Gender Bender Shoujo Manga: Gender as Social Construct and Performance

Kornfield, S. (2011) . Cross-cultural cross-dressing: Japanese graphic novels perform gender in U.S. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 28(3), 213-229.

ABSTRACT: Cross-dressing, a comedic staple in Western entertainment, usually transgresses and then reasserts gender norms, offering audiences an escapist fantasy that resolves into a happy affirmation of current social norms. However, a newly popular genre of girls’ comics features cross-dressing protagonists who push the boundaries of traditional cross-dressing comedy. Moving beyond short-lived cross-dressing escapades, these new protagonists occupy the pages of Japanese graphic novels known as Gender Benders and conscientiously negotiate gender identities and norms — literally bending gender as a category. This genre is marketed exclusively to girls and young women who have formed fan subcultures. Exploring these narratives and their representations of gender, crossdressing, and sexuality, I analyze this Gender Bender genre and its cultural histories and influences, arguing that cultural entertainment hybridity, while risking cultural fetishism, can positively influence gender conceptualizations by revealing gender as a performance.

Yes, this is something new (and different, I hope). I figured that while I still have university access to all these journal articles and publications relating to anime & manga, why not write about them here. After all, without being too pretentious and inflated, I try to write posts that are inquisitive or introspective. I’ve found that reading scholarly material on these same topics challenges and encourages me to think even more critically. While most anime and manga bloggers already practice watching/reading with a critical eye to the text, I’m still curious about the topics and approaches that academics have taken.

Professor Kornfield uses three shoujo manga series, namely Hana-Kimi, W Juliet, and Ouran High School Host Club, as examples of narratives where gender is explored as a socially constructed identity through gender bending. She then contrasts the difference between the Japanese and US depictions of gender bending, with emphasis on the gender bending as a performative act in both cultures.

Reading her elaboration and description of the tradition of gender bending in Japan was quite eye-opening. She describes how kabuki theater was originally a female performative space, and how it changed to a male performative space even during the Edo period. The male kabuki performers who performed exclusively female roles (known as onnagata) were the precursors of the gender bending tradition in Japanese entertainment.

The author brings up the point that while the main characters of these manga series do gender bend (primarily through cross-dressing), this behavior only serves to emphasize their biological gender. Makoto, Ito, Haruhi, and Mizuki are all perfectly happy with the sex and gender that they were born with; they cross-dress for a “utilitarian” reason. Once the situation that requires them to cross-dress and thus perform to be the other gender is no longer applicable, they revert to the biologically-assigned gender roles.

I do find it interesting that the three series are all from Hakusensha (two were from Hana to Yume, and the other from LaLa) and all Viz titles. The author did mention that she picked series that were “industry successes, currently popular, and cross referenced each other,” but Viz offers a lot of shoujo manga titles that could be considered gender benders: Basara, Kaze Hikaru, Ai Ore. I think her thesis would still hold water if she used series that go beyond the realm of high school life, which is another aspect her three choices hold in common.

Professor Kornfield is currently Mellon Visiting Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Vanderbilt University.