What a 90s Anime Taught Me About Gender Fluidity
‘Ranma ½’ was full of nudity and gender swapping, and helped form my young queer identity. It would probably be protested off the air today.
I must have been six years old the first time I ever saw Ranma ½. At the time I didn't know why I was so drawn to this Japanese anime that featured a character who was a boy that transformed into a girl every time he came into contact with cold water. And there were boobs. Lots and lots of boobs.
At the time I lived in the US where the only channels my brother and I were allowed to watch were the Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon. We used to spend the summers in Mexico, where we would stay at my grandparent's house. They didn't have cable, so we were stuck watching Canal 5, a children's TV network owned by Televisa.
Canal 5 broadcasted a bunch of anime shows. It was through this channel that I realized I wasn't into Dragon Ball Z, but grew to deeply love Samurai Pizza Cats and Ranma ½. Ranma was nothing like the shows I was used to watching. For one, it had so much nudity and homoeroticism. It was, without meaning to be, the first LGBTQ show I ever watched.
Ranma ½ takes place in Tokyo. The story revolves around a boy and his dad who have just returned from a martial arts training trip to China where both of them fell into cursed springs. Ranma turns into a girl when he is splashed with cold water and his dad turns into a panda. Upon returning to Tokyo, Ranma's father informs him that they will be staying with an old friend of his and that he is now officially engaged to one of his daughters—Akane.
This premise allows for some incredibly racy, and notably queer and trans positive scenes. Kuno Tatewaki, another male character, becomes obsessed with Akane as well as female Ranma. This provokes a lot of conflict and confusion for Ranma, who is suddenly having homoerotic dreams that he's grossed out by. Six-year-old me was especially interested in interactions between Akane and female Ranma, who had the mind of a boy but was attracted to girls.
The show also has its share of homophobic and misogynistic content—not unusual considering that the anime version was originally aired nearly 30 years ago in 1989. In 1993 it was bought by Viz Media and dubbed into English in Vancouver, BC.
While other LGBTQ+ themed shows that came later in the 90s, like Will and Grace, were written off by mainstream audiences as "too gay," Ranma ½ managed to bypass any reactionary protest—perhaps because no characters explicitly identified as "gay" or "trans." Yet to queer and trans youth, it not-that-subtly reflected back our current and future struggles.
Comic writer Charlotte Finn reviewed the manga version of Ranma ½, which predates the anime, in a series she created called Lost in Transition, in which she explores trans characters in comics. "When it comes to transgender themes, there is a link there, but not in the way someone may expect," she wrote.
"When Ranma is doused with cold water, Ranma winds up with a body and a social status that feels wrong, and which Ranma plainly doesn't want—much like how many transgender people feel physical and social dysphoria, a feeling of disconnect or being out of sync with one's body or social role. Ranma isn't a boy who turns into a girl. Ranma is a cisgender boy who turns into a transgender boy."
I was interested to know if Finn had had a similar experience to me, mainly that she realized later on that this show might have played a role in helping her discover who she was, so I contacted Finn to ask: Did Ranma ½ play a role in your journey towards coming out as trans?
"I read and saw a lot of media in that general vein, those kinds of webcomics and mangas and cartoons and animes that are trans-adjacent but not actually about being trans. Where gender is fluid and maybe that's good but maybe it's also a curse or a joke. Alternately called 'forced feminization' stories or, more crudely, the what-the-heck-happened-to-my-genitals genre."
It wasn't until recently that I realized just how much Ranma's gender fluidity and the subsequent homoeroticism present in the show are vilified. I only remembered that this show sometimes had a girl in it that liked girls. It also had a guy who was forced to be different gender every time he was splashed with cold water.
"I clicked with that, because I definitely felt a kinship with the desire to be a different gender than the one I was designated as having from birth," said Finn. "But I also felt so, so ashamed about it, because the world told me it was shameful since before I could even speak, and I internalized that message. So media that treated it like it was a bad thing tended to play into those feelings of shame that I had."
"Once I made the connection in my head, once I realized I was trans, I instantly saw why it appealed to me, and also that it couldn't really be all that I wanted. It didn't have all the pieces of the puzzle, but it had some, and I think that's why it's such a well-remembered trans and queer text even as we grapple with its blind spots."
This tends to be the case with shows that feature any form of queer representation. As a 28-year-old lesbian I'm finally over that need to watch a show just because some usually poorly constructed character happens to be gay. And luckily, nowadays there are way more shows, some of them are even good shows, that feature LGBTQ characters who aren't vilified or killed off.
It's surprising that a show about a gender bending martial artist was so easily available to children in Mexico in the early and mid 90s. I honestly can't see it being aired anywhere in North America without protest nowadays. But it's still pretty amazing how many young boys watched that show and apparently had no issues with the homoeroticism and the gender bending. Finn has a theory as to why this is.
"The martial arts battles were the gateway drug—even if you weren't into Ranma grappling with fraught questions of gender and sexuality, you could at least see the characters beat seven kinds of hell out of each other. There was even a fighting game, the perfect video game tie-in," explains Finn.
"Humor can go a long way in defusing gay panic amongst the straights … and Ranma ½ was equal parts classical farce sex comedy as it was martial arts battles and general queerness. Top Gun was the number one movie the year it came out in and I'm fairly sure all those tickets weren't bought by gay men, even though it is just about the gayest movie of the 1980s."
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