Chicks On Anime
Female Crossdressers in Media

by B. Dong, C. Brienza, S. Pocock, R. Sevakis, Dec 9th 2008

About the contributors:

Bamboo is the managing editor for ANN, and writes the column Shelf Life.
Casey is a freelance journalist, and also writes reviews for ANN.
Sara is an animator who's also released her own independent short film.
Robin is an illustrator, and also the creator of Anime News Nina.

In many past conversations, our talks have inadvertently fallen upon strong female characters we've admired, like Utena or Oscar. And many of them had one thing in common—they were dressed like men. It was with that in mind, that we decided to take on the subject of female crossdressers in manga and anime. It's a subject that we couldn't discuss in full, as there are a lot of things we could say about it, but we scratched the surface, and hopefully the discussion can continue in our forums.


Bamboo: This week, I thought it'd be interesting to talk about the role of female to male crossdressers in anime and manga. They tend to play a different than male to female crossdressers, the latter of which we'll probably tackle at a later time. Sara, do you want to start out?
Sara: I made a list of people who came to mind and noticed some similarities in the women who dress as men right away. Most of the women who came to mind—Utena, Oscar, Kino, Haruka from Sailor Moon—are very assertive, almost aggressive women. They seem to dress in men's clothing as a means to signify their confidence. Kind of falling into that old saying "It's a man's world out there." Men's clothing seems to be a way to take charge. I have mixed feelings about this, personally, because while I can understand the purpose of this, and I personally love all of those characters, it seems to imply that the only way to be confident is to be "masculine."
Casey: And also to escape femininity, which is, in the context of Japanese society, very limiting on one's choices. However, I'm not sure that it's just about being masculine. Actually, the ideal seems to be a happy medium between femininity and masculinity—the ideal person has both characteristics. At least that's the case from the female perspective.
Robin: But why must they dress as a man to be able to express both? Other than being in the context of the setting, like Rose of Versailles.
Bamboo: I'm not sure it's about being masculine at all, actually. Think about these women amongst their peers. They're very popular. In fact, most of the tomboys in many anime are popular, whether or not they dress like men. These are the girls who do a zillion sports, who do well in school, and who are strong. You often see their female classmates getting crazy lady crushes on them.
Casey: Right. I think cross-dressing is a reflection of an androgynous ideal. But it's not the only reflection.
Bamboo: Well, there's one thing to note about the case of Utena. She says that she wants to be a prince, doesn't she? It's almost like she wants to exemplify a role that she admires. So in a way, she has such a feminine admiration for a man, that she wants to become him.
Sara: It's an interesting point about Utena. What I find especially interesting about her is her complex relationship with Anthy. She originally dresses as a prince out of admiration, and arguably love, but she ends up as a kind of pillar for Anthy to use as a foundation for her own growth. Utena cares for her more than anybody else.
Casey: I agree. Characters like Sarasa from Basara, and Utena seem to strike a happy medium, as it were, between aggressive, masculine features—especially a willingness to defend the weak—and also the requisite compassion towards the weak.
Sara: Compassion is definitely a trait that binds these characters as well. But like Robin, I wonder: why does it have to be men's clothing?
Bamboo: Well, it's very Joan of Arc. Maybe to be taken seriously, you have to dress like a man.
Casey: Actually, in response to Sara's question earlier, Japanese women's culture loves both female to male characters and male to female characters. The father who crossdresses as a woman appears in several instances and seems to function as both maternal and paternal figure. Besides the dad in Ouran, have any of you read Banana Yoshimoto's Kichen?
Sara: I haven't, but I was going to bring up Haruhi's father.
Casey: Kitchen is about an emotionally troubled female protagonist ends up shacking up with a man and his father-turned-mother. And you get the feeling that this liminal figure provides emotional support that neither an ordinary man nor woman could give.
Sara: In Ouran, though, the relationship between Haruhi and her father strikes me as particularly interesting, considering they both cross-dress for different reasons. Haruhi does it out of necessity, obviously, to stay in the host club, but I feel like the support she offers her father is a reflection of the say she was raised herself: strength, self-reliance and compassion.
Casey: Of course, Haruhi was androgynous even before she takes up actual cross-dressing, though. And it reflects her philosophy on gender, a.k.a. gender shouldn't matter.
Robin: Right. Haruhi to me seems like the type of character who simply does not care much for gender and so she's not necessarily cross-dressing outside of her Host Club persona.

I think another point about cross-dressing is that it is partial fantasy. I think many women would enjoy the experience of stepping in to a man's shoes.

