TW: transphobia, slurs
First of all, gender bender is a fairly broad tag, covering basically anything that doesn’t conform to the perceived rigidity of gender, so for this post, I’ll be primarily talking about manga where gender identity is actually of concern to the character breaking gender norms. While there is value to escapist fantasies where people are free from real-world gender norms, I’m primarily concerned with how the characters respond to the norms they’ve internalized. To some degree, this even excludes Kuranosuke Koibuchi for the majority of Kuragehime, so it’s fair to say that this is an arbitrary limitation made solely for convenience.
No, with this post I’m going to be talking about what is basically the bottom of the barrel in terms of how anime and manga handle gender:
Traps and Transformation
This is a list of the top-viewed manga with the “gender bender” tag on Batoto. Of the ones that I recognize (highlighted), two involve
traps and four involve transformation. The former is considered a slur, so I’ll be referring to it as cross-dressing from now on, but I’ll also take this moment to define it specifically as male characters cross-dressing as female for the male gaze. This thus excludes Kuragehime, and to a lesser extent, AKB49. AKB49, though excluded anyways because it’s busy being a sports-battle manga, has more in common with the transformation trope: a male protagonist becoming female through magic, science, or other means, often against their will.
What is interesting about this assortment is that while Boku Girl, Idol Pretender, Kampfer, and Sekainohate de Aimashou are all fairly typical examples of transformation, Genshiken Nidaime and Prunus Girl are unique among cross-dressing manga in that they actually permit their cross-dressing characters to be main characters and romantic interests. Hato Kenjirou in particular is written with considerable emotional complexity in Genshiken, making them a fully-realized trans character rather than a simple caricature, and Kizuna Aikawa is no slouch either, though they are a somewhat simpler character by virtue of Prunus Girl being a slice-of-life romantic comedy.
This is likely in part because cross-dressing in manga is typically performed by a side character and played off as a transphobic joke about how they’re actually a guy, making it unlikely that they will be written with any of the depth that makes a character interesting, much less meeting the selection criteria of actually being concerned about their own identity.
Furthermore, a common sub-trope in transformation is that the protagonist initially asserts that they are male and eventually comes to terms with being female towards the end of the series, which basically meets the selection criteria by definition. And given the way in which Genshiken Nidaime and Prunus Girl are atypical examples of cross-dressing, it is somewhat ironic that coming to terms with being female is almost always achieved through the transformation protagonist realizing their romantic feelings for a male character, as is the case in Boku Girl, Idol Pretender, Sekainohate de Aimashou, and basically every iteration of gender bender tropes in hentai (but with, you know, sex instead of romance).
In some ways, the premise of a boy becoming a girl is often actually less transgressive of popular notions of gender than a boy dressing as a girl, especially when they are romantically paired with another boy. Transformation usually supports the transphobic idea that gender is determined by biological sex, and their decision to remain female often reaffirms heteronormativity. Moreover, transformation is typically forced onto a character and often forces them into erotic situations, while cross-dressing characters usually cross-dress of their own volition, meaning that cross-dressing characters are harder for male readers to identify with and harder for male writers to write, while transformation characters are, more often than not, objects for male consumption through and through.
BlazBlue: Remix Heart is sort of an exception
Let me preface this by saying that BlazBlue: Remix Heart is an incredibly trashy manga that is only really topped by Boku Girl, and none of what I’m about to say really changes that. That said, I actually kind of like Remix Heart anyways, and besides me just being equally trashy, here’s why:
Remix Heart for the most part lacks male main characters other than the protagonist, Mai Natsume, and although she does have a similar epiphany where romantic feelings for a man help her identify as a girl, the relative irrelevance of men allows the importance of friendship and community to take the forefront in this manga. As a boy, Mai Natsume was emotionally isolated by her social status as the heir of the powerful Hazuki family. Her concept of self-worth was hinged on her ability to succeed her father, and it was crushed when she was disowned upon becoming a girl. For Mai Natsume, coming to terms with her gender is synonymous with learning to love and accept herself through the love and acceptance of her friends. In a way, her family situation is comparable to Kuranosuke’s, whose father expects him to succeed as a politician, and the way she finds a place where she is accepted is reminiscent of the ending of Genshiken Nidaime.
So does BlazBlue: Remix Heart hold a complex and realistic discussion of gender? Not really, no, but there isn’t exactly a whole lot of competition outside of Hourou Musuko. More importantly, transformation ultimately fulfills a trans fantasy that realism cannot meet, one of transitioning being easy, magical, and perfect. But with the way that that fantasy typically handles gender, it tends to be a guilty one. “If I like transformation, does that mean that I’m male after all? Am I confirming the stereotype of trans people just being perverts? What if I just want to be a girl because I think they have it better?” It inflicts a painful guilt, a self-doubt over feelings that seem shallow, selfish, and shameful, sometimes even sexist.
Yet in spite of this, Remix Heart manages to speak to those feelings. Remix Heart positions becoming a girl as a good thing for the main character early on and then introduces guilt and self-doubt for feeling that way, allowing it to do something most other transformation manga can’t: giving real emotional weight to the secret of Mai Natsume’s identity rather than playing it up for spectacle. And by lifting that weight with the love and acceptance that Mai Natsume receives from her friends and eventually from herself, Remix Heart sends a message:
“Maybe sometimes those feelings that seem so wrong are an inextricable part of trans feelings. Maybe they’re a part of who you are, and maybe that’s okay. Because you are you, and you are loved.”