Representation matters. This is a fairly well-established fact, from media criticism to scientific studies. Depending on where you grow up, you might have your view of whole groups of people shaped by media before you ever meet them in person, and seeing people living different lives from yours in fiction from a young age helps you empathize with others. Likewise, it can affect how we see ourselves: what we feel we can achieve, what we’re allowed to dream of being. It’s why people fight so hard for more diverse media: to feel seen, to feel human.
But anyone who’s underrepresented in fiction (to stick to my purview) can tell you that it’s a very slow uphill battle. And in the meantime, we learn to make do. Queer characters, for example, might not have been allowed to be named in Hollywood film, but that didn’t stop them from existing. Instead, they were coded: you couldn’t have a man kiss another man, but you could have him lisp, or sway his hips when he walks, or fondle phallic objects suggestively. Of course, even these implicit queer folk often had to be villains in order to fit various morality clauses; either that, or they had to commit suicide by story’s end.
But in the middle of this mire, people found stories to hold onto. Sometimes it’s a story that could have been happy with one or two tweaks. Sometimes it means embracing the monster as a way of standing defiantly against a culture that demonized you. Sometimes it means rooting for clumsy or outright failed attempts at overt representation because there’s a spark of something likable. That’s what it means to “reclaim” a character, to take something that was hurtful or dismissive and remake it for yourself.
All of this, meanwhile, is balanced by a very difficult reality: when your representation in the minority, the rare instances become a big deal. Particularly when those characters are written by creators who are part of the dominant culture (the ones who’ve had an infinite amount of chances to see themselves for their whole lives).
Not only the character, but your consumption of them, becomes a public performance. If you get something out of a stereotype, does it send the message that that’s a realistic portrayal? If you celebrate monsters and villains with your dollar, do you uphold the status quo? What’s the balance between being able to champion forward-looking representation and being able to enjoy your damn self, knowing that better rep does not mean that coding or the way cultures are shaped by it will vanish?
This is what makes reclamation such an intensely personal and fraught subject. There is no ironclad, definitive answer to “when is it okay to reclaim a character?” The decision is in many ways individual, and changes based on the age of the work, the quality of representation around it at the time it was made, the work’s audience, and the level of coded versus overtness to the character.
That….sounds like a lot of abstract technical terminology, doesn’t it. Let me try again. It may help if I use two personal examples. So, let’s talk trans characters. I want to stress one more time that this is not my way of telling other trans folks that their own conclusions are bad or hurtful. I’m only looking to vocalize a complex and difficult process.
Given how often trans-coded narratives involve a reveal of some sort, these discussions will inevitably involve heavy spoilers for the series in question.
The Coded Narrative: Dilandau Albatou
The Vision of Escaflowne is a series at least attempting to comment on gender roles: its masculine-coded characters tend to be violent, destructive, sexist and stuck in their ways; while feminine-coded characters are often empathetic problem solvers who are key to seeing the way forward. Its protagonist Van is special in that he’s on a journey to shed toxic masculine behavior and embrace the power of feminine-coded power. For 1996 it gets a firm round of golf claps for trying; but as I’m sure you can tell, it’s a pretty binary setup.
That’s not the worst thing when talking about the experiences of cis men and women…but then the series takes it a step further. Once upon a time, a gentle young girl named Celena was kidnapped by evil scientists who, in the course of trying to discover whether an individual’s fate could be altered, transformed Celena into the angry, bloodthirsty young man Dilandau. And I do mean literally. The magic experiments mean Dilandau switched back and forth between an AFAB and AMAB bodies, with almost parodically extreme masculine and feminine personalities to match. Once this is revealed, the series doesn’t so much write an end to this character arc as have “Dilandau” turn back into “Celena,” and drop them back off with their brother Allen before calling it a day.
On the one hand, yikes. A child is kidnapped, operated on, and forced to perform as another gender, with the process requiring constant reinforcement in order to stop mental breakdowns. While almost certainly accidental, it winds up stumbling into some really shitty arguments that civil rights for trans people will somehow lead to a slippery slope where cis people are forced to change genders. The only thing that saves it from being completely unwatchable is how little time is devoted to it, and the fact that it’s buried beyond multiple layers of coding about magic and fate.
And on the other hand…Dilandau resonates with me. Because his character is a construct, he becomes a way for the writers to portray a worst-case scenario of toxic masculinity, the platonic ideal of aggressive, supposedly “manly” behavior that trends toward wanton destruction (what they’re saying with Celena is a lot less clear, because I honestly don’t think they thought that far).
