The End

April 22nd, 2010

In my haste to make an exit, I realised I had not brought this blog to a conclusion. I hope you will forgive me.

This blog was started at the beginning of 2008, and it has been a great place to get a lot of stuff out for me regarding manga, anime and other comics with regards to feminism and gender analysis. It’s been over six months since my last post, and while the staff at Girl-Wonder knew of my decision, I had yet to inform my readers. Again, I apologise.

I haven’t stopped writing, of course. It was just hard to write for this blog, when I felt there weren’t many reading. I am starting a new blog, Something Fishy, as part of my personal page, jellyfishattack.org. I’ve written for numerous publications, including The Skinny (Scotland), RAG (Ireland) and, soon, BoLT (Ireland too). I have to thank this blog for helping me get my writing mojo, honing my pop culture critique. I also have to thank you, my few but very dear readers.

However, this blog has ended, and will only remain here as an archive. If you want to follow more of my adventures, make sure to check back on jellyfishattack.org in the coming weeks. Also! There’s my video blog on youtube, username is platypusofdoubt.

Thank you for reading, this is me signing off x

Shining Gundam, the first Trans robot?

August 1st, 2009

(In a spot of guerrilla blogging to keep Trouble afloat, our fearless protagonist finds herself blogging from a queer coffee shop somewhere in southeast Berlin!)

SPOILER NOTICE: This post has spoilers for Mobile Fighter G Gundam, around episodes 23-25. You’ve been warned.

So, robot genders, again. We’ve been down this road before here at Prepare For Trouble HQ, and being a fan of giant robots as I am, it’s one I can’t resist but come back to.

So I’m watching G Gundam, which some of you may know. It takes after Shounen archetypes to a tee, down to not having many female characters, and those who are there are at the service of the male characters, generally as love interests (of note, however, is Natasha, the officer from Neo Russia, who has a degree in badass while not being romantically linked to anyone. But they also show her nude gratuituously, because we can’t have a strong woman without some of that huh?)

Anyway, our post today is about the fact that G Gundam has something we’ve all been waiting for but may have been too scared to truly see: the very first transgender robot. Of course, Gundams don’t seem to have genitalia as far as we know, so we can only tell this from our good friend, Doctor Gender Cues.

See, in episode 24, protagonist Domon Kasshu obtains his new robot, the God Gundam. However, he cannot operate it and needs the data from his previous robot, the Shining Gundam. To accomplish this, his operator and implied romantic interest, Rain Mikamura, remotely controls the Shining Gundam in the middle of a heated battle.

Here is where it becomes interesting. Up to now, Domon’s Shining Gundam has been powerful and almost undefeated, strong and commanding. (Once in a previous episode, Rain had controlled it, but to little effect since we all know Girls Are Weak). Anyway, Rain starts controlling Shining Gundam, and instantly its entire body language changes, something you have to watch the episode to understand I’m afraid.

To wit, the damaged Gundam makes its way to Domon, crawling in a submissive way that belies the female = submissive gender cue. See, G Gundam tends to equate a robot with its pilot, as the robots follow exactly the pilot’s movement. So when Rain, a woman, is controlling it, Shining cannot help BUT be submissive, as a woman ought to be. In its gender, then, the previously powerful (=male) Shining Gundam is now the weak, submissive one in the face of the new powerful (=male) God Gundam. The Gundams join hands to transmit data, and in a touching scene, almost kiss, and then proceed to hold hands. It’s a good thing that they spent the previous minute making the Shining Gundam crawl over in a submissive femmy way, because otherwise, considering how we’ve read the robot so far, the scene would’ve looked very genderfucky, and we cannot have any of that. As it is, it looks heteronormative.

Until you realise the gendered actions of the Shining have changed from Stereotypically Male to Stereotypically Female. Say it with me, Shining Gundam, the first Trans Gundam. Certainly not the last. As a finishing touch, the God Gundam holds the Shining Gundam in its arms, the Shining in a pose that almost looks like both Gundams are newlyweds about to step over the threshold. Yeah! The manly God Gundam with its weak femme partner, the Shining Gundam.

I know you were trying to make us forget the Shining Gundam was masculine only five minutes prior, G Gundam writers. But we trans people, we have longer memories than that. And we know one of our own when we see hir.

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The Day of Revolution

July 17th, 2009

So a few months ago in one of my exploratory phases, the manga “The Day of Revolution” by Mikiyo Tsuda caught my eye. Being a manga fan that lives outside the fandom for the most part, I’d never heard of it before. It’s rather obscure, short, and not particularly great even in its own terms.

A quick summary will show why I picked it up though. Kei is a young high school student, part of a five-piece group of friends who are considered very cool and attractive. However, one day he collapses, and when taken to hospital the reason for his fainting is that he is “genetically a girl” and needs to have unnamed procedures to become a girl, which is what Kei “really” is. Kei changes names to Megumi, and after a time to adapt to her new body, she goes back to school.

