Non-Normative Genders in Anime: Transcripts

Episode One

Have you ever watched anime and felt…uncomfortable…about how gender ambiguous characters were being portrayed?

Well, I know I have. And I think it’s high time we talk about it.

[play intro theme: Let’s Talk About Gender Baby – Planningtorock]

Hi, I’m Charmaine. And welcome to my podcast (series) on non-normative genders in anime. Last year, after lamenting over how I felt I couldn’t engage with anime due to my very shallow experience with it being problematic, (I’m looking at you Death Note) it was recommended to me by a friend, and avid anime watcher, to watch Black Butler.

[play Black Butler theme]

Well, turned out Black Butler was also very problematic, but it was particularly the character Grell that bothered me. Grell was certainly non-normative, possibly transgender and all out crazy. I felt their character was created as a comic relief, making a spectacle of gender identities outside of normative ones. And it was at this point that I had an epiphany. Is this a thing? Is this a trope in anime, to make a spectacle of people whose gender is non normative? And if so, how does this trope fit in with Japanese culture and the acceptance or intolerance of non-normative identities in Japan?

To start off, let’s look at gender. Gender is a social construct, that from the moment we are born and marked as ‘male’ or ‘female’ shapes the way we are treated and the way we are taught to behave. There are also many different societies and cultures that hold different values and norms around gender identities and gender roles, so it can be constructed in many varied forms.

In the Western context, I know that systematic understandings of gender identity are in binary/cisnormative terms. Binary understandings of gender relate to the idea that there are 2 forms of gender: women and men. Nothing in between. Cisnormative understandings of gender are an extension of these binary constructs. Cisgender refers to people whose sex and gender are in line with social and cultural standards. I.e. women who have female bodies, men who have male bodies. So what counts as non-normative then? Well, everything outside of identifying as cisgender, like transgender, gender non-conforming, non-binary, genderqueer – the list goes on.

Systematic understandings of gender shape cultural understandings, which means western media representations of non normative genders are often extremely problematic. They produce misconceptions and misrepresentations about diverse identities, which cause direct harm to the lives of these individuals, such as the violence against trans women.

Therefore, when I see characters such as Grell, it concerns me that these problematic representations I’ve seen in Western media may also be part of anime and therefore Japanese culture. I wonder if the portrayal of gender ambiguous characters are meant to be seen as a spectacle, as other, rather than as normalised? And are non normative characters in anime even created to represent non normative people?

It is at this point that I will acknowledge that this problematic trope I’ve noted is an assumption based on a very limited viewing of anime. My experience of anime is limited due to the few animes I’ve watched being generally very male-centric and quite often blatantly sexist, homophobic, transphobic…all the phobics.

It’s important to recognise that I will, of course, be analysing these characters through my own context, which is a Western, intersectional feminist lens and also as someone who identifies as outside of the binary constructs of gender.

For this series I will be looking at 3 different characters, which I picked based on the amount of conversation they’ve generated amongst fans, confused about their seemingly ambiguous gender identity. The first will be Attack On Titan’s Hange Zoë, followed by Steins;Gate’s Ruka Urushibara, and finishing up with Ouran High School Host Club’s, Haruhi Fujioka.

So follow my journey looking at 3 characters from separate anime universes to find out just how characters with non normative genders are represented, or misrepresented in anime. Throughout this series I will be analysing my assumption and epiphanies, and I’m sure I’ll learn a lot about both my context and the Japanese cultural context that shapes these animes.

Episode Two

Hange zoe. They’re a brilliant, if little over enthusiastic, scientist, they’re a respected commander and a compassionate human. Oh, and their gender identity is non normative.

[play intro theme: Let’s Talk About Gender Baby – Planningtorock]

Hi im charmaine, and this is a podcast series focusing on the representation of non normative genders in anime. Throughout this series i will be looking at 3 characters from separate anime universes to find out just how characters with non normative genders are represented, or misrepresented in anime. If you’re wondering just what non normative genders are, please refer to my first podcast where I explain it alll. Ok, lets get into it.

