Ribbons for the Win: Battling internalized misogyny with Pokemon Diamond & Pearl

By: Julianne Estur August 3, 20220 Comments
Dawn in a Contest dress poses between Piplup and Pachirisu

For most of my life, my relationship with femininity had been a tumultuous one. I grew up in a Christian town and was raised by a very religious family that put me in Catholic schooling from elementary to high school. As a result, my understanding of femininity was rooted in conservatism. 

I have distinct memories of being constantly told that men and women had specific roles they were assigned by God. Women could pursue their goals and careers, but eventually they would also have to settle into their “true purpose” of being in a heterosexual marriage and raising a family. Gender-nonconforming and queer girls were framed as “lost” and simply in need of a little guidance to bring them back to what was “right.”

These ideas of femininity were presented to me as rigid and incredibly narrow. The notion that my entire life would eventually boil down to these predetermined roles made me feel trapped, so I vehemently rejected anything and everything associated with it. I couldn’t even wear my uniform skirt in middle school, even though it was long. Anything that was remotely considered feminine made me feel uncomfortable and alienated.

Dawn with Piplup on her head. Both are frowning and looking both confused and troubled.

Years later, I now find a lot of joy in choosing to embrace some parts of femininity. Presenting as feminine makes me feel confident, and I’ve found a lot of comfort and solidarity in surrounding myself with female friends. Surprisingly, one piece of media that was integral to this journey was Pokemon: Diamond and Pearl, and the main female character, Dawn. 

I watched the show during elementary and middle school, and Dawn became one of my all-time favorite characters. This might seem a little strange if you’re familiar with the series. After all, Dawn was antithetical to what I stood for at the time. She was much girlier than the show’s previous female leads, May and Misty. She wore pink and dresses all the time and took great pride in her appearance. I realize now that I adore her so much because she challenged my conceptions of what femininity could be.

Dawn and Piplup raise an arm in determination, matching each other's poses

Throughout middle school I saw my female peers who presented as feminine and took part in “girly” hobbies like cheerleading as vapid and unintelligent. I never knew these girls on a personal level—in fact, I rejected the notion of even trying to become friends with them because I had already decided I was above them. 

I also fell into the patriarchal mindset of seeing other girls as competition for male attention. I had a crush on one of my classmates who had a crush on several other girls that were not me. They were all more feminine than I was, and I looked down on them and wondered what he could see in them. I saw myself as having more depth and more to offer than any of them.

Dawn and Piplup lean against a table looking angry and raedy to fight

I thought “girly girls” were shallow and unambitious, interested only in boys and clothes. Dawn was anything but. In fact, her arc focuses on her career goals and insecurities. She knew from a very young age that she wanted to compete in Contests and become a Top Coordinator, but a series of losses in the early part of the series cause her to question her ability to achieve this dream. 

Juxtaposed with her self-doubt is the self-assured front she puts up. Even during her slump, she never really lets herself be vulnerable with any of the other characters. She just smiles and rattles off her signature catchphrase: “No need to worry!” I realized that, had I made the effort to look deeper, I would have seen that many of the feminine girls I looked down upon were probably struggling in their own ways too, working towards their goals and hiding their insecurities the same way I was.

Dawn and Piplup hold their heads and look frazzled

What surprised me the most is how Dawn’s story paralleled my own. We were opposites in terms of gender presentation, yet our lives went through similar trajectories. From a young age, I knew I wanted to do something great with my life. I wasn’t sure what this would specifically be; I just wanted to make my mark on the world. 

I was ambitious like Dawn. I also doubted myself like her. I wanted so much for myself but had no idea how to put it into motion, and had to fight the urge to give up as soon as I encountered hardship. If there’s anything to be gleaned from my younger self’s constant projection onto other people, it’s that my self-esteem wasn’t exactly stable.

Dawn was probably the first time I got to see this ugly and often unspoken part of me represented. I always kept it bottled up, even though I spent the vast majority of my adolescence wanting to scream at the top of my lungs out of anger, grief, and everything in-between. That’s why there’s a specific moment in Diamond and Pearl that has always stuck with me: an image of Dawn standing on a balcony in her Contest dress, fists clenched, screaming to the skies. It was cathartic. It felt like she was venting on my behalf because I couldn’t do it myself.

Dawn in her Contest dress stands on a balcony and shouts to the sky

Then there were the Pokemon Contests themselves. At a glance, Contests seem like a “girlier” version of Gym Battles. Divided into two stages—a Performance Stage that functions like a talent show and a Battle Stage where finalists face off one-on-one—Contests are more like figure skating than a boxing match.

While Coordinators can win the Battle Stage by knocking out their opponent, they also earn or lose points for style, grace, and beauty, meaning that the aesthetics of a Pokemon’s moves matter more than attack power. Sinnoh’s iteration of Contests also has the participants dress up for the occasion, emphasizing the trainer as part of the performance. 