What ensues is a ‘hilarious’, and by that I mean utterly predictable and trite, semi-yaoi comedy in which most of Megumi’s male friends totally fall for her. Now that she’s a girl, they are free to confess the crush they had on Megumi before her transition. The story deals with Megumi’s new found popularity and how she wants to just live in peace.

There’s a lot of things that are absolutely damn busted with this scenario, so let’s take it piece by piece.

First and most glaring is the use of intersex conditions an experiences in an appropriative way to favour the plot. The main character’s condition is never specified, nor what procedures are needed or why it’s so obvious to the doctor that Kei is “really a girl”. Now, the caveat here is that stories centered around trans or intersex characters tend to devote an inordinate amount of time and detail in the genital area, especially dealing with surgery. Day of Revolution has the other extreme: this isn’t dealt with at all, nor how this outcome may affect Kei’s relationship with hir body. Because, see, this experience isn’t really important to the author. Hell, Kei is even quite reluctant to live as a girl, but only gets convinced through a contrived storyline centered around hir relationship to hir father, with some added absurd humour. Wow, yeah, because that’s how it works in real life.

No, what the author wants to explore is the ‘hilarious’ situations this causes at school. It’s a different take on the cross-dresser trope found throughout anime: a relatively androgynous character dresses as a girl for some plot reason, and male members of the cast find him attractive.

The other big problem is not only Megumi’s popularity, which runs starkly against the actual social stigma about transitioning in Japan. But not only that, this is some fantasy world in which people find one more attractive for being openly intersex or trans.

I guess a big problem here is my expectations. I did no research on the books except for reading a synopsis of the plot, and I was curious about how it would be dealt with. In my optimistic mind, I was hoping the author had taken time to research the experiences of trans and intersex people in Japan, how they deal with school, and maybe craft a comedy around that. Instead we’re treated to a total fantasy fuelled by yaoi tropes, which is cemented when I read that yes, Tsuda specialises in yaoi. Which is a problematic genre unto itself, quite often.

Also, the fact that the art, while technically correct, was basically identical to CLAMP circa 1999, didn’t help. This means the art looks great. But it looks completely unoriginal.

Also? I’m sure that high school comedy can be done with a situation like this. Do we need the cissexism and the erasure?

(Aside: I am currently reading a book called “Queer Japan”. It’s from 1998, but it’s an amazing read for those, like me, who want to know more about queerness all over the world. In particular, it dispels the myth many manga fans still hold, that homosexuality and queerness are somehow socially acceptable in Japan).

Discuss this post at the forums!

Guest Column: Astro Boy, Now Guaranteed Not To Hit Like A Girl

January 28th, 2009

Last week was dead in the water, but this week we’ve got a treat. The stupendous Avery Dame, part of the board of Girl-Wonder, is guesting, thereby allowing me to gallivant through Europe for another week. Here are hir thoughts on the rather… perplexing changes that have been happening down Remake Lane, when Hollywood meets a venerable Japanese comic icon…

Astro Boy, Now Guaranteed Not to Hit Like a Girl, by Avery Dame

Recently, I was linked to an article on the Hollywood animated movie adaption of Osamu Tezuka’s classic Tetsuwan Atom, known in America as Astro Boy: Astro Boy’s makeover

When [the Tezuka estate] saw the initial designs for Astro Boy in the upcoming computer animated flick, the one thing that the Japanese owners did not fancy was the size of his rear end.

They found it too small.

At first, it seems impossible – a battle over rear ends? Really?

Really. And it’s but one in a line of gender-normative changes applied to the iconic Tezuka character, as I found out. Astro now has less “feminine” eyes, has been aged up to the appropriately rambunctious age of 12, and wears a light blue shirt.

In reading the article, there’s a lot here that can be unpacked –relating Asia to infantilism, the (usual) conflation of femininity as being threatening to masculinity, the hints of gay spandex panic, or how many pounds of salt one should the “unplanned” Caucasian appearance of the new Astro be taken with.

However, I think the element most easily missed is how Astro’s “reimagining” highlights the problematic nature of Western society’s view of childhood—an intensely gendered wonderland trapped within its own idealism. As in the Pinocchio fable, Astro is a child robot, made in the image of Doctor Tenma’s dead son. Astro exemplifies the presumably non-adult, non-jaded innocence of childhood, as well as the complications that can arise in trying to meet black and white childhood expectations with real world prejudices.

Such themes are fairly universal—Pinocchio, after all, originated as an Italian fable—but more importantly, these feelings can exist without any one adult’s moral guidance. The gendered narrative of childhood experience and the products that accompany it, however, originate almost entirely from adults. Adults determine if a child be dressed in pink or blue and create the dividing lines between “girly” dolls and “manly” action figures.

