Saturday, August 22, 2009

"And let me see thee in thy woman's weeds..."

I'm not exactly sure why this is, but I've always been a sucker for a good gender-bending, cross-dressing story. Maybe it's just some sort of wierd fetish I have, but I personally can't seem to get enough of them. Yet given the proliferation of the theme across various media and cultures, I can't be the only one susceptible to that kind of fantasy. I couldn't even begin to analyze the social or psychological implications of the trend, (nor do I particularly want to; it probably has to do with some kind of wacked-out, vicarious wish fulfillment), but I do think it's interesting to step back and compare some of the different stories that fall into this category and see the kind of patterns that emerge. So in this post I'll reflect a little on some of the woman-impersonates-man stories I've consummed in the past. And hey, maybe there's somebody out there like me who also likes this sort of thing and is looking for some more examples. Heck knows, I'm always on the look-out for more gender-bending fun.

To find really classic tales of women impersonating men, one need look no further than Shakespeare, whose works abound with such characters. Rosalind of As You Like It and Viola of Twelfth Night initially spring to mind, both of whom meet their future husbands while disguised as men. These situations not only provide for lots of humor and drama, but also allow the couples to get to know and be friendly with each other in ways that would be impossible if the women’s true gender was known.

… Which brings me to the first real item on my list today: a little 2006 US film called She’s the Man. She’s the Man is one of a number of American teen movies that take classic works of literature and transplant them into a modern-day high-school setting (à la Clueless and 10 Things I Hate About You). And which classic gender-bending tale does She’s the Man modernize? None other than Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. In the original play, the character of Viola (disguised as a man) is enlisted by the Duke of Orsino to help him win the hand of Lady Olivia. In acting as his intermediary, the disguised Viola not only falls in love with the Duke but also attracts the romantic attention of Olivia herself. While She’s the Man retains many of the key plot features and characters of the play, it completely overhauls the style, setting, and execution of the story. Like the play, the movie places emphasis very heavily on comedy and very lightly on dramatic tension. Actress and erstwhile comedian Amanda Bynes doesn’t make a very convincing boy, but therein lies much of the film’s humor. Watching her posture and pose and try desperately to act like “one of the dudes” is worth the price of admission alone, and practically everything out of her mouth is side-splittingly hilarious. Plus, there’s Channing Tatum to look at. Check out this awesome scene:

Yet Shakespearian heroines weren’t the first to assume male personae; the classic Chinese legend of Hua Mulan, a filial daughter who joins the all-male army in place of her ailing father and eventually becomes a great war hero, derives from a 6th century poem. The myth has survived the centuries to take on many different forms, including operas, novels, films, and television serials. Mulan became something of a household name in the US in 1998 when the story got the full Disney film treatment, complete with campy songs and wisecracking sidekick-to-heroine. While the Disney version presents a not so sensitive or subtle depiction of traditional Chinese society, this consumer still appreciates the value of the film’s dramatic and visual appeal.

Also of note is the fact that a brand new, feature length, live-action adaptation of the legend of Mulan is currently undergoing postproduction in China, where it will be released later this year. The film, starring Vicky Zhao in the titular role and Chen Kun as her love interest, was represented at this year’s Cannes film festival, where this teaser was shown. It looks to me like a pretty battle-centric war epic, but with the story of Mulan there’s always going to be some human drama and intrigue. No news on a US release yet, but here’s hoping.

Moving right along, we come to another classic gem in the gender-bender canon: the 1982 musical comedy film Victor Victoria, starring Julie Andrews, James Garner, Robert Preston, Lesley Ann Warren, and John Rhys-Davies. The movie, which takes place in 1930s Paris, features the struggling singer Victoria Grant (Andrews) and her openly gay friend Carroll “Toddy” Todd, who together concoct an unlikely get-rich scheme. The two will pretend to be gay lovers so that Victoria can become a successful female impersonator – in other words, she’ll be “a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman.” While I adore this film for many reasons (it’s originality, cleverness, winning humor, stellar cast, and great music), the main romance is not one of those reasons. I just don’t think Andrews and Garner had that much chemistry. Plus, his character never really believed “Victor” was a man, and where’s the fun in that? Still, this is a really great movie that I would recommend to just about anybody.

