Recently, I had the honor of attending my only sister’s wedding. Before the ceremony, my brothers and I were all taken aside to see our sister in her bridal gown. She looked beautiful, and for the first time since I became her older brother 20 years ago, I found the words to tell her so. The ceremony went beautifully, and afterwards the family of the bride mingled with guests in her place.
Having found myself now older than both my brother and sister were when they each got married, I ended up nervously hand-waving away comment after comment about how it would be my turn next. One such guest made this exact remark before turning to my mom and commenting on how beautiful the wedding was. My mom thanked her before adding, “I never want to do it again, though. Thank God I only had one daughter.”
Wedding dresses have become a kind of shameful ideal to me. As a feminist, I recognize that marriage is neither a woman’s duty nor her destined lot in life. As an individual, I struggle to even envision myself getting married.
I know these things, and yet when I think about the wedding dress and the idealized traditional femininity it symbolizes, I can’t help but feel a twinge of jealousy. While I may reject it both as a feminist and an individual, as a transgender woman I feel differently. Within the form of that gown I see the ideal womanhood of my sister, my mother, and my grandmother that I’ve been denied since my birth. It’s a womanhood I desperately wish to be a part of.
Back in April, AniFem published a piece about Love Live that stirred up some discussions. While the author made many fair points, I couldn’t agree with it altogether. I felt that a very important voice was being overlooked in the surrounding discourse: the gender-nonconforming folks who identify with Rin.
As a transgender woman whose “masculine” interests are sometimes wielded against me to discredit my womanhood, I took issue with the idea that this episode’s premise merely exists to reinforce male entitlement. I’d like to share my own view on the matter.
Rin’s character arc in the specified episode (titled “A New Me”) carries an air of familiarity to many trans and gender-nonconforming folks. In the episode, Honoka and a few other members of the idol group μ’s find themselves stuck on a class trip and unable to return for a show. Because Honoka was meant to model a wedding dress for a fashion show alongside the performance, the members must choose someone else to lead them and wear the dress. The group decides that Rin is best-suited for the role, despite her apprehensions.
Over the course of the episode, we learn that as a child Rin was bullied whenever she expressed herself femininely. Both her looks and personality were considered too boyish for feminine expression, so she reluctantly decided to fit the tomboy role foisted on her. She internalized this negative self-image enough that even when her friends encouraged her to be more feminine as a high schooler, she refused to let herself do so.
It should be pretty clear why myself and others find her story so relatable. It’s not just bullying that discourages trans and other gender-nonconforming people from being themselves; it’s the self-image issues that develop and instill fear in you even when you’re surrounded by a strong support group like μ’s.
I live in the closet. Each and every day I wake up and am greeted by a name that is not mine. I go to work and introduce myself to customers as someone I am not. Only within the secure confines of my therapist’s confidentiality and behind the glass curtain of a computer screen am I able to express my womanhood. Only in a space where I am represented not by flesh and blood but by selected images of my favorite anime characters can I confidently call myself a woman.
When I post selfies online, I’m able to be selective. I lock my doors and choose the cutest clothes I have. I crop the regretfully ever-present leg hair out of the photo. I shave the stubble off my face. I download filters that artificially soften my jawline, extend my lashes, and cover my face in makeup.
When I’m finally able to meet friends at conventions, I feel overwhelmed with guilt and shame at my masculine appearance. I feel like a liar and an invader in their presence. I’m ashamed for having the gall to call myself a woman around them.
Being in the closet is a lot worse than having a secret you don’t want anyone to know about. It’s a disease that rots your brain. It forces you to live multiple lives, all of them a secret from someone else. Before long, all of them feel fake.
As I am now, transition is impossible. I would lose my job. I would lose my family. I would lose the last of the safety nets I have left buried deep here in the Bahble Belt. The longer I spend here, the idea of ever living my life as a woman feels more and more like an impossibility.
It’s not practicality and safety alone that discourage me, however. Even if the stars aligned and I found myself in a progressive environment with a stable income, I’d still be held back by my own insecurities.
More than anything, I’m afraid that I don’t belong as a woman. The clothes never fit me. I look too boyish. My voice is too deep. My interests are too masculine. I can remind myself over and over again that none of these things have anything to do with my own gender, but it’s not enough. I don’t just want to be a woman, I want to be accepted as a woman. I want to be told that I’m cute and girly and deserve to be so.
In “A New Me,” when the time comes to get ready for the performance, Rin is persuaded to embrace the dress. With the other five attending members done up rather handsomely in tuxedos, they reassure her. “It suits you the best, Rin,” they say, giving her the final nudge she needs.
Their words are more than a patronizing assurance that you can wear whatever you want. They tell her what I want to be told whenever I’m wearing a skirt: that she belongs in it. She receives the validation from her friends that I crave. As she approaches the stage, she’s greeted with a chorus of women ooo-ing and ahh-ing at her beauty. In her solo, she proudly sings that anyone can be cute, and I feel a twinge of hope that maybe she’s right.
Now, I’m not so naive as to think the creators ever had a trans woman like myself in mind when making that episode. The reasons why other viewers (particularly those who find themselves pressured into femininity) took issue with it in the first place shouldn’t be ignored. To them, the episode reinforces the narrative of AFAB people secretly desiring femininity even if they present (and identify) as masculine.
Nonetheless, it was able to affect me positively. I was able to see a bit of myself in Rin Hoshizora and feel some of the comfort and confidence she felt by the end.
It should be clear why the episode’s moral would serve as positive reinforcement to transfeminine people like me who identified with Rin, and why we might feel hurt seeing that moment disparaged. Creative intent shouldn’t always (or even often) be ignored, but it also shouldn’t stop us from acknowledging the positive reactions that marginalized audiences can have anyway.
There’s a rather destructive tendency to view art as a window through which we merely gaze at its creator. It’s more than that. In the gleam of sunlight on a window, we see our own reflection; in the same way, when we stare deeply at a piece of art, we see certain truths reflected back at us.
Not everyone learns the same lesson from a piece of media because not everyone approaches it from the same point of view. Yes, one can look at Rin’s performance in “Love Wing Bell” and see a cynical excuse for putting a tomboy in a dress. When I look at it, though, I see myself and what I could become.