The Babadook asks:

In celebration of Pride what’s your ideal queer-themed team? Include nature’s, movesets, abilities and held items?

It’s still June in the US; I’m not too late!

Hmmmmmmmmmmmm…

I feel like… movesets and abilities and held items would mostly have to be really specific jokes that I just don’t think I can do well, being only the G of LGBT and not having all that much insight into the other letters.  We can pick six Pokémon, though, and I think we should probably start with Pokémon who have gender properties that are in some way interesting…

Continue reading “The Babadook asks:”

Pokémon and Gender

So, I’ve been wanting to write this entry for a while, but haven’t because I can’t make it fit into any of the series I want to do.  In that sense, it’s actually something of a cool opportunity that I’m not committing to writing anything in particular at the moment, because I can just do whatever.  I will warn you, though, that this will be one of my most trippy and speculative entries yet.  Brace yourselves.

The premise of what I’m going to be talking about today is a choice of vocabulary that just about every person on the planet has probably taken for granted, but which has always stuck in my craw (because, as we know, I’m obsessed with languages): “gender.”  The word “gender,” unbeknownst to many, doesn’t actually refer to the biological distinction between male and female.  Male and female are sexes, not genders.  Masculine and feminine are genders.  Traditionally the word has referred to the concept of grammatical gender, an idea present in every major European language except English, whereby all nouns are considered masculine, feminine, or (in e.g. Latin, Greek, and German) neuter, and adjectives must change their forms to suit the gender of the nouns they describe (for instance, in Latin, ‘tall’ is altus if you’re talking about a mountain, but alta if you’re talking about a tree).  There is no real rule to these, and they’re not always consistent across languages either (the Latin word for tree, arbor, is feminine; the ancient Greek word, δένδρον, is neuter, and the French word, arbre, is masculine, even though it’s clearly derived from the Latin word).  In short, something that has ‘gender’ is associated with maleness or femaleness (or absence thereof) in some vague and unspecified way.  In modern usage, this meaning has expanded to include descriptions of a person’s general psychological disposition, certain traits being regarded as ‘masculine’ – typical of a man, but not exclusive or necessary to men – others as ‘feminine’ – typical of a woman, but not exclusive or necessary to women.  We’ve all met masculine women and feminine men; I’ve been called ‘feminine’ once or twice (by my best friend, no less).  Things get much worse when we throw sexuality into the mix, because that’s even more complicated and doesn’t necessarily line up with sex or gender, but honestly I don’t want to go anywhere near that particular can of worms.  Anyway, here’s the thing…

Pokémon don’t have sexes.  They have genders.

I’m aware, of course, that this is probably a mistranslation caused by squeamishness about exposing ten-year-olds to the inherent horror and immorality of the word ‘sex’ (never mind that you’re selling them a game in which Pokémon engage in ‘breeding’).  I think we can all agree, though, that just letting it go would be far less entertaining than grabbing it with both hands and following it to its most insane possible conclusion.

The Pokémon franchise in general has always been extremely closed-mouthed about how Pokémon reproduce.  None of the characters seem to have any idea how the process works.  A number of NPCs pointedly insist that it hasn’t been proven that Pokémon lay eggs, because in thousands of years of recorded history no-one has ever actually seen it happen.  Until the events of Gold and Silver, likewise, it hasn’t been conclusively proven that Pokémon hatch from eggs either; that’s why Professor Elm is so excited when your Togepi egg hatches.  A Pokémon egg is an incredibly rare curiosity, the preserve of obsessive collectors like Mr. Pokémon.  The kind men and women of the various day-care centres, likewise, are utterly mystified whenever eggs show up in their backyards, no matter how many times it happens.  There is also a whole string of little discrepancies in the system as it’s given to us.  There are a few single-gendered species, which creates obvious problems – female-only Pokémon, like Kangaskhan and Lilligant, would need to breed with males of other species in the same egg group to maintain a population (because, of course, inter-species breeding is not especially problematic for Pokémon), while male-only Pokémon can’t even do that, since all baby Pokémon are of the same species as their mothers; players can only get babies of those species with the help of the ‘breeder’s wildcard,’ Ditto.  According to everything we have been told, Sawk, Throh, the Hitmon triplets, Braviary and possibly Tauros cannot reproduce in the wild.  The same goes for ‘genderless’ Pokémon, like Electrode and Starmie.  Now, I realise biology has never exactly been Pokémon’s strong point, but it doesn’t take a genius to work out that a species which is completely incapable of reproducing cannot exist.  It doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense for Chansey, Petilil, Mandibuzz, Kangaskhan and Jynx to be totally reliant on hybridisation to continue their species either.  There’s a little question mark over Ditto as well – Ditto can Transform into an exact duplicate of a Pokémon standing in front of it… so, by all common sense, a Ditto presented with a biologically male Pokémon should Transform into a biologically male Pokémon.  Ditto might be able to alter its form to a small extent, but the games don’t really provide any evidence for that, and the anime implies that it can only make superficial changes, so I doubt it could reconfigure an entire organ system without help.  In short, whatever goes on in day-care centres, it’s not straightforward sexual reproduction on the model of real-world animals.

