Saturday, March 22, 2014

Robin Newman (Ace Attorney) and the Bipolar Gender

Well-known for its eccentric characters who spice up a normally mundane environment, Ace Attorney is a series of visual novel games about lawyers finding contradictions.  The most recent series installment, Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies (2013) features a character who presents one big contradiction.

Robin Newman jumps wildly between two gendered extremes, caricaturizing them both  and, by what can be called the ideal relationship between fiction and reality, renders gender appropriately hilarious.

Robin is introduced as a male student in the prosecutor's program at a prestigious pre-law school, which also happens to be the scene of a crime.  Fittingly named Chishio Atsui (literally, hot-blooded) in the original Japanese, Robin abounds with what can plainly be deemed "masculine energy," yelling loudly and passionately about every little thing, flexing in some sort of torso-hugging contraption... and occasionally smashing pottery for no apparent reason.

Finally on the witness stand, when the pressure is piled on by the paralegal protagonists, she bursts out of her mechanical binder and literally gets her troubles off her chest.  As it turns out, she was pressured to cross-dress in order to fit into a male-dominated career, but is not male at all.

Indeed, it's a familiar story to Naoto's in many respects, right down to audience reaction regarding issues of transgender representation.  Some controversy was stirred among fans over the flippant treatment of gender identity and the lack of sensitivity shown toward a character who easily could have been transgender: essentially being forced "out of the closet" under intense pressure and in front of a large gallery.  That would be a legitimate concern for a transgender person, but Robin most certainly is not.  What she is forced to do is merely shed a cover; she was born female and, in her own words, she identifies as "a girl, body and soul."

In this respect distinguishing herself from Naoto, once her "true" gender has been revealed she is more than happy to play her new societal expectations to a T.  From then on, supplementing her range of yelling and pottery-smashing sprite animations are poses like... giggling, sparkling, fainting, and gazing at high-heeled shoes.

By all means androgynous, visually ambiguous and encompassing both "male" and "female" personality traits, she's yet a far cry from the androgynous archetype of down-to-earth neutrality...but also, perhaps, not so inherently different.  As all it takes is a change of posture and expression for her to become a completely "new man," or a new woman, she walks a fine line that makes gender-bending look easy  because, when gender is boiled down to such simple traits, it is.

Eccentric characters who embody such "extremes" can be incredibly interesting.  Just as the neutral, natural, un-gendered androgyne (when framed against a gendered world, also notable as a sort of extreme) deliver valuable messages about the fluidity of gender through their radical indifference, the extremely bi-gendered character like Robin likewise takes a small, true concept and blows it up to caricaturistic proportions to draw attention to its truth.  While there's a justifiable fan practice of seeking or demanding more realistic representations of characters with modern social problems, that's not the only effective way to regard the potential of a character or story.  There's no need to treat fiction as a mirror of reality.  Fiction is more like a funhouse-mirror of reality, and in that way it can be even more interesting and more powerful.

That's a point in which this series excels, its characters often full of endearing and exaggerated quirks.  Robin Newman, for one, is an exaggerated caricature of both masculinity and femininity.  After her female reveal, her twirling and sparkling and fainting makes for the most absurdly blatant feminine performance, and it's hilarious.  Stereotypes like that only become a serious problem when, for instance, every character of a given sex in a story is portrayed in the same stereotypical way, reinforcing such ignorant sentiments as that all female people, on account of their femaleness, act flatly the same.  But Ace Attorney as a series has always been a gold-star exemplar of wonderfully varied characters of both sexes, so there's no way it can be criticized on that front.  There's no way the game is saying "This is what females are like."  It's simply what Robin thinks females are like, and what Robin chooses to be like.

The revelation of Robin's "true self" is treated much more like a joke  but it's difficult to imagine anything equating "my true gender" to "my true self" being framed in this context as anything but a joke.  After all, is there really so much of a difference between her masculine act and her feminine "self"?

Chishio Atsui never stops living up to her hot-blooded name.  Any post-reveal softening of her edgy, anxious demeanor has simply to do with the fact that her source of discord  having to keep a secret  is eliminated.  Still, she stays pretty much on the same level when it comes to over-the-top reactions.  She puts on spotless performances of two recognizably stereotypical gender poles. And when exposed to a character with this kind of back-and-forth dichotomy, you can clearly notice the emphasis on oppositional stereotypes, but you can also clearly notice the things that don't change.

Isn't it funny how both of her gendered sides are excessively emotional?  (Feminine?)

Isn't it funny how both of her gendered sides are loud and strong in presence?  (Masculine?)

Which parts really make up a "masculine" or a "feminine" self, anyway? The difference between the two seems superficially striking but, when you strip your preconceptions and think hard about it, it's just that  superficial  and pretty nuanced. It seems to me like Robin is constantly being, more or less, herself.

Isn’t it funny how everyone just perceives it differently?  How she’s suddenly happier merely being recognized as one thing or the other? How one magic phrase  "I'm a girl"  makes it suddenly socially acceptable to start pulling a pink high-heeled shoe out of hammerspace and swooning over it?  That act is no more or less bizarre, and no more or less more characteristically communicative, than pulling pottery out of hammerspace and crying over it, but both are equally her.

Characters who draw on stereotypes aren't always bland and uninspired, as what makes them valuable is the unique assembly of tropes within them and the unique settings into which they're placed. So why not look at how Robin’s gender functions in Ace Attorney’s court of law?

Isn’t it funny how something as obscurely obvious and meaningfully meaningless as gender can change the direction of a murder case?  Murder charges are a pretty big deal, right?  When a murder occurs at Robin's academy, a "female" voice is caught on tape and used as the basis for pinning a suspect.  Robin herself is immediately and intuitively ruled out as a suspect, since everyone thought her to be a boy.  But, the moment she's outed as a girl, she immediately falls under blame.  ...Well, after her reveal, the pitch of the blippy sound effects used in Robin's dialogue boxes did change from low to high, insinuating that she has been altering her voice to sound more masculine... but then, wouldn't it occur to investigators that other people might also be able to alter their voice?  Are they seriously going to pinpoint murder suspects based on something so shaky?

Yes, they are in fact, that’s the spirit of most Ace Attorney trials  and that’s funny!

As fun as it is to focus on a character's most extreme quirks, it would be unfair to completely reduce Robin to her genderedness.  Because, in the end, gender doesn't define her.

The most meaningful part of prosecutor-in-training Robin's character is her triad of friendship with attorney-in-training Hugh and judge-in-training Juniper.  They're friends whether Robin is a boy or a girl, and Robin isn't the only one in the group with a secret; they're also still friends after discovering Hugh isn't quite the young prodigy he was thought to be.  Their bond of friendship, which ultimately helps solve the case at hand, is something rooted in compatibility of character, and in times like this you can see how some things simply aren't relevant as markers of character.

Least of all, gender.  Robin's character may be controversial for having the nerve to treat gender as a silly, superficial joke, but  especially in a world of such outlandish characters that adopt all sorts of superficial traits and blow them to funny, fantastic proportions  it's neither unfair nor untrue.

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