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Trans-Representation in Interactive Media

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I’m a trans woman.

I open with those words because I want you to understand the perspective of which I view everything I’m about to say. I’ve lived my life trapped in a body-shaped-jail that’s not my own and have met with a lot of hate from myself and people around me as a result. I’m currently going through my first year of therapy to do a full transition and it’s tough, soul crushing and painful. But it’s a road that I and many others will have to walk, hopefully to reach an end that will be better for us all.

I’ve found that in videogames, there’s not been many positive examples of a transgender person. They’re almost always done in a mean-spirited or just plain ignorant way. I tried to go through and find every single possible transgender character that have appeared in mainstream videogames. The list isn’t very long and includes a lot of characters that could just potentially be read as trans* but is never outright state as such. In this article I’ll be going through each one in the hope of finding a well intentioned and positive representation of a trans man or woman in a mainstream videogame. It won’t be easy, but nothing worth doing ever is.

Naturally, because of the way most trans* characters are treated from a story telling perspective, this article is filled with spoilers for numerous videogames. Consider this your one and only spoiler warning.

Negative Status Infliction: Poison

The earliest example of trans characters that I could find is probably the most well known trans* characters in videogames. Characters that are constantly brought up whenever the discussion regarding trans-representation comes up, as if to directly silence any further word on the topic. Which is not good, seeing as the characters does not in any way live up to the pre-set goals of this article.

Those characters are Poison and Roxy from Final Fight in 1989. Poison and Roxy are palette swaps and to avoid confusion I’ll be focusing on the more popular one of the two from here on out, Poison. Contrary to popular belief, Posion was always written to be a transgender character. There’s a common misconception that this was a change done to remove violence against women (sexism and and transphobia at once, great!) when it was released in North America. But if we look at the original concept art pre-dating the Japanese release and the official Japanese manuals for the game, Poison is noted as being a ニューハーフ (newhalf), a derogatory term for trans* people.

So before the game was even out we already have Poison being referred to by a derogatory term in the initial design documents. That means Poison was not meant to be a well intentioned representation of transgender people, but instead just done to fit in with the disgusting urban back-alley environment the game takes place in. But there’s always a chance that Capcom could redeem this later on by actually fleshing our Poison’s character and make her into a positive representation of trans* characters. They have no obligation to do so, but if they did then it would certainly be neat.

TRIIM-fightWell they didn’t, but they probably think that they did. When Poison became a popular character, Capcom began to give her more of a story and eventually gave her a job and career. Poison was now the manager for Hugo, another Final Fight character, as he got into wrestling. That was basically it, but it cause interest in her character to peak and as such Capcom started getting a lot of questions about Poison and her status as a trans woman, questions to which Capcom was not prepared to answer.

The lovable Yoshinoro Ono has been known to clumsily state that while Poison is transgender, the status of her sex is somewhat different depending on region. Stating that in the west, Poison has undergone sex reassignment surgery but in Japan she’s simply “tucking it away”. A minor regional detail that doesn’t matter when it comes to Poison’s personality and character, but it does start to make Capcom seem somewhat confused by their own character when small never before mentioned details like that are changed between regions.

Unfortunately, Capcom has since began backtracking further. Christian Svensson has been quoted as stating that Poison is meant to be a ambiguous character and that there is no clear answer on whether or not she’s trans* or cis, even though we have documents dating as far back as 1989 proving otherwise. But it should hardly be surprising that Capcom has no intention on taking Poison or transgender issues seriously, they proved that well enough with how Poison has been treated in the games she has starred in.

The most well known example is when Poison was introduced as a fighter in 2012’s Street Fighter X Tekken. When defeated by Ryu or Chun-Li, their winning speech would refer to Poison as being a trap and not being a real woman. These quotes were taken out before the release of the game, for good reason, but damage was already done. Jokes done on Poison’s gender identity was also done on the official Street Fighter X Tekken website, all of which has since been removed.

Your looks really can be deceiving. I’ll be careful not to fall into your trap” -Ryu
You’re not very lady-like at all! I felt like I was fighting against a guy…” -Chun-Li

-Street Fighter X Tekken (Pre-Release: 2011)

Lastly, when Poison was announced as a character for the game, Capcom was giving out pink hairspray bottle with Poison’s image on it labelled “IT’S A TRAP”, showing that they’re still just as derogatory regarding Poison’s status as a trans woman as they were in 1989. There’s no way I can let Poison pass as a positive representation of transgender people. She may be a bad-ass woman who’s really damn cool, but there’s an extreme lack of good intentions behind her and giving her a job will not sway me on that.