Here’s my weird-ass take on it all, then…

Pokémon, I will repeat, don’t have sexes.  They have genders.  That is, they don’t actually have differentiated reproductive systems; they are all, in essence, single-sex species.  They do have an unusually large degree of variance in the levels of different hormones they produce, which leads to significant variation in their psychological traits, and in many species (most notably Nidoran) this is linked to some physical aspects, creating the appearance of sexual dimorphism, though in the vast majority of cases the differences are actually superficial.  Reproduction takes place via a ‘mind-meld’-like process (I sort of imagine them pressing their foreheads together, murmuring to each other, and glowing softly); genetic information is exchanged, but selectively – the vast majority of a baby Pokémon’s genes come from its mother.  Most of the exchange actually involves psychological traits.  As a result, a baby Pokémon will be quite close to being, physically, a clone of its mother (which is why inter-species breeding always results in a Pokémon of the mother’s species – the father contributes only a few genes, selected out of those that are compatible with the mother’s species) but will have closer to an even mixture of psychological traits from both parents.  The father (as, of course, we know) is additionally capable of passing on a number of conscious mental traits and learned abilities, which become ingrained in the child’s instincts.  For most Pokémon species, mental health requires a mixture of masculine and feminine traits, so instinct dictates that two masculine Pokémon will not mate willingly, and nor will two feminine Pokémon.  The entire process is far more low-key than what real animals have to go through, and consequently much more difficult to observe, which is why the whole subject is surrounded by such abject confusion.

So, how does this help to resolve the problems with how Pokémon breeding appears to work in the games?

The thing about the all-masculine species, like Hitmonchan and Braviary, is that – being universally and excessively ‘masculine’ – they are extremely pugnacious and aggressive (this, again, is something we already know – just look at the all-masculine species).  As a result, practically everything they do is constantly simmering with potential to break into outright violence.  What passes for ‘courtship’ among these species is no exception, and is simply so confrontational that human observers have never actually made the leap to identifying it as courtship (if you’re familiar with Homestuck, the concept of a ‘caliginous romance’ is a decent analogy, though it’s far more developed and laden with cultural baggage) and, as I suggested, the actual reproductive act itself is surprisingly easy to miss.  The kind of aggression and conflict necessary for a pair of Pokémon from an all-masculine species to develop an intimate relationship simply isn’t allowed to happen in the context of a day-care centre, where the staff normally discourage fighting.  Thus, Pokémon from all-masculine species can and do reproduce in the wild, but never get the chance in a day-care.  Pokémon from all-feminine species have a similar, but opposite set of issues.  They are universally and excessively ‘feminine,’ and therefore extremely passive, gentle, and cautious in their relationships with each other.  Courtship is an extremely slow, drawn-out process that can last for months or years; in captivity, there normally just isn’t time to observe it happening, and even in the wild it’s so long-term that human scientists haven’t actually been able to recognise it yet.  Many Pokémon from all-feminine species will take masculine partners from other species in order to create social diversity, and this generally happens much more quickly.

