Sexualized Saturdays: You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.

[tw: discussions of transphobia in anime]

Also known as Trans Equals Gay, Anime Edition. Let TVTropes explain it for you better than I can:

In Real Life, being gay and being transgender are entirely separate, as they relate to two different things. Being gay relates to sexual attraction, and means being attracted to others of the same gender. Being trans relates to gender identity, and means identifying as a different gender from one’s assigned physical sex. This can be expressed (in a heavily oversimplified way) as being “a woman trapped in a man’s body” or vice versa. However, this distinction is all too often overlooked by straight cisgender writers wanting to insert a little LGBT-ness into their stories.

The root of this confusion is probably the heteronormative cultural attitude that “boys like girls and girls like boys” as a rule, and anything else is an “unnatural” aberration. Faced with the existence of gay people, using this assumption some might think the two are linked: “Well, the only reason these boys like other boys is because they want to be girls”. Similarly, in trying to understand transgender people, they might think “The only reason these boys want to be girls is because they like other boys.”

Japanese culture has a complicated relationship with queer characters in anime and manga to begin with. This is something I’ve touched on before. QUILTBAG anime characters tend to be smushed into a one-size-fits-all stereotype, where trans* and gay and genderfluid and bi and every other kind of character, especially if they present male, will act the same flamboyant way. Perhaps this is an attempt to force traditional gender roles on non-hetero characters and relationships; perhaps the writers just don’t know the difference. Either way, it’s the opposite of good, and has lead me to assume that like 90% of the queer male-assigned characters in anime are just gay guys written by writers who think gay equals trans. (For examples of this outside the characters in this post, see Leeron, Nuriko, Charlotte Coolhorne, that one gay character in InuYasha who they dubbed with a female voice…)

To add to that, fandom doesn’t help—the characters who do seem to be trans* are constantly misgendered by fandom in discussion, meta, fanfic, etc. Let’s look at these two characters from very popular shows.

First we have Fire Emblem from Tiger and Bunny. She is actually the inspiration for this post. This is a topic I’ve been hashing over for a while, but finding this submission on the T&B Confessions, Tumblr really got to the heart of the matter for me.

The person in this picture is Nathan Seymour, aka the hero Fire Emblem. Nathan presents as a flamboyantly gay man in Tiger and Bunny and is voiced by a male actor, but also commonly uses female pronouns self-referentially and identifies as “one of the girls”.

Here’s the problem: I’m not trying to police sexuality or gender here. I’m not saying it’s impossible that Nathan Seymour is genderfluid and comfortable in her body and prefers female pronouns and male paramours. (Actually, according to TVTropes’ entry on her in the Trans Equals Gay post, that’s all true—show creator Word of God has said Nathan is actually androgynous. So hey, that’s awesome.)

But the point here is that portrayal of queer characters in anime up to this point is so hackneyed that I didn’t look at Nathan the first time and think, “Awesome, finally a badass genderqueer superhero!” I think “Oh God, they’ve confused what trans and gay are again. Just stop.” Furthermore, both the characters in the show and the fandom consistently misgender Nathan when they use pronouns for her.

At some point I feel compelled to point out that despite her sufferings at the hands of the kyriarchy, Grell is also a rather sociopathic serial killer. Murdering people is not the correct way to respond to transphobia or really any behavior.

The other character I’m going to look at is Grell Sutcliff from Black Butler/Kuroshitsuji.  Let me say this just one time: GRELL IS NOT A GAY GUY. Grell is, based on her actions and dialogue in the show, a bisexual trans* woman. She was born male and wishes she could have children.  This is part of her motivation in being Jack the Ripper (whoops, spoilers) with Madame Red, who is also barren; they are killing women who get abortions. (And let’s not get into that huge-ass can of worms, evil transpeople and internalized misogyny and reproductive rights issues, oh my.) She is in love with Madame Red, but also desperately wants to have Sebastian’s babies. Again, as with Nathan, pretty much everyone in the show misgenders her; furthermore, whereas at least Nathan is a well-liked and respected character within the show, pretty much all the in-show characters from Grell’s shinigami coworkers to Sebastian and Ciel are disgusted by her and her feminine ways. Grell is also misgendered by the (ostensibly well-meaning) fanbase—that’s who that capslock message was for, by the way.

