In my favorite ever TikTok, creator Cris King puts on her best Professor Hubert J. Farnsworth impression and announces that she has perfected a device that will turn the user into a girl. Her invention? The cult-favorite Lego toy line, Bionicle.
On TikTok, Twitter, or really any online space where trans femme people gather, Bionicle is a common meme, and so is the “Bionicle-to-trans pipeline.” For whatever reason, especially for trans women in their twenties or early thirties, these little buildable action figures have somehow become a part of trans girl culture.
And I’m not immune. Not only did I own dozens of Bionicle sets growing up, but I also watched and rewatched the animated movies, read every single novel, comic, and lore book front to cover multiple times, copy and pasted every online serial into my own single master document with a detailed visual encyclopedia of every mentioned character, and was active on the popular Bionicle web forum BZPower when I was barely ten years old. And yes, I am a trans woman. I too was turned into a girl by Bionicle.
But why? Why did this toy line with an absurdly complicated mythology become a touchstone for what seems to be an entire generation of trans people? There is no clear answer. Even when I reached out to Greg Farshtey — former Bionicle story lead and author of the vast majority of series’ novels — for comment, he more or less responded with a confused shrug and an admission that he wasn’t even aware of the phenomena.
I guess the easy answer to all of this would simply be that Bionicle — from its debut in 2001 to its quiet cancellation in 2010 — was a highly popular toy line. Children, cis and not, bought a lot of Bionicles during those years, and maybe us Zillenial trans folk are just assigning meaning to something that was ubiquitous to a lot of early aughts toy boxes. But that’s the boring answer, and it ignores the fact that cracking open a new Lewa Nuva cannister bears more than a passing resemblance to my little Estradiol pill bottle.
So, naturally, the question required research. And by research, I mean digging out my old novels, my disassembled Bionicle figures, and chatting up trans Bionicle nerds on Twitter. Real scholarly stuff.
As a starting point, I think it’s worth noting just how non-gendered the majority of the Bionicle line was. Without any prior knowledge, I doubt anyone could really tell you by just appearance which characters in the series were meant to be male or female. To the untrained eye, they’re just robots. Some are red. Some are blue. Some are white. This one has hooks for hands. This one can kick a rock. This one has a flame sword and surfs on lava. If you looked at the box, you might know the names of the characters and that the little ones were called Matoran and the larger superhero-styled characters were called Toa. (As a note: the naming conventions of the franchise have also gone through a few iterations. In 2001, Lego faced a lawsuit due to the company’s decision to use traditional and culturally significant Maori language in the Bionicle toy line. In a response to the justified criticism of cultural appropriation, multiple characters, terms, and products were renamed and rebranded.)
Likely to the frustration of many confused parents at the time, the toys mostly just look like interchangeable mask-wearing robots. Unlike most other contemporary toy series, including others released by Lego, Bionicle on its surface didn’t scream that it was a toy for boys or girls. It screamed that it was a toy for dorks that liked mystical robots.
As Daniel, an agender Bionicle fan, puts it: “You could honestly forget about gender while reading and watching Bionicle, which was a lot harder with many toys and shows from the era, meaning people who felt anxiety about gender could have a reprieve, and maybe why many trans women and nonbinary people stuck with it.”
But if you were to even dip your toes into the Mariana Trench of Bionicle lore, you would quickly realize that gender did in fact exist in these little robots. (I guess I should stop calling them robots given that the characters are specifically stated to be “bio-mechanical” beings…but robots is just easier.) While the vast majority of characters were gendered male, each wave of toys tended to include at least one female addition to the cast. Typically, this ended up being the blue-colored figures, beginning with the hook-handed Toa of Water, Gali, in 2001. Again, you would be forgiven for guessing the gender of any Bionicle incorrectly, but I did in fact have more than one playground debate where I loudly insisted that some ignorant child please use Gali’s correct pronouns. And while the pretty consistent 5-to-1 gender parity is something that fans have critiqued since day one, the simple fact that Bionicle had male and female heroes existing in roles that were virtually indistinguishable from one another definitely appealed to trans kids wading through the intensely binary toy aisles of the aughts. (The one explicitly gendered exception to all of this being the 2005 villain, Roodaka, who can be best be described as a chainmail-bikini-wearing dominatrix velociraptor who rocks a pair of stiletto heels and rules over a horde of marauding giant spiders, but she’s a special case.)
More than one trans fan I reached out to in the process of writing this essay expressed that this particularly blasé approach to gender in Bionicle was instrumental in their own coming to terms with their identity. “…That line of thinking, for me, probably wouldn’t have come around had it not been for Bionicle,” says Kit, a trans woman fan. “The series that made a [bunch of] Matoran and Toa who all looked largely the same, and decided ‘this one’s the girl’ when in reality, any of them could be and nothing would really change. Tahu could suddenly decide to use she/her pronouns if he wanted in the series and, literally, not a thing would really be different in a way that’d matter other than the character deciding ‘this is what makes me feel more comfortable.’ Society won’t collapse, fire won’t rain from the heavens, god doesn’t give a fuck. Hell, Tahu doesn’t even need to feel pressured to adhere to cisnormative gender structures, because frankly, they all look the fucking same.”
