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).

Authorial Intent, That Elusive Foe

Hi again all.
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.

Troubled Rant #3: Disempowering Figurations

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!

Chronicle of a Hiatus Foretold

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.
Ariel Silvera
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A call for guests

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

On the gendering of Giant Robots

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?’
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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Troubled Rant #14: The Fruit/Veg Binary

Now, allow me to break blog etiquette (blogiquette?) by talking about an unrelated subject.
My readers may not know this, but I am a committed fruit and vegetable activist. It has come to my attention that in my selfish blogging on gender issues, I have been casting a blind eye towards the plight of fruits and vegetables and their representation in the media. Before I can get into any actual analysis though, I feel it is proper for me to put some definitions on the table. I understand that many people may be unaware of these issues, and I acknowledge that. What you must know, however, is that much of the terminology used in this regard is actually very fluid. Bryce Noah’s seminal work ‘Not You Nor Anybody Else’s Side Salad’(1), for example, has revolutionised the usage of the word ‘legume’. On the other hand, the earlier compilation of Alice Buckman’s works, ‘Tomatos and Peppers United and Other Writings’ (2), provides many terms that are now considered offensive in the Fruit/Veg* community.
The main term that needs discussing is the so-called Fruit/Veg binary, and how it relates to the more well-known idea of a Plantiarchal system. You see, it is in the interest of those in power that Fruits and Vegetables remain as separate categories, in other words, a binary opposition. The definition of one, thus, is meant to completely exclude the other. This benefits a number of powerful agents, and on the day-to-day level, it grants those in the upper echelons of the Plantiarchy power over, and often well above, the common plant. It is, in essence, a hierarchical system of oppression.
What we must come to accept as a society, is that the Fruit and Vegetable binary is a lie, simple as that. There are numerous individuals and institutions which are dedicated to ensure the rigidity of this binary. Moreover, a great deal of hateful and bigoted intellectuals, such as Richard Hunter, whose despicable ‘No Apples in my Salad’ pretty much set back the Fruit/Veg movement 10 years. It is retrograde attitudes like these which must be vehemently opposed.
Hunter’s title speaks volumes about a kind of ignorance that has been allowed to run rampant even in the 21st Century. Someone needs to tell the man about the goddamn Waldorf Salad, for crying out loud.
Binary apologists often refer to the fact that ‘fruit’ is a scientific term, while ‘vegetable’ is a culinary one. As such, the argument goes, they have no place being in the same sentence, let alone the same discussion. However, we can see how this is simply oppressive discourse, aimed at keeping the thinking of alternatives to the binary as impossible to conceive in vocabulary. In common usage, the word ‘plant’ covers both vegetables and fruits, for example. Yet this word is too all-encompassing, and includes many beings that are not edible. The binary is so intrinsic in our understanding of fruits and vegetables that it is almost impossible for us to think in different terms. Luckily, that is beginning to slowly change.
There is only one radical answer activists can give to such a reactionary, binarist view of fruit/veg politics. Shut up.
And there is only one icon we can adopt. One whose plight represents our plight. One which defies the binary conventions as defined by elitist cooks and scientists, lording their privilege over fruits and vegetables, and defining them instead of letting them define themselves.
This icon is the Tomato.
Never has the binary’s oppressive nature been displayed in a more direct way than in society’s dealing with the Tomato plant. Many have attempted to suppress the Tomato’s identity as a fruit, by defining it a vegetable. Maybe some people sleep better at night, knowing their salads have only vegetables, and their fruit salads only fruits. But this is a falsehood, perpetrated by the plantiarchy, which coerces all fruit/veg, not just tomatoes, into buying into a plant identity they may not hold for themselves. Not to mention the 1887 dispute in the United States, regarding the taxation of fruits and vegetables. Leaving aside the horrifying fact of a tax on fruits and vegetables, it was only six years later when the greatest judiciary of that nation, the Supreme Court, reached a verdict. The Tomato was a vegetable based on its use, and that was that.
As an activist and concerned blogger, I cannot sit on the sidelines anymore. From now on, it will be my duty to work to dismantle this oppressive system in my own small way: by analysing the enforcement of the fruit/veg binary in comics, particularly manga, anime and european comics.
Let our Tomato brethren be at the forefront of our fight for fruit/veg justice. Let us not fall into the old pitfalls and stereotypes. Join me for a whole new era for Prepare for Trouble!
*I realise that many members of the community have found Veg used as an offensive term. However, I firmly believe there is a process to reclaim this short form of vegetable, and that we shall wear our Veg credentials proudly. We’re Veg, we’ve got the edge, and we want rights, now!

