Sunday, March 23, 2014

Romeo × Juliet and the Androgynous "Act"

Of all the characters in history to be rendered androgynous, the last you might expect is the theater's most famous leading lady, the very icon of romantic femininity: Juliet Capulet.

...Yet, there she is.

Romeo × Juliet (2007) is a fantasy-infused anime adaptation of the classic Shakespearean tragedy, and it involves Juliet cross-dressing as a vigilante hero, basically forced into witness protection after the rest of her family is murdered by the rivaling Montagues.  Granted, the anime is certainly taking some liberties with the original story.  But it's not entirely inappropriate, considering that classic Shakespeare is already some of the gender-bendingest stuff in the literary canon.

Maybe not Romeo and Juliet, but more than a few other Shakespearean plays do directly feature female characters who cross-dress as men, including but not limited to Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Viola in Twelfth Night, and Rosalind in As You Like It.  Most of these characters are described as having above-average heights and other naturally androgynous traits, and they also exhibit personality traits which were perceived, at the time, as being masculine  active, defiant, and courageous.

Moreover, there was plenty of gender-bending surrounding the actual historical production of Shakespeare's works:  As women were not permitted to perform on stage for the large part of the early seventeenth century, female characters were traditionally played by young boys.  So, in an early Shakespearean performance, you could have easily had a boy playing a girl playing a boy.

Anime-Juliet, too, puts on a double masquerade.  First of all, she has two different alter egos; one is her everyday male persona named "Odin," and the other is a masked vigilante named "Red Whirlwind," who fights against injustices being committed by the Montague regime.  It is, in fact, under the guise of "Red Whirlwind" that she first meets her future lover, and during this meeting expresses nothing but contempt for Romeo as a Montague... technically subverting the love-at-first-sight trope to which the story of Romeo and Juliet is so inextricably tied, though it really only makes the spark more normatively gender-specific when they meet again as boy and girl.

Of course the love connection only happens, as in the play, at the royal ball.  In the anime, that stage is set by a female friend of "Odin" who convinces "him" to accompany her to the ball in female clothes.  What do we have here?  A girl playing a boy playing a girl!

Anime-Juliet pointedly resents having had to dress as a boy all her life, and enjoys this opportunity at last to "be a girl, just for a little while."  For the remainder of the series then, being female, specifically as such, is part of her identity.

There are, as always, many different attitudes associated with androgynous themes, and it serves to blur the lines of gender distinction only as often as it serves to make them more potent...

...Shakespeare and anime don't immediately seem to go together, but then again, they sort of do.  Shakespeare had magic and fantasy, had cross-dressing and gender-bending, and popularized plenty of tropes on which modern fiction, including anime, continues to rely.  Most of all, in their content as well as through the stylistic presentation, both mediums tend to balance precariously between pushing and protecting a status quo, especially in the gender department.

When the concepts of gender, identity, and quite literal "masquerade" are so consistently thematically intertwined, it's clear that all three warrant some deeper consideration.

In terms of studying androgyny, this kind of anime may be valuable more so than in its plot  in its historical connection, as an interesting reminder of what's cross-culturally and cross-generationally significant, of what values in romance, art, and gender have changed and what haven't.

1 comment:

  1. You should do something about the Sailor Starlights and Sailor Uranus from Sailor Moon. That'd be cool.