Content Warning: Discussion of transphobia and suicide
Spoilers for Dear Brother, The Rose of Versailles, and Claudine
Ikeda Riyoko—perhaps the most famous member of the “year 24 group” that played a large part in creating the foundations of the shoujo manga genre—is often credited with laying the groundwork for depictions of queer characters in shoujo, and in particular with creating the archetype of the gender-bending heartthrob heroine, or “girl prince.” Building on earlier representations of butch or transmasculine characters in early shoujo manga such as Princess Knight, and the Takarazuka theater tradition of the otokoyaku male role actor, Ikeda’s enormously popular gender non-conforming heroes—Lady Oscar from The Rose of Versailles, Rei from Dear Brother, Julius from the Window of Orpheus, and the titular character of Claudine—helped to establish that there was a major mainstream audience excited to cheer for a hotheaded, androgynous tomboy with a heart of gold. Lady Oscar in particular has fingerprints all over the history of anime and manga, from a gender-bending cameo in Pokémon to serving as the inspiration for iconic characters like Tenjou Utena.
When I first read The Rose of Versailles last year, I expected its depictions of queer and transmasculine characters to be somewhat limited—after all, the comic was written for mainstream audiences and a mainstream publisher in the 1970s. But across Ikeda’s work, I was deeply surprised with the level of care and nuance with which Ikeda approaches transmasculine love stories. While there is obviously a lot about Ikeda’s portrayal of transmasculine characters that feels dated to modern audiences (for example, her comics often do fall back on “biological” ideas of women’s weakness and emotionality, and sometimes psychologize her character’s genders in uncomfortable ways), I was surprised by how much of these comics still hit for me today. What makes them work for me is both the extreme pathos with which Ikeda writes transmasculine character’s experiences of rejection—and, at rare moments, gender euphoria —but also the fact that her trans characters are not simply given a one-size fits all born-in-the-wrong-body narrative. Instead, they are each portrayed as unique individuals with varied personal relationships to their gender, their sexuality, and the historical context of the society they live in.
Across her work, Ikeda portrays a variety of gender-non-conforming or transmasculine AFAB characters. Rather than sticking to a cookie-cutter questioning-and-coming-out transition narrative, Ikeda shows that each of her characters is a complex individual whose experience of their gender shifts and changes with their position in society, and in their other interpersonal relationships. Unlike many other gender-bending stories of the time, which often fall back on a “born in the wrong body” story, or a Mulan-style passing narrative, Ikeda acknowledges a wide range of trans experiences, and the complex ways in which trans experiences are socially constructed, and historically specific, intersectional, and, above all, personal.
For the sake of brevity, I’m going to focus on three characters very near and dear to my heart from three Ikeda manga: Oscar from The Rose of Versailles (1972-1973), Rei from Dear Brother (1974), and the titular character of Claudine (1978). On the surface, these three gender-non-conforming AFAB characters are all variations on a similar archetype: the rebellious tomboy with a heart of gold and a strong sense of justice, universally admired and crushed on by men and women alike. They are all drawn almost identically, all thin, tall, androgynous characters with long blonde hair who typically dress in masculine clothing. However, despite being variations on this same archetype, each of these characters is written with a unique—and often extremely idiosyncratic—relationship to their gender.
Lady Oscar, or Lord Oscar, depending on the translation, is probably Ikeda’s most famous “tomboy” character. The Rose of Versailles describes Oscar as a woman “raised as a man” because her father lacks an heir to take over his role as captain of the Versailles royal guard. Oscar’s story could easily have been a “Mulan” narrative of a woman crossdressing in order to serve in the military—but this is not the direction Ikeda takes the story in. Instead, other characters in The Rose of Versailles recognize Oscar as a woman, just one occupying a masculine role.
Sometimes, Oscar’s social role in an all-male space is challenged on grounds of her gender, but often it isn’t. Other characters use female pronouns for her, and (in the original Japanese text of the manga) she often uses feminine or gender-neutral pronouns for herself. Nonetheless, Oscar uses male titles, dresses in masculine clothing, and is generally regarded as having a masculine presence by other characters. Other characters who are exclusively sexually attracted to men are attracted to Oscar, and when Oscar does wear more “feminine” clothing in the manga, it is presented almost like drag.
While Oscar’s gender presentation is partially out of convenience and necessity, it’s obviously more than just an act for her—it is presented as a personal identity. Oscar often experiences dysphoria about presenting feminine, and especially about being asked to fulfill a feminine role in heterosexual courtship. In a scene I find particularly heart-wrenching when read through a queer lens, Oscar confronts her father about whether he would have raised her as a “girl” if he had had an available male heir—and then tearfully thanks him for making the choice he did, and giving her the opportunity to live the life she has had. Though Oscar goes through a number of stages of questioning her identity over the course of the manga, she often talks about wanting to be seen as androgynous: how her ideal gender would be a genderless God of War, rather than a gendered human being. I personally get a lot out of the reading of Oscar as a nonbinary bisexual person, but so much of the beauty of The Rose of Versailles for me is that there are a number of different ways to read Oscar’s identity. The comic speaks to experiences which run deeper than one particular label—though, as we’ll see later in the discussion of her other comic series, Ikeda certainly doesn’t shy away from labels either.