[play attack on titan theme]

Woah, yes. As you can tell from the opening song, Attack on Titan is all levels of epic. This week’s focus is Hange Zoe, from Attack on Titan, who I will refer to through they/their pronouns. They are a Commander in the Scout Regiment, and also a scientist conducting research on the mysterious titans. The 2014 show is about the fight to save humanity from these mysterious giant titans who take pleasure in eating humans with huge creepy smiles across their faces. The anime follows three main characters, Mikasa, Eren and Armin (R-EE-MIN), along with various groups of soldiers and scouts who are fighting these Titans. Prepare yourself, for this podcast will contain spoilers.

I felt that overall the show represented different gendered characters really well. The women were multilayered like the men, held important positions and were badass fighters. I initially took to Mikasa, but her unrelenting devotion to psychopath Eren grew to be very tiresome. I really didn’t like the character Eren, and often found myself rooting for the titans. Especially the female titan. Who knew cool chick Annie who I admired from the start would be female titan, oh wait, everyone, cos it was super obvious. But she was a badass fighter so I was totally down with that. The third main character, Amin, is also quite ambiguously gendered. In the subbed version I watched through AnimeLab they were referred to through he/his pronouns, however I read that like Hange, the creator intentionally made their character non binary too!

Also, did anyone else notice the very minor but totally cute lesbian couple just chilling on the periphery? Yeah, people noticed, the many fan made drawings confirm that.

Hange’s first makes an appearance in episode 4, with a nice sweeping pan across their face that lasted for about 3 seconds. I thought this was the moment they’d be introduced but no, they weren’t to resurface again until episode 9, where the same panning shot took place again!

When they eventually talked, I noted Hange was insightful, intelligent and respected by their commander. As I learnt more about their character, I found them to be extremely likeable, fearless, great sense of humour and providing a different, refreshing perspective to the titans are evil narrative that everyone else shared. While some characters were wary of their intense enthusiasm, it was never seen as connected to their gender identity. They were also always on at the front line in battle with their comrades and friends.

Episode 15 was when Hange’s personality really came through. As they conducted experiments on captured titans, they treated them with respect, and even love. I really liked that they wanted to understand the titans, rather than approach them with blind hate. Of course the non binary character is able to form a view outside of the ‘hate all titans’ rhetoric that really was doing no-one any favours.

This anime series was developed from a manga, and in that manga, Hange’s gender is deliberately not specified. In the series however, they are voiced by a female actress and in the English subbed version, they are referred to with she/her pronouns. What’s interesting is that the voice actress who voiced Hange, often voices male and female (or non binary) characters. I wonder if this was a conscious decision to stay true to the character. What’s even more interesting is that while Hange is referred to as she/her in the subbed versions, when I looked up dubbed versions they’d gone for gender neutral pronouns!

Language is a tricky area when analysing gendered pronouns, because that actually isn’t a thing in the Japanese language. Sure, they have gendered language, which is the way males and females speak differently from one another within a language, but that doesn’t appear to be in this script. The gendered pronouns would have come through when translating the subtitles, though I read that the creator specifically requested english translation to not use female pronouns. Come on sub team!

The biggest revelation for me was that I think with Hange, if I hadn’t had the context of already knowing they were non binary, I probably would have assumed they were female. I first assumed that was because I prefer to see female characters, so I always err on the side of female when it’s ambiguous. Though when I thought about it further I realised, as much as i try to be outside of this damn binary construct that i was raised in, i still automatically think that way. I still think male or female. So when i saw this character, had i not already known that they were non binary i would have assumed that Hange was female. Of course, the subtitles referring to them with she/her pronouns wouldn’t have helped with assumptions either, even though I know that you can refer to yourself with any pronouns you like and still be non binary. Unconscious biases…no one’s safe.

So then, how is gender understood in Japan? Well as in Western culture, gender is understood as a social construct. However, genders outside of the binary/cisnormative constructs have only recently been recognised in the last decade. X-jendā  refers to “a gender that is neither male nor female, or, depending on the definition, both”. X-jenda is also often regarded as a “sub-group” of transgender identities – So I can see where people may get confused with non normative genders, these definitions seem to lump all non normative gender identities as a collective group.  

