Gender used to be binary—male and female. For better or for worse, that clear-cut simplicity is gone. Sexual orientations proliferate, each claiming its own separate identity. You’d think television, whose “tarento” pool is so open to novelty, would be at the vanguard of a fight against gender bias.
It isn’t so, says Waseda University gender researcher Junko Mitsuhashi in Shukan Kinyobi (June 12). In fact, she argues, television is mindlessly perpetuating the outmoded stereotypes.
The tip-off is a tendency she finds in her students to lump TV personalities Osugi and Ai Haruna, both of whom trade on their unconventional sexuality, in one category. And yet surely Osugi and Haruna are more different than alike. Osugi is gay, Haruna transgender. Osugi, Mitsuhashi explains, is feminine in his talk and gestures, but his clothing and his body are unmistakably masculine, whereas Haruna, though born male, is physically female following a sex change operation a decade or so ago.
Why would anyone think of them as birds of a feather? “Because TV does,” is Mitsuhashi’s answer.
The catch-all word is “okama,” which in pre-modern Japan meant first anus and later male prostitute. Today, the term refers broadly to men who do not fit traditional standards of manliness. “It has clear discriminatory implications,” says Mitsuhashi, “and yet the TV industry has not banned it.” On the contrary, some TV stars flaunt okama-hood as the source of their appeal.
Tossing Osugi and Haruna together into the okama grab-bag is to Mitsuhashi the equivalent of “an American saying, ‘To me, all Orientals look alike.’ Surely that’s offensive to many Japanese, Chinese and Koreans.”
If TV in some cases fails to make distinctions that are there, in others, Mitsuhashi finds, it insists on distinctions that shouldn’t matter. “Let’s compare,” she says, “the way TV treats Ai Haruna and Ayana Tsubaki.”
Both are TV personalities, both were born male, both were operated on and became female. And yet the personas they exploit—or have foisted on them—are very different, Haruna inhabiting a kind of sexual limbo between masculinity and femininity, Tsubaki being accepted as a woman like any other. The difference turns out to hinge on age—Haruna is 36, Tsubaki 24; Haruna had her operation in the 1990s, Tsubaki had hers in 2006.
A decade ago, gender identity disorder was little understood. Haruna, unlike Tsubaki, underwent her operation without being diagnosed as suffering from the syndrome. It seems a minor technicality, but it has had important ramifications. The diagnosis enabled Tsubaki to change her gender designation on her family register. Haruna was not so fortunate. Officially, she remains a man named Kenji. Thus, in order to thrive in a medium that imposes stereotypes even as it seems to defy them, she is obliged to play up an ambiguous sexuality which Tsubaki is free to cast aside.
“Being a mass medium, television maybe has to reflect popular mores,” Mitsuhashi concludes. “But with misconceptions proliferating concerning sexual identity, it should at least make an effort to straighten out distorted perceptions.”