Nonconforming in the ‘90s: How Pokemon’s gender variance caught the hearts of a generation

By: Dee November 1, 20190 Comments
Jessie and James wearing Rose of Versailles cosplay. James is Marie Antoinette and Jessie is Oscar.

Twenty years ago, I watched my first episode of Pokemon and began my lifelong journey into the world of anime, manga, and JRPGs. I couldn’t tell you the exact date, but I can tell you the episode was “The Flame Pokemon-athon!” and that I was both confused and delighted by this weird show with electric mice and flaming horses. I can also tell you I swiftly fell in love with it, bringing my best friends along for the ride.

I could tell you about how my teacher-mom didn’t really get it but sponsored a Pokemon Club at our middle school anyway, because that’s the kind of mom she is, and how I won the club’s Gameboy and TCG tournaments by beating a bunch of over-confident boys, and how I’m still pretty dang proud of that.

Or I could tell you about my lifelong attachment to a trio of lovely, charming villains known as Team Rocket, and about all the fanart… and the fanfics… and the fansite… and the fan radio shows, and… well, you get the idea. Twenty years ago, Pokemon was an international sensation, and I was as deep into it as anyone.

Misty clasps her hands with hearts in her eyes.

And now, two decades later, after diving back into the anime after years away from it, I think I can finally tell you why: why this strange, silly, sincere show mattered, not just to me but to the turn-of-the-century Western kids’ media landscape as a whole. How it filled the space between “boy stuff” and “girl stuff,” treated both as having value, and—through its world, characters, and story—challenged why there was a division in the first place.

But first, we need to set the scene. Celebi, be a dear and send us back in time, won’t you?

Hey Mama Welcome to the ‘90s

Team Rocket wearing slick sunglasses. Jessie cocks an eyebrow and looks at James. Subtitles read "Uh, what does 'Download' mean"?

The 1990s were a strange time for pop culture in the U.S. The “Girl Power” slogan was in full swing and there were lots of little pushes for gender inclusivity, especially when it came to the idea that “girls can do anything boys can do.” The problem was that everyone was still thinking in terms of a strict gender binary, which led to a lot of contradictions and unpleasant gendered hierarchies (especially if you were a kid still developing your critical thinking skills).

Toys and entertainment were marketed largely as “for boys” or “for girls,” and female representation in pop fiction tended to fall into two camps: the feminine “girly-girl” and the masculine “tomboy.” Not only was there minimal overlap between the two archetypes, but in our haste to show girls they didn’t have to be feminine, we wound up vilifying the girly-girl as shallow and two-faced; the natural enemy of the earnest, tough tomboy.

A screnshot from the Rugrats cartoon. Angelica sits in a toy car while Susie glares at her.
Angelica and Susie from Rugrats (1991)

The Strong Female Character had her roots in this shift, as we began swapping one set of sexist assumptions (“all girls are weak”) for another (“only girls who act like boys are strong”). Shows like the Sailor Moon dub and Cartoon Network’s The Powerpuff Girls had begun to introduce the concept of “weaponized femininity” (meaning that femme traits could be just as powerful and heroic as masc ones) to English-speaking audiences, but it was a slow process that would take time to gain a proper foothold.

And even then, this was all happening almost exclusively with girls in series targeted at girls. Shows “for boys” were still largely falling into standard girly-girl/tomboy gendered patterns (if they included active female characters at all). And finding positive depictions of male characters who were into “girly stuff” was practically impossible, regardless of demographic.

The cast of the cartoon Recess
Recess (1997) is a rare example of a U.S. series that spent time exploring these narrow roles.

Kids were often encouraged to label themselves the same way these fictional characters did, even though real people rarely (if ever) slot perfectly into only having masc- or femme-coded interests. As someone who struggled to reconcile her love of basketball, fantasy novels, and cute stuffed animals—who didn’t want to “be a boy” but often felt frustrated or just plain confused about what people said it meant to “be a girl”—I was squarely in this camp.

Perhaps it’s little wonder, then, that myself and so many other kids across the gender spectrum fell so hard for Pokemon, a series that balanced action, character drama, and goofball comedy with confidence, charm—and a refreshingly flexible view on gender roles.

Living in a Pokemon World

Pikachu prepared to leap down about a Raichu.

