Today I’m pleased to bring you an essay version of the panel I gave with Dr. Kathryn Hemmann of Contemporary Japanese Literature on cross-dressing in anime and manga at Sakura-Con in Seattle on April 19, 2014. Because we’re no longer limited to 70 minutes and a projector, we’re able to include more notes, resources, and a proper discussion of Ôoku, which we unfortunately had to cut short at the panel. Enjoy!
Gender bending is often cited as one of the defining themes of contemporary anime and manga, which are filled with examples of handsome women and beautiful men, not to mention cross-dressing characters who never fail to steal the spotlight. What is cross-dressing? How does it challenge and reinforce gender roles? What role has cross-dressing historically played in popular entertainment in Japan? Does a female character cross-dressing as a man mean something different than a male character cross-dressing as a woman? In this essay, we’re going to discuss ideas about gender, provide some terminology, and examine a few examples of how cross-dressing is used by characters in anime and manga as a means of exploring gender issues in contemporary Japanese society.
This essay is divided into seven parts in four themes. In the first part, we’re going to outline several terms and issues related to gender fluidity. In the second part, we’ll discuss Japanese theatrical traditions, specifically those of kabuki and Takarazuka, which continue to inform contemporary popular culture in Japan. In the third part, we’ll talk about cross-dressing as it appears in comedies, romantic or otherwise, to demonstrate how laughter can both undermine and bolster personal agency in choices relating to gender identity. In the final part, we’ll move on to cross-dressing in anime and manga that are more serious in tone and content in order to explore the more transgressive and more potentially transformative aspects of gender fluidity.
Content note: This essay contains minor spoilers for the anime and manga series we discuss. Although we’ll be focusing on stories and characters we love, our discussion will include issues relating to transphobia, misogyny, sexism, and bullying.
The Superpositionality of Gender
We’d like to start off our discussion with a serious topic: cats. And by “cats,” I obviously mean “quantum physics” by way of the famous thought experiment often referred to as Schrödinger’s cat. Quantum physics is a branch of mechanical physics that deals with matter at the nanoscopic level, at which matter does not behave in the same way that matter on the scale of human beings does. It is in fact very difficult for us to calculate how matter on the scale of individual atoms does behave. We describe this mathematically indeterminate nature of micromatter as a wave function: measured abstractly, an atomic particle such as an electron does not exist at a single point but rather at multiple points at the same time, like a wave, or a picture taken with a timed exposure. It is only when we try to physically measure it that the wave function collapses, a paradox that is known as the “measurement problem.”
The Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger tried to describe this paradox back in 1935 with the following thought experiment: A cat is put into a sealed steel box along with a vial of deadly hydrocyanic acid, a bit of radioactive substance, and a Geiger counter. If, over the course of an hour, an atom in the radioactive substance decays, the reaction of the Geiger counter will trigger a break in the vial holding the acid, which will kill the cat. Since it is impossible to predict or measure the behavior of atoms in this situation, we wouldn’t know whether or not a single atom of the radioactive substance decayed or, by extension, whether or not the cat is alive or dead. Until we open the box, and thus freeze a moment in time, we must understand the cat as being both alive and dead at the same time.
Schrödinger’s point was that this is a ridiculous paradox, as a cat can’t be both alive and dead at the same time. Other great minds have come with various explanations for the apparent paradox of wave function collapse, which does exist, no matter how ridiculous it may be. One of the more interesting explanations was provided in 1957 by Hugh Everett, who suggested that, instead of collapsing, the wave function of any given quantum system will instead branch. In other words, instead of being either alive or dead, the cat is both alive and dead, and the only limitation is the level of our perception. This type of both/and situation, as opposed to an either/or situation, is called “superpositionality,” which refers to a situation in which two apparently diametrically opposed states can both exist at the same time, and wherein any given object can simultaneously occupy multiple positions.
To return to the level of everyday experience, we would like to posit something that we’re going to call “Schrödinger’s gender,” which should be understood not as a paradox but instead as an infinitude of possibilities: Gender exists as a wave function. We are all, always, simultaneously both male and female and all points in between, and it is only when someone tries to measure us – Are you a boy? Or are you a girl? – that this wave function collapses and we feel compelled to choose one out of many possibilities. However, even though we are all constantly choosing over the course of a stream of countless moments every day, often without being aware of these choices, the possibilities not chosen at that precise moment still exist.
We’ve sketched out this analogy at the beginning of our essay not just because quantum physics is like magic and magic is awesome, but rather because it’s important to spend some time explaining our goals and limitations. For instance, we’re not going to attempt to figure out the “real” gender of any of the characters we discuss. Also, when we talk about a female character cross-dressing as male, or vice versa, it’s important to understand that terms like “female” and “male” are relative and do not denote anything with any degree of certainty.
This is not to say that gender does not exist, or that it has no relationship – either complementary or antagonistic – to physical sex. To quote the influential American sociologist Judith Lorber, from her 1993 book Paradoxes of Gender,
Every society classifies people as “girl and boy children,” “girls and boys ready to be married,” and “fully adult women and men,” constructs similarities among them and differences between them, and assigns them to different roles and responsibilities. Personality characteristics, feelings, motivations, and ambitions flow from these different life experiences so that the members of these different groups become different groups of people. The process of gendering and its outcome are legitimated by religion, law, science, and the society’s entire set of values.
