Content Warning: Discussion of queerphobia and transphobia
Spoilers: For Gankutsuou and The Count of Monte Cristo novel.
When writing the now classic The Count of Monte Cristo, published in installments from 1844 to 1846, Alexandre Dumas (and his uncredited collaborator Auguste Maquet) did not shy away from subject matter controversial for its time. One such subject of controversy was the homosexuality of Eugénie Danglars, and her relationship with Louise d’Armilly, which, though perhaps marketably salacious during the work’s initial publication, were in the eyes of some future editors too offensive to include in their subsequent abridgements and adaptations.
Such conservative sensibilities did not appear to stand in the way of an early 2004 promotional trailer for the anime adaptation Gankutsuou, which showed Eugénie and Louise going in for a kiss (a scene not even described in the book). By the time the series aired, however, there was a change of plans, and Eugénie became the love interest of Albert de Morcerf, whose feelings she returns.
Given the novel’s history of censorship, that the relationship between Eugénie and Louise did not make it into Gankutsuou is disappointing at first glance, but, as we shall see, Dumas’ description of Eugénie and her sexuality make one wonder whether Gankutsuou‘s version of her character may not be an improvement.
In going from a 19th- to a 51st-century setting, and shifting the narrative’s focus from the revenge of the forty-something Count of Monte Cristo to the effects the Count’s revenge have on the adolescent Albert (son of the prime target of Monte Cristo’s revenge), it is predictable that, not only would Eugénie go from spurning to falling for the character who has now become the main protagonist, but that other characters in the series would also change along with the genre and the plot.
Two of the book’s characters, Franz and Beppo, in contrast to Gankutsuou‘s Eugénie, in anime adaptation become characters who add LGBTQ representation not present in the original. If all representation is good representation, then Gankutsuou‘s two LGBTQ characters should win out against Dumas’ one. But if we are to examine representation with a more critical eye, it is difficult to conclude that the later reimagining of the story does any more for queer people than does the story as first told some hundred and sixty years before.
A Strong Independent Freak of Nature
The book pairs Eugénie’s attraction to women with an indifference or even a hostility towards men, such that when Haydée and Monte Cristo make their Parisian social debut at the opera, Eugénie instantly takes note of Haydée while showing a complete disinterest in the very Count of Monte Cristo standing right before her (a disinterest highlighted by the fact that the other characters in the chapter seem interested in nothing more than the Count and his origins).
Gankutsuou‘s Eugénie does not have such a comical disdain for men, and while Albert thinks her manner towards him rather cold, he does not take after his novelistic counterpart in expressing the fear that she may treat him as Diana did Actaeon (that is, with murderous intent), nor does he have a narrator to sympathize with his revulsion, describing his fiancée’s appearance with such terms as “caprices de la nature” (a phrase often translated as “freaks of nature”). The heterosexualized Eugénie of Gankutsuou at aleast does not reproduce such harmful misconceptions that characterize Eugénie in the novel.
The series may in fact have taken certain misconceptions about lesbians in the original and turned them into a more positive representation of women in general. The book ties Eugénie’s hatred of men, not only to her attraction to women, but also to her desire for independence, making her intentions clear when, in explaining to her father that she will not consent to marry Andrea Cavalcanti, she proclaims that she will “live perfectly alone and, consequently, perfectly free,” unencumbered by any conjugal obligations, using her talents to pursue a career in music.
Though in Gankutsuou Eugénie’s objection to marriage with Andrea appears to have more to do with her feelings for Albert (and with her mourning for their friend), neither these feelings, nor Albert’s, impede her from leaving Albert in Paris for music school in New York. While Eugénie’s original narrative might lead one to believe that hating men is a corollary to a woman’s independence, Gankutsuou’s Eugenie serves as an example of a woman who can lead a successful life independent of a man without implying that such a life requires a hatred of or even a lack of attraction to men.
Indeed, at the time the book was written, a woman of her class living independently of her family or a husband was a much less viable option than in the 21st century. This social reality—as well as the comparative general ignorance about homosexuality in that place and time—makes Dumas’ missteps in characterizing Eugénie a little more understandable and the changes to her character all the more welcome in a 21st-century adaptation.
But while Gankutsuou‘s Eugénie may be a welcome evolution of the character in light of the possibilities that a 21st century audience can now imagine for the life of a female character, the series’ reimagining of Franz is more questionable.
A Sacrificial Gay Best Friend
Unlike in the book, where Franz has no particular love interest, in Gankutsuou he is deeply in love with Albert. There is no clear indication as to Franz’s sexual orientation, but he neither despises women nor fits the image of the depraved bisexual, and his characterization therefore does not fulfill negative stereotypes in the way that Eugénie does in the novel. In this way Gankutsuou‘s Franz initially seems to provide better representation than Dumas’ Eugénie. But if his general traits do not, his overall arc does present us with one of the worst stereotypes about queer existence: namely, that it is one of inevitable suffering.
Recognizable in its modern form since the 1890s but traceable to even earlier works, this trope involves LGBTQ characters whose narratives are fraught with tragedy due to personal shame or others’ hostility because they are not straight or cis. While such narratives sometimes reflect the harsh reality of bigotry and its consequences, often enough they reflect more a willingness to use LGBTQ people for the sake of tragedy itself, or else for the sake of furthering the narratives of cishet characters.
As in The Count of Monte Cristo, the setting of Gankutsuou is replete with structural inequality and prejudice of every kind. By the end of the second episode we have already witnessed Albert’s shame and disgust upon learning that the woman he was falling for was assigned male at birth. Besides the overt transphobia, also clear from this incident is the stigma attached in their society to same-sex desire.
