Carole and Tuesday is an anime about two young musicians trying to hit the big time, directed by the legendary Shinichiro Watanabe, creator of Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo, and Space Dandy, to name just his most notable productions. As his first new work in five years, it was met with a great deal of excitement and largely positive reviews. However, I also heard that it was pretty awful about trans and genderqueer rep, which is part of the reason I didn’t watch it until now. This turned out to be true.
Let’s start with Martian androgyny, a fictional condition that affects several of the genderqueer characters in Carole and Tuesday. I initially assumed there was some kind of odd translation choice at work when I heard about it, but it’s fairly literal. The first time we hear the term — in reference to Dahlia — it’s in English, and the second time — in reference to Desmond — it’s 両性具有,¹ the generally used term for “androgynous.” The closest we get to a definition is from Desmond, who describes it as such: “The radiation that falls on Mars affects your hormones, gradually changing your body. I was originally a man, but I’m also turning into a woman.” That’s all we get. It doesn’t seem to affect many people, considering that there are only two confirmed cases in the show, and it’s unclear what exactly “affects your hormones” means. Logically speaking, one would imagine that for AMAB people like Dahlia and Desmond, it means the body produces estrogen as well as or instead of testosterone — however, neither of them appear to possess feminine secondary sexual characteristics. So who knows, really. To be clear, when I use the term “androgyny” in this post, I’m referring to the fictional medical condition of Martian androgyny, not the concept of androgyny as a whole.
This is, as you may have noticed, rather reminiscent of Gren from Shinichiro Watanabe’s own Cowboy Bebop — in his case, it was drugs rather than background radiation, but they’re both cases of men “becoming women” as a result of a hormonal imbalance. As a reminder, Cowboy Bebop came out in 1998-1999, and Carole and Tuesday came out in 2019, a whole 20 years later — and while Desmond is a considerably less fraught depiction of genderqueerness than Gren, Dahlia is much, much worse.
The way Dahlia — the manager and adoptive mother of Angela, the main rival to Carole and Tuesday — is handled is nothing short of terrible. Really stunningly terrible. First of all, her design itself is clearly intended to be somewhat grotesque — it’s bulbous and exaggerated, vaguely inhuman compared to the pseudorealism of the rest of the cast — and she’s very clearly voiced by a (cis) man in both the Japanese and English.
The real issue, though, is that there’s a fairly clear link — intentional or no — between her androgyny/transness and the fact that she’s an abusive piece of shit. The first time her androgyny is mentioned, it’s Angela’s producer saying he’s dug up dirt on her — he says “I know you exhibit Martian androgyny, and that you’ve been arrested for assault twice in the past,” which equates those two things in a very unpleasant way.
Similarly, when Angela recalls her mother’s physical and verbal abuse, a photo of her as a child with a masculine-looking person who resembles Dahlia flickers back and forth between the pre-transition and current versions of Dahlia while an ominous music sting plays, both presenting her transition as something out of a horror movie and directly linking it to her abuse. (It’s also worth noting that the pre-transition Dahlia looks much less grotesque than the one we see in the show.)
When Dahlia asks Angela to move back in with her, she promises not to abuse her anymore, saying “Back then I had the medication side-effects to deal with. But I’m stable now.” It’s not clear if this medication is related to Martian androgyny, but considering that it’s the only medical condition that’s ever mentioned in relation to Dahlia, it’s a natural assumption to make.
To be fair, it’s not all bad. No one ever misgenders Dahlia, questions her gender, or makes her gender or appearance the butt of a joke, which was a pleasant surprise. But it doesn’t make up for the fact that her transness is directly linked to her history of abuse and violence and serves no narrative purpose outside of that. My recommendation is the same as it was for Gren, or the Big Madam from Tokyo Ghoul — when a character’s genderqueerness serves no purpose but shock value and perceived grotesquerie, just make them cis.
It’s possible to have a horrific stereotype of genderqueerness as an antagonist without it coming across as transphobic, but it’s not easy — and considering that Dahlia has by far the most screentime of any genderqueer character in Carole and Tuesday, I don’t think they succeeded.
The Mermaid Sisters
The Mermaid Sisters are a musical group that competes in the Mars Brightest talent show, a thinly-veiled riff on American Idol. From the moment they’re introduced, they’re treated as a complete joke, getting side-eyed by the judges, audience, and fellow competitors alike for having the audacity to present in a gender-non-conforming fashion. Their screentime is limited enough that I’m inclined to recommend you just watch it if you can find it on YouTube or elsewhere, but I’ll cover the highlights anyways.
First of all, they explain their name as referring to the fact that they’re neither men nor women, just as mermaids are neither human nor fish, and saying they “want to become a new kind of human.” What this means is not clarified. Their song is an impressive string of profanity, sung in lovely acapella harmony — personally I think it’s hilarious, but we’re clearly meant to be laughing at the Mermaid Sisters rather than with them. They’re interrupted by the judge, who declares them unequivocal losers, saying they shouldn’t have come on the show. They react to this by taking a swing at the judges table (noticing a trend?) and are presumably dragged off by security, never to be seen again.
