The Problem with Gender-Bender Anime

Introduction

There are a few variations of the gender-bender genre. Sometimes we meet characters whose bodies swap from “male” to “female” and vice versa. Other times, characters are mistaken for a different gender due to their appearance. Sometimes, characters choose to present themselves as a certain gender, and others, they’re forced to do so by outside forces. Each of these variations comes with their ups and downs, but if you’re cisgender (you identify as the same gender you were assigned at birth) you might not pick up on those downs.

Of course, there are positive elements to gender-bender anime, such as representation for crossdressers and proof that gender doesn’t necessarily depend on appearance. Watching gender-bender anime also gives both the viewer and other characters insight into what it would be like to be another gender. However, it’s not the almighty warrior for LGBTQIA+ folks that some people assume it is. So, let’s get it all out in the open and talk about the problems with gender-bender anime - and the exceptions to the rules.

Boy or Girl. Pick One.

For those of you who might not know, there are more than two genders. In fact, gender is a wide and wonderful spectrum, with some people happy to prescribe to it, and others not having a gender at all. Even in Japan, there are many indigenous identities that don’t stick to the male/female binary. With this in mind, you might imagine that gender-bender anime would make the most of this, showing a wide range of genders - but alas. In the land of anime, you have to pick between the binary.

The nearest we get to an exception to this would be Haruhi Fujioka from Ouran High School Host Club. Despite being mistaken for a guy and then having other characters find out that she is a “girl”, she doesn’t really care all that much about her gender. In fact, when asked if she was a girl, she responded along the lines of, “Well, technically.” So, if you’re looking for some non-binary representation in anime, she’s probably your best bet.

Gender = Sex

Ah, the old sex equals gender argument. It should have died long ago, right? Right. Sadly, it’s still with us. But how does gender-bender anime reinforce this idea? Let’s take for example Ranma ½, in which Ranma physically changes sex between “male” and “female” depending on the temperature of water thrown at him. Despite his personality not changing, his sex changing instantly changes his perceived gender.

You might be wondering why I put quotes around male and female, so for those of you who may not have heard: sex is as much a social construct as gender is. Also, like gender, sex isn’t a binary but a spectrum. Do we get to see this in anime? Not so much. Also, I have yet to find an exception to this rule. So if you know an anime character that is treated as the gender they identify with as opposed to the gender that matches their sex, let me know in the comments!

No Homo, Bro

Here we come to one of fandom’s favourite tropes: the trap and reverse-trap characters. In other words, characters that look female but are actually male and vice versa. Tying in with the above point, these characters are always treated as their perceived gender until the other character finds out their sex. Then, boom! So you were a boy/girl all along! Sigh. Guess I should take you off my list because I’m straight.

Take for example how Hachiman Hikigaya feels about Saika Totsuka in Yahari Ore no Seishun Love Comedy wa Machigatteiru. At first, he’s attracted to him. After finding out Saika is a guy, he continues to be attracted to him. However, he starts to massively deny himself these feelings, constantly turning them into a joke or telling himself, “No, he’s a guy.” Because, y’know, god forbid you’re attracted to someone of the same gender as you.

For the exception to this, we go back to good ol’ Ouran High School Host Club, and our adorable failed yakuza son, Ritsu Kasanoda. Our Casanova-kun finds himself attracted to Haruhi when he thinks Haruhi is a guy - but still pursues those feelings. Go, Bossa Nova-kun!

Sorry, Trans Folks

If there’s one thing that really annoys me about gender-bender anime, it’s how easily characters are mistaken for, or pass as, a different gender. We see this everywhere. Take for example Hotaru Tachibana from Aoharu x Kikanjuu. She gets mistaken for a guy just like that, and after deciding to go along with it, doesn’t get found out. This is a double-edged sword, because while trans folks can empathise with having to pretend to be a gender you’re not, it also sucks when fiction makes something like being accepted as another gender look so simple.

Going back to the body-swap gender benders, we also see that the “original” gender/sex the character is often seen as their only “true” gender. Once your secret is exposed, no more acceptance for you. Let’s not forget, too, that gender-bender anime is usually synonymous with comedy, because gender troubles are hilarious. Luckily there is some saving grace in the form of Hourou Musuko, a poignant anime that seriously tackles the issues trans folk may face, such as bullying, gender fluidity, and self-acceptance. It’s heartbreaking, and not the most progressive anime ever, but well worth the watch.

Final Thoughts

I could go on. No, seriously. There are many things here I haven’t touched on, like reinforced gender roles and how character’s personalities change depending on their perceived gender. But, I digress. We’ve touched on some major issues with the gender-bender genre here, but that doesn’t mean we have to ignore it’s good points, or that we can’t enjoy watching it for what it is! How do you feel about gender-bender anime? Do you love it or loathe it? Maybe you feel the same way about some of the issues raised in this article? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

Ellyn Barnes

Editor/Translator

Author: Ellyn Barnes

Gudetama goods collector with a soft spot for seiyuu and an undying love for Matsuoka Rin. When I'm not smashing out the latest news in the office, you'll find me holed up at home watching anime, playing rhythm games, and sobbing because Miyano Mamoru exists. Other interests include reading far too much bad BL and occasionally trying to create stuff.

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