An Introduction to The Ideas of Gender Bender Manga

Sylvia
14 min readFeb 23, 2021
Magical Trans! Chapter 9

As a trans person, I’ve always been intrigued by the themes of gender bender manga. This is in spite of the fact that gender bender can be quite an elusive category. Manga with themes of gender transgression and bodily change are by no means uncommon, and fans are numerous; the massive success and cultural dominance of series like Ouran High School Host Club and Kimi No Na Wa attest to this. Fans of anime and manga — often already marginalized, subcultural, and gender non-conforming in their lives outside of anime and manga — seem to be more receptive to these themes than the average “nerd”¹ in western popular culture. Western fans that are unfamiliar with Japan’s history and norms regarding gender may underestimate how rich and complex this history is. This makes the task of analyzing gender themed anime and manga even more convoluted, often lost in translation and subject to western preconceptions of a “weird”² and yet conservative Japanese culture. I intend to address many of these complexities as this blog continues on, especially the limitations of our own western episteme. For now though, I thought I should start with a discussion of gender theory and how it can be applied to these depictions in manga.

Magical Trans! Chapter 4.

Many of us, I am sure, are at least vaguely familiar with theories of gender from the likes of Michel Foucault or Judith Butler. I must emphasize that it is extremely useful to understand these frames as they often inform the default assumptions people have regarding norms of gender, and how that can affect how one interprets art. Butler’s performativity thesis³ is most notable among these, in which it is theorized that gender is constructed not through any sort of biological imperatives or even social constructions regarding our interpretations of sex — as is a popular talking point among progressives currently — but instead is constituted through a sequence of daily acts or “performances”. Gender is not a transcendental category, but is instead constituted through these social interactions, and therefore the categories of “Male”, “Female”, and even “Sex” are products of acts within a broader culture. Putting it in a way that can easily be seen to constitute the struggles of characters in gender bender manga, Butler says

“Identifying with a gender under contemporary regimes of power involves identifying with a set of norms that are and are not realizable, and whose power and status precede the identifications by which they are insistently approximated. This “being a man” and this “being a woman” are internally unstable affairs.”⁴

For this reason, I consider a strict definition of gender to be nearly impossible, and for the purposes of this project unnecessary. I intend instead to look at how elaborations of gender within Japanese manga can give us insight to the roles gender plays and influences it has on daily life, both in Japan and in general human society. I will be using several different frameworks and texts on gender intermittently only as a tool to help elucidate these influences.

Magical Trans! Chapter 8.

Discussion of genre is another thorny issue, as gender bender is not really a genre in the colloquial sense (or at least as unstable a category as any genre is), but rather a theme that is expressed in different contexts and settings. There does seem to be some continuity of gender bender narratives within genres such as school dramas⁵ as well as urban fantasy. I will write from the standpoint that what people refer to as gender bender manga can be distinguished from manga with other forms of transgressive gender expression by the privileged position the body takes within the narrative. Anyone familiar with it will recall the titular⁶ moment early in the narrative after a bodily transformation has occurred and the character becomes aware of it; this is common enough that I have dubbed it the “Mirror Moment”. Defining moments like this comprise narrative structures that are considered by some to make up a genre of gender bender. We can therefore consider the label “gender bender” (as well as related terms such as gender swap, rule63, etc) as being constituted by the physical change of the body, the change from what is considered one “sex”⁷ to another. This typically involves a young character with a male-sexed body that transforms into a female-sexed body due to circumstances that vary widely. In contrast to crossdressing or transgender themed manga, in which more abstract or fluid transgressions occur, gender bender presents the body as focal, and therefore a biopolitics⁸ of gender and the unique questions that sex in these stories can be more easily discussed. Given the ambiguity of genre and the variety of situations these transformations find themselves in manga, I figured it would be more clear to present themes, struggles, or situations that are commonly found in gender bender manga. I have identified the most notable of these as follows:

  1. Masculinity and Insecurity
  2. The “Mirror Moment”
  3. Learning The Gendered Performance/Gendered Perception vs. Gender Identity
  4. Gender and Access to Gendered Spaces
  5. Heteronormativity and Assumptions about Gender, Sexuality, and Biology.
  6. The Problem of Identification.

