Felix in 'Re:Zero' and Trans Representation in Anime and Manga
Includes discussion of the term "trap" and a discussion of transphobia, transmedicalism, and transphobic violence, for the purposes of education, raising awareness, criticism of culture, and popular media analysis.
The character of Felix in Re:Zero became a popular internet meme in the transgender community. Re:Zero is a prominent anime. Felix has a more serious role in the plot, and her existence is treated less as a joke, than similar anime characters that came before her. Re:Zero is a dramatic, violent, heavily emotionally impactful show, that resonated strongly with many viewers.
The Basics of Re:Zero's Plot
The show is based on a light novel. The main story revolves around protagonist Subaru suddenly teleporting to a fantasy world. Common anime setup, usually for light-hearted shenanigans, right? This is referred to as the isekai genre, which is often comedic and escapist.
Not this show though. Re:Zero is a depressing version of this genre, because of the twist: Subaru keeps dying. Every time, he goes backwards in time to a 'reset' point, similar to checkpoints in a video game. So, when that happens, everything he did after that point is erased, and he has to start again.
Imagine the stress it would cause someone! Imagine if you got shot in 5th grade and woke up in a classroom in 3rd grade, having to redo the last two years of your life. Subaru has to figure out, each time, what actions he has to take to avoid dying. It's kind of like precognition, but delivered in a nightmarish way. You could see similarities between his curse and Homura's plight as revealed at the end of Puella Magi Madoka Magica.
His life crosses paths with several side characters. Many of them reveal themselves to be more than what one might assume about them based on their anime tropes and archetypes. Silver-haired Emilia is more than a ditzy princess. Her "cute talking animal sidekick" Puck looks like an adorable cat, but is terrifying in combat. The twin maids, Ram and Rem, are similarly cute on the surface, and pure terror in a fight. The anime delightfully subverts anime characterization tropes and stereotypes. This means you can't make assumptions you might normally make upon the introduction of a new character.
Felix in 'Re:Zero'
So then who is Felix? Felix, also known as Ferris or Felis (as it's spelled on TV Tropes), is a similar Re:Zero subversion of a common anime character type. She subverts the expected cute, frivolous nature of cross-dressers and 'cat girls' (girls with cat ears, tails, and cute cat-like features). Anime has a long history of using both the 'cat-girl' trope, and the 'cross dressing as comedy' trope, in mocking ways. Characters like that, called "cat-girl traps", are often side characters, without narrative importance. They're just there to create comedic antics. Their identity itself is comedy. A cat-girl is funny because she thinks she's a cat, and acts like a cat, despite being a girl. Similarly, trans and cross-dressing characters are seen as inherently comedic, because they're seen as pretending to be something they're not.
Felix is an example of a trans-ish (we'll talk about her identity in specific terms later) character in a major, critically acclaimed anime, who defies that expectation. As such, she has become something of an icon, and major source of internet memes, in the trans community online.
How does she defy that expectation, of being cute, girly, frivolous, child-like, etc.?
After all, like many Re:Zero characters, at first glance, she seems like a walking embodiment of a stereotype.
But Felix, like many characters in the show, is a consummate badass. She's a knight who protects Crusch, a serious, strong-willed noble woman, who takes no crap from anyone. Felix generally mirrors Crusch's attitude. But Felix can also be less serious, often flirtatious and teasing. But when push comes to shove, they are both highly valued for their skills. Subaru allies with Crusch and Felix at various times because he can count on their honor, even if they are rivals to Emilia.
The memes and jokes surrounding this character fail to appreciate her seriousness and complexity. What people remember about her, or share in the form of memes, are the instances of joking and flirting. Not her sophisticated battle tactics, political intelligence, or terrifying magical skill.
Perhaps this is owed to the fact that expectations about certain character types are difficult to change. Re:Zero is about making the audience re-think everything they think they know about anime, not just in terms of the characters' hidden depths, but also with its revolutionary plot structure.
Is Felix Transgender?
In my mind there is really no question that she is. She sometimes refers to herself in the third person as Ferris-chan, and 'chan' is a suffix almost entirely reserved for little girls.
