Everybody Loves Bridget: The origins of otokonoko and birth of a trans icon

By: Rain B. February 15, 20230 Comments
Bridget and her yoyo

Content Warning: discussion of transphobia

Spoilers for Bridget’s storyline across the entire Guilty Gear franchise

Amidst of a lot of bad news in summer 2022, one thing trans people found to celebrate was the transition of Brisket—or rather Bridget, an iconic video game character with a fraught history (in the games and in the real world) who came out as trans.

Brisket icon
This was everywhere.

But there’s a lot more to this story than many are fully aware of, and the character who defined an archetype so powerful it became a gender identity deserves to have her whole story told.

Bridget’s Big Debut

Bridget was revealed to the world in January of 2002 (making her older than Myspace!). A popular fighting game was soon to release a new installment, Guilty Gear XX, and pre-release information included new characters. One stood out; in a game known for its fast-paced gameplay, punishing difficulty, and heavy-metal-inspired aesthetics, the sight of a yoyo-slinging, miniskirt-nun-habit-wearing girl—or so one news site said—among the roster made some waves.

Then came a bigger surprise: a month later, new information made apparent this was a boy. The reaction was initially fierce; some fans who had been ecstatic to get a new cute, playable girl were not happy at what they saw as a bait-and-switch.

And to an extent, it was. The developers had decided to add a token “cute” character and created the design that would be Bridget, but the director added a twist: they’d be male, a choice that even most of the staff was not made aware of.

original Bridget concept art
Official art at the time.

In any case, the reaction quickly shifted, and an attitude of “as long as they’re cute” took hold. On a Japanese message board, the phrase “there’s no way someone this cute is a girl” (こんな可愛い子が女の子のはずがない) was posted for the first time; it would be the most defining phrase of the otokonoko boom.

Three months later, Bridget’s story mode was made available. At last people could find out what the deal was with this supposed boy-that-looks-like-a-girl. What did the game itself have to say?

In the aftermath of a hundred-year apocalyptic war between humans and “Gears”, Bridget was born to a well-off family in a poor English village as the younger of twin brothers. The catch was that this village held a superstition that twin boys spell disaster; if born, the younger would be sent off for adoption or otherwise disposed of. Unwilling to part with one of their children, the parents decided to lie and have the younger, Bridget, live life as a girl.

artbook illustration of Bridget
Art of Bridget by the director Daisuke Ishiwatari from before 2004. His comment, written in 2007, mentions “She (he, I guess…) is usually cheerful, but once he left to live on his own his days would have been filled with loneliness, so I wanted to express that here.” [Pronouns left as is in the Japanese, including the parenthetical] (普段は明るい彼女(彼か……)ですが、独りで生きていくということは、彼の日常が孤独で占められている、ということを表現しようと思いました。)

This seemed successful at first, and Bridget received the best upbringing a young English girl could get in this war-torn setting. According to her official bio at the time, Bridget had a happy-go-lucky, fun-loving personality, and tried to always be upbeat to convince her parents—who felt terrible about forcing her to live a lie—that she was happy with how things were.

Perhaps understandably, the parents saw this as Bridget forcing herself to be happy, and her efforts backfired; the happier she seemed, the worse they felt. Eventually she realized this and, loving her parents very much, hatched a plan—if living as a girl makes them unhappy, she would live as a boy. But first, she needed to end that superstition: forget misfortune, she would bring so much fortune (as a male twin) that everyone would have no choice but to realize their foolishness.

And so Bridget sets off on a lonely journey to prove her male worth as a bounty hunter.

full body concept art of Bridget

A lot of “common knowledge” of Bridget’s story assumes 1) the game used her as the butt of constant jokes about gender/sexuality, and 2) that she constantly corrected people who called her a girl. Both of these are false.

Bridget is a comedic character, and there is one such joke, but the comedy is generally derived from elsewhere. As befitting the setting, much of the cast is grizzled veterans with scars external and internal, putting their lives on the line for goals involving the very fate of humanity. Then a kid with a yoyo shows up and cheerfully tosses them in jail.

That gap—not about gender, but setting—informs most of the humor (that and Bridget’s ability to give unintentionally-scathing backhanded compliments). And the story doesn’t treat Bridget herself as a joke, either: while several characters are initially dismissive of her, she’s consistently shown as skilled and earns the respect of several major players. Not only in her own story, either, which would have been an easy out: one of Potemkin’s endings, for instance, is dedicated to the large military man finding Bridget so impressive he offers her a job as a combat instructor. 