‘Genderless’ Pokémon are another kettle of fish entirely.  I want to suggest that they don’t necessarily all work in the same way; rather, they’re a ‘miscellaneous’ group.  Many of them aren’t actually ‘genderless’ but actually have three, four, five or even more genders, none of which match up exactly with ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ – as a result, humans are totally unable to understand the rules that govern their reproductive compatibility.  Some of them reproduce in groups of three or more, making it impossible for a day-care centre, which takes two Pokémon at most, to observe their reproduction.  A few reproduce by fission, splitting into two or more children only at the moment of death.  In short, their reproductive practices are just so weird that human observers don’t have a hope in hell of understanding what’s going on.  This, of course, brings me to the most important Pokémon of the lot: Ditto.  Ditto, in the games, does not reproduce; it only helps other Pokémon to do so, presumably using its ability to Transform into any other species.  Although Ditto forms a perfect physical copy of its partner, psychologically it doesn’t change at all when it Transforms; since Ditto is neither masculine nor feminine, it adopts a totally different role and all the usual rules of courtship go out the window when it gets involved, which is why universally masculine Pokémon can reproduce in captivity with a Ditto.  Ditto is likewise capable of overriding whatever whacked-out reproductive norms are in play for ‘genderless’ Pokémon, even producing eggs of Pokémon species that don’t naturally lay eggs at all.  It contributes very little to the child, physically or psychologically, but does provide a way to scramble the genes provided by the other parent and throw up new combinations of dormant traits.  So, then… question: why, in evolutionary terms, does it make sense for a species to focus its energy on helping other species to propagate themselves?  Answer: the relationship is symbiotic.  Ditto actually feeds on the leftover energy of cell division to revitalise its own cells.  It gets… a bit metaphysical, but the practical result is that, as long as a Ditto continues to help other Pokémon reproduce, it will never die.  Absorbing a huge excess of cellular energy allows Ditto to split and form two new Ditto; this doesn’t happen often, but accounts for the Ditto that are inevitably killed by other Pokémon or die in accidents.

As for where the Ditto came from in the first place, I’m inclined to accept the fan theory that they’re closely related to Mew – the only other Pokémon with the ability to Transform, courtesy of her genetic library, who also happens to be bright pink – mostly because it fits well with my ideas about Mew, which suggest that her whole purpose in the world is to absorb DNA from other Pokémon and store it.  Ditto have lost the ability to store borrowed DNA on a long-term basis, and as a result their physical form has degenerated, but they retain the ability to absorb DNA and rapidly assimilate it into their own systems.  That, naturally, brings me to the last category of Pokémon I need to talk about: legendary Pokémon, who (with the notable exception of Manaphy) cannot breed at all, Ditto or no Ditto.  Most of them are also genderless.  Many legendary Pokémon are heavily implied to be unique (and presumably immortal) anyway, which means I don’t have to worry about them, but a few seem to exist as entire species; most significantly, a baby Lugia appears in a few episodes of the anime.  They’re sufficiently different from other Pokémon that they can’t breed normally with anything else, and their lifespans are so long that humans just can’t observe them properly.  Mating season might come around once every three or four centuries and last for a month or two; even then, eggs might take years to hatch.  In short, some legendary Pokémon do breed, but for all intents and purposes it’s not something humans can take advantage of.

I think that’s enough from me for now – it’s not every day I try to totally redefine the way we look at a major aspect of the Pokémon games.  As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on my latest weird-ass theory; if you point out something that doesn’t make sense, I might be able to improve on it.  Anyway, that’s all from me – thanks for reading, and have a fun day!

Anime Time: Episodes 37 and 41

Ditto’s Mysterious Mansion – Wake Up, Snorlax

Ash’s location: Czech Republic, or thereabouts.

For today’s show… two weird-ass episodes about two weird-ass trainers and their two weird-ass Pokémon!

 Ditto shapeshifting into Pikachu to prepare for battle, by Travis Orams (http://trezhurisland.deviantart.com/).

