“Queering” Heteronormativity: Biological essentialism in genderbending manga

By: Kris Avila December 11, 20190 Comments
Two boys hugging a boyish girl against a background of sunflowers

CONTENT WARNING: Discussion of transphobia, queerphobia, and gender essentialism.

SPOILERS: General discussion of Hana-Kimi and W Juliet.

When a manga bills itself as “genderbending,” the reader might expect the series to experiment with gender nonconformance—that is, gender expression or identity that’s not aligned with traditional assigned-at-birth gender (this includes everything from binary and nonbinary trans people to butch cis women to drag performers). Unfortunately, however, the genderbending genre is rife with series that simply use queer window-dressing to tell a fundamentally non-queer, heteronormative story.

The framework of “[cis girl or boy] must pretend to be [“opposite” gender] in order to [accomplish bizarre main plot driver] before getting together with [“opposite” gender co-lead], thus restoring their [femininity or masculinity]” invites biological determinism by making the plot’s stakes dependent on the successful concealment of the main character’s “true” (here, meaning “assigned-at-birth”) gender. The idea of a “true” biological gender is itself a transphobic trope that does harm to the gender-nonconforming communities that genderbending manga purports to represent.

The main characters of W Juliet in European renaissance clothing lie on the ground, fingers laced, looking up at the "camera"

There are doubtlessly good, less-problematic examples of the genre, but I’m particularly interested in discussing two series that were formative for me as a young nonbinary queer person: Hana-Kimi by Hisaya Nakajo and W Juliet by Emura. The two series work as a comparison study in the pitfalls of the genre. 

The former tends towards acceptance and inclusion of non-straight sexuality while leaning hard into deterministic views on gender; meanwhile, the latter stunningly combines a positive portrayal of a gender nonconforming female with a heavy dose of toxic masculinity, transphobia, and other harmful cisheteronormative ideas. Both use a genre that at the least implies gender-queering in order to tell the story of remarkably heteronormative teenage romance.

Umeda looks at the audience and says "This is a queer manga" while Ashiya shouts "No it isn't!" in the background.

Does genderbending manga claim queerness?

Even outside of the implied queerness of “genderbending” as a subgenre, I think the answer to the above question is “yes.” Hana-Kimi explicitly calls itself “queer” (see above) and includes multiple non-het characters, as well as a side character, Nakao, who could easily be read as a closeted trans woman. On the whole, Hana-Kimi is much better about including non-normative sexualities than gender identities, and has representation from both gay and bi- or pansexual men (women are excluded from non-heterosexuality, but we may charitably say that this is because the series’ cast skews heavily male). 

While there are glaring issues with the presentation of non-heterosexuality, Hisaya Nakajo appears to at least aim to include and normalize gay and bisexual people in her work. The guiding adult in Ashiya’s high school life is the gay school doctor, Umeda, who is allowed to have his own sexuality and romantic entanglements. Hana-Kimi also tackles the homophobia he experiences, albeit mostly for comedic relief. 

And the requisite paranormal chapter is about gay ghosts. When even the ghosts are gay—and actually get a word in edgewise, unlike a lot of tragic gay characters in shoujo—I feel it’s safe to deem Hana-Kimi’s intention to be queer representation. 

Rin remembering her past and how she hated being treated like a girl

W Juliet is less convincingly queer. The only non-straight characters of note are girls who are attracted to the (non-genderbending) female main character, Ito, because of her masculinity—and even then it’s not clear that they’re intended to be actually WLW so much as major fangirls. 

Divergent expressions of gender are likewise accepted, but only to a point: Ito is a masculine cis girl who wears the boys’ school uniform and exhibits “boyish” traits, but a trans girl side character (Tomoe, Ito’s cousin) is treated as an anomaly, subjected to familial abuse where the reader is implicitly meant to side with the abuser, and used as a punchline. Despite Emura’s willingness to embrace masculinity as an acceptable trait in a cis woman, femininity in either male characters or AMAB characters is frowned upon.

This is a tired trend in pop culture, and the series as a whole is beset by deeply pervasive toxic masculinity. Nevertheless, while male love interest Makoto’s genderbending feels more like a convenient source of tension for an otherwise heteronormative high school romance, Ito’s non-performative existence as a cis girl who aligns strongly with masculinity (to the point of routinely being mistaken for a boy) is treated unusually well for the most part, and even praised. To me, that reads as queer, or at least queer-adjacent.

Doctor Umeda musing that a boy is reacting to an innate femininity the protagonist can't hide

How do genderbending manga play in to biological essentialism?

