How Animal Crossing helped me explore my gender

It’s 2013, and tonight my friends and I are getting together to wish on falling stars during a meteor shower. Like many young teens meeting up with their pals, I want to show off my sense of style, so I spend a solid amount of time trying on different skirts, dresses, and accessories in order to find the cutest look. Luckily, I don’t have to worry about how comfortable the outfit will be or whether the fabric will chafe against my skin since the clothes aren’t going on my physical body but, rather, on my villager in the world of Animal Crossing: New Leaf for the Nintendo 3DS.

In real life, I’m a tall, slightly chubby, pubescent boy with the acne and self-esteem to match. Even though I go to a fairly liberal high school and have been publicly out as gay for nearly a year, there’s no way I could go outside in any sort of feminine attire without attracting the attention of every classmate and teacher, something I wouldn’t wish upon any 13-year-old. However, in Animal Crossing: New LeafI can be whoever I want to be — within the confines of New Leaf‘s binary gender system, skinny player models, and light skin tones, that is.

It’s not perfect by any means, but New Leaf is the first game in the Animal Crossing franchise that lets male villagers wear feminine clothing and vice versa. So, for people like me who have masculine bodies but want to explore femininity, it’s a blessing. When I visit my online friends’ towns during our weekend Skype sessions, I can present myself in a way that makes me feel cute and confident. It’s almost like that digital version is a more accurate depiction of who I am than the person I see when I look in the mirror. I have no desire to dress like that in real life — or at least that’s what I keep telling myself. And even if I did, I feel like my body is much too large and masculine to pull it off. But that’s okay because dressing up in Animal Crossing is good enough for me… for now.

It’s 2020, and Animal Crossing: New Horizons for the Nintendo Switch just came out. Woo-hoo! Also, there’s a global pandemic.

I’m back to wishing on falling stars with my friends online as a way to hang out without risking COVID. I’ve grown a lot since the last mainline Animal Crossing game: I’ve started wearing skirts in real life; I pierced my septum and my ears; and I recently began painting my nails. However, I still can’t bring myself to wear dresses or try earrings that are larger than studs. I’m at the beginning of the process of figuring out my gender identity but still have yet to really work things out. Now that I can’t go outside to see people, I don’t have the desire to work on my physical gender presentation because the only thing people will see is my face on Zoom. However, in new horizonsI’m able to get back to the exploration and excitement of dressing up for fun.

With the Switch’s higher-resolution screen, brighter colors, and better graphics, the styles I choose in new horizons can really pop. Character customization options have vastly improved, and instead of asking me if I’m a boy or a girl at the start of the game, new horizons ask me what my sense of style is. This choice is unfortunately still a binary that represents masculine or feminine, but it’s a step in the right direction. My friends and I can hop on Discord (so long, Skype) and fly to each other’s islands to have photoshoots with the variety of different outfits we put together. This social experience isn’t just limited to my friends, either; I can now post screenshots of my villager on social media to say “Hey! Check out my bangin’ style!” without the shame or fear I would have felt doing that in high school. Animal Crossing has once again become a place I’m able to be myself without consequence. And the more I can be myself virtually, the more I want to be myself in real life.

It’s 2022, and I don’t need Animal Crossing to feel satisfied with my gender expression anymore; I can go outside in whatever outfit I want (plus I wrung pretty much all of the content I could out of both games). Getting together androgynous and fashionable outfits to meet with my fellow queer friends is just as exciting as it was when I was doing it digitally (albeit getting ready takes much longer in real life). As I research more into the world of gender identity, I can firmly acknowledge the fact that the label “cisgender” doesn’t apply to me. Gender nonconforming feels like a more comfortable fit, though I also know that it’s a label that I can change as needed; gender can be as fluid and malleable for me as it is for my Animal Crossing villager.

Even though Animal Crossing isn’t a part of my life like it used to be, I still regard it very fondly. I can now see the way I used it as a safe place to slowly build up to the person I wanted to be without fear of judgment from the people around me. With the wave of transphobic fearmongering passing through the United States right now, those kinds of spaces are more necessary than ever. I hope that queer youth are able to continue to use these digital playgrounds as a safe and fun space to play with gender. As for me, I opened up new horizons while writing this article to check and see how my island is doing, and I found myself checking up on the Able Sisters’ new in-stock outfits. Though I’m now happy to express myself in the real world, I’ll never be able to resist the life of an Animal Crossing fashionista.

Jesse Belinsky is a writer and cartoonist based out of Minneapolis. When they aren’t cleaning their cat’s litter box, they’re creating comics and telling queer stories.

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