Sexing the 2D: Sexual Orientation and Perception in Anime and Fandom

satoshi of hyouka

On queering and “straightening” in fandom, with a small slice of bisexuality and trans matters as the cherry on top.

For some reason, a little bit earlier Hyouka’s ending popped into my head. The fact is, while I really enjoyed the conclusion for Houtarou and Chitanda, as it was a culmination of the understated build-up of their awareness of and affection for each other, I was less than satisfied with what came of Mayaka and Satoshi. Quite simply, where the former relationship had a subtle deepening, there wasn’t much a case made for Mayaka and Satoshi having romantic involvement – we are told off the bat that Mayaka has a crush on Satoshi and has previously confessed her feelings for him to little avail, and Mayaka does display an interest in Satoshi across the show, but Satoshi’s sentiment for Mayaka does not ever in depiction go past that of platonic care. We are instead at the very end informed that Satoshi does like Mayaka back but has rejected her because he feels himself unworthy; I’ll agree that the feelings of unworthiness in a larger sense are made fairly clear by previous content, but, again, the whole matter of him feeling mutually about Mayaka simply isn’t built into the story.

I find the failure of the show to move organically toward such a truth (i.e. Satoshi likes Mayaka romantically) disappointing, but all the more so because it does such a good job handling Chitanda and Houtarou.

I bring this up to explain how I ended up getting to where I wanted to write this post, and also because it seems a good jumping-off point to a post addressing the labeling/identification of characters as being of a particular sexual orientation (or not), and fandom’s/other fans’ reaction to that process. Emily and myself each wrote a post that developed out of a conversation we had regarding the fact that we perceived of Satoshi as gay based on his depiction in the Hyouka anime. Unsurprisingly, I myself got some negative reaction, as some people failed to understand that pointing out that media often uses stereotyping to indicate that a character is gay isn’t the same as saying that in real life that all gay guys love fashion or all gay women love flannel shirts. On the other end came the more predictable response – how dare I say that a character was gay! That was really stupid and offensive, and, ugh, those homos want everyone to be gay!

What is interesting here is that the only way this works is if we operate under the presupposition that a character, or any person, really, is straight unless explicitly stated to not be. Even though Satoshi hadn’t given any indication to heterosexuality to that point in the show, he was presumed straight by these individuals simply because it hadn’t been explicitly shown that he wasn’t. Satoshi wasn’t making kissy faces at boys, therefore he likes girls, and only girls (of course, assuming here that the sorts of people who get het up about these things believe in a little thing called bisexuality).

Expanding out to fandom at large, this is hardly an uncommon reaction, whether it be to fanfiction, fanart, or posts like my own which argue in favor of a queer interpretation of a character. Some folks just get really angry when you render a character queer.

“But, wait!”, perhaps someone says, “What about when a character established as straight is rendered gay?”

I’ll be honest – I get irritated when a gay character is “straightened” out. I don’t tend to get bugged when a straight character is queered. Is this an inconsistent stance on my part? Maybe to a tiny extent, except that they really can’t be considered as being of the same weight, ultimately, because one group has fairly persistently throughout history been demonized, persecuted, and erased whereas the other hasn’t.

Of course, this is all complicated by the fact that characters tend to be presumed heterosexual unless otherwise stated whereas gay characters are the ones who get specifically labeled in some manner. Or, perhaps better put in the context of anime/manga – characters who behave in “homosexual ways”, if you will, get some sort of explicit identification, whether it be as homosexual, or, more commonly, as “I’m not gay, its just you.”sexual. (There are, of course, some exceptions to this – I don’t think Fire Emblem, for example, ever specifically says “I’m gay.” or has someone else say, “He’s gay.” in regards to him, but these are the exceptions to the madding crowd.)

(Perhaps worth mentioning – when characters do get defined as straight in fiction, it generally is done so in opposition to others questioning their sexuality – the BBC’s Sherlock miniseries stands out in my mind here given how frequently Watson protests that he isn’t gay in light of others either assuming he is or accusing him of being involved with Sherlock; Sherlock for his part doesn’t seem to really give a shit either way, but, hey, that’s fairly in keeping with his overall character, certainly. Going onto a tangent somewhat, I suppose what is intriguing with this show, though, is that we are given a female character who is identified as gay and a male character who is identified as straight and either straight out told or have implied that they’ve fallen for Sherlock in non-platonic fashion. Its a somewhat Kinseyan take on sexuality, certainly, and its probably the only time I haven’t been annoyed by a straight wrench chucked at a gay character.)