Before we can unpack what’s wrong with the reliance on binary gender to tell a story in these manga, we should define “biological essentialism.” Per Oxford Reference, biological essentialism is:

The belief that ‘human nature’, an individual’s personality, or some specific quality (such as intelligence, creativity, homosexuality, masculinity, femininity, or a male propensity to aggression) is an innate and natural ‘essence’ (rather than a product of circumstances, upbringing, and culture). 

In genderbending manga, the femininity or masculinity of any given character is immutable, even when they’re doing a good job of acting outside their assigned gender. There is often a pervasive narrative thread around the bending characters being totally unable to control how they act or are perceived by others. 

In W Juliet, this happens more around Ito (the non-bending cisgender female lead) than Makoto (the genderbending cisgender male romantic interest). Makoto is, at almost all times, totally in control of his gender performance, and for the vast majority of the manga it’s fairly easy to forget that he’s the bending character. When not at school, Makoto virtually never dresses as a girl, and as the romance between Makoto and Ito develops, less and less of the manga takes place there. 

Young Rin being told by her mother that someday she'll find a boy she likes and want to be feminine for him

Ito and the people around her, on the other hand, are regularly grappling with or commenting on her femininity (or lack thereof). Her expression of femininity is not in line with expectations for womanhood, and it’s not a performance.

And yet, Ito’s unique way of experiencing her gender is increasingly framed by other characters and even Ito herself, eventually, as impermanent. As Ito and Makoto fall more in love, the pressure on Ito to act and feel more “womanly” ramps up. Despite the fact that Ito says directly that she’s more comfortable and happy acting and dressing in a more masculine way, the slow march towards adulthood and socially appropriate womanhood become conflated. 

In other words, Ito’s innate, immutable womanly character—because she was, of course, assigned female at birth—will inevitably start to show through. That the process is also apparently destined to be jump-started by the first man she falls in love with adds another troubling layer to the series’ conflicting messages: “You are an amazing and beautiful woman, and your strength earns you love and respect exactly as you are! But also, your lack of adherence to normative femininity is childish and you’ll grow out of it when the right man comes along.”

Makoto, on the other hand, barely queers gender at all. He is literally acting female, in every sense of the word, to prove to his conservative, abusive father that he is good enough at it to act for a living instead of taking over the family business. He approaches his role like an actor: wigs, makeup, feminine clothing. And once he’s done with the performance for the day, he inhabits his maleness once more. 

Rin saying that after graduation it will "make sense" for both of them to go back to presenting as their assigned genders

The characters around him seem to have few suspicions about his gender, aside from moments in which Makoto confronts other male characters who get too close to Ito. (Yes, Makoto’s own territorial toxic masculinity is one of the few compromising factors in his facade.)

When confronted by Ito on why he risked exposing his secret just to protect her, he repeatedly responds to the effect of, “I can’t help it. You’re my woman.” Though Makoto’s gender performance is apparently almost flawless, he can’t stop his “innate” male aggression around the object of his affection, even when his future is on the line.

Hana-Kimi handles gender a bit differently. Ashiya, the cisgender female main character who is cross-dressing as a boy in an all-boys’ school, has to keep the ruse up almost constantly throughout the 23-volume series. She is perceived as a girlish boy in a school in which girlish boys are not particularly unusual (each dorm has at least one effeminate student, and they are mostly not played for laughs). 

However, aside from the many, many contrived close calls (someone walks in while she’s changing; she goes into a sauna and another student is there; she falls and concerned students start to loosen her shirt so she can breathe; and so on), Hana-Kimi also includes the eye-rollingly transphobic danger that other people can just sense her femininity, no matter what she does.

Mizuki worrying that she's starting to look more obviously girlish

One of Ashiya’s classmates, Kayashima, is a spirit medium who reveals at the series’ end that he knew her true gender all along because he could see her aura, which is completely and unalterably different from a man’s. It’s possible that an actual trans character may possess an aura aligned with their gender in the Hana-Kimi universe, but the implication certainly seems to be that a character born female will always possess a certain feminine je ne sais quoi undetectable to the naked eye. 

Meanwhile, the dorm’s collective pet dog, Yujiro, loves Ashiya immediately, and a classmate is confounded: “He usually only pounces on girls! It’s almost like he thinks you’re a chick! A dog oughta be able to sniff out the truth…” This clearly sets up a distinction between true, “biological” gender (which is knowable by aura, animal instincts, et al) and presented or perceived gender (which can be proven false).

