mō ichido, shōjo. (70s, 80s & 90s shōjo manga retrospective)

Gender identity and presentation of They Were Eleven’s Frol as seen through linguistic markers

Frol from <i>They Were Eleven</i>

Lately, I've noticed that some people have taken my translation of a Hagio Moto interview about Frol from They Were Eleven to mean Hagio uses the plural, gender neutral third person pronoun "they" when referring to Frol. I have to admit this troubles me somewhat, not because people aren't allowed to have their own personal preferences and interpretations as to what pronouns should be used for Frol, but because I feel like this misrepresents Hagio's intentions, which is the last thing I want to do. Hagio does not use a third person, gender-neutral pronoun to refer to Frol; the use of "they" was my choice as a translator, and I feel like I need to make that clear as well as write a bit of an explanation about my choice and about how the Japanese language works in this regard.

I chose to use the pronoun "they" because of the context of this particular sentence. The phrase immediately preceding "they" is "Frol isn't a boy or a girl yet"; in that context, it seemed out of place to use the more standard "he or she", since Hagio is explicitly saying Frol is neither, rather than either or both. Another possibility was to use "it", but I'm fairly certain most English-speaking people consider it dehumanising and offensive to use "it" to refer to human beings. My third choice was to avoid any pronouns and refer to Frol as "Frol" again, but that would have made for an awkward sentence. So I picked "they". If the sentence structure had allowed it, I would have preferred not to use any pronouns at all, but Hagio refers to Frol several times even in that short interview segment, so I judged that avoiding pronouns entirely would result in a translation that didn't sound like English at all.

So that was my choice. What pronouns does Hagio use to refer to Frol, then? The answer is none. This might seem a bit odd to people who have no familiarity with the Japanese language, but the reason for this is two-fold:

  1. Japanese grammar does not require a subject in every sentence.
  2. Generally speaking, Japanese people prefer to refer to other people using names or professions rather than you/he/she/it/they/etc.

1 means that it's technically possible to have an entire conversation without once referring to who the conversation is about. In Japanese, a phrase or even a single word such as "hungry" can be a complete, grammatical sentence; whether this sentence means "I'm hungry", "you're hungry", "he/she/it is hungry", "they're hungry", or even "are you hungry?" is deduced based on context and tone of voice. So once the context has made it clear that Hagio is talking about Frol, she does not need to keep referring to Frol with pronouns to make sure her sentences are grammatically correct.

2 means that it's very natural in both spoken and written Japanese to use words which are not considered pronouns in English in a context that would require the use of pronouns in English. An example would be if I were talking to my teacher and wanted to ask them their opinion on something. The most natural way to do this in English would obviously be "What's your opinion?", but the most natural way to phrase this question in Japanese would be "What's teacher's opinion?", even when I'm talking directly to them. Similarly, it's natural to repeatedly use someone's name rather than "you" or "he/she" in Japanese, so Hagio repeating Frol's name every time she refers to Frol does not sound odd the way it would in English.

Does this mean that Japanese is an non-gendered language that makes it possible to have completely gender-neutral discourse? Not at all; both Japanese language and Japanese culture are heavily gendered, it just doesn't come across in the same ways as in English. Throughout They Were Eleven, it's blatantly clear from the linguistic markers of the original Japanese text that Frol intends to present as male.

Frol using the 'ore' pronoun

The first time we see Frol speak, he1 is reacting to Amazon and Tada referring to him as a "woman". He uses the first-person pronoun オレ "ore", which is literally the first word out of his mouth. In modern standard Japanese, this is a highly masculine pronoun2, and the style of Frol's speech pattern match his chosen pronoun: his language is rough, full of slang, and lacking in any of the usual Japanese politeness markers. It's not that this style of speech makes his language innately masculine, but traditionally speaking, a higher level of politeness and properness is expected of female speakers than of male speakers3, making Frol's speech stand out in stark contrast to his feminine appearance.