I haven’t really addressed bisexuality in media and fandom takes on media, even though its existence does provide potential cover for straightening or queering of characters. Bisexuality in media is a bit of a curious little beastie, as I would argue that in an overall sense it doesn’t quite exist; when it does appear, it often is trotted out as a means of titillation for a straight male audience, a female character engaging in a one-off relationship before reverting strictly to male love interests. Alternately, you have a character who has previously dated exclusively people not of their sex who takes up an interest in someone of their sex and BAM! they’re gay, gay, only gay. While these are both things that happen in real life, they are only a couple of scenarios amongst many, many others involving sexuality, so these being the most common scenarios distorts the picture a fair bit and is pretty limiting. They aren’t necessarily invalid depictions when taken individually, but when put together they paint a portrait that is misleading at best.

I also haven’t really addressed trans identification and depiction in fandom and media, as well as reactions to it, primarily because I don’t have a huge amount of experience with it, but also because the practice of “genderbending” characters doesn’t seem to invite as much ┬áire in fanart and in fanfiction (of course, “genderbending” and transgenderism/transexualism aren’t quite the same thing, but not everyone makes that distinction, and we are discussing perception matters). I think, too, though, that the relative dearth of trans characters, particularly of female-to-male characters, in anime makes it difficult to be able to draw much in the way of larger conclusions. While we do have a decent amount of female characters who dress in male or male-type clothing, such as our somewhat holy trinity of Sapphire, Oscar, and Utena, a lot of these characters aren’t actually trans (although I do think there is legitimacy to the idea that Sapphire may’ve been trans had she been created about forty or fifty years later than she was; Utena for her part is only interested in being a prince insofar as it codes as being strong and noble to her, not because she identifies as a boy). Thinking on it a bit, the only time I’ve really seen much debate sprout up has been as concerns Hazumu from Kashimashi~Girl Meets Girl~, but this tends to be thoughtful debate and not the angry responses that occurred when I stated that I thought Satoshi gay, something which I think has been the case since it doesn’t seem to be something that gets any discussion outside of groups of people who are fairly thoughtful about gender and sexuality matters to begin with.

To go back somewhat, too – “genderbending” vs. trans. Genderbending a character isn’t at all uncommon in fanfiction, but it also very rarely involves actual trans identification or depiction. Characters either are magically sex-swapped through some mishap or media res is that they were never their original sex/gender to begin with. Sometimes the former provides a means for a character to realize they’re more comfortable as what they weren’t originally, but this isn’t often the case.

Anyway, I’ve more or less gotten through everything I currently have to say on these matters, so I’m going to wrap here. I’m stewing over a post related to anime and gender as regards performance of gender, too, so I might try to dig more into the fandom and trans characters angle in that one. I should probably branch out a bit more from Wandering Son, too, when it comes to anime/manga about trans characters, too, to get a better feel for the T portion of LGBT in this fandom and its media.

And, yeah, I kind of had to make some allusion to cherries even if it was just in the summary line.

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11 Responses to Sexing the 2D: Sexual Orientation and Perception in Anime and Fandom

  1. windyturnip says:

    I think most people assume a character is heterosexual because the vast majority of people in real life are heterosexual. It might be rather blunt, but it’s a logical assumption if you have no other information available. In the same way, when I’m reading a first person narrative, I immediately assume the narrator to be a 20-something year old, white guy. As I receive more information, my visualization of the narrator changes as well.

    For most anime, I really don’t see a reason to label any character as heterosexual or homosexual; it just isn’t relevant to the content. Romance anime are a clear exception, but again, I think my above point addresses that quite well. The vast majority of people are heterosexual, so the couples in anime are often going to be heterosexual because it’s easier for the audience to relate to.

    • fencedude says:

      Wow good job completely missing the point.

      • windyturnip says:

        I understand that I didn’t address everything in the article (that would have taken forever), but I still think the point I made was relevant to the post. If you don’t believe that’s true, please show me where you think I went wrong.

      • David says:

        I’m curious about how he’s “missing the point” as well, though mostly because, after reading your comment, I realized that I don’t actually know what point the author of the blog post was trying to make. There’s lots of rambling and meandering side topics (which is fine for random commentary or train-of-thought posts), but there doesn’t seem to be any central point being addressed.