And what do my fellow feminists think? I found my views were echoed in Autostraddle and The Mary Sue, who are both feminist and queer friendly. The fact that the creator refuses to fit Hange in the gender binary construct has been celebrated as a feat in non binary representation. I’ve also come across the view that Hange is actually transgender and the creator not confirming their gender is a form of trans erasure. This is a valid point to make, considering that transgender presence in anime, and across all media is far too often very problematic.

The show overall was quite gender neutral. As I mentioned earlier, the female identifying characters were of equal power, character development and screen time to their male counterparts. The uniforms of the scouts/soldiers were also gender neutral and gender roles non traditional, shout out to that lesbian couple again!

Considering their gender identity has been left deliberately ambiguous, I’ll take Hange as a non binary character. Considering mainstream understandings of gender identity in Japan, much like in the West, are still quite limited, I’m impressed at the level of progressiveness shown in this series, and I look forward to tuning in to the next season. My only request is more Hange, less Eren.

Episode Three

Ugh, oh come on, oh thats gross. That was me throughout the excruciating experience that was watching steins gate, a show that treated non normative character Ruka Urushibara abysmally.

[play intro theme: Let’s Talk About Gender Baby – Planningtorock]

Hi im charmaine, and this is a podcast series focusing on the representation of non normative genders in anime. If you’re wondering just what non normative genders are, please refer to my first podcast where I explain it alll. Ok, lets get into it.

[Stein’s Gate intro song]

Hi im charmaine, and this is a podcast series focusing on the representation of non normative genders in anime. If you’re wondering just what non normative genders are, please refer to my first podcast where I explain it alll. Ok, lets get into it.

Steins;Gate follows a bunch of teenagers who – oh who actually cares. Some self indulgent plot about time travel that we’ve all come across a thousand times before. The effects of time travel meant the timeline is always shifting, if only the attitude of it’s characters also shifted. The two main male characters, Okarin and Daru are disgusting. They both happily claim to be perverts and constantly sexually harass women, both verbally and physically. The biggest joke is that this is positioned as them teasing or flirting with women, and even though the women surrounding them are always calling out their misogyny, it’s never addressed as a real issue. In case you haven’t picked up on it, I really did not enjoy this anime. I tried to watch the whole thing, I really did. But I made it 11 episodes in found it really doesn’t matter how compelling your overall storyline is, when the dialogue is as sexist, transphobic and homophobic as this was, it’s not worth my time waiting for the moment it’s finally revealed that the self proclaimed mad scientist was actually right.

In the 2011 series, Ruka Urushibara appears in half of the episodes and from the moment she is introduced the language is transphobic. I refer to Ruka with she/her pronouns, as she explicitly states she wants to be and is a girl throughout the show.

We first see Ruka, who presents as feminine, with a gentle demeanour. She also seems very uncomfortable, shown through her awkward stance and timid voice. She is referred to with female pronouns by her friend Mayuri. Her gender is then completely undermined by a voiceover from Okarin, who describes how feminine she appears before undercutting that through exclaiming “but he’s a dude!” He appears to revel in purposely misgendering Ruka by using male pronouns to describe her. Okarin also appears to think he’s the only one who knows Ruka’s “secret”, another thing he revels in when he again purposefully misgenders her, this time in front of her and everyone else.

Throughout the series the women are constantly being objectified and sexualised. Like constantly. Despite the audience being constantly reminded that the main characters perceive Ruka to be male, she still is subject to the same objectification! When Mayushi pressures her to wear a short, figure hugging dress because it’s cute, Okarin and Daku stare at her body lustfully, making her obviously uncomfortable. Daru even states that he needs an “upskirt shot”. Are you starting to understand why I couldn’t finish this series now?

Her plot almost exclusively centres around her gender identity. In her biggest episode, she asks that they organise to change the timeline so that her body matches her mind, saying “I want to be a girl. I’ve always felt that I might be more comfortable with myself if I were a girl.” While she’s stating this, she is objectified through panning shots over her crutch and chest. She ends up having to almost plead with them to help her, which they end up doing while still not taking her seriously.