When children gender-police, then, it is solely a learned action; they or their peers must be trained early on by their parents or authority figures to view nonconforming gender expression as bad and then pass these beliefs on. Such children, raised to believe in the necessity of gender policing, grow up to be, among many other jobs, Hollywood movie-making professionals. And though the animation half of Imagi may be based on Hong Kong, Astro Boy is a decidedly Hollywood adaption.

Indeed, it is these professionals who have bought into the Western myth of “childhood” they themselves were fed – boys reenact action shows, and girls have tea parties. Over time, depicting ‘tomboys’ has become acceptable (after all, who wouldn’t want masculinity?), but any expression of femininity in young boys is still stomped out.

Into this space comes new, ‘improved’ Astro. A ‘masculine’ Astro, a ‘heroic’ Astro. Not even Astro’s punching power and rear-mounted machine guns can put aside that threatening hint of visual femininity. Because, after all, feminine boys can’t be heroes. Feminine boys are jokes, things you threaten your friends with, not heroes. And even more, feminine heroes are not marketed to small boys. Boys already don’t want to buy girl action figures, the toy industry tells us, so why would they want to buy a sissy?

If all this seems rather reductionist, I admit it is. Yet even after years of Butler or Bornstein, childhood gender training can be inescapable. When I mentioned to a gender-flexible friend that new Astro had a shirt, he later told me that his first mental image (having never seen the updated Astro design) was of Astro in a blue shirt.

This is, then, a cautionary tale, of the prince who, even though he liked the pink horse best, chose the blue one because he knew it was the only way he could rescue his prince(ss).

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Authorial Intent, That Elusive Foe

January 4th, 2009

(Hi again all.

Sigh.

The last few months have been difficult in real life, hence my protracted absence. In the meantime, I’ve been reading, I’ve been writing, yes. But I haven’t been publishing. It’s almost a year since I got the e-mail that offered me a blogging position here at Girl-Wonder, and it’s about time this blog saw action once again. My promise to you, is that I will be posting more. Perhaps shorter articles, but the show will go on.

This post, however, has taken me a long while. And I’ve chipped away at it again and again. Because it just wouldn’t come out right, and I’d just save the draft and close the window. Only to add, substract a bit more, and then close the window off again, leaving this unpublished for a ridiculous amount of time.

I also missed a few little deadlines I’d set for myself. I wanted this post to be around the time of Coming Out Day, for example. You’ll see why it’s been so difficult for me to write this, and why it’s been so important that it comes out properly. Without further ado…)
In this article I want to discuss authorial intent, and a rather ironic way in which this has intertwined between one of my favourite manga/anime, Saint Seiya, and a very personal process that 2008 saw the beginning of.

Time for full disclosure. I am a card-carrying Saint Seiya fan. A littering of shiny Myth Cloth figures, and a number of comics and DVDs sit in my shelves silently, bearing witness to this fact. Back in 1995, Saint Seiya is what got me started into the whole Anime/Manga mess, along with Sailor Moon and, later, Dragon Ball.

Intent is a rather fascinating creature. Robert Heinlein may have intended for Starship Troopers to show a militarist utopia, but this didn’t prevent its large-screen adaptation from being, basically, a parody of his views.

The author’s intent is always up for debate. Do we dismiss the intent, focusing instead on the impact a work has on the world? Do we focus only on the intent, disregarding the alternate readings and meanings that can be made on the work? Or do we synthesize these, taking all of them into account when analysing said work?

I feel the latter works better sometimes. Because, while I don’t think that Naoko Takeuchi is a queer woman, Sailor Moon is, regardless, a queer icon. Yet there are themes there that are obviously put in the story because of the author’s own intent and interests, that is to say, the story she wants to tell. But today I’m not talking about Sailor Moon. Instead, I’m going to be completely uncharacteristic and talk about… well, I’ll talk about Saint Seiya (known as Knights of the Zodiac in the US and pretty much everywhere else).

With that out of the way, let’s talk Shounen, shall we? Saint Seiya became a worldwide phenomenon adhering, as it did, to a number of staples within entertainment aimed at men. The novelty being, it was in cartoon form. It featured epic wars between men, violence, very little romance, themes of friendship, honour and heroism, and a nice backdrop of somewhat misrepresented Greek mythology to justify it all.

Watching or reading Saint Seiya, the modern, well-informed viewer or reader of the Internet age will, of course, wince. Even for the time, in Japan it was considered a very retro manga. And this shows. It’s simple, in parts I’d say simplistic, and particularly in its manga incarnation, it is very, very macho. Then how come I loved it, never having adhered to that kind of masculinity? How come my friends, girls, queers and other people who were very far from chauvinism, didn’t miss a single episode?