Contrast Oscar with Rei from Dear Brother. Instead of living in Revolutionary France, Rei attends an elite boarding school in 1970s Japan during the peak of the student protest movements. Rei’s presentation is very similar to Oscar’s: she goes by female pronouns, dresses almost exclusively in masculine clothing, and is described as having an ineffably “masculine” aura by other characters. To her delight, she is often mistaken for a man by other characters, and goes by a masculine nickname, “Saint-Just-Sama” (after the French revolutionary Louis Saint-Just—you might be picking up on a theme…).
When depicted in romantic relationships with other women, Rei is usually portrayed as the “male” partner. However, there is no indication in the comic that Rei identifies as anything other than a woman—unlike Oscar, she does not express much discomfort or dysphoria about being seen as female, or spending time in all-female spaces like a girl’s boarding school. I read Rei as a butch woman, though again, a number of other reads are possible.
Finally, in Claudine, Ikeda depicts a canonically trans man who actually uses that framework to describe his identity. Claudine is set in France in the 1910s, and in the manga’s opening chapter the titular protagonist, who has identified as a boy from a young age, goes to see a psychoanalyst who diagnoses him as an “imperfect man”—imperfect in the sense that he was born in a “female” body. Throughout Claudine, Claudine self-describes as a man and uses male pronouns for himself, though the narration of the manga does not really accept Claudine’s male identity until the end. Much of the comic focuses on Claudine’s attempts to socially transition. He struggles to gain acceptance in a society which is not broadly accepting of his identity, though a few of his close friends and medical professionals do. In many ways, Claudine’s story is much more what we might expect from many “modern” trans narratives: here, Claudine’s trans identity is explicitly stated (with the word “transexual” in most translations) and explicitly medicalized.
Writing even one character like this was something pretty radical for Ikeda to do back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when positive depictions of trans characters of any sort in mainstream comics was rare globally. In that light, her choice to write such a broad variety of trans or trans-adjacent experiences for characters living throughout history is particularly powerful. Ikeda’s work doesn’t let readers assume the false take-away that there is one universal “trans experience,” or try to make one trans character’s experience stand in for every trans person who’s ever lived. Taken as a whole, we can almost read Ikeda’s complete bibliography as saying that trans people have always existed throughout history, and that their experience of their gender has been partially shaped by the historical moments they live in and medical frameworks that are available for them to describe their experiences with, but are also deeply personal. I find something very validating in the idea of three characters who are drawn exactly alike having such different gender identities—almost as if Ikeda is making the point that a person’s feelings about their gender can never be determined from their presentation alone.
Reading Ikeda’s work in the 21st century, I am especially moved by the way that she writes the joys and pains of how personal gender identity intersects with being sexually perceived in romantic relationships. Ikeda’s characters’ genders never exist in a vacuum. Ikeda doesn’t tell a lot of stories about closeted trans characters fighting to be accepted as their gender of choice by “society” at large. Instead, most of her characters are out, and comfortable in their trans or gender-non-conforming identities: they don’t need to fight to wear “male” clothes or take jobs in all-male spaces. But nonetheless, these characters struggle with what their gender identities mean in the context of their specific interpersonal relationships—and what their genders mean for how they understand their sexual orientation.
Similarly to how each of Ikeda’s androgynous AFAB protagonists has a different relationship to their gender, each has a unique relationship to their sexual orientation. For example, Rei is, for all intents and purposes, written as a lesbian: she is shown in the story in both an epically toxic lesbian romance with her half-sister Fukiko, and in a much more supportive and positive lesbian romance with the comic’s other protagonist, Nanako. She never expresses sexual or romantic interest in men at any point in the series, and her gender is often seen as related to her sexual orientation—in romances with women, she often plays the butch or “male” role.
In contrast, Oscar expresses romantic interest in, and even kisses, both men and women in The Rose of Versailles. She is also romantically desired by both men and women—involved in both sides of a love triangle with Baron Fresen and Marie Antoinette, as well as a romance with her female friend Rosalie, and finally ending up with her male childhood friend, Andre. Oscar understand that her attraction to both men and women is transgressive—she enjoys ruffling the feathers of the hoity-toity court of Versailles, for example by flirting with women at a royal ball to stick it to her father who is attempting to pair her with a man she does not love—but she also worries that the men she loves will not find her attractive because they will perceive her as too masculine.
Finally, Claudine fairly textually identifies as a straight trans man. He’s shown as being exclusively sexually attracted to women, and is destroyed by the agony of feeling that every woman that he loves only perceives him as a woman, not as a potential romantic interest. Claudine’s gender identity is strongly tied to his sexual orientation for him; both he and his psychiatrist see his attraction to women as a strong piece of evidence for the “legitimacy” of his claim to being a man. Throughout the comic, Claudine is often devastated to be romantically rejected by women—both because of his love for each individual, but also because of how each individual rejection confirms his fears that he will never be seen as anything other than a girl.
