Gender and performativity among the josou maidos

It’s complicated… [1]

Fukakai na Boku no Subete o‘ [My Totally Incomprehensible Everything][2]
KONAYAMA Kata, Comic MeDu, 2018 ongoing.
[http://www.comic-medu.com/wk/fukaboku]

‘Kimi Dake no Ponytail‘ KONAYAMA Kata
18+ doujin, 3 chapters, prequel to Fukaboku

“High school student Tetsu Iwaoka notices that his (crossdressing) classmate Mogumu is always alone at school. Wanting to give Mogumo a chance to make some friends, Tetsu invites Mogumu to work at his family’s maid cafe. While Mogumo is initially enthusiastic, there is one problem: this is an otokonoko (localised as girly-boy) cafe, the maidos ritually tell this to customers as they are seated but Mogumo is adamant about being neither a boy nor a girl.”
apres: https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=150104

Fukaboku is a curious entry into the ranks of gender-bending manga, as it bounces back and forth between fetishisation and didacticism. You thought you were going to get a crossdressing maid cafe ensemble comedy – perhaps with a side helping of otokonoko schmexy. Hah! A few pages into chapter 1 and we are hip-deep into a clumsy primer on the range of reasons why a (deemed-male-at-birth)/ guy body might find themselves in a maid outfit, or affecting any other manner of female/ fem presentation. [3]

Whether or not it gets an A for effort, a C for clumsy execution, an F for fetishisation or racks up grudgingly awarded bonus points from readers with more skin in the game is beyond my abilities to guess. I am here to chew bubblegum and do kitchen sink gender studies on a harmless gender-bender manga. Behold a very tentative, sideways attempt to, if not educate, at least acknowledge a wider view of gendered presentation in Japanese society [there be sooooo many reasons for the skirts] – while seeing if we can still wring some nudge nudge wink wink from all of it. Along the way, this manga might eventually touch on the territory glimpsed at in Bokura no Hentai, hopefully with far less dire.

Mogumo’s classmates know and accommodate their(sing.) situation but they are still isolated. Tetsu butts in because the family business was originally set up for his “girl inside” brother. Pronoun use is a tad below western respectful standards but at least the scanlators have localised otokonoko as “girly-boy”. Were this a few years ago, we well know what term they would have used for the characters. Also working at the cafe is a classic “likes guys” guy who enjoys crossdressing to tickle his boyfriend’s fancy; a cross-play crossdresser and a person who finds comfort in being an otokonoko/ girly-boy as a stopgap identity in lieu of (the difficulty/ impossibility of ???) “becoming a woman”.

“My two cents towards adding to a “best practice” code of conduct for straight writers –dreaming in queer– would be that ya can’t go wrong if you keep the tone of the settings, or at least of the actions of your idea-of-queer character “aspirational”. That appears to have worked well a few times. You can also hide a fair amount of sloppy behind it.”
https://heartsoffuriousfancies.wordpress.com/2018/08/15/spotted-flower-26-527-keep-your-eyes-on-me-now-were-on-the-edge-of-hell/

The ritual asking of “Did you know I’m a girly-boy, Is that ok with you?” to each customer eliminates one of the oldest “blood libels” against crossdressed presentation; no deception, so no trapping. As well, the character Mei finds a measure of reassurance in claiming the otokonoko identity for themselves. Mogumo however is adamant that they will not use it because it forces them to self-identify as a boy. Some comments across discussion forums have pointed out how the story bogs down in the negotiation of gendered pronouns and identity names but of course this is the whole point of the story. Even Mogumo, because they have been isolated from a queer social can screw up on polite terminology.

To further complicate matters, Fukaboku has a prequel two-chapter smut doujin mini-series (Kimi Dake no Ponytail– a third chapter was later added as a bridge to the cafe) that tells the story of how Suzu, the “likes guys” staffer hooked up and got very intimate with their boyfriend. Not Safe For Work. Also includes a number of “abolish gender!” pronouncements that set the tone for this later work. The takeaway seems to be that rigid ideas of gender and sexuality should not get in the way of a horny teen romance. It also might be time to add one more caution to the “how to write an aspirational genderqueer bonk scene” checklist. Suzu goes on far too much with the “do you accept me even though I’m not a “real” girl?” song and dance. As if to make up for this, we get a further reason for a crass young guy to seek out ok-if-wearing-a-skirt intimacy:

Your girly-boy squeeze might be as stoked on ridiculous naughty underwear as you are.

Yeah, sure, ok… Now try the left one, it got bells on it. It is only a matter of time before the “ain’t I sexy ’nuff without that junk?” effect kicks in. Suemitsu Dicca never really worked the potential appeal of naughty knickers in such detail, even as she deployed them as symbolic markers. On the other hand, Dicca hook-ups displayed far more self-confident desire from the interested parties. They got alone and went at it fast.

Also; tsk tsk Konayama-sensei; No glove, no love and don’t forget the tub of lotion. Consider throwing in a pitch for an HPV vax shot and blood tests later. [4] Mandatory public health chiding is in effect – with the caution that it should be equally in effect for het bonk stories. Stepping back, can we also use the presence and/or absence of such concerns as an audience and genre marker? If the work is pitched as yaoi, a certain amount of impossible physiognomy and fantastic detail-blurring is traditional. If this is josou/ otokonoko fetish-ry, should one would expect more attention to logistical details? As well Suzu’s boyfriend often verges on the edge of smug entitlement, if not outright piggie-ness. Then he turns around and declares true love. Huh? WTF?

