A Brief History of Transgender Characters in Video Games [Updated]

Thank you to 52532 for pointing me toward Naoto and Karla for telling me about Gwyndolin.

Last updated: 26 March 2012

When the question was raised I realized that maybe not as many people as I thought know about the history of transgender characters in video games. Especially gamers who are not into the fighting game genre.

I think the subject has been written about before I but I also believe I can hopefully bring a little bit of a different take on the subject. I am included some characters that aren’t specifically transgender when I think they are relevant.

Birdo

Birdo is, as far as I know, the first transgender video game character. Birdo (Catherine in Japan) debuted in the Japanese game Doki Doki Panic in 1987 which was later released as Super Mario Bros. 2. The Instruction manual for Super Mario Bros 2 says, “Birdo thinks he is a girl and likes to be called Birdetta.” That’s the first example of how not to handle a TG character. I don’t like the use of male pronouns. I can’t say for certain but based on what I see, if Birdo was real, she probably wouldn’t like the male pronouns. Most MtF trans people don’t like male pronouns. The description of Birdo for the Japanese version of Double Dash says this: “Catherine appears to be Yoshi’s girlfriend… or does that mean boyfriend!?” I don’t know if there is a cultural difference that makes that statement OK but it doesn’t sound good to me. Birdo continues to be a re-occurring character in Mario spin off games.

Poison

Just 2 years later Poison appeared in Final Fight. Poison has been the source of many debates/arguments for me. I’ve written about some of them before. Poison’s history is, as far as I’ve come to know, somewhat ambiguous and debated. I have heard that she was always intended to be transgender. About her gender Yoshinori Ono said, “Let’s set the record straight: in North America, Poison is officially a post-op transsexual. But in Japan, she simply tucks her business away to look female.” I think it should be obvious by now that I don’t like this. He kind of implies that because she hasn’t had SRS in Japan that she isn’t really a woman but at least he still uses those female pronouns. It could be handled worse but there is plenty of room to improve. Poison frequents Final Fight and Street Fighter games and is a popular character for fan art and cosplay and appeared in the recent Street Fighter X Tekken.

Sheik

In 1998′s The Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time, Princess Zelda goes into hiding as a Sheikah boy named Sheik. While Sheik isn’t specifically transgender, Sheik can still be related to from a transgender perspective. Both Sheiks gender and sex are debated hotly on forums. I always enjoy reading a good Sheik debate. It is possible to wonder if there was any reason besides trying to hide in Zelda’s decision to live as a boy. Why not a Sheikah girl? Probably so the player wouldn’t know it was Zelda but it’s fun to wonder. Sheik only had the one entry in the Zelda franchise but is a regular in Smash Bros as Zelda’s alter ego.

Bridget

Bridget, from the Guilty Gear series, joined the cast in 2002 for Guilty Gear XX. Bridget is the character that I knew the least about when I started writing. Bridget, if I understand correctly, is actually a guy. He is a feminine male who likes to dress as a nun complete with a habit. I never played the Guilty Gear franchise but I always wanted to and Bridget seemed like one of the more memorable characters to me. Since he was intended to be a male identified person who wears women’s clothing and because I haven’t heard much about him, I have no real complaints about how his character was handled.

Leo

Eleonor Kliesen first appeared in 2007′s Tekken 6. Based on what I’ve read, Leo has no gender. I’m not sure if that would qualify Leo as Genderqueer since typically people will self identify themselves and the creators have not said, to my knowledge. I like Leo. Leo looks cool, seems tough and is a good step forward. ‘Love this character regardless of gender’ the developers at Namco Bandai demand. Leo is in my opinion the most positive character on this list. Bravo Namco Bandai.

 Naoto Shirogane

Persona 4 brought us Naoto Shirogane in 2008. Naoto is one of the coolest characters ever designed. It is a shame that the game handles him so badly. Naoto is a FtM crossdresser. Naoto always dresses as a guy and uses a deep voice, which he only very occasionally drops. He seems to be insecure and uncomfortable with his feminine body. Throughout the second half of the game he continues to try to keep his body hidden. What makes me sad about Naoto is that the game switches pronouns abruptly as soon as he is outed even though he continues to present male. “Why couldn’t I have been born male. It would have been much easier for me…,” Naoto said to my character in one conversation. He could have been the best, if only the game was more trans friendly.

Kainé

Kainé from the Nier (2010) was the original source of many arguments for me, even before I started transitioning and before I started identifying as transgender despite already being a crossdresser. Kainé is a female hermaphrodite (that’s the developer’s words not me). What frustrates me about Kainé is the number of fans who like to call her a guy. She isn’t featured in articles anymore so I don’t have to get into arguments anymore, which is a good thing. I don’t think the word hermaphrodite is typically used to describe humans anymore. I, also, am not entirely certain what the developer means by hermaphrodite, specifically, nor will I spend too much time worrying about it. Kainé has just appeared in her one game which has 2 versions.