Just as with her depiction of personal gender identity, Ikeda refuses to tell just one story about transgender sexuality. Ikeda’s body of work says, as a whole, that not all AFAB people who are attracted to women identify as men, but some do. Not all trans men or transmasculine people are “gay” or “straight”—some are attracted to men, some are attracted to women, and some to both. And, whether readers parse a transmasculine character being with a man or a woman as “straight,” there’s at least one example in Ikeda’s bibliography that they’re going to have to contend with as being undeniably “gay.”
For me one of the most heart-wrenching throughlines of Ikeda’s writing is how she describes the experience of characters who are otherwise completely assured in their gender identities feeling their self-concept falling apart in the face of the social expectations of heterosexual romance. Part of why I so adore Oscar’s confrontation with her father about his choice to raise her as a girl, is the way that Oscar’s explicit expressions of gender dysphoria only show up in the comic after she starts being courted by Girodelle. Before heterosexual romance began to factor into it, Oscar was able to mostly believe that society would accept her as a masculine person—but it’s realizing the friction between her expected roles as the French royal guard and as a loveable, feminine wife which really makes the experience of gender begin to chafe against her. Both Oscar and Claudine struggle deeply with feeling unlovable because of their gender identities—worrying that women will always see them as just another girl. “But Claudine, you’re just a girl!” is the heartbreaking refrain of that manga. But on the other hand, if they fall in love with a man, they are afraid that either he’ll reject them for being too manly, or they’ll be forced to compromise on their gender and just be seen as the woman in the relationship.
Ikeda’s characters are allowed to be confused about how their gender intersects with their sexuality, and she doesn’t always give us straightforward explanations. In one scene of The Rose of Versailles that I’ve puzzled over many a time, the villain Jeanne de Valois teases Oscar by calling her a lesbian and the comment makes Oscar so angry that she reaches for her sword, and later gripes “Me? A lesbian? I’m breaking out in hives.” I often have wondered where this reaction comes from for Oscar—a woman we’ve seen flirt with other women numerous times throughout the comic. Is she just aware that the comment was intended as an insult and would be seen as one in the society she lives in, and thus bound to defend her honor? Is she thinking about her love for Fresen and Andre and afraid of what the label “lesbian” would mean for her self-concept of those romances? Is what she’s saying that she is attracted to women, but that she doesn’t interpret that love as “deviant” or “lesbian” because she does identify as a man in those relationships? Is Ikeda feeling the pressure to clarify to her reader that this story isn’t intended to be too transgressive or deviant? After all, Oscar can be read as a woman who is attracted to men! Or is it just a one-off bit that I’m reading too much into?
And, occasionally in Ikeda’s work, we get moments of transgender euphoria and romance. Take for instance, the absolute care with which Ikeda depicts the look of shock, self-realization, and almost ring-of-keys-like moment that Oscar experiences when seeing another androgynous person—Louis de Saint-Just, incidentally, Rei’s namesake in Dear Brother—out in the wild. As manga scholar Deborah Shamoon has noted, The Rose of Versailles never really gets to the point of acknowledging Oscar and Andre’s relationship as “gay,” but one of the greatest triumphs of that relationship is that Andre accepts Oscar as attractive, her masculinity and all, rather than trying to force her into the role of a woman in order to love her, like Girodelle does. And there is some kind of victory in how genderless the illustration of Oscar and Andre’s final love scene is—even though the text won’t fully allow their love to be “gay,” the images, to some degree, can when they show two identical bodies in a loving embrace.
I’m not necessarily trying to hold up Ikeda’s work as a perfectly shining example of trans representation—her characters are still very much trapped in a time when depictions of happy and accepted queer characters were almost unheard of in the mass media. In particular, Ikeda’s characters almost universally fall victim to the “bury your gays” trope. All three of the protagonists I’ve mentioned here die either immediately before or right after the moment of consummating their queer love with another character. Rei and Claudine both die of suicide. Oscar, at least, gets to get taken out by a combination of sexy tuberculosis and dying romantically in her true love’s arms while storming the Bastille. Ikeda’s stories don’t always give us the most optimistic outlook for transmasculine love—apart from rare moments, like Oscar and Andre’s exuberant final night together, her stories rarely give us glimpses into what positive, accepting transgender romance might look like.
But nevertheless, even reading these manga in the 21st century, Ikeda’s comics do something for me that few mainstream stories about trans experiences even do for me today: they show a diversity of transgender characters navigating not only their own gender identity, but how their identity fits into society, their interpersonal relationships, their social responsibilities, and their love lives. Even in this flawed and pessimistic form, it is so special to open a mainstream comic from the 1970s and see not only depictions of trans characters, but trans characters in love, and sometimes even trans characters in gay love. And Ikeda’s sumptuous, epic, Romantic depictions of transmasculine people’s fear of being unloved and unlovable, and of wanting not to just be loved but to be loved as the person they see themself as, still hit for me better than many modern mainstream depictions of trans romance honestly do. For the time period they’re written in,The Rose of Versailles, Claudine, and Dear Brother are remarkably nuanced stories about gender that still resonate 50 years later.