Bamboo: So you think the anime is just a manifestation of that fantasy? A visual addition to just the personality traits?
Robin: Not entirely, but I think that could certainly be an appealing part of it. There is a hint of stepping into another role or alter-ego that has a fantasy appeal, on top of all the gender role stuff.
Casey: I think crossdressing can be both wish-fulfillment fantasy for oneself and for one's companions, actually. An ideal person is an ideal person, whether it is you or your best friend.
Bamboo: Well, I think there's also the "cool factor." Simply put, female readers/viewers may just really love the idea of a cool, strong woman who dresses like a man. When I think of cool characters, I envision not just women who dress like men—but women who dress like men in uniform. Gals like Utena, or Lia from Le Chevalier D'Eon, when she possesses her brother. Actually, come to think of it... I can't think of many female crossdressers who aren't in uniform...
Sara: In one of our past conversations, the Takarazuka Revue was mentioned, and I think it plays into that same "cool" factor.
Casey: Maybe the uniform, whether military or school, has to do with the idea that a man is his vocation? Although, the Japanese are generally bigger fans of uniforms that we Americans are, so perhaps I'm reading too much into it…
Bamboo: Casey, I think you're reading too much into it. My take on it is that uniforms are just plain cool. Ask any woman, and she'll tell you that men in uniform are hot. So it only makes sense that a woman crossdressing as a man in uniform would have that same hot factor.
Casey: I think there may be a loose association because uniforms are common gender markers and more prevalent in Japan. Often, clothes are the marker of gender. I was thinking of Hana-Kimi. Of course, the protagonist wears a boy's uniform, but in a school without uniforms, the story would still work if she wore boy's street clothing. The uniform is mostly incidental to the culture in that case.
Bamboo: I guess because we don't really have school uniforms here, it's different. Here, girls wear pants all the time. If you were in a school setting, and you were wearing pants, aka the male uniform, it would be more obvious.
Sara: Yes. It may just be my indignant American liberalism flaring up, but it bothers me that Japanese school uniforms are so much more gender-oriented.
Robin: I know I would hate wearing a skirt all the time... That reminds me—are there multiple characters who cross dress out of memory of a loved one? Like Nuriko from Fushigi Yuugi. That seems to be another cross-dressing theme in anime.
Casey: Or crossdressing out of necessity--where the character feels obligated to take on a masculine role, as in the case of Sarasa.
Bamboo: Is there such thing as crossdressing out of necessity, though? I mean, unless you were purposely trying to dupe someone.
Casey: Yes. In Basara. Sarasa's brother was supposed to save the world or whatever. But instead, he dies, and Sarasa is forced to disguise herself as him and take up his destiny. They would not accept a woman as a leader.
Bamboo: So then she's duping someone. That's different than feeling obligation to take on a masculine role. Like Mulan.
Casey: Not really. She doesn't intend to dupe anyone for kicks. It's a live or die situation.
Bamboo: Yes, but she's still doing it for the purpose of duping someone, whether or not it's her choice. It's an essential part of the plot. It seems to be one of the popular excuses for having crossdressers—to advance the plot.
Sara: There's also the "Let's set up a zany plot" aspect. Like in Strawberry Eggs.
Robin: It seems to me the zany plot aspect mostly goes for men cross dressing as women stories, though. Maybe because it is deemed sillier for a man to dress as a woman? At least from a Western sense, this could be true.
Bamboo: That's true.... the only time I can think of zany instance of females crossdressing as men is for 5-second gags, like someone donning a mustache for a quick visual gag.
Casey: As far as it being sillier in Western culture for a man to dress up as a woman, I agree. It's fundamentally more ridiculous because it's a power shift downward.
Sara: If clothing represents a power shift, then that would mean women dressing as men represents a power shift upward, and that's what eats at me a little.
Casey: I think you've nailed the tension embodied in women crossdressing as men right on the head. On one hand, they don't really want to be men. But on the other, the only way to escape disempowerment is to assume the trappings of masculinity. Because we really have trouble imagining a world without gender.
Bamboo: Is there a tension though? I mean, maybe to some people. But a lot of women—including the women in the anime themselves—don't sense that tension. In fact they quite love it. They consider those women the cool ones. It goes back to what I said before about the "cool" characters, how the tomboys are usually the most admired ones—even if they're wearing women's clothes.
Sara: I think there is tension for a lot of women. In myself, for sure. It may be different for every person. But there's still that sense of masculinity—I mean, look at the word "tomboy."
Casey: Also, how the character in the series feels is not always the same as how the audience feels. And that goes for virtually every situation, not just crossdressing.
