All dapperQs know that female masculinity has its own unique style, swagger and sexual charms. But in a world dominated by polarised gender norms, celebrating dapperQs can seem like a pioneering step into unexplored, new territory. So it came as a surprise to me when I learned that in Japan, women taking masculine roles in musical theater are followed by hordes of screaming fangirls and praised for being the ideal man.
Check out this incredibly colourful video of the Takarazuka musical, Monaco:
In Japan’s conservative society, the Takarazuka theatre company can seem pretty anomalous. Indeed, Takarazuka, founded in 1910 by a right-wing businessman, shouldn’t be misunderstood as a miraculously progressive institution; the plays all revolve around heteronormative romances, and reinforce established gender roles in which men act and women watch. However, it proposes an interesting female heterosexual fantasy of the ideal man that is considered only possible when the man is female-bodied.
As a British woman watching videos of Takarazuka plays on my laptop in London, I find myself gazing in adoration and infatuation for these drop-dead-gorgeous women in elaborate menswear, sauntering around on the stage. They sing and dance with a suggestive confidence, occasionally glancing at the audience or the camera as if to say, ‘we all know that I’m your hottest fantasy’. I’m privileged to have grown up in a society where lesbianism is acknowledged, even if it’s not often treated as equally beautiful and romantic as heterosexuality. Perhaps for me, these glamorous, musical romances between two female-bodied people have a slightly different meaning than for audiences in Japan.
Women who act as men, otokoyaku, are described by their fans as beautiful, kind and sensitive.
There is a perception among Takarazuka fans that otokoyaku lack the dirt, roughness and dominating attitude of men in real life.
The romantic possibilities portrayed by Takarazuka theatre don’t push the boundaries of conservative, heterosexist society. However, the plays do portray a fantasy partner embodied by the female sex presenting as male. Takarazuka is always framed as an exotic fantasy set in far-off lands and far-gone times. But it’s the reality of the female sex of the actresses that is essential for the unique charm of the male characters portrayed. One fan, interviewed by Professor Lorie Brau, compared two performances of the medieval Japanese epic, the Tale of Genji:
I had seen the Tale of Genji before, at kabuki [all male, traditional theatre]. When Genji is performed with male actors, there’s something dirty about the man who plays Genji – he doesn’t fit my image of Genji. When I saw Takarazuka’s Genji, I was really moved. I thought, “Yes, this is it!” Genji and Tō no Chūjō [… ] were really handsome young courtiers. A man that handsome and wonderful doesn’t exist in real life; Takarazuka is, after all, a fabrication. But as long as I’m watching this theatre of make-believe, I can forget reality. I can dream.
This belief that the ‘gentleness’ of the male characters and the masculinity of the female actresses are just fantasies, fabricated for entertainment, seems to support the enduring existence of binary gender norms in real life. Takarazuka theatre exists in a confined, liminal space, where new gender possibilities live out a seductively beautiful existence. Like DapperQs, Takarazuka actresses are not simply trying to imitate men. They occupy a separate space on the gender spectrum, with its own beauty and its own sense of cool.
The difference is that DapperQs aren’t just fantasy figures. DapperQs are very real, and this is what makes being dapper such a powerful stance. It takes courage to occupy this subversive space as an expression of who you really are.
To express yourself in a way that privileges your own identity over binary gender norms, is to take a subversive step beyond the Takarazuka fantasy into reality.
It is to embody broader possibilities for gender expression in the real world. Still, I find joy and excitement in watching the Takarazuka with a reading that speaks to me, as a glamorous celebration of women who have the confidence to be dapper.
This post celebrates one of Japan’s inspiring and fascinating cultural traditions. This is one of the most difficult times in Japan’s recent history, and Japan will recover only with the support of people all over the world. Please keep the people of Japan in your thoughts and give what you can to organisations responding to the crisis.
Zoya Street is a 23-year-old power-quiffed Brit on a Lapsang-fueled adventure in London. They are studying for their Master’s in Asian Design History at the Royal College of Art and the V&A Museum, where their personal research deals with Japanese video games. They spend the rest of their time organising exhibitions, working as a translator to pay the bills, and having fun with photography, hacking and blogging. Their own blog on design, dreams and desktop wallpapers can be found here.