The Gender Bender Conumdrum

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Notice: I will be talking about several media involving sexual themes and transphobic elements.

I distinctly remember the first time I read about an explicitly trans character. It was Dan Brown’s 2003 novel The Da Vinci Code. It was the first “adult” book I ever read, with mentions of violence and sex surprising a young me. At one point the hero Robert Langdon, who is on the run from various evil forces passes through a park in a taxi cab. Brown makes special mention of the various sex workers coming up to the taxi to proposition him.The last one is described as “a beautiful woman until lifting her skirt to reveal that she’s not a woman at all.” At this point Robert sinks into his seat both scared and disgusted. It left an impact even if I didn’t know I was trans at the time. It painted a picture of revulsion and fear that stuck with me. I’ll never forget it.

So it’s really interesting to me that I remember my first gender bender in fiction in a mostly positive light. It was Ranma ½ by famed manga author Rumiko Takahashi. It’s the story of a boy who fell into a cursed spring which means that he’ll now turn into a busty woman whenever hit with cold water and will turn back when hit with hot water. It’s a cross between a martial arts story, a rom-com, and a sex comedy with no sex.

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I found the series in my middle school’s library, where I would spend my lunches. Hidden among all these innocent kid’s manga was this series with its raunchy jokes, its nudity and its new ideas. I didn’t know what “transgender“ was at the time. I did have thoughts of wanting to be a girl, thoughts I believed to be common among boys until I brought it up during a late night hangout and was promptly laughed at for. Ranma was not only a killer comedy for me to read in between classes, it became an obsession that was focused on my biggest problem with the series. Why did Ranma ever want to go back to being a boy?

When dealing with fiction that deals with the gender bender trope (a usually magical change of a character’s gender in a very binary way) the idea of regret and shame is often built into the premise. The overarching goal of Ranma 1/2 is getting rid of the curse so that he can be in his masculine body forever. Anytime spent in the more femme form is seen as embarrassing and shameful. Ranma refers to the hatred of his femme body several times. Of course the worst thing is that his feminine form may lead to him dating a man. Despite being a escapist fantasy where I could place myself in Ranma’s shoes and imagine being able to become the girl I wanted to be at any time it also amplified my feelings of shame.

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A series I found a few years later gave me more of the escapism I wanted. Kashimashi: Girl Meets Girl has just about the same level of ridiculousness to get it’s formally guy protagonist looking like a cute girl. After getting dumped by their girlfriend they walk into the mountains to regain their footing and end up getting hit by a spaceship, having their body destroyed and then put together with a few accidental mistakes. Hijinks, as always, ensue after the ex and the childhood best friend both fall for her.

Kashimashi is a romantic comedy but it’s willing to tackle it’s subject material. Main character Hazumu is seen as being more at ease after the accident. She finally feels like a lot of things about her make sense. Even the heteronormative elements of society are addressed as Hazumu wonders if she has to like boys now, despite her past and current feelings for the women around her. The accident, unlike with Ranma 1/2, is framed as the best thing that could happen to her.

The key word still is accident. Both these works were based around an accidental change happening to the main character. In my wish fulfillment this removed me from having to think of my own thoughts on the matter and society’s reaction to my choice. If I became a girl due to something out of my control then obviously I would just have to roll with it and everyone would nod their heads at how I’m rolling with the bad hand I was dealt.

By that time in my life I was also reading multiple gender bender based webcomics. From The Wotch to El Goonish Shive these ran the gauntlet of various levels of quality and reasons for change. Sometimes due to punishment and sometimes due to the character wanting to look different that day. That last one was an obvious next step for my self realization. That wanting to be a girl was not just something that you could want, but something that you could then seek out.

El Goonish Shive is the only one of these I’ve kept an eye on and it seems to be doing well.

El Goonish Shive is the only one of these I’ve kept an eye on and it seems to be doing well.

The problem still, and the problem with gender benders for me in general, is the fact that all these changes were still framed in the fantastical. It was a magic pond or ray gun doing the changing. It was easier to leap into a world of instant change then to take the hard first step in real life. If I had seen a better trans character growing up would I have gotten the courage to come out earlier? Would it seem easier to take that first step? I don’t know the answer to that and while I do lie awake at night sometimes wondering it won’t do me any good now.

I did take that first step eventually and I’m much happier now.

So I have a weird relationship with gender bender fiction. It was a vital way for me to explore my own feelings on my gender. It was also a crutch. A way to brush off those feelings when I became afraid of what I had found. I find it easier to read the fiction of trans authors such as Alex Zandra who re-contextualize those fantasies as ways to explore trans identity in a healthier but still indulgent and escapist way.

I will always have a spot soft for the trashier elements I enjoyed as a teen. No longer about the removal of agency from my transformation I now read them through a frame of allegory to my own experiences (many of which happened as I read them). The instant transformation not being a way around the scariness of coming out but instead a way for the body to match the mind’s realization. Hazumu was always a girl and she was just given a push into the deep end. That scariness and excitement of the fictional character’s new body can match my own feelings of finally coming out. Escapism becomes metaphor and connects on an even deeper level with me.