Part Three: Humor(?)
In Part 3 of this series, Kathryn and I will be examining cross-dressing in comedies and comedic tropes about cross-dressing. Can cross-dressing be treated as more than the butt of a joke? Yes!
Part 2 here. All images safe for work. Mild spoilers for the works discussed; some larger spoilers for Ouran.
“Dude Looks Like A Lady”
A bit less classic than the BeruBara manga, but still occupying an important niche in fandom history, is a popular anime music video from the late 1990s featuring an epic anime mashup set to the tune of Aerosmith’s “Dude Looks Like A Lady.” This video plays with the trope of the same name and spawned numerous imitations (here’s one of the more recent). It opens with a scene from the adventure anime Slayers in which the tall and muscular male swordsman Gourry is disguised as a blushing maiden with Sailor Moon pigtails so that the heroes can safely board a ship without being recognized. In the AMV, as in the show itself, this role reversal is played for comedic effect, which is heightened by Gourry’s surprising willingness to embrace certain stereotypes of femininity and the exaggerated degree to which the dockside roughs are attracted to him. After giving viewers a glimpse of Gourry’s lovely hair sparkling against a pink background card, the AMV then jumps to Ikari Shinji of Neon Genesis Evangelion fame cowering and embarrassed while wearing the plugsuit of one of his female comrades in arms. The video references several anime series popular at the time, such as Tenchi Muyo! and Trigun, that contain scenes of male characters in women’s clothing played for laughs. It also includes shots of attractive and androgynous bishōnen characters such as the male love interest from the OVA Dragon Half, who is named – we kid you not – Dick Saucer.
The humor of this video, as well as that of the original Aerosmith song, comes from the destabilization of expectations concerning normative gender roles and gendered behavior. Taking our cue from the silly and carnivalesque tone of the music and animation, we are amused by the sight of a male character temporarily switching gender codes. This switch is “safe,” and therefore enjoyable, precisely because it is temporary. The song itself describes a one-time encounter, the cross-dressing portrayed in the AMV is similarly a one-time plot device, and the androgynous men in the AMV are background characters who only appear in their respective shows for the purpose of creating an opportunity for a quick gag.
There are, of course, many acceptable modes of male beauty in contemporary Japan. Boy band (and rock band) members with impeccably styled hair and perfectly manicured nails exude masculine charm, as do grizzled oyaji, or middle-aged men. Gingitsune, or “silver foxes,” are attractive, as are metrosexual urbanites and down-to-earth farmboys. In anime, manga, and video games, long flowing locks on a male character are less of a sign of effeminacy than they are of masterful martial prowess, but this is not to say that buff muscle men and lanky teenage boys are any less powerful or masculine. For the record, we have multiple variations on masculine bodies and appearances in the West as well, and standards for masculinity change over time just as standards for femininity do (see prior post for more examples).
The situational humor suggested by men cross-dressing as women is therefore not directly tied to a feminine or androgynous appearance but is instead derived from the playful nature of the temporarily switch from one strongly demarcated identity to another. This sort of play is something that many of us enjoy during the festival atmosphere of events like Halloween, in which we can dress up and adopt another persona for the evening. The key to the fun, however, is the temporary nature of the border crossing; it’s safe because we know we can always go back to “normal.” Once the switch becomes more permanent, things start getting “scary.” [Ed. Transphobia and transmisogyny will be discussed again in Part 4 in a different context.]
We are thus thrilled and delighted when we encounter Sailor Man or Man Faye at an anime convention, but there is a darker side to cross-dressing, both in terms of tropes as well as social consequences. In the first episode of Sword Art Online, for instance, when all of the player avatars are suddenly made to look like the players themselves, people get upset to find that many of the cute young girls are actually middle-aged men. In the opening episodes of the Black Butler anime, when Ciel is persuaded to present himself as a debutante in order to infiltrate a human trafficking ring, he is extremely upset about having to give up the power and prestige associated with his status as a young man of a noble house, and he is in fact treated with less respect by those around him, which he clearly resents. What we can see from these two examples, and countless others like them, is that many male characters who engage in cross-dressing, regardless of their intentions in doing so, are mocked and treated with disdain.