In-universe, gender mostly followed this role as well. In keeping with the series’ color-coded branding, culture in Bionicle is typically segmented into different societies connected to corresponding elements such as Fire, Water, Air, Ice, Stone, and Earth. (Please don’t ask me to define the difference between Stone and Earth. I’ve been stumped by that for 20 years.) Each of these cultures in turn had a corresponding gender, with all but water being male. But, again, gender mostly only ever meant a change in pronouns and, in audio-visual media, voice. Whenever asked, Farshtey routinely stressed that gender in the decidedly non-sexual world of Bionicle was not connected to any kind of physical body but instead something psychological or personal. And while Farshtey does end up using this to enforce some fairly binary ideas of “feminine elements” such as water being better suited for more stereotypical traits such as “peacekeepers,” the mere idea that gender is something separate from body was pretty mind-blowing to my little closeted trans girl self who was still decades away from cracking open Judith Butler.
Despite how many fans may have wanted to see characters within the Bionicle universe buck their own particularly gendered system, there are no real examples of Matoran or Toa that shirk the common gender of their culture. Gender variance or transition narratives don’t really exist in Bionicle’s universe. That is, with one big exception.
Almost every Bionicle fan I spoke to had quite a bit to say about Takua, the protagonist of the series’ first animated movie Mask of Light. Takua first made his appearance as a primary character in the online adventure game and animated web serials that made up a large chunk of the franchise’s narrative in the first two years of its existence. Interestingly, despite being gendered male and having the red-colored form normally associated with the fire society of Ta-Koro, Takua sported a blue mask, which I’ve hopefully made clear is the “girl color” in Bionicle. In a world where characters were often identified and segmented by monochromatic designs, Takua immediately stuck out as someone unique. This sort of mismatched visual design fit into Takua’s character as well. Despite being an honorary member of Ta-Koro, Takua spent most of his time wandering around his island home of Mata-Nui, not really sure where he was supposed to fit in. In Mask of Light, Takua’s blue mask is even shown not to fit properly, often shifting and twisting on his face.
“Takua’s story is one about queerness and isolation. He doesn’t fit in anywhere on the island, he’s an outsider but because of that he can do what others can’t,” says Morgan, a trans femme fan. He’s a literal misfit and often only seems comfortable operating as the Chronicler of the island’s stories and history, which gives him the ability to move between the islands various cultures and biomes without question.
In the plot of the film, Takua discovers a mysterious Kanohi, the magical masks that almost every Bionicle character wears, that seems to be the legendary Mask of Light. This mask is said to belong to a mysterious seventh Toa who will help defeat the series’ big bad, Makuta. From early in the film, Takua knows pretty clearly that he is the mask’s intended owner given the bright light it emits whenever it’s in his presence. But he spends most of the story avoiding this destiny, trying to pass off the Mask to his friends or undergoing a winding shaggy dog quest to find anyone else who might take it off his hands. When Takua finally does accept his responsibility and don the Mask of Light, he is transformed into a shining, golden hero, Takanuva. His voice even shifts from an awkward, cracking adolescent whine into a something angelic. When I watched the movie for the first time at my Bionicle-themed 10th birthday party (look, we’ve already established how far down the rabbit hole I was), a friend of mine even groaned, “Ew. He’s a girl now.”
And while Takanuva does remain “male” and Greg Farshtey and the rest of the Bionicle story crew are unlikely to admit that the character was written with any kind of intended trans narrative, it hasn’t stopped trans fans from latching onto this reading. “In the climax of the movie, he pulls aside the ill-fitting mask and puts on the [Mask of Light], ushering in a dramatic transformation as he fulfills his destiny, changing his name to Takanuva in the process. The trans allegory isn’t subtle,” Haley, a nonbinary trans woman, argues. There’s even the fact that the figure that Takanuva’s Lego set most resembles is Gali Nuva, who again is the only female member of the team. It’s there. You can’t deny it, Greg.
There’s even more to pick apart in the actual play and creation of Bionicle. When you take home a new Toa or any number of new annual baddies, you are quite literally constructing bodies. And while, like all Lego products, there are instructions guiding you in how to build the marketed character, you are just as encouraged to experiment and develop your own characters, creatures, vehicles, whatever. And it certainly helped that the main characters themselves were always evolving physically. Out of universe, the transformation of certain characters from year to year was clearly a way for Lego to essentially sell the same character twice. (You liked Tahu? Well, he fell into some magic platinum goo, and he looks like this now. That’ll be another $12.) But it also showcased that bodies were always in flux. That identity could be as singular or fluid as you like. That the body itself can alter in ways you don’t expect. For a generation of closeted trans kids, having any kind of way to hack and shift a body was exciting, and Bionicle not only offered the tools to experiment but also a canvas to put these new bodies into. It presented an escapist universe that was almost void of gender as we understand it but instead filled with imagination, creation, millennia long conspiracies, cyberpunk dystopias, underwater warlords commanding armies of sharks and crabs, and a sick ass commercial set to All American Reject’s “Move Along.”
So like, did Bionicle turn a generation of kids trans or were there just a lot of young, confused trans kids who found escape in a franchise about elemental robot super heroes? The answer is really both and neither. More than a few fans I spoke with did say that if it weren’t for Bionicle they may not have come to understand their gender when they did. I’m not really sure if I’m ready to make that conclusion for myself, but there is a certain joy in realizing a shared childhood obsession. Not a day goes by where I don’t mourn the fact that I didn’t have a traditional girlhood. As comfortable as I may now be in my gender, I still often find it hard to relate to women who talk about their own childhoods and the media and toys that were a part of it. The fact that there were other closeted girls and trans folks who also felt drawn to the same biomechanical characters as me, enough to make it an in-community meme, feels almost welcoming. So, no, Bionicle may have not made me a girl, but it may have helped me feel as close to one as I could have in a time when I and so many others were still hiding behind our masks.