However (and in keeping with Pokemon’s history of challenging traditional gender roles), the series doesn’t restrict Coordinators to only feminine girls. There are also male characters who participate and many of them, such as Nando and Kenny, act as main rivals. Nando is particularly notable because he participates in Contests and Gym Battles, going toe-to-toe with both Ash and Dawn and showing that people don’t have to be limited to only masculine or feminine strengths.  

Nando holds a harp and poses with his Roserade and Sunflora

Even the female Coordinators are not monolithic. Zoey, one of the most capable Coordinators in Sinnoh, is distinctly more masculine-presenting, with short-cropped hair and a cool fashion style, preferring princely Coordinator outfits in contrast to Dawn’s trademark pink dress. 

Seeing all these different Coordinators helped me deconstruct my rather strict notions of gender. Femininity was not “all or nothing” and it wasn’t limited to only girls. It was something that anyone could embrace, and that didn’t mean they were restricted to only that.

Dawn and Zoe smile at each other. Zoe is dressed in a prince's outfit while Dawn is wearing a ribboned pink dress.

It also helped that the narrative treats Contests with the same level of respect as Gym Battles, a fact that’s best demonstrated in the relationship between Ash and Dawn. Though they partake in different endeavors, they view each other as equals. Not only do they always attend each other’s matches as a show of support, they also train together constantly. Gym Battles are not above Contests and vice versa; rather, the series acknowledges they require different skill sets that can be beneficial for any Trainer to learn, regardless of their path.

Ash’s victory against Roark, the first Gym Leader in Sinnoh, serves as an early example of this philosophy. He loses during his first battle but secures the Badge the second time around. Instrumental to turning the tide in his favor is a spinning technique he learns from Dawn. Though she originally developed the move as a way to emphasize the beauty of her Pokemon, in Ash’s hands, it becomes a way to evade hard hits from his opponent. The two of them take the time to learn from each other because they respect each other despite their differences. 

Ash and Dawn high-five each other while Brock looks on approvingly.

Dawn’s rivalry with Zoey also problematized my views on other women. My skewed perspective on femininity caused me to antagonize the other girls at school. I didn’t start having tight-knit friendships with other women until high school, and I attribute this partially to Dawn and Zoey. As Contest rivals, they competed against each other, but it was never malicious or petty. In fact, they root for and cultivate each other’s success. 

In particular, I’ve always loved the Wallace Cup arc, which happens while Dawn is experiencing the worst of her slump. Right before her performance, she panics and frantically starts brushing her hair. Seeing her anxiety, May and Zoey take the comb from her, brushing her hair and reassuring her. 

This small moment of intimacy has always stuck with me: it showed me that girls could have supportive, meaningful relationships that didn’t inevitably devolve into petty “catfights.” Though I may have been told that other girls were “competition,” that didn’t mean I had to continue to believe it.

Dawn, Zoe, and May in their Contest gear. Dawn sits between Zoe and May, who look on encouragingly. May holds a brush in one hand.

Much like Ash himself, who goes from looking down on fashion and Contests in the earlier Pokemon seasons to embracing and respecting them in Diamond and Pearl (even participating in the Wallace Cup and later excitedly taking part in a Pokemon fashion show), I’ve spent the past several years working through my internalized misogyny. I’m also learning to accept the more feminine aspects of both other people and myself. 

In recent years, I’ve developed a genuine love for dressing up. Though I once found myself stifled by fashion and always dressed to blend in, I can now be spotted trekking to my 8 AM classes in high heels. 

I realize now that I used to be so insecure that I had to put down feminine girls in order to lift myself up. I prided myself on not being like them and feared that embracing aspects of femininity, like fashion, would make me “shallow and weak.” I believed that if I became interested in anything feminine, then the foundation on which I built my supposed superiority would crumble.

Now I understand that femininity is not the same thing as weakness—and in fact, it can be a source of strength. I now see embracing every part of myself, including the feminine parts, as a way of loving myself. 

Dawn and Zoe hold hands and smile at each other

It was surprising to return to Diamond and Pearl during a recent rewatch and realize the one thing that used to make me feel disconnected from Dawn now acted as another thread between us. It also helped me remember that I had secretly always loved Dawn’s wardrobe and wanted to be more like her in that regard, but just never thought I could pull it off. I like to think that my maximalist attitude towards the color pink is the legacy of my love for her.

From hating skirts and thinking I was “not like other girls” in middle school to loving heels and having many close female friends in college, Diamond and Pearl has been an integral part of my personal journey, showing me positive depictions of femininity and healthy female relationships at a time when I badly needed them. As Pokemon loves to say, “the journey continues,” and mine will, too. But wherever it leads, I know Dawn and her series will remain an important touchstone for me that I will never truly outgrow, and will always be grateful for.

About the Author : Julianne Estur

Julianne is currently an English major at the better Los Angeles college (take that as you will) who spends most of her time talking about the horror genre, Wong Kar-wai films, or the When They Cry series. When she isn't rambling about writing, she herself is writing plays and short stories about sad women and/or romantic angst. Also, she may or may not be an eldritch being in disguise.

Read more articles from Julianne Estur

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