It’s All Right to Be Weak

Though no one has ever said it to me before, I sometimes feel that my stance on various related topics concerning women in media may come across as hypocritical. I write a fair amount on the depiction of women in visual media, whether that’s anime or American comics or video games, but at the same time I’m also one to defend the concept of moe, often seen as the nadir of female representation in particularly Japanese media. It can be seen as a contradiction which ultimately compromises the arguments I make, but I would argue differently.

While I cannot reasonably argue that moe is faultless, the reason I don’t find my relative fondness for moe and my criticisms of misogyny to be all that contradictory has to do with the way in which characters impact a viewer. I believe that one of the core components of moe, that sense of weakness or perhaps even helplessness in a character (typically a girl), is not necessarily experienced solely as something external, a third party on whom the viewer acts as voyeur. That may factor in, certainly, but there is also a component of personal empathy, the depiction of weakness as a relatable point for those who may feel weak themselves, that is capable of being far more significant than simply the girl being cute or needing an older brother.

The capacity to portray weak characters is a good thing, in my opinion, and the problems of moe aren’t relegated simply to how girls are depicted but also how guys often aren’t allowed to be depicted. For whatever reasons there is a relative dearth of male characters targeted at men who are truly allowed to be weak and who are allowed to rely on others without having their worth as a man called into question either inside the works or by the viewers. This is why I’m fond of the supportive male character type you sometimes see in anime, because they manage to acknowledge their own limitations without issues of pride, and can both provide and receive emotional support. This is not to invalidate the more aggressive images of men of action, your Golgo 13s and Charles Bronsons, but I think there is room to expand both what can be done with men and women in entertainment media. In the mean-time, though, moe is having its positive effects.

That is not to say that moe is without its negatives and its problems in portraying women, and one thing that I have to acknowledge is that there are viewers, including moe fans themselves, who may bristle at the idea of a weak, helpless man (as opposed to girl), or might even be really aggressively sexist anyway. It is certainly not without its problems. In that regard, however, it actually reminds me of an essay titled “Never Trust a Snake: WWF Wrestling as Masculine Melodrama” by fandom and media scholar Henry Jenkins. In it, Jenkins argues that through the imagery of intense competition with a clearly defined goal (winning the title, beating the villains), pro wrestling provides a safe haven for the expression of “weak” emotions such as sadness and betrayal by couching it within the context of a hyper-masculine (and often extremely racist, sexist, and homophobic) setting, to which men in the US would be more willing to relate. They appear on stages and in front of cameras and audiences to loudly proclaim how others made them feel, driving home their characters in a conceivably therapeutic process. They’re shown to be physically superhuman, but prone to the same emotional scars as their audience.

Like pro wrestling, moe has its recurring issues, but I think sweeping it all aside under the single banner of “sexism” is over-simplifying some of the cultural and psychological dynamics at work. This is why I criticize certain portrayals of girls in moe without condemning it as a whole.

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6 thoughts on “It’s All Right to Be Weak

  1. The display of character vulnerability in media is both a male and female thing in anime. I think part of it has to do with just how few male characters are present in male-targeted stories, as far as rarity goes. But a lot of character development in anime, by the book, is about exploring and exposing character vulnerabilities and how characters overcome them. In that aspect I see that very much evenly male-female in male-oriented anime stories.

    As for your article I agree in spirit, but I don’t really like how you phrased it in simple “weak” vs. “strong” terms or even use the word moe. I think those labels does not help your cause of further exploring the nuances in this discussion.

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    • Fair enough, maybe I should’ve used “vulnerability” instead, and it probably is more accurate in the end, but I feel that “weak” is the way people not as familiar with moe tend to talk about it so that’s what I went with.

      Next time!

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    • I forgot to phrase my earlier comment–by male-targeted stories I mean otaku crap, not your average clock show. But you know what I mean :)

      As for “weak” vs. “strong” I just want to give an example: Fujiko. I think she’s an every-woman kind of character, and if she wanted to be “moe” she could. In that isolated context it would be hard to say if it is a “strong” or “weak” character because those are now just signals, detached from the character as a concept. In simpler cases maybe we can just say who is strong or weak, what have you, but this stuff can quickly change like the mood of a tsundere.

      Oh, the other issue with sticking to a simple strong/weak framework is that some classically moe traits (like tsundere) are neither a strong nor weak trait, categorically speaking. It’s like having a beauty mark or drill hair, I dunno.

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  2. I always love it when a man ties to weigh in on issues misogyny. People should just go by how they feel without having to worry if they’re offending a few people. If a dude like moe, who am I to argue with him.

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  3. I agree with what you’ve said that calling all moe “sexist” is too much of a stretch. I’ve argued in favor of moe several times on my blog (being a female fan who enjoys such shows!) As I’ve posted about, Japan has a great liking for “cuteness” in all forms and it’s not necessarily something just for women and children to like. Being the peace-centered country that it is, perhaps men don’t always have to be “manly” in order to be seen in a positive light. As for women, being portrayed as weak doesn’t necessarily mean a bad or demeaning character. Moe is also very subjective – the girls in Madoka Magica can be seen as moe, but it’s easy to argue that they’re strong, well developed characters. As for the slice-of-life moe shows, the girls simply don’t come into situations were they have to be strong or act in very intelligent ways. I see that kind of moe as a relaxing, soothing, and fun show to chill with amongst all the complicated, dramatic anime out there. Of course, it can be seen as sexist too, but I certainly don’t think moe is the kind of detriment to the industry that a lot of Western fans make it out to be. These kinds of fans also like to lump moe in with fan service all the time, which is also ignorant since the most popular moe shows like K-ON, Lucky Star, and AzuDai, have pretty much no fan service in them.

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  4. Interesting article. Thanks for sharing.

    I’m not much of a moe fan myself, but that’s mostly because I tend to define moe as the shows that fit the sexist stereotype you mention. It’s one of those words that even if you understand the general definition, just how broad or inclusive an area that definition covers seems to be quite subjective to a lot of people.

    I hear the word “moe,” and I automatically think of the negative sexual/sexist stereotypes. It’s more than a character being weak or needing comfort; it’s the fact that the character’s weakness is the feature that is their primary attribute, and that any movement out of weakness threatens the appeal of the character. It’s one thing to be weak; we’re all weak sometimes, and there’s nothing wrong with admitting that. But weakness is something that is only really useful when we’re allowed to overcome it. When weakness becomes fetishized and a method for viewers/fans to feel like they own/control a character, to the point that the character overcoming their weakness would fatally threaten the audience’s connection to the character, that it becomes a vicariously predatory, and more than a little creepy.

    Obviously your definition is a bit more broad than mine :).

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