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Is this a stupid title? I have a feeling it’s a very stupid title but I’m too close to it. If you can come up with a better title, can you do me a favour and pretend that that’s what this post is actually called? Actually, you can do that with all my posts. I’m a genius!

I’m currently reading Boys Run the Riot. I really like it. I’m waiting for the last volume to come out and I’ll probably write a full series review. Oh, by the way, I’m writing this in November 2021. I have no clue when I will actually publish this post and some of the info in it may be outdated. However, this is how I’m seeing things right now.

I dig this series

Anyways, one of the central themes in Boys Run the Riot is that the main character is a young trans boy just coming to grips with his identity. I’m not going to give you the review here, suffice it to say that it got me thinking that I’ve been seeing a lot more positive representations of trans characters in manga and anime lately.

I’ve written before about Seiko in Lovely Complex. Kei has a similar arc in Moyashimon and I think is handled even better by the story. Of course, there’s Wandering Son which had both highs and lows but I personally really liked it. And I recently finished 20th Century Boys which has two Drag Queens which are presented more are transwomen and have heroic roles to play. 20th Centurt Boys was first published 23 years ago and I think the popular vocabulary may have not really included transwomen at the time. The impact of the characters is the same though.

But you know what, all of those are transwomen. Wandering Son does have Yoshino who seems to be a transboy but their storyline is much less developped than Shuuichi’s and the show leaves their gender ambiguous. And so for me, Boys Run the Riot was the first time I really saw an important transboy character. I looked up a bunch of lists and Yoshino was the only one to come up consistently.

I should look into the Wandering Son manga

I guess you could count Hotaru from, Aoharu x Machinegun but I wouldn’t. Hotaru regularly insists that she’s a girl and the fact that she’s mistaken for a boy causes a problem for her in the series. In fact, for the most part, when I have seen female characters illustrated with more Masculine traits, it’s lamost always for laughs and sometimes in a not very nice way. The story still makes it clear that they are girls and sometimes, that’s the joke. Like Haruhi from Ouran, she’s clearly a girl, but it’s funny that all those people can’t always tell at first.

Either that, or you have characters like Kino that are androgenous and ambiguous. But I rarely see a more overt character. Actually maybe Naoto from Persona 4 but that was a bit messy as far as representation goes.

I started wondering why the recent increase in transgender representation seems to be so much more focused on transgirls and women rather than transboys or even non-binary characters. I can only speculate as I am by no means an expert on the subject.

I do think that on a certain level, anime and manga audiences were just better primed for transgirls. Cross dressing male characetrs are actually a trope in aime that has existed for a very long time and is way more prevalent than the other way around. There have even been some classic crossdressing men that have been presented in a very good light. Kurako is my favourite character in Princess Jellyfish, and I may have some issues with how Ruka is presented in the original Steins;Gate game but I still fell in love with her.

I did really like Haru

Not to mention that Cross-dressing male characters have also been a convenient form of fanservice. You can draw a super cute-looking girl which will appeal to the boys but because the character is actually a boy, then the girls will like them as well. Best of both worlds! I can’t say this is completely wrong. There are a lot of feminine or cross-dressing characters in Otomes and shows aimed specifically at female audiences and those characters tend to be pretty popular. What can I say, absolutely everyone loves a cute girl.

When you take all those factors into consideration, it’s reasonable to think that audiences will react generally favourably to transgirls and women in anime. It’s not that big of a shock. Sure there are occasional problems with fetishization but at the end of the day, anime audiences aren’t likely to label a series particularly unwatchable just because of the inclusion of such characters. There’s already a proof of concept.

And it’s this history and familiarity that’s missing with transboys and men. There simply aren’t that many in anime. In fact, there aren’t all that many high-profile transmen in media in general, when compared to transwomen. I’m not sure why that is. I read through a few studies but they all referred to people who identify as transgender without any further specificity.

This might be another factor. It’s possible that the lower representation of transboys in anime is simply a reflection of society and will change if and when there starts to be a higher visible presence of transboys in the world. But that’s sort of a cycle. It’s very difficult to make claim your place in the world when you are not represented in any way. That’s part of why representation is so important for some people. Usually, people who aren’t represented.

I’ll use any excuse to bring up Nozaki-kun

I wonder if that’s all of it though. Are there any other factors at play? Maybe something specific to anime?

Traditionally, anime and manga were considered to be for an overwhelmingly male demographic. The accepted theory was that girls didn’t read manga or watch anime and weren’t interested in that sort of thing. That’s clearly not true. I think that like 70% of anime bloggers I know are women but it is also true that when I go out into the wild and meet a new Otaku, they are much more likely to be boys. Going by anecdotal evidence, I’m not really sure what the split is anymore.