Here’s the problem. Outside of these misrepresented genders and sexualities, the characters are interesting, three-dimensional, and well-loved by fans. But just as writers do queer characters a disservice by confusing gender and sexuality, fans do these particular characters a disservice through constant casual cissexism and erasure.

Take Grell. She is trans, but that doesn’t make her less female. If you ship her with Sebastian it would be considered a het pairing. If you ship her with Madame Red it’d be femslash. Look at her reactions in-show to being misgendered—every time you refer to Grell as ‘he’ you’re doing the same thing Sebastian does to her. Same goes for Nathan. She has preferred pronouns—so why do fandom and the characters in the show who claim to be her friends constantly get it wrong?

It’s baiting, it’s erasure, and hell, you may not even realize you’re doing it, but it needs to stop.

Look, people: the road to feminist victory is a slow one. Making sure queer characters are represented fairly and correctly according to what flavor of queer they’re supposed to be is one of the fights we’re still slogging through. So is the fight against trans erasure (and really any kind of erasure). Fans of queer and especially trans* characters need to take the first step and at least get the gorram personal pronouns right if we’re ever going to win.

12 thoughts on “Sexualized Saturdays: You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.

  1. Great post. I think this sort of education is really important, and it’s also important to remember that without it, most people are operating out of ignorance. I don’t think a lot of people are knowingly undermining a character’s gender or sexuality. From someone with little contact with the LGBTQ community (other than scholarly), it can be a really big challenge to keep track of the complexities involved in identity. This applies not only to gender and sexuality, but to all cultural subsets within a larger context. If you’re not actively engaged in a culture it’s easy to make mistakes, misuse terms, and just be generally confused. People have every right to insist upon the ways they want to be addressed, represented and understood, and I think it’s also important to remember that most (respectful) people aren’t trying to undermine these needs and desires. We just don’t know what the hell we’re talking about most of the time.

    • Thanks for commenting! I’m glad you appreciated my message. I think that you make a good point – most people aren’t doing this intentionally – which is why education is so important if we want to be good allies to any minority group. 🙂

  2. I found this a though-provoking article. However, I think there are two distinct areas of upset here, one founded, the other, not so much.

    I’m getting from your post that you’re mostly upset with the fandom, and hey, I hear you! I used to be heavily involved in a yaoi fandom, and I can well remember how most people were just *beyond* ignorant and disrespectful to the charas they claimed to love. Sometimes, it was downright abusive, and a favorite rant topic of mine. At the time, I tried to excuse some of the behavior by telling myself and others that a great many of these girls (there were a few guys involved, but they were certainly the minority) were teenagers, and so, just didn’t know any better. It wasn’t much of an excuse then, and still sounds pretty thin now.

    Now, your upset with the Japanese people who have created the manga/anime… I’m going to disagree with in a few regards. The culture of Japan is completely and utterly different from that of America (or England or what have you). And that’s as it should be. I think, in this modern age, we all like to think that the Japanese (I mean, even calling them Japanese is sort of insulting, if you’re going to be all picky about what you call people/places… the place is Nihon, Nippon, whatever) are just like us. And they *do* like certain aspects of America, England, Germany, France, etc. But they certainly *don’t* want to be those places!

    To the “Japanese”, westerners are and always will be inferior to them. You may think that’s conceited, and it is, but that’s the way they are. They don’t hold it against us. After all, it’s not our fault we weren’t born into their dynasty.

    Expecting them to be capable of understanding queer and transgender issues, if that were even possible, is like expecting them to understand… well, anything that only people from a certain country/culture *could* understand. That’s not to say queer and transgendered peoples don’t exist in Japan. I’m sure they do. But American queer and transgender culture is as unique as any place’s. I think a great many of the mangaka who write yaoi manga, bl manga, manga with gay characters, manga with transgender characters, etc etc etc, are *not* trying to be disrespectful. Many of them have said, they feel like they should have been born as gay men (I’m a gay woman, and I more or less feel the same).

