A while back, I wrote a Manga Mondays on this series. In short, it’s about a group of thirteen people—one person for every animal in the Chinese zodiac legend—who are cursed to turn into their respective animal whenever they are hugged by a person of the opposite sex. While cute and adorable, Fruits Basket leaves a lot to be desired because it is written from a very heteronormative viewpoint. Not only is it heteronormative, it creates a world in which there is no one outside the gender binary. As far as I can tell, they do not exist in this universe.
As someone who more or less identifies according to the binary, I don’t often pay attention to whether or not stories are dismissive of people who don’t fit into it. However, Fruits Basket makes it impossible not to notice, since gender and gender roles are both a driving force of the plot and a gimmick to make the story “cuter”.
Spoilers for Fruits Basket after the jump.
Fruits Basket is a shoujo, and it’s not trying very hard to be that meaningful. It’s only trying to be a simple story about people who turn into cute animals when hugged. In many ways, it’s very self-aware of how ridiculous its own premise is, and as such, it’s not a very serious read either. It does have some serious points, and a decent message of love and acceptance—especially in the case of the romance between Tohru and Kyo. However, that’s where the good in the message ends.
Often while reading this series, I found myself wondering about the scientific limitations of the curse and also about what constitutes a hug, since hugging is what makes the characters transform. To begin with the latter, the story sort of flip-flops on this. Oftentimes, a hug can range from characters wrapping their arms around each other in a strong embrace, or it can be as simple as bumping into each other in the hallway. A hug pretty much means “whenever the story wants someone to spontaneously combust into a soft, cuddly animal”. And yes, I’ve also wondered about how sex works in this world too.
Now, since the curse also requires the hug to be given by someone of the opposite sex, it also brings up a question of gender. What is gender? Is it based on our organs, our chromosomes, or how we identify mentally? There are people out there who have XY chromosomes while also having female external organs. I’ve also always wondered about what would happen if the characters came across someone with XXY or XO chromosomes. Additionally, there are people who have XXX chromosomes. These are just a few ways people can differ from the gender binary. What would have happened had Yuki been transsexual and identified as a woman? Would the curse only work based on his physical sex—I’m also assuming he’s XY—and not on the gender he associates with? What if Kyo just so happened to be an intersex person? Would the curse recognize Tohru as being of the opposite sex, or the same sex?
These questions are never addressed because they never come up.
Maybe Fruits Basket wouldn’t have answered them well, but it could have at least tried. This curse is based around the biological differences between the two sexes, so for the series, it’s a pretty big issue. Sadly, the story seems populated by nothing but cisgender heteronormative people who fit neatly into the gender binary. However, the problems in this series go beyond that.
In some ways, the story takes place in sort of a “utopia” since there’s no discrimination against non-cisgender people, if only because they don’t exist. However, many of the male characters seem to break down certain gender stereotypes
because they act in very feminine or flamboyant ways and others do not shame them for it. In one volume, Yuki even wears a dress for a school gathering, and he’s not discriminated against because of it. Also, the main antagonist in the series, Akito, is a woman who dresses and more or less acts like a man, to the extent that the audience does not discover Akito’s real sex until late into the series.
The problem is that none of these characters are actually transgender. Fruits Basket achieves this “utopia” by completely erasing an already marginalized and oppressed group of people. As for breaking down gender roles, it’s not really an accurate representation of that either. It’s more similar to how some people fantasize what a world without gender discrimination would be like. Yuki doesn’t even put the dress on willingly, if I remember correctly, and the entire scene only exists to be cute. Furthermore, Akito also doesn’t choose to dress and act like a boy of her own accord.
I highly doubt that this erasure was done intentionally on the part of Takaya Natsuki, Fruits Basket’s author and illustrator. As I said before, the story isn’t really trying to be anything other than a cute romance involving fluffy animals—though it does just barely avoid issues of bestiality—so I don’t imagine much thought was given to the implications of how the curse works or how to treat gender and gender roles. Nevertheless, that’s not a good excuse to ignore these issues, and it’s hardly a good reason to erase people who don’t fit into the binary.