This post was originally posted in February of 2011 here. It has been updated substantially.
You can watch the episode here.
Trigger Warning: this entry contains discussion of cissexist slurs, in particular the T-word. If you want to skip that, start reading below the ‘End of Trigger Warning’ message
Also, Spoiler Warning
I’m going to start in the most obvious place: the subtitles in this episode use the word ‘tranny’. In fact, the word gets used several times in the series, but this is the first occurrence. So, let’s talk about language.
When I read that subtitle, I winced; I’m particularly sensitive to the term, and even hearing it used in a reclamatory sense makes me cringe. I’m just not a fan of this word at all. It offends me. But more importantly, it is a slur - actively harmful language. To understand my perspective on this, I actually recommend something written by someone else - Kinsey Hope’s excellent post on words and offense. In fact, for the purposes of this discussion I’m assuming you’ve clicked that link and read her post.
So, Kinsey has hopefully established to your satisfaction that slurs are bad. If not, well, the rest of this discussion probably won’t do much for you, and I’m honestly surprised you’re reading my blog in the first place. However, in a fictional story designed to be roughly representational of reality, slurs can have a function. If slurs are used in contexts that demonstrate the bigotry of the speaker or challenge their usage, then they have a place in the story. And, of course, words used in a reclamatory context are as acceptable in fiction as they are in reality.
Before we can consider how the word is used in Wandering Son, though, we need to consider that this is a translated work. So, let’s investigate the Japanese world being used here, and see whether the translation is accurate. The Japanese word that is being translated as ‘tranny’ is ‘okama’ (おかま). Jim Breen’s WWWJDIC, an all-around excellent Japanese language resource for English speakers, has this to say about the word ‘okama’ (only the relevant part of the definition is provided):
(n) (colloquial, often derogatory) male homosexual; effeminate man; male transvestite
While gay men and transvestites are certainly insulted using the word ‘tranny’, as a slur its function is to attack trans women. As a result, this definition and the translation chosen didn’t really sit well for me. So I did some more research, and found this book, which discusses the use of ‘okama’ and gay male culture in Japan. The overall sense I got from this book’s treatment of the term is that the dominant cultural elements in Japan often conflate gender identity and sexual orientation (this is unsurprising, as it is true of straight culture in the US as well), and while GLBT culture in Japan distinguishes between the two more accurately, there is still some degree of conflation between the two. I suggest reading the excerpts available from the book for a more detailed look at this.
The upshot of all of this is that I get the impression that the translation here is accurate in context; at least, it is accurate enough for our purposes. Given the target and the speaker of the word each time it is used, I believe it was always translated so that it is accurate after adjusting for American cultural expectations. I am by no means an expert on Japanese language or culture, however, so I acknowledge that this argument may be flawed. At any rate, I’m proceeding with the understanding that the translation can be taken at face value.
With that said, I think the usage here is fair, narratively speaking. The first usage we see is of a somewhat confused boy using it in disgust; another use is by a character who is well-established as cissexist and bigoted. The word is also used reclamatively, and almost accusatively, by Yuki (more on that in a later post). These instances of the word serve to present cisnormative reactions to the idea of transsexuality, and so help establish the narrative of the broader culture in which Shūichi is struggling to define himself.
End of Trigger Warning
The episode as a whole was pretty uneventful. It almost feels like an intermission. A couple of things do happen that I want to talk about, though.
First, this episode finally touches on the subject of ‘outing’: Shūichi is outed to all of his friends as a cross-dresser (which, while not necessarily accurate, is typical of the tendency to conflate all gender variance). While shocked at the time, Shūichi later seems to be somewhat relieved at having the truth (or an approximation of the truth) presented by someone else. Yoshino, on the other hand, responds to the person who outs Shūichi with hostility. This leads Shūichi to realize (via internal monologue) that Yoshino is willing to get angry on his behalf. Later, while talking to Mako, he says “People laughed at me. In grade school, they said I was girly. But you and Takatsuki understood me, so I knew everything would be okay.”
Watching those scenes, I realized something that hit me pretty hard: I never had anyone like Yoshino and Mako. Throughout my childhood, I had friends, but I was never close enough with anyone to tell them about my gender confusion. It wasn’t until I met my wife that I would find someone I was really comfortable being myself around. If I had had friends like that, I may have come to understand myself years earlier. Those years feel wasted in hindsight - years spent not being true to myself.
This kind of regret is common amongst trans people - at least, it is common amongst the trans people that I know. I transitioned at the age of 27. Looking at average life expectancies, that means I spent one third of my life lying to myself and to everyone else. Being in pain, and depressed, and not even understanding why for most of it. It is hard not to feel regret over that.
Wandering Son, of course, doesn’t really touch this particular problem; Shūichi is still very young, and the story (in the anime, at least), doesn’t progress far enough to deal with the actual issues of transition. But it drudges up those feelings just the same.
Also in this episode, the students are assigned their roles for the upcoming play. Notably, they are assigned the roles by lots; Mako ends up being Juliet, while Saorin gets the role of Romeo. This is certainly an interesting plot development, since the normal Western narrative structure here would be to give Shūichi and Yoshino those roles (as that would parallel the overall theme of the show, and set up the classic Happily Ever After ending). Instead, we get Mako, who has some gender confusion of his own, and Saorin, who certainly wanted to be Romeo, but only because she wanted to use it as a platform to profess her love for Shūichi.
And Saorin, for her part, remains as unsympathetic as ever. She broods, whines, and is unselfconsciously self-absorbed throughout the episode, and ends the episode by asking Shūichi (out of earshot) “Why art thou Juliet?”. While this certainly serves to underscore the play-within-a-play structure* that the Romeo & Juliet play represents, it serves even better to underscore Saorin’s selfish, cissexist attitude towards Shūichi. Instead of wanting Shūichi to be happy, she wants him to be hers, and her heterosexual identity means that, as a consequence, she wants him to deny his gender identity for her benefit.
This is another narrative that is common in the transgender experience. Spouses and lovers of trans people often struggle to accept their partners’ transitions. This frequently leads to divorce, and is frequently accompanied by a selfish desire for the trans person to be cisgender. Some trans people choose to suppress their trans identity to keep their marriages together. Speaking partially from personal experience, I suspect that this rarely solves the problem, instead leading to resentment and depression. Saorin, here, seems to want to found a relationship on this dynamic.
* The extended homage to Shakespeare built into the first half of Wandering Son deserves analysis, but is outside the scope of this series’ focus. I’ll just leave it at ‘obviously, an extended homage to Shakespeare is going on here’.