Over and over again, I’ve seen binary trans men push themselves to conform to toxic standards of masculinity after transitioning: working out obsessively and taking an attitude toward women that’s condescending at best and virulently hateful at worst. I’ve been there—the “not like other girls” phase, where young women are pushed to demonize and compete with other women for male attention, is often particularly painful for transmasc folks. Because we really aren’t girls, and putting them down seems like a quick and easy way to get accepted as a Real Man.
It is a bitter, angry emotion, and that’s Dilandau to me. Unstable, unsure of who he is, ready to raze the whole goddamn world and hurt the people closest to him. Afraid of being abandoned and rejected. Completely on accident, he comes across as the distilled embodiment of the darkest moments of my adolescence. It’s the same potent rage that drew me to Requiem of the Rose King, but without the collateral damage to another marginalized group and series-deep hatred of women.
What truly makes the character salvageable to me, though, is the fact that Dilandau’s narrative is essentially unfinished. We see Dilandau have another breakdown and body shift after being reunited with Allen, and the series offers basically no closure on whether that will continue to happen. Rather, the conclusion of their arc is Allen stating that he’ll take responsibility for Dilandau’s war crimes.
We have no indication as to their state of mind when the epilogue rolls around, aside of a brief glimpse of “Celena” in a dress. It’s a scene that seems to take place mere days after the climactic final fight, and after every single appearance of Celena aggressively reinforcing her very childlike personality, so much so that she is incapable of making her own decisions.
It leaves a dozen unanswered questions. Are Celena and Dilandau truly different personalities? What do they look like in peacetime, after healing? Is the “Celena” personality even real, or a pliable shock state? If a person is socialized as male for 75% of their life, are they truly going to be happy stepping back into 100% female socialization?
A big part of being nonbinary, at least for me, has been spent grappling with the fact that I am irrevocably shaped by decades of societal misogyny and feminine socialization. It is as much a part of me as the dysphoria I’ve felt since I was small. That does not make me “not trans.” It means the answer to “do I transition hormonally” is made more complicated, because sporting chest hair and a moustache when you like to wear skirts can be very dangerous indeed.
Dilandau’s story ends in a state of perpetual uncertainty, unconsidered and uncertain ever after. An abandoned character with an undefined future is the kind transformative fandom was made for.
“I Am a Woman”: Naoto Shirogane
God, am I ever tired of talking about Naoto. But there’s really no way to talk about the topic without mentioning her, so here we go. I was eighteen when I played Persona 4 for the first time, and Naoto’s arc stayed in my mind for a long time as a kind of raw wound. Unlike Dilandau, her story does not have the benefit of fantasy magic.
Because of the ticking-clock nature of the game’s plot, it necessitates some kind of terrible doom that each victim needs to be saved from—generally some form of public humiliation in addition to the impending murder. In Naoto’s case, what the part is saving her from is “body modification surgery,” wherein her Shadow will turn her into a man.
“But wait,” one might say, “is that any different from Dilandau’s fate alteration?”
Well, it is and it isn’t. Both are trading on the idea of changing one’s gender as an unnatural, terrifying thing. But there are a few crucial differences. The first is that Escaflowne is, as mentioned, abstracted several layers by magic. Many characters in the series are subjected to experiments meant to alter their fate, and Dilandau’s is merely an extreme extension of that. While there are unfortunate implications, the contextual focus of it is, “a version of a thing that’s also happened to the protagonists, so extreme that it turned one person into a physically different one.”
Persona 4, despite having fantastical elements, is focused on real world issues. Its characters are preoccupied with their roles in society and how that clashes with their sense of self as they come of age. It very deliberately engages with modern society through its cast’s anxieties. Kanji is anxious about his sexuality, Rise about how her profession dehumanizes her, etc. So when Naoto’s dungeon evokes the idea of “gender surgery,” it is a natural step to link it to the real thing.
Second is the personal nature of the conflict. At the end of the day, Escaflowne isn’t very clear on how Dilandau feels—he’s basically unaware of the changes, and Celena is basically nonverbal in all of her appearances. Dilandau is acted upon, and the story ends before they can sort through their identity as a survivor. Furthermore, their brother Allen is pretty clearly established to be a sexist jerk throughout the show, so it basically means nothing to see him put his recently reacquired sibling in a dress. Girl wear dress. Pretty. Family fixed.
That ambiguity is not present with Naoto. The antagonist forcing her into surgery is her own fears and anxieties personified—in other words, she’s confused because of the sexism in her field of choice, and the solution that makes her whole again is realizing that she was a cis woman after all. This is incredibly damaging rhetoric that is widespread in the real world (witness walking, talking smear of excrement Jesse Singal, who despite his blatant transphobia is continually granted high-profile journalism assignments about the trans experience).
