Gender-bending in my anime?
It’s more likely than you think.
From anime to movies to video games, it seems we can’t escape traps and dickgirls. But what’s the deal with (airline peanuts?) Japan and androgyny? It might be dull and uninteresting to pay attention to history, but we should probably start at the beginning.
Let’s not pretend Japan came up with gender-bending. Shakespeare employed plenty of (prepubescent) boys to play his female parts. Did either he or 16-17th century England have the hots for boy? Perhaps not, but it wouldn’t be surprising considering the Greeks and Romans. That isn’t to say, however, that England was the first to embrace gender-bending, but only that this was one of the many famous examples of androgyny throughout history. Taking into consideration Japan’s cultural history, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say Chinese politics and its eunuchs gave some lasting impressions, but I’ll leave that to a greater history buff.
For me, and this entry, the setting must start at the roaring 20s with its bourgeois culture and decadent sexuality. The seeds of postmodernism was planted in the European avant garde, starting with a “disdain for conventional bipolar views of manhood and womanhood.” Everyone remembers Un Chien Andalou for its one (literally) eye-popping scene, but don’t forget the subversiveness of the rest of the film, including the titular hero appearing in a skirt and a nun’s headdress.
The androgynous craze was hardly limited to weirdo movies. Virginia Woolf championed, “A mind that is purely masculine cannot create, anymore than a mind that is purely feminine.” Consider, also, the tribulations of Emil Sinclair in Hesse’s Demian, who discovers his true self only through encounters with Frau Eva, the Jungian projection of anima or the the feminine archetype of the soul. What does this all mean? Well, androgyny entered the 20th century long ago with the Weimar Culture.
This new philosophy didn’t go unnoticed, especially in the Westernizing Taisho era of Japan. One has to first understand that Japan began its modernizing, as it left the Meiji era, through the rampant bureaucratization of everyday life. For the first time, high school became compulsory; likewise, yearly health checks for every youth. Under the pressure to catch up with Western political powers, Japanese leaders focused upon nation-building. Youth development became vastly important since children represented the future of Japan. What resulted was a very pragmatic discourse that strictly defined gender roles and proper normative behavior. Essentially, boys will be boys and girls gotta be moms.
Bourgeois culture loves to leak out of its boundaries, for better or for worse, and the androgynizing Western culture caught the attention of many in Japan, especially for its “qualities of hysteria, temperamentality, and nervousness that departed from the inspid character norms of an earlier era.” Even then, however, it was nothing new. It was simply digging away at an old reality of Japanese consciousness. Japan has always had a certain fascination with gender ambivalence, starting with the gender impersations in the Kabuki theater. Even the advent of Confucianism’s codes and conducts only resulted in sexual confusion in the urban pleasure quarters of the 1600’s. While Meiji leadership did its best to crush the exploration of sexuality, the influences from the West in the 1920’s only served to awaken it. And it woke up in Japanese youth.
Of course, such changes prompted massive amounts of discourse on both sides about the implications of androgyny on development of Japanese society. Scholars who fancied themselves “Neo-Kantians” wrote extensively on the change: “…the development of culture is prone to a reduction of the previously existent distinctions between male and female culture. Herewith arises the so-called feminization of civilization.” Many were beginning to realize that gender roles were constructed by culture rather than nature, and thus it is only culture that can destroy these barriers. Others, however, wrote derisively against the social change, “warning of dire social consequences should nothing be done to curtail the ‘unnatural’ excesses of Taisho culture.”
Fantastic history lesson, right? So you might be thinking, “What’s the point? What does any of this have to do with anime? I only came here to drool over Kyonko pictures and all you’ve given me are crusty old portraits of Chinese eunuchs and weird Frenchmen!”
Well, for the detractors of Japanese cultures, prone to calling it creepy or weird, the first point of my entry is that androgyny is nothing new. As society develops, culture will slowly chip away at socially constructed gender roles. Japanese androgyny dates back centuries ago, and even modern androgyny (and I use modern in the historical sense rather than how you’d normally interpret modern) dates back to the 1920’s, thanks to the influences of the bourgeois West. Yep, all of you in the West who bitch about how creepy gender-bending is… it’s kinda your fault.
The second point of the history lesson is that androgyny usually comes with a cultural evolution. People explore their boundaries and try to discover who they really are. In essence, they challenge normative values that too often was dictated by authority. Androgyny isn’t about being “gay;” it’s about freedom, sexually and spiritually. Why can’t a man cry if he’s truly in emotional pain? ‘Cause it’s gay? That’s a dumb excuse.
With the second point in mind, however, we must now turn and wonder if the current gender-bending craze in anime captures the same spirit as its 1920’s cousin? When we fawn over Kyonko or champion Ouran High School Host Club for its cross-dressing and “reverse harem-ness,” are we truly deconstructing, reversing and exploring gender roles?
Let’s first take a good look at Kyonko. Kyon is known and often lauded for his sarcastic demeanor and superior masculine qualities, especially when compared to other harem leads. The result of his gender-bending renders Kyon (now Kyonko) into nothing more than a regular ol’ tsunderekko. While his personality hasn’t changed, he becomes the object of advances from both Haruhi (Haruki too?) and Koizumi (assuming that he hasn’t gone off the gender-bending deep end either). His status as a female, both physically and emotionally, makes him stereotypically weak in the eyes of the nerds who conceived him. As a result, Kyonko’s rough demeanor just gets played off for moe hijinks.
