Skin-deep Personality: Thoughts on the Categorization of Anime Girls

As anyone who reads this blog would know, I like girls in anime, and I like moe. However, there are times when even I question the kind of conversations that arise from talking about female characters and what effects they’re having on fans.

Growing up, I was taught various lessons on beauty, namely that inner beauty trumps simple appearance. “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” “It’s the inside that counts.” Adages such as these shaped the idea that while physical beauty is more prominent in society, emotional beauty, personality, and character are considered to be deeper aspects to admire. While I do not discount physical beauty in people be they fictional or otherwise, this idea of personality trumping looks is something I still believe in. In anime, especially with the current prominence of moe, something which I think is much more personality-based, with moe visuals derived from personality, this seems to be the case.

However, with the increase and proliferation of moe terms, it can sometimes feel like character traits are no different from physical traits. Calling a character a tsundere becomes not much different from calling a character a busty redhead. Personality can become just as simplified as appearance and turns into something very immediate, very at-the-surface, and easy to fetishize. Liking a character for their personality becomes just as shallow as liking someone because they have nice legs.

Sexualization isn’t the thing that bothers me. Rather, it is that the type of sexualization that can occur as a result of this categorization of traits makes it difficult to see if someone actually genuinely likes a character or not. If I ask someone why they like a character, and they say, “Because she’s a shy twintail tomboy meganekko,” then I myself wonder, “Is that REALLY why you like them?” If an entire conversation is spent simply throwing out these categories as descriptions in lieu of actually talking about the characters, it can give the impression that these characters are undeveloped and shallow. Maybe they actually ARE that shallow sometimes and it’s all in good fun, but it still creates the feeling in me that personality becomes just another facet of a character to get gratification from, rather than something to cherish on a deeper level.

This is I assume a personal thing, and I don’t expect others to necessarily feel this way. I’m not faulting anyone for doing this, nor am I criticizing the existence of otaku vocabulary, as I do this myself pretty often. Still, there’s this gnawing bit of doubt that can occur when I see it when I think a real dialogue or discussion should be occurring.

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12 thoughts on “Skin-deep Personality: Thoughts on the Categorization of Anime Girls

  1. In before ‘archetype.’

    A major problem with TV anime and manga this day and age is in characterization. I’d say a large (over 50%) number of them rely on character archetypes so well tread that they are as flat as the paper they were drawn on. That’s not even mentioning the same thing we do with anime series in entirity. Harem, mecha, etc…labels of growing meaninglessness.

    At the same time, when we can abstract and reduce a character into such trope-like components, it’s like Uri-P in his garage working on a new aestavalis. Uh, I mean, it provides a framework for working with characters, for stressed writers who have to handle so many different ones across many different stories.

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  2. I think a lot of us anime fans are the type that like categorizing things. We use numbers as judgments of an entire show’s value on MAL, we make lists of our top 10 or whatever favorite characters or moments or series, etc … stat junkies, basically.

    The anime terminology we use for characterization, I like to think, is an easy way for junkies like us to sort people, into their respective ‘tsundere’ and ‘meganekko’ bins and all, kind of like how you start by calling shows ‘slice-of-life’ or ‘harem’. (as rotinoma said)

    It’s kind of wrong to sum up anything as bluntly as that in a few words, but I like to think it provides a good starting point for delving into greater depth, to get one pointed in the right direction. Then you can contrast a character / show / etc. against the stereotype of the description or analyze it with relation to other things in that group, whatever.

    Yeah, sometimes it sort of gets abstracted into fetishizing of a trait, but you know, that’s what a lot of anime and anime fans are like nowadays. Sometimes people want simple pleasures and don’t want something thought-provoking.

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  3. Characters are written, not born. The creation of a character is as much a intellectual process as one born out of imagination. Just about every characterization and story telling element can be reduced into analysis. It has to be or the writer have something out of control happening at on his hands.

    In addition, the standard one season anime, at 13 episodes, and, cutting all the clutter, probably gives only 3 hours for characterization and much less for side characters, and that really isn’t much. What goes in those 3 hours had to be focused to leave an impression so minor traits and other things have to be removed.

    People also need to be able to talk about characterization. Sure, one can describe emotional attachment but the reasoning behind it is harder. How is someone suppose to describe the emotional subtleties anyways, when most probably lack even the sensitivity to fully understand what it is about? (people do not psycho-analyze themselves just to watch anime, k)

    Finally, Anime is often used as a escape from reality and it really shouldn’t be any deeper than the viewer wants it.

    —-
    Think about it this way. A good artist can invoke MOERU in one simple image without all the frills. Moe is never suppose to be that complex. This liking isn’t like liking a real human but probably more similar to objectification.

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  4. I’m in no way against discussing characterization or story elements, and I know full well that these are characters and not real people.

    This isn’t even a matter of making characters who are realistic or devoting time to introspection. I do not expect reason or logic in responses, but what I do look for when someone says they absolutely love a character is something indicative in their words, no matter how illogical or irrational, which expresses this love.

    I have nothing against talking about characterization, and in fact I encourage it. This isn’t the issue here. My dilemma is the concern not when I see minor traits dropped from conversation, but rather when minor traits are the only things talked about, and not in a “giving examples” kind of way.