Here is where authorial intent, that elusive foe, comes into play. Masami Kurumada, the manga’s creator, focuses on the theme of the “true man” in most of his stories, and Saint Seiya is no exception. For it is really the story of Seiya, his trials and sacrifices towards becoming a “true” man: honourable, strong, fearless, with no doubt in his heart about his duty to save the world. Kurumada places such an emphasis on the men of his manga, that the few women in it are mostly secondary, relatively weak, and/or ultimately of little relevance to the main action. I’d like to say you could count the female characters in Saint Seiya with one hand, but sadly there’s a grand total of six female characters. And even writing strong characters like the female warrior Shaina, Kurumada stumbles: her resolution as a character is to fall in love with Seiya, and thusly fade non-threateningly into the background.

Now, I’ll admit that many people loved the anime so much, they went to the source material. But it was in the richness of the animated version that many, dare I say most of us founded our fabulous fandom. The manga-to-anime adaptation is more common in Japan than book-to-film would be in the west, and it’s an interesting process. Just like all adaptations, there are jewels and true stinkers. There are times when a manga and an anime are created concurrently, and as such aren’t adaptations of each other but rather different visions (Evangelion, Utena, Brain Powerd, Nadesico, the list goes on). Saint Seiya followed the more traditional route of being adapted into animation with little input from the author (at least until the recent Chapter: Inferno arc, but I won’t go into such detail).

It fell to the anime staff to make something out of Kurumada’s often sparse, blunt manga. His interesting character designs were updated and stylised, in the process mixing shounen sensitivities with shoujo ones. This was both the influence of Michi Himeno, as well as Shingo Araki’s experience in adapting the Shoujo classic, The Rose of Versailles, for animation.

Here’s where I come in. I’ll preface by saying I don’t know how much of an influence Shingo Araki had on the actual writing of the TV show, and the way it handled characterisation. It is also unknown what the input was from Michi Himeno, Araki’s wife and fellow animator, who would take over lead animation duties, giving the characters greater Shoujo stylings.

So, in the anime the characters’ personalities are a bit more strongly delineated than their manga counterparts. Seiya is more headstrong and the butt of many jokes, Hyoga tends to be the foil, the serious angsty one. Shiryu becomes a closer friend of Seiya, and Ikki is… well, he’s still Ikki. Which leaves us with Shun.

The five leads are, indeed, tropelicious. Seiya is the shounen protagonist with a heart of justice, Hyoga is the strong silent one, Shiryu is the mystical one, Ikki is the bad boy, and Shun, who is meant to be the total opposite of his brother, is the girly one.

Shun, the Saint of Andromeda, is a paradox. He represents the constellation of Andromeda, a Goddess. His armour, at the beginning, is pink and female-shaped, which led many early viewers to think Shun was female. He’s depicted as possessing more traditionally ‘female’ traits than some of the female characters, such as the vicious Shaina and the tutoress Marin. He is often chastised by his partners for not being strong enough, for being too merciful, too ‘pure’.

The fact is Shun is simply part of a Japanese stereotype of the strong, feminine male warrior, who is somehow possessed of the female “mystique” while still being deadly (another example would be the villain Seta Soujirou in Rurouni Kenshin). Kurumada’s audience, back then, was the Japanese public, unlike today (when Saint Seiya is primarily a product for export). Shun follows this role down to a tee, where his femininity is, in fact, part of his strength.

And this is all well and good. But when I was 12 years old and delving into this world for the first time, I had little analysis of Japanese culture to inform me of this. And I saw something else.

I saw a character that reflected a part of my reality. While I never looked like a girl, nor tried to, as a kid I tended to shy away from ‘masculine’ activities, mainly meaning sports. Insults about not being ‘man enough’ abounded, which in meaning, if not in tone, were not too dissimilar to the comments made by Shun’s friends about him.

But in Saint Seiya, Shun is not a loser. He is presented as a relatively pathetic character, up until he actually defeats an incredibly powerful enemy all by himself: Pisces Aphrodite, another gender-transgressing warrior. A man who wears lipstick and whose salient features are his cruelty and unparallelled beauty, it is doubtlessly a metaphor for another path that Shun could have chosen. At the last minute, the pacifistic Shun does defeat Aphrodite, and it is revealed that he has had secret powers all along -powers that surpass those of his peers, but which he has never felt compelled to use.

I think I saw a spark there.

There was a place for a boy, who was not a boy. Who had something different about him, which made him stand apart from his peers. But since Shun was in a fantasy, he was accepted for this, because in the end he does wield the male power of violence to defeat an enemy. He just does it differently.

Fast forward to October 2008, then, thirteen years after I first laid eyes on that green haired boy with the chains. And there’s this thing that I know about myself. That I’m certain, and that I want to share with my parents. Because I have a good relationship with them, because I’ve built up my confidence through a series of incredible events I experienced in 2008. Because I love them and I want them to know about a very important part of my life.

So there I was, by sheer coincidence, on Coming Out Day, and I told my parents I was a transsexual girl.

