Gender roles in Moto Hagio’s They Were Eleven

Among the stories in my recently-acquired Moto Hagio collection is also the science-fiction manga They Were Eleven. I’ve actually been familiar with the title for ages because it’s such a cool title that kind of sticks in your head … =P I remember articles in the old anime/manga magazines I used to read back when manga/anime fandom was new and everything was exciting! Come to think of it, those articles were probably about the anime, but I’m definitely talking about the manga here.

They Were Eleven is about a group of candidates who try to enter the prestigious ~space academy – think Star Trek. For their final exam, the candidates, who’ve never seen each other before, are divided into groups and have to spend 53 days onboard an abandoned space station without giving up by calling for help. However, when one group arrives, they are shocked to find out that they are – you guessed it – eleven people instead of ten!!! Which means that one of them is an imposter? But who? And why?

It is a great premise and I think it would make an amazing videogame or TV series. I’m not sure the manga really takes full advantage of the dramatic potential, because it’s a short story and the limited pagecount requires a fast pace and quickly resolved problems. As for the cast of eleven, there are definitely some characters that are more developed than others, and instead of a an ensemble cast, there’s a clear protagonist and POV character: Tada, a human teenager. Another character who stands out is Frol, whose function in the story could probably be described as love interest for Tada … and Frol is maybe the only one in the group who really stands to lose something were they to fail the exam, so in a way Frol becomes the emotional focus of the story.

The interesting thing about Frol is that he/she/they belongs to an alien species who only develop a biological sex when they reach adulthood, but only a select number are allowed to develop into men and enjoy a lot of privileges. Frol is supposed to become a woman, but wants to become a man instead. Passing the entrance exam would win him that right.

I’m struggling a little when it comes to pronouns for Frol. Funnily, I’ve noticed that sometimes he, they or even she feels like the most natural choice, depending on the context. But maybe that makes sense, because Frol isn’t either gender yet, and while he wants to be treated like a guy, Frol is also the girl of the team, so to speak. I mean … Frol is the most feminine of the group, with long, flowing hair, a pretty face and a small body. There’s a reason the others mistake Frol for a girl when he takes off his helmet for the first time: he looks like a girl, period. It’s offset with his masculine speech in Japanese, but even Frol’s rude, occasionally aggressive behaviour only ends up marking him as different from the rest of the group. They are mature, competent and (usually) calm, while Frol is immature, loud and unpredictable.

(Interestingly, the French version transcribed the character‘s name as Flore. With the E being silent, this is an acceptable transcription of フロル. It also makes the name sound a lot more feminine than the „Frol“ that seems to be the most common spelling online.)

Frol isn’t the only character outside the gender binary: Lizard-person Knu is also from a species that don’t develop a biological sex until adulthood. Actually, Knu didn’t develop into either sex at all and thus belongs to a sexless third gender. But while the other characters treat Frol differently when they learn about his situation – they treat him like a girl, in a outdated way – Knu isn’t treated differently after his reveal … So in a way, they aren’t reacting to the characters being non-binary, but they are reacting to Frol being the closest thing to a woman onboard.

Alicia has written about an edit made to later editions of Hagio Moto’s They Were Eleven: In the original version of the manga, the other characters are shocked to see a woman in their midst because they thought it was a male-only team and Tada states that hey, of course women can be smart enough to go to university, too. They Were Eleven was published in 1975, when women going to university was a new-ish thing. For the later editions, apparently people thought that it didn’t need saying that women could be as smart as men, so the line was changed to be about a linguistic misunderstanding related to man=human=humanoid instead.

I think that’s a weird, a bit half-assed attempt to modernize the story. It doesn’t hide the fact that They Were Eleven was written in the 1970’s, and it doesn’t completely remove outdated ideas of masculinity and femininity from the story. There are still no women among the candidates, the way the others treat Frol when they think he’s female shows that they’re not used to having a woman around as their equal … and that Frol’s life as a woman would naturally include marriage to a man also seems old-fashioned and not very progressive today.

I think I’d have preferred to leave the line as-is and just openly acknowledge that this story was written 40 years ago and deals with the gender roles from that time.

In my “research” (a plain Google search for They Were Eleven reviews or analyses) I came across one AnimeNewsNetwork review that starts off with the questionable claim that “Shoujo and sci-fi are two flavors that seldom go together”. Yes, I know it’s meant to be funny, but it’s still a strange thing to say, and itseems to appeal to people with a disparaging atttitude towards both shojo and science-fiction – so who’s this review for?

Of course, you can focus your attention on the superficial coolness of science-fiction designs and value them as set pieces for stupid action scenes. But science-fiction has always lent itself very well to social commentary or political themes. By making up alien species whose anatomy and/or culture differ from those we know from real life, sci-fi authors can push their readers to think outside of ingrained patterns, and they can design them as precise metaphors for real-life issues. And I guess this is what’s going on with They Were Eleven: Frol’s species and culture are designed to make you think about the unfairness of gender inequality and how much it sucks for an individual to have their potential arteficically limited.

Anyway. It’s a bit jarring that, at the end of the story, Frol ends up deciding to become a woman after all, in order to marry Tada. Sure, it’s a step up from joining a harem, but it still feels like Frol is giving up some of his ambitions, settling into traditional gender roles rather than continuing to challenge them. It almost feels like giving up. I’m a bit ambivalent about this ending… What bothers me is the marriage thing, really. I’m OK with Frol changing his mind regarding their gender, especially considering that his main reason for rejecting life as a woman was the marginalized and joyless lifestyle that it would entail; and once this threat is gone, it doesn’t bother him anymore to become a woman. Fine. But tying womanhood and marriage together like this is a bit disappointing after all the challenging of gender norms and stuff …

Right, so in the end I’m not exactly sure what my final verdict is! Heh. I’ll have to try to pick less complicated blog topics in the future, because you could probably write a paper about this aspect of the story, and that means I’m never quite satisfied with a simple blog post that just scratches the surface, kind of. Oh well!

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