    Impressions are good. So is efficiency if a story or time slot demands it, but do not mistake efficiency or simplicity for simply being shallow. Though creators may not be able to devote enough time to every character, there is not just “3 hours” characterization. Ideally, every moment in a piece of fiction involving a character should be characterization. Characterization through actions, through dialogue, through every little thing that they do, even if it’s to make a joke. Masaru from Sexy Commando isn’t a deep or emotional character, but every moment he is on screen indicates the type of person he is.

    Lastly, I disagree that moe is never supposed to be complex. I believe moe is inherently a complex emotion, not one that can be easily simplified.

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  5. I’m reminded of Alan Moore’s remark: “Stan Lee went from one dimensional characters whose only characteristic was they dressed up in costumes and did good…(and) had this huge breakthrough of *two*-dimensional characters. So, now, they dress up in costumes and do good, but they’ve got a bad heart. Or a bad leg. I actually did think for a long while that having a bad leg was an actual character trait.”

    Character archetypes have a long history in anime; the manly series had them (The spike-haired hothead! The straight-haired sullen dude!) just as the moe series do. Part of it must surely be the fact much anime is directed at young audiences, and part of it must be that many artists, marketers, and audience members simply enjoy archetypes. It’s like buying a favorite candy; you buy it because you already like the flavors, and can taste them over and over again.

    It’s hard for any fictional character, especially one in a 13- or 26-episode anime, to even begin to compete with real people for complexity. I think a creator would have to set out to make character writing their specific goal, and not everyone in anime is necessarily interested in that exercise. More challenging is to do a character study without it being a coming-of-age story–especially one revolving around war or battle–where it can be hard to tell if a character’s really developing, or just more dramatically lit.

    It would be interesting to think of what might are the most interesting or developed portrayals of a character in anime–the anime where you really feel like you were discovering something like a human being, rather than an archetype.

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  6. I’m kinda cynical about anime character design: it seems that you can just string a couple of fetishy adjectives together and the character draws herself. This is why I give, say, Haruhi a grudging respect: it’s written itself a small cast of characters that fit every male otaku kink you could possibly sell at Comiket or sculpt in PVC. One day, I’m going to write and sell a moe Mad-Libs book to prove my point.

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  7. Hmm, I think there’s something amiss. The general idea I got from this post is about flat characters being the main attraction rather than more developed characters. And making excuses for writers is something I do not expect people to do. Namely, because there are 13-episode, low-production shows out there with decent characters! It’s hardly impossible, and I think it’s not too much to ask for them.

    The problem, as I see it, is the focus on people’s fetishes. And there are two ways about it:
    1. You take a lot of these fetishes and mix it together, add some humor and generic plot, voila, crappy harem/shounen/shoujo comedy.

    2. You have a story you want to tell and you plug in characters as you see fit, however the story is character driven and now you are in a bind. So you throw in some fetishes to distract the viewer from a mediocre narrative and story.

    And it works because people just want a context to their fantasy characters, and any context will do even if it’s a crappy anime. And we buy MOAR PVC/hugpillows/doujinshi/whatever.

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  8. Pingback: Toradora!, or: A Taiga to Call My Own (and that fits in the palm of my hand) « Anime wa Bakuhatsu da!

  9. @Carl Horn: Archetypes have always existed (and according to my one friend, haven’t changed at all since the hoary old days of Beowulf and The Epic of Gilgamesh and possibly The Tale of Genji), and they exist for a reason: here’s a character, here’s their basic personality, okay GO! It’s a simple way to kick-start characterization: you give the audience something to grab hold of that they’re familiar with, and then proceed from there. It’s where you go with the archetype that determines how well-received the character development is–if the archetype is developed in archetypical ways, it’s not as good as if they use an archetype as a platform to build a character around.

    And, anyway, what SDS is talking about isn’t whether or not the characters are archetypes or not–it’s that they’re being discussed as if they were nothing more than a list of fetishes that they fill. Which I do all the time–it’s kind of hard to discuss specifics about why you liked a character unless they made a deep impression on you, and even then it can be pretty hard to talk about a character. Asai Mugi means a lot more to me than “quiet shy girl who cries a lot”, but I’ll be damned if I can give you anything more than “she’s me, but anime and a girl!” unless I sit down and watch Hitohira again, and that might not work anyway.

    Also there’s the human tendency to classify things in easy-to-transmit packages, which I think is a function of language. Concepts, deep-rooted feelings of love/admiration/lust/whatever, generally manifest themselves in such an illogical way that trying to express them through the logic of language is impossible. You can’t sum up a person (or a character, who can never come close to “a real person,” because a character always exists to demonstrate a particular side or idea of the whole thing that it means to be “human”) in a few words, or even a complicated and really long MARC record, but you can use some generally accepted code-words (warm-hearted, hot-blooded, tsundere, etc.) to transmit the general idea of a person (or character) so that other have some vague idea of what you’re talking about.

    And then there’s the people who carry around a custom bingo card with them, and when they watch an anime, they get one for each character and start checking off traits and fetishes that they fill, and when they get five in a row, bingo, they have their next character to fawn over. Although I (somewhat optimistically) think this sort of person is rather rare.

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