The next item I would like to discuss is probably my number one favorite example of cross-gender storytelling: the 17-episode kdrama Coffee Prince. Coffee Prince was a mega-hit on the trendy drama scene in the summer of 2007, and for good reason. The story and main character were unconventional (at least by kdrama standards), and the drama had a lot to offer (I felt) that many kdramas do not. Unlike the other stories in this list, the main character of this drama doesn’t need to undergo a big transformation in order to assume the guise of a man; Go Eun-Chan’s already so boyish in demeanor and dress that most people mistake her for a pretty guy anyways. Plus, Yoon Eun-Hye’s an actress who really knows how to play both sides of the gender coin. She does a fabulous job of bringing this unique and endearing character to life and of making her really believable as both a boy and a girl. I’m not a huge fan of Gong Yoo, but I really liked him in this drama. I also really liked the development of his loafer rich boy character’s relationship with the penniless and hardworking Eun-Chan. The two become unlikely friends through a series of bizarre circumstances, eventually sharing an almost younger-brother-older-brother relationship. Their friendship has its natural ups and downs, and Han-Kyul (Gong Yoo) eventually starts to question his sexuality as he finds himself more attracted to Eun-Chan, with lots of pseudo-homoerotic undercurrents resulting. Coffee Prince is just a really well-executed and engrossing drama to begin with, and any fan of gender bender stories definitely won’t want to miss out on this one. A scene from the drama:

Another recent cross-gender themed kdrama that stands in stark contrast to the trendy Coffee Prince is last year’s 20-episode sageuk (Joseon era) drama, Painter of the Wind. In this drama, cute-as-a button Moon Geun-Young plays a woman who, from a very young age, was raised as a male by her adoptive family of royal painters so that she too might achieve wealth and status as an artist (an option only available to men.) While I thought the drama itself was rather disappointing, I found the premise very intriguing. Moon’s character, Shin Yoon-Bok, was a real-life Joseon artist (male in reality), and the drama covers many of the historical events of his/her life. Her main relationships are with her teacher and mentor Kim Hong-Do (also a real person) and the giseang (female entertainer) who becomes her artistic inspiration. While I found the drama lacking in many respects (especially its latter half), I thought it provided an interesting twist on the cross-gender theme. The 21 year old Moon would make a pretty convincing boy, but only if that boy were about eleven years old.

And now we come to the last item on my list, a 1994 Hong Kong film called He’s a Woman, She’s a Man. Like Coffee Prince, this film features a boyish girl in male guise causing another man seriously to question his own sexuality. Unlike Coffee Prince, however, the two main characters here have more lust for each other than actual friendship. But it works for this film and these characters; one mustn't be too hasty to draw unnecessary comparisons. And in spite of its commercial premise, this romantic comedy features sharp direction, effective humor, and great performances including those of lead actors Anita Yuen and Leslie Cheung. Yuen in particular is wonderful, playing a convincing man and a lively, endearing character. The film was followed by a sequel in 2006 called Who’s the Man, Who’s the Woman, which while on the whole inferior to the original nevertheless includes some hilarious and memorable moments.

Before wrapping up this meandering post, I just want to say a quick word about the many cross-dressing themed manga out there (and believe me, there are a ton.) Still, I can’t think of any that I really liked, at least not any that I enjoyed anywhere near as much as the films and dramas listed above. The most popular and well-known example (in the US at least) is Hana Kimi, which I happen to loathe. That being said, I found the cross-gender subplot in Fruits Basket to be very compelling. In that manga, it was only revealed half-way through the 23 volume series that one of the characters, the ominous and mysterious Akito, is actually a woman and has a pretty twisted romantic past with another main character. I could go on and on about that series, but this is not the place. (Edit: I'm an idiot. When I first wrote this I completely forgot about Ouran High School Host Club, a gender-bending manga that I really like. Perhaps because there's so much other wacky stuff going on in that crazy series, or because the cross-dressing thing is never taken very seriously, but OHSHC just didn't spring right to my mind when I tried to think of an example of a good manga gender-bender.)

So there’s my list of noteworthy gender-crossing, female-impersonates-male stories in various media that I’ve enjoyed over the years. I’m aware that it’s not anything like comprehensive, just a semi-random list of all the ones I could think of today. Maybe I’ll write about more in the future (and in further depth too), but I just wanted to take the time now to appreciate this trend. I’ll definitely be on the lookout to see where it will pop up next.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Summer Diversions

