Is it just me, or have manga creators recently discovered hermaphrodites? (OK, so I know it’s probably just me, and that this has been around for a while, but whatever — I’m noticing it now.)

There have always been differently gendered characters in manga, and in fact that is one of its many charms. In the particular manga fantasy way such characters, in grand Shakespearean tradition, usually end up back in the “correct” gender identity by the close of the curtains.

Recently, though, I’ve run across a few more hermaphroditic characters in manga — specifically Kei/Megumi in The Day of Revolution and Ichijou in After School Nightmare. In The Day of Revolution, pretty boy Kei discovers in the middle of his teenhood that he is, in fact, both boy and girl (though just how this presents anatomically is unclear). Not sure what to do, he decides to become a girl instead of staying a boy. He returns to his same school six months later (having presumably gone through some sort of surgery or process that has him now presenting as a girl, though again, circumstances are unclear) as Megumi, an awkward but masculinely forward cutie who’s winning all kinds of attention. His four guy pals decide to pursue Megumi, and their newfound desire doesn’t falter once they discover she was once their best guy friend. Romantic wackiness ensues.

After School Nightmare paints a much grimmer and, in the end, more interesting picture. Ichijou has determinedly gone through life as a boy, and will not acknowledge his female aspects. Described as a boy on top and a girl on the bottom (which made me wonder, can that actually happen?), it’s only when he gets his first period that he’s forced to admit that he’s more female than other boys. His greatest fear is that his true gender will be revealed to his classmates, branding him a freak, and more importantly, a weak girl fated to be relegated to the background.

Of course, this is all happening in what I call Mangaland, or that skewed vision of the world that allows all manner of things to happen without the need for explanatory details or necessarily the expected repercussions. In The Day of Revolution, the gender differences are played mostly for humor, expected in a comedy, while After School Nightmare takes a much more serious look at gender, gender roles, and the continuing imbalance between men and women in society.

In The Day of Revolution, the comedy outweighs the serious consideration of just what it might mean to switch genders, starting at the very beginning. The idea that Kei decides to become a girl only because he thought he had to, and then continued the shifting process only because his parents made him stick to his decision when he tried to take it back, dismisses the actual emotions and sense of identity that most transgendered people feel. The process to make a transition, not to mention the usual battery of psychological testing necessary to even start transitioning, are neatly ignored. It’s not that I want the story to get bogged down by going into every detail, but I can’t help but wonder what anyone who has no idea of trans issues will take away from such a story.

On top of that, once Kei becomes Megumi, the problems of being a girl, and a guy trying to train himself to be more girly, mainly come from the fact that he is too forward, too independent, and too argmentative to be a “good” girl. His/her strength may be what attracts his once-friends to his new form, but when he’s challenged to the point of almost-rape by a nasty guy, his reaction is troubling to say the least. Being a girl, in his head, means letting rape happen, and at least momentarily not fighting back. This soured the comedy for me. Sure, a guy trying to act like a girl would be difficult, but…that being a girl means being weak and submissive, and somehow this is all being a girl means is a less than compelling message.

After School Nightmare is much more obviously a way to tackle gender issues more than trans issues. Ichijou’s fear of being more female than male has much more to do with what being a girl means in society than the internal identity that makes him a guy or a girl. Being a girl in Ichijou’s head (much like Kei’s) means being weak, and a lack of opportunities, and he wants neither. Speaking as a woman who’s often wondered how the world would treat me differently if I looked like a man, it’s an intriguing question and I look forward to seeing this series and author explore. In this series, unlike The Day of Revolution, it’s treated as a question, and possibly a societal problem to poke at, rather than just treated as a part of being a girl that must be accepted to be convincing.

They are different series, with different intents, but they both highlight the continuing struggle of a fan of manga who sometimes runs smack into the cultural divide in less that pleasant ways. It makes me wonder — how much that troubles me do I dismiss because, in the end, I like the manga, or the art, or the character? I know very well that in manga fantasy is fantasy and reality and reality and never the twain shall meet. But I still can’t help but wonder at the lines I draw — what I will forgive and what I won’t when reading manga.

While, admittedly, I likely think about these issues far more than many readers, I can’t help but wonder — what do readers who don’t think too hard about gender issues think about these stories? Do they think about it at all? Is that a bad thing? What do they internalize as impressions of gender that they don’t even realize?

  • Robin B.

    | She/Her Teen Librarian, Public Library of Brookline

    Editor in Chief

    Robin E. Brenner is Teen Librarian at the Brookline Public Library in Massachusetts. She has chaired the American Library Association Great Graphic Novels for Teens Selection List Committee, the Margaret A. Edwards Award Committee, and served on the Michael L. Printz Award Committee. She is currently the President of the Graphic Novels and Comics Round Table for ALA. She was a judge for the 2007 Eisner awards, helped judge the Boston Globe Horn Book Awards in 2011, and contributes to the Good Comics for Kids blog at School Library Journal. She regularly gives lectures and workshops on graphic novels, manga, and anime at comics conventions including New York and San Diego Comic-Con and at the American Library Association’s conferences. Her guide, Understanding Manga and Anime (Libraries Unlimited, 2007), was nominated for a 2008 Eisner Award.

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