Ambiguity or else Let Us All Just Pretend

Let’s start with Faris from Final Fantasy V. Faris was disguised as a boy at young age by pirates due to the way pirates would act around women. Faris is revealed to have the body of a woman when Bartz and Galud try to dry Faris’ clothes. We learn that Faris is the princess of Tycoon and was lost at sea before being able to even speak properly. Throughout the game Faris is very defensive whenever gender is brought up and slips up on nouns now and then. Eventually, Faris is brought back to Tycoon, retitled princess and eventually even crowned queen. But Faris does not enjoy the life of being a queen and once again set sail to the sea as a male pirate captain.

Faris is never outright stated to be a trans man, but it’s open to interpretation and could very well be the case. I personally find that to be the most logical look at it, but chose not to refer to Faris by any gender since there’s no set fact on the matter. It’s one of the times where ambiguity actually works, which it much often does not.

TRIIM-ff5Another example I wanted to share is Leo Kliesen from Tekken 6. Leo was introduced without a set gender, no text in the game ever addresses Leo as male or female and the name is gender non-specific. Leo also has somewhat of a androgynous look, making guessing (which you should never do in the first place) impossible as well. This was all done on purpose, as explained by Katsuhiro Harada. He didn’t want Leo to have a gender, it didn’t matter. Not a trans* character, but a great example of ambiguity working… Until Tekken Tag Tournament 2 in 2012 where the developers all of a sudden decided Leo was a girl. Thanks.

However, a common trope when it comes to writing characters that could be read as trans* is that in the end they were just pretending to be another gender. I’m not talking about transvestite characters, I’m talking about characters that act like and are referred to as one gender only to then reveal themselves as just pretending all along. While not a negative or hurtful concept in theory, it’s seemingly always done to make the character seem normal in the end, where as revealing the character as not pretending but actually identifying as their gender of choice would have changed nothing in the story itself, just made the character more interesting.

Now, a artist should never have to change the work they feel they want to present. If the writer of said stories really feels that the only way their story could be told is with this eventual reveal, then it’s fair game. There’s nothing to be done about that and they can and should keep on writing their stories. However, I want to take this segment of the article to look at some characters that could have been really amazing transgender characters with just one minor change. Not to attack the game, but to show just how easy it is to get it right and how easy it is to then take it away.

A common example is Naoto Shirogane from Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 who throughout the game “pretends” to be a male detective only to then later come out as a woman, seemingly only to work for the dating portion of the game, which is exclusively heterosexual and thus needed Naoto to be a woman. Naoto is still a great character, possibly the best character in all of Persona 4, but the sudden flipping of the switch in her character always seemed odd to me.

Let’s also look at Sheik from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. As most people would know by now, Sheik is in fact princess Zelda in disguise. Zelda disguised herself as a male sheikah and lived that way for seven years. Sheik is in hiding for the most part, only appearing for characters to lead them in the right way, so I never quite understood why Zelda chose to pretend to be a male sheikah rather than a female one. It didn’t really seem to matter. Wouldn’t it be neat if Zelda chose that to feel more at home? What if Zelda was trans* all along?

TRIIM-shiekNow, I need to reiterate this before I get hateful comments. I’m not saying Persona 4 or Ocarina of Time needed to have trans* characters or even that they should. I’m just using them as examples for how easy it is to actually write a character that’s revealed to be trans* without making it the focus of the story. I like Zelda as a girl and I don’t mind Naoto as one, but damn, it would have been cool. Wouldn’t it?

Pretending to be of a different gender is also often done as a joke, be it Cloud dressing up as a girl in Final Fantasy VII. Just saying, when I play the game I totally view Cloud as a trans woman, so I make sure to always be the best Midgar girl for Don Corneo, that’s the wonder of customizable player characters after all. But that’s a whole different article.

Nintendoes what… Others… Don’t

Let’s turn our perspectives to Nintendo. A company I’ve been heavily critical of in many ways over the last year and still am. But we’re not here to spit on them, well, mostly not at least. We’re in fact here to praise Nintendo for getting something right. But first, let’s talk Super Mario Bros. 2.

You all knew this was coming, you can’t go two sentences into a discussion about trans* characters in videogames without someone yelling “Birdo is a transwoman!”. Well then, fair enough, let’s address that.

First of all, if you’re going to use that argument, you need to stop saying Birdo. The original manual, where all of this originated from, states the following:

“He thinks he is a girl and he spits eggs from his mouth. He’d rather be called “Birdetta”.”

