Sunday, March 2, 2014

Naoto Shirogane and the Androgynous "Escape"

> The concept of androgyny can inspire progressive thinking about gender equality.
> The aesthetic of androgyny, in reality, doesn't always represent progressive purposes.

Both of the above are true.  When looking toward Japanese pop culture for ideals, it's important to note that Japanese culture itself does not necessarily reflect these ideals.

Persona 4 (2012) is a game that addresses many issues of gender and sexuality in Japanese society, in the rare direct terms of characters' personal psychological consciousness.  Rooted in motifs of Jungian psychology, the mystery-fantasy RPG features an interesting spread of characters who have each their own "shadows," parts of themselves they don't want to face.  One among the cast is the androgynous young detective, Naoto Shirogane.

The ideal of androgyny has to do with transcending cultural expectations in a way that fosters individual identity over categorical norms.  The reasons for Naoto's cross-dressing, however, couldn't be any more to the contrary.

Japan, even in the modern day, is an extremely conservative society.  Intense value is placed on social harmony, and intense stigma is associated with disrupting the status quo.  The notion of "individuality" is, decidedly, not the guiding ideal.

Naoto Shirogane is a sixteen-year-old female detective, a member of a highly discriminatory male-dominated field.  Her chosen career is a family tradition, but she also has a sincere passion for the work.  Still, she struggles with a range of insecurities:  For one, despite her incredible intelligence and skill, she feels she can never be respected as a professional in the body of a teenage "child";  for two, seeing ever only male professional role models in movies, books, and her own life experience, she feels she can never be respected as that kind of role model in the body of a woman.

So, she cross-dresses and upholds a masculine facade to fit society's expectation of a detective.

Persona's particular framework of issues of discrimination is constructed around societal concerns in Japan, where things like transgender identity are nowhere near as hot topics as they are in the west, hardly even in the discourse.  Still, some western LGBT+ fans of the series look to it for a sense of representation of their own issues, as there is at least a bit of room in evidence to justify alternate interpretations.

Naoto is propositioned by her "shadow self" to complete her identity by becoming a man in body as well as in presentation.  Considering that a shadow stands for one's most deeply-buried consciousness, this might be taken as indication that Naoto on some level truly wants to be male, and has seriously, internally considered a physical transition: that "he" is at heart a transgender man.

...However, it's hard to pull off that interpretation as a progressive one, as one of the major issues oppressing Naoto in the first place is the fact that it is considered necessary to fully become one gender or the other in order to be a complete, socially-acceptable individual.  If she were pursuing a masculine career while really wanting to be a man, that might be awfully convenient  but, for Naoto, the pressure to be a man is as strong and as destructive as the pressure to embody society's expectations of a woman.

Nenilein, a Japanology student with firsthand experience in the culture, has spoken deeply and articulately on the Persona series characters and their implications, as well as on the relationship between Japanese culture and pop culture.  Her various analyses have inspired much of the discussion in this post and are more than worth following in greater detail.  In Neni's words, Naoto may well represent "a deconstruction of the old idea of the cross-dressing woman as an escapist fantasy, since she is trying to escape just this way, and is not happy regardless."

The "cross-dressing woman" is a trope by which females are granted power or authority by donning a male facade.  That trope has become somewhat analogous with the aesthetic of "androgyny" through what might be deemed a misrepresentation of the latter term:  It is supposed to refer to a blending of masculinity and femininity that captures a neutral balance between the two, but that's rarely how it's invoked.  A woman who dresses like a man is said to be "androgynous," as if masculinity is the default neutral state.  This is obviously problematic in its conveyance of masculinity as an ideal norm, on top of the already-problematic conflation of masculinity with power;  meanwhile, femininity remains that which is merely derivative, that which is weak, and that which must be disappeared.  Potently in Naoto's case, her cross-dressing "androgyny" thus only makes her more oppressed and confused about her identity and self-worth.

It's critical to think about androgyny in terms of the fine line between transgression and progression.  To leap from the image of a cross-dresser to that of a social rebel, or to a socially free agent, or to a transgender person who has found their comfort zone, is not only logically unsound but, in this case, very culturally inaccurate.  Within a Japanese society of strict gender segregation, Naoto's transgression of boundaries does not progress her personal expression, but keeps it restricted.  It is neither a positive nor a permanent sort of "escape" from her troubles, but one that only allows her to run from her real key issue:  needing to find the strength simply to accept herself for who she is.

At the climax of Naoto's arc, what finally allows her to feel most comfortable isn't her gender-bending facade, but rather discovering that this facade doesn't define her.  I'd love to end there, automatically concluding that "who she is" is neither male nor female, an identity unpinned to something as fleeting as gender...

Yet, her exact words at one point are:  "I finally think that I can accept myself.  That I'm a woman..."


Does that really mean that one's true self must reflect one's natural sex?

The notion of a feminine "true self" is a hazy one.  The male player-protagonist of Persona 4 has the option to pursue a romantic relationship with Naoto, over the course of which he inspires her to "accept her true self," while also inspiring her to take up more feminine pursuits.  If he tells Naoto he'd like it if she started speaking with feminine Japanese pronouns (or, in the English localization, speaking in a higher voice), a later event is unlocked in which she will change from her male uniform into more feminine attire.  While Naoto still feels markedly uncomfortable doing such things in public, she is glad to do it at least for the person she loves, a person who makes her feel "like herself."

Honestly, I don't know quite what to make of that.  This throws the idea into of player-guided gender identity in videogames into an even more serious light:  Is it really okay for others' views to influence a person's own identity?  Is whether it's "okay" even the issue, or is it inevitable?  What really is a true self, a nature or a choice or something else?  Whether the Persona series can definitely answer all these questions or not, it certainly helps raise them.

There are some questionable implications in the gradual transformation of Naoto into someone significantly more feminine than how she started, which may be rooted in the extreme standards of femininity in Japanese culture.  But it might still be arguable that Naoto doesn't really end up as a full caricature of either gender extreme, and it might still be appropriate to interpret that she only meant, by accepting her "womanhood," accepting a fact about her body which she cannot change, yet which needs not necessarily define her.

The ultimate personal relief comes from Naoto's decision to start seeing herself as her self rather than as a boy in disguise, extracting the self from the societal meanings of the self.  And this is the androgyny I hope to advocate, whether or not it is advocated by the particular culture behind any work.

However you ultimately choose to apply her story, Naoto offers a new perspective on androgyny, and (on a similar note of separating the meanings and circumstances of a thing from the thing itself) a strong reminder to be cautious of cultural context when judging gender issues in foreign media.

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