Manga is no stranger to bending the gender roles their characters fill. In fact, it’s a common trope in many manga stories. From androgyny to gender role reversal, several manga series push the limits on what gender entails. Three series in particular, Hana-Kimi, Ouran High School Host Club, and Ranma ½ show how this element can play a central role in telling entertaining and compelling stories.
Hana-Kimi features a female character willingly donning a male persona in order to reach her goal of becoming closer to her idol, high-jumper Izumi Sano. Mizuki’s obsession with Sano is all-consuming. As an American female track-and-field high school student, Mizuki spends her free time reading articles about Sano. In a move only rational to a teenager in love, Mizuki enrolls in Sano’s all-male Japanese high school. With freshly-shorn locks, Mizuki soon realizes that it is more difficult to maintain her manly attitude when face-to-face with the man of her dreams. Sano, however, realizes almost immediately that Mizuki is not a male student, but a strange girl with some hidden reason for attendance at the school.
Mizuki spends most of her time at the school barely hiding her affections for Sano and fending off fellow classmates who are somewhat drawn to her romantically. Sano, probably spurred on by mal chivalry, works hard to protect Mizuki’s image in the school as well as her physical well-being (while most adults are fooled in this series, there are random students who see right through Mizuki’s weak disguise).
Ouran High School Host Club is a romantic comedy about a scholarship student named Haruhi. While looking for a quiet place to study, Haruhi breaks a vase that belongs to the school’s host club. The members of the host club allow Haruhi to make up the cost of the expensive vase by working for the club performing menial tasks. Tamaki, the club’s president and most-requested host, decides to play Professor Henry Higgins and transform Haruhi into a successful host. It is only after Tamaki invests time and money into transforming Haruhi that he realizes that Haruhi is a female student.
Tamaki cannot be blamed for his mistake. When readers are first introduce to Haruhi, her gender is not immediately recognizable. With a short, messy haircut and baggy hand-me-down clothes, Haruhi easily passes for a male student. However, while serving in the host club, Tamaki continually attempts to awaken Haruhi’s feminine nature. Haruhi is pulled by both feminine and masculine forces, yet takes it all in stride.
In Ranma ½, we meet a talented martial artist named Akane. She is young and devoted to her practice. When her father’s old friend Genma arrives to fulfill a promise of engagement to his son, Akane is thrown into one of the most awkward and hilarious romances. Ranma, Genma’s son, turns into a girl when splashed with water. He returns to his original form when hot water is poured on him. Ranma switches back and forth from the male and female form throughout the series to advance his own desires.
Akane, on the other hand, is a classic tomboy character. She despises the idea of being engaged to Ranma – or any guy, for that matter. Though Akane is singularly focused on being a great fighter, boys at her school wish to date her. Because Ranma ½ is a comedy and romance (among other things), Akane and Ranma both fight off many suitors. In this subtle plot point, Takashi is showing that women who embody masculine characteristics are just as desirable and beautiful as women who are more traditionally female. Ranma, on the other hand, rarely embraces his female body. We see instead a boy trapped in a girl’s body who is determined to retain his masculine integrity – unless acting more feminine will get him ahead in life.
There are many, many more manga series out there that use gender bending as a plot device (W Juliet, Tenshi Ja Nai, Boku Ni Natta Watashi, Revolutionary Girl Utena, ½ Prince, Princess Jellyfish, and more!). What is it about gender bending that makes it so appealing in manga? Well, let’s start with two of the basic elements of manga: the wide variety of manga genres and the importance of the female reader to the manga industry.
First, manga is created with multiple audiences in mind. American comics were once made with a wide variety of readers in mind, which allowed for several different genres to garner readers’ interests. But, due to poor research, generalization, and misappropriation of cause-and-effect data, comics were hit hard with public scrutiny. The result is what we see today: an over-emphasis on superhero/science fiction stories with limited emphasis on readers outside the male-aged-18-to-34 bracket. Manga, however, never had restrictions like the Comics Code placed on them. What resulted from the manga explosion in Japan is wide range of genres published for all ages and genders. Try to picture American comics with hundreds of published stories about female characters in high navigating romance. Or adult women dealing with growing up. Or action series with female fighters. Additionally, while comics are considered childish and appropriate for a small subset of readers, manga is ubiquitous in Japanese popular culture. Manga magazines and tankobon (kind of like a trade paperback of a series) can be purchased nearly anywhere in Japan, avoiding the stigma that can be found in American comic book stores.
Pretty difficult to imagine with our current comics culture.
The diverse genres represented in this medium leads directly to the second reason gender bending has a strong space in manga. With such a diversity in genres, stories geared to female readers have freedom to explore a wide variety of topics, including sexuality. For teens, understanding gender roles and developing their own definition of what it means to be male or female is a huge part of growing up. Manga has that ability to offer a safe space for female readers to explore their own gender identity. Goldstein and Phelan (2009) explain why manga draws in female readers from both Japanese- and English-speaking audiences. Hana-Kimi, Ouran High School Host Club, and Ranma ½ all depict romantic situations between (what appears to be on the surface) same-sex couples.
By accepting gender as fluid, readers are aware of the complexities of relationships with other people and can “try on” different roles. Manga that focuses on gender bending romances (and boys’ love!) challenge readers to learn to accept their full identity. Further, homosexual desires are often not seen as the main antagonist in manga; it is, rather, the health of the relationship that is the main focus. In Hana-Kimi, we see some of Mizuki’s male classmates falling in love with her male portrayal. Hardly distressed by the shift in sexuality, one classmate continues to pursue Mizuki with hardly a second thought to the sudden attraction to a fellow male classmate. Tamaki in Ouran never questions his own sexuality when he finds himself attracted to what he believes to be a male student in his host club. It’s only after finding out Haruhi is indeed a woman that he suddenly tries to distance his feelings from her, referring to himself as her “father” and adopting an overly protective relationship with her.
Gender bending also allows for characters to subvert culture and custom to get what they want. Mizuki wants to be close to Sano, Haruhi wants to pay off her debt, and Ranma uses his physical bending to get access to things men typically don’t get. The move between the male and female genders shows an ability to accept the fluidity of gender and broaden readers’ definitions of what it means to be masculine or feminine as well as understanding how these two forces can coexist in one person. Haruhi’s father cross-dresses as a woman upon her mother’s death; this was a choice of his to fulfill a motherly role in Haruhi’s life as well as work in a particular bar. When the members of the host club meet Haruhi’s father for the first time, they seem to immediately understand his life choices. No questions are asked, and he is afforded the same courtesy they give to other adults.
What may be most important to female readers of stories with women gender bending is the ability to find out how the other half lives through vicarious learning. Mizuki is normally an outsider at an all-boys school, just like female readers. With her going undercover, female readers can imagine what it is like to be a member of the opposite sex in a space that they normally cannot access. For Haruhi, we see the inner workings of a host club, and Ranma shows us the positives and negatives of being the wrong gender at the wrong time.
Seems pretty complicated for entertaining stories like Hana-Kimi, Ouran High School Host Club, and Ranma ½. But that’s what makes it brilliant. Showing such themes in popular titles normalizes a looser acceptance of gender. Like representation of minorities in media, representation of exploring gender roles in comedic and compelling ways works to give readers, especially teen readers, a way to safely visualize their own growth to adulthood.
This post was written while watching Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, a great series with fantastic examples of rounded, supporting-role female characters. But that’s another discussion for another day.