In the following episode, it’s revealed that Ruka’s plan worked, and in this alternate timeline, her body matched her mind. And don’t you worry, they confirm this by an unsubtle zoom into Ruka’s crutch, follow by her chest. All the lab members, save Okarin, defend her when he misgenders her because in this timeline she’s biologically a girl – which is still problematic and invalidating of trans women’s identities. Afterall, she’s accepted when she’s cisgender, but not when she’s transgender.

Okarin refuses to accept it and goes as far as grabbing her violently, holding her threatening and forcing his hand into her crutch while she’s terrified and trapped, simultaneously assaulting her and dehumanising her. It is after this act that he accepts that Ruka is a girl. All I could think was this is beyond disgusting. But this anime exists in a universe where that entire scene isn’t considered disgusting, so naturally it’s never mentioned again, and in the next scene Ruka is hanging out at Okarin’s lab as normal. The objectification of Ruka’s body continues.

What context allowed for this show to be so transphobic? It’s time to talk gender identity in Japan again! The term ‘transgender’ itself is actually rarely used in mainstream discourses, it is instead referred to as Gender Identity Disorder. This categorisation of transgender people is clearly problematic as it medicalises valid identities, regarding them as having disorders or an illness. The way in which the Gender Identity Disorder categorisation represents transgender identities speaks to a wider issue around acceptance and understanding of diverse trans gender identities. You see, this way of categorising trans identities has given them more visibility and acceptance, but at the cost of articulating trans identities outside of medical terminology, as separate from having an illness and also removes any room for the diversity of trans identities.

Turns out it was hard to find feminist analyses of Ruka Urushibara because there’s not many around. While I did find one particular article on Tumblr that provided a great analysis as to why Ruka is transgender and how the Steins;Gate universe let her down, most of the rhetoric around Ruka on the interwebs was really disheartening. In fact I came across the term Trap quite a lot. A Trap, as I learnt from another tumblr post by Rian Syngh (thanks Tumblr) is an individual whose perceived gender identity does not reflect their biological sex. Rian states, “the problem with referring to this situation as a ‘trap’ and not as, ‘a Transgender or gender non-conforming person’, is that it connotates that by identifying the way they do an individual is intentionally deceiving the audience”.

The fact that I see more about Ruka being a trap than a transgender woman says a lot about how far society still needs to go, both in the West and Japan, in terms of understanding non normative genders and adequately representing them.

Ruka, I wish you a different anime universe where you can be a transgender woman freely and openly.

Steins;Gate, it’s been real and I can’t wait to erase you from my memory forever.

Episode Four

Haruhi excels at academia, is adored by everyone and is very comfortable with their identity. Which is, wait for it, non normative!

[play intro theme: Let’s Talk About Gender Baby – Planningtorock]

Hi im charmaine, and this episode I’ll be discussing Ouran High School Host Club’s Haruhi Fujioka. Finally, an anime where a non normative character is also a main character!

[Ouran theme song]

Ok, before we get into it, can I just point out how much that intro reminded me of the Lizzie Maguire intro? AHh the naughties.

The 2006 series follows the Ouran High School Host Club, whereby the male students in the club play certain types of hosts for female guests. It’s a parody of shoujo anime, which is anime catered specifically to the young girl demographic, by making a satire of the cliches and stereotypes in these animes. And it also makes a commentary on gender identity and gender roles, though it stays within an already established construct when doing so.

This was actually my first introduction to Shoujo-type anime, and I’ve actually thoroughly enjoyed watching this series. In the first episode Haruhi’s androgynous look has everyone thinking they’re a boy. Yes, I will be using the gender neutral pronouns they/them to discuss Haruhi. They seem ambivalent about what their gender is so I’ll just keep it nice and neutral. One of the hosts, Tamaki (who we’ll come back to later) walks in on them changing and says “You’re a girl?” to which they respond “biologically yes.” and then follow that up with “being a boy or a girl falls lower than that of being a person”. While Haruhi is super ambivalent about how their gender identity is perceived, the show itself is quite fixated on this and a lot of the storylines are revolved around Haruhi fitting or breaking with social standards of gender performance.

