Wandering Son: What You Can’t See
Part 4 here. Throughout this series, we’ve mentioned the difference between positive reactions to temporary, Carnival-esque cross-dressing and the transphobic and especially transmisogynistic negative reactions experienced by people who cross-dress more permanently or who are transgender. One of the best illustrations of this is Shimura Takako’s Wandering Son (Hôrô Musuko,「 放浪息子」), a manga and anime that feature several characters who are perceived to be cross-dressing by their community, when in fact several of them are dressing toward their gender identity (not cross-dressing). The show also features instances of socially acceptable cross-dressing (theatre) as a contrast to the transmisogyny experienced by an adult transwoman and a child designated male at birth (DMAB) on the cusp of puberty.
In this section, we’ll be discussing a manga and anime in which trans characters dressing toward their gender identity are perceived as cross-dressing, and will be using the terms “girls’ clothes” and “boys’ clothes” a lot. Please keep in mind that we mean this in the sense of culturally gendered clothing and school uniforms in a narrative about minors who are not out and who have to deal with transphobia in their schools and homes. An article of clothing itself, as comedian Eddie Izzard comments, is not inherently gendered, though the intent for it to be worn by (certain) cisgendered bodies is present.
Content warning: this section contains discussions of transphobia, transmisogyny, and sexism. There are also major spoilers for the anime and manga.
To briefly introduce the characters, Nitori Shûichi1 is a preteen who was designated male at birth and identifies as a girl. Her friend Takatsuki Yoshino is DFAB and identifies as a boy during elementary and junior high school.2 The manga follows Nitori and Takatsuki as they graduate elementary school, begin junior high school, and eventually enter high school; the anime focuses only on them in junior high school.
There are two major plot points regarding cross-dressing vs. dressing toward one’s gender identity that we’d like to discuss. The first is the element of socially “acceptable” cross-dressing in the narrative. For example, the students in Nitori’s class put on two plays with the girls playing male roles and vice versa. The first is a version of The Rose of Versailles for the elementary school graduation, suggested by Chiba, a girl with an interest (possibly fetish) in seeing Nitori in dresses; and the latter is the junior-high school festival, for which the students in Nitori’s classes decide to do a gender-swapped version of Romeo and Juliet. This type of cross-dressing, at least in the case of cis students, is temporary and established in types of theatre–the act is not perceived as threatening but as entertaining and humorous. Nitori and Takatsuki, who plays Andre, are both pleased to be able to dress toward their gender identity and preferred gender expression.
However, Shimura also explores reactions to perceived cross-dressing outside of theatrical conditions. In contrast to Nitori’s being praised for being such a cute Rosalie in the BeruBara play, when Takatsuki and Chiba encourage Nitori to try on one of Takatsuki’s dresses, the boys who have come over to work on a group project get anxious and leave. Their own masculinity is “threatened” by the appearance of the feminine and what they believe to be cross-dressing outside of acceptable settings. This point is, of course, part of the problem of masculinity: that it is believed to be constantly under threat and must constantly be proven. For a textbook example of fear of the feminine somehow polluting or diminishing the masculine, see this commercial, which features a cisman panicking after using “women’s” soap.3
The second major plot point, and a lot of the plot in general, centers around gendered school uniforms. Nitori and Takatsuki are at the age when public-school students go from wearing street clothes to elementary school to wearing the gendered school uniforms for junior- and senior high school. Although school uniforms vary a lot in the US and may even allow female students to wear pants an option as part of a standard uniform, and although fairly androgynous casual wear is available for children and adults alike in Japan, the school uniforms are strictly gendered. In junior and senior high school, girls’ uniforms are often the “sailor suit” or blouse and blazer with a skirt and boys’ uniforms are often a military-inspired jacket with a high collar or a blazer and dress shirt in the winter and a button-up shirt in the summer. This is not to say that gender-bending fashions and perceived cross-dressing are not the target of bullying and derision from students and administration alike in schools without uniforms, but rather that the uniforms regulations for accessories, shoes, socks, and hair styles don’t provide a lot of options for gender expression or self expression.
In junior high school, Takatsuki and Nitori meet Sarashina Chizuru, a cis-identified girl who just enjoys wearing a boy’s uniform because she feels like it fits with her cool persona. She turns up to school a few times in it and also tends to wear non-regulation ties with her girls’ uniform. Sarashina’s blatant disregard for the rules gives Takatsuki courage to wear the boys’ uniform that was given to him by Yuki, a transwoman who acts as mentor and confidant to Takatsuki and Sarashina. (In the manga, the uniforms belonged to Takatsuki’s older brother and sister.)
