Monday, March 10, 2014

Pokémon and the Art of Gender Differences

"Are you a boy? Or a girl?"  Despite the professor's notoriously binary inquiry at the start of every game, the Pokémon series (1996-current) is very good at handling gender fairly  not only through the human characters, but also through the Pokémon themselves.

The friendly sort of franchise which uses its popularity to promote positive things, it also understatedly presents a positive atmosphere with regard to gender.  It captures gender diversity with an open attitude, from having fun with fluidity, to featuring gender differences that make a difference by not making a difference.


Well, Pokémon has certainly never had a problem with a little gender-bending...

Of course, issues of cross-dressing and gender confusion are never taken seriously, dealing in incidence rather than in identity.  As it, arguably, should be.

This review is a little different from the others in its lack of focus on one particular character (or even on one particular medium, as the franchise spans several).  The post about androgyny in Pokémon was supposed to be about Bugsy, until I realized there's...not all that much to say about him.

Bugsy is, unsurprisingly, a Bug-type Pokémon specialist and the leader of a Bug-type gym.  (What's the deal with insects and androgyny?)  In the Pokémon Adventures manga, he is briefly mistaken for a female.  Besides that, no one (save a few players beyond the fourth wall) seems to have an issue with it.

Other series characters whose gender has been canonically confused include Trainer Angie and Salon Maiden Anabel, both boyish-looking females.  The confusion is fairly quickly set aside and, again, isn't made a very big deal.

**Update, 2016:  Certainly also worth a belated mention is Blanche, the androgynous leader of Team Mystic from the mobile app, Pokémon Go. Players as trainers can choose to join one of three different teams, whose three leaders comprise one male, one female, and one very attractively ambiguous person.  It makes for an excellent balance!

As for the main game protagonists, while the player must choose between a male and a female avatar, the choice makes absolutely no difference in the trainer's skill or potential.  This is similar to the manner in which NPC trainers are divided into gendered classes represented by separate visual sprites (for example, two distinct classes of "Ace Trainer ♀" and "Ace Trainer ♂"), though there is nothing but an aesthetic difference between them (each is equally "ace" at what they do, relying on the same algorithms for their A.I. strategy and receiving no more or less respect in-universe).

NPC dialogue is delightfully rich and diverse in Pok
émon games, and while it sometimes plays upon gendered stereotypes, it subverts them just as often, ending in no particular messages about gender being pushed forward.  The player characters aren't even applicable to issue of dialogue and are neutral by default; they are "silent protagonists" defined simply by their open range of player-controlled actions.  This all might sound like an attempt to draw something out of nothing, but there is something to be said about being radically ambivalent.  If there weren't, then this blog wouldn't exist!

"Purely Aesthetic Gender" makes for a complementary sort of androgyny:  While a neutral appearance (that may express any-gendered personality) demonstrates the futility of pinning a gender on an image, a neutral character (that may be represented by either-gendered image) demonstrates the the futility of pinning a gender on a personality or role.


I've seen Ash's Pikachu on lists of "androgynous" or "gender-ambiguous" anime characters before, since viewers used to debate over whether it was accurate to call him a him.  At first, I thought that was extremely silly.  You can't call an animal androgynous, as if you have human, gendered expectations for it!

But then again, maybe it's not so silly to look at non-human creatures as representatives of androgyny.  After all, Pikachu's "androgyny" is really no accident; he was chosen as be the iconic series mascot over Clefairy (who features as the protagonist's partner in an early Pokémon manga adaptation) specifically because of his greater gender-neutral appeal to both male and female fans.

As of Generation II, the mechanic of "gender" was introduced into Pokémon games.  Gender, invoked mostly as a euphemism for biological sex, affects a Pokémon's ability to breed, and its response in battle to gender-targeted moves like "Attract" or "Rivalry," but not much else.  For the majority of Pokémon, males and females of a species are physically identical, and evince no familiar gender cues.  (Androgynous?)  However, some species do exhibit gender differences, in an aim to reflect similar biological morphisms in nature:  For example, male and female Pikachu have differently-shaped tails, thus settling the debate over Ash's partner.  Not that it really mattered.  As with the human NPCs, the differences are merely superficial.  (Purely aesthetic?)

In only two rare cases among the many hundreds of current Pokémon species, the difference is more than superficial.  The series's first venture into the concept of gender differences was back in Generation I where, not yet having established gender as a game mechanic, Nidoran♀ and Nidoran♂ were listed as entirely separate species. They and their evolutionary lines have strikingly different appearances and movesets, as well as different stats for battle  the males are more offensive, while the females are more defensive.

...Is that somehow "predictable"?  Maybe.  How easy would it be to consistently impose similar human stereotypes on these monsters, and base every gender difference to human stereotypes?  Easy.  Luckily, Pokémon manages to keep it in check.

It took until Generation VI to introduce another Pokémon for which gender mattered, citable as the first instance of gender difference framed within a single species:  Meowstic, whose male of the species is geared more toward support-based moves, and whose female is the more dominant attacker.

