'Pokémon Go' Update: The definitive guide to gender politics in the new Pokémon universe
If you haven't heard the news, Pokémon Go players are reporting that they're starting to find differently gendered Pokémon, where previously, they were only finding Pokémon of a single gender. Specifically, some are seeing female Pikachu and Raichu.
This has bigger implications for Pokémon Go than you'd think: It seems to be a signal that Pokémon Go might introduce Pokémon breeding, a feature that's been conspicuously absent from the game thus far.
The idea that Pokémon have gender at all is something I've never considered (except for Nidoran, I guess). How does gender work in Pokémon? Is it done tastefully? Is it weird? Is it sexist?
OK, let's just clear the air right now. Yes, I'm going to talk about gender politics and Pokémon. If that's not a thing you want to read about, you have the freedom to tap out now. That said, I'm taking a pretty surface-level look at this stuff. A lot of this gets to be very silly. Because, you know, trying to apply our real-world politics to a world in which it's acceptable to imprison intelligent creatures in tiny balls and make them fight each other is inherently thorny territory.
OK, we good? Are you poised over your keyboard with an rage-fueled all-caps email ready to go? Great! Let's go!
Pokémon and sexual dimorphism, explained
The first thing I did to try to suss out the gender politics of Pokémon was to look at the objective differences between females and males. As it turns out, things are a little more complicated.
Time for some Science 101: If you didn't know, there are lots of animals in the real world that exhibit sexual dimorphism, which means that different genders within the same species have different characteristics. For example, male mallards have bright, green heads, whereas female mallards are speckled and brown all over. So, for Pokémon of different genders to have different appearances is not necessarily a sexism thing. It's sometimes a real thing.
There's quite a bit of this sexual dimorphism in Pokémon, most of which is very similar to that of the real world. For example, female Glooms have one large spot per bud, whereas male Glooms have multiple spots per bud. Fine.
Surprise! There's some sexism, too.
This will likely be of zero shock to you or anyone living in the modern world, but there's also a lot of terrible gender stereotyping that happens in Pokémon. This reinforces a gender essentialist viewpoint — you know, the idea that men always like trucks and the color blue and ladies like to pick flowers and never poop.
For example, female Pikachu — the kind that has started popping up in Pokémon Go — has a heart-shaped tail, maybe because only women feel emotions.
And, while most Pokémon can be male or female, there are some mono-gendered Pokémon, which is a whole other matter. Here's a snippet of a chart that shows some examples of those.
The above might look like cherry picking, but I assure you, the majority of the female-only Pokémon in that chart are pink, floral or maternal, while the male ones mostly punch stuff or look mad.
And, in Generation V, the differences between male and female versions of Frillish and Gellicent read like a laundry list of the most basic, offensive gender stereotypes. The males are blue; they frown and have a crown-shaped pattern. The ladies are pink; they always smile and have a flower-shaped pattern.
The thing is, most of the differences between bi-gendered Pokémon are pretty innocuous — they're much more in line with the Gloom-like designs, with minor variations in whisker size or spot pattern. The horribly sexist ones like Frillish and Jellicent are the outliers, thankfully. (If you want to see a full list of the differences between male and female versions of Pokémon, check out this page on Bulbapedia.)
Yay! There are also some gender-nonconforming Pokémon
It's also not hard to find some Pokémon that actively buck gender stereotypes, too. For example, the aforementioned Gloom can evolve into Bellossom, which looks like this:
You might think Bellossom is one of those Pokémon that are exclusively female, but nope! That beautiful, blushing critter with fabulous hair is a boy just as often as she's a girl, and they look exactly the same no matter what gender they are.
Additionally, there are genderless Pokémon! That's interesting, right? For example, Shedinja (pictured below) just straight-up has no gender whatsoever.
Why am I excited that there are feminine-looking boy Pokémon and genderless Pokémon, I'll explain: Those types of people exist in the real world — well, OK, I kind of doubt that anyone looks like Shedinja — and representing the full spectrum of humanity within our fictional worlds is kind of a big deal.
Representing the full spectrum of humanity within our fictional worlds is kind of a big deal.
This decades-old series has some confusing stuff lingering beneath the surface
So, we've identified several examples of Pokémon playing into our worst, deeply held gender stereotypes, and also identified examples of Pokémon that break the gender binary altogether. But things in the Pokémon universe get even stranger, often working entirely outside our own ideas about biology.
We're in some uncharted waters here. Our own concepts of gender don't always apply very cleanly to the world of Pokémon, which makes sussing all this out very difficult.
For example, Shedinja — and all genderless Pokémon — can only breed with a Ditto, the Pokémon that looks like an amorphous, shapeshifting pink wad of bubble gum.
It's also possible for Pokémon to breed with other species of Pokémon — as long as they're of the opposite gender and occupy the same "egg group." What do we do with that?
Also, those female Pikachu people have been catching in Pokémon Go? Some players are reporting that they're evolving into male Raichu. So, apparently, some Pokémon have fluid sexes, like clownfish. Though that may just be the developer doing some fine-tuning before an official update.
So, the big question with no good answer: Is Pokémon #problematic?
If this journey through the tangled web of Pokémon gender politics has taught me anything, it's that trying to analyze a fantastical world is useful — but it'll only get you so far. For example, arguing that keeping a Pokémon in a cramped Pokéball is animal abuse is fine, but as soon as a Pokémon developer says, "Actually, they really enjoy all that," all you can do is say, "Well, OK then," because it's all made up anyway.
Having said that, these fantastical worlds are written by people who live among us like secret, sexist assassins, so our own concepts of gender will undeniably seep into our creations if we're not careful. These deeply rooted and long-held ideas about gender roles — the kind that determine only women can wear makeup, or whatever — have huge implications in our everyday lives, and they manifest themselves in everything we create, including something as silly as Pokémon.
So, regardless of whatever final conclusions you have reached yourself, I think we can agree on one thing: Less blue-equals-boy bullshit, please. Across the board. Not just because it's sexist, it's just lazy.
More Pokémon news, updates, tips and tricks
Check out Mic's Pokémon Go tips and tricks. Here are guides on how to get stardust, how to determine how long it will take you to reach Level 40, the kind of Pokemon you get from 10km eggs, how to create new PokéStops, how to maximize your chances of catching Pokémon and how PokéStops distribute Pokémon eggs. Also check out how to catch Gen 2 baby Pokémon, our analysis of post-balance update Chansey and Rhydon and everything you need to know about finding the long-awaited Pokémon Ditto.