Haruhi themself is an interesting character. They’re often the voice of reason amongst the madness of wealthy people, disconnected from the realities of being dependent on money for day-today living, which their extravagant houses and private beaches. Coming from a low socio-economic background and attending this school through a scholarship, they’re often scoffing at the behaviour of the wealthy, saying “damn these rich people”. Haruhi is always having other characters tell them to be more feminine or more masculine, and they are never phased by any comments on how they should perform their gender. They’re just constantly chill, and it’s nice to see that Haruhi is so comfortable with themself.

But that’s not to say that the show didn’t come with flaws. Despite Haruhi’s acceptance and comfortability with being non normative, and (for the most part) other characters also accepting their identity, Haruhi is still in a heteronormative universe. While the show discusses homosexuality openly and isn’t (again, for the most part) outrightly homophobic, it’s portrayal of homosexuality is that of being a performance. Heterosexuality is still the assumed sexuality for all characters. Even the fact that fellow host Tamaki is in love with Haruhi is made “ok” by the fact that we know Haruhi isn’t a boy, thus making it still a heterosexual interest. Also the overlying fact that the hosts have to be male for female only guests says it all.

Ok now let’s go back to Tamaki for a minute. He’s in love with Haruhi, another thing their ambivalent about (maybe they’re still thinking about their first kiss with a girl). The way he demonstrates his love however, is worrying. He’s possessive, controlling and always tries to make them fit with traditional and quite frankly outdated female gender roles, such as baking him cookies, making him lunch and wear feminine clothing – though not bikinis, for no one can look at their skin except for him! He possessiveness is projected as protectiveness in the show, and it made me quite uncomfortable. Particularly in Episode 8, where Tamaki, and all the other guys in the host club for that matter, tell them they can’t do certain things because they’re a “girl”. It was particularly worrying when Kyoya overpowers them and threatens rape as a way of telling them they are vulnerable in society and responsible for their own safety. Um, that’s called rape culture. Look it up Ouran writers!   

In episode 9, we’re introduced to another host club called Zuka Club. This club is everything Ouran host club isn’t, the club is run by women, and it’s feminist and queer friendly. Like, they talk about equality and having female lovers. It’s great. The club offer Haruhi a place in their club, saying they’d be more suited there. When Haruhi turns them down, Haruhi says that they have interesting ideas, but it’s not for them. I couldn’t help but feel like these “interesting” ideas Haruhi was referring to was feminism and sexualities outside of the heteronormative construct. And the show does reaffirm this quite regularly: heterosexuality is the only real sexuality.

The twin brothers in the host club often display romantic and sexual gestures towards each other, and even refer to themselves as homosexuals in episode 5. Turns out this twincest is an act to excite the straight female guests under the “brotherly love package”. As I was watching I realised that this idea acting up homosexuality for straight women was something I’ve come across before. The 2015 documentary series Gaycation, went into Japan and looked into this very thing!

There are comics in Japan with a strong niche following, which are known as “yaoi, or boys love”. What exactly are these comics about you ask? Yep, homoerotic male fantasies with very pornographic images throughout. And here’s the most interesting part: they are written by straight women for straight women. Straight women are the main demographic! There are other articles written on this phenomenon too, confirming that there seems to be a disconnect between these mangas and real life LGBTQ+ people. The existence of these comics doesn’t contribute to the acceptance of homosexuality, it simply acts to objectify it.

And what do my feminists say? I’ve come across many appraisals as to Haruhi’s gender expression. While feminists feel it’s great to see Haruhi so relaxed and comfortable around their gender identity, the fact that it’s still concealed from others shows that Haruhi is still the exception in a binary focused universe. One particular article from Bitch Flicks (link in description) agreed that the heteronormative framework that Haruhi is in diminishes the value of their character. They also argued that the homophobia and rape culture displayed throughout the show was certainly an area for concern.

While Haruhi’s character is a great example of a person with a non normative gender identity, they still exist in a context that is heteronormative, and this shows through the representation of homosexuality, gender roles and the binary framework through which the characters discuss Haruhi’s gender.