There’s a gender-neutral appeal baked into the Pokemon games themselves. The diverse Pokemon designs are clearly intended to attract a wide range of tastes, from the “cuteness” people tend to associate with girls to the “coolness” associated with boys. Similarly, the toughest trainers in the game (gym leaders and Elite Four members) are comprised of male and female characters, assuring the audience that anyone could be a Pokemon Master (even if you were locked into playing as a boy in the original games).

The anime took that baseline setup and ran so hard with it that it became a core part of the franchise’s appeal. Not only were cute Pokemon available, but thanks to Pikachu, they were the face of the franchise—and a powerful face at that.

While the game’s mechanics frequently force you to evolve Pokemon from their “cute” (femme-coded) starters into their “cooler” (masc-coded) final forms so they’ll be more useful in battle, the Pokemon anime made a conscious decision to ignore this system. Unevolved Pokemon are canonically just as strong as evolved ones. “You can be cute and powerful,” Pikachu (and Squirtle and Bulbasaur and Vulpix and Psyduck and so on) all said.

Team Rocket peers through a window. Meowth, sobbing, wibes a hand across his face and says "It's going to fight in the name of all Pikachu."

The human characters follow a similar pattern of improving upon the game’s foundation, as the anime features a variety of one-off characters across genders, ages, and occupations. And, on the few occasions where Ash belittles a “girly” interest (like Erika’s perfume shop), he’s swiftly scolded for his narrow-mindedness.

The PokeVerse is by no means a perfect place. There are mob bosses and killer sparrows and psychic gym leaders who turn your friends into dolls. But compared to the real world, where cuteness meant weakness, feminine pursuits were looked down on, and kids so often felt like their gender dictated what they could and couldn’t do, the world of Pokemon could seem downright idyllic.

A Fresh Take on Heroic Traits

Ash, Misty, and Brock strike a pose while wearing tuxedos and a sparkly dress.

The core anime cast pushes on these gender boundaries even harder, actively challenging norms that are still common today but were inescapable 20 years ago. Ash falls into a fairly archetypal “rambunctious preteen boy” role in these early seasons, but instead of shrugging this off with “boys will be boys,” the show is often quick to punish him for acting too brash, rude, or egocentric (usually by having Misty or Brock chew him out).

His most endearing moments are when he’s protecting those in need or considering others’ feelings. The kid takes a lot of flack for releasing so many of his Pokemon, but he does it because he’s trying to do what’s best for them, not for himself. He’s not what you’d call a “feminine” hero, but the series pushes him towards healthier, productive expressions of masculinity, which is just as valuable.

Ash faces Butterfree, both smiling sadly.

Misty and Brock, meanwhile, are an almost perfect gender-reversal of the hero’s usual traveling companions. Misty is best remembered for her quick temper, but she’s also the most practical of the trio, solving problems and pointing out flaws in logic. (There are numerous examples of this, both serious and comical, though this one from “Holy Matrimony!” might be my favorite.)

Best of all, Misty is a “tomboy” who doesn’t snub her nose at feminine interests. She’s athletic, straightforward, and competitive, but she also enjoys fashion and shopping, is a sucker for a cute Pokemon, and gets caught up in romances (both her own and others).

Misty's sister shrugs and says "Because we're obviously much more talented and beautiful than you are." Misty glares at her, irritated.

True, some characters give her flack for it, especially her Mean Girl-esque sisters and Ash in the early going. But Misty never backs down from being herself, and most of the cast and the series at large do support and accept her, regardless of whether she’s battling a rival or taking care of Togepi.

She’s also open and honest about her variety of interests, which helps the series avoid falling into the trap of “all tomboys act tough but secretly wish they were girly.” Pokemon balances her core, masc-coded personality with femme-coded behaviors and hobbies, suggesting that girls don’t have to choose between being “tomboys” or “girly-girls.” They can be as much of either as they want, and still be admirable heroines who can go toe-to-toe with anyone, even the male protagonist.

Misty holds Togepi and strikes a dramatic, heroic pose, waves crashing behind her

Happily, Pokemon is just as accepting of boys with feminine interests. Where most shows would slot the girl into the caretaker (or “white mage”) role, here it’s Brock who dons that cute pink apron. He cooks for the group, looks after the Pokemon when they get injured, and handles all the “domestic” tasks like laundry and cleaning.

And he loves doing it, too. I really can’t overstate how rare that is to see in fiction, not just in the late ‘90s but today as well.