The issue of her self-identified gender at this stage is also less clean-cut than you might be led to believe. Bridget only corrects someone about her gender directly once: in the “ladies’ man” character Johnny’s (who is more Johnny Bravo than Johnny Cash if you ask me) story mode, he offers to let himself be taken captive by Bridget without a fight because he can’t say no to a lady. And even that has additional context.

Bridget consistently reacts “forcefully” to one thing: being patronized. Not uncommonly among confident young people, Bridget doesn’t appreciate being made light of due to her youth or upbringing. When referred to as a “lady” by one character—“ojou-san” in the Japanese, carrying the implication of being pampered—she corrects them: “I’m not a lady. I’m a bounty hunter.” She does use masculine language there in the Japanese (switching her usual pronoun uchi for boku, something she does only twice in the series), but when the character repeats themselves but with a masculine term instead, Bridget just beats them up.

This holds in reverse too: while Bridget is similarly irked by being treated lightly in non-gendered ways, she does not seem to care about being referred to as female. One scene involves a character, calling her “Girl” (ane-san in the Japanese, a friendly way to refer to a woman you don’t know). Bridget doesn’t bat an eye and their conversion continues as normal.

Back to the story. 

In the first ending, series deuteragonist Ky Kiske regretfully informs Bridget the bulletins she’d followed were fraudulent. However, he is impressed and feels sympathetic for her wasted effort, and so helps kick-start her bounty hunting career. She’s shown arriving back in her village with a giant bag of riches as the credits roll.

In the second, she goes after a giant bounty on Dizzy, a powerful Gear feared for her potential to reignite the war with humans. Yet on finding her, Bridget concludes that the Gear is not actually a bad person, befriending her instead. She invites Dizzy to visit her home—which she speaks of fondly—and the two are shown hanging out together during the credits.

Bridget tries on Dizzy's hat
Bridget and Dizzy hanging out and trying on pirate clothes, the image shown as the credits roll on this ending.

The third ending is much like the second, but features Johnny—leader of the pirates covering for Dizzy—offering Bridget a spot on his crew, pointing out the loneliness he reads in her. Bridget refuses, insisting she’s not lonely at all. Really. A fight ensues. Afterward, a defeated Johnny asks if Bridget is a man; Bridget confirms, and Johnny is crushed that he was “hitting on” a “man”.

This last ending is the one “gay panic” joke that gets pulled regarding Bridget. It’s not played quite as straight as it seems—players familiar with Johnny’s story would know his crew is full of girls who were orphaned in the war, like himself, who he considers family; he frames it as “seducing”, but he’s not actually trying to get into her pants. It still is what it is though, and warrants the criticism it receives as a low moment in official treatment of Bridget.

There is one last scene from Guilty Gear XX that warrants special mention, especially in hindsight. When Bridget goes to capture the revenge-driven samurai Baiken—herself something of a gender nonconformist who uses a highly masculine first-person pronoun (ore) in the Japanese—she warns Bridget that taking this path will only lead to tragedy. Bridget responds in the English version that “I’m prepared for my last days to be miserable. After all, I may not look like it, but I’m actually an actor.”

Anji calls Bridget a girl

At the time, and at first glance, it’s easy enough to read her “act” as that of pretending to be a girl for her parents and village, with the implication that such a life would be miserable. This reading doesn’t actually make sense though: she’s already decided to give up that “act” and live as a man. 

Presumably she means something else. More obviously so when given Bridget’s Japanese line, a famous quote from a rakugo master to an aspiring pupil: “choosing the life of an entertainer means accepting for yourself a wretched end.” (芸人になった以上、末路哀れは覚悟の前) The implication in this case is more that Bridget’s “act” is her yoyo skills—which, like the pupil from the aphorism, she is very serious about and proud of.

But what if the “act” is gender—the male gender she’s chosen to act out for the sake of her parents? Knowing as we do now that she’s trans, this would make perfect sense. Was that intentional on the part of the writers at the time? Admittedly I’d assumed no, it was another example of a cis author accidentally writing a character trans―but according to this Bridget-focused October 2022 interview with developers Ishiwatari and Kataoka, the broad strokes of her story were laid out from the very beginning, they just felt now was finally the time to progress it.

Which is a stance that seems to fit with the direction Bridget’s story takes in 2008: a light-hearted detour about deciding to become a yoyo performer that avoids touching on gender almost entirely. (And so won’t be covered here.)

Bridget's opponent on the moon
If your Shoot the Moon could literally send people to the moon, you’d think about making a career out of it too.

And that’s Bridget as we knew her up until 2022. How did the real world react to this character? Quite strongly.

