Since the topic for this week is gender reversals, I want to talk about a specific form of gender reversal or genderbending that has become well known through the popular Fate franchise: the genderbending of real life historical or mythological figures. I think this form of genderbending in Fate is interesting not only because it is most likely the most popular piece of media coming out of Japan that uses this format, but also because of how the purpose, spirit or effort of this genderbending has changed over time as the franchise has gained popularity and shifted to other media formats.
To give a bit of background for the Fate franchise, it began as a visual novel, Fate/Stay Night, released in 2004. It gained immediate popularity, and spawned a variety of spinoff light novels, manga, and games. The original visual novel, as well as several of the spinoffs, have received several anime adaptations. Most recently, the mobile game spinoff Fate/Grand Order has exploded, consistently claiming a place in the top 10 highest grossing apps in Japan, and more recently in the U.S. as well.
To put it simply, the story of Fate revolves around the idea that historical or mythological figures, “heroic spirits”, are summoned into the modern day to fight in a ritual known as the Holy Grail War. In Fate/Stay Night, the only one of the seven heroic spirits that receives the genderbending treatment is also the one that features the most prominently: King Arthur. The author of Stay Night, who goes by the pen name Kinoko Nasu, has admitted that he believed that in 2004, visual novels that did not feature some aspect of a “dating simulator” type game did not do well. Therefore, his motives behind making King Arthur a woman were to create another potential pairing for the main character. However, while the motives might not particularly indicate a respect for the narrative, the execution of the genderbend is very well done. King Arthur’s well known beliefs are still well realized, and any added sexualization of the character due to them being a female love interest is kept to a minimum. The story makes it easy to believe that King Arthur could have been a woman. Because of this, I do not think that the genderbending in this instance prevents Fate/Stay Night from being a well-executed story, and I believe that philosophy applies to any story that is using genderbending.
Fate’s many spinoffs are somewhat of a different story. Many aspects of the genderbending process indicate that a given character was genderbent with the intention of catering to a male audience, a sentiment similar to that of the original visual novel, but far more lazy and shoddily done. Unlike with King Arthur, large aspects of the figure’s essential personality are changed to make them more appealing in various ways. For instance, the Roman Emperor Nero, is historically known as a cruel, incredibly vain tyrant. However, When he is genderbent in the spinoff Fate/Extra, his vanity becomes “cute,” and his cruelty “misunderstood”. While they are an acceptable character for an anime, they lose the parts of their character that makes them “Emperor Nero”. The appearance of the character also plays a large role in how the genderbend can be percieved. In Fate/Stay Night, King Arthur wears armor that, while far from realistic, still covers and protects (https://imgur.com/gallery/wIHkV). However, many other genderbent characters feature highly exposing clothing, which emphasizes the idea that they were genderbend purely for the purpose of sexualizing them (https://vignette.wikia.nocookie.net/fategrandorder/images/5/57/Drake1.png/revision/latest?cb=20151105191741).
This unfortunate mentality is reflected in over a dozen characters featured in a variety of spinoffs, with increasingly tenuous explanations for the gender reversal. This near-commodification of genderbending is epitomized in Fate/Grand Order, where it is clear from the in-game dialogue that the player is meant to view the heroic spirits as something more akin to trophy wives than actual fleshed out characters. I really enjoy the Fate franchise for a lot of reasons, but the direction it is headed in terms of oversexualization and pointless genderbending makes me want to just stick to the original.