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The article contains mention of Nazism (in the author's note as well as in the mentioned anime series).

 

AUTHOR’S NOTE:

For people who may be curious about starting JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure after reading this article: please understand it’s not a perfect saga. It has, indeed, many problematic instances—from the literal Nazi character featured in Battle Tendency, to an entire season centred around the Italian mafia. At the same time, though, it’s an extremely entertaining and fun saga, with positive representation when it comes to gender. One needs to engage it critically, however, in order to appreciate the good in it, and be mindful of content warnings.

On a different note, I would like to thank the nonbinary community of jojofans, especially Maledetto Pollame and Caronte Dradi Maraldi, for sharing their experiences with me.

*

I was in high school, something like nine years ago, when I first heard about JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure (JJBA). The anime adaptation of the second arc had just released, and I remember a friend showing me the opening song, excitement shaking his voice as he lectured me about how iconic this franchise was. I would nod, half-listening, as I stared at the anime’s colourful opening, hypnotised. Its playful tone and funky music were so different from the other shōnen anime (action-y stories aimed at young boys) I used to stream. And I remember thinking, as a baby queer who had just begun navigating xir identity, “Wow, this is gonna be so gay.”

It was not until I started university that I finally managed to watch the animeand I was not disappointed. JoJo’s Bizarre Adventures is a work that exudes queer joy and, more specifically, non-binary euphoria. Before delving deeper into why JJBA is so dear to the nonbinary community, however, let me introduce the uninitiated to this beloved franchise:

Title: Jojo no kimyōnabōken (JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure).

Author: Hirohiko Araki.

Date of publication: 1987 (ongoing).

Success: astronomicaland not only amidst anime fans, nor only in Japan. Just think that, in 2009, Araki was invited to exhibit his works at the Louvre[1], where you can buy JJBA merchandise next to Mona Lisa postcards!

JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure started as a camp take on classic shōnen stories, but it then evolved into a saga spanning decades. Each arc focuses on a member of the Joestar family—“a JoJo”and explores different narrative tropes. The Bizarre comes into play with the magic system, which changed from a demure, qi-inspired magic to the Stand,” a physical manifestation of a person’s spiritual power. Stands appear in many, often humanoid shapes, and are always bold, brash, with ever weirder powers. For example, one major character’s Stand can create and open zip ties anywhere.  This is what made JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure so popular both in Japan and in the Western world - the weirdness, the boldness, the unapologetic fun that permeates its arcs and episodes.

But this saga has another huge merit: being a never-ending source of positive nonbinary representation. This is something that may be a little confusing at firstafter all, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure doesn’t feature any explicit nonbinary character. And yet, many nonbinary people feel closer to this saga than to most Western media featuring explicit representation. How is this possible? The answer, as it turns out, is that JJBA offers pure nonbinary joywhich is something that most Western media has yet to match. If gender euphoria for nonbinary people had a tangible shape, it would be that of Araki’s work.

The structure of the saga itself can be a mirror of a nonbinary person’s journey of self-discovery. JJBA begins with a first arc that follows the tropes of the shōnen genre, but then steps out of its narrative cage, and unapologetically does whatever the author wants. Which is, to me, the essence of the nonbinary experience: rejecting society’s expectations, and not fitting in the box that was built for us.

Francesca Tacchi © Author's own

But JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure’s nonbinary joy doesn’t stop here, because the rejection of the gender binary permeates Araki’s work. Most of JJBA’s cast is male, and yet the mangaka draws them in provocative, feminine poses akin to those of haute couture models. Araki never hid his passion for the fashion world. His sketches show his heroes mimicking the poses of female models on the covers of Vogue, or those of the daring illustrations of fashion artists such as Tony Viramontes[2]. Araki’s characters would wear clothes by Dior or Guccithe latest, in a spectacular case of inspiration going full circle, collaborated with the mangaka on several occasions. JJBA’s characters worked like real life models, sponsoring Gucci’s products and collections worldwide[3].

Fashion plays an extremely important part in making JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure so iconic and queer, as it’s via fashion that Araki bends the rigid fences of the gender binary. He gives his heroes revealing pink clothes, crop-tops, and bright-coloured lipstickall traditionally feminine attires.

It’s not unusual, in anime, for characters to have an ambiguous gender presentation. In most cases, however, these queer-coded characters are the antagonists (like the evil ninja Orochimaro in Naruto, or the flamboyant pirate Donquijote Doflamingo in One Piece). This is something we see in Western media as wellthink of Ursula, the evil sea witch in Disney’s Little Mermaid, based on the drag queen Divine. Or the devilish Him from Powerpuff Girls, defined as being both feminine and masculine, in a way that is supposed to be confusing and terrifying.