-Super Mario Bros. 2 (1988)

Ignoring the four times that Nintendo decided to misgender Birdetta (recently they’ve even called her “it”), it’s clear that if you’re ever going to bring up this as an example in anything, you need to call her Birdetta. If not, you’re just being disrespectful towards her name of choice and have no place in discussing the topic to begin with. Though since I’m sure most people just bring this up as a “joke” to make fun of the discussion, I doubt anyone will listen.

So let’s talk about it some more! Birdetta, known in Japan as Catherine or Cathy, has been the butt of a lot of jokes in Nintendo games since. Including games like Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga where Popple had to stop in confusion before called her a dame. Most recently the Japan only game Captain Rainbow from 2008 in which finding out her gender is the goal of an entire side-quest. The side-quest ends with the player finding out that she’s a girl, whatever that means in the context of the game as it’s censored. Nonetheless, Birdetta counts as a trans* character, but I wouldn’t say it’s a character that’s dealt with any grace.

Let’s move on to some more recent examples. In Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door there’s the character of Vivian. Vivian is a ghost who is also a trans woman, her entire character arc is about coming to accept herself as a woman and respect herself. Vivian was originally bullied by her sisters and joined Mario on his quest after she realizes Mario treats her well. Vivian even has a crush on our dear plumber giving her some actual character depth and personality. In the end, her sisters accept her as a woman and it’s a happy ending.

So of course the English version took out any mention of Vivian being trans* and just made the story about her feeling out of placed and bullied. Thanks Nintendo of America/Europe. Thankfully, some of the other European translations does keep it in, such as the Spanish, Italian and French versions.

TRIIM-paperStill, it’s amazing that Nintendo not only created a trans* character, but actually dealt with transgender issues within family. That’s more than a lot of companies would dare to do. Vivian gets a stamp of approval for me as a character that completely passes as a positive depiction of a trans* character with well intentions behind her. Good job Nintendo and yet you’re not done there.

In Pokémon X/Y there’s a certain NPC trainer that was discovered quite recently that is a post-op trans woman, and is not made fun of or dealt with any differently than and other trainer in the game. Sure, the concept of sex reassignment surgery and gender change is done through NPC trainer titles and not gender nouns, but the context makes it clear and the way it’s done is just really cute to me. Good job Nintendo, mad respect to you for that.

It’s Not That Hard

In the end, it’s not that hard to write a trans* character that isn’t a total joke or insult. If you can write a character of a gender then you’re already there. For how the character behaves, acts, talks and is addressed by peope who know him or her, just write it the exact same way you would a cisgender character of that gender. We don’t want to be treated differently in real life, we don’t want to be treated differently in gaming. We want to have the same importance, value, reach and respect as anyone else. That’s all you need to do.

Granted, if you do want to deal with transgender issues in your story, a whole new area of difficulties opens up. If you don’t have a transgender person to personally turn to for advice and you’re not transgender yourself, then my best advice is to do your best and be understanding. Understand the fact that a person is being viewed as something they’re not by people around them. A trap. A fake. A monster. But don’t let the trans* person themselves linger on their originating physical sex.

I don’t introduce myself as a person who was once a boy. I was never a boy, I just appeared to be one. I introduce myself as a woman and I’m met with different reactions, many negative and hurtful, but on a personal level I view myself 100% as a woman, because I am one. In the end, that’s all you need to remember when writing a trans* character. They know what they are, they’re the same as everyone else. It’s other people who think they’re different. Don’t be one of those people.

I began writing this article in November 2013 as a entry in Jonathan Holmes‘ series on tropes relating to minorities in videogames. It evolved into something a bit different, but I wanted to talk about this for a short bit as it was the original intent and it’s somewhat important to the topic. The tropes that writers fall into when creating a character that is or was suggested to be transgender tend to be these:

  • Ambiguity to avoid taking a stance
  • Character was just pretending for some reason, often forced
  • Trans-status used as a formula for comedy
  • Trans-status reveal used as a plot-twist
  • Villain, often a effeminate trans woman because “lady-like men are scary”

I’m not saying you can never use these concepts, but please, try to avoid most of them if possible. They’re almost always used in negative condescending ways and they’ve been done to death already.

