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

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).