All of these could have book-length blog posts written on them, so I will try to be brief so as just to introduce what I will be writing about on this blog at a later date.

Masculinity and Insecurity

Boku Girl, Chapter 1

With the popularization and to some degree memeification of the term “toxic masculinity” in recent years online, it has become increasingly clear that an integral part of the construction of masculinity is a certain level of insecurity. It now comes as no surprise that what is colloquially known as “toxic masculinity”, as well as more broad masculine insecurities, are extremely common in manga. In gender bender manga in particular, insecurities about masculinity are often used as a backdrop for gender bender stories before the transformation. In Sugito Akira’s Boku Girl, for instance, the main character Mizuki struggles greatly with insecurities about “his”⁹ outwardly feminine appearance, often being asked out by men after being “mistaken” for a girl¹⁰. Similarly, in perhaps the most famous gender bender manga Ranma ½, Ranma often feels the need to prove his masculinity in increasingly outlandish and dangerous ways. It was a reckless demonstration of masculinity through martial prowess that lead him to fall into, as it were, his gender bending problem in the first place¹¹.

Ranma 1/2, Chapter 2

Given how masculine ideals are generally unachievable, often in a way that puts characters in states of physical or emotional harm simply by pursuing them, this could be considered the first “gender trouble” of gender bender manga. Thus the insecurities and troubles of the masculine and “being a man” often serve to set up the central question of gender bender narratives: How would your insecurities about masculinity change if you were perceived as a woman, and your body was gendered female?

Idol Pretender, Chapter 1

The “Mirror Moment”

Tensei Pandemic, Chapter 1. (MagiTrans censor lol. I’m not sure what Medium’s policy on nudity is but I’m not going to risk it.)

Much discussion about gender involves how gender is brought about through subjectification, or the process by which we become gendered subjects. One of the most influential theories of subjectivity is Lacan’s “Mirror Stage”¹², in which a child sees itself in the mirror and recognizes itself as a true subject, a person, a self, for the first time. This is why I have decided to call the most notable moment of subjectification in gender bender manga the “Mirror Moment”. The “Mirror Moment” is when the character recognizes that a bodily change has occurred for the first time, and that they now possess a body that no longer aligns with what is typically associated with their gender identity. The difference between this and Lacan’s “Mirror Stage” is that the character has already become a gendered subject in a certain way, and therefore has this subjectivity turned on its head by the image of a body that does not accompany it. In these stories, this usually manifests as a male-bodied, male-subjected person encountering that they now are female-bodied, and therefore this male subjectivity is cast into disarray. This is usually accompanied by the familiarly delectable exclamations: “I turned into a girl?!”, “I have boobs!”, “My dick is gone!”, etc.

Boku Girl, Chapter 1 (MagiTrans censor again)

Relearning Gendered Performance

Idol Pretender, Chapter 1

After the initial change has occurred, a character must then undergo a relearning of how to perform gender that their new body aligns with. This usually results in a extremely gender-normative and cis-normative activity of learning how to wear women’s clothing¹³, using women’s hairstyles, adopting women’s mannerisms (this is more common in narratives where the change is being kept secret), going to the bathroom in both the “right” side of the restroom (as well as with new genitalia), and taking adequate safety precautions (taking public transit, walking home at night, etc). The relevance of performativity and gendered acts is often blatantly apparent, as many of the missteps the protagonists make are rather mundane, and it is not made clear that they are gendered acts until a transgression has taken place. Most notably this manifests as using the japanese masculine first person pronoun “boku” or “ore” instead of the more neutral “watashi” or feminine “atashi”.

Idol Pretender, Chapter 1. TLN from Vexed Scans.

This demonstrates that gender is not a static state of being but rather something that must continually reproduce itself through mundane acts and performances. Moreover, the juxtaposition of the physical changes to the body of the protagonist with their gender identity and the socialization that accompanies it underlines how such acts bind themselves to the body in the social consciousness, and they are often a source of comedy for the rest of the cast¹⁴ ¹⁵.

Magical Trans!, Chapter 9

Access to Gendered Spaces

Balance Policy, Chapter 4.

