Moon Prism Power!

Anime and geek therapy for discussing gender dysphoria.

Posted Oct 07, 2020

Peter Andrew Danzig/Self
Peter Andrew Danzig
Source: Peter Andrew Danzig/Self

Guest post by Peter Andrew Danzig (They/He), LSW, MSS, MA, CPT

“Is that, Sailor Moon?” she asks. “I love her, I wish I could be like her.”

I notice the small figurine of the Anime superheroine on my bookshelf, along with a multitude of clinical practice books and the DSM-5. A unique combination, I think. Or is it? My client, a Black, Trans woman often states that anime and video games allow her to feel more comfortable expressing her hardships with gender dysphoria.

Curious, I follow her: “What qualities does Sailor Moon have that you admire, or feel you lack?”

My client looks down, inward, and says "She can transform, and fights evil; I feel like if I could transform, I could fight the hostility Trans Women face every day. Also, she can be badass in a skirt.”

As a therapist, I often utilize Geek Therapy modalities to invite conversations with my clients. If you clinically spend time with Queer and Trans-identifying clients, you will notice a strong correlation between their discussions in therapy and their use of anime and manga to help manage strong emotions related to gender dysphoria. Clients often cite anime characters, using anime memes and avatars in social forums and finding characters that span the gender spectrum (quite universal in anime such as Sailor Moon, Ouran High School Host Club, Tokyo Godfather and others). These characters rarely represented in Western animation are fleshed out with affirming experiences and pride in their identity. I often find my clients watch these story arcs and find a parallel process with their own experience. People with gender dysphoria may experience distress between a person’s assigned gender at birth and the gender with which they identify. As a clinician and licensed social worker, my foremost clinical intervention is affirming their experiences and social constructs that further pathologize the spectrum of gender identity.

Opening up conversations about related abuse, mis-gendering, bullying and inadequate medical care many times feels overwhelming to my clients. In my attempts at relational and humanistic care, I find the intersections of our interests and identities to be helpful ways of starting these dialogues. I proudly wear my identity as a Gender Queer Therapist as much as I do my license to practice: Self-acceptance of my unique “geek” interests also allows for a relational dialogue between myself and my clients. I find the basis of the therapeutic relationship is often found in shared understandings.

Psychologist Anthony Bean states, “It is important not to condemn the concept of being a geek or the activity being enjoyed based on rating, time spent, or games played (as seen in the past definitions of geek), but to see through the play itself into what the player is experiencing, what drives them to a certain character or avatar, or the individual’s experience of the virtualized and fantasy worlds. This may require an observer to participate in the different.” I often find that my clients find it exciting that their therapist, like them, can appreciate the vastness of these worlds in which their characters navigate their gender in relation to sadness, depression, anxiety, and pain. The use of geek culture and pop culture in clinical realms is a topic of debate among clinicians but my experiences always bring me back to the underlying truth: It can be an aid in helping my clients to express their experiences, wishes, or internalized social expectations. Clinicians who hold cultural competency in geek fandom understand just how important our clients' relationships with these characters are when they find affirmations in anime while often they don’t in their everyday lives.

Clinically, we follow our clients, but we can also benefit from understanding their interests in anime and manga. For example, Sailor Moon “fights for love and justice,” and is asked to fight to protect those closest to her. Fans of the show often will relate to the character as she navigates the incongruence with her destiny as a Sailor Soldier, a duty she was born into, and her wants for a “normal” life. The series, over 5 seasons and 3 films, often finds the main character admitting that the ability to be unique is both a gift and comes with an emotional price. I’d venture to say that those of us who treat our LGBTQIA+ clients find that they identify with Sailor Moon’s hardships.

In utilizing Geek Therapy, I often find that clients “experience less anxiety (e.g., social), less depressive symptoms (e.g., after watching anime and reading manga), improved self-esteem, richer interpersonal interactions, greater social and school engagement, and greater development of social skills and problem-solving. They (the modalities) are being used to improve overall psychological well-being across all ages, as well as focusing on the specific needs of targeted populations, such as those with ADHD, ASD, PTSD, and mood and anxiety disorders."

When utilized in subtle and affirming ways, Geek Therapy can allow our clients’ interests in anime to help them investigate ways of discussing their pain and finding a healing and uniting experience in the therapeutic process. The struggles of these characters often feels authentic and familiar to those experiencing the hardships of a dysphoric expression of their authentic selves. Opening up a dialogue around the meaning of the anime may allow for a more gentle approach.

And all it takes is “Fighting for love and Justice; In the Name of the Moon.”

Peter Andrew Danzig, LSW, MSS, MA is a licensed social worker and psychotherapist as well as a writer and the Founder of Theatrical Trainer.  His research and Op-Eds have been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Philadelphia Gay News, The Mighty, and others. For more, visit peterandrewdanzig.com.