Robin: And those characters are cool, but I think that it's just that the stories themselves don't outright discuss gender and gender roles. Of course it is a part of it, but those characters are just going along with those roles in the story. They're not stopping to say, "Hmm, I must be a man to become stronger or more accepted." While that may not be in the story, I still think Casey's point stands about imbalance in gender and a power-shift for cross dressing is there between the lines.
Bamboo: Has anyone seen Simone? In the anime, everyone in one of the countries is born female. It's not until puberty that they are taken to "the well” or something, and given the choice to switch genders. Some of them change to men for a female that they are in love with. Some of them change to men because all the good jobs are only available to men. But some of them describe it as a very scary time, and some are traumatized when they become men. All the voice actors are still women, so even all the men sound (and still look) like women. The only difference is that they were pants, and occasionally hold wrenches.
Sara: Oh, there's a character like that in They Were 11. Only in that film, the right of manhood has to be "earned" and womanhood is more of a second-class citizen role. In order to become a man, you have to either be firstborn, I believe, or become someone of incredible significance.
Casey: It's important to remember that the author of They Were 11, Hagio Moto, is a Second Wave feminist. There is an overt feminist message in that story. It proposes a world like ours in which masculinity is privileged, and then shows a strong character who ultimately is able to voluntarily refuse participation in that masculine hegemony. Hagio Moto was influenced by Western feminist s.f. writers like Ursula Le Guin.
Sara: Yes, Frol doesn't strike me as the type of character that came from the mind of a guy.
Bamboo: You know, on the flipside, there is the school of thought that women who stay at home hold the real power. Because supposedly they have power over men, so femininity is the real mark of strength. I don't really buy into it, but it does exist. I can't think of the term right now, but in Latin American culture, it's marianismo.
Casey: Yeah, that school of "feminism" is one I often hear coming out of Asia. Sounds like an excuse not to redress inequality to me.
Sara: Yeah, I don't think I buy that. It sounds like more of a spin on stay-home propaganda to me.
Robin: Yes, that reminds me of all the, "She obviously wears the pants of the family" housewife characters you see in anime. The women in Princess Mononoke come to mind, and some of the villagers in Saiunkoku.
Bamboo: Well, in Latin American culture, marianismo touts feminine superiority. And it was started by a woman.
Casey: Latin cultures are also extremely chauvinistic.
Robin: While I agree that it does sound like an excuse not to redress inequality, I still like those headstrong wife characters.
Sara: According to Wiki, marianismo "teaches that women are semi divine, morally superior to and spiritually stronger than men."
Casey: Unfortunately, this isn't just an academic quibble. Post-industrialized, patriarchal nations (Japan, Italy, Spain, Korea, etc.) are all having baby busts. The lack of gender equality is literally killing them. Telling women to stay home clearly hasn't been working for them.
Bamboo: I recall reading somewhere that the baby busts are happening because the women no longer want to stay at home. So they aren't getting married, because the lifestyle no longer appeals to them.
Casey: Something like that. They want kids desperately, but they also want a life and career of their own. And in countries like Japan and Italy, there is no way to have both.
Sara: But aren't these all things that men strive for? I see no reason a couple can't work together on career and family.
Casey: The workforce in Japan is much less flexible. You have a kid, and you're out. Once you're out, it's extremely hard to re-enter the workforce.
Sara: I think any set of ideals that raises one gender above another is counter-intuitive. We should be striving for equality, here.
Bamboo: But in terms of "equality"... we don't exactly have a solid grasp in America as to what that really is, yet. I think women like Hillary Clinton are strong and equal. One of my coworkers thinks women who can wear whatever they want to and take home the "hottie" in the bar are the strong, empowered ones. I almost prefer the anime school of thought, which more closely resembles the Hillary example, with the bitchy Naru types, from Love Hina. If I had to choose between empowerment meaning powersuits and business meetings, versus being a liberated trollop, I'd go for the former. I'd take Utena over some floozy any day.
Casey: Isn't the powersuit a kind of uniform? *laughs* Could be that a woman in the pantsuit would have been crossdressing in another era, but it's just that we don't see it that way anymore. Which, I suppose, is a marked improvement.
Bamboo: Well, okay, let's try to narrow down our focus then and look at what panders to female fans, then. You have two extremes—strong women who dress like men, and then pretty boys who dress like women. Both appeal to female readers—a lot. And almost exclusively, really. I guess you could argue that both are very similar. You have the woman who becomes a man—and the woman... who really is a man.
Casey: Right. Back to the androgynous ideal.
Sara: But there are also characters like Hana from Tokyo Godfathers, who are more genuine.
Bamboo: Is it androgyny that they like, or the masculine ideal?
Casey: I still argue for androgyny, personally, as what is really the appeal for women. But of course that's just my read of the situation.