The exclusivity of women’s spaces has always been a topic of great controversy in queer discourse, and unfortunately portrayals in gender bender manga take this at face value. Though the great majority of protagonists are embarrassed and take measures to be respectful of women’s privacy when they are forced into these spaces, there is an underlying layer of the inevitability of the male gaze (or sometimes even lesbian gaze) to objectify and prey on women when given access. The thematics of this are often straightforward: heteronormative predatory male libido is accepted as a default, with only protaganists’ pride holding them back — or sometimes not. But whether or not we accept the narrative of the male gaze in these spaces, it still calls into question the stability of their rules. In many manga identities are in flux, and temporal elements blur the ethics of space access. At one point, it may be a transgression, as the “bended” identifies as male, but then later on they may identify as female¹⁶. The question then shifts from whether one has access to feminine spaces to what one does in these feminine spaces, what gendered roles are performed, what taboos are transgressed, and what sexualities are expressed. For example, in Idol Pretender, protagonist Chinami is forced to use the bath with their crush, and feels guilty about it because they consider their male sexuality still intact, and are therefore still performing male sexuality and social norms (averting their eyes, trying not to think “impure thoughts”, etc), despite the fact that their body is outwardly female and their crush in no way uncomfortable with them being there¹⁷.

Idol Pretender, Chapter 5.

Heteronormative Assumptions About Sex and Biology

Boku Girl, Chapter 18.

How one’s sexuality relates to their identity is no doubt plagued with heteronormative assumptions. In gender bender manga, this manifests as a marked change in the sexuality of a character accompanying the change in their biology. Often attributed to dubious biological claims, characters who once were male heterosexuals shift to female heterosexuals¹⁸. Heterosexual relationships are priveleged as the “norm”, whereas homosexuality remains a rather distant alternative. There is even a sense of inevitability as the characters struggle through a process of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and ultimately, cisheteronormative acceptance. Butler asks the question of the Lacanian framework:

“Can gender complexity and dissonance be accounted for by the multiplication and convergence of a variety of culturally dissonant identifications? Or is all identification constructed through the exclusion of a sexuality that puts those identifications into question?”¹⁹

In the case of “Gender Bender” manga, narratives draw more from the latter postulation. Character’s gender and sexuality is continuously interpreted and reinterpreted through the heterosexual matrix, the present state of things haunted by the preceding male homosexuality and forthcoming female homosexuality. Thus these options are excluded entirely, otherwise the framework would cease to function²⁰.

Otoko Tomodachi Girl, Chapter 2.

The Problem of Identification

Idol Pretender, Chapter 8.

We come then to the problem of identification. Butler’s words in the introduction of this post pose the root of identification, that is the impossibility of actually achieving all of what goes along with “being man” and “being woman”²¹. The actions of characters taken in “Gender Bender” narratives can be seen as attempts by them to reaffirm and reclaim their gender identity from the jaws of identification, to varying results. The first question asked once a protagonist becomes immersed within these gender troubles is “Am I ok like this? Am I ok with being a girl?”. This is of course an impossible question, as “being a girl” is not so simple as identification²². Protagonists deal with these questions in different ways (which will be explored in later posts), but most narratives are unfortunately cisheternormative. Identification is taken to be a simple process of aligning mind and body, and that “identifying” as a girl is made easier and accessible to them due to the changes in their body. This can be contrasted with the often conflicting views these narratives have on actual trans women and gender transgressive men — Boku Girl’s unfortunate first chapter comes to mind (see below)— often ridiculing their presentations and portraying them as perverts²³. The second question asked, after the protagonist is more “stable” in their identity and has aligned their so-called mind and body, is if they were ever a boy in the first place. This question leaves these narratives more open to a straightforward queer interpretation²⁴, but there is no clear way that narratives answer it, and so the contrast between the “before” and “after” of gender identity is put into continual contradiction.

Boku Girl, Chapter 1.

