It isn't a far gone conclusion that at some point we as American TV viewers have seen an episode of some sit-com and watched as one of the characters donned the apparel of the opposite sex, in an attempt by the creators to give the "fish out of water" humor effect.
In fact it isn't much blinked at anymore; we just accept it as a plot gag, and chuckle when it's done.
Now there is a name for this. It's called "Genderbending" and depending on how you want to spell it (Gender Bending as two words, or Genderbending all together), it equals something of a growing and more frequent form of entertainment coming from the Japanese Anime and Manga source.
What was originally a minor niche form of entertainment has become a rather large, and quickly growing sub-category of the anime and manga market demographic. This type of entertainment can be slotted and identified in almost any type of manga (Shonen, Shojo, or Seinen) and still maintain its target audience while crossing the gender bridge flawlessly.
Some of the more interesting and memorable genderbent icons of the past five years has been that of internet superstar Kyonko. Born as the product of Rule 63, and quickly becoming a massive online phenomenon, Kyonko -- the re-gendered female version of Kyon The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya -- has helped to bring more awareness to this often overlooked and seldom noticed form of entertainment.
I don't really feel like going all the way back to the origins of Genderbending, but if American television is any indicator, then the concept itself for us, has gone back as far as the 1950s with such wholesome family influential shows as I Love Lucy.
At what point it time genderbending became a device for plots in manga or anime isn't something that can simply be pointed at and say, "Here it is! This is where it all started!"
I know that when anime and manga were new to me, I didn't hear a lot about genderbending. To me anime and manga consisted of cliche characters, cliche scenarios, and cliche catch phrases, but there wasn't a whole lot of gender swapping going on. If there were, it was a one time thing; where a character used the "Let's Disguise Ourselves as a Woman To get by the Guards" routine, or something. But it wasn't until Kyonko and the Re-Gendering of Haruhi Suzumiya that I really began to take more careful notice, and see this in a lot of my familiar shows and manga that I was reading.
There are three types of Genderbending.
The truest form of genderbending would be to take a character and make them the opposite sex. Either through magic, or through the Doujinshi fan's comics.
Ranma 1/2, Akane Chan Overdrive, Grant My Wish Aizen and Kashimashi are perfect examples of a true genderbending anime/manga. This isn't just a matter of putting a boy or girl into the opposite gender's clothing, this is the real deal, where the character gets a plumbing job, and has different pitch to their voice when it's over.
Passive genderbending is an anime or manga that features a character that simply crossdresses for what ever reason. This could be, to hide an identity, cover-up a secret, or because of person selfcentered desires. This kind of Genderbending is prevalent in the anime/manga Maria+Holic, as well as the manga version of Mai Otome and the highly popular Ouran High-School Host Club.
Less passive and more casual genderbending would include one-bit characters that cross dress for comedic or selective scene effects. Those that are homosexual, and thus dress as the opposite sex to win the affection of the boy of their dreams, such as the case in the manga No Bra, and any other instance where the cross-dressing may not necessarily be used as the key plot of the medium.
Some of the most popular titles in anime and manga have included genderbending in one of these three forms, and despite the opinion of the viewers and readers, it seems that this form of sub-genre is becoming more and more prevalent.
Kampfer, Birdy the Mighty, Kaichou wa Maid-sama, are just a few of the recent shows and manga that have either a partial genderbending theme, or the main device is genderbending out right.
One thing to note, is that it is more typical to see a Male to Female re-gendering, and less likely to see a Female to Male, though it does happen. Usually when the male is converted to a woman, it's more likely that the final product will remain unchanged. A typical trope that once a woman is made, it's damned hard to change them back.
With the age of the internet becoming what it is, more fan-made art is now depicting the heavy influence of internet rule 63, which stipulates that "There is a female version of it"; and now we see things like the infamous Broly pic, and Fullmetal Alchemist, with a stunningly gorgeous Ed Elric.
From the perspective of a fellow otaku, I doubt very highly that the original intent of genderbending was as highly perverted as it may have appeared. It's very possible that it is nothing more than a means to fan-crush on a character of the opposite sex, without feeling the need to resort to homosexual tendencies, or to even more simply re-imagine the entire concept of the work in question to bring out an all new type of story.
Regardless, it's clear that there are cases where genderbending goes too far, and cases where it may be so passive and weak, that it begs for more of the lusty stuff.
I'd love to say that it's a pervs plaything, and sand-box. But that would hardly be a fair assessment, since this subtle wink and nod is in so much of the stuff we love. Not just the manga, but the anime as well. I would personally rather not have the characters of Haruhi Suzumiya re-gendered, but if I was given as choice between Kyon, or Kyonko... well, hands down I'd rather have the hottie with the blushing cheeks and the smart-mouth comebacks at Haruhi.
I don't think genderbending takes away from or overly adds to the popular culture of anime and manga. If it hasn't destroyed the American entertainment industry, then it certainly won't wreck the Otaku Culture.
So, go ahead. Give me your Haruhi Fujiokas and your Mariya Shidos, toss me your Blond Bombshell Broly, and your magically induced sex-swapping Ranmas... in the end, I probably wouldn't change a thing, I'd just do like the classic rock song... and "Let It Ride".