Are You a Boy or a Girl?
Despite how easy it is to conceal one’s sex in a game, I’ve never witnessed actually ask each other straight. They seem assured in their ability to tell boys from girls. “The guys I’m in a party with found out I’m a girl,” my acolyte friend told me one day. “Apparently, only girls say ‘stuff.’”
You learn something new everyday.
Conversely, my Political Science professor in college had no qualms asking “Are you a he or a she?” as he squinted at me across half a dozen rows of desks. This is a man who’d taken the Foreign Service Exam just to say he’d passed the hardest test in the country.
In his defense, I’d been androgynous ever since puberty kicked in.
I somehow “looked like a girl,” as one high school classmate put it, even when I had to wear my hair short due to school regulations. When college came around, my androgyny grew with my hair. What few compliments my features elicited were reserved for the slenderness of my hands or the subtle curves of my waist. To say it plainly, I was short and scrawny, even by Southeast Asian standards.
It wasn’t just looks, though. I didn’t find much purchase in hobbies either. My physical traits left me ill-suited to sports, so I avoided them when I could and detested them when I couldn’t. Video games might have been my ticket in, but the trash-talking halls of multiplayer games were too raucous for me. And if the more apparent standards for masculinity tripped me up, the minutiae simply floored me. I was accused of effeminacy for things ranging from the backpacks I wore to the way I ate shellfish. Knives? Men don’t use knives!
And here I was sure knives were manly.
This incompatibility with masculinity carried over to video game characters.
Going through the options for male heroes in Neverwinter Nights to Guild Wars to Dragon Age, I could never come up with a character whose skin I could settle into. They were to stout, or too strong of chin, or too covered in hair. The halflings in Neverwinter might have made the cut, but sideburns are as foreign to me as pointy ears, so I played a female half-elf, instead. Meanwhile, the male protagonist in Mass Effect is so invariably appalling that I could only bring myself to play one to romance Tali. And that only made me regret pairing her with an avatar so repulsive.
There was no foothold for me in the Brown-Haired White Guy. For a while, though, I found respite in the bishounen of Japanese games.
With their feminine features and personalities often starkly contrasting their corresponding masculine leads, bishounen were a breath of fresh air in the throngs of stubbled soldiers. I didn’t quite see myself in them, but I at least saw something I could aspire to be. I didn’t have the makings of a rough-hewn hero but with some work, I figured, I might approximate a bishounen.
Yet as time passed, it became clear that the bishounen was just as constrained as the standard male protagonist.
Of course he was: he was always defined in opposition to him. He was the ice to the hero’s fire; the rapier to his broadsword. If male leads were supposed to be first-among-everymen, their androgynous alterns were typically some sort of extreme: mechanically rational or maniacally volatile. If the hero was relatable, the bishounen was meant to be exotic. But I wasn’t some anthropological curiosity; I was just me.
So it’s not that I turned to female characters because I identified strongly with them. It was more that male characters — and the shadow of masculinity looming over them — had just about alienated me. As someone called “ma’am” as often as “sir,” playing female avatars full-time didn’t feel like much of a departure. No more than cloven hooves or ferns for hair, anyway.
To Man or Not To Man
For a while, I managed to grow into my female avatars the way one grows into a dormitory one will inhabit for a month: it never quite becomes home, but it at least gets comfortable. I no longer felt the need to dither around my choice of avatar. Still, it felt like something that needed defending, a necessary deceit.
Early this year, however, The New York Times picked up on a phenomenon that had been slowly coming to bloom in Japan for some time: the genderless danshi. In a short video called Genderless in Japan, they interviewed one of the subculture’s more prominent icons, Toman Sasaki. And as this slight, elfin idol spoke of the genderless style movement, I saw my unvoiced sentiments being put into words:
Genderless danshi are a group of people who defy what it means to be masculine or feminine.
In its nascence, the genderless subculture is hard to define with specificity.
It hosts a range of androgynous aesthetics and counts both straight and gay men among its members. This kind of composition means that within itself, various concepts of gender arise. Not all of them consistent with each other. The term itself, in fact, may be seen as a contradiction. Danshi means “man.”
This is all part of what makes it appealing, however; more to the point, it’s what makes it, at least for people like me, reassuring. Unlike earlier aesthetics of androgyny, the genderless movement wasn’t necessarily tied to performance arts. It didn’t have the historical-cultural burden explicit in bishounen either. “Personally, I think it’s hard for me to look manly,” Toman says, “yet looking cute is not it either. It’s not like I want to be a girl. So the only option left was to become beautiful.” From where I stood, in a similar state of ambivalence, that option seemed like one for me, as well.
So while the reasons for gender-bending in games are numerous, some shallow and some deep, they’re far from easily explained. For me, it’s part of manifesting that genderless danshi option that had been lying wordless and formless within me. But while my views are similar to Toman’s, they’re not exactly the same. When it comes to games, at least, I have no qualms being cute.
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