 Erica Anderson

Continuing their streak of handling transgender characters poorly Atlas brings us Erica in 2011 for Catherine on both 360 and PS3. Erica works at the Stray Sheep as a waitress. She is a friendly, attractive red head who also happens to be transgender(or transsexual, I don’t think It has been explicitly said). I think that the worst thing the game does is give Erica nightmares which only male characters get. But making that slightly worse, the character Vincent makes several references to her not being a woman. Another character describes sex with Erica as “weird”. And she is surrounded by generally transphobic characters. I think Erica is could be a great character, unfortunately still not handled as well as trans characters should be.

Gwyndolin

Dark Sun Gwyndolin is a boss in Dark Souls (2011). A boss who has a disappointing amount of information on the internet so I am going to quote another blogger named Karla:

“She was the child of a god, and raised as a daughter because she had an affinity for the moon. Though many item descriptions list her as male, the whole affinity for the moon thing combined with a few hints at her hating her body and the one character who is closest to her using female pronouns in reference to her, makes me pretty dang sure she’s a trans girl.”

Notable Exclusions:

Faris Scherwiz (1992) – An androgynous female Pirate from Final Fantasy V

Roxy (1989) – A color swap of Poison.

Flea (1995) – A boss from Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross.

Vivian (2004) – A character from Paper Mario TTYD who is called a guy by several characters in the Japanese version but not in other versions of the game.

I also left out most instances of characters wearing women’s clothing for reasons other than gender.

and I like to think that My version of Commander Shepard is a TG Lesbian

Going Forward:

The world needs a good transgender character that is handled properly. Personally, I’d like to see a MtF character who isn’t in a fighting game. But that’s just me since I am MtF and am not good at fighting games. Feel free to note anyone I left out.

27 responses to “A Brief History of Transgender Characters in Video Games [Updated]

  1. I have not yet gotten to the game to experience it all for myself and determine my own feelings, but if you’ve played Persona 4 or read about the characters, I’m curious what you think of Kanji Tatsumi and Naoto Shirogane. Those two characters alone have made me want to put Persona 3: FES on hold and jump ahead (not like there’s much continuity anyway) in hope that I’d find something to relate to, but I’m wary of the execution. In the case of Naoto especially, there’s something rather disheartening that (if I understand it correctly) can be totally avoided, but I don’t know. Think I’ll end the comment here for now.

    • I had not heard of those characters. If I had I certainly would have included them. The game sounds interesting. I missed out on a lot of PS2 titles because I never had a PS2. I have, however, been meaning to pick up a PS2. If I finally do, that game will be one that I will hunt down and play.

      I read briefly about the characters, and really, I do not know what to think. If I ever do get the game, I will be sure to write up my impressions of these characters and maybe do an updated History of TG characters.

      • I would be very interested in reading your impression of them if that should ever happen. It’s by chance that I found this post and I plan to read through more of your blog at a later date. :)

        I found the Birdetta story really interesting, mainly because of a startling contrast I noticed between my own thoughts/feelings and a character I’d seen on my television so many times. See, I have a lot of conflicting feelings in regards to gender identity and am in the process of figuring out what type or degree of gender expression, if any at all, would make me feel more comfortable in my own skin (which feels somehow weird to say, given the narrative that seems most typical of trans* persons), but I won’t get too specific. Anyway, I’m someone that never really understood the dichotomous relationships between what was considered boy/girl behavior or gender-typical, so for example I wouldn’t associate the color pink and a bow with femininity. Yet, maybe from some underlying societal influence or just having been used to similar things being indicative of a character’s gender throughout all kinds of media, I always saw the character as female. Granted, to continue viewing Birdo as female now, only referring to her with the Birdetta name, would surely make the character happy (is that too in-universe to say?) and is evidence that she does an excellent job of passing, if “passing” is even something worth thinking about right now – I’ve gone back and forth on whether or not that term is negative. Anyway, sorry for rambling; I’ve kind of lost track of what I was trying to say, which is itself funny to think about given that I wasn’t making a point about anything so much as sharing something that intrigued me. Hm.

        With the Persona 4 characters I mentioned previously – again, going by what I’ve read about them prior to playing and not firsthand experience – I’m not sure if I should to refer to them as transgender characters necessarily, and if so, whether they’re a good representation or not. I mean, I would love to think of them as such for the sole purpose of having something to connect with while playing, but the more I look into it I’m not sure what to think – I suppose that at the least they’re characters whose existence serves to address the societal construct of gender, and their identities are made irrelevant depending upon the context you place them in.

        Naoto who is more androgynous in appearance, prefers male pronouns and tries to act very mature for his age, is essentially outed as female and revealed to have this male identity because it was the only way to be taken seriously as a detective by patriarchy … Already, I’m uncertain of how to interpret that, and then there’s the possible romance arc in which I’ve heard the player-character can persuade Naoto to dress in a more “feminine” way and the game shifts to using female pronouns for him, all the while there being hints of discomfort and the character’s identity bending to fit this new mold. It sounds creepy, in a way. Something that can be avoided by choosing not to romance Naoto, sure, but that it can even be done at all is unsettling to me.

