Queerness in shojo manga: crossdressing

Queerness in shojo manga: crossdressing

When I started thinking about the presence of queer characters in shojo anime and manga, the theme of crossdressing immediately came to mind. Crossdressing, homosexuality, and the desire of males to be ‘feminine’ are themes that are heavily present within shojo manga, and it is interesting to see how these themes connect with one another. Much like my last post on the representation of queerness in shojo manga, this time I will once again be focusing specifically on male characters. While there are plenty of female crossdressers in shojo manga, unlike the male crossdresser there is (usually) no doubt that the female crossdresser is straight. For example, in Princess Knight Sapphire makes it clear that she dislikes being forced to dress up as a male, and wishes she could be more feminine. And in Hana-Kimi, the reason Mizuki pretends to be a male is so she can be closer to a boy she admires, and by the end of the series when her gender has been revealed, she grows her hair out. However, males who crossdress as females in manga almost always not only are in love with other male characters but wish to be female themselves. This isn’t shocking considering the depictions of gay men in most Japanese media. Homosexual men in Japan are usually called okama, which is a troublesome term because it is also often used to describe male crossdressers. Gay males in Japanese media usually are shown to be, if not exceedingly feminine, then they are outright crossdressers. Thus, in many ways homosexuality and crossdressing have been made interchangable in Japanese language and culture.

Fushigi Yugi – Nuriko

Characters who like to crossdress are often depicted as having psychological or emotional problems, and these problems are  sometimes revealed to be the cause of the character’s desire to crossdress. For example, Ritsu Sohma in Fruits Basket suffers from low-self esteem and constantly apologizes for everything he does, which is why he decides use his dressing as a woman as an outlet to escape the pressure to meet people’s expectations. Yet near the end of the manga when Ritsu begins feeling better about himself, he decides to stop dressing as a woman. What this implies, however, is that only people with emotional scars feel the need to crossdress, and that once those scars have been cured so too will the desire to dress as a woman. There is a sense of transience given to the crossdresser – that his habits are only temporary and eventually will stop (as they should). Similarly, in Fushigi Yugi, Nuriko begins dressing as a woman after his younger sister died so he can live on in her place. However, as Nuriko becomes closer to Miaka, he is able to overcome his grief at his sister’s death and eventually decides to cut off his hair and quit the “gay act.” But what’s even more troublesome in Nuriko’s case is the entanglement of gender identity and sexuality. Nuriko’s desire to ‘be a woman’ has nothing to do with his sexual desire, yet the series treats the two as though they are the same thing because it is revealed that he is in love with Hotohori, the king of Konan. This is bothersome because Nuriko’s attraction to males is written as a natural part of his transition into being a woman, rather than it being shown that Nuriko would have been gay regardless of how he dresses. Thus, the stereotype that crossdressers are also gay (and that these two identities are interchangable) is reinforced through Nuriko’s character. 

I’d also like to consider how crossdressing characters in shojo manga categorize and label themselves in terms of gender identity and sexuality. Tamahome and the other Suzaku warriors often tease Nuriko about his crossdressing, and they typically call him an okama. At one point, Nuriko gets annoyed and asks to be called a ‘new-half,’ which is a male-to-female transsexual. There is a certain ambivalence to Nuriko’s character, because while he adopts a female name as the king’s consort (Korin, his late sister’s name), he acknowledges that he is truly male when it comes to his role as a Suzaku celestial warrior. However, in contrast, in Love*Com there is very little sense of ambiguity when it comes to how Seiko sees herself. When Seiko is first introduced, she falls for Otani and immediately gives a big kiss on the lips. Otani is flattered that a girl as adorable and kind as Seiko would like him, yet when she tries to make a move on him in their school’s infirmary Otani discovers Seiko is actually a male (named Seishiro) when she removes her shirt. Otani turns her down (while saying that he still thinks she’s a cool person who is more feminine than Risa, Love*Com‘s female protagonist), and Seiko isn’t phased for long by her rejection. As the series progresses, Seiko becomes ‘one of the girls’ Risa talks to about her love troubles, and it is easy to forget that she is biologically a male. When her male identity does become a problem for Seiko, it’s only because her voice suddenly becomes deeper and doesn’t match her appearance. Seiko decides to stop dressing as a girl, but Risa encourages her not to let her voice change alter who she really is. It doesn’t take long for Seiko to return to crossdressing, especially after she realizes that her voice problems were because of a cold and weren’t permanent. Rather than treating the crossdresser as a ‘temporary’ identity, Love*Com treats Seiko’s female identity as though it’s simply natural, and instead of discouraging her transgenderism, Seiko’s friends support her. It is because Seiko is so comfortable with her gender that I can’t help but see her as she sees herself: as a fun-loving, sweet girl – and that’s why I always refer to Seiko as a girl. I can appreciate the range in how Nuriko and Seiko view their genders respectively, however, because this helps emphasize that gender isn’t fixed and shows that there are multiple identities that are possible beyond just the male/female dichotemy.