The Birth of Otokonoko

In Japan, Bridget was enormously popular with much of the otaku community, reigniting and combining semi-dormant trends to popularize the character archetype of a cute, feminine-looking boy dressed in female-coded clothing. This wasn’t an entirely new concept of course―Stop!! Hibari-kun! notably ran in the early ‘80s―but in 2002 the combination of “cute, feminine boy” and “crossdressing” (which was more associated with the sex and entertainment industries) was rare even among genres about cute, feminine boys. Until Bridget anyway.

Within six months of the game’s release, the first fan convention focused on (and named after) Bridget was held. Within a few years, the archetype Bridget birthed would be called otokonoko.

Some of this trend was decidedly problematic. As is often the case, much of the fandom was based around porn, and some of the boom was a direct descendent of the often-pedophilic shota genre, which had shrunk significantly in previous years due to social pressure surrounding recently updated child pornography laws. However there were also some real benefits.

At the time, many events banned men from cosplaying in women’s outfits; it was seen as unsightly (in contrast, a survey at the time supposedly showed that around 80% of female cosplayers had “crossplay” experience). The aforementioned Bridget event did not ban this and featured a number of male cosplayers in ostensibly female clothing. The floodgates began to open.

google searches for "transgender" in Japan over time
Google searches for “transgender” in Japan over time

Over the next several years, the rise in number of male crossplayers―and crossdressing male characters―would raise awareness of the term otokonoko to the point it became a social phenomenon even outside otaku communities, as TV news and magazines began to run pieces explaining it and social media first started to gain widespread adoption. While this would help lead to the decline of bans on men crossplaying, it also proved useful to trans women. 

Japan had a ban on gender confirmation surgery until 1998, and it was impossible to change your legal sex until 2003 (under heavily discriminatory conditions—which remain in place today). Public awareness of transgender issues was extremely low, and heavily colored by stereotypes. Even the popular word for a trans woman in the ‘80s and ‘90s was basically a porn industry term: “newhalf”.

The rise of otokonoko in the public consciousness, while somewhat fraught, was also welcomed as a word without negative connotations or historical baggage. This helped make for relatively easier “explanations” and helped provide some limited space for people assigned male at birth to explore their gender and sexuality in a more socially acceptable way. The wealth of resources about how to present convincingly as a woman that sprung up around it was helpful too; the 2007 guidebook I Want to Be a Girl! was a national bestseller!

I want to be a Girl cover
The cover.

This is not to overemphasize the impact of Bridget individually, of course. These social trends were long in the making; perhaps things might have gone the same without her. But the spark that set it off did happen to be Bridget, coincidentally or not, which has given the character a special social significance.

The reaction in English-speaking countries was less pronounced, but still noteworthy. Widespread public knowledge and attitudes about transgender issues were not so drastically different than Japan, and much of the direct reaction was similar.

Bridget was popular and novel, and spawned or helped spawn a number of widespread memes including “everyone is gay for Bridget” and the especially problematic term “trap”. The term is generally reviled these days for its use as a slur toward trans people and the implication that anyone presenting a gender different than their sex at birth is doing it in order to “trap” cis-het people into having “gay” sex.

But many trans girls at the time who hadn’t realized their gender identity yet, or were hiding it, identified with Bridget—it’s not hard to find trans women today who remember learning how to yoyo due to her influence. “Of course I’m a boy, I just look and dress like a girl because I have to!” was an especially attractive fantasy at a time when there was almost no outlet for, or information available about, gender dysphoria (most US states were still passing bans on gay marriage equality and the “trans panic” defense held considerable sway in murder trials). 

Then several years passed, and a sea change occurred in mainstream opinions about LGBTQ+ rights, with marriage equality being legalized in a number of countries and standards for trans healthcare receiving a significant update in 2011. In some areas, at least, progress was made—the world in 2022 was no longer the world of 2002.

Bridget Comes Out

Finally, in August 2022, Bridget made her return to the spotlight in -Strive-. What would her new story entail? (Spoiler: her coming out as trans.)

Her story this time takes place several years after the original; she’s now a renowned bounty hunter who’s achieved her objective of ending the village superstition. Yet her original goal―of living happily with her family―appears unrealized.

Early in the story she meets a very large, very American man named Goldlewis Dickinson. Leaving after a fight (over a mysterious talking teddy bear), he refers to Bridget as a “li’l lady”. Bridget corrects him, with obvious reluctance, telling him “I’m a boy.”

Bridget and Goldlewis

Noticing her sad tone, Goldlewis eventually realizes Bridget is troubled by some secret she’s keeping. Sympathizing with how difficult it can be to trust even people close to you, he shares his own story of a kept secret and lost family.