        Kanji doesn’t appear to actually identify as female in any way, but is stuck in having behaviors and interests socially viewed as being feminine while having to hide in an external shell of machismo, lest everyone around him label him as being gay or simply weird for not being stereotypically male. Without being bent to fit in any other context, as in Naoto’s romance arc, the Kanji character struggles with what it means to be a “man” or a “woman” – something that many players interpret more as a question of sexual orientation, likely for the same reason that the fictional people of Inaba do, and because the game intentionally leaves his orientation ambiguous while his Shadow self acts stereotypically gay.

        Not sure if I really described any of that in the best way, and I still need to see it all for myself before I can judge whether or not it’s handled well, but it is interesting to me that video game developers have at least attempted to do something with the topic. For right now, it seems like the best way to have a transgender character in a game is to have them be physically androgynous and then never address what they identify as, were assigned at birth, etc. To try explaining lends itself to all kinds of potential mistakes. I am curious to see if anyone will ever find a way to write a transitioning character for a game …

    • I actually have made arrangements to play the game. I don’t know how long it is but as soon as I finish it I will be writing something about it. At the very least I will be updating this post to add those two characters.

      The problem with trans characters is that TG is something that we each choose to identify as (just want to point out a distinction in case someone stumbles across this comment, the label itself is what we choose, being trans isn’t a choice). No one tells us what labels to use, so since none of the developers seem to be familiar with TG people, the characters themselves or their descriptions in manuals etc. never let us know exactly how that character identifies.

      Speaking specifically about those two characters. I’m still not sure what to think. There have been a number of people in history that have dressed as the gender opposite of what they actually identify for various reason’s not having to do with gender identity. One example that comes to mind is Frenchy from the Black Beard documentary that I saw on history or national geographic. I don’t think these people count as trans because I don’t think they would label themselves as that. On the other hand, in the description you gave you specifically mentioned discomfort for Naoto, which does sound trans. It’s hard to guess, but that’s what it would be because the characters can’t tell us.

      [EDIT] I was completely wrong about Kanji. I was led to believe he crossdressed on his own. That was not the case. Not only was Kanji forced to dress as a woman but it was a very difficult part of the game for me, as a trans woman, to play through.

  2. Pingback: Persona 4 (Review + Gender and Sexuality) « TransGamerSociologist

  3. amazing!
    to be honest i used to play mario on computer when i was a small kid but never birdo is trans lol
    and im mtf too
    i game most of my time and soon starting to volunteer
    gona buy skyrim when i have free money

  4. “Personally, I’d like to see a MtF character who isn’t in a fighting game. But that’s just me since I am MtF and am not good at fighting games.”

    All of the characters in the EspGaluda games are gendershifters; when you activate kakusei (“awakening”) you slowdown time and shift gender. 2 playable in the first game (Ageha & Tateha), and 4 playable in the second game (whether or not Asagi or Seseri is playable as the third depends on if you’re playing the standard game or Black Label).

    Note that the gendershifting isn’t played for laughs or anything either, they’re both serious games (the characters’ powers are all the result of experimentation to turn them into living weapons) where you’re essentially fighting back against the kingdom that tried to use them.

    Akai Katana’s also got a transgender character (the Type A pilot lives as a male due to the guilt of killing their former partner for the sake of forging a blood katana).

    • I couldn’t find enough information on her to write a full thing. Also the American version of the game doesn’t seem to include any of the gendery stuff for her. I actually saw a video recently that had a lot more information that I hadn’t known about her and it made me think about adding her, I may do that.

      • Vivian is MtF in Japan, but the censors changed her to a genetic female for release elsewhere. Why? Because they’re transphobic assholes.

        • That’s true, but it also means it’s harder for me to get information about the character, because I can’t play Japanese games. Next time I do a big update to this, which I do occasionally, I will Add Vivian to the main list.

  5. Hey there Theresa,
    Thank you so much for posting this. A friend of mine came out to me as transgender a little while ago, and she really shifted my worldview. I realized how rarely transgender people are portrayed in popular media in a positive light, so I’ve been trying to find as many portrayals as I can that aren’t just simply crappy, hurtful one-off jokes.

    It was neat to find out about all these characters, even if some of them didn’t have the best portrayals.

    And I agree– it would be cool to see a transgender character (MtF or FtM) as a well-handled character in a non-fighting game. On that note, in some of the old first-person adventure games like Myst, Riven or 9 (which I’ve always been a big fan of), your protagonist character was silent and undescribed… so who’s to say they weren’t transgendered? Can’t say they were, but hey, you also can’t say the WEREN’T.

    • Yeah, I heard about that. I’ll be sure to add that character to the list when I do my next update. I think that’s really cool. I like how they don’t really explain it, it’s just a subtle reference. It would be cool if it was a more important character but still cool either way.

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