So, my summer has unfortunately turned out to be rather suckier than most, what with my recovery from surgery being much longer and more complicated than expected, not to mention my having had to move clean across the country and back again in the space of a single month. Still, I did manage to have a little fun here and there in spite of everything, especially in the celebration of my twentieth birthday (yay me!) Although I’ve been woefully negligent of this blog for the abysmally long period of two months, I decided to write a brief summary of all the entertainment I’ve consumed in the interim. That is to say, rather than writing full-length reviews of everything I’ve taken in over the past few weeks, I’ve compiled a list of concise mini-reviews here:


Tess of the d'Urbervilles (Thomas Hardy). Ugh, I did not enjoy this book. My only previous experience with Hardy (reading The Mayor of Casterbridge for a high-school assignment) was likewise an unpleasant one, but I decided to read this on the recommendation of a person whose opinion I highly regard. Sadly, said person and I must agree to disagree on this one. I did appreciate Hardy's frank, non-didactic treatment of the subject of premarital sex, as well as his vivid portraits of the pastoral life of the farming class. Yet I disliked his characters too much to sympathize with their misfortunes, which they bring entirely on themselves. In this novel, as well as in The Mayor of Casterbridge, I found an unnatural and forced abundance of tragedy and melodrama.

Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways (Diana Wynne Jones). If I had to characterize these books with a single word, I would say "delightful." Not for nothing is Jones one of the most successful and respected writers of fantasy for adults and children on either side of the pond. I held off reading these two for quite a while because, although touted as sequels to Howl's Moving Castle (one of my favorite books EVER), this is only half true. Yet I should not have waited: these books may not be direct continuations of HMC, and they may feature Sophie, Howl, and Calcifer only peripherally, but they nevertheless retain all the originality, charm, and wit of that previous work. They are the sort of books that feature characters with whom one cannot help but fall in love, and about whom one cannot read without smiling continuously and laughing outright occasionally.

Teatime for the Traditionally Built (Alexander McCall Smith). The most recent installment in the very enjoyable "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" series does not disappoint. These books are rather like the literary equivalent of comfort food: simple, wholesome, and emotionally charged. Each novel in the series serves up the same basic dish, but it is invariably delicious. I love the reliable comfort of these familiar characters, with all their quirks and foibles. This tenth book features, among other things, another fabulous episode in the hilariously epic rivalry between Mma Makutsi (my favorite character, btw) and the elegant yet evil Violet Sephotho. Niether the series in general nor this book in particular are particularly strong in terms of tight plotting, but what they lack in that quarter they somehow make up for in general awesomeness. It's just hard to go too wrong with a story about the first and only female detective agency in the bright and beautiful country of Botswana.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Jane Austin and Seth Grahame-Smith). Yeah, that’s right: I read it. I figured the bizarre-0-factor alone would be worth the price of admission, and as an oddity of popular fiction it was pretty entertaining. Just take one look at the cover, and you’ll learn all you need to know about this unholy marriage of a regency romance and a gruesome gore-fest. Not everybody’s cup of tea, to be sure, but I personally was kind of excited about the idea. Still, the actual execution of said idea leaves a little to be desired. If you’re going to go as far as to transport Austen’s beloved characters into a zombie-infested alternate universe, you may as well play around with the story a bit. Grahame-Smith leaves the original story completely in tact, and just sprinkls in the zombie action here and there. Also, the discrepancy between his capabilities as a writer and those of Austen herself are as decidedly pronounced as that which exists between their choices in subject matter. P&P&Z contains just a few too many glaring grammatical errors and typos for a book written in the style of the early nineteenth century. Somebody needs to inform the author that those who truly wish to emulate Austen’s prose do not end their sentences with prepositions, nor do they split their infinitives. They just don’t.


The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, vol 3 (Nagaru Tanigawa). My feelings about this volume are pretty much consistent with my reactions to the previous two volumes: generally positive. I absolutely love the whole Haruhi franchise (here's why), but I must recommend the animated version over the manga adaptation as being the higher quality and generally better presentation of the story and characters. Still, volume three will continue to entertain those already hooked on Haruhi, especially since it features a really great sequence from the light novels that did not appear in the anime. Get your fix of ironic chaos and surreal mayhem in volume three of The Melencholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, in which Kyon and the gang deal with more wild ambitions and violent mood swings from their beautiful, fearless, and insane leader. Expect baseball, group shopping, and time travel.