In Ditto’s Mysterious Mansion, Ash, Misty and Brock take shelter from a sudden, violent rainstorm inside a worn-out, creaking old mansion, which appears deserted until they see a teal-haired boy wearing clothes exactly like Ash’s standing in the shadows.  “Yeah, except it’s a girl,” Brock notes.  How does he know?  “Men’s intuition.”  Indeed, the ‘boy’ is a young girl named Duplica, who has an incredible gift for imitation, and lives in the mansion with her Pokémon partner, a Ditto.  Ash is disdainful when Duplica explains that Ditto’s only power is Transform; he doesn’t see the point in a Pokémon that can only ever be a cheap imitation of something else.  Duplica shows him his mistake by challenging him to a battle and having her Ditto block Bulbasaur’s Razor Leaf with Vine Whip, then use its vines to restrain Bulbasaur.  Ash surrenders and sulks for a little while, until Brock points something out to him: Ditto may have been imitating Bulbasaur, but Duplica wasn’t simply imitating Ash; she used another of Bulbasaur’s powers to counter what the real one was trying to do.  In order to battle like that with Ditto, Duplica must have encyclopaedic knowledge of all Pokémon species and their capabilities.  She isn’t really the battling type, though; Duplica wants to be a performer.  When travellers stop at the mansion, Duplica entertains them with her Pokémon cosplay and Ditto’s transformations.  Unfortunately, Duplica’s Ditto can’t mimic faces, which has wrecked their act on more than one occasion.  As she is telling Ash her woes, Team Rocket make their obligatory appearance and nab Ditto.  They want it to Transform into a mythical Dratini so they can present it to Giovanni, but Ditto, presented with a picture of Dratini in a book, can only Transform into the book.  They also quickly learn of Ditto’s inability to mimic faces, but eventually succeed, using threats of physical violence, in getting it to Transform into a perfect copy of Meowth.  When the kids arrive – wearing Team Rocket costumes from Duplica’s stash and reciting the Team Rocket motto, just for the hell of it – Duplica is overjoyed and even thanks them for helping Ditto learn to Transform properly.  Jessie and James try to give Meowth to Duplica and fly off with Ditto in their balloon… but she isn’t fooled for one second, and lobs him at the balloon, causing Jessie and James to drop the real Ditto.  Furious, they deploy a cannon from the balloon’s basket, but Duplica has Ditto Transform into the cannon and blast Pikachu at them, with predictable results.  Duplica goes back to her mansion to re-open for business, the kids get on with whatever it is they claim to be doing, and Jessie and James attempt to stuff Meowth into a Dratini costume…

 This is the kind of thing you want to see when you stop for a rest at the side of the road, right?  Screenshots from filb.de/anime.

Let’s talk about Ditto.  Ditto is one of those Pokémon who’s gotten something of a raw deal in the games, because Ditto in the games really is just a cheap imitation of whatever it Transforms into.  It’ll probably have less HP, it can match but not exceed its opponents in all other respects (including, most importantly, speed), and it’s overwhelmingly likely to be at a one-turn disadvantage because of the time it takes to Transform.  Contrast the way Ditto’s Mysterious Mansion portrays this weird-ass little Pokémon.  The way Brock and Duplica describe how Ditto battles seems to imply that Ditto can imitate any technique a Pokémon is physically capable of, even if the opponent doesn’t actually know it – if they had been fighting outside in fine weather, for instance, Duplica might have had Ditto hammer Ash’s Bulbasaur with a Solarbeam.  What’s more, Ditto’s ability to imitate inanimate objects is something entirely unique to the anime (and with good reason; it’d be merry hell to add something like that to the games).  Whatever it’s imitating, though, it seems clear that – as in the games – Ditto can only Transform into what’s actually in front of it.  A picture of a Dratini won’t cut it; Ditto can only manage a copy of the picture.  However, when Jessie shows Ditto a photo of her old school crush and asks it to show her what he’d look like aged up a few years, Ditto is able to accommodate her; it can still only Transform into a photo, and it fails, as usual, to imitate his face, but it does manage to age the boy in the image as Jessie asks.  Clearly, then, Ditto can take some licence with its transformations (for instance, it could probably Transform, if it chose, into a ‘shiny’ version of a Pokémon standing in front of it, or make other superficial changes); it just can’t create a whole three-dimensional form from scratch, or from memory.  The other fascinating thing Ditto is able to imitate is Meowth’s ability to speak, which is an extremely unusual skill that Meowth learned only with incredible effort.  When Jessie and James present Duplica with two identical Meowth, Ditto mimics everything Meowth says, though it doesn’t appear to be able to add anything (suggesting that it’s just parroting the sounds without understanding them, but even that is beyond the abilities of most Meowth).  Clearly, then, Ditto has some degree of access even to complex learned abilities, but may not be able to use them effectively without some sort of instruction.  Some questions to ponder, then: would Ditto be able to speak if it Transformed into a different Meowth?  What if Team Rocket’s Meowth had been there with them to show it how?  In short, does Transforming actually allow Ditto to take knowledge from the template Pokémon’s mind?  More importantly, why isn’t this the kind of thing Professor Oak and his ilk are researching?

So much for Ditto… now for a distinctly more vexing Pokémon.

 Snorlax reaching up to grab a Leppa Berry, by theMerce (http://themerce.deviantart.com/).

