Throughout history the story of a girl who dresses as a man, a man who masquerades as a woman, and a person who takes the place of another has been common. This theme is particularly common, though, in manga and manhwa, where the simplified depiction of figures allows authors to play with the standard identifiers used in the manga/mahwa form. Who hasn’t heard someone not familiar with manga/manhwa comment, “That’s a guy!? It looks like a girl!”? Manga and manhwa artists use this simplified form of representation in comic art, and the often gender neutral appearance of characters in their works to play on the classic theme of overcoming standard identifiers to easily change gender and identity. In this case, the guy who looks like a girl actually is a girl.
The potential for simplified portrayal of objects and persons, particularly faces, in comics to allow for a larger number of people to identify with those characters is proposed by Scott McCloud in his Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Here he discusses how he chose to simplify his portrayal of himself in the comic to allows for the reader to identify him or herself with the writer, and not to feel as if some specific person was telling the story. Many manga and manhwa writers use the simplified appearance of their characters to allows the reader not only to identify with the characters, but also to play on the standard identifiers of a specific person or gender in the medium.
The examples of this are seemingly endless. A couple of works that come to mind are Ouran High School Host Club, Cowboy Bebop, Kill Me, Kiss Me, to name just a few. These works bring up a number of interesting points about gender identity, and the potential of manga and manhwa to create character free of standard gender identifiers that so strongly regulate the potential of persons in Japanese and Korean society.
Ouran High School Host Club is a manga and anime about a host club at an elite Japanse high school. (Note: I have only seen the anime, so this analysis is based solely upon anime content.) A recent Japanese phenomenon, a host club is a place where women will go and pay to be served by, have conversations with, and be flirted with by attractive young men. The host club in Ouran High School Host Club is staffed by six attractive sons of Japanese zaibatsu (major company conglomerates) owners who have tea with girls attending the school. Along with the six boys, there is one girl dressed up as a boy, Haruhi, forced to work at the host club to make up the money lost to the club by her accidentally breaking a very expensive vase they had on display.
Haruhi from the first does not identify herself as a girl. Her main concern is academics, and she is one of the school’s few scholarship students, the gender roles emphasized by the school’s students taking a back burner to her future goals to become a lawyer, itself an occupation dominated by men. She’s dressed as a boy because she cannot afford a uniform, yet she is not concerned by having adopted the male version of the primary gender identifier in the Japanese school system. Her attractiveness also carries over between the sexes, being attractive both to men who wish that she was a girl, and to her avid female adorers at the host club. Through all this, though, Haruhi remains indifferent to other’s preoccupation with her gender and attractiveness. Her personality remains as neutral to her gender as the artist’s portrayal of her. Perhaps this neutrality is necessary, though, for her to overcome the expectations with regards to gender that keep women from becoming lawyers and having other powerful roles in Japanese society.
In contrast to her indifferent adoption of the male gender is her father’s status as a drag queen. While she is indifferent to her gender and portrayed as gender neutral, her father is constantly striving to appear to be a woman, and yet these attempts are constantly being betrayed by male identifiers. He appears with an afternoon shadow in multiple episodes, displays masculine violence, and has a masculine voice. Perhaps it is just chance that Haruhi is so easily able to cross that line her father constantly strives to cross, or perhaps it is precisely that indifference to markers that allows her remain free of their influence and work to achieve her goals.
Cowboy Bebop is an anime about a group of four bounty hunters in space and their dog who always catch their man but rarely get the bounty. The characters come together by chance rather than by design, and their differing styles, appearances, and personalities are both points of tension and the key to their success. There is a brusque, muscular, and fatherly former policeman, Jet; a laid back martial arts expert and former mafia member, Spike; a voluptuous and greedy young woman, Faye; and a gender neutral genius hacker girl, Ed. Ed joins the team as the result of their searching for a genius hacker that is largely assumed to be male. Even upon her appearance on the screen, her young body, loose shirt and biker shorts fail to identify her gender. It is not until the end of the episode where she is introduced that she is identified as female.
Ed’s gender neutrality is in stark contrast to the strongly masculine character of Jet and the strongly feminine character of Faye. Even Spike, who is less masculine than Jet, still displays strong male identifiers of impatience, use of brute force, expertise with weaponry, and especially in terms of his place as the hero who has to go and save his true love at the end of the show. In the midst of this group of characters each strongly identified with their gender, Ed is innocent, extremely intelligent, playful, and gender neutral. She represents a child free of the gender identifiers of specific clothing, or specific activities. Rather, she wants love, food, and fun. In this sense, Ed is a pure heart contrasted with the tainted pasts and strong desires of the older crew members. Her gender neutrality is central to this innocence, and puts into perspective our understanding of the gender specific roles and personalities of the other main characters.
Kill Me, Kiss Me is a manhwa about a young girl who wants to attend her male cousin’s school in order to meet a famous male model who goes there. Yet, in this case, rather than the two characters appearing gender neutral, they lean towards the feminine side of the spectrum physically, with the male character being mistaken for a girl at numerous points throughout the series. Still, they lack identifiers to the extent that the female cousin can pass as the male cousin. They also lack identifiers that would allow them to be distinguished at all from one another. While this kind of switch between two individuals is common in terms of two people of the same gender, the story of a someone who possesses the identifiers of an individual of a different gender is far rarer. Yet, in a manhwa world in which men are physically feminized, and characters in general have relatively few identifiers, it is easy to put different clothes on the characters and have them switch genders.
Interestingly, while the two lead characters of Kill Me, Kiss Me make the farthest leap in terms of physical identifiers of any of the examples addressed here, in terms of personality they are hardly gender neutral. The male character is strong and prone to fights, while the female character is obsessed with a male model to the extent she is willing to cut off her hair and dress as a guy in hopes of being able to date him. That they possess many of the typical identifiers of their gender contrasts with the two earlier examples where the lack of physical gender identifiers was a reflection of a lack of personality based gender identifiers.
This switch towards more feminine men and less feminized women can be seen in manga as a whole, with the trend in shōnen and shōjo manga towards a style that is somewhere between the two, rather than markedly apparent as one or the other. It also seems to harken at a growing independence of woman in Japanese and Korean societies, and at the increasing feminization of men in these countries, at least according to popular media.