feminine personae.
The standards and stakes of 2022 are a little different. The discourse has evolved, and both the means and the necessities of affirming transgender and gender-nonconforming identities are significantly more clear. So when it was announced that non-binary actor Lachlan Watson would be portraying both Glen and Glenda in the then-upcoming second season of Chucky, I felt some optimism. One of my favorite franchises foregrounding a non-binary character, portrayed by a non-binary actor? Hell yeah.
Now that it’s concluded, this much is clear: Chucky’s second season elevates the queer meta-fictive camp to heights unseen in the franchise since Seed of Chucky, and arguably going even further. One episode stylistically breaks from the rest of the season to present a camp murder mystery in the style of Clue (1985), during which Jennifer Tilly portrays Tiffany Valentine posing as Jennifer Tilley while navigating highly pop-referential social encounters with Gina Gershon (Tilly’s co-star from 1996’s erotic thriller Bound) and Meg Tilly (Jennifer’s real life sister), both of whom portray themselves. Earlier in the season, it’s mentioned that the in-universe Jennifer Tilly portrayed Tiffany Valentine in Bride of Chucky—which arguably makes the entire fictional continuity of the Child’s Play franchise now canon within itself. Later, we see Jennifer Tilly portraying Tiffany Valentine possessing Jennifer Tilly’s body while interacting with the in-universe Jennifer Tilly possessing a Tiffany doll. All the while, the season as a whole is revealed to be being hosted by none other than Chucky himself, daytime talkshow-style. Some might find this elaborate meta-textual tangle to be messy or distracting, but I find it delightful.
Watson’s portrayal of both Glen and Glenda is fantastic, and the characters are a compelling addition to an already strong cast. With their re-introduction to the franchise, the show makes no attempt to hide its gender politics: our first glimpse of the two comes indirectly, as a close-up of their vanity license plate boldly printed with “they/them.” Later, Glen is misgendered during a tense dinner table scene, prompting Glenda to sternly clarify their identities as non-binary and their affirmed use of they/them pronouns, which in turn leads to rapid-fire discussion of gender-neutral alternatives for “niece” and “nephew” (niefling! chibling! sibkid!) as sharply brief as it is gleefully pedantic. Chucky speaks of non-binary identity not with cautious subtlety, but with the vibrant, vibrating force of a rainbow-colored megaphone.
As much as I hate to say it, though, I don’t care much for what the show is saying on the topic. Early in their arc, Glenda confesses to their mother that they and Glen have “never felt whole,” an apparent call-back to the fact that they are really one person split into two bodies. Of those two half-persons, one is masculine-coded and the other femme-coded, effectively doubling down on Seed’s implicit suggestion about non-binary gender being composed of some amalgamation of masculine and feminine personae, apparently now “whole” only when integrated.
In a welcome bit of subversion, the series has opted to portray Glen as the femme-coded character and Glenda as the more masculine—though even this inversion of expectation suggests a sort of pop yin-yang conceptualization of non-binary identity through which there is “a little bit of the masculine even in the feminine” and vice versa. By the end, the two are merged back into their original doll, coalescing once again into a complete person in the form of, not Glen-or-Glenda as before, but the newly affirmed G.G. Rather than present us with a picture of gender-nonconformity and non-binary identity that truly interrogates, deconstructs, or leaves behind conventional notions of gender, Chucky presents audiences with a quite binary version of non-binary gender—the sort perhaps most recognizable and impactful for well-intentioned but insecure cisgender allies comfortable with gender-nonconformity so long as it remains steered by the twin colonialist handles of dualistic masculinity and femininity.
This binarist tinge is likely unintentional, though the lack of intention unfortunately serves to undermine the otherwise gleefully pedantic commentary mentioned earlier. The humor that makes the pedantry gleeful works only if it comes from a place of genuine understanding. While I maintain no doubt that Mancini et al were operating in good faith, the binarist subtext leaves the bright displays of rainbow-microphone allyship ringing shallow at best, performative at worst.
Remember: I fall asleep clutching a Chucky doll every night. I love Child’s Play and Chucky alike. I adore Glen, Glenda, and Watson’s performance as both. And I have great admiration and gratitude for Mancini and his ongoing body of work. Chucky’s second season is an important and welcome addition to the growing canon of mass art as overtly queer text. Criticism of its gender politics must be tempered by the fact that, especially when it comes to good-faith contributions to largely unexplored territory—and even more so when that territory is embroiled in high-stakes culture war—we can’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good.
In this spirit, one can hope that this season’s arc for G.G., as the re-unified character is now known, was largely an attempt to narratively recover from the unfortunate (in retrospect) handling of non-binary identity at the end of Seed of Chucky. And one can hope, too, that the show is renewed for many seasons to come, so that the less-than-stellar binarist portrayal of non-binary identity in season 2 becomes a mere footnote in the context of the series as a whole.
The many films of the Child’s Play franchise, as well as both seasons of Chucky, are available to stream on multiple major platforms.