That's great, because that's part of what the androgynous ideal aims to accomplish: erasing the notions of hierarchical difference that have been so ingrained into the human perception of gender.  No matter how many fictional gender-benders exist to fight the preconceptions, it may be impossible in practice beyond theory to really reset the human mind to an ideological blank slate of open possibility.  However, it's not impossible to create a brand-new species in a brand-new world for which those preconceptions never existed.  It would be a waste to introduce hundreds of mini-societies of superpowered individuals, and then line them all by the same familiar gendered rubric.  It's nice to know that gender roles of Poké-society don't automatically match the commonly-perceived standards of human society, and it helps busts the myth of those standards' legitimacy as a natural or universal constant.  Personally, I've got a Meowstic of each gender on my in-game team, and they're both equally superstars.

Moving on!  Each species has a gender ratio that determines a Pokémon's likelihood of being either male or female when encountered in the wild or hatched from an egg.  With images courtesy of Bulbapedia, let's recognize a few species with the most interesting gender ratios in regard to their appearances.

Gardevoir are equally likely to be male as female... Even so, the species has been the most terribly common subject of fetishism through unsavory fanwork due to its apparent humanoid femininity.  Maybe it's not 100% due to that, though.  Some part of the appeal might just be attributable to that chance of not being female.  Undeniably, many people are specifically attracted to the transgressive mystery of a "trap."

Machoke (along with the rest of its super-buff evolutionary line) are more likely to be male than female, but still have a 25% chance of being female.  A lot of other Fighting-type species which are humanoid in form and exhibit perceivably masculine traits are exclusively male.  Still, it's neat to have some that aren't, to be temporarily forced to divorce notions of gender from appearances.

Sylveon are, in fact, much more likely to be male than female!  The odds are 7:1.  ...Technically.  Eevee is the one with the 7:1 gender ratio, and Sylveon is one of several species into which Eevee can evolve.  Were it possible to take a demographic survey of Sylveon trainers through the Global Link, I do have to wonder if the results would reflect that ratio, or whether a skewed percentage of players consciously choose to evolve their female Eevee into Sylveon and their male Eevee into one of the other options...

Of course, not all Pokémon are male or female.  Some have no gender ratio, because the entire species is genderless.   All Pokémon were functionally "genderless" before Generation II, but even after the introduction of gender differences an explicitly "genderless" option remained.

Ditto, naturally, is the most unique of that category: a genderless Pokémon with the ability to take the form of any other species it sees.  For trainers who aren't particular about pedigrees, having a Ditto makes the in-game breeding process very easy, as Ditto can breed with almost anything, male or female... implying that it can transform into either a female or a male itself.  With no inherent identity, it has the power to be anything it wants, and change whenever it wants.  Nice!

The "genderless" label is predictably assigned to species based on inorganic substances (like blobs of purple goo), but it's also less predictably assigned to most of the most powerful legendaries, or essentially the "gods" of the Pokémon world.  Legendaries.  The legendary guardians of the sea, the legendary masters of the weather, the legendary creators of time and space and the Pokémon world itself all genderless.  Do you realize the implications of this...?

"Genderless" is next to godliness.  Those divine creatures have transcended the earthly need for such base forms of identification and their followers should aspire to the same.

...Okay, so that's a joke.  The lack of "gender" – which is, again, more or less a stand-in for sex – probably has more to do with emphasizing their ineligibility for breeding, as we can't have a bunch of baby gods running around.  And there are a few legendaries that do have a gender.  But still.

Legendaries, who are often supposedly one-of-a-kind entities rather than a highly-populated species, would seem the easiest to gender, to build their story and personality around one pole or the other.  Yet most get stories where gender isn't an integral part of their role.

Mewtwo is an interesting example.  Anyone who grew up with Pokémon: The First Movie (1999) is probably in the habit of referring to Mewtwo as "him," as "his" psychic thoughts were communicated in a deep masculine voice.  However, a young new fan whose first experience with a Pokémon film was Genesect and the Legend Awakened (2013) might just say otherwise.  The Mewtwo featured in the more recent film (not really a second member of the species, but perhaps an "alternate" first, as the franchise's movies each seem to be standalone and non-continuous with canon) was given a female voice, and the newer art style lends to softer angles on its face, though still no explicit gender.

Like an androgyne, this is a character whose story hinges not on gender.  The fact that it isn't human may appear to invalidate it as an instance of androgyny, but it might as well be.  Pokémon are a race far more personable, more sentient, more "human" than real-life animals.  While most can't speak in a way that humans can understand, they can clearly think and emote, and considering that there are many who can be heard through psychic voices well, that's more than the games' human silent protagonists can say!  In a series that decisively posits the creatures as fully equal partners to people, it's not at all inappropriate to apply the values they express to the discourse of humans.

"The circumstances of one's birth are irrelevant," hm?  "It is what you do with the gift of life that determines who you are."  Identity by choice over nature:  These are wise words from Mewtwo, and a great message in any context.


  1. Beautifully put! Thank you for such an excellent, well-rounded article.

  2. You did leave out the most important gender issue of all: Combee. As a Combee it is notoriously weak, and only its evolved form Vespiquen gains more powerful moves. However, the rarer females are the only ones that evolve, while the vast male majority are permanently stuck as a small, weak Pokemon subservient to their queen.

  3. Many anime\manga (and stuff inspired by their tropes) have a female characters who is written gender-neutrally, uses "boku" pronouns to refer to herself, and acts and dresses tomboyish\androgynous. Like a woman that tries to be boyish. (which is called Bifauxnen) Maybe some "female" Pokémon and trainers identify more as that. Blanche is also that. So are Angie and Anabel. Bugsy is more on the Bishonen side.