    As for the voicing of transgender or gay characters with a woman’s voice… have you *heard* the typical male Japanese VA’s voice? It’s DEEP. I mean, ridiculously deep, and that just doesn’t work all that well for children (male children are almost always voiced by women) and characters they have deemed to be more feminine. I mean, if the character feels as if they should have been born a woman, among other things, then *why* would they (the character) even *want* a deep, masculine voice? Most women don’t sound like Ryoutarou Okiayu. And let me also add, that when a woman does a man’s voice in anime, 9 times out of 10, she is making a more masculine voice. Just pick a voice actress, look at her roles, find one where she played a high school girl (very likely she has, given the subject matter of most anime), then find another where she played a young boy (again, likely she has), and compare the two. It’s obvious she’s at least *trying* to make a more boy-like voice.

    So of course, in an ideal world, we’d all be accepted for exactly who we are. As a gay woman, I know I’d be happier. But I mean, I don’t even know the worst of gay life. That’s reserved for gay men. Well, no, it’s for the transgendered, isn’t it? But anyway, I have nothing but the utmost respect for those people, and admire their bravery. I mean, it’s risking your life, isn’t it? Just… wow. I wish I could have that kind of courage.

    I don’t really know how it is to be gay in Japan. Probably pretty bad. It’s a conservative country, after all. Should they be more sensitive to these issues? Absolutely! But I just think holding them to the same standards we (rightly) hold ourselves to isn’t fair. They haven’t had the same opportunities to become as enlightened as we *should* be. And where you see disrespect – and no doubt sometimes it is just that, ridicule and disrespect – I see complete and utter ignorance as to the issues they are presenting. Just because we in the west sometimes embrace something they in the east produce, doesn’t mean we can expect the product to conform to the same standards we would hold a western producer.

    Again, I enjoyed the post. It’s nice to see something so intelligently written. ^_^ None of the above was meant to offend, merely to disagree.

    • Hmm, I certainly agree that Japan has a different culture than the West, and that not being totally Westernized is not a bad thing. (I also don’t want to come across to sound like Western culture is perfect in its representation or treatment of LGBTQ characters or people.) But I do want to call you out on a few things. First, it’s sort of racist to assume that, because Japanese culture has always been a certain way, that it will always *be* a certain way, and that the Japanese are incapable of changing. Also, just because it’s part of their culture, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily wrong or imperialistic to challenge it. It’s imperialistic to force American standards of beauty on Muslim women in the Middle East, but it’s just plain wrong to allow hyperconservative regimes to take away womens’ rights to education or freedom of speech or movement. There’s a difference between accepting a culture’s traditions and allowing a minority group to perpetuate human rights violations or negative stereotypes in the name of ‘culture’.

      It’s also a bit of a fallacy to assume that, because Japanese people are not raised with an understanding of queer or transgender culture, that asking them to learn about or accept it before representing it in media is a pointless task. I am not Asian and don’t know what it is like to be Asian or to grow up in an Asian culture. But if, when making up an Asian character for a story, I created someone who spoke in broken English, confused aspects of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese culture, and was stingy with money and a bad driver based on the stereotypes I have come into contact with and for the sake of being funny INSTEAD of doing research into that character’s culture and representing them fairly based on that research, I would be incredibly racist. This is the equivalent of what many of the anime and manga creators who make gay or trans characters are doing. They are unfairly representing all of a demographic using the same tired, confused, and frankly insulting stereotypes instead of bothering to research and fairly represent the characters.

      And as a final note, on that voicing issue, the InuYasha case I was referring to was in the English dub, where they gave an originally male villain who had expressed sexual attraction to Inuyasha a female voice in the dub, because gay attraction is scary or something?? It wasn’t a matter of a female voice actress playing a male part as a male character, as I know that happens all the time in both American and Japanese voice acting. It was that they changed the character, pronouns and all, from a man’s voice in the Japanese cut to a female (not a female playing a male a la most of Romi Park’s oeuvre, etc) voice, misgendering that character for the sake of not having a scary gay person in a shounen anime.