While a woman can gain access to spaces of power and privilege by donning the clothing of a man, a man cross-dressing as a woman has little to gain but everything to lose. At least, that seems to be how many comedic anime and manga suggest that we view cross-dressing men, who are not allowed the flamboyant empowerment that men in the real world seek to represent by dressing in drag or otherwise challenging mainstream fashion. These characters are instead acutely uncomfortable, and we find their discomfort amusing because the story presents them as powerful men temporarily forced into a position of weakness by means of the guide of femininity. In other words, the element of darkness in this type of humor is that such representations reinforce gender norms by punishing or ridiculing deviations from normative dress and behavior. What goes unspoken is that, according to these norms, “feminine” is a shorthand code for “disempowered.”
Gender Rebels, Gender Sloths
When we first discussed the idea of cross-dressing and humor, we struggled to think of examples where the act of cross-dressing was not treated as the (typically transphobic) butt of a joke in comedy. The treatment of cross-dressing characters in Hatori Bisco’s manga/anime comedy Ouran High School Host Clubis generally positive, and shifts the focus of the humor from the act of cross-dressing itself onto the parody of tropes and the characters’ refusal to be defined by social norms. Fujioka Haruhi, a new scholarship student at the super-rich and elite Ouran High School, accidentally wanders into the host club and breaks an expensive vase. Under the impression that Haruhi, who has a gender-neutral name and wears pants and a sweater instead of either the girls’ or boys’ full school uniform, is a boy, the all-male host club conscripts this “commoner student” to the host club to pay off their debt. It’s not until one of the characters finds Haruhi’s student ID with an old photo and asks her about it that they realize Haruhi is not a boy at all.1 However, because Haruhi’s makeover into a cute boy is so successful and the clients seem to like her, the club convinces her to continue working as a host and cross-dressing at school, where no one has realized she’s a girl, to pay off her debt faster.
Part of the humor in Hatori Bisco’s treatment of Haruhi’s cross-dressing is that Haruhi does not care about gender at all, commenting that “It doesn’t matter either way–men, women, appearances, etc? What’s important is on the inside,” and “My sense of being a boy or a girl is less important than being a person.” Haruhi is less of a gender rebel than a gender sloth. The “joke” that she is mistaken for a pretty boy because of her use of gender-neutral and masculine-leaning language and dress is humorous because she doesn’t care about her gender presentation. She tends to use a gender-neutral pronoun (jibun, 自分, lit. myself). “I didn’t really care if I looked like a boy,” she says, regarding her appearance in the first chapter/episode.
Although there’s fear that Haruhi’s gender will be “found out” during a school medical exam, Haruhi is more comfortable occupying a gender-fluid space than other heroines who have to cross-dress. Where Oscar from BeruBara wears a dress once just to try it, Haruhi doesn’t have a problem wearing dresses and wigs when the host club needs her to disguise herself as a girl.2 When she’s outside school and free from having to wear a uniform, which are very gendered in Japan but even more so at Ouran, Haruhi prefers a more androgynous look; in the first episode, she wears men’s hand-me-downs in an approximation of the boys’ school uniform. At home, she wears sundresses with pants underneath–anything comfortable but nothing fussy.
Tamaki, the “prince” of the host club, has a crush on her and sometimes likes to imagine her in feminine clothes and performing a more feminine gender, and Haruhi’s blunt, deadpan reactions to his assumptions about gender and her personal preferences turn the joke onto him.3 Nothing gender-related phases Haruhi: she doesn’t care about having to chat up girls as part of her work; she doesn’t care about being mistaken for a gay boy or accidentally kissing a girl; she doesn’t care when the club members finds out about her being a girl; she doesn’t care about the club asking her to wear a boy’s school uniform or to wear a dress and a wig as a disguise. Haruhi identifies as female but since she states that her sense of gender is less important to her than her sense of humanity, her genderfluidity and cross-dressing are treated as fairly unremarkable in the majority of the narrative.
Additionally, the other characters also poke fun at gender tropes: the boys of the host club each play to a type, not unlike in a dating sim: the prince, the stoic megane-type, the strong-but-silent type, the shota, and the rascally twins. The “proper young women” students who frequent the host club tend to appear hyperfeminine– in part because of the gown-like girls’ uniform–but they are not shamed in the narrative for being feminine. Some of them are catty, yes, and some of the are sincere; at least one is explicitly a fujoshi (fangirl) who immediately sees the dating-sim-esque tropes the characters play at the club. Like the male characters and Haruhi, even when they are making fun of tropes, the characters have a real humanity about them. Parody, after all, has to have the element of love for the original narratives to be successful.