Brock, wearing a frilly pink apron, holding a vaccuum nozzle in one hand and a sponge in the other, strikes a heroic pose

Rarer still, Brock is also (somewhat infamously) the horniest boy in the series, falling in love with just about every girl he meets. That’s not usually a notable trait, but it’s worth mentioning here because boys with “girly” interests are so frequently queer-coded.

There’s nothing wrong with a good queer-coded femme boy, mind you (as Team Rocket’s James can attest). The problem is that, when it’s used constantly in fiction—and especially as a mean-spirited punchline, as it so often was—then it becomes a harmful trope, suggesting that no “real man” could ever be interested in paternal caregiving or domestic work. It’s a trend that subtly teaches young boys to scorn these activities.

But Brock loves girls and household chores. What’s more, the series treats his emotional intuition and domestic talents as his most impressive qualities, while his overzealous flirting is a comical annoyance. Like Misty, Brock’s unique combination of character traits helps him avoid falling into narrow, potentially harmful stereotypes. He challenges assumed gender roles and shows boys that being a caretaker is as admirable a job as any other.

Smashing Gender Norms at the Speed of Light

Team Rocket wearing matching tuxedos, tophats, and holding canes, strike a pose in front of a curtain

No conversation about Pokemon’s gender play is complete without Team Rocket, who cackled and crossdressed their way into the hearts of queer millennial kids the world over. I’ve talked at length about their clever (and affirming) role reversals in a previous article, but the gist of it is that the trio, and Jessie and James in particular, are gender-non-conforming (GNC), arguably queer-coded, and exuberantly unapologetic about it.

It was truly remarkable to see sympathetic characters gleefully crossdressing in a kids’ show in 1999—never to seduce someone, and not even necessarily to trick someone (there is no nefarious reason for this or this), but simply because they felt like it. Sure, it was comical at times, but no more or less than any of their other costumes, and mostly it was presented with total matter-of-factness or even a sense of grace and artistry. Team Rocket wore what they wanted, when they wanted, and they looked amazing doing it.

Jessie and James dressed in wedding attire. Jessie is the groom and James is the bride.

Personality-wise, Jessie and James fill very similar roles as Misty and Brock, with Jessie acting as the quick-tempered, headstrong fighter and James the more supportive, empathetic caretaker. However, there’s a quiet cruelty to their backstories, as well as Meowth’s, that hits harder than the overall positive depictions presented through Pokemon’s protagonists.

We don’t get much of Jessie’s younger years, but the few snippets and one major chapter we do see paint the picture of an ambitious girl with big dreams who received no structural support and eventually failed. James fled an oppressive family and fiancee who demanded he become the rigid image of the “perfect gentleman.” And a young Meowth, hoping for acceptance, taught himself how to talk and walk like a human only to be rejected as a “freak” by the girl he loved.

A horrified Meowth holds up his paws and says "She thinks I'm a freak?"

Even as a kid, it wasn’t difficult to read the subtext and see these lonely misfits as characters who were outcast specifically because they didn’t fit the roles expected by society. How many girls are pushed away from their career goals because people dismiss them before they’ve begun? How many boys, especially femme ones, are pressured into becoming the toxic ideal of masculine “perfection”? And while I can’t speak to this myself, I know Meowth’s backstory has resonated with trans viewers, including his previous voice actress Maddie Blaustein.

If the acceptance given to Misty and Brock was how we wanted the world to be, then the way people treated Jessie, James, and Meowth was how the world actually was. Viewed through that lens, it’s easy to see why Team Rocket in particular appealed to millennial queer kids like myself—and why their steadfast love for one another has become such an important emotional throughline for the Pokemon anime as a whole.

Being the Very Best (Like No One Ever Was)

A close-up of Erika, holding a Pokeball and saying "Now I'm going to give you a lesson in empathy."

Yet while Team Rocket are unquestionably the most overt (and, I’d argue, inspiring) GNC characters in the series, they would absolutely not work without Misty, Brock, and the long line of one-off characters they meet along the way. If everyone else in Pokemon slotted neatly into expected gender roles, then Team Rocket would just be one more example in a long line of “weirdo” villains meant to “warn” kids about what happens when you stray from the path of cisnormativity.

But because so many other characters also challenge these norms—and especially because Misty and Brock are themselves variations on the “angry girl” and “soft boy” archetypes—it assures the audience that Team Rocket aren’t the antagonists because Jessie has masc qualities or James has femme ones. In fact, given that our heroes have similar personalities, Pokemon is actively training us to see these as Team Rocket’s positive traits.