And So On And So On…

Magical Trans!, Chapter 23

Questions about gender are very complicated and very personal. But it is this very fact that makes them so compelling. Witnessing these characters continually struggle with questions of gender and, for better or for worse, coming to grips with their own identities and bodies can give us insight into how modern society deals with the same questions. Even if these narratives provide a kind of “default” interpretation that ultimately falls back into cisheteronormative assumptions, they can give us an initial breaking point in the discourse. What if one day you woke up and your body wasn’t you? What if your identity was in continual conflict with your flesh? How essential is this division between body and mind, between gender and sex, identity and corporality? These are all questions that were asked far before “Gender Bender” manga. And that is exactly what I hope to do with this blog, to continue the legacy of gender trouble and the struggle against gender normativity. Because by nature of already being gendered subjects, we are all already the victims of “Gender Bender”, whether we like it or not.

Tensei Pandemic, Chapter 47.

Endnotes:

  1. sic
  2. See the “weird japan” phenomena
  3. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble. Routledge 1990.
  4. Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter. Routledge 1993. pg 126.
  5. Often “ecchi”
  6. Pun intended
  7. I don’t think biological sex in this sense is a coherent concept, but I’ll get into how this view affects the viewpoints of different manga later.
  8. À la Michel Foucault
  9. Pronouns present a problem in this instance, because Japan doesn’t use third person gendered pronouns, and (SPOILERS) Miyuki’s gender identity changes throughout the course of the manga. I decided it would be best to use male pronouns in this instance to better showcase how she identified as male at the time that these insecurities were plaguing her.
  10. Sugito Akira, Boku Girl, Chapter 1
  11. Rumiko Takahashi, Ranma ½, Chapter 2
  12. Jacques Lacan, Écrits: A Selection, translated by Alan Sheridan, Tavistock/Routledge, 1977. p1–7
  13. In my opinion, too many rely on the trope of not wearing a bra as a setup for their unfunny raunchy jokes (not Magical Trans! though, I will defend this manga to the death).
  14. Gap moe!
  15. For more information specifically on Boku Girl and performativity, watch Pause and Select’s video Per Performativity Part 1: Boku Girl and the Anxious Body, a video to which this entire project owes a great deal.
  16. [SPOILERS] In both Boku Girl (Akira Sugito) and Idol Pretender (Hiroki Haruse), the protagonist’s gender identity changes from male to female by the end of the manga. Initially they feel as if they are transgressing boundaries by being forced to enter women’s spaces such as bath houses, restrooms, or changing rooms, but retrospectively these would not be transgressions. This both raises questions about the spaces themselves (why we feel we need to limit access to these spaces in the first place) as well as the temporality of gender identity. There seem to be two competing narratives among trans people in regards to these questions: there is first the camp that sees themselves as always being of the gender they transitioned to, and others who consider themselves born one gender and later changing to the other. As we can see here, neither of these are quite as clear cut as they seem.
  17. Haruse Hiroki, Idol Pretender, Chapter 5.
  18. [SPOILERS] This happens in both the previously mentioned Boku Girl by Akira Sugito and Idol Pretender by Hiroki Haruse, though both of these manga at least address the contradiction by letting their characters struggle with this change. In some cases they embrace homosexual alternatives, such as in [SPOILERS] Kashimashi: Girl Meets Girl by Satoru Aakahori and Yukimaru Katsura. Nevertheless, the great majority of “Gender Bender” manga that have conclusive romantic relationships are heterosexual.
  19. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, page 89. Routledge 2006.
  20. [Spoilers] This happens fairly explicitly in both Boku Girl and Idol Pretender. A much deeper analysis of this could be made, but not without extensive spoilers, so I have decided to leave it to a later post.
  21. Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter, pg 126. Routledge 2006.
  22. I know this is a contentious point among trans people, as many trans people consider the complication of the process of identification as a sort of invalidation of their gender identity, saying that it isn’t up to them but some nebulous social force. Neither Butler nor I mean for this, and as a trans woman I am in no way saying that trans people cannot choose their gender identity. I am simply saying that the process is by no means simple.
  23. The presentation of Yamada V. Nanatarou in Boku Girl is a notable example of this.
  24. Whether a trans person was always the gender they identify with now, or if it changed when they realize they are trans and transition, is a controversial question in queer communities. I am not presenting an opinion on it as such in this post, only examining how the texts seem to deal with it.

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