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.