      Anyway, thanks for commenting, and I’m glad you enjoyed my post.

  3. I agree on nearly all things in this post, except for the part that the fight against transphobia is a “feminist thing”. A Feminist may choose to fight for equal treatment of transgendered people and fight against transphobia (which is great), but not all transgender activists are feminists and not all feminists are transgender activists, in fact, those two groups are quite often at odds with each other.
    There is currently a rift in feminism, one part that defines mtf transsexuals as “fetishists”, “infiltrators” and “passive” rapists and ftm transsexuals, as betrayers desiring the male privilege. Thankfully, there is a growing part of feminism that accepts transsexuals and considers them an interesting challenge to gender roles and such sociological concepts. Yet, the older, transphobia feminism is still quite big, strong, influential and unfortunately, very vocal about their anti-transgender views.
    But I digress.

    I find it warming that a feminist such as yourself, exist, that are breaking away from this hateful group. Feminism is a powerful movement and they could do so much good for the transgendered people.
    However, statements such as QUOTE: “”Look, people: the road to feminist victory is a slow one.”” as part of your conclusion to this article, makes it sound like you are implying that transgender activism=feminism by default.

    Not all equal rights movements, that concern gender, are feminist movements.
    I have gotten into quite a few arguments about this with some feminists, who claim that those who are not feminists are against equal rights or that those who are part of an equal rights movement, but reject being called feminists, are feminists without knowing so or are feminists despite themselves.
    Here is an analogy I like to make for this; using endangered-species activists as an example.
    Say there is a group of “save the panda-activists”, they do lots of good for the pandas. They then declare that every other activist for endangered species, are in fact the “save the panda-activists”, regardless, whether the other activists want to be called such and regardless whether they are activists for all endangered species or activists for endangered species other then the panda.
    There is realy nothing wrong with dedicating yourself to one endangered species, you are not a hypocrite because of it; in the same way there is nothing wrong with dedicating yourself to fighting for equal rights of women -just don’t go around saying everyone else who is part of some equal rights movement concerning gender, is feminist by default.

    Whether you disagree or agree with me, I hope my response has been some food for thought.

    • I totally understand what you mean, and I know that there are both people who are both self-proclaimed feminists and awfully transphobic, and that there are activists who don’t identify themselves with feminism for totally valid reasons. I personally feel that feminism without intersectionality is pointless, and so as you can see from our site we focus not just on womens’ issues, but issues of race, disability, QUILTBAG*, and other minority representation as well.

  4. Wow, Thank you for this post. Even though identify as genderqueer..i didn’t even pick up the fact Grell was Trans..I thought it was just another gay dude. Its scare how much gender norms can affect you even if your outside them.

    Any way great post !

  5. This was definitely a thought provoking article and the resulting conversation in the comments was pretty intriguing too. I had always questioned Grell’s identity mostly because the show couldn’t seem to figure out how they wanted to identify her/him. Reading this also reminded me of an ongoing argument I’ve been having with my other anime watching friends for years on Crona from Soul Eater’s pronouns. His/Her/They’s gender was nenver explicitly mentioned and it seemed like the writers did it on purpose even though I never noticed it until I was discussing Crona in a conversation.

    • Ey if a character says they want to use she/her pronouns it’s pretty much a given to do that. In Grell’s case, she’s a woman. Not all she/her pronoun users are women, or want to be considered women, but Grell is obvious. Her writers are transmisogynistic trashboats but that’s no reason to disregard her trans narrative.

  6. Thank you for this post. I tried watching Black Butler a few days ago and i couldn’t get through it, but T&B is a lot easier for me to stomach.
    You’re incredibly eloquent and you put into words a lot of the vague unease I have with the treatment of trans characters in animes. Have you seen Gatchaman Crowds? Rui Ninomiya is another character treated pretty poorly by the fandom, misgendered in canon and fandom both.

  7. Pingback: Throwback Thursdays: Black Butler’s “Jack the Ripper” Arc | Lady Geek Girl and Friends

Comments are closed.