Queer-coding and queer adjacent characters have a long history of being associated with negative traits in many types of media. But in JJBA’s case, the ones who are queer-coded are the heroes. And it’s a peculiar type of queer-coding that’s rooted in gender presentation, as JoJo’s Bizarre Adventures offers us an extremely non-cisheteronormative representation of masculinity.

For example, there’s Giorno Giovanna with his iconic pink suit and ladybug-themed accessories. Or Gyro Zeppeli and Johnny Joestar, entangled like Versace’s models on the cover of Steel Ball Run’s first number. Or then again Joseph Joestar and his “drag persona” Tequila Joseph, never ridiculed despite being funny, showing that gender presentation doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand with gender identity.

This gender-bending frenzy is true for female characters as well, especially in the sixth arcStone Ocean, whose anime adaptation has been recently announced. Not only is the protagonist of the arc a womansomething unusual, albeit not unheard of, for a shōnenbut one that defies gender stereotypes just as loudly as her male counterparts. Jolyne is confrontational and crass, particularly violent in her fights and often indulging her vindictive streak. A huge difference from other female characters featured in shōnen anime, who often exist solely as a sexual or romantic interest for the male protagonist, and even if they are supposed to be strong, never hold their ground in a fight.

Jolyne is an example of how Araki plays with his heroes’ gender presentation in a way that is never played for laughs. She is beautiful, but as beautiful as a tigress isshe’s tall, muscular, with strong facial features. Her iconic acid green lipstick and nail polish a hint of her strong personality.

Another such example is the crossdressing scene in the second arc of the saga. Crossdressing, when done by cis-het characters, carries a huge baggage and walks a fine line between irreverent and downright transphobic. But when Joseph Joestar, the second JoJo,” puts on a pink dress to fake his way past a security point, he does so with confidence. He doesn’t feel his gender identity threatened by the way he presents himself to others; he doesn’t feel the need to reassess his masculinity in toxic ways rooted in macho culture. He acts his usual camp self, a joke always ready on his lips. This scene resonated with many nonbinary people, because it speaks true to a nonbinary motto: clothes may be a way to express one’s gender, but they are not inherently gendered, and wearing certain clothes doesn’t change your gender identity. No matter how hyperfeminine or hypermasculine your gender presentation is, it doesn’t erase the fact you’re neither man nor woman.

The way JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure breaks away from the gender binary, however, is not limited to its aesthetic elements. It doesn’t end with just the way its heroes are dressed, or the way they pose. It touches the emotional sphere as well. JJBA’s male characters are not afraid of showing vulnerability. They cry, they express their feelings and confess their fears, even the most stoic. While this is not unheard of in Japanese media, it’s definitely a huge difference from most Western heroes, who are often still bound by the chains of toxic masculinity. And even in the context of Japanese media, JJBA, once again, brings it up to the next level.

The lines between femininity and masculinity become blurred in JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, so thateven if the characters’ gender identity is never exploredthe way they are portrayed, the way they exist, speaks to the nonbinary experience on a visceral level. Western media may have more explicit representation of nonbinary characters and yet, as a nonbinary person, I don’t feel represented by them the same way I feel represented by JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure’ s colourful ensemble. This is because non-binary characters in Western media are often written by cis people with a cis audience in mind, and it shows. They are often othered, made to fit into specific tropes. Sanitised. Non-binary joy, in Western media, is still severely lacking.

In science fiction and fantasy in particular, non-binary identities are often portrayed as the alien (Double Trouble from She-Ra, or my beloved Estraven from The Left Hand of Darkness), the robot (Fl4k, from Borderlands 3), or the shapeshifter (Alex Fierro, from the Magnus Chase trilogy). These are not troubling representations per se, as I love the characters I mentioned, and I myself often joke that my gender identity is a biblically accurate angel. But these tropes can become tiresome when they are the only representation nonbinary people get, especially in speculative fiction.

And by trying to make nonbinary identities more palatable to a cis public, by confining them into neat boxes, Western storytellers end up erasing the essence of the nonbinary experience. My identity as a non-binary person is defined as someone living outside these small, binary boxes society created for meso, when fiction tries to make me fit in another, different kind of cage, it hurts. Because it’s a cage still.

