Friday, February 28, 2014

Hetalia and the Symbolic Unity of Stereotype

On the flipside of an all-female world, the web-comic turned web-anime Hetalia: Axis Powers (2009-current) presents a "world" of its own with, instead, an overwhelmingly male main cast... although it's anything but testosterone-fueled.

Following a premise of "anthropomorphize every country on the planet into a lovable bishonen to act out farcical renditions of historical events," the series thrives on the eye-candy of unusually pretty men.

Rather than having one token gender-bender to highlight, nearly every character has an air of androgyny to them, embedded into the artistic style.  Maybe it would be a stretch to say that the androgynous style can reflect some deeper level of unifying ambiguity, that it's somehow related to the overarching themes of world peace.  ...But sure, why not?

Hetalia has way too many pretty faces to look at.  From left to right:  China, a male character, is often mistaken as a female for his slender frame and long ponytail.  Switzerland, also male, isn't portrayed in a particularly androgynous light, but is voiced by a female seiyuu and has an original design that feels quite androgynous which would make a lot of metaphorical sense for a politically "neutral" country!  And New Zealand's gender was intentionally left ambiguous by the series creator for years until, just a few months ago, being confirmed as male.

Even when it comes to Hetalia's small handful of female characters, for example, both Hungary and Liechtenstein are noted to have been mistaken as young boys while growing up.  Gender, overall, is exceptionally fluid in this world.

But if I must narrow the focus  rewinding to the first season, here's who I really want to talk about:

Right there.  Look at that cute, tiny couple: Chibitalia and the Holy Roman Empire.

Their melodramatic sidestory is one of childhood sweethearts who are pulled apart by fate.  HRE, incorrectly assuming Chibitalia to be a girl, grows infatuated and hopelessly pleads with "her" to join him as part of his empire before he must ultimately leave for war.

It's the anthropomorphic representation of a political empire that no longer exists, in love with a cross-dressing baby Italy.  That may not even be the weirdest romance to ever happen on the Internet, but it comes close.

Admittedly, framing Chibitalia as an androgyne or a trap is not entirely appropriate, one superficial reason being that "child" figures aren't very sex-distinctive to begin with.  Any child could easily look like either a boy or a girl when dressed in the respectively gendered clothes.  Then again, it's also not entirely appropriate to talk about these two as "children."  They (or the countries they represent) are already over a hundred years old....

Talking about any relationship in the series as a "romance" at all is making an intuitive leap – one that the series invites you to intuitively make, but one that's all the more fun to appreciate when you really think about how you're doing it.  Of course, "romance" in Hetalia is used as an extended metaphor for political mergers and alliances.  (For instance, the character of France also proposes marriage to the character of Britain at one point, in reference to a historically proposed union of the two nations.)  The story is, after all, technically about countries and not humans.

They can swear loyalty to each another.  They can share culture, maybe teach each other how to paint, how to speak new words.  Out of context, or contextually hyper-stylized, that is kind of romantic!  But it is, significantly, stylized.  And this fascinatingly absurd frame of stylization grants Hetalia unique critical potential beyond any average show's portrayal of two straightforward "characters" in a romance.

You might think that's giving Hetalia too much credit.  It is, overall, an extremely fanservice-y series that rather shamelessly teases the typical tropes of shonen-ai (boys'-love) at the turn of every possible corner, not just with this one baby couple but more potently with the rest of the adult-appearing main cast.  Even so, who can help but admire fanservice that comes in such a brilliantly bizarre package?

The more bizarre the circumstances, the more aptly I think a piece of work can serve to highlight the bizarre human nature that interprets them in certain ways.  Here, this most certainly applies to gender and sexuality.  Hetalia is one of those series for which fans tend to get really dedicated to their favorite couples (see: shipping*), at least 80% of potential couples in this case being homosexual male.  Aesthetically, it makes sense for it to reach the kind of audience that likes homosexual male romance.  But, think about it too hard and it's hilarious just how arbitrary it is.  Does it need any further reiteration to understand why gender really, really shouldn't matter here!?  They...are...countries.

