After more than 25 years, Pokémon anime is making some big changes. Eternal 10-year-old hero Ash Ketchum sets out with Pikachu to make room for new stars, sparking a wave of nostalgic sadness among many generations of fans. But it was heartbreaking to say goodbye to the series’ long-standing villains and a host of beloved queer icons across the internet.
Inside Pokémon Team Rocket is an evil organization dedicated to exploiting Pokémon. But in the anime, it’s usually a trio of clumsy, lovable field agents who plot ways to break up Pikachu and Ash. Jessie, James, and Meowth appear in the second episode and have been a staple of every season since.
Despite the so-called main enemies of the series, the group has long been popular with viewers. For starters, it’s more of a comic relief than the bad guys. Their incompetence means they never really pose a threat to Pikachu; instead, the whole thing is played out for laughs, thanks to their constant failings.
And although they work for a bad organization, the trio are not portrayed as really bad people. As early as Episode 14, Jessie, James, and Meowth are briefly shown siding with Ash and Pikachu as Pikachu tries to defeat gym leader Lieutenant Surge. At first, the trio were disappointed as Pikachu struggled and wondered if it was worth stealing. However, they find themselves caught up in the drama of whether Pikachu will be forced to transform into Raichu against his will to win. The group finally supports Ash and Pikachu in the Gym, and at the end of the episode, James realizes: “Damn! We spent this episode cheering up the good guys!” Since then, they have been supporting Ash and the other heroes on a fairly regular basis, or at least not actively hostile.
They also each have a sympathetic backstory, and the show details their past stories and motivations over the years. None are particularly ideologically tied to Team Rocket; instead, due to the lack of alternative options and their growing friendship, they each fell into a life of crime and eventually began to cling to each other.
As first-generation Pokémon anime fans have grown, Team Rocket has increasingly become a cultural touchstone. Suddenly, struggling twenties, unable to find their full place in the world or succeeding in their ambitions, felt more relatable than brave, always optimistic child protagonists. A sub-fandom of the larger Pokémon fanbase devoted to the trio has emerged. And where the fandom is, there will always be weird interpretations of the text – there are plenty of them around Team Rocket.
But in Team Rocket’s case, the readings had a pretty solid foundation in the canon. Perhaps the most obvious example was the repeated cross-dressing of James. The trio often appeared in disguises, and these often included James wearing clothing that was traditionally considered feminine. Most of the time she and Jessie would wear skirts or dresses, but other times both would subvert traditionally sexist expectations. In one scene, for example, they disguised themselves as a couple on their way to their wedding ceremony. Jessie was wearing a tuxedo, while James was the bride in a white dress.
In another notable episode, “Beauty and the Beach,” Jessie and James (along with Ash’s friend Misty) appear in bikinis, and James apparently uses “inflatable boobs” to effect. (You may not remember this from your childhood experience with the show; the episode was banned during the show’s US premiere, but was later broadcast with the scene cut out.)
There are more subtle implications of their quirks as well. The background stories of all three villains show them as misfits and outcasts; this is something that is easy for LGBTQ+ fans to grasp. But the story of James’ childhood in particular can also easily be read as an allegory for growing up gay. An early episode depicted him running away from home to avoid an arranged marriage with a woman. This was because he was seemingly mean and oppressive, but that didn’t stop him from approaching the bossy Jessie. After that The Pokémon Movie 2000, Jessie says that “associating with the opposite sex” is “just looking for trouble.” James says it’s “the kind of trouble I stay away from.”
The canonical evidence that Jessie is a member of the LGBTQ+ community may be fundamentally more subtle, but her subtle rejection of gender roles and her closeness to James (queer people stick together, after all) is the reason why her fans are both human members of Team Rocket. belonged to. And while that means Meowth is sometimes cast as the straight friend, it’s also crucial to note that the talking cat Pokémon is voiced by Maddie Blaustein, a groundbreaking intersex and trans voice actor for most of the show.
Of course, elements of Team Rocket that were on the verge of canonical weirdness were probably not meant to be particularly positive. More than just an attempt at meaningful representation, James’ fluid presentation of gender was apparently an important part of the series’ comic relief. It’s also close to metaphors around effeminate, gay, or trans feminine villains, a trend that emerged from the Hays Act of 1934, a US media standard that banned positive portrayals of homosexuality until the late 1960s. Instead, the villains would portray a subtextually implied LGBTQ+ identity. This is known as queer coding, which has become a way to make them appear more unreliable or even threatening. Due to its widespread use for decades, queer coding remains an overused metaphor.
However Pokémon for the most part he managed to circumvent this allusive storytelling entirely, except in the broadest terms. James’ versatile, often sympathetic portrayal has helped queer fans connect with him. In the ’90s media landscape, James’ queer coded presentation was perhaps better than expected; As the internet fandom grew and successive generations became young and adult, more and more people were able to interpret their childhood favorites in a thoughtful, authentic way.
Twitter users have demanded them. Queer broadcasts congratulated them. And while Jessie and James are often sent together (and even portrayed in an unlocalized manga volume as married and on the road with a child), it’s widely accepted among fans that they’re both the same person. bisexual or similar. However, there is no consensus – more than a general acceptance that Team Rocket could be anything but cisgender and heterosexual. They’ve even been costumed by drag artists and flashed back to those early boundary-pushing moments of James.
But that makes it even more upsetting that Ash, Pikachu, and their friends, as well as potentially withdrawing from the series. Their adoption as whimsical symbols is not something that can be easily copied. At the very least, he would need another lengthy collaboration on the foundations of which the kids growing up in the series built their own fanworks. However, a new Pokémon The show in the 2020s would introduce a flamboyant, cross-dressed villain to set that spark in motion.
The adoption of Team Rocket by the LGBTQ+ community may be a one-off that we’ll never see again. But we find solace in saying goodbye to them at least once: We’ll always have memories and fanfictions.