James hangs on to Jessie's arms and cries. Jessie clasps his arms in return, smiles slightly, and says, "Don't worry. I won't leave you."

They’re antagonists because they’re often self-centered and short-sighted, forgetting about the people around them in favor of an immediate personal desire or insecurity. When they let these flaws get the better of them, the series punishes them for it. But when they aren’t being selfish—when they’re using those same GNC traits to help each other, or the twerps, or even the world at large—they’re rewarded for it nearly every time.

It’s not that ambition in girls or emotional vulnerability in boys is bad, but that any character trait, when not tempered by empathy or courtesy or self-worth, can become destructive. This is as true for our sympathetic villains as it is our more despicable antagonists, and is a lesson Ash and his friends frequently need to learn as well.

The Once and Future Franchise

Lillie from Pokemon Sun & Moon wears a princely outfit and holds aloft a staff with a rainbow on the end. Sparkles burst out behind her.

Over the years, as family-friendly media has become more inclusive, Pokemon has also built and improved upon its early seasons. The series continues to feature a gender-balanced cast with diverse personalities and goals who regularly challenge gender norms. Ash himself has become a sweeter kid more supportive of femme-coded pastimes, taking the compassion and empathy he learned in the early seasons and making it his core strength.

Meanwhile, Team Rocket has maintained their tough girl/soft boy dynamic (albeit with less, though still exquisite, crossdressing) while also gaining much-needed doses of compassion and self-confidence to help smooth out their roughest edges. The lovable losers of seasons past have strengthened their bonds and achieved significant successes, to the point where it’s clear we’re supposed to be rooting for them now (when they’re not trying to steal Pokemon, at least).

The franchise backtracks occasionally and could certainly stand to take greater strides in explicit queer representation, but the general movement has been one towards diversity and acceptance. The original ‘90s series laid the groundwork for all of that, setting an important tone that’s continued for over two decades.

Ash hugs a Chimchar with tears in its eyes.

Of course, as with later seasons, these early episodes are not without their flaws. “Princess vs. Princess,” while a fun episode that showcases Misty and Jessie’s battling skills, is also awash in sexist stereotypes about shopaholic, catfighting women; Misty and Jessie both get criticized for not being feminine enough (often from each other); the “girls beating up on guys” slapstick is laid on way too thick; Ash has almost no female rivals; the list could go on. No show is perfect, least of all one that began in 1997.

But these are hiccups and exceptions, not the rule. And as a kid in 1999 looking for a show with characters who resembled the blended gender spectrum I felt and saw in my own life, those blemishes were easy to overlook. At the time, Pokemon in general and Team Rocket in particular were a minor revelation, and even now those early seasons hold up surprisingly well.

Jessie and James hug Meowth, who is wearing a fedora and trench coat. There is a big heart behind them.

I couldn’t have articulated all this to you 20 years ago, mind you. If you’d asked me why I liked Pokemon back then, I’d have struggled to put it into words. I probably would’ve said it was funny or that I liked talking about the show (and writing bawdy comedy fanfics, shhh) with my friends. If you’d pushed me, I might’ve been able to awkwardly explain my emotional attachment to the Team Rocket trio, a group of lonely misfits who’d found a family with each other.

I definitely couldn’t have discussed the gender stuff, though. Hell, I probably would have turned it into a joke about how “crazy and weird” everyone was, because I was an uninformed preteen only just beginning to work through my internalized sexism and queerphobia and I tended to couch everything I cared about in humor. To say I’ve done some growing these last couple decades would be a Wailord-sized understatement.

The cast of the original Pokemon anime, twerps and Rockets alike, all celebrate together.

But as I rewatched the first few seasons last autumn, I found myself connecting dots that I couldn’t have all those years ago. I’ve come to realize the value of Pokemon’s GNC cast, respect for feminine-coded interests, and empathy-focused themes, not just for me but for kids’ media in general.

Look after each other. Never give up. And to hell with gender norms.

Kids’ shows needed that message in 1999, even if we didn’t consciously realize it. And here in 2019, after wrapping up my epic year-long Pokemon watch with the joyfully diverse and supportive cast of Sun & Moon, I can say with certainty it’s just as valuable now as it was then.

Onwards to the next twenty years.

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