Analysis

Do This, Not That: Trans-Coded Characters (The Vision of Escaflowne vs Persona 4)

dilandau6

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.

On Coding

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).

dilandau7

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.

dilandau10

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.

dilandau3.png

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.

dilandau4

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.

fuck you tho

“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.

humiliation is classy right

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?”

2230427-5df32dda

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.

dilandau2

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).

dilandau11

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.

This post is made possible by kind contributors to this blog’s Patreon. If you like what you’ve read, please consider donating to help keep it running.

4 replies »

  1. I used to have a whole argument about why I thought Naoto wasn’t trans (which I will not recount here because it’s not necessarily convincing or the point), but something struck me when I watched P4 Golden anime: the epilogue where Naoto is in a sundress.

    Which felt very WRONG.

    Why would they suddenly change their outfits to be explicitly feminine? Why did they have to insist on this point? It was the point that made me pull back and think that no matter how well reasoned I thought my personal opinion was, the facts remained: the creators did not necessarily have the level of nuance to the character I was ascribing to them. And I shouldn’t be trying to tell people better equipped than me how to view a character.

  2. Fantastic article. I watched Escaflowne a long time ago but Dilandu always stuck with me after the credits rolled and I often wondered about how they’d been represented. And oh boy. That mess with Naoto had me cringing so hard…I’ve never played a Persona game and I frankly have no interest in that series so to see this was even more of a bad taste 😛

  3. Hi, I am a bisexual cis woman, amateur writer working on a visual novel. Checked out this post to learn more about trans-coded characters, but I actually ended up here by going down memory lane with character inspo based on Escaflowne. I always remember Dilandou being such a compelling character, and the whole Celena thing being thought-provoking. Never really did resolve how I felt about it. Anyway, what had started out as perhaps a naive desire to be “inclusive” in my writing has reminded me how much certain characters whom I didn’t realize were trans-coded/NB-coded until later in life have often been some of the most charismatic and interesting in anime. Akito Sohma from Fruits Basket and Envy from FMA are two other excellent examples (although in the case of the former, it’s kind of implied that the transness/maleness is related to the character being evil, like in Dilandou’s case).

    I’m just so delighted to have come across a blog post that is not only articulate and illuminative to me on a subject I wish to learn more about, but discusses a fandom I used to be captivated with as a teenager, and also deeply resonates with my own experience as a feminist whose views are constantly evolving. Your intelligence and empathetic clarity around the nuance of the subject make you something of a–how do I say this–like the Anti J.K. Rowling in the best sense. I don’t make a lot of money but I am going to make a contribution to your blog because I think the world would be such a better place if more voices like yours were amplified in media critique.

    Your explanation of the “not like other girls” phase, and how that intersected with your experience growing up as a transgender/queer person, really resonated with me even though I am not transgender myself. I have often wondered how AFAB/transmasculine or NB people are able to define maleness and masculinity in a way that rings true to their sense of self without being misogynistic, since in the larger culture so much of masculinity seems to be predicated upon just that – harming all of us.

    Towards the end of the post, you ask “How does delicacy of narrative weigh against the fact that cis/straight audiences may not be primed to read coding?” I likewise wonder this, or stated another way: how does one push for more overt and explicit representation in fictional media, so as to go beyond what basically amounts to media companies “queer-baiting” with their character coding? I feel like although progress has been made, big media companies such as Disney-Pixar for example code characters as queer to please one part of their fandom while being oh so careful not to alienate the “socially conservative” (aka bigoted) contingent. As a cisgendered writer, I feel as if by simply coding characters as queer in a non-explicit way, I run the risk of venturing into queer-baiting or at worst be using queer or trans-ness as a plot device/gimmick. Yet if one is too heavy-handed about it, will it have the effect of making readers feel as though the characters are just “tokens” – seeming contrived or arbitrary to non-queer readers, and potentially stereotypical/clumsily written to queer readers? I think that is basically the question you’re asking in the context of “What should media be doing to advance the cause of representation.” And I don’t think the answer is entirely clear, but your blog has certainly informed the way I think about the question now, so I thank you for that.

    I have not played the Persona games so I can’t weigh in on that, but from your recap it sounds like I’m not missing much. That must have been so disappointing to you and a whole bunch of people that were probably hoping/searching for something so much more meaningful from that game. The only analogous experience I have is realizing I had feelings for a woman in high school, and the sense of comfort and hope I felt when I came across a rare song or movie about two girls actually being in love – and that’s relatively common as far as representation at this point compared to trans characters! I think head-canons are so valuable, and I think you’ve arrived at the right conclusion the reclamation of old characters is a very valid and healthy thing. But also so right that going forward there needs to be more than just head-canons and subtle coding.

    Question – have you (or anyone else perusing the comments section) played the romance game The Arcana? One of its characters, Asra, is canonically NB according to the devs, but uses He/Him pronouns, has a very “biologically male” (help, straight woman does not know if she’s saying this right) body, and for all intents and purposes basically seems like a pansexual, feminine cis-man. Nothing in the story really suggests he was AFAB. In your opinion, is this queer-baiting or legit representation? Just curious, no right or wrong answer. I am a big fan of the game and it has raised a lot of questions for me about gender and representation in gaming.

    Sorry in advance for potentially clumsy terminology, possibly stupid questions, and general lack of articulateness in comparison to your blog post. 😀

Leave a Reply to Leigh A Charest Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s