According to TV Tropes, "In the side novel focusing on her backstory, it is revealed that she been praying to be a girl for at least six years, and is using magic to prevent her body from getting any more masculine. She also gets extremely uncomfortable in men's clothes and addresses herself using feminine Japanese Pronouns. (Source)"
Pretty open and shut case, right? She is living full-time as a woman, goes by feminine pronouns, and always dresses as a woman. So, why is it that some people will still insist that she's not transgender? Well, the issue is complicated by the fact that being transgender in Japan is different. Let's talk about that.
Being Trans in Japan
Japan can be, on one hand, pretty open-minded and tolerant about gender non-conforming behavior, and in other cases, frustratingly intolerant. Gender non-conforming behavior is found in many anime, appearing in beloved 90s classics like Revolutionary Girl Utena, Ranma 1/2, and Sailor Moon. Sometimes, the shock of finding out a character is a cross-dresser is played for laughs.
But it was sometimes a serious topic, too; Revolutionary Girl Utena begins with a girl, main character Utena, passionately advocating for her right to wear a 'male' school uniform. These topics were discussed and shown in anime and manga before they became non-taboo in the United States and the rest of the Anglo-sphere. Sailor Moon was giving us strong, sexy, badass, empowered crossdresser characters at the same time that The Drew Carey Show had Drew's cross-dressing brother Steve, whose existence was always the punchline.
But accepting gender non-conformity, and accepting identity change, are different things. Japan is somewhat flexible with cross-dressers, but still treats their existence as comedy fodder at times as well. Without Christian influence (the Bible specifically forbids not only cross-dressing, but for men to have long hair and women to have short hair), Japan doesn't have a spiritual objection to being transgender. Sexual topics are mainly ignored by Buddhism, a religion that generally speaking promotes gender equality, and is the dominant religion of Japan.
And yet, Japan has been slower than any other country to allow gender-confirming surgery, and it currently resists the international movement to de-medicalize the identity of transgender people. Trans people in Japan have to be medically diagnosed with 'gender identity disorder' to get official recognition of their identity - self-identity is not good enough (Source).
In the trans community this is known as the transmedicalist viewpoint. This might be caused by the highly social nature of Japanese culture. The individual is simply not trusted to make their own decision to identify as transgender. Institutions are given the necessary prestige to speak for the individuals they represent.
Furthermore, it was only in the 90s that it became legally permissible to perform gender-confirming (aka sex-reassignment or sex change) genital surgery in Japan. This was caused by anti-eugenics laws following World War Two. Japan's laws prohibited the sterilization of people, unless it was necessary to save their lives. Japan wanted to ensure it never repeated its prior war crimes. After all, they used to force sterilization on people who were believed to be genetically inferior, including ethnic Koreans. Forced abortions were also common during and before the war. Critics of Japan's current policy say that they are now treating transgender people as genetic inferiors, by insisting on medical diagnosis to validate their status as transgender. (Links to articles on this topic below.)
Back to Anime?
What does the above have to do with anime characters? They're not real people, they're ideas, and ideas can, in theory, be anything. But, ideas with air time reflect the cultural realities of the people who come up with them and promote them. And the cultural reality of Japan is that trans recognition and rights lags behind other countries.
There is, a problem in the very language used in Japanese to describe trans people. Okama and onabe are used as slurs or for the purposes of comedy, referring to MtF and FtM trans people and cross-dressers alike. The English borrowed term "ニューハーフ" or "New Half" is often used, and is not seen in Japanese as a slur.
But that implies being "half man, half woman", when people who are transgender usually (but not always) fully identify as male or female, and so to imply that they're less than such can be seen as insulting. The technically correct term is "トランスジェンダー" or "toransjenda", borrowing the English word "transgender".
But in anime and manga, you'll more often see the use of derogatory terms "okama" and "onabe". These words are used to refer to anyone in the queer or gender non-conforming umbrella, based on whether they're more perceived as a man acting like a woman ("okama") or woman acting like a man ("onabe"). Sometimes this is derogatory, and sometimes it isn't, but usually in anime it's seen as a joke to be either.
Articles on Transgender Rights in Japan
- the economist
Some European countries used to insist on this, too
- Japan: Compelled Sterilization of Transgender People | Human Rights Watch
Japan’s government should stop forcing transgender people to be surgically sterilized if they want legal recognition of their gender identity, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
Anime, Memes, and "Traps": The Anime Trans Representation Problem
The term "trap" has come into common usage in English such that many people don't even know about its origins. It was originally used in anime discussion and meme boards to refer to cute anime cross-dressing characters whose identity is revealed after their initial romantic/sexual encounter with the straight male protagonist. This is something of a stock character and joke in comedy, ecchi, and harem anime and manga. The term comes from memes where such a character is posted, paired with the famous Star Wars quote, "It's a trap!".