However, I did read a post once that mentioned that anime were still largely made for male audiences and so it’s absolutely normal that they would reflect the interests and preferences of those audiences. It was one of those posts that sort of devolved, you can probably imagine. But it did touch on the concept of “traps”. I don’t like using the expression trap for either transgender or cross-dressing characters. I feel it has a lot of negative connotations. After all, transwomen get murdered more than any other subgroup in society and very often because someone feels they are trying to trick or trap them. Also, I have been told by actual transwomen that they don’t like the term so I figure why go out of my way to be a jerk. It’s not like I can’t use, trans, crossdresser, otokonoko or a bunch of other expression instead depending on the character.

She’s actually being blackmailed into posing as a boy…

But that post used “trap” and expressed that although it was very frustrating when a cute character turned out to be male, there was some dudes that were into that and at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter because they are anime characters. There is a lot to unpack in that sentiment and I’m sure it doesn’t really represent the general anime viewer. But I also think it represents a fraction of the audience. One that is often vocal. And that fraction would rather see a transwoman onscreen than a transman. The idea didn’t even come up in the post but based on everything else, I’m pretty confident that they would not like it.

So that may be yet another factor. Past representation, real-world presence and vocal fan preferences may all play a role in the uneven representation we are getting. I hope that changes. ‘Cause I’m really digging Boys Run the Riot and I would like to get more stories like it.

Have you noticed this as well? Do you think there’s something I missed? Are you interested in more transboys in anime?

17 thoughts

  1. I see crossdressing in anime and trans as very separate concepts though, crossdressing in anime is mainly the change in dressing appearance, but trans to me connotates a concept of identity, identifying as another gender, which includes changing gender on passports, identity cards, toilets, etc, etc… as well as possibly taking hormone treatment/drugs to change bodily gender.

    I think the same way that lgbt tropes are not seriously/realistically depicted, trans issues are not brought up as much because anime is more of a medium for enjoyment, e.g. Boy’s Love, non-realistic gay relationships for girls to enjoy, traps in anime are more shown for their appearance and not for the heavy serious topics of identity, hence the divergence in crossdressing in anime vs trans identity.

    At least, from what I consume in anime

    1. Maybe controversial opinion, but the way I see it, anime isn’t meant to represent the real world, it mainly caters to the demands of its consumers as an entertainment product. In it’s essence it’s fiction, and meant to be only that. Until writers/ animators in Japan might be interested portraying these aspects in anime for personal reasons or to gain popularity, it is near impossible to impose our expectations on what anime ‘should’ be, much less as a non-Japanese consumer.

      That, or if trans representation in Japan is more pronounced, then same would go for the anime scene naturally as made by Japanese

  2. A character that might, depending on your interpretation, fall as a transboy/man is Kei Kisaragi (Megumi Kisaragi) from Black Jack. Kei is a bit… dated… in terms of the term ‘transman’ though. Megumi contracted cancer that ended up causing her reproductive organs to be removed and thus ‘no longer a woman’. Black Jack was originally published between 1973-1983, so it’s a bit vague and I don’t recall exactly how it was translated. Megumi then changed their appearence, took the name Kei, and lived out their life presenting as a man afterwards.

    It does spark a wider conversation though, and it’s been really insightful to see other’s comments on this subject!

  3. What we like to see and play around with is probably genetically wired into us. A particular set of wiring (cis-het) is prevalent, others are much less common. Anime plays to this. (How “Thanks but no thanks.” got turned into “Ew! Pervert! Sin!” way back in early history is a whole story I’m not getting into.)

    Anime lacks the scent of a person, let alone the subconscious pheromonal cues we use to differentiate between desirable and not desirable. Subtleties of movement and expression are not its forte. It can’t communicate the softness of skin. The voices usually don’t sound like how real people speak. Unless you are doing ecchi, none of the definitional anatomy is visible. In a lot of anime, you can’t really tell characters apart. You may have 5 different female characters and the only real difference between them are hairstyle and color and clothing.

    Absent all the other clues, if you draw a guy to look like a girl, the visual cues alone tell us all we get to know on the instinctive level. Telling us that X is a guy is hitting us on an intellectual level but that isn’t where attraction happens. Makes gender-bending REALLY easy in anime.

    Why don’t we see more trans-males in anime? I saw a study once where people were shown photos of traditionally attractive people. Both men and women found attractive women to be enjoyable to look at. Most women found the males to be enjoyable to look at. Most men did not find other men to be enjoyable to look at. Could be instinctive or could be learned, no way to tell with just one study, but it seems to be the way it is.

    To become a trans male drawn in a masculine style is to become less attractive to a universal audience and definitely to a cis-het teenage male who is the dominant anime consumer. They are all about looking at cute girls and not interested in anything serious or thought-provoking.

    I had a couple trans male characters in mind but they fled like wild birds from a cage with the door left open. Went to the oracle of Google and found Tooru Mutsuki of Tokyo Ghoul, Kite of Japan Sinks, Tiger of MHA, Yoshino Takatsuki of Wandering Son, Kaoru Kurita of Wonder Egg Priority, and last but not least, the Sailor Starlights from Sailor Moon: Sailor Stars.

