So I just read a Tumblr post claiming that the treatment of Naoto in Persona 4 is extremely transphobic.
And my response was at first a visceral “NO!” Now I’m tempering it to be “I don’t…think it is?”
SPOILERS FOR PERSONA 4 FOLLOW
The thing is, both Naoto and Kanji, as characters, are fairly mutable. How you see them is at least in part how you want to see them, and I think that’s mostly by design. Maybe Kanji is homosexual. Maybe he’s bisexual. Maybe he just isn’t sure how to make friends, and his shadow played up on the idea that he might be homosexual to freak him out and get the power it wanted. It’s a weird, complicated thing, and I think that’s both intentional (he’s a teenager, he doesn’t have everything figured out yet) and unintentional (it’s not like Japan is the best about homosexual depictions…).
Naoto is even more mutable. She could be a woman in both body and gender. Or she’s a woman in body, but a man in gender. Or she’s a woman in body and gender, but fairly or completely asexual in terms of her interests. In addition, how you see her is in part determined by how you treat her in the game after she joins the party-you do have the choice of whether to pursue her as a romantic partner, or just as a friend.
But to me, Naoto is neither trans nor homosexual. Rather, she is repressed as hell.
The key thing, to me, is that Naoto’s Shadow talks about making her into a man not just in terms of gender, but in terms of age. Part of her hangup is that she thinks she won’t get any respect for her intellect as a woman-and let’s be honest, this is in a Japanese game, set in a modern-day small Japanese town. That concern alone is pretty fucking realistic. But she also feels that even when presenting herself as a boy, she is…well, a boy. Not a man. So opinions that she presents, even presented when she’s passing as male, are disregarded because she’s younger than the people she’s helping.
When she accepts her shadow, to me she’s not accepting the idea that she actually wants to be a man. She’s accepting that she’s frustrated about being disregarded for being too young for detective work, and her fear that even when she’s older, being a woman will keep her from getting the respect that, frankly, she deserves. None of that discounts the idea that her mental gender might be male instead of female, but it also doesn’t reinforce it, either. In short, it could go either way. And without compelling evidence that Naoto reads herself as a man outside of her disguise, I don’t want to assign that to her.
However, that’s where my secondary response of “I don’t think P4 is transphobic?” comes from. Because as someone who is A) solidly heterosexual and B) not transsexual, I know that I do not have the personal experience to go “Oh, yeah, this is trans positive and this is trans negative.” Nor do I have any clear training. So my reading of Naoto as not being trans is not a definitive thing. I might be missing clues that other people would pick up on (the fact that it’s been at least a year since I played the game doesn’t help there either).
For example, even after the party learns that her physical gender is female, Naoto still dresses like she did before, rather than going for more obviously feminine clothing or characteristics. Her voice goes up a little higher, but while noticeable, it’s not a drastic change-more of dropping an affectation around people who she doesn’t have to fool. To me, those don’t seem like big things, but I could be wrong there.
As for some of the things other party members do to Naoto after the reveal-sign her up for a beauty pageant without her permission, try to read her physical measurements-I saw that more as teens being kind of shitty to each other. Like yeah, Yosuke the horndog would do that to all the women he knows, and Teddy the socially incompetent horndog would think it was actually okay to swipe the women’s measurements and find out what they are. Some of that comes from unfortunate behaviors that pop up in Japanese games and anime a lot (the bedroom intruder bit in the inn is probably the worst fucking thing ever, seriously, STOP THAT SHIT), and some of it from teenagers not realizing that a prank can cut deeper than they intended. The more important things they do are find out the truth about Naoto, accept it, and welcome her detective skills onto the team with open arms.
So….I don’t know, in the end. I don’t think Persona 4 is transphobic about Naoto, but your mileage may vary. She’s still my favorite character after Kanji.