Haruhi, keep doing you. Boys at the host club, feminism 101, look it up.

Episode Five

So, turns out non normative genders do exist in Anime!

[play intro theme: Let’s Talk About Gender Baby – Planningtorock]

This is the final episode in my series exploring the representation of non normative genders in anime. Thus wraps up my journey into 3 anime universes, and how different they all were!

Attack on Titan – dramatic, epic, very gender neutral

Steins;Gate – self indulgent, all the phobics, stuck in the binary

Ouran – funny, light hearted, mostly in the binary

I think this experience definitely made me more open to engaging with anime. All three animes could not have been more different, and I’m I found Ouran the easiest to watch, which is surprising because it really isn’t a genre I would normally seek out to watch. It’s script was refreshing I guess, from the repetitive Attack on Titan and the vulgar Steins;Gate.

On reflection, it’s very clear that Attack on Titan came out on top as the most progressive anime, in terms of not just representation of non normative genders, but also female identifying characters and queer characters. Ouran High School host Club still had a lot to work out with it’s views of non normative genders. It was also stuck in a heteronormative universe, alive with homophobia and storylines that strayed into rape culture territory. I’ve successfully erased my memory of Steins;Gate so we all good there. Haha, I wish. It also played into rape culture, quite overtly at times.

This experience has taught me that the trope I assumed in Episode 1 of all non normative characters being misrepresented, is certainly a trope in many animes, but not all. Certainly not in Attack on Titan, where Hange was a respected leader and creative scientist.

I also learnt a lot about my own context, and how that shaped my perceptions of the animes. Particularly Hange. The realisation that I still have an unconscious bias towards binary thinking was an eye opening moment for me.

Learning about Japan’s context was a bit harder. It was strange how difficult it was to find information on gender identities, sexualities and sexism in Japan. I may have had a different outcome had I searched in Japanese, but I still felt the information that was available was quite limited. It also informed me that diverse gender identities and sexualities in Japan are still only marginally recognised. Especially considering how relatively recently the term xjenda has been in circulation, and transgender identities being considered disorders.

For this wrap up, I’d like to go a little more into that area and then talk a little about feminist movements in Japan. It’s hard to believe, but transgender activists actually pushed for the recognition of having a gender identity disorder (GID), which is defined as “a desire to live and be accepted as a member of the opposite sex.” It appears that having a diagnosis allows transgender identities to be accepted, and less able to be challenged. In Japan, having a disorder doesn’t have the same stigma as it does in the West. Because shame comes from being outside of the norm. It is seen as a choice to be different, difference being identities outside of a patriarchal heteronormative, binary and cisnormative construct! Wow, what a mouthful. Whereas having a disorder is not viewed as a choice and therefore is accepted.

Intersectional feminism is a space where non normative gender identities are able to prosper and gain recognition. So I’m interested to know how that whole things going down in Japan.

Japan as a society is very patriarchal society. They have the highest wage gap in the developed world and sexual harassment of women in public spaces is such a problem that women-only train carriages are now a thing. Feminism is of course alive and well in Japan, it simply manifests itself differently in a culture that’s more collectivist based than the West.

While feminism has a long history in japan, the main reason it has faced so much backlash and not progressed at the rate that it has in the West comes down to culture. The cultural ideal that “being able to endure the worst situations without complaining or making a scene is central to the idea of strength and morality, even in contemporary Japan”. This is also in line with the idea of not rocking the boat. It seems Japan is very set in binary gender roles, with women and men having very distinct roles separate from each other. 

I’m obviously just skimming the surface of a multilayered issue and there are of course feminist movements in Japan – I applaud them all!

And that’s a wrap on this podcast series. I hope you enjoyed listening to it as much as I enjoyed making it. Until next time!

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About intersectionalalien

Hi hello people of earth/space/cyberspace, intersectional alien here. I’m still trying to figure out my place on this earth. I like intersectional feminism, feminism in popular culture, LGBTQ+, refugee rights, veganism, mental health, nihilism, travelling, unlearning institutional conditioning, good tunes and consuming and creating stories.
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