Not wanting to end up with regrets herself, Bridget decides to visit Ky, who recently made headlines for revealing a major secret with drastic implications for both the world at large and his own personal life. The details of their conversation vary, but as the devs have clarified, each version is reflecting different angles of the same truth.

There are three main endings that build upon one another. The first features conversations about the fear of change making it hard to take action and the benefit of trying something new when you feel lost, leading Bridget to think about what future she wants for herself.

Next, Bridget confesses to Ky and Goldlewis that she knows she’s running from what she wants because she’s afraid of losing what she has. They point out that while discretion can be the better part of valor, sometimes taking a risk for the sake of a better future is worth it too—besides, everyone stumbles sometimes, and Bridget has people right there ready to help her back up if she wants.

After choking up a bit and thanking them, she makes a decision and tells them her secret: “I’m a girl.”

In the final ending, a now-confident Bridget challenges Ky to a duel, hoping to find the source of his strength; hadn’t he been afraid of revealing his secret to all the world?

Bridget and her yoyo

What drove him, he tells her, was a desire to live openly—to not live a lie. With his encouragement, Bridget decides to also live as her “true self”, scary though that may be. It ends with Bridget invited to visit Ky and Dizzy’s home, echoing the invitation she gave Dizzy in her first story all the way back in Guilty Gear XX.

To recap: Bridget is initially assigned male at birth, but due to outside forces, her parents decide to lie to their village and say that she is their daughter instead, forcing her to live a public life as a girl. Bridget seems okay with this arrangement, but can tell her parents are not; out of love for them, she decides to end it and live as a man.

But despite taking great pains to do so, she finds that it has not left her feeling fulfilled. Her parents and village are happy, and she is happy they’re happy—but she’s not happy about life as a man. She wants to go back to living as a woman, but now that the “excuse” to do so is gone, she’s afraid for the same reasons any trans person might be: of what people will say, of rejection from your family, of losing everything you’ve built up so far. So she decides to just keep quiet.

For a while, it’s bearable. But the feeling only grows, and eventually friends notice how unhappy she seems. After much thought and worrying, and an offer of support, she decides to stop suppressing her true self and comes out in private. Later, advice from a role model helps her work up the courage to tell her parents as well.

Bridget and Ky
Ky’s character song includes the lines, “I hope my path will be a guide of light for someone to follow” and “Hoping to fill the world with all kinds of light.” Doing a good job so far!

The Importance of Being (Trans) Bridget

This is Bridget’s story to date, from 2002 to 2022. It’s a winding path, but one that in retrospect feels only natural, unintentionally or not—much like the journey of many trans people in real life, and especially for the generation of trans women that grew up with Bridget.

Growing up trans in the ‘90s and early 2000s was, for many, a very muddled experience. Public awareness of what it meant to be trans was low—very low in most places—and acceptance was far worse than even that. The internet was still new, not widely accessible everywhere, with much less content, and in many ways harder to navigate. Together, this often meant you had no name to give your feelings, and no acceptable outlet for them either. A little like with Bridget, doing things that aligned with your real gender was likely to be… ill-received by your parents.

One way many tried to cope with that murky alienation was trying to force themselves into their assigned gender role instead. Where Bridget went off to become a bounty hunter, in real life a trans girl might get into weightlifting or grow a “denial beard”. But of course, that didn’t solve anything.

Then—quite recently, really—trans awareness became a significant issue, and the idea of what being trans actually means began to evolve in the public consciousness. Especially with advances in the medical understanding and terminology, such as the change in diagnosis to “gender dysphoria” in 2013, the ubiquity of social media providing a lot more space for sharing information and getting glimpses into the lives of other people, and the spread of resources like genderdysphoria.fyi, many people finally had a framework to think about those feelings and tear down the years of mental blocks erected in self-defense. 

And, just as importantly for many, they were adults now who had the independence from their parents to allow them to come to a conclusion on their own terms—much like, again, Bridget’s case.

And it’s in that context we see her—the mother of all otokonoko, the butt of endless gay jokes all over the internet for over a decade—decide to come out as trans. 

brownscale illustration of Bridget
Another illustration and comment from Ishiwatari: “[It’s been a while so] my recollection is a little vague, but I think at the time I drew this trying to show Bridget’s serious side.”

A number of people have complained, “Why did they have to make Bridget trans, why not just make a new character who’s trans?” It is somewhat a fair question; a non-zero amount of AMAB people who prefer a more feminine presentation have considered Bridget something of an icon. But a huge part of the trans experience—at least for trans women, of the generation I’ve described—was the interminable period of living in a gray haze, unable to put words to feelings or understand why nothing seemed to help

For representing that in a meta sense, not just within the story, Bridget is almost singularly perfect.