Finally, one of the simultaneously sweetest and most maddening plotlines in the manga involves Ashiya’s friend, Nakatsu, who falls in love with his (to him) male friend, fantasizes about him sexually, wrestles with what those feelings mean about his sexuality, comes to terms with being gay… and then learns after 23 volumes that Ashiya was a girl all along. 

The unrequited love arc of a teenage boy falling for a close male friend and brazenly accepting that love would be a breath of fresh air; unfortunately, Nakatsu’s reaction to the great reveal is to be relieved that he wasn’t gay after all, since the fact that a person he perceived and was sexually attracted to as a male wasn’t actually male. Once again, “biological truth” trumps literally everything else, and Nakatsu was only attracted to Ashiya (whom, again, he fully and unreservedly believed to be male for two years) because he somehow detected her natural, unhideable femaleness.

Because the narrative structure of both Hana-Kimi and W Juliet is based around a central lie (that the characters are not the gender they’re presenting), the main dramatic tension comes from the threat of that lie being discovered. If either has their secret discovered, their friendships, family structures, and/or futures are at risk, and so the bending characters must take pains to present their gender as realistically and convincingly as possible. 

Rin thinking that she's going to grow up to be the perfect girl for Makoto

Trans readers may find this hypervigilance about their gender presentation familiar. That central tension serves as an uncanny allegory for trans fears of being clocked, but with the crucial difference that, in genderbending manga, there is a lie present, and there is a true gender to be discovered.

When a trans person is clocked or outed, a common misconception by cis people is that they’ve discovered the “true” gender of the trans person; this is literally the idea behind the “trans panic” defenses in murder cases. In these genderbending manga, an extremely important and tragic facet of trans experience is replicated, but altered to tell a cisgender story. And this is especially important today, given that the current narrative favored by TERFs and other transphobes is an essentialist one: that no matter how much someone “pretends” to be a different gender, a person is immutably their assigned gender.

Supposedly-queer stories that fortify the beliefs that lead to the deaths of trans and GNC people are deserving of ire and criticism, and in fact require it of us if we are to be conscientious readers. We can and should ask for better from creators in the genre.

Sano assuring Mizuki he'd like her as a guy or a girl

Do we throw out the entire genre?

Shoujo manga is directed at cishet girls and young women, and as such tends to skew heavily towards hyper-feminine main characters and heavily, unmistakably heteronormative romances. Characters with Ito’s unabashed and easy masculinity and relationships that allow for the existence of non-straight sexuality are an extremely important offering for that demographic. 

W Juliet has a lot of problematic elements (it bears repeating that, in Tomoe’s case, this includes blatant transphobia), but for much of the story, Ito is allowed to be a young woman with masculine attributes who is happy and secure in that masculinity. 

And while Hana-Kimi implies that people can somehow sniff out (mechanism unclear!) your assigned gender, Ashiya’s struggles to return to typically feminine mannerisms after two years of acting typically masculine are met with resounding acceptance from her friends and love interest: we befriended/fell in love with you as a guy, so don’t worry about acting like a girl; your gender doesn’t affect how we see you. That’s an unusually powerful message for a manga that began serialization in the ‘90s.

As with most problematic media, there is a vast gray area to be found in genderbending manga. A young trans person may find comfort in reading a sugary-sweet, romance-focused story of gender transformation that carries less-dire consequences for being found out. Cisgender tomboys might look up to characters like Ito, allowed to be both female and masculine. 

Nakao lamenting that his crush will never like him back because he wasn't born a girl

And I, nonbinary and pansexual, personally enjoyed having a safe space to consider divergent gender expressions in the privacy of my room while knowing that the resolution would make everything actually straight the whole time! I know better and roll my eyes accordingly now, but I grew up in a fairly conservative area where trans and queer people were mocked (and I had no idea nonbinary genders even existed until college). I was terrified of my nascent queer feelings, and genderbending manga was an appealing and unchallenging way to engage with them without getting too deep.

With that said, any media that furthers the narrative of gender-nonconforming people as dishonest and worthy of punishment is one that queer and feminist communities should scrutinize closely and rebuff where necessary. Other examples of the genre doubtlessly handle gender and sexuality better than W Juliet and Hana-Kimi. As understanding of divergent genders increases, I hope we will see exponentially better representation. 

In the meantime, these series provide an interesting launching pad for discussions of biological essentialism in queer media. As trans-exclusionary voices gain a platform, we owe it to ourselves to be discerning about our representation—even if we’re nostalgic for or fond of it.

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