If the Belt Fits: The battle for trans characters in fighting games

By: C.S. Nangland October 24, 20180 Comments
Leo posing with their sword in Tekken 7

Ask someone who plays fighting games to list trans characters and they’re probably going to struggle. It’s not exactly their fault, either: While indie games offer marginalized creators a chance to represent themselves and major franchises like Dragon Age and Assassin’s Creed have worked hard to make their worlds more diverse, fighting games are one of the many genres still lagging behind.

The most well-known exception is Final Fight’s Poison. Profoundly depressed by having only one confirmed trans character in the history of the genre, I dug hard to find characters who are trans-friendly, whether or not the creators agree.

With that in mind, I found three other characters that resonated with me: Bridget (Guilty Gear), a petite boy with flowing blonde hair and effeminate mannerisms; King (King of Fighters), a stoic but violent woman who exclusively wears suits; and Leo (Tekken), a wide-shouldered fighter with soft features and high-pitched voice.

The following discussion seeks to break down stereotypical assumptions made at first sight, suggesting that the most fulfilling relationship to build with a character is one the player has developed through context. Creator intent and ownership has little to no place in a discussion on representation, and can even be detrimental to individuals and the community as a whole.

It’s worth mentioning that some of these characters, in particular Poison and Bridget, have developed followings as fetish objects on various image boards. This often diminishes their worth as a positive, relatable character and reinforces the mentality that being trans is a perversion or sexual endeavour. This deserves its own discourse, because the issue runs deeper than fighting game characters and would be tangential in a discussion where reclaiming the characters from the creators is the main aim.

Concept art of Poison in short shorts, heels, a leather daddy cap, and a riding crop

Round One – Poison

Designed as a cis women, Poison and her palette-swap Roxy originally appeared in Final Fight (1989). North American publishers understandably took issue with having male characters beat up a woman and requested an alternative. When they rejected the suggestion that they be re-worked as “newhalf” (a term acceptable at the time to refer to trans women that has more recently gained synonymy with phrases like “she-male”), the characters were swapped for new, clearly male sprites. These remained in every re-release of the original outside of Japan, effectively blocking the discussion for an entire decade.

Final Fight Revenge was the first time many players met Poison. Ten years later, opinions on violence against women remained justifiably unchanged in America and Europe, prompting Capcom to find a workaround. The team named her a “post-op transsexual” in the West, supposedly also to silence fan questions on the subject. As a result, they reinforced the ludicrous notion that a trans woman is somehow less of a woman and thus okay to beat up.

They kept asking, however. Eventually, Street Fighter 4 producer Yoshinori Ono stated in a January 2008 interview with Electronic Gaming Monthly: “In North America, Poison is officially a post-op transsexual woman. But in Japan, she simply tucks her business away to look female.” The discrepancy was clear and Ono has allegedly changed his mind twice since then, coming to rest on a notion of player choice.

side-by-side comparisons of the three versions of Poison (original, male US sprite, and updated female sprite)

This willingness to see-saw on a character’s identity to suit business needs is somewhat disturbing, indicating an attitude that, for some, it remains little more than a production choice; a way to stand out in the market or meet publisher demands. A clear lack of respect towards trans folk is evident in this decision, turning away part of the audience and leaving the rest confused.

This case also highlights the level to which audiences expect creators to explicitly define a character. Ono’s uncertainty on the matter is a direct result of needing to answer a question that might not have been necessary in the first place. The vulgarity of his initial comments elicited a nasty response from those who believe an operation is key in determining trans status, with comments such as “The only ambiguous aspect of Poison is snipped or tucked” plentiful across the fanbase.

Asking people who have little-to-no understanding of trans issues to define the status of their characters ultimately does more harm than good. Not only will it carry little artistic merit, it also gives power to those who would claim every character is cis-het unless officially stated.

Instead, let’s put the focus on in-game context. Orphaned, Poison and Roxy joined the Mad Gear Gang to stay strong and keep out of prison. Poison was known to play games with authorities, allowing them to chase her into ambushes for fun. Among her peers, she was a damsel to be reckoned with, unafraid of fighting. After the gang’s fall, Poison took on management of a wrestling team, showing personal growth and an awareness of her own strength.

Poison's action pose in-game, looking over her shoulder

In spite of still being subject to gender-focused jibes (one spectator shouts “dance for us, girly” during a cut-scene, which at the very least falls in line with her gender), Poison’s story shows strong personal growth and empowerment, from mob grunt to sporting figurehead – a genuine draw for someone seeking representation.

Much of Poison’s in-game presentation in Final Fight Revenge focuses on her “eye candy” role. Winning has her adjust her breasts with the phrase “piece of cake,” and connecting the attack Kiss of Death displays five images of her in provocative poses.

As if in response to narrative growth, her Street Fighter appearances show Poison as physically stronger and her animations less bouncy. A new victory line has her state “I’m stronger and hotter than you. You can’t compete,” whilst she performs a pseudo-lap dance on screen. Technique names (Love Me Tender, Kissed By A Goddess) continue her themes of overt femininity and open sexuality.