So yeah, not great. The gender presentation of the Mermaid Sisters is treated as a joke, the profanity filled lyrics they describe as “who we are” are depicted as galling and inappropriate, and they immediately resort to violence when crossed. This would be bad on its own — the fact that it’s so reminiscent of the ways Dahlia’s transness is associated with violence, abuse, and trauma makes it even worse.
They also never get a chance to “redeem” themselves like some of the other Mars Brightest contestants do. Instagram celeb Pyotr initially seems superficial, fame-obsessed, and a bit obnoxious, but his second song is a sincere embrace of self-love inspired by his past struggles with self-loathing. New-agey weirdo GGK initially seems borderline delusional, but her talk of the universe speaking through her turns out to reflect her feelings of finding a calling in life and becoming a new, better self. In fact, Pyotr and GGK wind up forming a duo together and make an appearance during the finale. The Mermaid Sisters, though? They’re never offered a chance to explain themselves. There’s no depth to them. They’re a one-off joke, like the man in a sailor uniform briefly seen during the Mars Brightest open auditions — because as we all know, there’s nothing funnier than a man in a dress.
As for how their representation could be improved… It’s hard to say with such limited screentime, but treating them like less of a joke out the gate and having at least some people genuinely enjoy their song would go a long way. They did get selected as contestants, after all. Not having them react to their loss by attacking the judges would also help a lot, especially considering the “transness = violence” link established by Dahlia.
Anyways, on a less infuriating note, Desmond is a legendary musician that Carole and Tuesday meet in episode 15, “God Only Knows,” before appearing again briefly during the finale. He² also exhibits Martian androgyny, and seems to be some degree of nonbinary — he says “I didn’t think I’d change emotionally, but now I feel as both. Did you know that in early stages, the embryo doesn’t have a sex? So I feel like I’ve returned to my original form. Yes, it’s as if I’ve found the half that was missing.”
So right out the gate, this is much better than Dahlia or the Mermaid Sisters. Rather than being depicted as grotesque and equated with violence, Desmond’s androgyny is a positive thing, something that completes him. The way he describes it, it also reads less as though Martian radiation made him genderqueer and more as though he was always genderqueer and just never realized until his body began changing, which tracks fairly well with the gender non-conforming, glam-rock appearance he had even before being affected. There’s also a nice thematic link between him “finding the half that was missing” and Carole and Tuesday’s own relationship, so it’s not just thrown in for shock value or as a joke. It’s pretty good.
My one issue is that Desmond kind of dies. I say “kind of” because he willingly slips into a coma at the end of “God Only Knows,” before waking himself up for the finale, with the implication that after he sings this last song he’s going to die for real. It’s clearly on his own terms, which I can respect, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s a bad look to have the only two named genderqueer characters in the show die. It especially doesn’t help that they both seem to die fairly young — Dahlia is 43, and while Desmond doesn’t have a canon age, he certainly doesn’t look old enough to die of natural causes — and are the only characters to die of internal causes (as opposed to, say, being shot) in the show. This equates Martian androgyny with death in an uncomfortable way — again, it’s awfully similar to Gren.
As for how to improve rep… I dunno, don’t have him die? It’s very dramatic and all, but it’s not really necessary — Desmond was already living a very sequestered life before Carole and Tuesday go visit him, enough so that it would still be a big deal for him to come out in public for the finale.
Lastly, a note on Cybelle. I’ve seen it posited that she’s genderqueer, presumably because her appearance is boyish, she refers to herself with the masculine first-person pronoun “boku,” and she never explicitly genders herself. However, she is referred to as female by others on several occasions, and it’s not uncommon for cis female characters to use “boku” in anime and manga. Moreover, considering how respectful everyone is of Dahlia’s gender, I’m inclined to think that if Cybelle was intended to be genderqueer the show would make that more clear to viewers. (I also don’t think it’s doing Carole and Tuesday any favors to read the stalker as genderqueer — all it does is strengthen the link between transness and violence.)
Desmond notwithstanding, the genderqueer rep in Carole and Tuesday is not very good, especially for a show lauded for its diversity. Incidentally, it is not lost on me that Desmond, the sole positive representation of genderqueerness in the show, is white, while Dahlia and the Mermaid Sisters are people of color. This is a fairly excellent breakdown of the issues — race isn’t the focus of this database, nor something I feel especially qualified to discuss (I’m very white), but personally, I don’t think Carole and Tuesday is anywhere near as progressive or inclusive as it claims to be, either in terms of race, sexuality, or genderqueerness. If you want to watch it for the music, the animation, or the friendship between its two leads, that’s one thing — but if you’re looking for good representation, especially of genderqueerness, you’d best look elsewhere.
¹ – 両性具有 is written with the characters “both,” “sex/gender,” “tool/implement,” and “have” — literally “possessing parts of both sexes.”
² – I’ll be referring to Desmond with he/him pronouns because it’s what the show uses, and because Desmond seems perfectly content with that — he’s referred to several times as “kare,” he/him, and refers to himself with the masculine first-person pronoun “boku.” During the recap at the beginning of episode 16, the subtitles switch to they/them pronouns — I imagine it’s because Desmond isn’t explicitly gendered in the Japanese and they wanted to play it safe, but considering that they revert to he/him during the finale, that’s what I’ll be going with.