Growing up in the 1980s, I remember particular cartoons that seemed indispensable and which even today seem impressively cool in their inventiveness. In no particular order, these include the disturbingly Satanic Thundercats with female icon Cheetara, as well as the more gently uplifting Dungeons and Dragons – with the wonderful concept of a group of teens whose haunted fantasy-land ride sweeps them away into the real thing. Perhaps most weirdly dated is Battle of the Planets, a 1970s animé set in a futuristic, pristine Japan of rocket ships and super-speed trains.
What strikes me with the benefit of a nostalgia-driven Wikipedia search, and some even more wistfully appreciated Youtube episodes, is the persona of the main villain Zoltar. I remember from childhood his shining, lip-gloss covered lips emerging from beneath his super-villain mask.
I say 'he' but what interests me about Zoltar is his androgyny. The most famous episode, Galaxy Girls, introduces us to his evil sister Mala Latroz. Yet in the original Japanese version, it seems that Mala is simply Zoltar, presenting as female (Latroz is an anagram of Zoltar). Then when the American editing team adapted the episode, they removed Zoltar's genderfluidity, perhaps wanting to protect America's children against such a concept.
I find this switch fascinating, having grown up in the 1980s to believe America as the trendsetter for individual expression (in hindsight, I was probably naïve). Gender fluidity, at any rate, was a thing I remember ridiculed on any kind of TV, be it the Welsh-language kind, or British, or American. To take one obvious example, I wearily recall my family and I watching Corporal Klinger in the Korean-War drama M*A*S*H, who dresses in garish middle-aged women's dresses to demonstrate his insanity and hopefully get sent home.
Returning to Battle of the Planets, I read that the Japanese interpretation sees Zoltar as intersex, or 'hermaphroditic.' To me this is a confused appropriation because intersex people aren't necessarily gender-fluid. What I find more exciting is just the idea that a man would suddenly and quite effortlessly 'switch' gender without any apparent need, in terms of plot. Admittedly, in the episode Galaxy Girls, Zoltar/Mala is in charge of the eponymous all-female terrorist gang, but this doesn't explain Zoltar addressing the Galaxy Girls from the comfort of his chair in a tight cat-suit, caressing his long blonde hair, eye lashes long and black, voice and manner languorous. Contrary to the mainstream depictions of genderfluidity of the 1970s and early 80s as hideous and ungainly, Zoltar-as-Mala is strikingly sexy (for a cartoon female), even if she's described as 'a mean-looking woman.'
Battle of the Planets, furthermore, appears to have had a thing for androgynous villains. Another memorable episode, Museum of Mystery (warning: Youtube version out of synch) sees Zoltar work with gender-ambiguous 'Madam Dumain.' The plot, to lure the heroic female character 'Princess' into their clutches, has a strangely Cinderella theme, but Madam Dumain's strongly drawn jaw is the most conspicuous aspect for me, especially contrasted with the other female characters. Perhaps the original creators of this show wanted to use androgyny to indicate an evil quality. Yet even if this is the intention, the villains they've created are visually too aesthetically impressive to resent. I wish I'd been more aware of such genderfluidity as a small, hesitant Gina; I would surely have grasped at Zoltar/Mala as a role model for my own desires of androgynous, feminizing self-expression.
It's never too late, though, when it comes to self-expression. I'd like to close with these words of appreciation, thirty years after the smaller, wide-eyed version of me watched these episodes for the first time, was beguiled by its magic and who knows, saw things that struck a chord without completely realizing why. Mala Latroz, you were a remorseless, murderous, malevolent, evil, cosmic terrorist, but also the most sympathetically drawn trans-gender figure I could find from forty years ago (see how far we've come, transgender & intersex community?). So thank you Mala: I, your admittedly-non-terroristic, androgynous, admiring, grown-up Galaxy Girl, through sheer lack of options, salute you.