Thursday, 1 September 2011

Falling in love with Akihabara again: Queen Dolce

I've just come home after a month-long research trip in Japan, during which I re-discovered my love of Akihabara. I loved the things you find in Akihabara long before I ever set foot in the place - in fact, by the time I actually went on my first trip to Japan, my university course had peed on my geeky parade by immersing me in more acceptable things like Edo period woodblock prints and religious history. So most of the magic of Akihabara passed me by, because the lonely teenage otaku in me was lost behind a head full of academia. But no longer! Now I'm lucky enough to be studying computer games, pursuing electronics as a hobby which artists sometimes pay me for, and occasionally writing about genderqueer fashion. All three of those things are great excuses for me to spend endless hours trawling the streets of Akiba.

FTM crossdressing cafe

I've been to your standard maid cafe before, and it was genuinely fun but didn't really feel worth the expense. I'm starting to think that it's actually a case of finding the theme cafe that suits your own taste. Aside from maid cafes there are butler cafes, cat girl cafes, old japan style cafes, and many other places where the serving staff dress up and take on a particular role. A few months before this trip I became interested in the small number of female-to-male crossdressing cafes that exist (dansou cafe). Most of them describe themselves as 'dansou gyaruson' cafes, meaning 'crossdressing garcon', although garcon itself is a pun as the first two syllables are homophonous with 'gal'. Garcon suggests french waiter-style dress, and the non-crossdressing garcon cafes are staffed by cute young men who look like pop stars. In the dansou gyaruson style, women dress up in sharp shirts and waistcoats, style their mid-length hair into spiky bird's nests and masculinise their Japanese language. And it's totally awesome.

I'll probably never be able to work out whether the theme cafe Queen Dolce constitutes a queer space. While I was there I felt as though the pretext of crossdressing staff members had created a uniquely relaxing and open atmosphere for anybody with non-normative gender identities. The clientele were mixed male and female, with more effeminate men and masculine women around than you usually see in Japan. More impressive was the was people were talking in a very relaxed tone, laughing loudly while discussing their tastes in women - I couldn't follow most of the conversation because they were using so much slang, and it was so far removed from the polite Japanese I'm used to hearing! It's not common for people to be able to open up and be themselves in public in Japan, and leaving the space of the cafe to go back to the real world was jarring. To this extent, it felt similar to Bar Wotever at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern.

The clear difference is that while Bar Wotever is declared to be about creating community and supporting people who exist outside of the mainstream, Queen Dolce is basically about spectacle. It so happens that the nature of the spectacle sets a tone that allows the guests to be as masculine or feminine as they wish. While the aesthetic and symbolism of Bar Wotever are set by the guests, Queen Dolce consciously makes use of specific visual effects to spark the imagination of visitors - the bar staff are dressed like pop idols or characters from romantic manga, their mannerisms and voice inflections evocative of Takarazuka theatre, the projector shows clips from old timey black and white hollywood movies with old-fashioned handsome male heroes - all together, it makes it clear that what brings the visitors to the cafe together is an admiration for a very specific form of masculinity in the female body. Whether the cafe staff like to express themselves in that way outside of working hours is a complete mystery. In short, Queen Dolce is about one specific non-normative performance of gender, while Bar Wotever is about not having to perform anymore, or performing as a way of getting closer to who you really are.

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