This past April, the ever-amazing Leah of The Lobster Dance and I gave a panel on cross-dressing in anime and manga at Sakura-Con in Seattle. Because we had an enormous turnout and not enough time to say everything we wanted to say, we decided to expand our talk and post it online.
Our essay is meant to be friendly and welcoming to newcomers to the fascinating field of Gender Studies, but readers should be advised that some portions of this essay contain mild spoilers for the series under discussion. For those of you who are looking for recommendations for anime, manga, and formal academic scholarship, feel free to jump ahead to our conclusion in Part Seven.
The Superpositionality of Gender
Gender plays a strong role in the life of each and every human individual from the moment of birth, even despite our difficulties in defining what “gender” is, not to mention 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 how we construct our identities, it’s only natural that we explore it and test its boundaries through the stories we tell ourselves. Anime and manga, which facilitate character development by playing with and transforming images, are fertile grounds for gender play.
The Theater: Kabuki, Takarazuka, and The Rose of Versailles
Cross-dressing has a long and colorful history in Japanese drama. The all-male kabuki theater and the all-female Takarazuka Revue queer our views of the gender binary by demonstrating not only how gender can be and is performed but also how difficult it is to limit ourselves to only two genders. One of the most popular figures in contemporary Japanese theater, Oscar François de Jarjayes of Ikeda Riyoko’s manga The Rose of Versailles, is especially interesting and thought-provoking in her disruption of tropes surrounding women who cross-dressing as men. While many gender-focused narratives are centered around coming-of-age and coming-out stories, Oscar is an adult who is ultimately satisfied with her identity; she generally doesn’t question who she is but rather what she can do to fulfill her potential.
Cross-Dressing and Humor(?)
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. Instead of being empowered, 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 guise of femininity.
Meanwhile, the world of Ouran High School Host Club is by and large respectful of gender expression as well as lacking in anxiety about gender fluidity. Hatori Bisco subverts heteronormative shōjo tropes through the enjoyable antics of Haruhi and her friends, and the humor generated by Haruhi’s lack of concern about stereotypical gender roles pokes fun at the artificiality of the gender binary.
Gender Trouble and Phantom Femininities
Setting aside shōnen humor and moé sex appeal, there are two main 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. What we see in many anime and manga series involving male-to-female cross-dressing is an insinuation that certain feminine feelings can only be expressed through female bodies, and that men can never truly become feminine as long as they maintain male bodies. In other words, such phantom femininities suggest that gender is not fluid and that it takes more than clothes for a man to escape his physically mandated masculinity.
Wandering Son: What You Can’t See
Wandering Son serves as a point of constrast in our series on cross-dressing. First, by presenting both acts of cross-dressing and transgender identities, Shimura Takako allows the reader to differentiate between social delight in situational cross-dressing for humor and the very real 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 cross-dressing characters in anime and manga are ensconced in the realm of comedy or speculative fiction, Wandering Son‘s setting in a naturalistic portrayal of contemporary Japan allows the author to critique social norms directly instead of through metaphor.
Ōoku: Cross-Dressing in a Matriarchy
Ōoku‘s narratives about cross-dressing and gender are able to go beyond those of many other works of speculative fiction because of the breadth and depth of the work, which shows over a century of social change with a large and diverse cast of characters. Yoshinaga Fumi illustrates the constructedness of the gender binary by showing us how another version of the binary must be rebuilt piece by piece in a world in which women wield political and sexual power.
The Endless Potential of Gender Performance
Gender and sexuality are incredibly complex, fluid, and personal. The possibilities are endless, and they don’t fit neatly into predefined boxes. While this can be scary and overwhelming to think about, it’s also thrilling and wonderful. Many anime and manga explore the excitement of this endless potential of gender performance, and there are plenty of scholarly resources to draw on for anyone who would like to dig deeper into cross-dressing and nonbinary gender.
If you’re looking for more of Leah’s writing, check out her cooking and food culture blog I’ll Make It Myself!, and feel free to follow her on Twitter as well. Leah is too awesome to be confined to her own blogs, and she has been a guest blogger on Have You Nerd? and Comparative Geeks. She also updates The Lobster Dance page on Facebook regularly with links to her own work and to other fantastic essays from all over the internet. Leah is easily a top contender for the title of Most Interesting Person on the Internet – go check her out!