Not to mention that when actual nonbinary human characters are featured in Western fiction, they often follow a specific stereotypethey are AFAB, white, androgynous. They dress with plain clothes of dull colourwhich, incidentally, is something the nonbinary community jokes about a lot. It seems that joylike colouris sucked out of many nonbinary characters’ life, as if cis people believe the moment gender doesn’t come into play, it’s impossible to express one’s personality. It seems that cis people would want us to fade into the background.

But JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure’s characters could never fade into the background. They blast the door open and demand to be admired, no matter how uncomfortable the audience may be, staring at a buff man in golden leotards and green lipstick. This is the energy I need, as a nonbinary person. It’s not enough to have an alien shape-shift their way through a story. It’s not enough to have a character state they’re not a girl nor a boy, while they are hidden under a beige hoodie, without a smear of makeup on their face. The latter trope is perhaps the one I despise the most. It makes me feel like I’m allowed to exist as long as I’m not too loud about it.

But I want to be loud. I spent so much time feeling wrong, wondering why my skin didn’t fit me, trying to distance myself from everything feminine as a way to reject the gender that was assigned to me at birth. But putting on a grey hoodie doesn’t give me gender euphoria. Painting my lips bright purple does.

This is why JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure speaks so clearly to me and my experience as a nonbinary person, as well as to many other people in the nonbinary community who found comfort in this saga. Some even realised they were nonbinary because of Araki’s way of playing with gender expectations. When I see Abbacchio with his purple lipstick I think that make-up isn’t really gendered, I can put whatever I want on my face. When I look at Josuke and his provocative poses, I realise that, well, my curves and my mannerism aren’t necessarily girly, after all. Araki’s work empowered me and, in a way, gave me the permission I needed to truly be myself without worrying whether or not I pass for nonbinary. The Western way of portraying non-binary and trans people, on the contrary, implies one needs to pass. Where passing means that you need to look like a cis woman, a cis man or a demure androgynous person. JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure tells me I can look however I want, without being held back by cis people’s expectations.

The tropes of nonbinary representation in Western media, it seems to me, come from the necessity of making a binary audience understand our identity. It’s a kind of representation that, in many cases, is about us, but not for us. For your average sci-fi reader, it’s easier to understand a nonbinary robot than it is to understand a male-presenting person with a white crop-top and earrings shaped like an ink pen.

I feel strongly about the subject of expression through bold looks because in my country, Italy, there’s a discussion going on around pride paradesthat they shouldn’t be a carnevalata, a lighthearted revelry. That if we queer people want rights we need to dress demurely, not for a party. Implicit is the statement “you are not normal, but you should at least try to look like you are.”

But shouldn’t challenging the norm be the point of queer liberation? Our identities are supposed to shake things up. We need to make people uncomfortable, because otherwise how would they ask questions? How would they start doubting the cis-heteronormativity of our society? It’s only by asking questions, and finding the right answers, that the status quo can be changed.

JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure definitely shakes things up. I don’t know if it was done purposefully by Araki, if he woke up one morning and thought, I’m going to destroy gender binarism with this work.” Or if he just wanted to draw pretty men in pretty clothes, and didn’t really care about queer liberation. His intention, ultimately, is irrelevant to me. What matters is that thanks to him I found a piece of my identity reflected in popular media.

I value what JJBA gave me way more than a character openly saying they’re nonbinary, but then jumping into a third box between girl and boy, content with stepping out of the binary only to be confined by a trinary. Never to be bold, bright, brash.

I think JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure and its success, especially in the queer community, can teach Western storytellers a lot in terms of representation. Merely stating a character’s marginalisation is not enough—at least not without commitment to representing what that marginalisation truly means at its core. Representation needs to be nuanced to embrace the kaleidoscope of experiences within a marginalised community. Finally, it needs to be something made for marginalised people, with the primary aim not to educate the majority, but to— well— represent us with enthusiasm, empowerment, and joy.

 

 

More information on the Gucci/JoJo collaboration:

https://www.mangaforever.net/80989/jojo-hirohiko-araki-e-gucci-insieme-per-la-settimana-della-moda-di-milano-2013

 

 



Francesca Tacchi is a fantasy writer based in Italy. Xir novella, Let the Mountains Be my Grave, is scheduled for publication in Spring 2022 with Neon Hemlock Press. Despite working in STEM, xe’s a huge history nerd and shares xir passion by writing educational threads on Twitter at @jackdaw_writes, amidst shitposting and cat pics.
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