The narrative not only privileges the assumption that Naoto questioning her gender is a momentary confusion, but makes the character herself a mouthpiece for those toxic narratives. There is little room to see yourself in a character when they are being made to say that you are stupid, foolish, and wrong about your own personhood.
While there are adolescents who question their gender identity as teenagers and end up identifying most with their birth-assigned gender, this is nearly the only narrative allotted for transmasculine characters, particularly in anime and manga. Many are the tomboyish masc-presenting characters who decide to take on feminine presentation as a sign that they’ve grown up or as a means of impressing a love interest. Even the most legendarily cited trans issues manga, Wandering Son, ends with the transmasculine Takatsuki not just presenting female but becoming an incredibly feminine model.
It is painful, intensely so, to see one’s experience discounted even within the very small pool of narratives that acknowledge transness. “Of course girls would want to be boys,” the very harmful logic seems on some level to go, “boys are just better; we’ll tell them not to worry their pretty little heads. But a boy who wants to be a girl must be serious, because who wants to be something as secondary as a girl?”
That is the history and rhetoric that the handling of Naoto’s story fits into. The final nail in the coffin is the fact that her narrative is a closed one. We leave Dilandau on the cusp of a very long journey of self-discovery, but we’re made quite aware of where Naoto is going. After her declaration, we’re made repeatedly aware of her body. The hot springs and medical exam scenes exploit her discomfort to reassure the player that she has large breasts; the Christmas date event allows the player to pressure her into wearing a schoolgirl uniform and using feminine speech patterns in order to please her male partner.
And in case you had any hopes of reimagining those moments as aberrances open to headcanon (identity is a fraught thing, after all, particularly in high school), the sequel series Persona x Detective Naoto confirms that one year later Naoto has grown her hair out to waist-length, and is naturally willing to put on a bikini so that there can be plenty of cheesecake shots. It is not enough for her to be female—she must be so in a way that is pleasing and presentational to the male gaze embodied by the protagonist’s Christmas event.
It is a story that first evokes the imagery of trans identity and then crushes it underfoot as confusion and frivolity (and just in case you missed it, Persona 3 and Catherine both make a point of featuring trans women as punchlines) before doubling down on the insistence that its assuredly female character must not only be cis but conventionally feminine.
It hits every branch of the “fuck you” tree on the way to rock bottom, and a full decade later the writing and the equally patronizing, dismissive, and willfully ignorant behaviors of the game’s fanbase have left a residual bitterness around not just Naoto but the entire game. Director Katsura “I’ve never successfully forged a true friendship with a girl in real life” Hashino can retire to a bottomless crevasse where we never have to hear from him again, and not a moment too soon.
Space to Exist
Reclamation, in the end, is about finding space: finding works that emotionally resonate with your underrepresented experience and that don’t then overtly refute or demonize those feelings. This article has covered only two facets of the subject—it would be another essay entirely to discuss characters that are deliberately coded in the context of successfully progressive narratives (how does delicacy of narrative weigh against the fact that cis/straight audiences may not be primed to read coding? Discuss!).
Escaflowne, in the process of exploring its larger themes, encompassed concepts about gender play that opened the door to trans interpretation—and then it left those ideas, present but not developed, for viewers to expand upon. The work is old enough that its moment of cultural relevance has passed, meaning that a trans re-interpretation of a secondary character is purely a matter of transformative fandom pleasure and analytical thought experiment.
It is worlds removed from a story that is overtly connected to current events and social issues, in a medium infamously plagued with virulent exclusionary rhetoric, both in general and around this specific game (and anyone trying to reclaim anything; or even claim, in the case of the downright obviously queer Kanji).
Nor have big-budget videogames really moved forward in any significant ways, unless we are counting the incredibly secondary Krem (whom the game allows you to insult in the process of a well-meant but cringy Trans 101 conversation) or the cheerfully deadnamed-on-first-meeting Hainly. The mainstream face of the medium is incredibly hostile to the mere existence of trans people.
This is not to shame any trans gamers who held on to Naoto—one can hardly say they’re championing a character termed “good enough” when every trans person’s attempt to claim Naoto is met by endless and vicious backlash. Rather, I’d call her a flashpoint that many impressionable young gamers were drawn to that it’s time for us to move past, because there’s nothing but pain to be gained from fighting for this particular creative team.
Reclamation is a stopgap that will be needed for a longtime—as long as everyone reading this is alive, and maybe beyond. It’s best served by stories that leave a door open with the coding uncommented on and let the audience find themselves there. The more overtly an unequipped work tries to overtly acknowledge these issues, the greater the danger becomes of ignorance shifting to disdain. In short, give me my incredibly PTSD-ridden child soldier in ridiculous Anime Fantasy Land. It might’ve made some thoughtless blunders, but it isn’t actively contemptuous of my existence.