What’s going to happen from now on, I’m not sure. I’m happy that I know who I am. I’m confident in this person who seemed to be buried underneath, occasionally peeking through. And certainly there’s been a lot of things that have helped me get to where I am. But seeing Shun, seeing the boy who was not constrained by what a ‘man’ was, despite being surrounded by a very narrow masculinity, did have something to do with giving me a little spark of confidence.

I’m sure Masami Kurumada never thought of that.

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A call for guests

August 1st, 2008

Astute Troubled readers may have noticed a more haphazard update schedule recently. Once more, I must cite personal reasons and once more, you have to sit there and take it. For, sadly, what’s keeping me away from blogging is a multitude of very personal issues that are a bit too private to share publicly. Just so you know, I am okay. But blogging comics, specially when I’m reading so few new ones, is a bit of a struggle. Oh, there’s stuff in the horizon alright. I plan on doing a follow-up to my Fruits Basket article when that comic finishes publication, for example. I’ve got stuff in the cards about both Macross and Gundam, with a side helping of gushing about The Rose of Versailles and Revolutionnary Girl Utena –something I’m surprised I haven’t gotten around to yet.

There’s still life in the land of Trouble.

But I don’t want this blog to go completely silent due to my personal offline issues. And so, the call is out to guest bloggers. I’ve already personally contacted a couple of people I found through google, interesting authors that have written great stuff on this world wide web of ours. So far I only got one response, but I’m hopeful that it’ll bear fruit.

In the meantime, I put the call to you, dear reader. Have you ever wanted to write a column about gender, trans or queer issues in non-American comics? Ever wanted to elucidate about your nation’s little-known comics output and gender issues associated with it? Just felt like ranting about a particular issue of representation? Or do you know anyone who does?

Now is your chance! I will review all submissions, but I cannot promise all will get published. The terms are simple: write about anything that you think is within the remit of this blog. Write a review, an analysis, comment on a specific issue that bothers you. Just remember it has to be about comics or animation from outside the United States.

Oh, and try not to be better than me at this whole blogging business, will ya? Last thing I want is some brilliant contributor to end up replacing me and getting all the millions of dosh I get for writing in this space*.

Comment on this column at the forums!

*: I don’t get any dosh for writing in this space. Only Zuul.

Troubled Rant #3: Disempowering Figurations

June 13th, 2008

As you may or may not know, I purchase figures from time to time. I limit myself to anime/manga figures, and then I focus almost exclusively on Gundam and Saint Seiya. Why, you ask?

Because I’m sick and tired of not getting the figures I want, that’s why. Allow me to elaborate.

Most Gundam merchandise revolves around robots, which makes sense (too bad I would codify most of these robots as men, eh?). However, because of its popularity, there are now tons of character figures as well, which is a plus. Many great, strong female characters like Haman Karn have got figures, and I’m sure popular ones like Sayla Mass are in the works.

Elsewhere? Not so much. There are a lot of strong female characters in anime. And I’m not talking about niche stuff like Utena (much as I wish there were good statuettes of Utena characters). I’m talking about the mainstream: Sailor Moon, Neon Genesis Evangelion. Goodness, Eva figures… they go from the tasteful-but-boring to the simply outrageous. I love Misato as a character, I find her to be a complex woman (despite certain mysogynist aspects to her portrayal). Misato figures and statuettes are around, though not as much as Rei and Asuka (probably because Misato is ‘old’, ie she’s in her late twenties, but I digress). Now, try and find a statuette that depicts Misato as a strong person, and you will fail utterly. I can think of many scenes in Evangelion where Misato displays her strength of character. But look at the 3D versions of her and it’s always the same, either playful-sexy or weak and sorrowful. That’s not the Misato I spent 26 episodes and 2 films with. Are other people simply seeing a different character? And where, in this deluge of endless scantily-clad, anorexic Reis, is Ritsuko?

It gets worse. As I pointed out, there are no decent-quality figures of almost any Sailor Moon characters (there’s the barbie-like dolls that look little like their animated counterparts, as much fun as they can be). How about The Rose of Versailles, the shoujo manga that was such a furore in the 70s that there is STILL merchandise being produced, and the manga is still being edited again and again in Japan? Nope, no figures of it either, unless you count the terrifying dolls made back in the day. And may I remind you, Versailles was one of these huge cultural phenomenons in Japan, much like Dragon Ball or Rurouni Kenshin would be decades later. Utena figures? Don’t make me laugh, probably way too queer.

