During the time when I retreated from my gender, I lost touch with a lot of the things that helped me keep my head above water as a young trans girl. One of them, Ranma 1/2, has come back around to me recently as a Hulu recommendation. As I’ve been working my way through a lot of the old scripts I picked up when I was still hiding and I’ve worked to get back to a mode that is sustainable as a disabled woman and a trans girl who spent a long part of her adult life on the other side of a dissociated fugue.
A lot of the old media I loved has turned out to be fairly dated as I work back through it, but once in a while, there are exceptions. Ranma is one of them. This series was pivotal for me in adolescence, because it helped me learn to see the world as a non-transitioning trans person. It’s not directly about transition, but it is about gender, and watching it again as a more mature individual, I start to see that it not only helped me learn to navigate my emotions more productively than perhaps any other representation in my youth had, it also provided me a lifeline at a time when the decision to keep living was not an easy one to make.
Ranma Saotome and his father are traveling martial artists, attempting to train in the “traditional” style that the media has popularized in kung fu movies. The catch is, when they were training at a sacred training ground in China, they fell into a pair of cursed springs. Now, when Ranma is hit with cold water, his body transforms into that of a young girl. His father? A panda.
This would be complicated enough in a culture that still popularized public bath houses on its own, but Ranma’s entire economic future is bound up in an arranged marriage pact that his father made with an old training partner, and now that family feels bound to honor the agreement, but a little horrified by Ranma’s predicament. As a result, they assign the duty of marriage to the youngest–and least gender conforming–daughter of the dojo, who also happens to be the focus of the lust of most of the local high school graduating class.
As a sex comedy, the work is pure gold, and as a spoof of the overly serious and corny martial-arts-injected action plotlines seen from 1970s and 80s grindhouse, it is also fantastic. Where it really starts to shine, though, is in its quiet representation of queer and gender theory that was truly ahead of its time.
Sex and Gender After Jusenkyo
While there are no explicitly trans characters in the series, it’s really difficult as a transgender person not to read Ranma as a trans man. He is perfectly assured and physically forceful, speaking with his body regardless of the way it is perceived by others. When he is stuck in the body with breasts, he often unselfconsciously forgets they are there when he is among friends and family, working out in his boxers and tank top without worry and joking with the girls about how his breasts are better than theirs so they shouldn’t be embarrassed around him. At the same time, when he goes out in public, he contends with the same sexual harassment and objectification that plagues the daily existence of his fiance.
All of this is a literal representation of the transgender experience, laid out in small moments and with excuses for cis people to imagine themselves into it too, which is why I am coming to view this series as a powerful teaching tool as I rewatch it. Ranma’s power derives from two things: his ability to closet himself and perform femininity for access to the few spaces where it is more rewarding than his masculine presentation and his ability to maintain his male persona in public without interruption. Most of the plot complications and gags in the series derive from one or the other survival strategy as he adopts it and finds it impossible to maintain for the duration of the crisis it was meant to address.
The complexities of Ranma’s relationship with Akane and the development of their love throughout the series becomes another point of identification for queer and transgender audiences. When the arrangement is first made, the condition of Ranma’s body leads Akane to reject the idea of marriage, and their parents to simply place them in proximity to one another. Ranma and his father are, after all, homeless travelers when it comes down to it, and the series makes light of their need to beg for food, but it also demonstrates moments in their life where real desperation sets in because they are completely economically dependent on their friends and chosen family–another parallel to trans experiences that most of us can not miss as we view the series.
As the anime progresses, more and more characters show up from Jusenkyo, each with their own unique “curse,” and they begin to form a community that has many of the same problems, one that supports one another and, even as they fight among themselves, helps to preserve the public perception of each other’s identities at all costs. As each new Jusenkyo victim shows up, it also becomes apparent that Ranma is the only one to make it “out” and live openly–at least among friends and family. The rest do their best to conceal themselves from public perception, avoiding the risks that Ranma accepts. It is in this uniqueness that he transcends his role as a stand-in for our experience and becomes potentially life-saving representation for those of us that had to grow up in the transphobic 90s.
