Part 4: Gender Trouble and Phantom Femininities
In the final thematic section of our essay, we’re going to move on to some of the more serious issues surrounding cross-dressing, specifically those involving social consequences and identity construction. We’ll begin by focusing on men who habitually crossdress as women before focusing on queer and transgender issues in manga involving characters cross-dressing against sex instead of gender. Part 3 here.
Content warning: this section contains discussions of transphobia, transmisogyny, and sexism.
Again, when we typically talk about cross-dressing, we’re talking about a character dressing in the clothing of a gender with which she or he does not identify. We’re therefore not going to discuss series like Ranma ½ or Birdy the Mighty, in which a male character is caused by magical means to either temporarily or permanently inhabit a female body. Many of these boy-turns-into-a-girl series are meant for a shōnen audience young enough to think that girls are silly but old enough to have begun to see girls as sexy. Thus, boy-turned-girl characters complain about having to wear dresses and form-fitting bodysuits while simultaneously delighting in the fact that they have breasts that they can touch any time they want. In addition, in manga especially, there are many male-to-female stories like Kashimashi and Otome wa boku ni koishiteru drawn expressly for the titillation of an adult male audience. Not only is there a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” appeal to such stories, but gender confusion and vulnerability in young women is so very, very moé.
If we set aside shōnen humor and moé sex appeal, we’ve got two basic categories of habitual male-to-female cross-dressing in anime and manga: boys who don’t want to cross-dress but are forced to and then get used to it, and men who cross-dress in order to preserve the memory of a woman who has vanished from their lives.
A good example of boys who don’t want to crossdress is Kōno Toru from Princess Princess, who is chosen through various plot devices to dress as a girl at his all-boys school. Although he resents it at first, he gradually comes to enjoy it, especially in the company of the school’s two other “princesses.” Another example drawn from Uta no Princesama is Tsukimiya Ringo, an aspiring idol who was repeatedly told by his manager that he needed to be more feminine. Since his devotion to music was stronger than his attachment to conventional codes of masculinity, Ringo took on an ultra-feminine persona and stuck with it, which ultimately proved successful. Neither character is socially penalized for crossdressing; but, then again, both occupy school-themed fantasy spaces that would be difficult to imagine outside of an anime. Moreover, both of these characters are gender scapegoats. In homosocial, all-male spaces, they take on female-coded roles so that everyone else is, in comparison, unquestionably male. They therefore serve as a kind of “phantom femininity” that the other male characters can use as a psychological Other against which to contrast their own masculine identities.
Speaking of phantom femininities, anime and manga occasionally employ the tropes of the grieving man who crossdresses in order to keep the memory of a dead woman alive. We can find examples in numerous contemporary anime and manga and light novel series ranging from Stein’s Gate to Ano Hana, but one of our favorite characters who embodies this trope is Nuriko from Fushigi Yūgi, who was so traumatized by the loss of his sister that he vowed to assume her appearance so that she would never be forgotten. Despite his appearance, Nuriko maintains stereotypically masculine characteristics as well, such as incredible strength and an impetuous temper. Just as the adorable boys in girls’ bodies of series like Kashimashi are fanservice for men, perhaps “masculine” men in women’s clothing – and men with stereotypically feminine interests, as in the case of Masamune Asuka from Otomen – are fanservice for shōjomanga fans, who enjoy fantasizing about a romantic partner who represents the best of both worlds by being not only sexually attractive but also friendly, sensitive, and approachable.
A more literal type of “phantom femininity” appears in Le Chevalier D’Eon, in which in d’Éon de Beaumont, young member of the king’s secret police, takes the form of his murdered sister Lia in battle. His male body thus becomes the conduit for her female vengeance. (By the way, d’Éon’s character is based on a real historical personage from the late eighteenth century who lived for fifty years as a man and thirty years as a woman and was absolutely fabulous as an international person of mystery for all of those years.) Likewise, in the Sailor Moon anime series, the Sailor Starlights, sailor scouts from a doomed planet, are physically male in their “civilian” bodies but become physically female when they transform into Sailor Scouts. What we see here is an insinuation that certain feminine feelings and powers can only be expressed through female bodies, and that men can never truly become women as long as they maintain male bodies. In other words, such fandom femininities suggest that gender is not fluid, and it takes more than clothes for a man to escape his physically mandated masculinity.
This is not to say that all anime and manga series treat male-to-female cross-dressing in a way that suggests that a more fluid gender identity is either undesirable or unobtainable. For example, Princess Jellyfish features a young man by the name of Koibuchi Kuranosuke who crossdresses in order to upset the rigid patriarchal social order represented by his straight-laced father and brother. Kuranosuke identifies as male and is attracted to women, but he finds freedom and a wider range of self-expression by dressing in gorgeous, outrageous, and stylish women’s fashions. Another good example of a sympathetic portrayal of a person clothing a male body in feminine fashion can be found in Paradise Kiss, in which the genderqueer character Isabella is treated with respect by both the other characters and by the author herself. Of course, both Princess Jellyfish and Paradise Kiss were originally josei manga written for college-age and adult women, who are presumably more interested in the challenges presented by social realities than boob jokes and saccharin high school romance.
It’s important to take the intended audience into account when we analyze cross-dressing in popular media. If the series is for boys who think female bodies are strange and funny, or for young women who are fixated on the idea of a perfect boyfriend, gender slippage as represented by cross-dressing is more than likely going to follow gender binary and heteronormative patterns. In media for older and more emotionally mature readers, however, it is possible to see more complicated portrayals of gender bending and crossdressing, not to mention transgender issues.
Next time, we’ll turn to Wandering Son, to see how transphobia and perceived acts of cross-dressing affect transgender preteens who are dressing as their gender identity; this includes issues of masculine privilege, transmisogyny, and social fear of gender transgression. In the final part of this section, we’ll examine cross-dressing in Ôoku, a scifi/alternate history manga in which Japan becomes a matriarchy and how this social shift affects gender privilege.