When I think of what Pokemon has meant to me over the last twenty years (or, almost twenty years for those of us that were introduced in the English language versions of the game) I can’t help but remember the person that I was in sixth grade. I was shy, nervous, it was the first day of middle school at a brand new school, and because a new middle school and elementary school opened in out school district between my fifth and sixth grade years, I found myself in a classroom of people I had never met before. Many of the students at my middle school had gone to a different elementary school, and as such I had no friends from day one. In elementary school I had always been the odd duck out, an avid writer of strange stories and comic strips, and a completely dedicated fan of the X-Files, I had an enormous amount of trouble making friends in general, let alone feeling like I was in a sea of brand new faces.
In home room we were seated randomly by our teacher, and I shared a large four person table with three other people. Ashlee Mesceji sat next to me, and Ashlee would do something for me so significant that it would change the course of my entire life. Among Ashlee’s first words to me, during our awkward introduction, was the simple sentence “do you like Pokemon?” Desperate to make friends, and intrigued by the premise Ashlee described, I went home and watched an episode of Pokemon on PAX, a channel that saw Pokemon syndication in the early days of the first season. I was hooked from the very beginning. That weekend I held a frantic yard sale, selling old clothes and old toys to earn enough money so that I could go to Toys R Us and get the ultimate Grail: Pokemon Red Version.
While my first play through of Red was significant, something more significant was the friends that it introduced me to. All of a sudden I had a group of real friends in my school, at lunch time we’d trade the TCG cards, play cards, play the video game. Pokemon was the glue that bound us together. My favourite Pokemon from the game, bound to my interests by both its power and the story line shared about it through mismatched journals on Cinnabar Island, was Mewtwo.
Naturally when Pokemon the First Movie was announced we were beside ourselves with excitement. On opening night, card binders tucked under our arms, and GameBoy Pockets wedged into our dungaree pockets, we were among the first in line at Gateway Mall in Springfield, OR to see the new movie. A new element was added to my love of Mewtwo during the course of the movie, and this element is what would forge me into a lifetime fan of Pokemon.
As cliche as it sounds, Mewtwo taught me a valuable lesson. Even as Pokemon introduced me to a variety of friends and comrades, I was always the target of bullying from Elementary School, through Middle School, and on into High School. When I saw the way Mewtwo’s canon was changed for the movie, I saw a whole lot of me in that character. I am transmasculine genderqueer, which is to say that my gender presentation is decidedly masculine, though I do not consider myself a man. It has been this way for a long time, and middle school was no different. I was the target of ridicule as someone perceived to be “gay” (in 90’s rural Oregon, children did not have the mental faculty or knowledge to come up with a gender- or sexuality-based insult aside from this) and I was perceived to be weird. Mewtwo, created only to be brought into a world of suffering, forced into slavery by Giovanni but struggling to break free from his chains, showed me that greatness was still a possibility, and that perhaps I, and those that ridiculed me, could learn the lessons that Mewtwo had learned by the end of the movie.
“I see now that the circumstances of one’s birth are irrelevant. It is what you do with the gift of life that determines who you are.”
With that simple sentence Mewtwo seemed to say, “it’s okay. You’re you, and you can be you. It will get better.” As a character Mewtwo struck a chord with me. I never gave up my love for Pokemon. Through high school, college, and on into my adult life in San Francisco. And I have always kept Mewtwo beside me. Today I have the largest Mewtwo collection in the world, it is a small tribute to the character that molded me into the person that I am today, and to the franchise that introduced me to friends and my chosen family at a time when I needed them more than any other. To Pokemon I owe my life and my happiness, and while this may sound possibly saccharine or at the very least hyperbolic, it is the truth. It is my truth.
Thank you Pokemon. Thank you Satoshi Tajiri, Ken Sugimori, Nintendo, GameFreak, and of course Mewtwo. Thank you everyone that poured your energy, you passion, and your life into making the Pokemon franchise what it is today, and what it has meant to people all over the world just like me. Thank you for the last twenty years, and thank you for the next twenty years, and twenty years still after that. Thank you for all time, and all the times that Pokemon touches a new spirit.