  4. Generalizing for the sake of argument…

    A wider range of affection & intimacy seems allowed to women, I feel. Friends holding hands, kissing cheeks, sharing a bed… If men do it, boom they’re gay. Red alert! But if women do it, it’s like meh, whatever. Maybe they’re just being friendly? Also, women will comment admiringly on each other’s physical appearance, straight or not — there’s not much stigma to it. On the other hand, men will repress such thoughts. Maybe that plays a role in the relative popularity of feminine trans characters. The majority of the audience can appreciate them, from both genders. As you said, everyone loves a cute girl.

    Moreover, boys are conditioned early on to strongly reject any whiffs of “softness” or “gayness” — or face merciless mocking. For men insecure about their sexuality, maybe “trap” characters act as a safe conduit to explore those feelings. Plausible deniability is worth its weight in gold. “He looks so feminine — how was I was supposed to know he’s a boy! Any (straight) male would fall for that!” That could be another facet to the story.

  5. Unfortunately, it’s not just in anime that rep is lacking. Generally speaking, when people talk trans rights, the focus is shifted to trans women, and trans men and non binary people are kind of an afterthought. If you want more, there’s a trans male character in Shimanami Tasogare: Our Dreams At Dusk, and Love Me For Who I Am is about a non binary character.

    1. I used to think that, but in fact trans women face more transphobia than trans men, they are more victims of violence. Okay they are more represented but they have been more often badly represented . Misrepresentation is more of a concern than lack of representation . So for me it’s logical that focus shifted to transmisogyny

      1. That’s an interesting point. It is certainly true that trans women have had more bad representation, and where they end up the focus on hate campaigns more, you’re correct that it’s logical to put focus there.

        The ideal would, for me, be for all trans people to have ample positive representation in media. However, it’s absolutely correct to place a focus on the group most in need at the time. It’s like the example of if a house is on fire, you work on putting that out, not preemptively pouring wateron the house two streets away.

  6. The protagonist of Aoharu x Machinegun is called Hotaru.

    As for Boys Run the Riot, I got it on sale from Bookwalker (it got rather overdramatic at points, though) and didn’t regret the hole in my wallet. My own gender story – or lack of gender, considering I almost became non-binary at one point – is entwined with a charity store I volunteer at and the many articles of clothing sold there (a big chunk of the donations and sales are clothes), which is why I felt so compelled to see this story about a fledgling fashion brand by two rebels (one of whom happens to be trans), even though I’m not normally into fashion myself.

    I believe the overall lack of transboy representation and the fetishisation of transmasculine individuals comes from double standards as a result of women’s fight for acceptance over the years. That is; by allowing women to do masculine-coded things to the point of wider societal acceptance but not quite doing the same for men, it allows transmen to go unnoticed, but amplifies transwomen’s attempts to pass.

    I’ve also noticed (and this is a touchy subject for trans people sometimes, so do be warned) this is also reflected in the almost-absence of female -> male gender benders – the overwhelming majority of anime/manga is male -> female. The only female -> male gender benders I know of are Sumi from Makoto Tateno’s Cute x Guy and Saki from Mahou Shoujo Ore.

  7. One of my favorite manga series has a trans-man as the lead protagonist in a pulp mystery, it is Yūreitō (or Yuureitou). I’m not sure if you have read it already, but it has very good representation, although my main criticism would be its dodgy fanservice elements (it is strange to have the male gaze on someone when they themselves show open contempt at being sexualized as a girl); the manga can get into disturbing, horror territory but I would highly suggest it. It is still a pretty obscure and rarely talked about online.

  8. Yeah, it’s an interesting one. I’ve been thinking about doing a compilation post of transboys/men myself for a while, to try and compile a bunch of current representations and how they’ve evolved over the years. The difficulty is finding… ‘serious’ ones, for want of a better term. It would be hard not to mention Haruhi from Ourans Host Club, but Haru isn’t trying to be a transboy so much as being gender fluid. Then there’s the attempt at a serious representation in Jouran Princess of Snow and Blood, which ended up actually being fairly insulting–I touched on this a little on my own blog.

    If you want a really interesting deep dive on gender questioning in manga, you should definitely try After School Nightmare. It’s not a long manga, as they go, and I ended up reading it for it’s take on menstruation (another post that I still add to, every now and then), but it’s really introspective on what it means to grow up questioning!

    I feel like there’s a fair few anime about otaku that live out transboy fantasies through cosplay and MMOs as well, but that’s the most positive I’ve seen it get. It crossed my mind watching this week’s My Dress-up Darling, but you also see it in Wotakoi and Recovery of an MMO Junkie.

    TL;DR: Yes, more transboy reps wanted! You’ve piqued my interest for Boys Run the Riot!

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