Ranma is a man who is sometimes stuck with breasts and a vagina, but who pursues each and every objective in his martial arts career without pausing or allowing the condition of his body to stop him from participating as he sees fit. He defiantly rejects gender restrictions, competing where he will be accepted into the competition, and winning whether or not he is working to keep his muscle memory through a sudden resurgence of hormones that feel alien to his system.
Beneath the Sugar Coating
The series’ positive representation and lighthearted, sex-oriented joking goes deeper than it appears at first glance, too. While the surface seems to be a combination of kung fu and pink unicorns, the female characters, including Ranma when he is passing as female, all face a constant onslaught of sexual harassment from every direction, and Ranma receives an extra helping for being nonconforming, as does Akane. The series highlights this repeatedly, putting it at the center of almost every conflict, and it caricatures the varieties of male entitlement and vanity with a flourish along the way. Characters like Kuno and the ever-changing sexual predator villains of the week (who get nicknames like Mikado the Molester and span both genders) serve to remind us of the pitfalls that can happen when conventional cis ideas about bodies and heteronormativity and monogamy begin to impose themselves on trans and queer bodies.
Many of the plots in the series revolve around martial arts battles, but just as many revolve around consent, with many battles happening because Ranma or Akane attempt to refuse the advances of one or more characters at once, and in the moments where Ranma is being pursued for his body, the status of his “Jusenkyo curse” is a constant point of anxiety that drives his stress and makes it harder to assert his way out of the situation, sometimes out of fear of being hit with water and outed and other times because of fear of being grabbed in a way that makes him dysphoric. The onslaughts are played lightly but constant, a reminder of their frequency in our lives that lies just beneath the happy surface of what could be a queer family comedy (with a fair share of fun semi-nudity).
Ranma is not even immune to this at home, where Nabiki, his future sister in law, often snaps photos of him when he is exposed and in his most femme embodied forms. She sells them to several of the male characters throughout the run of the show. It works not because it’s funny, but because Nabiki is shown repeatedly to be untrustworthy and predatory, and it advances the plot by compliating Ranma’s life, and Ranma always takes it seriously. She also does this to Akane, catching her working out in her tomboy mode and fetishizing it to the very men who would seek to keep her by their side instead of training.
Queer Rhetorics in Cartoon Representation
Being in the midwest in the 1990s, with no ability to access transition resources, this show was an imperfect lifeline that still taught me important things about sex, gender, and consent. More importantly, it taught me about how to be queer and trans, both when it was safe and when it was not. It is so powerful not because it is perfect, but because it shows our problems perfectly. Homophobia is a constant problem for Ranma, both because it misgenders him and because it is socially acceptable in his circles, so the very women that pursue him relentlessly begin calling him “pervert girl” and assuming he must have a crush on the “other Ranma” and not a relationship with Akane.
The problems inherent in Ranma’s journey manage to provide striking visual lessons of survival tactics queer people can take advantage of, from passing closeted when it is safer to do so to internalizing a code of honor that prevents the outing of other people in the community to outsiders. There’s also a running gag about cis resistance to seeing trans identities throughout the series, and it almost seems to be too unbelievable if you haven’t been someone who has lived in a trans body. That happens in those moments when Ranma unapologetically presents as female while using his original name and when he is getting wet and changing. No matter how close outsiders (cis people) get to viewing the transformation, if they haven’t actually seen it, they assume Ranma is two individuals of different genders. That, too, was a constant lesson for a trans kid.
At a time when every day gave me a dozen reasons to kill myself, this show gave me seven seasons of relief. I’ve watched it three times in my life, each roughly corresponding to one decision not to transition. This time, I am seeing it after growing breasts, and I am only just now realizing how grateful I need to be for this series.
You can watch Ranma 1/2 on Hulu Plus.