        One aspect of the post that does seem to approach a “point” is the assumption of a character’s heterosexuality unless otherwise indicated. Given (last I paid attention) the common statistic of 10% of individuals being homosexual, assuming that a character is straight unless shown otherwise seems perfectly natural. In theory you should end up being correct 90% of the time, though that will be skewed by the non-random selection of individuals the show wants to focus on. Even the issue of Satoshi possibly being gay didn’t show up in this blog’s posts until a number of episodes into the series (and Satoshi only merited a single mention in the summary of the entire first cour).

        Reactions to being wrong is another matter entirely, but the above commenter didn’t address that on a broad scale. That could, perhaps, be the point the commenter missed, as the blog post does work on that a bit.

        The second point the above commenter makes deals with (presumably English, probably American) first person-view written works, and thus largely not related to anime anyway. It’s also not clear whether he chooses that assumption based on historical precedence of what he’s read, or simply that that matches his own classification (ie: he initially assumes that’s what “I” means since that’s who “I” is to him).

        Regardless, that is mostly irrelevant to any potential “point” of the article, and is mainly a supplementary explanation.

    • There is so much wrong with this comment, I don’t even want to touch it.

  2. Ah! My head! Is this what white people feel like when I start talking about race?

    Though I do seriously have trouble wrapping my head around the whole subject, I can (I think) understand your frustration with the depiction and representation of homosexual characters in media, particularly anime. It’s bad enough when I watch American shows that often seem to have the helpful and sassy gay friend, it’s another thing when I watch anime and any gay character I can think of is a stereotype in some form; that’s not counting the yuri I’ve watched which at times has had some very nice characters.

    It goes back to my desperate need to see a romance anime with some realism and subtlety mixed into it. Time and time again I’ve wondered what a show would be like if we got a gay anime character that wasn’t labeled as gay, or pointed out as gay because of a relationship. Sure you can make the case that characters need to relatable, but I’ve watched enough anime to know that that’s not actually a priority.

  3. Verd Uj'alayi says:

    I can’t wait for more anime/manga with trans* characters in it that don’t have to deal with “but they are actually a guy/girl”. Of course then they must also be sexually assaulted to verify their sex.

    I am picking up Hourou Musuko for Christmas so hopefully that will satisfy me for awhile.
    Or just make me more pissed off about other stories ^_^

  4. jpmeyer says:

    My understanding (and optimistic assumption) was that gaying/straightening characters rubs people the wrong way since it’s generally changing something fundamental to the character which has generally been reinforced over and over.

    Meanwhile, genderbending seemed like it was simply an aesthetic experiment or the creation of a wholly new character. (Oh, and the fact that genderbending is also more accepted because of the “Sweet, now this character is fuckable!” aspect. See also delicious traps, etc.)

  5. kadian1365 says:

    When you started on trans I thought for sure you were going to mention Simoun, since it’s the only anime I know to put the topic front and center (though in a fantastical way) and give it some complex thought.

    Writers write only what they know. A safe assumption about why popular stories play fast and loose with LGBT stereotypes is that these writers have never known a real LGBT person in their life. The awareness has only arisen in the last couple decades and slight majority acceptance in the last few years. Only people of the youngest generations had a chance of growing up in a tolerant and open community (I myself never knew a professed LGBT person until well into college). These authors and storytellers can only perpetuate the profiles they know best, and in terms of the LBGT community, unfortunately their experience has been limited to the narrow and derogatory fiction and media they’ve seen. But it is also safe to say that the more tolerant youth of today who become the authors and writers of tomorrow will begin to turn around these stereotypes armed with the better understanding and compassion of their life experiences.

  6. Motorvating says:

    If you want to find series that explicitly are about more portrayals of trans people in a more realistic way, and isn’t traps or genderbending, your option is mainly a manga, and mostly TS centric at that. If I were you. I’d try Mermaid Line (It’s yuri, but the story Ayumi and Aika in it is both), Claudine (first TS in a manga. Ftm actually, and by the lady who made Rose of Versailles), and Double House. Maybe try Ai no Shintairiku too since it’s essentially a normal shojo, except for the fact that the heroine is a young mtf, but it still goes into a lot of typical shojo roadblocks.

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