Robin: I haven't read or seen any anime/manga where a pretty boy character cross dresses to purposely appeal to girls throughout the whole story. Usually it is just a quick gag, like the classmates in Furuba making Yuki wear a dress, or it's a plot point that the cross dress, like Nuriko from FY.
Sara: Androgyny is totally appealing to women, I agree. In both circumstances.
Robin: Could it be that many women don't have as many hang ups about gender as guys do? Just an idea... When you think about it, all of the serious crossdressing stories, and even some of the nonserious ones, are mainly written by female authors.
Casey: There are lots of examples of men dressing up as women in order to win the hearts of women, though, in Western media. Some Like It Hot, Mrs. Doubtfire, Tootsie, etc.
Bamboo: But they're not appealing to women's sexual needs. They're appealing to women's desire to have a female companion. It's like the number of stories where the guy pretends to be the gay best friend.
Sara: But then there's the popularity of "traps" among male fandom.
Bamboo: What the hell is a trap?
Sara: These are characters like Jun, from Happiness!, who are massively popular with guys, totally look like girls, but happen to have male genitalia. Hence the "trap." And Bridget from Guilty Gear.
Casey: I think men crossdressing as women in stuff for guys falls into roughly two types: 1) The boy as object who might as well be a girl (aka Kashimashi) and 2) The boy who gets in closer to the girls by becoming one in order to oogle them (aka Pretty Face). But becoming a friend ends up being a prerequisite to becoming a true romantic partner in those movies.
Bamboo: But that goes back to the duping thing. These girls have to be duped into liking these guys. On the contrary, women don't have to be duped into liking girls who dress like men.
Casey: Well, Bamboo. That's the least generous, most cynical interpretation, isn't it? You might also say that women learned to like the guys after the guys learned to appreciate their feminine sides.
Robin: That could be another reason many girls like cross dressing or feminine boys. I mean, how many girls wish their feminine gay friend, who they can talk like gal pals with, would become ungay for them?
Bamboo: Are there any crossdressing characters that appeal to male fans?
Sara: The trap craze, for sure.
Bamboo: Are "trap" fans generally male? Really? How am I totally not unaware of this fanbase?
Casey: There were a lot of guys who were totally hot for Utena back in the day.
Bamboo: I think it's because Utena isn't a pushover, though. She's strong and awesome, and that's why both men and women love her. And maybe she dresses like a man because she can. And because it's a physical manifestation of her personality.
Robin: I think a lot of guys like girls with masculine qualities after all. Many love a girl who can rough house, eat steak, and are athletic, so it goes as no surprise that cross dressing females could be appealing.
Casey: Umm...Robin, you're talking about Western guys, right? I think Japanese guys these days are more about the moé...
Robin: Er.. you're right. But I was also talking about Western fans. But then again, even in those dating sim games and anime, there is always a "tomboy" masculine girl as one of the archetypes. I never watched/played any of the Sakura Taisen series, but there was a red haired girl who looked like a martial artist that I swore was male when I saw her design.
Casey: In all honesty, by American standards, even the "tomboys" aren't all that boyish, in my honest opinion.
Sara: They still participate in the cooking contests, after all.
Bamboo: They act boyish, though. They have ideal male qualities. They're smart, athletic, kind of aloof. Look at Suzuka from Suzuka. She's even got short hair, even though she's a monster bitch. Of course, now that I think about it... there isn't a single female to male character that I dislike. They're all written to be very likeable characters. Which is more than I can say for some of the female characters out there. It's like the only way to make them awesome, and lift them out of the stupid-female-funk is to make them male.
Casey: Definitely. And, as noted earlier, they tend to be written by other women.
Sara: I totally agree. Even the more "feminine" characters like Haruhi are very down-to-earth.
Bamboo: I think for a future discussion, we need to find someone to talk to us about traps. I'm completely intrigued by this now.

discuss this in the forum (77 posts) |
bookmark/share with:

this article has been modified since it was originally posted; see change history

Chicks On Anime archives

Around The Web