After a brief run-in with an old hobo, who plays them a song on his Poké-Flute before demanding food (which they do not have) as payment, Ash, Misty and Brock wander into a town, delirious with hunger, and find that no-one there has any food either.  Luckily for them, they run into the mayor, who is generous enough to give them a meal from his family’s private stores.  The mayor explains that the river that flows through the town has dried up for some reason, ruining their farmland and causing massive food shortages.  “No-one dares go upstream anymore.  There’s no telling what you might find.”  Luckily, Ash and his friends are random wandering Pokémon trainers – the best people for any dangerous and loosely-specified task!  They follow the dry riverbed for some time, hacking through the oppressive tangles of thorny vines in their path, and find what seems to be the problem… a Snorlax blocking the river (where… is all the water going, exactly?).  Ash tries to capture Snorlax, but his Pokéball just bounces off.  As the kids puzzle over his monstrous bulk, Team Rocket arrive in their balloon and declare that they have come to take Snorlax.  Ash is reluctant to let them steal the massive Pokémon, but- wait, steal?  Isn’t it a wild Snorlax?  Surely it’s fair game?  Clearly, as far as Ash is concerned, there is a definite ethical distinction between battling a wild Pokémon to capture it in a Pokéball and simply carting it off in its sleep, as Jessie and James mean to.  Regardless, Ash has to admit that getting rid of Snorlax is more important.  The balloon can’t lift his fat ass, though, and nothing they try can wake him up.  When he shifts his weight, though, they find a “Do Not Disturb” sign underneath him, with the instruction “in case of emergency, please use a Poké-Flute to wake.”  The kids remember the hobo, rush back to find him… for some reason, get into a battle with Team Rocket for control of the hobo, which of course they win… and lead him to the Snorlax.  The hobo claims that the Snorlax is his, and that he wakes it with his flute once a month.  He does so now, but it turns out that Snorlax was never the problem… the stream is being blocked by another dense thicket of vines.  As the kids scratch their heads, Snorlax takes matters into his own hands and devours the entire thicket, releasing the river and restoring the town’s lifeblood, before going back to sleep.  Finally, the hobo’s Snorlax-shaped pager beeps and flashes “No. 7,” to tell him that he has to go and wake up another Snorlax.

Wait, what?

Okay, guys, I know you probably meant that as a throwaway joke, but… you do realise you just implied that this hobo is responsible for travelling around Kanto regulating the sleep cycles of at least seven different Snorlax?

Because that is AWESOME!

 Snorlax saves the day.

Seriously, though, let’s put a little thought into this.  Snorlax is an interesting Pokémon, from an ecological perspective… by which I mean, the damn thing eats everything.  Luckily they also sleep for months at a time, giving the ecosystem time to recover from their onslaughts.  However, in an episode from the Orange League series, Snack Attack, we see how absurdly destructive a single Snorlax can be when it gets peckish in the wrong place at the wrong time; these things can devour forests in a matter of days.  The flip side of this, though, is how Snorlax fit into ecosystems that are used to their presence.  Snorlax presumably don’t often move very far.  One imagines that the one Ash encounters in Wake Up, Snorlax has been living in the area for quite some time.  Its presence is probably what has been keeping the thorn weed under control and stopping the river from turning into an overgrown swamp long before now.  The removal of such a major consumer from an ecosystem could only be disastrous; if Ash actually had captured the Snorlax, and then found a way to clear the vines himself, chances are they would have grown back within months, choking the river once again.  There are probably many grassland and meadow environments in Kanto that can exist in their present state only because of Snorlax living in the area and regularly trimming back more aggressive types of flora.  Think about that for a moment the next time you’re playing Fire Red or Leaf Green and decide to catch that wild Snorlax.  The hobo’s role in all this is a little harder to guess at, unless you’re prepared to accept that Snorlax will actually sleep indefinitely unless disturbed.  It might be that their natural sleep cycle is easily disturbed by human activity, or that they’ve been moved from their original territory (maybe to make room for a city, or maybe as a deliberate attempt to alter the environment) and need to eat more or less often than usual because of the different vegetation.  In spite of their size and power, I could actually see Snorlax being tremendously vulnerable to environmental disturbances because of their massive energy requirements, and perhaps being a very high-maintenance species to protect, like the giant pandas they vaguely resemble.

What I like about the anime is that it often gives more detailed portraits of particular species of Pokémon than the games are capable of providing in their current state.  I think there’s actually plenty of room for the games to do this as well, but that’s neither here nor there.  Ditto and Snorlax are both very interesting Pokémon to think about – Ditto because of the unanswered questions about the extent of its powers, Snorlax because of his unusual lifestyle and needs – and, in keeping with the spirit of learning and discovery that’s been part of the point of Pokémon from the beginning, such portraits are a tremendously important part of the franchise as a whole.  Or… that’s what I think, anyway.