How about Saint Seiya? Well, as a story it’s not exactly a paragon of female empowerment (quite the opposite), but it does feature some strong women: Mermaid Thetis, Ophiucus Shaina and Eagle Marin. The celebrated Myth Cloth line has featured, so far, Pandora and Athena, both important characters… yet who are traditionally within what I would call “mystified females”. Thetis, Shaina and Marin are strong warriors, do they get any figures? Nope. I’m sure they’ll be released eventually (the Myth Cloth line is quite complete), but nobody seems to care for now. Maybe I’m the only one whose favourite character was Shaina, a character utterly ruined, by the way, by the necessities of a male-centric plotline…

And you know what gets absolutely on my tits? We all know there isn’t any lack of female anime figurines. But I dare you to look for a figurine of a strong female character who isn’t: a) from a Gundam series or b) distorted to be as hentai-like as possible. Seriously. Before the great current line of RAHDX figures, the last statue of Sayla Mass I saw had changed her quite normal body proportions to that of a hentai female character. To put it simply, strong female characters, it doesn’t matter how popular they are, simply don’t get statuettes or figurations that show their strength. Even the Gundam ones have caveats: Haman Karn, for all her strength, is still ‘evil’; Ayna Sahalin’s statuette is all about the sexy. And I haven’t seen many figures of Emma Sheen or Reccoa Londe, two strong females from Zeta Gundam who, because of their personalities, would be very difficult to realistically show them in porn-like poses.

There is something else to say here too, because what you get for female characters, 9 out of 10 times, is that: a statuette. A fixed piece. The Myth Cloths are amazing figures, one of their main selling points being that you can replicate almost any pose the character ever made. There is a similarly accurate line of Dragon Ball figures, and the same goes for Bleach. But this doesn’t seem to happen with female characters, or female-centric stories: women are fixed statues. They cannot move, indeed they are objects.

I know I sound cranky. I know. I’m just sick of seeing great characters, anime after anime, and realising there’s little recognition for them out there. Someone please prove me wrong!

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Chronicle of a Hiatus Foretold

May 27th, 2008

Dear reader,

I hope this post finds you well. As you can see I’ve been neglecting my blogging duties for a while. Please be assured, it is nothing personal against you. I just have a lot on my plate right now, up until probably the middle of June.

I have something special for you, however. You see, it’s not fair that you’re not getting your fix of troubled anime, manga and European comics just because I’m off doing something silly like having a personal life… So! Today I’ll link you to some seriously awesome blogs and websites that may be of interest to the comicque booke animanga eurocomicque feministe dilettante. To wit:

A Feminist Critique of Animation – Genevieve Petty’s website is where it’s at. While I’ve been here thinking I’m toiling fresh new ground, Petty’s been at it for ages. Her extensive website is chock full of essays, from critiques of specific anime shows, to a breakdown of the Disney mythos, sexuality in cartoons, racism in animation and more.

La Feministe Imaginaire: a feminist’s journey to fantasy and science fiction in modern media – A relatively young blog which offers critiques of fantasy, sci-fi and comic books. Contains the first part of a series on Fushigi Yuugi, which I found quite interesting.

Feminism in Shoujo Manga, an introduction & Feminism in Shoujo Manga: NANA – From the sadly defunct anime blog, Bento Physics, which I have recently discovered. I say sadly because the articles in it are awesome! The series on shoujo manga never went too far, but it contains these two articles which are great reads.

European Comic Art Journal – This is quite interesting, the very first scholarly english-language publication dealing with European comics! I must say I am seriously excited at the prospect of getting my hands on the first issue whenever it becomes available. It goes to show how little attention has been paid to Euro comics if this is the FIRST academic publication of this kind. Of course, it is more than welcome and timely! Luckily for those of us with small pockets, the journal will be available to read online.
I hope you enjoy checking out these links, and I’ll catch you on the flipside.

Regards,

Ariel Silvera

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On the gendering of Giant Robots

May 9th, 2008

SPOILER WARNING: Spoilers for the following shows are discussed: Neon Genesis Evangelion, Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam

Sometimes you step through some sort of dimensional rift. People on the other side don’t have goatees and evil grins, but rather friendly faces in the future. Then you get up, dust yourself off, and wonder where in blazes the last two weeks have gone. Assuming there isn’t an evil editor rewriting my backstory as we speak, let’s just say I ought to shape up, and move swiftly on.

So, about a year and a half ago, I was talking about Beast Wars: Transformers with a work mate of mine. This colleague did not enjoy Beast Wars but was a fan of the original Transformers series. I mentioned that one of my favourite Transformers was Blackarachnia (despite certain problematics I’ll go into later).

“Ah, no,” he said, “that whole deal is stupid.”

“What do you mean,” I asked.

“Her, you know! A female Transformer! Robots don’t have genders!”

“Oh yeah? Then why are all the other robots, both in the old show and Beast Wars, voiced by male actors, treated as males and referred to as hes?”

Silence.

The truth is, giant robots tend to have genders. And this is an issue that began to fascinate me as I explored it more and more, being as I am a giant robot nut. Today I’ll share a few patterns I’ve observed in anime and manga. Generally speaking, western realisations of giant robots are less human, and rely more on the idea of actual machinery (see Mechwarrior for example). Most Japanese productions, on the other hand, present the robot in more humanoid terms.