When so many examples of trans women in media revolve around the same themes of being unsexy and unconvincing, it’s refreshing to see a character who flips these notions around. Without knowing about the controversy, Poison’s devil-may-care attitude and striking looks add another layer of empowerment to her character that trans players can appreciate.

If a player looks at Poison the way the creators intended, it’s clear that she’s supposed to be a cis woman and was only re-worked to satisfy business demands. The intent itself, and subsequent censorship, creates an opening for trans players to find representation.

Pushing past the creative team’s lack of respect paints the picture of a woman born in the wrong body, eager to express herself as boisterous and business-savvy, confident and sexually free. In this case, subjective representation comes out well ahead of the creators’ views.

Concept art of Bridget with his teddy bear and giant handcuff

Round Two – Bridget

Dressed in a nun’s habit with long, flowing hair, Bridget leaps around the screen, throwing a yo-yo and giant teddy bear at foes to disrupt them from all directions – perhaps the most outlandish weaponry in Guilty Gear X2 (2002). This acrobatic fluidity combined with their soft-toned, non-bass voice gives the distinct impression that the character is female. Without knowing the developer’s input on the character, it later comes as a gotcha-moment when Bridget actively tells another character that he’s a boy in spite of the conflicting design.

This happened because, according to creator Daisuke Ishiwatari, Bridget was designed as “a cute character” to contrast the other “good-looking and tough characters.” Upon consulting his team, they decided on “something unconventional” — making their cute character male.

The developers had a chance to take the lead on nonbinary representation, but chose to use gender as a way to trick players instead, regardless of whether they identify with Bridget. Even if it wasn’t a malicious trick, Bridget’s gender mattered only to make him stand out. With such a negative starting point, a deeper look at Bridget has to be taken to discern whether he should be reclaimed at all.

Born as an identical twin in a village that exiles or executes them based on superstition, Bridget was raised as a girl by a local nun, prompting the nun outfit, longer hair, and feminine mannerisms. To combat this superstition, Bridget became a bounty hunter so he could return to the village successful and wealthy. Should the player follow the plot that takes him home, he finds his family missing and sets out to retrieve them. Otherwise, he remains in the city and finds work as a performing waiter.

Bridget working as a waiter, balancing plates on his head and outstretched foot

This simple narrative explores themes such as identity, presentation, and rebellion.  Bridget actively fights the arcane laws of his hometown, seeking to bring about change because of what it means to his and his family’s life. Players can see these themes and attribute them to themselves, an invaluable aspect of representation.

Further, Bridget’s story reveals a facet of trans or non-binary life often ignored in media: He had to hide part of who he is in order to survive in his society and only felt like he could come out once he was somewhere that gave him anonymity.

Similar cases of being raised as the wrong gender come up frequently in Japanese media, though typically these are based on functions of arranged marriages or inheritance, in that the at-birth gender doesn’t match the one they need to wed or inherit. Often these narratives end in the character reverting to the presentation of their birth gender or otherwise include them having their “inherent” femininity or masculinity noted.

Bridget looking nonplussed while a man in the foreground has his head in his hands

Bridget stands out against these cases because, in almost every other example, the material reality tied to being male or female is at stake – a marriage, a fortune, or a kingdom. This gives the impression that doing what society says is right comes before one’s own identity. Bridget is more empowering in this instance, as his case puts across the notion that his own life is more important than the alleged bad luck his village was ready to execute him for.

To further illustrate this, Bridget states after confirming his gender that he wants to keep his feminine style because it’s comfortable, showing that even his self-expression is more nuanced than just following what his (and our) society expects of men and women. Whilst this serves as an in-game reason to avoid needing a second outfit, it also reinforces Bridget’s freedom of self-exploration within a restrictive environment.

Overall, Bridget’s fighting style and mannerisms don’t match his direct narrative aims, particularly because strength and success have no bearing on one’s gender. This shows that, creatively, Bridget’s gender is an edgy quirk. But on a deeper level, Bridget’s themes and exploration of being raised as the wrong gender give an unconventional but relevant voice to those who express their gender in more than traditional roles or clothing.

King's first sprite in a suit and suspenders

Round Three – King

King has always been assigned female at birth (AFAB), but from their inception in Art of Fighting (1992), masculine presentation has been a part of their character. They have dressed exclusively in a suit for every appearance and their initial design, stockier than that of later appearances, was even inspired by a henchwoman character in the 1989 movie China White.

No creator-given line on King’s gender has ever been given, which is a blessing and a curse in this discussion. On the one hand, it allowed SNK to include an AFAB character who fits into the Art of Fighting world without requiring massive changes from the publisher like in the case of Poison.

The other hand shows that the lack of official position held King’s story back; chances for King to vocalise an implied dysphoria have slipped through the cracks in favour of coding that’s supposed to make them present masculine whilst saying little about the underlying reality. Out of fear of alienating, confusing or enraging their audience, the team decided no comment was better than the wrong one, effectively handing over all interpretations of the character to the players.