One important point we should mention in discussing Ouran is the concept of passing and passing privilege, which factor heavily into the everyday lives of real people who don’t fit neatly into the false social gender binary. Haruhi is androgynous enough that she passes for a girl or a boy depending on her clothing. However, Haruhi’s father Ryouji, who works as drag-queen hostess Ranka and describes himself as bisexual, does not benefit from the same level of passing as their daughter does.4 The subtitled version is a perfect example of what happens when your translators are not trained about gender in translation, and some characters use translated transphobic language toward Ranka out of ignorance rather than malice.
As we mentioned previously, to put it very simply, men performing femininities and trans women bear the brunt of transphobia and gender policing, because to be a woman or to be like a woman disrupts male privilege and is a source of social anxiety for masculinity, which must constantly be proved. Contemporary women accessing masculinities and their privileges are “cool.” Haruhi’s gender fluidity, particularly her cross-dressing then, is less “dangerous” to social structure than Ranka’s, who could easily be the locus of transmisogynistic “humor” in other media. In Ouran, Ranka’s life outside the binary is not the joke; rather, the trope of the expected reaction of others to Ranka being averted is the joke.
For instance, there’s a wonderful scene in episode 10 of the anime where Ryouji and his boss at the bar think that Haruhi is too ashamed to bring him to parents’ day because he works as a cross-dresser. In reality, Haruhi’s reluctance stems from her feeling that her father is working too hard and should rest. Like many teens, Haruhi is embarrassed by her parent’s affection for her, but she is never ashamed of Ranka’s or her own gender expressions.
Furthermore, Ranka, as she allows the host club boys call her, has a gender fluidity about them not unlike their daughter’s. We see her “on” as gorgeous Ranka as well as “off” as a bandana and “Dad” t-shirt. The host club members, especially Kyoya, respect Ranka, and Ranka and Tamaki bond over wishing Haruhi liked feminine pursuits as much as her father, though they still respect Haruhi’s decisions. Tamaki and the host club also cross-dress to show Haruhi that they’re just as good as the Lobelia Academy Zuka Club (a Takarazuka parody troupe5) and show no anxiety over the act of dressing in drag.
As evidenced in the last chapter of the manga, even when her classmates misread Haruhi’s gender or sexuality (some of them assume she’s a queer boy dressing as a girl to be “acceptable” to be seen romantically with Tamaki in the end), the world of Ouran is by and large respectful of gender expression as well as lacking anxiety about genderfluidity. Hatori Bisco explores the shôjo tropes through the lens of Haruhi the gender sloth and her friends, and Haruhi’s lack of concern about gender and the host club’s defiance or aversion of shôjo tropes reflects back on the ridiculousness of the gender binary in contemporary society.
1. This scene plays out differently in the anime and the manga, but in both, the members of the club mistake Haruhi for a boy at first, and she doesn’t care enough to correct them because, she says, she doesn’t really think or care about gender.
2. Let us be clear that Oscar and Haruhi have different gender expressions and both are valid. Just because Haruhi is more genderfluid doesn’t make her better than anyone who wants their pronouns respected. There’s a lot of different ways to inhabit nonbinary spaces, and all are valid.
3. Edit: from the comments, ESC pointed out that the beach episode (ep. 8) of Ouran has some very problematic elements in it, including the “you should be more careful around men; don’t forget you’re just a girl; even I could physically harm you right now” trope. Just to be clear, while we (the authors) both see the character of Haruhi and her gender in a positive light, we are both disappointed in the way the Host Club members and even the author treat her.
4. We’re trying to approximate the same situational pro/nouns Ryouji/Ranka uses to refer to themself. Ryouji describes himself as bisexual okama (which can be a feminine man, trans woman, or drag queen, and is a word that is a slur if used by someone who is not self-identified as an okama) and as Haruhi’s father; often drag queens are referred to with female pronouns in English. We’re using a mix of male/female/neutral (they) pronouns as it seems appropriate. Interestingly, Ranka’s stage persona is more of a beautiful OL in office clothes than the high-fashion, hard femme, heavily made-up look associated with drag queens. Also, Ranka, like Haruhi, interestingly enough, have the same appeal as “the natural.”
5. Lobelia Girls’ Academy is a case where it seems like Hatori Bisco intended to blatantly lampoon Takarazuka’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” clause by saying that they’re very gay, but the portrayal of the Zuka Club and Lobelia Academy students as man-hating lesbians also could be read as a stereotype about (literally) “feminazis.” See the comments, particularly this one, in Gagging on Sexism for a useful discussion of the show’s failings and discomfort about Lobelia.