This is an introductory preface to a planned series of (probably highly intermittent) posts on “otokonoko” (a pun that translates roughly as “male maiden”) note, AKA “josou shounen” (crossdressing boys), terms that refer to, variously, a character type, a genre of media, and (in the case of otokonoko) a RL subculture, that focus on cute crossdressing guys, and which is specifically targeted to (mostly straight and cis) men.
This material interests me greatly, because although female-targeted Japanese pop culture has a highly positive attitude towards male femininity, male-targeted Japanese pop culture still primarily treats male femininity as a source of humor. Although it’s largely a hardcore-otaku trend at the moment, and although it validates only a limited definition of male femininity (i.e., to the degree to which the crossdressing character successfully resembles a cute girl), it nonetheless displays a degree of flexibility in gender and sexuality which, at least over the 20th century, has been more associated with female-targeted media.
As a character type, the distinction between an otokonoko and a garden-variety crossdresser is that an otokonoko has to look good in that dress; cute, appealing, and femininely desirable. As long as he can meet those requirements, in fact, it’s not required that he overtly crossdress (for example, the awkwardly-titled Kazuki Makes Love Happen?! at ALL-BOYS High School, on MangaBox).
As a character type, otokonoko are widespread at this point; although intermittent examples date back to at least the early 80’s (such as Stop!! Hibari-kun!), cute crossdressing boys have become a staple in dude-otaku series over the last 5 years or so, especially in harem setups. In addition, the otokonoko concept itself, and the word, frequently crops up in modern otaku-focused media, from Genshiken: Second Season (in relation to Hato) to I Can’t Understand What my Husband Is Saying (in relation to the titular husband’s younger brother). English doesn’t really have a comparable word for the concept; “crossdresser” and “transvestite” are too generic, they’re not remotely drag queens, and, to stave off the inevitable complaint, the vast majority are not trans women. This has apparently given the various translators some headaches; “otokonoko” has been translated as everything from “girly-boy” to “trap” (the preferred term among Anglophone internet-otaku, the politics of which I’ll leave for some other day). I Can’t Understand What my Husband Is Saying, which leaves a lot of otaku terms untranslated (probably through exhaustion, because it’s chock-full of them), rather sensibly leaves the term in Japanese.
Aside from otokonoko characters in mainstream otaku media, otokonoko is also a genre, consisting of works focusing specifically on this character type as protagonists or love interests. There are a number of book-format otokonoko manga anthologies still running, both PG-13/R (such as Josou Shounen Anthology Comic and Super Otokonoko Time) and triple-X (find them yourself), and otokonoko stories also run in various shonen and seinen magazines. For a while, there were also two now-defunct magazines dedicated to otokonoko manga: Waii! Boys In Skirts (shounen, a spinoff of Rex Comic’s Comic REX magazine) and Oto★Nyan (seinen, from Million Shuppan). Otokonoko media simultaneously caters to two (possibly overlapping) audiences; men interested in crossdressing, and men interested in crossdressers. Consequently, in both Waii! Boys In Skirts and Oto★Nyan you’d see ads for salons offering discreet classes in clothing and makeup running next to ads for porn games featuring m/f, m/m, or crossdresser/crossdresser action (sometimes in the same game).
Although a few otokonoko stories are just about the awesomeness of wearing cute dresses, most of these works feature some degree of romance or eroticism, and many are straightforwards romances. Interestingly, many of the anthologies and both of the magazines have an about-even mix of girl-on-crossdresser and dude-on-crossdresser stories, making it one of the few places where you can routinely find m/f and m/m relationships side-by-side. The entire genre seems to feel that men interested in fantasizing about being cute crossdressing boys making out with girls in pseudo-lesbian relationships might also be interested in fantasizing about being a guy making out with cute crossdressing boys (or, possibly, being a cute crossdressing boy making out with guys) in pseudo-heterosexual relationships.