How confusing. This is what comes from a genre which began as ero-games and then saw yaoi mangakas re-tread their wares as niche kink material for pervy straight boys. It would make a fun parlor game to try to guess or argue the target audience for this one. Josou fanboys or rotten girls? Source publication is no help, scanlation aggregator categories are after the fact. The doujinshi cover(s) list it as ‘Otokonoko” in the bottom corner(s).

In any case, Ponytail was only two 18+ doujins. While there are hints of some developing interest in Tetsu by Mogumo in Fukaboku, there is also a childhood friend who shows a very proprietory concern towards Mogumo as well. Step right up and place yar bets. If it leans towards yoai/BL then the woman-in-the-story as antagonist effect should kick in, unless she is a cheerleading fangirl. If a pervy fanboy property, the urge to pile on some quasi-yuri might win out. Or no further romance than Suzu’s off-stage relationship need rear its head.

As a rookie series, running on a small online comic site, Fukaboku is already punching above its weight thanks to its expository/ educational style. It seems to also have won at least a grudging pass from a smattering of outlander social media personas interested in non-binary and queer representation. Getting picked up as a project by -that- scangroup can also be taken as a form of imprimatur. For all their fanning out on gender-bending manga, they seldom waste time on obnoxious crap.

They will however waste their time on stories that fetishize gender non-conformity and herein is the reservation I have with Fukaboku. Japan has its own way of handling LGBTQIA+ concerns – mostly by insisting that they are in the realm of the personal and the private and should stay that way and well out of sight. That Mogumo has already been depicted as being able to go to high school in girl’s clothing without (so far) being overtly bullied and that Suzu, while in male garb can affectionately sneak some skinship with their boyfriend after school (though they still worry about being too “out”) might be as aspirational as this manga can think of getting away with when filling in background details. Otherwise, as per Japanese custom the only safe, accepting space available to minority sexualities and gender expressions lies on the edges of the floating world, within the realms of “play”, “the private” and “the personal”.

The rub lies not in that they can be, but that while being they must ‘perform” their selves in that space. Not only otokonoko but as otokonoko-yaku [5]. This is how Japanese society traditionally overcomes its fear of anything new and potentially disruptive to its social codes.

There is one further, somewhat distant reading – if Fukaboku and Ponytail are taken together, as a naive queer text.

“Our society does so much to place trans women in this zone of fetish material, but unlovable. She’s good for when you want to experiment and nothing more. You could never really be happy with a trans woman! She’s a girl but she has a dick. That makes nobody happy… these ideas are so pervasive, that when something overcomes them, I just find myself in tears. ” [6]

A straight-gaze reader will naturally situate stories like these two as one type of fetishization or another. The extra time spent on foreplay and the final declaration of true love in Ponytail may be bits of romantic tinsel draped over fetish pr0n to make fangirl readers squee but such measures also aspirational-ly argue for the real possibility of a happy queer teen romance. [7] Why shouldn’t queer teens get happy high school romances? Anything to keep teens from joining the Bōsōzoku [8] Finally, why shouldn’t non-binary schmexy romcoms exist, as their own thing, or must they be smothered/ hidden under a stack of straight gaze genres?

Will all the repressed straight boys and girls riot in envy if they find out that someone in Japan can enjoy a simple, uncomplicated romance with intimacy?

 

 

 

ENDNOTES:

[1] Hat tip for the title conceit to Michael Bishop

[2] As no English title has yet appeared for this manga, I take the localization of a song title and add the totally incomprehensible of Fukakai.

[3] It’s gonna be a mite clumsy for here on in as I dance with academic terms while trying to keep things simple. I might step on a few toes. Sumimassen.

[4] FCCJ speaker on HPV vaccination controversy in Japan. ONE anti-vax doctor screws everything up. There is a special place in hell for anti-vaxxers. Also; guys, don’t tell me that your soft tissues are immune from danger. Sure sure, guy strength protects against everything…
http://www.fccj.or.jp/number-1-shimbun/item/892-vaccine-battle-stakes-are-high/892-vaccine-battle-stakes-are-high.html

[5] Per Takarazuka, etc practice, the yaku suffix indicating “performing the role of”

[6] Lup and Straight Trans Women: Pt 2 by HATOMADA IS THE ONLY TRUTH (Asandyrabbit) (JUNE 20, 2018 )
https://genshikendropout.wordpress.com/2018/06/20/lup-and-straight-trans-women-pt-2/

[7] Is it a Western thing, or a het thing, or just me, but it feels as if only lesbian smut in Japan dwells on prolonged smooching/ spit-swapping. Never see much of it in het or whoever ecchi manga. Therefore: All male/ deemed male at birth bodies in Japan do not know how to floss and all their partners have long since given up on fixing their sewer-breath. Japan’s birth-rate collapses. QED. This is sad. Alexa, order dental floss, peroxide rinse, breath mints and play…

[8] …As there is a shortage of pool halls in Japan. Tuned-loud motorcycle touring clubs still exist in Japan; much to the annoyance of anyone who lives near a main street and wants to enjoy a quiet weekend evening. Since Japanese policing can be as arbitrary and random as it wants to be, I propose that all such riders should be fined into penury UNLESS they wear traditional long coats with over-complicated Kanji outfits -and- pose for pictures with tourists. Same with nationalist sound-truck idiots. Why must gender and sexuality minorities have to do all the performativity in Japan?

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