Day 1 of ’12 Days of anime’ – [See other posts in this series]
In 2015 The Heroic Legend of Arslan otherwise known as Arslan Senki, was released by Sanzigen Animation Studio & Liden Films. The 25 episode TV show was presented as a modern retelling of the original fantasy story, which had already seen multiple iterations since the 1980s. Given that the author of the story is also responsible for fan favourite, Legend of the Galactic Heroes, it should be no surprise to anyone that this show had a lot of hype behind it.
While I could take the generic critical approach and lambaste the anime for its failings as a gratingly juvenile interpretation of an already lackluster source material, I instead want to draw attention to the case of Etoile, a minor side character with interesting things to say about gender in the world of Arslan Senki.
Etoile is a character first introduced as a young slave boy in the capital city of Pars, the principal kingdom at the time. In an act of rebellion and through desire to escape enslavement, he unknowingly abducts the crown prince Arslan. Chased through the city, it is revealed that Etoile is a proud soldier in the army of Lusitania, a deeply religious rival kingdom. With what little time they spend together, he shapes Arslan’s development as a future leader, revealing to him the social disparity amongst his people, and boldly proclaiming “All men are equal!”.
It is only much later in the story that we find out that Etoile has a lot more to his identity than that of a slave, soldier or zealot. You see, Etoile was assigned female at birth, meaning that his current gender identity is different to the one expected of him based on his sex at birth. This is highlighted at various points in which his tale and Arslan’s intersect, with the crown prince unknowingly interacting with a female-presenting Etoile on one particular occasion. However given that little is ever said on the subject, knowledgeable characters freely gave their own interpretation on Etoile’s identity. Indeed many viewed him as a man when not aware of his past, while those in the know call him ‘tomboy’ rather than the man he sees himself as. It is also worth mentioning that none of these commentators were able to recognize his clear discomfort when forced to present as a girl.
When it almost seemed as though the subject would never be properly addressed, the final episode in the series dedicated a not-insignificant portion of time to air Etoile’s own understanding of his gender identity. It it is through conversation with Arlsan’s inner circle that he is able to finally express that, yes, remarks on his supposed femininity do in fact bother him.
While this on its own could imply that he fits into one of many potential non-binary identities, it is with other remarks he makes that solidifies his understanding of being a man. For example, Etoile is visited by Arslan while still being held as a prisoner of war and the prince remarks “So when we met in Peshawar, that was you as you truly are”, referring to the one time Etoile presented as a woman to sneak into the enemies campsite. This comment is met with a strong negative reaction from Etoile, who angrily proclaims that he is in fact a knight and nothing else. Further to this, Etoile reveals that he was originally named Estelle, yet abandoned it solely because “it is a woman’s name”.
Since it is known that only men can be knights in the Lusitanian army, this might create some ambiguity over whether this informs his desire to express masculinity, rather than his masculinity being reflected in aspirations to knighthood. To this end I find that the correct way to broach the subject is to observe his past behavior. He is visibly and vocally uncomfortable with being gendered female, while showing no contention with male gendering. He expresses his gender identity through male coded clothing and everything from his movement to his mannerisms are an extension of this masculinity. While some might argue there is still grounds to further question whether that is his true gender identity, I would say that it is both unnecessary and baseless to do so. After all, if Etoile’s gender expression did match the gender he was assigned at birth, would the same amount of scrutiny be applied? Would we equally be searching for reasons to invalidate the notion that ‘she is a woman’?
I believe that Etoile says more than enough for him to be taken at his word. I’ve certainly seen debates from many people adamantly denying the view I express here, which I can only respond to with disappointment over the cisnormative implications it commonly entails. Frequent talking points include Etoile’s long hair, physical features and and even his blushing as sure signs that he’s actually a girl. I seriously question anyone who believes that trans men can only ever be trans men if they have short hair, or chiseled muscular bodies and emotionless faces. Insistence on these binary characteristics do not provide evidence of cisgender expression, but rather proof of viewer ignorance towards the overwhelming diversity in transgender forms of expression.
I may not have personally liked this 2015 adaptation of Arslan Senki, but I found this ever so rare example of gender non-conformance to be a fascinating take away from my experience with the show. Hopefully we’ll see more stories like this one in the future. I know I’d personally like to see more representation for all those along the LGBTQIA+ spectrum.
Thanks for reading!