But not all shojo anime and manga treat crossdressing and homosexuality as though they are the same thing. In Ouran High School Host Club, Haruhi’s father Ranka works at a bar full of employees who are transvestites. Even though he’s getting paid to dress as a woman, Ranka makes it clear that he enjoys dressing as a woman and did so even before he married Haruhi’s mother. Ranka also affirms that he isn’t gay and that the only person he ever really loved was Haruhi’s mother, who accepted the fact that he liked to dress as a woman. Thus, Ouran High School Host Club shows that there is a difference between how one dresses and his or her sexuality. However, Ranka still shares much in common with other, more stereotypical male crossdressing characters. Ranka is a fun character who is loved by many fans of the series, because he’s quirky and not-so-nice to Tamaki. Seiko is sweet and positive, while Nuriko is fiesty and often sarcastic (not to mention, he’s my favorite character in Fushigi Yugi). Male crossdressers may be stereotyped, but they are usually engaging and funny characters, and we can’t help but laugh with them.

8 thoughts on “Queerness in shojo manga: crossdressing

  1. I really enjoyed your post. Some of my favorite cross-dressers are in fact Nuriko and Ranka. I love their personalities, and the fact that they are comfortable with who they are. Of course, the idea of equating being gay with cross-dressing isn’t a view I agree with as depicted by shojo manga, but not everything is perfect. Analyzing these themes and taking them apart is another thing I enjoy about shojo manga. It’s good entertainment, yes, but we do need to realize that sometimes the messages we read in these volumes aren’t necessarily good things to take away from them.

    1. Thank you! One thing I noticed while writing this post is that oftentimes crossdressers are fun characters like Nuriko and Ranka. While that may not seem like a bad thing, it still means there is a lack of a range in the depiction of characters who like to dress as women. This is why it’s important to be critical of media (not just shojo manga), and having such characters encourages audiences to do so.

  2. I’m glad you mentioned Ranka, but I am curious about what you think of Haruhi herself. I had this idea for a post discussing how the anime seems to push her towards femininity even though she’s sort of gender-agnostic at the series outset.

    Also, I wonder what you think of “made to present as [opposite gender] as part of training”. Off the top of my head, I can think of Daichi from Ladies Versus Butlers and Akira from Mai-HiME, but probably more relevant is its appearance in Shugo Chara! (Nadeshiko/Nagihiko) and Maryia in Maria-Holic (set up as a parody of Shoujo manga).

    1. I actually don’t care too much for Haruhi becase her blase attitude toward things left me feeling blase toward her. I do agree that the series pushes her toward femininity – when Tamaki yells at her for fighting a group of guys, at first she says it doesn’t matter that she’s a girl, but by the end of the episode she apologizes and says he’s right. And I’m not really sure of what you mean by ‘presenting as part of training,’ nor am I familiar with any of the examples you mentioned.

  3. You hit the nail on the head for me on Nuriko and why I found the revelation of his attraction to Miaka and subsequent giving up the “female act” odd (and thought it implied he was bisexual because he liked both Miaka and Hotohori). I just never put two and two together because I wasn’t aware that okama is used interchangeably in Japan for gay men, so thanks for the very informative piece.🙂 But yes, the equating “dressing as a women” with emotional scars is really bad.

    Also, Love*Com keeps sounding better and better. Definitely need to give it a try~

    1. Oh, I didn’t even want to touch the whole issue of whether Nuriko falls in love with Miaka or not. A lot of fans think so, but I’m in the minority because I always read his confession to show he sees Miaka as the sister he lost and that’s why he can stop dressing as a woman (especially since he reveals how much he cares for Miaka just after telling her about his sister’s death).

      Love*Com is so much fun; you really should read it! The characters are just really funny and endearing in general.

  4. Fushigi Yuugi will forever be one of my favourite anime, but I seriously couldn’t remember why Nuriko started this whole cross-dressing habit, so it was good to refresh my memories by reading your post. What I know is that regardless how he dressed, he was one of the strongest supporting/main characters, and that Yuu Watase gave us a positive picture of him (or maybe cross-dressers overall), which I found really neat and different. And yes, sarcasm really goes well with it! It’s pretty much the best way to defend one’s self against unwanted comments on personal preferences & such. Another thing I found really powerful was the scene where he cut his hair, showing that he is over being someone else, and that it’s a time for change.

    Same goes for Ranka. His story depicts the fact that differences and unusual habits often don’t even matter, when it comes to love. All hail acceptance!

    1. Thanks for commenting! One of my favorite lines is (spoiler) right after Nuriko dies – when Tasuki says that Nuriko was so cool and then asks whether he was a guy or a girl, Miaka says that it doesn’t matter – Nuriko was Nuriko. Even though I do have some problems with Nuriko’s crossdressing and sexuality being treated as though they are the same thing, I do appreciate not only how memorable his character is but also that his character sends the message that gender and sexuality do not wholly define who a person is. Also, even though you used the word ‘strong’ in a different sense, you reminded me that in terms of physical strength Nuriko was supposed to be the strongest of the Suzaku warriors, which goes against the stereotype of gay men being physically weak.

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