Before going deeper into those implications, let's follow Chibitalia's sidestory to its end.  After a tearful goodbye – "I've loved you ever since the tenth century!" HRE inevitably departs for war, never to see his girlfriend[sic] again.  ...Maybe.

Chibitalia, over time, grows up into the full-fledged country of Italy.  And it's not confirmed, but heavily hinted, that HRE grows up into Germany (which would make a fair bit of historical sense).  If so, then the couple's supporters may sleep at night knowing that the two are reunited:  Germany and Italy are destined to be partners again circa the twentieth century, united as the Axis Powers.

From there, they are to serve as the protagonists in the series's central World War II plotline (protagonists, since Japan was on their side, and this is a Japanese work).  And they certainly make an interesting pair.  Their opposing personalities complement each other well:  Germany has become a no-nonsense, highly-efficient, short-tempered soldier and little Italy has become a fun-loving, laid-back, pasta-obsessed coward whose charming incompetence is even emphasized in the series's title (Hetalia, literally "Useless Italy").

...Looking at those descriptions, now, it's not just their genders but their personalities which become questionable, as a tangent relevant enough to pursue.  Hetalia is undeniably built upon stereotypes.  The creator could hardly have picked any more terribly stereotypical Italian or German personalities!  And not even the country from which the series hails is exempt:  The character of Japan is painfully introverted and socially awkward, a cheeky way of representing the nation's history of "isolationism" while also poking fun at assumptions made about Japanese people themselves.

This sort of approach sounds problematic and offensive, and in many ways it is  it's enough to earn the show's English-dubbed release a TV-MA rating for controversial content in spite of its generally lighthearted and cheery nature  but in the end, it's also incredibly clever.

Even as it plays on every stereotype to ever exist, at the same time it fosters a sense of harmony and peace.  It works because the butt of its grandest joke isn't any one group of people in the world, but the world as a whole.  Every character is so exaggeratedly quirky that they fit right into the quirky Hetalian world.  And that world is a fairly honest microcosm of absurd reality:  a place where silly stereotypes are projected onto 2-D characters just as they are so often projected onto 3-D people.

By its very concept, humanizing the intangible core of a "nation," the series draws magnified attention to the act of projecting arbitrarily relatable characteristics on foreign ideas, and it manages to do so in a good-spirited, humorous way.  In much the same way that Baka and Test draws magnified attention to Hideyoshi's unique gender and the obsessive drive to classify him, the move to let viewers laugh at a human tendency can at least help make that invisible tendency more visible.  Thus, borders are at once defined and blurred.  It's hard to call Hetalia racist, because it's one of those things that crosses so many lines it just goes all the way back around in a circle.

"Draw a circle, that's the earth "

So goes the devastatingly catchy theme song.  Through the most roundabout complications, humanity is boiled down to its simplest form.  The characters are persons, yet they represent countries:  They are individual masses.  The historical content, while to be taken with a grain of salt, is yet pretty darn well-researched:  It's fictionalized nonfiction.  The plot is about war, yet we get shiploads of romantic teasing:  What is even going on!?  It's all so undefined.

Nothing is solid, everything is fluid, and it's impossible to take anything seriously.  Categorical stereotypes may reign, yet categories are futile.  ...That's the essence of androgyny, and that's why there could never be a more perfectly distilled metaphor for world peace than nations as a bunch of androgynous anime hotties falling in love.  Looks like we've come full-circle.

* Postscript:  The relationship between Hetalia and its fanbase is a whole other important dimension worth noting.  This series is very nearly on Touhou Project's previously-discussed level of intense transformation through extensive fandom interaction, a fact that could bring an amazing new level to this subject!  Besides all the "shipping," there is an incredibly popular trend of gender-bending fanart for the show.  For a completely gender-swapped cast that has even become an acknowledged part of the official series, which goes to further prove the fluidity of gender in this animated world, you can check out the keyword Nyotalia.
If you saw the recent episode about it, "I Was Overwhelmed by Heroines," what did you think?

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