Akito’s Girl Trouble

[PLEASE NOTE: This post contains spoilers for Fruits Basket, Volume 16 (Chapter 97) and onward. If you want to avoid MAJOR spoilers, do NOT read. This warning will not be repeated.]
One of the few mangas I follow on an on-going basis is Fruits Basket. Part of it is tradition: I watched the anime 6 years ago and loved it, getting into the manga as soon as it started publication. Part of it is its popularity, which renders it relevant due to its huge circulation numbers all over the world. But mostly, it is because I love it to bits, warts and all. It’s an amazing comic despite its (at times numerous) flaws. When the final volume is out in English, I’ll do one or two columns talking about the story as a whole. But not today.
No, today I want to talk about a big curveball thrown at the reader by author Natsuki Takaya. This is something I wanted to talk about because it was published only recently in English (last year) and I find it to be greatly relevant to this blog. Avid Fruits Basket followers know that this big revelation was originally published in 2004. I feel quite out of the loop, as I only found out upon recently picked up the English volume that contained the now-famous Chapter 97.
The audience which has only seen the anime may ignore that the anime was produced in 2002 and covered less than a third of the manga’s completed storyline. As such, large alterations were required to make the animated story cohesive. One of the biggest alterations was done to Akito Sohma, head of the Sohma clan. Akito is a big mystery in the storyline, and as such many details about him were withheld for a long time in the comic. Since the Fruits Basket anime was to be one short season, it was necessary to give the viewer information about Akito based on his characterization in the manga up to that point. An example of this is the revelation in the anime that Akito’s sickliness is due to the Zodiac Curse, and that he will die young because of it. In the manga, on the other hand, this is not the case, and it is heavily implied that Akito’s illness and delicate state are psychological, more than anything.
Then, in volume 16 of the manga, Takaya provides us with more background regarding Akito’s psychological make-up. It is revealed by Kureno Sohma that Akito is, in fact, biologically female. He has been raised as a male, and is male-identified, however.
Oh goodie, thought I, late to the party as usual. However, as of this writing, I have yet to find any thought or analysis of this big revelation, at least from a feminist/gender-aware perspective. I am still in the process of locating friendly feminist anime/manga blogs, I must admit (please leave any handy links in the comments, maybe I didn’t look hard enough). But aside from the academic essays printed in Mechademia, so far I feel like an unconnected island.
Back to the topic, while I have not read past volume 18, so far the plot purpose of this revelation is to highlight Akito’s delicate emotional state, in opposition to his violent outbursts. In fact, when Kureno reveals this secret to Tohru, he emphasizes Akito’s emotional fragility and weakness. Identifying as male allows Akito to present a facade that does not have this ‘female weakness. This is the explicit message.
Akito’s male identity is not voluntary. It has been imposed from above by her mother, who believed ahead of the Sohma clan should not be female, because females are weak (again!). However, her misogyny is not exactly advocated by the text, since she is portrayed as an aggressive, violent, selfish character.
No, my bone is that this is not the first time I have seen gender identity used as a narrative tool to highlight a character’s oppression. Here I recall one of my favorite manga, The Rose of Versailles, which features a similar situation: the main character, Oscar, is raised as a male to satisfy the wishes of her father. While this only comes into play near the end, it is used as a plot device to highlight oppressive forces bearing down on the character. And this is exactly what Akito’s case is: Akito is not only constrained by the curse and his own psychological problems, but he is also constrained by a gender identity that is presented as ‘unnatural’.
Now, I will say here that I believe the aggressive imposition of gender identity on someone is wrong. This is very broad, however, and it includes the way in which many people, dare I say most, are bullied into gender conformity. However, what I see in Fruits Basket is the opposite: someone who is crossing gender barriers is seen as unnatural, with the implication that biological sex is what really matters. Further, any deviation from that is an artificial imposition.
