Recently, I finished reading Hagio Moto’s shoujo science fiction classic, They Were 11! Focused around a group of eleven individuals trapped on a spaceship, the manga was adapted into an animated movie, which is probably how most people are familiar with the title. However, in addition to the story covered in the film, They Were 11! also had a sequel titled They Were 11! Continues, as well as a handful of short gag comics. Altogether, the manga creates a more thorough and often lighter view of the world portrayed in the story, especially when factoring in the younger-looking character designs of the manga in comparison to the anime.
The character who catches my attention the most, which I assume is the case for just about everyone else who’s read or seen They Were 11!, is Frol, the sexless love interest of the protagonist. On Frol’s home planet, people remain neither male or female until they reach adulthood, when they must choose what to become. Given that men enjoy more privileges there, Frol wishes to be a male, though looks quite feminine in contrast. At the end of the original story, Frol falls in love with the main character Tada and decides to someday become female so that they can marry.
There’s a famous phrase coined by feminist philosopher Judith Butler, which is that “gender is performative.” In other words, things we associate with a certain gender are not as natural and set in stone as we think, and are instead reinforced constantly by society in such a way that, at all times, we are in a sense acting out our genders. To kind of simplify it down, consider the phrase “be a man” and how it implies a certain set of behavior involving courage and sacrifice. What I find really interesting about Frol’s whole situation is that without a definitive sex, Frol has no natural, biological basis for acting out her (I’ll be using “her” as a pronoun for the sake of convenience) gender. For Frol, gender is, above all else, performative.
In the first story, when Frol still desires to be a man, she consistently goes out of her way to assert her masculinity, mostly in comparison to the somewhat wiry Tada. Frol continually points out that she is taller, her limbs are longer, she knows how to fight better, is tougher, and so on. In the second story and in the Space Street gag comics, however, when Frol has decided that she will become a woman (though it hasn’t actually happened yet), she acts how she thinks a woman should act, being more emotionally open to Tada, behaving like a teenager in love. Because it wasn’t so long ago that Frol was presenting herself as a man, it’s clear that this is all conscious on her part, a point reinforced by the way she deals with her jealousy. In They Were 11! Continues, when Frol sees a bunch of girls flirting with her now-partner Tada, her reaction is to once again become a man herself, and to “beat” Tada at what she perceives to be his own game by becoming a suave guy who gets all of the ladies herself. In the end, Tada did still love her and it was all a misunderstanding, but it’s also clear that Frol’s decision to fight fire with fire is facilitated by her very own sexless existence.
Frol: “I’ve had enough! I won’t become a girl!”
There are somewhat similar characters in anime and manga, notably Ranma from Ranma 1/2 and Sapphire from Princess Knight, but in both cases their sexes are decided by forces beyond their control and they must deal with acting like men when they’re women and vice versa. Frol’s situation is different. For Frol, the only reason why she decided to become a woman and to start behaving “like a woman” was because of her love of Tada. When she felt that this was no longer the case, she had the power to do the very opposite, and when it was resolved she was able to switch right back. In this sense, Frol and the freedom she has to decide her sex and gender on her own terms represent the very fluidity of gender as a concept.