I Choose You: Sexuality in Pokemon
In a world where pre-adolescents journey oft and far with hopes of launching their careers, a party of three continues its travels through Sinnoh toward Veilstone City, where Ash—the primary character—intends to obtain his next gym badge. For whoever is unfamiliar with Pokémon, a gym badge is the equivalent of an Emmy or even more applicably, an Olympic medal. Ash, Dawn, and Brock are, respectively, eleven, ten, and fifteen years old; exceptionally young travelers, Ash, Dawn, and Brock, venture from town to town with little more than big dreams, knapsacks, the Pokémon which they train, and the desire to forge stronger relationships with their Pokémon and one another. The world in which Ash, Dawn, and Brock live is not entirely Pokémon centric and neither is the focus of the show: in fact, my claim that Pokémon maintains multiple focal points is bolstered by moments when the sexual undercurrents manifest themselves in obvious portrayals of sexuality.
Three portrayals are present in the episode “Tanks for the Memories”: Brock falls instantly in love with and pursues two maids; Ash cross-dresses and by doing so presents a sexuality that conflicts with our culture of heteronormativity; Autumn falls for Brock, a much older man. What is important is not these displays of sexuality but rather the reactions, or lack of reactions, to each of these expressions of sexuality. I argue that the social constraints of the world created in the Pokémon series mirrors ours in the respect that a hierarchy of sexual expression is deeply ingrained in the society.
By evaluating the responses of the trio’s society to the aforementioned moments of sexual expression, I have constructed a small-scale hierarchy of sexual behavior: (1) male-initiated heterosexual behavior precedes (2) male-initiated homosexual behavior, which precedes (3) female-initiated heterosexual behavior, which hovers just above the unmentioned and essentially invisible—in the realm of Pokémon—due to lack of depiction (4) female-initiated homosexual behavior. Adrienne Rich would certainly have much to say in regard to the invisibility of lesbianism in the Pokémon series, but my argument and construction of a hierarchy have been fashioned in the context of Gayle Rubin’s and Judith Levine’s theories of sexuality.
Let’s consider the first expresser of sexuality: Brock. Ash, Brock, and Dawn take a rest stop at Mountain Hut Maid Café where the trio meets three maids—Autumn, Spring, and Summer. Just as he does in every Pokémon episode, Brock falls in love the very moment that he sets his eyes on an unfamiliar young woman. Desperate for their attention, Brock exhausts himself with his attempts to woo both Spring and Summer. Spring and Summer fend off Brock’s attempts and the bystanders find hilarity in Brock’s pursuit of the women. The recurrence of this behavior (Brock’s unsuccessful pursuit of a female companion) and the unbothered reactions of those who witness Brock’s behavior lead to the understanding that Brock’s behavior is the norm—male-initiated heterosexual conduct.
This norm is the offspring of the ideology that sex is the domain of men. Rubin argues that the sexual hierarchy is rooted in conventional understandings of gender roles. Certain qualities are expected of male and female counterparts; men are expected to be the sex-seekers whilst upright women are not expected to express sexual desire. Rubin describes these societal norms best: “the modern ideology of sex is that lust is the province of men, purity that of women. Women have been to some extent excluded from the modern sexual system” (307-308).
In adherence with the convention of feminine purity, Summer and Spring maintain an invisible sexuality. Neither of the maids responds favorably to Brock’s entreaties. Interestingly, Summer and Spring are painted as victims: they resist Brock’s embraces and advances and are unable to escape his grasp until Brock’s very own Pokémon shocks him with a jolt of electricity. Appropriation of Ash’s pre-gym battle phrase, “I choose you,” is quite interesting in the context of sexuality.
In the case of Brock and acceptable sexual expression in the world of Pokémon, the phrase “I choose you” can be construed as “I, man, choose you, woman.” This is indeed the sexual norm: the male pursues and the female is pursued. The victim-predator dichotomy of men and women results from men’s self-identification as “desirers and initiators or sex” (Levin 86) and the afore-mentioned invisibility of women’s sexuality.