Frenchy Lunning’s essay in Mechademia volume 2, entitled “Between the Child and the Mecha”, illustrates the reasoning, conscious or no, for the prevalence of giant humanoid robots in japanese animation. (And I feel like I’m about to take a wrong step here, since Lunning is a Ph.D who has done a great amount of anime-related scholarship. Let’s just say I’m prepared to get whipped into oblivion in the comments for misrepresenting her ideas.)

She presents that the mecha is the external expression of the inner desire of the pilot, and how the mecha basically becomes the pilot, representing and iconising him or her. So, let’s go back to the very first piloted mecha, Mazinger Z (known in the United States as Tranzor).

Mazinger is a powerful robot, piloted by brash youth Koji Kabuto. Among Koji’s allies is Sayaka, who pilots Aphrodite-A. Aphrodite is a female mecha in a completely stereotyped way: it’s designed for peace rather than the war-like Mazinger, and despite being made of the same material as Mazinger, it suffers damage much more easily. I suppose I don’t need to add the word ‘essentialism’ here, but I’ll just toss it out there anyway.

After the Super Robot era that Mazinger heralded, giant robot anime evolved into the Real Robot era with Mobile Suit Gundam. The robots in Gundam were still predominantly piloted by men, and followed the same design cues of previous eras, but adding a touch of realism. The Gundam series, by now, has evolved so much that summarizing the gendering of its mecha (and its human cast) would require a whole separate article. However, let’s take a look at the ‘golden age’ of Gundam, during the first few shows of the Universal Century. In Mobile Suit Gundam, there are only two female pilots: Sayla Mass and Lalah Sune. Neither of them pilot humanoid machines, but rather a fighter plane and a “monster of the week” Mobile Armor. Lalah sees herself involved in a star-crossed affair, which would become a series staple. In Lalah, the creators also started another tradition: the mystified female enemy pilot. By mystified, I mean that said pilot is either mystical, bordering on the supernatural (thus ‘othered’) or, in many cases, mentally unstable (thus victimised and ‘othered’).

A perfect example of this is one of the antagonists of the first sequel series, Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam (who becomes the main antagonist of its sequel, Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ). I’m talking about Haman Khan, leader of the Axis Zeon. To provide some background, Khan is a charismatic leader, who finds herself and her faction being pivotal to deciding a civil war. After the civil war ends, Haman’s forces are in prime position to take over the Earth and its Colonies. Khan is a dictator, a powerful, cunning leader, a beautiful woman and an incredibly strong, superhuman pilot. Yet she is female, something that is remarked as “strange” more often than not, as it contradicts the happy essentialism we’ve come to know and love in comics and animation. In any case, Khan pilots the sleek newtype-use Mobile Suit, the Qubeley. Qubeley is unique in its design for many reasons. It is not boxy, and it’s not quite humanoid, for one, contradicting Gundam design principles. In fact, while most robots in Gundam are designed with practicality in mind, Qubeley’s look seems more aesthetic than anything else. Instead of straight lines, we have curves. Instead of primary colour schemes (or military ones), it’s mostly pink, white and purple. Oh yes, and it doesn’t even use conventional weapons. When Qubeley shows up, it is certainly an ‘other’ among mobile suits, and it manifests the ’strange female evil’ idea quite well. The follow-up would see a legion of Qubeleys, piloted by a legion of clones of… a young girl. I don’t think any man has ever piloted a Qubeley in any Gundam story.

(As a side note, while the human mecha in 1982 production Macross are quite realistic and thus relatively neutral, the mecha of the alien Zentradi race is not. The female Zentradi pilots utilise vastly different machines, which are more humanoid but also more stylised and curvy in their design. This is the first instance, in the Real Robot era, of machines being assigned genders on purpose, as it predates Zeta Gundam by three years.)

This segues well into my look at the next bit of mecha history, which is the body of work of Mamoru Nagano. Nagano designed the Qubeley and a few other mecha for Zeta Gundam, with his own unique style. He then went on to create the epic manga The Five Star Stories, which featured more of his sleek, unique designs, many of which are intentionally female-looking. In FSS, the robots tend to have a very close, personal link with their pilots, and can be seen as their will manifest. However, I will leave this for another article, since untangling the complex interactions of gender in FSS is, once more, a story unto itself.

Readers may be surprised to know that giant mecha anime went into decline by the early ’90s. By that point, with the exception of successful series like Macross, Gundam, and Patlabor, the genre was not fertile ground for too many productions, mainly due to its budgetary requirements. As such, innovation in mecha starts to slow down, with the most notable ’90s landmark being Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Evangelion’s mecha are unique, not just because of their design but by the fact that they are not actual mechs. They are basically gigantic cyborgs, mostly organic, the armor there to control the living being that is the Eva unit. I will go on a limb and say that the EVA mechs never felt male to me. There always seemed to be a sort of androgynous quality to them. It is ironic, then, that being Evangelions basically large-scale human clones, they are in fact the least gendered in their design. The film “The End of Evangelion”, however, throws a spanner in the works by clearly defining the EVA-01 as a clone of Lilith, thus female, and the rest of the EVAs as clones of Adam, thus male. As far as I’m aware, this is the first time when a mecha’s sex itself is discussed, albeit indirectly, in an animated series (I believe Mamoru Nagano’s Mortar Headd’s do, in fact, have separate sexes).