What Lorber is saying is that gender plays a strong role in the life of each and every human individual from the moment of birth, despite our difficulties in defining what “gender” is and our inability to agree on what qualities constitute the characteristics of and differences between genders. We participate in a constant reinforcement of culturally prescribed gender roles, which we perform and challenge not only in our everyday lives but through our art as well. Because gender is such a major element of what defines us as individuals, it’s only natural that we explore it and test its boundaries through the stories we tell ourselves. Animation and sequential art, which facilitate character development by shaping and transforming images, are fertile grounds for gender play.
Language and Terminology
In our work, we are crossing not only a language “barrier” but also a barrier of time and culture, and we’d like to briefly describe some of the issues in discussing gender in light of these barriers. First, language and identity politics change over time, so in the case of some characters, there are authors who have not been specific about their characters’ identities, either because they may not have had the terms we have available now or because they purposely didn’t want give a name to their identity.With regard to the question of translation, what and how words are gendered is rather different in Japanese and English; in Japanese, pronouns and titles are less gendered in some ways, and you can actually go through whole conversations (as evidenced by Haruhi’s first appearance in Ouran High School Host Club) without explicitly referring to your or another person’s gender. Unfortunately, there is also a problem of translators with no training in gender issues lagging behind in learning how to translate terms positively and correctly in English subs and dubs. I’m sure in 20 years the terms will have evolved further in both languages. In cases where it’s unclear what the character’s identity is, it may be more useful to give specifics about the character and discuss a range of identities instead of selecting just one.
Gender1 tends to be thought of in the broader culture as a series of oppositional identities: male vs. female, masculine vs. feminine, man vs. woman, but these starting points create a false binary. Ideas about gender and gendering affect everything from jobs to colors to behaviors to fashions and vary across time and space. A few examples include contemporary men in Japan, who have a lot of pink options for clothing and accessories, in a country where the color seems to be relatively absent of gendered connotations, unlike in the US. In pre-revolutionary France, flowing locks, a shapely calf, and wearing heels were manly, though they wouldn’t be seen as such today.
In addition to masculine/feminine being a false dichotomy for cisgender people (people who identify as the sex they were assigned at birth), there are also non-binary genders, identities that don’t fall under “male” or “female.” The terms DMAB/AMAB (designed/assigned male at birth) and DFAB/AFAB (designated/assigned female at birth) describe the first speech act (performative utterance) act upon one exiting the womb: “it’s a boy” or it’s a girl!” People may use AMAB and AFAB to indicate that they were assigned one gender at birth but do not identify as that gender, such as in the case of transmen, transwomen, and nonbinary people. While lagging popular culture tends to use terms like “used to be a man/woman”, these terms more accurately and respectfully describe the experiences of trans- and nonbinary people and are also useful for intersex people who were assigned to one gender at birth and may not identify with that gender.
In addition, there non-binary gender identities: in addition to intersex as an identity, these include androgyne, non-binary, genderqueer, genderfluid, as well as a number of culture-specific terms, like two-spirit. In Japanese, there are many terms that are not offensive if used by the subject but are offensive if someone is called that, and official translators tend to not be aware of this.2 “Sexual minority” (セクシャルマイノリティー「セクマイ」) or “not-straight”(非異性愛者) are the closest to the English umbrella term “queer” in Japanese. A lot of the contemporary terminology is katakana-ized from English, though some writers will add explanations or use both a Japanese term and a katakana-ized English term, like doseiai/同性愛 (lit. “homosexual”) and gei/ゲイ (“gay”).
In this piece, we define “cross-dressing” as limited to characters who identify as one gender, and for a variety of reasons, dress or live as a different gender. That is, dressing in clothes of the gender you identify is not cross-dressing, as in the case of transgender and nonbinary people. There will be a discussion of perceived cross-dressing in Wandering Son as a counterpoint to show how cross-dressing and trans identities often get pathologized and lumped together. That is, people who appear to be cross-dressing may not categorize their dress as such, but the characters or their authors of the media we’ve selected do identify their actions as cross-dressing.
Gender and sexuality are incredibly complex, fluid, and personal. The possibilities are endless, and they don’t fit neatly into boxes. While that can be kind of scary and overwhelming to think about, it’s also exciting and wonderful, and in this essay we hope to share some of the thrill of this endless potential with our fellow fans of anime and manga.
1. Recently there’s been a shift from making a distinction between “sex” and “gender” to just using the term “gender.” Philip N. Cohen has a great summary of the arguments for the shift on Family Inequality.
2. See the use of the term okama in Ouran and Wandering Son; I typically see this word as a derogatory term for an “effeminate” male (wikipedia: 女性的な男性全般), including drag queens, but it seems like it’s a term that can be owned by the community itself (such as the personal, positive use of fag/dyke by gay men and women in US English) but in these shows it’s always translated as a slur for transgender people. What gives?