In Closing

I’ve only mentioned a handful of characters, negative or positive, in this article. I could go through the few pros and gigantic pool of cons regarding the way Atlus treated Erica in Catherine. I could talk about how much I love the character of Flea in the Chrono games. Kaine from NIER, Bridget from Guilty Gear XX, Gwyndolin from Dark Souls, Thomas Maclaine from Deadly Premonition, Bob Hickman from Police Quest: Open Season, Harold from Day of the Tentacle or even Alfred Ashford from Resident Evil CODE: Veronica. But I think I’ve said enough for one article.

Thank you all for reading, and if you have an example of a positive or negative trans* character not mentioned here, please leave a comment or hit me up on Twitter. I’d love to hear about it. Likewise if you have any suggestions or tips for video game developers who might want to try and write a trans* character but doesn’t know where to start. Get it out there, everything that helps in any way is appreciated.

I’m Tobiichi Karlsson, and I’m a trans woman.

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6 Comments

  • Good read. Tobbi. I’ve been waiting for this one!

  • I don’t think that changing your sex (no matter how skin deep that may be) is going to solve what it is you’re afflicted by. The only thing I know for sure is that God loves you, he made you and he didn’t create you to work against what he created (in making you). Jesus said “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Speaking from personal experience I can tell you that anything is possible with God, pray and ask him to change you, to free you if that is what you really desire and He will, no doubt, don’t let up until He does. If what you want is to continue down this path of pain, bitter depression, and as you put “soul crushing process” then of course that’s your choice, but know that there’s another way and God wishes to give your soul freedom, unconditional love and provide in you a new heart, not crush you or your soul.

    I wish you the best.

    • Tobiichi Karlsson

      February 5, 2014 at 10:20 pm

      Thank you for your concern, but I don’t believe in a god and I’m already doing better since I came out as trans. I think I’ll be just fine.

  • I think it’s rather telling that one of the most famous trans characters is Birdetta, a nonhuman (if adorable) being. At least that’s not some sort of stereotype as far as I’m aware. The concept of sexually provocative (or sex worker) transwomen types is though and I feel that’s how Poison is presented. Of all possible trans* characters out there, these are the ones that stick in people’s minds. If nothing else, that should make it quite apparent to anyone not well-versed in the issues how little the gaming industry has grown in regards to trans* representation.

    You touch on the topic a few times about how trans* characters may be quantified as such due purely to their genitalia. IE, the quote about Poison’s gender being dependent on location, or the NPC in Pokemon who is post-op. I would have liked to see you pursue these concepts further though because, at least from my perspective, I find it problematic how that is the way that so many people view trans* characters. To many, it is a clear-cut black and white issue centering around sexual organs and nothing else. Yes, this attitude is present in the real world as well. This piece does address that the focus should definitely not be on genitals, but again, I just would like to see a stronger push/explanation as to why that is an issue. I feel like these asinine “trap” jokes or talk about pre-op/post-op by random gamers can cause a lot of harm and bleeds into their perspectives of real life transpeople. These people (although they would probably not read this article to completion before tuning out) should be made aware that, just like themselves, transpeople are far more than their sexual organs.

    Thank you for taking your time to write this piece, especially since it apparently took a long time to come to fruition. I have considered writing my own article in relation to trans* representation and gaming for about a year now, but always end up putting it away for “another day”. Well, perhaps reading this will have given me enough inspiration to finally push through with writing it. Good luck in your future endeavors!

  • I, for one, would be very interested to hear your thoughts on Bridget. And the hypothesis that Zelda is a trans man is certainly an interesting one.

    By the way, I’d also like to say I’m… perhaps “relieved” is the best word… to see you *complimenting* those who seem to be making a good-faith effort to include trans* people, even if it’s only as a bit part. All too often there’s this nasty dynamic where under-represented groups inadvertently discourage greater representation of their group in the media, by vilifying those who try to include them but end up screwing it up slightly. Obviously those who screw it up should be nudged in the right direction, but vilifying them just leads to them preferring to leave out under-represented groups entirely for fear of the response. I mean, OK, I guess in this case Nintendo *didn’t* screw it up according to you, which is why you complimented them outright rather than saying “Glad to see someone making an effort, but there’s still a problem here”, but “They only included us in bit parts” and “They made us exactly like everyone else and didn’t account for our unique experiences” are common things listed as failure modes. So, regardless of the details, it’s nice to see someone assuming good faith for once.

    • Tobiichi Karlsson

      February 26, 2014 at 8:52 pm

      I have a lot of thoughts on Bridget, though I’d like to think them through a bit more before putting the word to paper so to say. But overall, the character trope of having a character practically raised “into” becoming trans* is one I’m torn on a lot.

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