This is sexual harrassment, folks. But it’s funny cause it’s just Kyon(ko), right? Wait, no, it’s still sexual harrassment. Rather than explore or deconstruct gender roles, what people have done to Kyon(ko) here is merely reject traditonal male roles for submissive female norms. In essence, this is a trivialization of female gender roles; in adopting them, for our visual pleasure or even if we identify more with Kyonko than Kyon, we are merely endorsing them. It maintains a status quo with the small twist that we want to participate in rather than exploit the traditional female roles (but still exploited by others). While the perpetuation of gender norms in Kyonko’s case isn’t perhaps maliciously or overtly intended, it accomplishes its goal nonetheless.
It is interesting to note that the majority of Kyonko pictures features her blushing or merely in a position of great embarrassment and shame. Does Kyon blush over his male body? The answer is clearly no, so why should Kyonko blush over her female body? While a man might be extremely shocked and surprised to wake up one day with a female body, it makes no sense to just blush. I’m not saying that Kyonko has no real reason to blush, but that she has no natural reason to blush. Shame and embarrassment are not naturally inclined to women, despite what some may think. It is a conditioned response to our society and upbringing that seeks to both punish and exploit women for their bodies; it makes no sense for a man who has never experienced a female body to suddenly feel shame naturally. Shame only comes at the realization of the social definition of the female, the socially-recognized weaker gender. Kyonko blushes because she has lost status in the world; Kyonko is self-hating.
If Kyonko is merely a product of the feverish minds of fans and therefore unconvincing, we can simply look at the father (mother?) of gender-bending anime: Ranma 1/2.
Who could forget this classic anime? Ranma 1/2 plays itself off as merely comedy, but the message that comes across is horribly cruel and alienating. Ranma, the boy-turned-girl if you splash water on him, faces constant doubts and ostracization from family and friends throughout the anime. His friend, at one point, angrily exclaims, “Stop talking like a homo,” while Ranma’s father shouts at another point, “You have betrayed the honor of this house.” The comedic elements serve only to distract from what should be a traumatic experience. We are thus conditioned to see Ranma as non-normative.
At the very surface, the anime is aware of the gender boundaries in contemporary Japan. When Akane, the main (true) female character of the story, first learns that Ranma is really a boy, she refuses to be his friend.
Ranma’s ‘discord’ between image and reality is literally enacted for him in his constant transformations and is further emphasized by the reactions of those around him who, as we saw in the first episode, become puzzled, shocked, or even angry upon witnessing his metamorphoses… Neither boy nor girl, Ranma occupies a liminal space that… is actually a forlorn and isolated one… why can’t Akane be friend with him now that she knows he’s a boy? The answer lies in the strict gender construction on which his and Akane’s world is based. — Susan Napier
The show’s few elements of gender equality are easily dwarfed by rampant misogyny. Akane, the main (real) girl of the story, struggles admirably to be a martial artist while fending off arranged marriages by her father, but this point is contradicted by Ranma’s family and friends constant lack of confidence every time he becomes a woman. What results is a conflicted message that often tells its audience that being a woman honestly isn’t worth it.
And like Kyonko, it Ranma’s new body is a constant source of shame and embarrassment, only played off cruelly as a joke. Throughout the history of media, the transformation from female to male, either literal or figurative, is usually seen as a means of empowerment. The flipside is the exact opposite, unfortunately.
[I]mpersonating a woman involves anxiety over loss of power, because it means that the male must identify with a typically lower-status figure. — Rebecca Bell-Metereau
This should be no mystery whatsoever. For instance, many men still view housework as feminine and thus degrading. While new media representations arise everyday that give a favorable view of “stay-at-home dad’s,” the dominant viewpoint of society is that femininity is weak.
So are there any positive representations of gender-bending in anime? Many might point to Ouran High School Host Club, but I would contend otherwise.
Simply because a girl is at the center of the harem of doting males hardly reverses any gender role expectations. As far as moe is concerned, Ouran is no better than Tenchi Muyo. Characters are still pre-determined by their moe qualities along typical anime cliches for the excitement of the anime’s audience. Rather than truly questioning and challenging harem anime and the society that loves them, Ouran merely exploits. At every turn, the anime strives to apologize for its transgressive themes. Haruhi’s “abnormal” male behavior and willingness to cross-dress is explained away by her transsexual father. As is typical in anime, anything strange is explained away by some dark secret or past, implying that otherwise, Haruhi would just be another normal girl.
There are a lot of fans of gender-bending in anime today. And a lot of these people probably won’t give a damn what has been written here. But it is nevertheless important to understand a couple of very key points. First, sexual titillation is merely a side product of gender-bending. Its most important goal is the unification of masculine and feminine qualities that have too long been set aside by those who deem themselves authority on how we should act as biological males or females. Second, the commercialization of anime and its penchant to exploit both men and women as products rather than complete human beings have led to a bastardization of the androgyny revolution. Where the 1920’s were about challenging normative values and gender roles, modern anime has us embracing traditional values in a package designed to turn us on.