This brings us mostly up to date. I admit to not having seen a recent, quite relevant show called Rahxephon. With that exception, however, many mecha anime have not innovated so much in the presentation of the mecha, as they have in writing and story style. Thus, I have not myself witnessed any radical evolution since Evangelion’s take on the subject.

To wrap this up, I’ll just pose a question to you, dear reader. Why this gendering of giant robots? My take on it follows Lunning’s thesis that the mecha are an expression of desire, of the inner will of the pilot. Moreover, the pilot is often an iconised character designed for the audience to relate. Hence why many mecha anime have teenage boys as the pilots: they are, or at least have historically been, the main audience. Which, in turn, gives us a good inkling as to why robots must be gendered: the robot itself is not gendered, but rather its pilot is, and this gendering transfers to the robot in question. Zeta Gundam’s relevant female characters all pilot ’special’ mecha with important symbolism, though not necessarily ones I would gender as ‘female’. In Macross, the Zentradi culture is divided strictly along gender lines, which explains why Zentradi women have differently designed vehicles: they are an expression of their own view of themselves.

The Evangelions, thus, work well with this theory. Their nature is mysterious and ambiguous. Troubled, if I were moved to use that term in all of my posts which I assure you, I am not. The pilots of Evangelion are also deeply troubled, their personalities and desires unresolved and often dubious.

But I’ll tell you what I’m not dubious about. Optimus Prime is a dude. And he leads a race of dudes. Why is that? Because the audience for Transformers was little boys, and we all know that girls are i-ckay!

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Sexual Assault Awareness Month 2008: The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre

April 9th, 2008

[I hope you all enjoyed our site-wide April Fools Fruit/Veg activism. This new reality for G-W.org was a concerted effort by the whole Girl-Wonder team, and I hope you enjoyed it. To find out threads and other stuff that went down during April 1st, check here.]

Apologies for the tardiness, life gets in the way. Today I have just a brief update/catch-up, with a more complete one on the way in the next few days.

I must mention that I did not know that April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. It is not observed here in Europe, which is probably the reason why it was not in my radar at all. For this I apologise, as I have not done enough research to have proper articles prepared for it. I hope my American colleagues and readers will forgive this omission. I simply do not think I can do research on the topic, with all the seriousness and attention it deserves, in such a short stretch of time. Meanwhile, if you want to read a great series of columns on the subject, and how it relates to comics, Rachel’s post links to the columns she wrote for SAAM 2007. Check them out.

In any case, I will urge readers of this blog to get informed, and get involved, and I hope you forgive me if I do not write about comics today. I want to highlight, in this post, the situation of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre here in Ireland.

Sexual assault and Domestic violence were issues which were taboo for a very long time here in Ireland. For example, it was only in 1990 that rape within marriage was made illegal here. The RCC was established in 1979 as a response to this urgent problem and the silence surrounding rape and domestic violence.

The centre offers telephone counselling as well as face-to-face counselling for victims, relatives and loved ones, medical and court accompainment. The RCC do a tremendous job helping out those in need, receiving over 37,000 calls in 2004. I have spoken to volunteers and they have described to me the appalling conditions in which they work. The Irish government provides nominal funding for the organisation, which regularly fails to help cover its costs to the tune of half a million Euro a year. The rest is obtained by the RCC through donations and fundraising events.

During International Women’s Day 2008, I took part in the Feminist Walking Tour of Dublin, organised by Choice Ireland in collaboration with RAG. A volunteer from the RCC addressed a crowd of over a hundred and explained the situation to us in detail. The helplessness in her voice was tangible as she explained how the issue of funding drastically undermined the work done by the RCC. I was close enough to notice the volunteer tear up as she finished her speech. “There’s just not enough money,” she said. This organisation provides an invaluable service, and is permanently at risk of shutting down completely. Yet all the Irish government wants to talk about is the banning of poets from classrooms, or the glorifying of the now deposed Glorious Leader.

Let me be very clear on this. The people who work at the RCC kick ass. They have all my admiration and respect for providing support to people in dire need of it, and for continuing unabated after being shrugged off by the government time and again. If you are outside of Ireland, you can donate. If you’re in Ireland, please attend their fundraising events, or contact them if you think you can help out.

If you want to read about the history of the RCC, you can check out Susan McKay’s Without Fear: 25 Years of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. The book is available from Amazon UK and many Irish booksellers.

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