And especially so in the context she primarily exists: Japanese media. 

The otokonoko archetype, as noted earlier, is a popular one in Japanese subculture works. Its influence on the culture has been beneficial in a few ways, but one criticism you will find is that while it helps expand the realm of gender expression for men, it also helps solidify the gender binary by defining gender in regard to biological sex: dress however you want, but if you have a dick you are a man.

This view of “groin equals gender” is evident among even some Japanese Bridget fans who don’t mind the latest revelation; there’s an implicit assumption that to be trans you must also be getting/have gotten bottom surgery. This assumption is wrong, of course, but given the legal reality in Japan it’s an understandable one: you not only must be permanently sterilized to legally change your gender, you also must have had a vaginoplasty/phalloplasty.

official art of Bridget

And while trans representation in English speaking media remains lacking, the situation for Japanese media is in many ways more dire. While there are certain fields, like manga, where trans-centric stories are easier to find (To Strip the Flesh, Love Me for Who I Am, and X-Gender are some examples with English-language releases), in the broad sense things are tough. Film director Kasho Iizuka, himself transmasc, was asked in a February 2022 interview about why the trans man protagonist of his movie The World for the Two of Us was played by a cis man; shouldn’t trans actors play trans characters?

The director agreed with the sentiment, but pointed out the reality in Japan’s movie industry. Harassment and discrimination of LGBTQ+ people remains rampant, and in non-director roles he often hid his own identity due to this. He believes the industry has simply not progressed to the point where it is reasonable to expect people to be “out” yet, as much as he would like to see that change (and attempts to be a role model for it).

And so trans characters, especially in more mainstream media that’s not explicitly billed as “LGBT”, are rare. When they exist, often they’re characters you wouldn’t know are trans without reading an author’s note buried somewhere, or whose identity is irrelevant to the plot—or written with enough leeway to allow readers to interpret the character’s identity how they wish. 

To borrow examples from another work in the same genre as Guilty Gear: Cagliostro and Ladiva in Granblue Fantasy Versus are both trans, but their identity as such is not a focus. One you’d never know at all without digging deep into the lore, and similarly the other is often assumed to be more of an onee (a word with its own complicated history and present) by Japanese players without reading her lore.

Cagliostro vs Ladiva matchup
Don’t get me wrong I love them both.

Bridget, on the other hand, has her whole plot in the most recent game revolve around her internal conflict about coming out, with realistic worries and supportive friends. The combination of her huge existing cultural impact and the fact she was considered cis for over twenty years before this has led to a boom in talking about trans issues in Japanese otaku spaces. 

To pick some representative, positive examples: one poster mentioned this helped them realize the now-obvious fact that a person’s gender identity is something they decide for themselves, not something for observers to decide. Multiple posters were thrilled that the developers came out to clarify Bridget’s identity and pronouns in Japanese (i.e. not splitting treatment domestically and internationally), having become so used to seeing media companies keep the waters just murky enough that any interpretation is possible. 

“Are otokonoko men? Women?” That being a question they decide for themselves feels like it should be obvious, but I somehow didn’t realize it until seeing Bridget.
Japanese tweet
I am so so happy to see them—in Japan, where this stuff is usually kept in the gray zone—officially say “Bridget is a woman”… It makes me so happy to be able to play a game as a character whose identity includes “transgender woman.”
Japanese tweet
I figured it would just be for the overseas market and in Japan they’d leave her as an otokonoko, it’s really amazing to see them come out and officially confirm “Bridget is a girl.” Really thought they’d keep it ambiguous. 

It can be hard to enjoy seeing characters that represent you when any attempt to talk about it is met with protestations from fellow readers that no, they’re not really that way, that’s just your headcanon. Having the creator’s so-called “word of god” to point to relieves an immense burden of having to defend your interpretation.  

It’s all a very welcome sight that came at the perfect timing for trans issues writ large. The WPATH’s 8th revision of global standards for transgender healthcare hit a month after Bridget’s addition to the game and a mere three days after the devs’ statement. Among many other things, these new standards provide an updated “objective” basis for understanding what it means to be trans for people approaching the subject from a place of ignorance. Like the dev statement, it provides a quick authoritative source to point to, easing the burden on trans people who are constantly required by society to be both an educator and debater about their very existence.

With any luck, we’ll soon look back and see that Bridget was once again standing on the leading edge of a turning point on gender issues in Japan—and for the many fans of Japanese media around the world.

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