Fushigi Yuugi, Volume 2 VIZBIG Edition (Yuu Watase). When I bought the previously released VIZBIG edition of this series, which contained volumes 1-3 of the series, I wrote a long-ish post about why I though Fushigi Yuugi withstands the test of time in spite of all its cliched storylines and dated artwork. This second VIZBIG installment, containing volumes 4-6, continues to entertain and to amuse. Additionally, volume four introduces my absolute favorite character in the series. I know Tamahome and Hotohori are considered the main heartthrobs of Fushigi Yuugi, but I'm a Tasuki girl all the way. Actually, now that I think about it, he may be tied with Nuriko for my no. 1 favorite FY character. They're both so side-splittingly hilarious, and yet endearing as well. Fushigi Yuugi has many flaws, but I still consider it to be a real gem of a series.

Bride of the Water God, volumes 2 & 3 (Yun Mi-Gyung). This manhwa is a stellar example of a series that doesn’t quite live up to all of its amazing potential. The artwork is strikingly gorgeous, the mythology is intriguing and complex, and the characters and premise are dramatic and interesting. Yet most of the time Bride of the Water God turns out to be more of a hot mess than anything else. All the elements of an incredible series are present; they just don’t all come together as nicely as they could. The plot is often confusing and unfocused. Still, at its heart BotWG is a very good folk/fairy-tale, something for which I am a total sucker. Also, the plot starts to pick up more in volume 3, what Mui’s strange bargain and Soah’s resulting return to Earth, so we’ll see what happens.

Ouran High School Host Club vol. 12 (Hatori Bisco). I’ve been reading this series online as it’s been released, so I already know that it’s around this point in the story (volume twelve) that things really start to pick up, plotwise. Readers who’ve been patient throughout volumes and volumes of filler arcs with no end in sight will start to be rewarded with some real romantic action from here on out. Not that those filler arcs aren’t great in and of themselves; quite the opposite, really. That’s what makes this series such a joy to read. Even when the plot is spiraling off into a seemingly random vortex of nonsense, it’s still character-driven and that’s what really counts. OHSHC is one of those series with which it is difficult to go wrong: consistently funny, endearing, and well-drawn even when the plot defies the boundaries of the plausible.


Sons of Sol Pharmacy House (aka My Too Perfect Sons). This weekend drama, currently in the second half of its fifty-episode run on KBS, has got the market cornered on hilarious, heartwarming family drama, not to mention some of the best romantic comedy storylines I’ve seen in a very long time. The cast exhibits a wide variety of talent, the show is well written, and each episode is fun fun FUN to watch. I find myself truly caring about these characters, oftentimes laughing aloud at their antics, and once or twice I’ve even cried at some of the more touching moments. This show is such a wonderful breath of fresh air compared to some of the dud dramas I’ve watched recently.


“True Blood”, season two. Holy canoli, has this show taken off in season two! I’m a fan of the novels on which the show is based, but after watching the first season I was kind of on the fence about whether or not to tune in for more this summer, but boy am I glad I did. This summer, True Blood has significantly improved in both quality and popularity when compared to season one. Not only are there some great new characters, including the newly-turned teen vamp Jessica and the mythically evil maenad Maryann, but some old characters also get more development and backstory, such as the now-short-haired Eric (yay!) I know that Eric in the show will never be what he is in the books, but I’m really starting to like what Skarsgard and the show’s creators are doing with this manifestation of him. Anna Paquin continues to bring fire and life to the character of Sookie, but male lead Stephen Moyer and his character, Bill, continue to irk me. Still, True Blood’s really an ensemble show, and one to which I look forward to watching each week with much anticipation.

“Dollhouse”, unaired episode 14, “Epitaph One.” The much-hyped fourteenth episode of Dollhouse’s first season turned out to be my favorite episode yet. Set in the not-so-distant post-apocalyptic future that results directly from Dollhouse imprinting technology, “Epitaph One” was fifty minutes of intensely riveting entertainment that would have made zero sense to anyone who missed the rest of the season. It actually made it seem as though season one was little more that an introduction to the main action of season two, perhaps of the whole series. That would be a good thing as far as I’m concerned. I am no officially looking forward to season two; I dare say we might expect great things from this show yet.


Disney presents “The Lion King” on Broadway. Gosh, what could I possibly say about this show that hasn’t already been said? It was amazing, of course, just as everybody said it would be. But what really got me wasn’t so much the costumes, perhaps because I was expecting that, but just the overall presentation of the story. They took a cartoon movie and, rather than creating a literal translation from screen to stage (as with other Disney musicals), they created a truly theatrical interpretation of the original film and used animal characters to tell a powerfully moving and very human story. I’ll admit that I cried, and I’m not ashamed. Plus, the music was great. I have three new favorite songs. Too bad the tickets cost about an arm and a leg. Each.