The humor in these memes is in contrasting the femininity and cuteness of the cross-dressing male-to-female character with her revealed "real gender", meaning sex. Then the term "trap" was used to refer to cross-dressing males in anime, who were often drawn so femininely as to be indistinguishable from one of the female sex from birth. This soon extended past anime characters, and into discussions about real-life trans and cross-dressing people, and that's where it became an issue. Because it's one thing to call a fictional character a trap, but many real-world people, male-to-female cross-dressers or trans women, do not like being called something that implies that their identity is a joke, illusory, and/or a trick.
The trope has been negatively responded to by the trans community, as a result. It implies that a cross-dresser or trans girl is deceptive, that trans women are by extension all out to deceive straight cisgender men. It's a bad stereotype, that has even been used as an attempted defense in murder cases. A man will sleep with a trans woman, freak out when her male genitalia are revealed, and attempt to use that shock as an excuse for violence against the trans woman. Because trans women have been abused, and even killed, by this stigma, the trans community is sometimes very hostile to the concept of "traps", or joking about "traps".
Yet, in anime, we almost always get the line, "she's really a man". True trans women are rare as anime characters, because they're almost always referred to as cross-dressers, who are "really" male. The protagonists are often straight males, and their unknowing attraction to a woman who's "really a man" is used as a source of comedy.
This makes being a trans person who is looking for representation in anime and manga a frustrating experience. If you can even find a character who is called a "transgender" person, and not referred to as "really a man/woman" at all, the depiction of everyone under the non-conforming umbrella is usually not that great.
Trans women and girls in anime and manga are routinely either hyper-sexual vixens, or frivolous, cute, and infantile. And, owing to the tendency in Japanese media to sexualize the cuteness of little girls, sometimes they are both — at once sexual objects and infantilized. They are often "the trap" to the male protagonist, a humorous, but impossible, love interest. A stock character, who is meant to be funny just for existing. Their gender identity becomes a running joke, and is, in badly written anime and manga, the thing their entire identity revolves around. Just like a blonde might be stereotyped as a ditz, and her ditziness might be a running gag, the trans identity of a trans character is often a joke, and all there is to the character. A good test of whether a given character is a good representation of their identity or not, is if their identity, while being visible within the content of the story, is not the only think that we learn about them as the audience.
And trans male or even female-to-male cross-dressing representation? A trans male anime character is so rare that you could classify it as a mythological animal. Female to male cross-dressing shows up mainly just in shoujo (girl-marketed) anime and manga. This isn't treated as that shocking, or inherently funny, but girls cross-dressing as guys are often afraid of being found out, which can be played for drama and comedy. A major example is Ouran High School Host Club. In Sailor Moon, Haruka, Sailor Uranus, is a lesbian who dresses like a boy and has short hair. Though not a trans man, she is at least a positive role model for butch lesbians, who also do not get great representation in anime and manga.
Now, there are niche manga for these things, but they are less likely to get anime funding, and less likely to be heard of or discussed outside their niche audience. And, they rarely have the impact on pop culture that a more mainstream story does.
A Great Look at the Cultural Phenomenon of "Traps" vs. Transgender Women
Back to Felix/Ferris
"They are not a major character, but they still have an active role throughout the story, a discernible and complex personality, and their own personal motivations. When it comes to transgender and gender nonconforming characters, especially in action series, that’s more than I expected as-is." - Anonymous Fan.
Felix's identity is shaped by the viewers of the show, and how they perceive trans people. Their perception is influenced by pre-existing trans media representation. If they expect to see "haha she's really a man", they will classify Felix as "really a man". But, as I mentioned above, her status is pretty cut and dried; she is trans, judging by the content of the novel that explores her back-story. Judging by the Re:Zero light novel and anime, she is a minor character, and so a lot of it is left up to the audience's imagination and judgment.
Anime still has a long way to go in this area, and this reflects larger problems with Japanese culture. Hopefully, we'll see more trans characters in anime and manga in the future, and fewer tired old cliché tropes. Until then, we have Felix, the unintentional meme queen of the trans community.
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© 2019 Rachael Lefler