Or: Better Understanding Through Looking at Gender

 

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A brown-haired girl sits in seiza, looking into the camera wearing a blue and pink kimono

I got into a conversation in another part of the anisphere about female main characters. The blog post was here and it compared Tohru of Fruits Basket to Sawako Kuronuma of Kimi ni Todoke (the inferior Sawako, if you ask me… Sawa-chan <3). At the culmination of the comments dialog I came to some interesting realizations about gender performance in our animated heroines and heroes. See, we talk a lot about the need for “strong, female characters”, but as Kate Beaton noted, they don’t always serve. I would like to take this time, instead, to proffer up an examination of how a close look at gender helps flesh out both simple, straightforward characters and more complex ones.

Chihayafuru is pretty stellar in my opinion not in the least because it features many prominent women and girls in a show that has a shounen-y feel (some episodes play like Hikaru no Go with a decidedly better paint job). Chihaya’s laser-like focus on all things karuta-related helps the show play more like the aforementioned go-focused anime with a touch of romance instead of Kimi ni Todoke with a gaming angle (which it could easily have become).

Much of the show’s appeal rests on the shoulders of the eponymous Chihaya who ranks as my second-favorite shoujo heroine (ask me about Mikako Kouda sometime). And Chihaya is the the true jumping off point for today’s post. What’s interesting to me about Chihaya is not that she’s genki or that she’s a tomboy, because those things are apparent. No, what’s interesting is that she’s also—despite what Kana might think—feminine in her own way. Chihaya offers an interesting window into characters who inhabit their genders as indifferently as any human being, but are not defined by it. Comparing Chihaya’s teenage self to her younger self shows a girl slowly growing into a conscious woman while continuing to nurture a smothering obsession with karuta.

Details, some smaller and some larger, show her femme-leanings. Her longer hair as a teenager versus her elementary school coiffure stands out the most. But we can add to the list her love of skirts, and her decisions to conform to the social requirements of modesty for women (notice that she wears pants when she stands on a chair to put up posters?). She sits halfway between the proscriptive Kana who’s adherence to traditional feminine ritual brings her strength and purpose, and many “guys with breasts” characters who seem less “aware” of their gender and more resigned to it (see: Konata Izumi). What makes her character work is an earnest and unironic position in regard to her womanhood. While being a girl doesn’t define Chihaya, she would be a different person were she a boy. You can’t understand her without taking gender into account.

 

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A young, blonde boy’s head as looks into the camera. He has shoulder-length hair

Armed with this viewpoint, I think we’re better equipped to take on someone a little more complex: Kuranosuke. This cross-dressing costar of Princess Jellyfish sits in a strange place on the gender wheel at first brush. He clearly enjoys going out in drag, and treasures both the memories and clothes of his mother. But is he trying to act the part of a woman? Tricky. It’s fascinating to watch the complicated body language of Kuranosuke under the assumption that his gender might be more of an issue to his fellow cast members than it is to him. It’s clear, when he’s composed, that he understands feminine body language and how to appear a woman enough to hide among the male-phobic otaku who fill out much of the cast. But notice how quickly he sheds his clothes and mannerisms once he’s unguarded? He dresses like a boy when attending school, and shows a completely dissociated relationship with his costume body (his cheerful reaction to his grandfather’s groping is particularly telling). In the same manner that we can read Chihaya’s feelings about being a woman, we can look at how Kuranosuke chooses to comport himself and come to the conclusion that he’s likely not transgendered. For him, the transformational aspects of cross-dressing are not about expressing an inner self, but are tied to his ideas of beauty and fashion.

From where I sit, this interpretation explains Kuranosuke much better than any narrative that casts him as mis-assigned daughter of a tragic actress. His boyishness adds extra comedy to all his attempts to “teach” Tsukimi and her friends how to act like women and use their “natural weapons” (tragic and uncomfortable, yes, but also a satiric look at privilege on many levels). His misguided understandings and behaviors serve much better if we dismiss the possibility that he’s attempting to express anything more than a love for fashion.

What have we gained? To some not that much. You could probably come to this conclusion about Kuranosuke without considering whether he perceives himself male or female, but I think in the end, it’s important to realize that gender is as much part of what makes a character interesting as zir family history or favorite past times. Claiming not to “see” gender closes up aspects of your favorite characters and dulls them slightly. I hope this post helped you understand a little of why.

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