When Takatsuki wears a boys’ uniform to school, everyone thinks that he is cool and edgy like Sarashina. Part of this fairly positive reaction stems from his peers are viewing Takatsuki as a tomboy engaging in temporary cross-dressing instead of a transgender boy trying to dress toward how he wants to be perceived. Although the administration is annoyed with Takatsuki for breaking the dress code, the other students’ misreading of Takatsuki’s actions as fun and temporary largely protect him from transphobic reactions, although their reaction causes a sense of discomfort for him, as it plays upon the disconnect between how one sees their own gender presentation and how others see them. This discomfort also occurs earlier in the manga when Takatsuki gets his first period and is teased by the other boys because it “proves” that he’s “really a girl.”
Like Takatsuki with his androgynous clothes and binder, Nitori also wears clothes that make her comfortable in her gender expression in her free time. Outside of school, she wears a long wig and skirts at home with friends in public in disguise, often with Takatsuki, and is delighted when she “passes” (more on this later). Her success in passing in public, her friends’ admiration of how good she looks in girls’ clothes, and Takatsuki’s wearing of a boy’s uniform at school leads Nitori to follow Takatsuki’s example and to come to school in her girl’s uniform. However, Nitori is immediately recognized by the teachers and then mocked mercilessly by her peers. She is sent to the school nurse and then sent home from school. In the anime version, the characters sometimes talk to the camera, and after this incident, they discuss how differently everyone reacted to Nitori’s and Takatsuki’s perceived cross-dressing, noting that girls’ fashion offers more options for gender expression in clothing, and that Takatsuki’s interest in androgynous and masculine clothes is treated as more normal than Nitori’s interest in feminine wear. Few anime are this deliberate about how the masculine is prioritized and deemed culturally cool but the feminine is reviled, and how DMAB people who embrace culturally feminine clothing and pursuits often face greater social consequences, from ridicule to violence.
Wandering Son also explores also problematic narratives about “passing” in culture. Nitori’s friend Ariga Mako, for example, is also DMAB and also identifies as a girl. Mako is jealous of Nitori’s good looks and ability to pass as a girl; she also wants to wear girls’ clothes but feels she isn’t pretty enough. While much of Ariga’s reluctance to cross-dress is chalked up to a lack of self confidence, her fears are not unfounded. The culture surrounding “passing” is problematic as it classifies people who don’t or don’t want to fit into two narrow, relatively stagnant categories of male or female as problems themselves while simultaneously discrediting the “authenticity” of people who do have passing privilege. There is no way to win. A person who is not deemed masculine or feminine “enough” is ridiculed and reviled for not having correct body language; for lacking or for possessing body hair in “right” or “wrong” places; for not having hips or chests that are the “correct” shape; for being too tall or short, too broad or too slight; for not having one’s makeup or wig look “right” and so on.
Yet the corollary is that a person who does pass, who looks close enough to “socially acceptable” standards for femininity or masculinity is considered a “trap” or dishonest, which can also lead to that person being outed and attempts to harm or humiliate upon “discovery.” Some times even safe spaces are not entirely safe, as gender policing can also be a problem within the queer community.
In the scope of our series on cross-dressing, Wandering Son serves as a point of contrast. First, by contrasting acts of cross-dressing with trans identities within the series itself, Shimura contrasts social delight in situational cross-dressing for humor or theater with social fear of transgressing gender norms via a more permanent movement along the gender identity spectrum. Second, the series covers issues of transmisogyny and masculine privilege deftly and realistically. While many of the characters we’ve covered have been lodged within the genre of speculative fiction, Wandering Son’s setting in contemporary Japan allows the author to critique social norms directly instead of through metaphor. Finally, we can see how certain problematic anime/manga tropes, such as phantom femininities, can influence social and institutionalized transphobia. Despite taking a hard look at transmisogyny, Wandering Son, ends with a note of hope, with Nitori’s plans to transition, as well as her draft of a novel of her story and her girlfriend’s acceptance of her gender identity.
Next time: Returning to speculative fiction, we’ll look at the treatment of cross-dressing in Yoshinaga Fumi’s speculative fiction manga Ôoku, in which the Shogun and her daimyô are women and her concubines are men. How does cross-dressing in the context of a matriarchy differ from doing so in a patriarchy and how does the narrative speak to contemporary social issues?
1. With the exception of adult character and Ariga Mako, Nitori and Takatsuki in the show have not selected other names, so we’ll refer to them by their last names, which is how they’re referred to at school. Some of them have gendered nicknames, however–Nitorin for Nitori, but these are used as terms of friendship rather than a preferred name.
2. In the manga, Takatsuki maintains a masculine look but eventually stops “thinking about being a boy.” Because of this, it’s hard to select a pronoun, so we’re using “he/his/him” for child Takatsuki who identifies as male and trans, particularly in the anime. In contrast to Nitori, who plans to transition during college, in the final chapters of the manga, Takatsuki is confused by their recent lack of interest in being a boy. It’s not an affirmation of womanhood, though, or an explicit discovery of a genderqueer identity, or explorations into butch gender expressions. Takatsuki is perhaps not done discovering their identity.
3. Also see Susan Faludi’s Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man for more on fear as part of masculine identity construction.