King in a tux, sans jacket, pulling back for a punch

Those seeking representation are likely to have one of two reactions to this: to turn their backs on the game because the character’s trans status isn’t explicitly stated (subsequently seeking to avoid the people claiming their interpretation is wrong as a result), or reach out and define the character for themselves based on potential coding.

In the game’s story, King initially crossdressed both so they could learn Muay Thai and later to find work as a bouncer; however, little of this is explained in-game. Instead, players were introduced to a short-haired person in a suit who proclaims “Now you understand. Don’t judge me by my looks,” when they win. Using only in-game context clues, this sounds like a trans man celebrating their victory, silencing those who would attribute any part of it to their birth gender and forming a basis for implicit representation.

The double-edged sword is that the “reveal” of King’s assigned gender was made into a feature in early games in the series, wherein their shirt can be damaged during combat to reveal breasts. Make no mistake, this plays into the same issue as mentioned with Bridget: King’s gender was likely seen by the creators as a chance to stand out among their competitors, especially considering that King is one of few AFAB fighting characters of the era. Thankfully, every entry after King of Fighters XIII has omitted this feature.

King and a lineup of three other AOF fighters

King has the unique opportunity throughout the series to fight on both the “Women Fighters” team and “Art of Fighting” team respectively, one of whom only takes women and the other only takes men. This flies in the face of the character the story wants to portray and suggests an element of gender fluidity that, like with everything else, the creators never do anything with. Instead, the player can form another relatable attachment here, in that trans folk often move between masculine and feminine social circles outside of the community.

With no statement either way from the team, King’s advocacy as positive representation for trans folk goes hand-in-hand with a solid case for creative input holding no merit in the discussion. With only in-game context to use, King can be many things to many people, ultimately allowing the player to project onto them with very little to detract from their interpretation. In a similar way to how the creators have decided to ignore opportunities to embrace the trans community, players should feel free to ignore the creators’ lack of support.

concept art of Leo in Tekken 6

Round Four – Leo

Out of all the characters listed here, Leo is the only one to have a clearly defined non-binary status within their franchise. In a step forward for representation, all pronouns for Leo in Tekken 6 (2007) are non-gendered and their appearance can be customised with both “masculine” and “feminine” options. The flipside is that there are very few context clues in Leo’s story to make that representation worthwhile.

Leo’s narrative history is limited, both in that they’ve only been present in two main-line series entries, and that Tekken isn’t known for its storytelling of tertiary characters. What we do know is that during their late teens, Leo’s mother was murdered. During their own investigation, Leo comes across the name Kazuya Mishima and decides to enter the King Of Iron Fist tournament for a chance to face off against the suspected culprit. By the end of Tekken Tag Tournament 2, Leo is no closer to the truth.

Like their appearance, Leo’s fighting style is ambiguous, using short-range, high-powered Baji Quan kicks and punches to control the opponent’s movements. Feminine fighters tend to play acrobatically, favouring speed and evasion over strength, and masculine fighters are generally more technical, utilising longer strings of direct hits or heavyweight grappling. Leo combines both sides, resulting in a well-trained and diligent fighter whose animations are heavy, impactful, and almost dance-like in their fluidity.

A comparative chart of Leo's various sprites

For argument’s sake, it should be noted that the translation of Tekken 7 (2014) does refer to Leo exclusively as male. Outside of this, series creator Katsuhiro Harada has stated on record that Leo was originally a woman named “Eleanora.” Many who believe creative intent holds all the answers have taken these comments out of context to claim that Leo is female when in fact all this shows is that, from their inception and until now, Leo has been of ambiguous gender in Japan.

While Leo does stand out as a canonical non-binary character, their basic background and characterisation, the muddied waters surrounding the translation and the attempted fan takeover all unfortunately put strain on the character’s intended impact. Certainly, it reinforces the notion that Leo’s representation exists only on an observational level.

If explicit representation is based on what the creator says and the most obvious of context clues, implicit representation must come from motivations, interactions with the world, and the world’s view of that character. Despite wearing no identifying clothing and having androgynous features, Leo fails in being anything other than a creator-defined non-binary individual.

Leo posing with a thumbs up in Tekken 7

These four characters show the importance of finding subjective reasoning behind representation, lest we run the risk of congratulating developers for ticking a meaningless box. Between 1989 and 2007, only four characters worth talking about made it onto screen. Two of those, due to fans asking for objective “proof,” have become contentious as players attempt to convince each other that their interpretation is the “right” one.

That means an average of one character every four-and-a-half years. I, for one, am not willing to wait that long for a shallow attempt at another trans fighter.

It isn’t unreasonable to ask creative teams to take extra steps to make their characters resonate: Think about a background or storyline that speaks to the audience, trans and cis alike, and has something to add to the discussion instead of giving fuel to its detractors. In a genre where proving oneself worthy through combat is key, there’s enormous scope for characters of all backgrounds, and it’s this fact that has gone unnoticed for too long.

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