This isn’t the first time Fruits Basket has dealt with the gender binary in such a way, the other case being Ritsu Sohma. Ritsu is male-identified yet dresses as a woman. To recap, Ritsu dresses as a female because he feels inadequate. He feels he is too weak and pathetic to be a man so he… dresses as a woman. Once more, the ‘female=weak’ motif emerges, to my chagrin.
What both of these cases have in common is that they are not representative of the real issues faced by people who do not conform to the gender binary. I admit ignorance on the situation of trans people in Japan. Yet in my experience as a Westerner, these two characters are not representative of trans issues. Rather, transgenderism is being utilized as a blunt tool for characterization, with a number of rather worrying assumptions.
Before writing this, I came across Keith Vincent’s article on Yaoi, entitled ‘A Japanese Electra and her Queer Progeny’ (published in Mechademia vol.2). Vincent cites debates rising from the queer community regarding the portrayal of homosexuality in the manga. An ongoing debate involves Gay activists arguing against yaoi. They feel it does not represent real gay men, but rather a fantastic, idealized notion of them created for women.
Transgenderism in manga seems to be suffering from the same problem, a lack of connection to the reality of these situations. Gender-bending has been used as entertainment for a very, very long time, mostly as comedy. And Fruits Basket has done this, but I am not entirely sure that is necessarily damaging.
However, when it comes to dealing with these issues seriously, Fruits Basket fails due to its lack of realism. This is worrying in a series typically held up for its realistic, complex characters in spite of the slightly fantastic setting. In Fruits Basket, transgender is simply a dramatic plot device and an oppressive, ‘unnatural one’ at that. The ‘female=weak’ motif doesn’t help either. In Fruits Basket’s defense, however, a motif of the story seems to be that everyone is weak. Regardless, time and again the ideas that ‘men are weak despite being men’ and ‘women are strong despite being women’ are driven home.
Finally, the last thing I wanted to point out is the fandom reaction to this, which has been divided. This was to be expected due to wide ignorance regarding trans issues, including the ignorance of the author. While I am sure discerning queer fans read Fruits Basket, the reactions I have seen more often fall into two camps. Camp one regards the plot device as incredibly contrived and unnecessary, and claim that it has ‘ruined’ Akito. I suppose they have never met a female-to-male transgender person if it seems so unrealistic that someone biologically female could be male-identified.
Camp two is equally problematic. In opposition to camp one, they accept the revelation and continue to appreciate Akito as an interesting, complex character. An inclination in this camp has been to refer to Akito as female. ‘After all,’ the reasoning goes, ‘that is her real sex, right?’
Admittedly, talking about the wishes of fictional characters is dodgy at best, tedious at worst. But as far as I have read in the story, despite his troubles, I have not seen Akito wanting to be a woman. This is an issue that most people have problems with when first learning about transgender issues. Something one quickly learns is that what matters is the way an individual identifies themselves. Akito identifies as a male. This is why I still refer to him in such a fashion.
In conclusion, Akito’s reveal highlights the problematic situation of queer representation in Japanese media. The largely male-dominated world of Western comics often chooses to simply pretend transgender, bisexual or homosexual people do not exist. In the Japanese Shoujo tradition, queerness has been co-opted for a number of reasons, sometimes with less-than-optimal results.
I do understand that different people interpret things differently. I spoke before of how queer anime fans in Argentina saw Sailor Moon as very positive. This is despite being as problematic as Yaoi often is, upon deeper analysis. However, I cannot see how a transgender teen reading of Akito’s story can derive a positive message about their own gender identity. And this bothers me to no end.
Identifying these issues made me wince a bit when re-reading some old Furuba books. It happened because I love this comic, dammit. I think Fruits Basket does a lot of things extremely well as a comic and a piece of human drama. Sadly, dealing with queer issues seriously seems to be marked ‘pending’ in the mainstream manga.