The King and Fourth

Within the context of the story — since we're not supposed to believe these aliens from thousands of years into the future are speaking Japanese! — Hagio uses Fourth and the king to lampshade Frol's speech patterns: they refer to Frol's language as "Full of slang and utterly unsuited for his beautiful face," and "He must be from an extremely remote region, since he never seems to have learned standard universal vernacular." But outside of this fictional context, Hagio's intended effect on the Japanese readership is clear: they will identify Frol as "talking like a man" from the very first line of dialogue.

But that's how Frol presents himself (or, more accurately, how Hagio chooses to present him to us). What does Frol actually identify as? Frol comes from a race of aliens who are born neither male not female, but will differentiate into either sex during puberty. Throughout the story, Frol repeatedly refers to himself as a "man", and argues that because this is what he has decided to become at puberty, this is what he is. However, I'm not sure this is how he identifies.

Frol and Knu discuss what they call children on their home planets

Later in the story, when we learn that Knu is also from a race of aliens who are born neither female nor male, we find out how biological sex and cultural gender function on Knu and Frol's home planets. The offspring of Knu's race are born as creatures covered in hard scales which can withstand the extremely harsh conditions of their planet's winter, and randomly differentiate into adult males and females in the spring to procreate and then die. Adults seem to exist solely to fulfil this biological purpose, and if they do not differentiate, they became "monks", a third category separate from adult male or adult female.

Frol's society functions in a very different way, but its concept of offspring seems similar to that of Knu's planet: children are not biologically male or female, and the oldest child of a family is given male hormones at puberty while all the other children are given female hormones; until that time, Frol says, they are merely referred to as "kids", not "girls" or "boys". So not only do "male children" and "female children" not exist biologically, they also do not exist as cultural concepts in his society, as seen by the fact that they don't even have words to refer to them. Since Frol doesn't have a concept of pre-pubescents having a sex or a gender, and being pre-pubescent himself, it only stands to reason that he does not consider himself a boy or a girl — that would be an entirely foreign concept to him. He is merely a kid who has decided to become a man when he grows up.

Frol talks about his oldest brother's coming of age ceremony

As to why Frol has decided to choose to become a man when he hits puberty, this seems to come down largely to gender roles observed in his society. He says that on his planet men rule while women work, and when Ganga points out that a high ratio of women to men would make for a woman-friendly society, Frol agrees but goes on to say that women are "merely pretty", that he thought his brother's coming of age rite was "wonderful", and that he wants to become a man so he can be "fawned over" like his brother was. It's the gender role and the rituals associated with "malehood" in his society that Frol seems to aspire to, not the fact of being biologically male.

This interpretation is also supported by the final pages of the story, where Frol suggests that he could become biologically female if that's what Tada wants. Frol's desire to become male isn't so strong that outside factors (such as a potential lover) can't easily change his mind. Frol also reveals that the real reason he doesn't want to become a woman is because he doesn't want to marry the fat old man his parents have picked out for him, again cementing the idea that it's external forces guiding his decisions, not internal issues of identity.

If I'm being honest, there's more than a hint of heteronormativity to how Frol seems to decide which sex to choose; in the sequel Horizon of the East, Eternity of the West Frol decides that he wants to become a man anyway, but this time because he's mad at Tada and wants to date girls instead. What's important to him doesn't seem to be becoming the biological sex that matches his identity, but deciding who he most wants to date — as if he couldn't date Tada as a biological man, or date girls as a biological woman! But that touches more on a general topic of "womanhood" in shōjo manga that I want to talk about in some other post.

  1. I'm going to refer to Frol as "he" in the rest of this article. Mostly for convenience, but also because this is how I believe he presents himself within the context of the story.
  2. Before the Meiji period "ore" was a gender-neutral pronoun, and this use still remains in some dialects. Women who refer to themselves as "ore" in standard Japanese also exist, but would largely be considered eccentric.
  3. This is (obviously) a simplification of a much more nuanced issue. Modern standard Japanese has a tendency to veer towards neutral politeness; you won't hear many men speak the way Frol does, nor will you hear many young women speak in the exaggeratedly feminine way typical of female characters from manga and anime. Japanese fiction has a tendency to use more stereotypically masculine and feminine speech patterns than what you generally hear in real life.

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