The suppression of female sexuality when coupled with the disregard of children’s sexuality results in illegitimate sexuality: this is Autumn’s scenario. Autumn falls in love with Brock; yet, she is a female child who attempts to make her feelings known to a man (this is the descriptor that multiple characters use to describe Brock). Her behavior falls far outside of societal norm. Autumn does not only challenge the very idea of the absence of female sexuality but the sexuality of children as well. A look at American law (these laws are not strictly limited to the United States, but this is the extent of my familiarity) shows one how society has labeled child sexuality as abnormal.
Society, through law, works to “maintain […] the boundary between childhood ‘innocence’ and ‘adult’ sexuality” (Rubin 290). Levine insists that these categories of childhood and adulthood should be fluid as “there is no distinct moment at which a person is ready to take on adult responsibilities […] People do not grow up at sixteen, eighteen, or twenty-one” (Levine 88). Regardless of this fact, the law categorizes child and adult by exact ages that are not necessarily indicative of adult behavior.
The paired dichotomies, which Rubin uses, childhood-adulthood and innocence-sexuality, suggest that sexuality in and of itself is impure (Rubin 267). Society works to protect its young from this inevitable impurity by “protecting young people from premature sexuality” (Rubin 290) and by refusing to acknowledge the very existence of a child’s sexuality. Levine mentions the denial of child sexuality through the opinions some had about Heather Kowalski and Dylan Healy’s relationship. One said, “I don’t think that a thirteen-year-old knows about love” (74).
Levine explains that “statutory rape is not about sex the victim says she did not want. It is about sex she did want but which adults believe she only thought she wanted because she wasn’t old enough to know that she did not want it” (72). Yes, statutory rape is not the case in this (or any) Pokémon episode, but the ideas that Levine expresses certainly hold true. The desires of female children are reduced to nothing; thus, Autumn’s blushing and attempts to embrace Brock are reduced to admiration of a stronger Pokémon trainer. Her sexuality is not acknowledged and Brock, uncannily, expresses absolutely no interest in her.
Let’s consider the third instance of sexual expression: Ash’s cross-dressing. Ash wears the uniform of the maids (imagine a sexy maid costume) and when he approaches the new male visitors of the café, the background becomes heart-filled at the very moment that the new guests express their disgust with an “ugh.” After time, the guests relax and allow Ash to serve them. We can determine two points from this scenario: (1) their initial reaction highlights that Ash’s behavior falls outside of the norm yet (2) their tolerance via acclimation most certainly outweighs the denial of Autumn’s sexuality.
Male-initiated sexual conduct, in all circumstances, is more socially acceptable than female-initiated sexual conduct; hence, the structure of Pokémon’s sexual hierarchy: (1) male-initiated heterosexual behavior precedes (2) male-initiated homosexual behavior, which precedes (3) female-initiated heterosexual behavior, which hovers just above the unmentioned and essentially invisible—in the realm of Pokémon—due to lack of depiction (4) female-initiated homosexual behavior.
A re-imagining of these three portrayals of sexuality through the eyes of either Rubin or Levine would not change the particular behaviors in each scene but rather the responses of those who witness the expresses of sexuality. The expressions of sexuality would not be considered outside of the norm. Perhaps (1) Autumn and Brock express mutual interest in one another or (2) Summer and Spring subject Brock to their own desires or even (3) Ash’s cross-dressing would not illicit expressions of disgust. However, a sexual hierarchy is not absent in the world of Pokémon or even our own world. Nonetheless, an evaluation of the sexuality hierarchy of Pokémon allows for us to better understand the hierarchy of our own society.
Levine, Judith. “Crimes of Passion.” Harmful to Minors. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2002. 68-89.
Rubin, Gayle. “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality” Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality. Ed. Carole Vance. Boston, MA: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984. 267-319.