Show Respect.

Ideas.doc is getting unwieldy again, so it’s time for another round of shortish, quickfire posts before I take off to attend my best friend’s wedding.
I blew my reading budget this week on the latest Terry Pratchett novel, Making Money, so my comics acquisitions were necessarily somewhat curtailed. In fact, I was planning to pick up only Blue Beetle*, but New X-Men #42 caught my eye. I’ve been meaning to try New X-Men again for a while, because what I’ve seen of Skottie Young’s art made me go ooooh in high-pitched tones, but this was the one that broke me.
First, it had this cover, which is not only kitchsy, beautifully composed and full of personality, but also refers to not one, but two events taking place within the actual comic. I didn’t know that was allowed! Moreover! It also portrays the series’ underlying themes the focus is on mutant kids frequently in physical peril, whether from outside forces or their classmates; the adults are ineffectual after-the-fact caregivers.
Secondly, those of you who have followed the column for a while might recall that I took issue with Sooraya Qadir’s presentation in a butt-hugging so-called ‘burqa’.
Now the butt-hugging is gone! And for superplusgood metacommentary, there was this:
Show respect for your Muslim Afghani girl character by researching and accurately portraying her culturally-charged choice of garments? Why, yes!
Well played, Christopher Yost. I’ll be back for this title next month.

Here Comes The Bride; There Goes The Reader

Pop Quiz!
1) In the middle of a pre-wedding quarrel, my lover implies both that I have been sexually promiscuous and that this is bad. I:
a) Say ‘That was unacceptable. I’m leaving. When I come back we’re going to talk about your issues with my sex life.’
b) Tell them that they’re an asshole and retaliate with a list of their own previous lovers.
c) Say ‘Oh, fuck YOU, the wedding’s off!’
d) Hit them in the face.
2) When my spouse-to-be, who is a trained martial artist, hits me in the face during an argument, I:
a) Stare at them in the shock of betrayed trust.
b) Hit back.
c) Walk out and call the cops.
d) Kiss them passionately and start tearing off my clothes.
3) An appropriate pet name for my bride-to-be is:
a) ‘Darling.’
b) ‘Sweetheart.’
c) ‘Cutie-Tootie-Honey-Bear.’
d) ‘Bridezilla.’
4) If my lover is raped, this means they:
a) Have been raped.
b) Have been raped.
c) Have been raped.
d) Betrayed me!
If you answered D to all four questions, congratulations! You too are ready to join Oliver Queen and Dinah Lance in the wedding of the century!
I have no idea where to start with the multiple sexist horrors of the Green Arrow/Black Canary Wedding Special, so I’ll start with something good.
In the big fight scene Lois Lane attacks Black Spider with knuckledusters and mace, and it is awesome.
Also, the art of Amanda Conner and Paul Mounts is fantastic. Why, even the panel where Lady Shado is raping Ollie is beautiful! Ollie’s confused delirium is wonderfully rendered through his pained and sweaty face!
Of course, the panel is captioned ‘[Days filled] with betrayal.’
It is vaguely possibly that writer Judd Winick is here referring to Shado betraying Ollie, not Ollie betraying Dinah. If so, it’s an extremely opaque description of a moment that shouldn’t be opaque at all. And I feel that I’ve said enough about why Shado (now canonically!) raping Ollie being characterized as a betrayal on his part is massively misandrist and misogynistic, so I’ll leave that there.
Violence within a relationship! It’s so hot! As long as you’re a woman doing it to a man, or possibly another woman, of course.
You see, everything women do has to be sexy, or what’s the point? That’s why ‘You’re so cute when you’re mad,’ is a compliment to a woman, not an attempt to dismiss her rage. What’s really important isn’t what she’s furious about, but how attractive she looks while she’s angry!
Thus, a woman striking her fiancé is foreplay, and not, say, an act of abuse compounded by the fact that she has been trained to kill people with her bare hands.
Thirdly, while I shan’t spoil the ending, I will say that having a martial artist who has avoided killing people she hates under very trying circumstances suddenly become incompetent at the speed of plot is incredibly feeble writing.
Honestly, the pragmatic counter-argument has never held much weight with me. If someone tells me that something sexist sells, my response isn’t ‘Oh, that’s okay then!’ but ‘So what?’ DC’s job is to make money from their product mine is to criticize that product when it’s blatantly offensive.
But since that is their job, I cannot, for the life of me, work out their reasoning here.
If the idea is that canceling Green Arrow and making it Green Arrow/ Black Canary will bring Canary-fans to prop up Green Arrow‘s failing fanbase, then surely the Canary that shows up should be familiar to those fans? It’s not pandering to keep the strong, decent woman of Dinah’s showcase title, Birds of Prey. It’s good business sense.
I don’t know about anyone else, but this abusive, incompetent impostor has actually driven me away from a title I liked a lot. Sorry, Canary. Sorry, Arrow-clan. I’m done.