Otokonoko stories are generally aimed at a generic shounen or seinen audience, and as far as I can tell from this side of the Pacific, in Japan both the men who are fans of otokonoko media and the men who identify as otokonoko largely identify as both cis and straight. Consequently, otokonoko media contains a type of story that many Anglophone commentators refuse to believe exists: male-male romances primarily aimed at straight-identified men. In my experience of Anglophone otokonoko fans who have a preference for m/m, the majority also identify as straight. Personally, I’m inclined to give them a pass on this; if women who like pretty femmy guys are lesbian, as a depressing number of commentators on BL insist, then it stands to reason that men who like pretty femmy guys are straight. In addition, majority gay culture both in America and in Japan is heavily invested in insisting that gayness is manifest as masculine men loving other masculine men, and that being attracted to pretty femmy guys is Not Sufficiently Gay; in various discussions by gay Japanese men, I’ve seen crossdressing-boys material dismissed as not relevant to gay sexuality (for example, in Gengoroh Tagame’s intro to the Gay Erotic Art in Japan artbooks). And there’s the fact that what appeals to you in fiction might not be something you would want to do in real life; there’s apparently a lot of straight women who like f/f stories even if they have no attraction to 3D women. Interestingly, among male fans who do identify as non-straight, most seem to be bi rather than gay.
Although m/m otokonoko stories come in pretty much every flavor a standard shounen / seinen romance does, a substantial fraction feature plots in which a hot’n’sexy crossdresser aggressively pursues a gender-normative guy who is constantly wailing “but I’m straiiiight” even as he becomes (unwillingly) totally turned on. Some people interpret this as homophobic disgust towards the guy-on-guy, but considering that the only reason to buy this stuff is to get the guy-on-guy, that seems unlikely. On the one hand, the “hottie repeatedly throws themselves at loser guy who inexplicably doesn’t want any” plot is a classic of male-oriented romantic comedies, going back to Urusei Yatsura and Tenchi Muyo!. Presumably the fun of this is that you get to second-guess the protagonist; I get this vibe from a lot of the raunchier crossdresser-fetish stuff (as in “You FOOL! Why are you dithering about your heterosexuality when you could be tapping that?!”). On the other hand, when the story is aiming for salaciousness, the crossdresser’s efforts to seduce the gender-normative guy make a convenient excuse for lots of fanservice, and the latter’s reluctance may be the only thing keeping the series from becoming porn; if the crossdresser totally wants it and the gender-normative guy decides that heterosexuality is for losers and he’s going to hit that like a freight train, the author has to come up with some other excuse to keep them from getting it on. And on the third hand, it provides a kind of plausible deniability for the reader; if the lead character, who is totally straight, goes into meltdown when the hot crossdresser rubs himself all over the dude’s crotch, then you, who are also totally straight, are justified in buying a manga that exists to deliver scenes where a hot crossdresser rubs himself all over some dude’s crotch.
Heterosexual otokonoko stories also come in a variety of types: some offer pseudo-lesbian fantasies, some offer “sneaking into the girl’s locker room”-style fantasies, many offer vile sissy-fetish/fem-dom fantasies (especially the pornier ones), and some have interestingly genderflipped pairings (like Shounen Princess, left). And some have that weird vibe you get from a certain class of yuri, where the point of the exercise seems to be that you could bang everybody on the cast. Possibly the single most popular plot is “hot bossy girl with huge breasts who will force you to crossdress and then sex you up but good”, closely followed by “lifting the gauze curtain into the dreamy world of girls and becoming a part of the communal bathing, friendly boob-groping and girl-on-girl sexual experimentation that all girls totally get up to when men aren’t looking”.
And some stories, as I mentioned, are just about how awesome it is to wear a dress, and how looking good in frilly skirts will bring you personal fulfillment, feminine camaraderie, popularity and professional success.
So that wraps up the crash course in otokonoko: on to the project itself. I’m planning to look at selected examples of various types of otokonoko-genre stories, and some otokonoko characters in non-otokonoko works where I think there are interesting things to be said. I plan on an emphasis on works available in English, and also an emphasis on works I enjoy (or enjoy hating on). Furthermore, because I am a straight chick, there will be an emphasis on stories where you get to ogle the crossdresser, and because I am a rabid fujoshi, there will also be an emphasis on m/m stories. Be warned.
There are a couple of m/m otokonoko manga available in English through DMP’s Project-H imprint, and I’m going to kick this off by reviewing one of them: Ei Tachibana’s You See, Teacher…, Volume 1. Read on.
1. For the curious: The normal word otokonoko (男の子), “boy”, is made up of parts that literally mean “male child”. The punning version (男の娘) swaps out the ko meaning child for a different ko meaning girl or maiden (the same ko as in meganekko), giving a compound that literally means “male girl”. Often, the ko is written in katakana (男のコ), potentially adding a certain ambiguity (although this form always means 男の娘, not 男の子).