Well, that’s quite the question, and it has a multi-faceted answer…although I’m not sure you have the time for my life story so I’ll give you a single-faceted answer for now!
I’ll start by saying that Pokémon has always had this really special place in my heart. Now that the franchise is turning 20 and I’m into my 25th year, I feel like I’m at a good place to take a step back and reflect on how Pokémon has had an effect on my life and explain one reason why it’s so special to me.
So now, a story:
My music teacher, Miss Vicki, in third grade decided that she wanted to try out a gift exchange between students for the holidays. We had our parents go out and get something for $5 or less, wrap it up, and then we brought it to school the day before winter break. Miss Vicki then asked the students to place the presents into one of three piles: boys, girls, or both. I knew in my little 8-year-old heart that someone in this classroom was gonna get an awesome 3-pack of Pokémon pencils that had starter Pokémon erasers at the top. Figuring that I was a girl and I liked Pokémon, that must’ve meant that other girls in the class would’ve liked Pokémon as well. Not thinking much more of it, I dropped the small gift into the “both” pile, and then got in line to pick out a present.
Honestly, I don’t remember what I got from this gift exchange. What I do remember is Ashley who picked from the “both” pile got the super awesome Pokémon pencils, and then she got upset with me because Pokémon wasn’t for girls.
That struck a chord in me as a kid. If an 8-year-old could have a weird existential gender identity crisis, that’s probably what I had experienced. Why wouldn’t Pokémon be for girls? The animated series had an awesome girl as one of the main characters. Pokémon was an awesome game where you got to travel across the world seeing incredible things and you would always have your Pokémon friends at your side. (Which, by the way, I was a kid that was allergic to just about every domesticated house pet; the idea of having a bunch of pets that understood you, protected you, and grew up with you was a dream come true for me.)
But why did Ashley think Pokémon was only for boys? And, what did that make me, a young girl who liked Pokémon?
In hindsight, honestly, it made me pretty awesome. Or at least, that’s what I wish I could go back in time and tell my third grade self. “Honey, you’re a tomboy, you’re gonna love Pokémon, and there’s nothing wrong with that.” Thankfully Ashley and her crew didn’t dissuade me from the franchise. They also never got invited to another sleepover, so HA.
At the time I was living in South Florida, and there were a ton of kids who lived on our street. Freddy lived on the corner, Lee lived across the street, Ben, Mickey and Cody lived next to Lee, Brett and Brian lived two doors down, and then we had Beau, Alex, Jerry, and their two older brothers whose names I didn’t remember. Even further down we had two Jonathans and Timothy. Domin was the cool kid from Belgium who lived on the other side of main street. So like, literally sixteen boys on my street, all of them roughly my age.
And then there was my sister and me.
But you know what? The fact that I was a girl didn’t bug any of these kids. I was always down for kickball, I played goalie in our street hockey games, and the guys were always eager to trade Pokémon with me because I had Blue version and they all had Red. When it was raining and we had to take our playtime indoors, we duked it out in Pokémon Stadium or tried to beat each other’s high scores in Pokémon Snap! On summer days when the power had been knocked out by a hurricane and the coast was clear, we’d huddle around a battery operated black and white TV and watch the Pokémon TV show in the afternoons together.
Pokémon was never a “boy” thing or a “girl” thing for me, it was all about friendship. This was something that was enforced both in the games and in the shows. If you had friends, you couldn’t lose. (Well, except for Brett who used the rare candy/missingno hack and ended up with a level 99 Blastoise who still knew water gun and was the worst sore loser ever. Eat shit, Brett. Ahem…)
This is one of the many reasons why Pokémon has stuck with me through the years. At its core it’s a story of overcoming odds, facing new challenges, and knowing that with hard work, perseverance, and friendship, you can accomplish just about anything. And the best part is that anyone can do that.