From the start, a scene with a young child who steps into a psychiatrist’s salon because of a gender identity “problem” already seals the reader’s fate to a gloomy foregone conclusion. The young child is Claudine, the eponymous character of Ryoko Ikeda’s 1987 4-part manga and the central subject of much intrigue and heartbreak. The reason for the aforementioned psychiatric help: Claudine de Montesse is 10 years old and believes she’s a boy.
Seeing that Claudine is far from a maladjusted pre-adolescent, the psychiatrist suggests maintaining casual contact with the child, keeping an eye from afar as it were on Claudine’s social development. The story unfolds years following their first meeting where we now find Claudine the apple of his father’s eye, and being every bit the elite French gentleman who loves his horse-riding and hunting.
Handsome with bottle-gold bird’s nest hair, Claudine is a hit with the ladies and pursued by one young woman after another. But none take his fancy until Maura, the maid, arrives at the family doorstep covered in snow that we see them sharing “a moment”; eyes meeting and tongues tied. There is awkward but endearing chemistry between the two as Claudine towers over tiny Maura, and in the way his moodiness is offset by her manic pixie dream girl-like charm. They share their first kiss when Claudine’s mother catches them. Aghast and scandalised by their homoerotic and class transgressions, Claudine’s mother sends Maura away for good, leaving him heartbroken and wandering the streets of Paris in search of love and acceptance.
Two more passionate affairs follow and end disastrously. Cecilia, the mature librarian who shares his love of books and intellectual banter cheats on him with Claudine’s father of all people. Sirene, the sultry ballerina who lives with him as a ‘housemate’ runs away with Claudine’s older brother. To add insult to injury, Claudine is reminded by his ex lovers of the ‘truth’ that he is after all “a woman” and hence has no future of successful romantic entanglement with another women. Broken and devastated, Claudine seeks a lifeline, his psychiatrist, who could reassure him that he really is a man. But alas, the psychiatrist disappoints: Claudine is told he is an “imperfect” man who is “not quite right”. The humiliation and despair drives our hero to take his own life one snowy night.
As a fan of shojo manga that deals with “difficult” gender issues, I had found in Claudine …! a goldmine of themes: young love, betrayal, homosexuality, melodrama of operatic proportions, and the all predictable tragedy. The twee French backdrop – a standard quirk of many Japanese manga – serves as a fantastical safe space for young female readers to sympathise with our transfemale protagonist’s trial and tribulations. The tragic denouement is typical of non-normative romantic pursuits in fiction in which our protagonist’s death sends a grim message that romance belongs to cis-gendered heteronormativity. To reside outside its exacting boundaries is to invite trouble and doom.
Claudine is eulogised by his psychiatrist as someone quite extraordinary in life, but ignores his own hand and those of others in Claudine’s suicide. There is something self-serving about waxing lyrical about the dearly departed like Claudine as a person of exceptional beauty and intelligence, someone who was all man but in body. Had someone like him been alive, the reality of embracing him into the fold of society would be more cumbersome for some people. Revering him in death is more convenient. There is no doubt that a fictional fantasy on transgender identities is every bit a reflection of our collective heteronormative attitudes in which every tragic death symbolises a victory for hegemonic, dominant values.
You can read Claudine …! online here.