Reviewby Faye Hopper,
Love Me for Who I Am Volume 1
Mogumo feels as if there is no one in the world who can understand them. They're nonbinary, after all. And in a world composed of binary, cisnormative rules and boundaries, no one seems willing to accept them for who they are. At least, until they met Tetsu Iwaoka. Tetsu works at a maid café staffed by queer folks of all shades and stripes; some crossdressers, some gay people, and even some other trans folks. And he invites Mogumo to join after seeing their desire to be loved. Mogumo is ecstatic, at first. A chance to meet more people like them. Other nonbinary people. None of the other maids are nonbinary, however. And this initially causes some strain, as Mogumo doesn't wish to proclaim themself an ‘otokonoko’ and even the well-meaning Tetsu struggles to grasp the intricacies of nonbinary identity. But love and understanding are a journey. And it is one that Tetsu and the other members of the café are more than willing to venture upon to make Mogumo happy. And Mogumo themself is learning. They are coming to understand the varying complexities of the queer experience, too, and beginning to fall in love with the boy who first showed them kindness and empathy.
Love Me for Who I Am is a series that purports to be about the nonbinary and queer experience. It is, in the marketing and in its core thematic agenda, about queer realties in a way few manga are. But something to note is that the mangaka, Kata Konayama, is not nonbinary . And while this is not an immutable barrier to making great art about the nonbinary experience, it does, for me as a trans person, raise some red flags. In reading the book, these red flags never once lowered. Love Me for Who I Am is not a book that understands or is even interested in depicting queer realities. Instead, it gives short-shrift to the fundamental humanity of LGBT community and erases the complexities of Mogumo's queer life in favor of making their identity solely about their attraction to the cisgender lead and centering the close-minded perspectives of others.
To understand the roots of my issues, however, there are some things you need to know about my identity. I am a nonbinary trans woman. It's an identification I've felt deeply in my heart for years but never really defined. I didn't need to. It simply…felt right. I love femininity. I love wearing dresses, I love wearing makeup, I love being called a girl and wearing my hair long and feeling pretty. But, in moments, I don't totally identify with being a girl. Sometimes, I feel like my identity exists outside the parameters of binary gender. And this is why I am also nonbinary. I am a girl, and I am nonbinary. I am a messy, walking contradiction, and I love it, and it makes me happy.
There are even scenes in this book that reflect the messy, contradictory life I have lived. There's a trans woman in the book. When Mogumo firsts joins the crew of the Maid Café, they are asked to call themselves an ‘otokonoko’, a Japanese label with a lot of shades that, depending on the person, can encompass many different parts of noncisnormative gender presentation. Mogumo resists—they personally do not identify with the term—and ends up in a fight with this girl, who expresses that calling herself an otokonoko is her way of liberation and validation. But in a later scene, it's revealed there's another side to this; Mogumo's defensive reaction made her jealous. Mei, a trans woman, wants to be a girl, and yet feels she's stuck in the role society has assigned. Like she can't escape. When she saw someone else working to assert who they are, it made her lash out. This is something I struggle with in my daily life, too. I'm not out, and often find myself intensely jealous of those who are; able to present themselves as they like and feel like the world, on some level, acknowledges who they are. It leads to a certain defensiveness, a digging in of heels. You come to defend bitterly the things that make you unhappy, the things you hate, because you feel you're stuck with them. It's moments like this that show me, on some level, the series is trying. It is trying to depict queer life in all its complicated specifics, it is trying to be intersectional and about the way people's various and diverse queer experiences slam against each other. In moments, it does succeed.
This problem is that despite this ostensible well-meaning, compassionate agenda, the book does not have real, deep interest in what it is to be nonbinary. Mogumo's perspective is never centered. We never see how their dysphoria manifests, internally, beyond them bucking against the cisnormative labels at the maid café. We never the ways in which their spirit is given new outlets of expression, new ways of being that really and deeply compliment who they are as a person. They're always an outsider in their own story. And though Mogumo is nonbinary, so much of the way the book expresses their identity is solely in binary terms. Tetsu is hung up on the fact that he sees them as a boy, as the gender they were assigned at birth, not really advancing his understanding of nonbinary identities much throughout the volume's course.
Mogumo even expresses a desire to ‘want to be a girl’ so they can be with Tetsu (I don't even know how to unpack all the tropes of ‘my gender exists solely for the cis person I crush on’ rampant in this). We also don't see enough of Mogumo being accepted and loved for who they are. The feelings of the people who aren't them are always emphasized (especially during an extremely uncomfortable subplot where Mogumo's domineering friend fights with Tetsu for total control over their life), they are often forced into situations where they are uncomfortable for the sake of jokes and debatable fetishism (like a scene where the other maids host a dress-up party and force them to try on outfits despite their trepidation), and others not getting, not accepting them is always given far more space and energy than their desire to be who they are. In order for me to really believe this manga cares about the very real, very true and valid lives of nonbinary folks of the world over, I need to see moments where the terrible binaries of the world come crashing down and all there is left is love and appreciation and real, deep empathy. And they're just not here.
Here's the heart of it: who is Mogumo? What drives them? What are their interests outside of wearing dresses and lusting after a certain boy? Why are they nonbinary? What about who they are and the way they relate to the world makes it so that being nonbinary is the truest, most authentic expression of their self? These are not questions the book answers. These are not question the book is interested in. The series does not care about the specific reasons why people are trans, why people find these designations so powerful and freeing. It does not care about reflecting the lived experience of trans people. All the cute and feminine and lush art in the world can't change the fact that this book (a book authored by someone who only discovered the existence of nonbinary people, through a random, haphazard google search, shortly before endeavoring to write it—this is admitted in the author's note) talks about the identification of the central character like it is something that can never be ‘understood’, as if it is something totally alien and foreign that must simply be ‘tolerated’ rather than accepted and loved. It skips past moments of validation in favor moments where they are fetishishtically made uncomfortable, moments where all there is pain and the way the world refuses to accept us; it blots out all the interiority and all the personal, deeply felt reasons for why people are nonbinary for a love triangle oriented around a milquetoast cis-dude lead (a cis dude who is, by the way, the ultimate arbiter of understanding for queer identities and the level-headed mediator between queer people as they clash). For a series called Love Me for Who I Am, it doesn't feel very loving. And as a nonbinary trans woman desperate to see my life and the life of those close to me on the page, accepted and loved and endowed with real humanity, it is maybe the most sad, frustrating thing.
Overall : D
Story : D
Art : B
+ Cute, femme art; has its heart in the right place, sometimes
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