Franz in Gankutsuou is therefore in much the same social situation as is Eugénie in the book. He is, however, in somewhat of a different position in that the object of his affections does not reciprocate his feelings; perhaps it is therefore only to be expected that he should despair of love, describing this emotion as “nothing but trouble.” But that his despair should lead to self-sacrificing death is not necessary in his given situation, nor does it make much sense given the context either of the anime or its source material.
Franz dies at the end of episode eighteen when he is mortally wounded after surreptitiously taking Albert’s place in a duel against Monte Cristo, but there is no precedent for his death in the book. Book Albert calls off his duel with the Count before it can even take place, and Franz was to have in any case been a mere spectator (not even his second). At the end of the book, he is still, for all we know, alive and well.
Franz’s death seems all the more gratuitous in the context of the series itself, wherein other characters are also willing to risk their lives for Albert, and in ways in which death even seems like a more probable outcome, as in the penultimate episode, when Monte Cristo fires at Albert and both Fernand and Baptistin jump to take the bullet, with Baptistin getting hit.
Despite the moment looking like a fatal injury, Baptistin goes on to make a full recovery. That Monte Cristo’s mecha swordsmanship kills Franz in an extended scene of the latter’s individual agony, while the Count’s close-range marksmanship fails to kill any of the parties involved in that last extended action scene, highlights the almost spectacular nature of Franz’s death.
Eugénie is not, in the book, untouched by suffering on account of her love (“Why is the world not a desert?” she asks after escaping a snickering crowd), but there is nothing that emerges from behind the plot to force her death, and by the end she has eloped and is still traveling with Louise. Franz, however, dies a painful and altogether avoidable death, especially considering that Albert’s belated antagonism to Monte Cristo (which allows for the face-off that brings the main plot to a close) was already established the moment he challenged him to the fatal duel.
A Thousand Good Excuses
The scenes of mourning over the following episodes do present his life as something other than disposable, and there are even signs of a guilty conscience in the dream sequence in episode nineteen, in which Albert looks down to find that Franz’s blood is literally on his hands.
But, as the novel’s Monte Cristo says, conscience “provides us with a thousand good excuses of which we alone are judges.” If we the audience are to take now the role of judge, what we will find is that a 21st-century anime has few good excuses to feature yet another sacrificial queer, especially when the series’ original source material contains more positive representation.
Yet, if there is anything to be learned from both the original and its anime adaptation, it is the value of forgiveness, and if by the end of the book Monte Cristo can forgive those who sent him to the Château d’If, we should by the end of the anime be able to forgive a bit of negative representation, especially if we consider a bit of positive representation that might counterbalance the negative.
We find such redeeming representation in the character of Peppo, who, though a complex case, ultimately deserves a favorable ruling.
Her first appearance is in the same role as that of the character Beppo from the novel, that is, as a sexual lure to lead Albert into the hands of Luigi Vampa’s gang of bandits. That Peppo, who (unlike Beppo) is presumably trans, should take this role in Albert’s capture sets up a troubling proximity to narratives about trans women as predatory or deceptive; and, indeed, Albert’s aforementioned reaction of shame and disgust (at learning that Peppo, with whom he has arranged a date, was assigned male at birth) would indicate that he holds such negative views.
But the audience is not necessarily expected to share Albert’s view of Peppo, and over the course of the series, their interactions highlight Albert’s hypocrisy and naïveté (such that his disgust with Peppo’s behavior contrasts with his indignant denial of any immorality within his own family).
Peppo’s association with both Vampa and Monte Cristo also means that her admitted acts of deception do not owe to the status of her gender but, rather, to her status as a criminal. That the series does not inextricably tie her gender presentation to criminality is indicated also by Albert’s allowing her to dress him in a maid’s uniform in order to disrupt the marriage proceedings between Eugénie and Andrea. This is, indeed, a disguise, but one towards a more heroic end.
More importantly, she defies her criminal employers in her attempts to save Albert, and though she puts herself in harm’s way to do so, she does not, like Franz, have to die in the end. Like Franz, she does take these risks on account of Albert at least in part due to her unrequited feelings for him, but that Albert does not return her feelings does not, as in the case of Franz, lead her to willing self-destruction, nor, crucially, does she suffer the same kind of silence Franz (who never even dropped a hint to Albert) forced himself to endure.
Instead, she openly expresses her feelings to Albert, and, though for much of the series her character arc, like those of many fictional trans women before her, revolves around what she is willing to do for the man she loves and who does not love her back, she does, by the end of the series, live a life independent of Albert, and with some success in her career as a model. She therefore takes after Eugénie in her ability to live out her independence as a woman.
Though her portrayal is far from perfect, considering the general ignorance about trans experience even in the early 21st century, that a trans woman character should be strong, independent and even heroic merits some praise for the series, and almost compensates for the needlessly tragic vision of LGBTQ life in its portrayal of Franz.
Rather than view Peppo as some sort of compensation for Gankutsuou‘s version of Franz, however, it might be better to see her as a manifestation of the same strengths and weaknesses present in the book’s version of Eugénie. In other words, Peppo, like the original Eugénie, is a problematic portrayal of an already maligned population whose narrative nevertheless ends up subverting some of the audience’s presumed misconceptions and even winning their sympathy.
The lingering question, then, is why, in the 21st-century adaptation, there is, overall, little improvement in the portrayal of gay characters. It is difficult to say that the dehumanization in Gankustsuou‘s tear-filled but willful sacrifice of Franz is any better than that in the unflattering descriptions of Eugénie found in the book, especially when the latter gives its side gay character an ending that defies all expectations for its (much earlier) time.
Just as Gankutsuou shows us a future millennium still plagued by the social and economic ills of the 1840s, perhaps we should not be surprised that the dawn of the current millennium did not herald the end of homophobia in fiction.