Does this really bother you? Really?
At some point in my education as a gender studies scholar, I learned that one of the (many) reasons that the purveyors of television, books, and movies feature predominantly male protagonists is that boys and men are reluctant to identify with female protagonists, while girls and women are willing and able to identify with male protagonists. So by featuring a male lead, studios and publishers hedge their bets: men will identify with the character, and women probably will as well. Whereas if they allow women to be represented in media, then they risk losing that sweet, sweet male consumer cash. So it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle—boys and men are never asked to identify with girls and women, so they never learn to identify with girls and women, and so then in the next generation we continue to feature primarily male protagonists, and value predominantly masculine characteristics. Because why risk positive social change if it could cost some money? Not in capitalism, thank you very much.
I bring this up because my friend K brought something to my attention: People having an absolute hissy fit because one of the starter Pokémon in the new game has a second evolution that is too girly. No, I’m not freaking kidding. Apparently, when starter Pokémon Popplio becomes Brionne, the dress-like design and flouncy behavior is just a Step Too Far. (Personally, I think Brionne looks not so much like a girl as it looks like a poodle, but I’m not an internet troll so what do I know?) And in order to make it seem less like they’re being sexist, they argue that it’s not that Brionne is feminine, as that she’s overtly-gendered at all. They want her to be neutral. This is, as we say in the technical field, BS.
Back in the olden days, in the Long Long Ago, when I first started playing Pokémon, Pokémon didn’t really have individual genders. Some of the ones that did were literally shown as different species with the same name and a differentiating symbol, Nidoran♀ and Nidoran♂. But there have always been Pokémon that were seemingly coded as overtly male or female, even if they could be either male or female starting in Generation II when gendered Pokémon became standard. To go with the first generation Pokémon (which are the ones that I am familiar with, because I am old. While we’re at it, get off of my lawn), Machoke and Machamp look like giant body builders, complete with World Wrestling Federation belts. Jynx is what happens when a blackface Jessica Rabbit puts on a blonde wig. And while Hitmonchan appears to be wearing a dress, the Pokémon is exclusively male. So obviously, Pokémon have never shied away from having a gender-related appearance.
So what could the problem be? Could it be… *gasp* the fact that a male audience is being asked to accept a female-coded Pokémon as one of their starters? Maybe because, as one Twitter user said, Brionne looks like a “pansy”; because obviously, femininity and weakness are synonymous. Another user declared that all of the Pokemon had feminine middle stages, which… no? But the user also explained that this meant they would not be playing the game. Because the obvious reaction to being asked to deal with feminine characters is to refuse to play the game at all. Other users go the “I don’t wanna sound sexist but…” route, which basically guarantees that whatever comes afterwards will be sexist (It does. It’s science), and another user called Brionne gay. Because expressing femininity and being sexually attracted to the opposite sex are the exact same thing, right? By being feminine, Brionne is automatically “bad.” Brionne can’t be badass, or powerful, or cool—Brionne is weak, a “pansy,” and lame.
To be honest, I kind of adore the way that Pokémon has character designs that seem to be overtly male or female, but that those designs usually don’t actually determine whether the Pokémon itself is male or female. As Patricia Hernandez puts it:
In the real world, some people may choose to adhere closely to stereotypical gender norms, but when it comes to Pokémon designs, it’s not always as clear-cut. A dress-like design does not outright mean a Pokémon can only exist in the female form, and honestly, that should be considered a GOOD thing, not a threatening thing or a confusing thing. There’s no harm in it, other than letting a cute thing be cute.
In this way, Pokémon is inadvertently echoing the real world—or at least what the real world should be like. Female bodybuilders should be seen as socially acceptable, as should men who want to wear dresses. A more fluid visual gender code can only be a good thing. And it’s worth pointing out that Brionne also has its defenders, but they aren’t quite enough to counteract the frustrated despair I feel at the anti-Brionne faction. It sucks to see that even when gender fluidity is introduced in the low-stakes realm of Pokémon, people still freak the hell out.
Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. When she’s not too busy sighing loudly at people who begin their sentences “I’m not sexist but…”, she studies gender in popular culture.
Thanks for reading! Except for the very *very* occasional tip (we take Venmo now!), we only get paid in my own (and your) enthusiasm, so please like This Week In Tomorrow on Facebook, follow us on Twitter @TWITomorrow, and tell your friends about the site!
If you like our posts and want to support our site, please share them with others, on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit — anywhere you think people might want to read what we’ve written. Plus, if there’s something you think we’ve missed or a story you’d like to see covered, drop us a line! Thanks so much for reading, and have a great week.