Scattered Thoughts on the View of Anime and Manga as Sexist

I’ve been thinking a lot about female characters in anime and manga recently (not exactly a surprise, I know), and it’s something where, even if I don’t have a fully formed argument or point to make, I feel compelled to write something down. Forgive me as I meander through my own thoughts in an attempt to piece it all together.

About a month ago I was reading the comments section on polygon.com in regards to the portrayal of female characters in video games. I can’t remember which game they were talking about, but one commenter said something along the lines of, “You shouldn’t bring up Japan when trying to show strong women in video games because it’s such a sexist culture. Just look at anime and manga,” and it made me bristle. I do think Japanese culture is sexist in many ways, but the idea that this perception of Japan as sexist made it impossible for Japanese fiction to have really good female characters in this person’s eyes bothered me because I’ve seen plenty from every period of anime and manga.

I know it was just one comment on a video game article, but it got me thinking more broadly about what people see in anime and manga, and to what extent the image of anime and manga as sexist is fueled by what people want to see. I recently saw a comment that criticized Heartcatch Precure! for encouraging girls to be stereotypically feminine by having the character of Itsuki, who normally dresses like a boy, express a desire to be more girly. While I know there are plenty of examples of tomboy characters who end up feeling like they need to dress like girls to attract their male love interest, Itsuki’s story is more about how she suppressed the side of her which enjoys cute things out of a somewhat misguided sense of duty and responsibility. Yet, rather than taking this as the message, it was like as soon as the person saw the rough outlines of the stereotype, surely it would play out the same as always.

There are most certainly a good deal of works which go out of their way to objectify women for male consumption, but I just find that there are also plenty of instances of well-portrayed women and girls in anime and manga. Whether it’s Princess Jellyfish or RidebackKekkaishi or Gowapper 5 Godam, it seems like these female characters get ignored because they’re, somewhat ironically, not as eye-catching as a Queen’s Blade or an I Wanna Be the Strongest in the World! There seems to be this idea that anime = sexism, and while even the works I mentioned as strong examples aren’t entirely devoid of sexism themselves, I also don’t think it’s as simple as just slapping the misogynist label on Japanese media as a whole. Messages regarding women in anime and manga can be so diverse and divergent.

At this point I’ve seen a lot of 60s and 70s shoujo, and I’ve noticed a clear trend of mischievous tomboy heroines from that time period. Even putting aside an extreme example such as Oscar from Rose of Versailles who was raised as a man to uphold her family’s proud military tradition, you have Candy from Candy Candy, who’s adventurous and constantly challenging the conceitedness of the upper class, and Angie from Petite Angie, who is portrayed as an extremely clever detective. You have Ayuko from Attack No.1, whose aggressive desire to win at volleyball inspires the rest of her teammates, and Yumi from Sign wa V! who initially plots to sabotage her teammates because of how much she despises volleyball. Hiromi from Aim for the Ace, Lunlun from Hana no Ko Lunlun, Masumi from Swan, the list goes on and on. All of these characters have their fair share of personal agency (even if it’s not always an ideal amount). Given that the trend of the strong, mischievous tomboy was clearly a “thing,” and I do believe it continued in some form well beyond the 70s (Utena is an obvious one, but perhaps Lina Inverse from Slayers counts too, for example?), I just have to wonder about the disconnect between that and the perception of anime and manga as inherently misogynistic and where it may have come from.

Is it a matter of age of these older titles, that if people were able to access the works these characters are from, that they would change their minds? Is it that shoujo doesn’t act enough as the “face” of anime and manga? Could it be that, as much as we’d like to think we’ve gone beyond the stereotype, anime is still viewed as essentially “porn or Pokemon?”  If the ratio were different, and there were just fewer fanservice titles or works where girls are basically a cheerleading squad for the heroes, would detractors be more charitable towards anime and manga, or is it inescapable as long as some titles are still like that? For that matter, to what extent does the western image of the submissive Asian woman affect and interact with how people see all female characters coming from Japan, and how does it differ from the similar stereotype as viewed by Japan (I can of course admit that it’s there too)?

What shapes people’s views of female characters in anime and manga? I guess that’s the question I want to explore the most.

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18 thoughts on “Scattered Thoughts on the View of Anime and Manga as Sexist

  1. It’s because Japanese media is foreign, its problems therefore easier to detect for an American viewer, even if US media is just as if not more sexist.
    Also, xenophobia and willful ignorance, those are things too.

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  2. Omo: While it certainly has an effect, I don’t know how much of a legacy the exploitative advertising of 20-30 years ago carries today. Few people in 2013 with negative views on anime/manga in general would have even seen that stuff in the first place.

    What shapes people’s views of female characters in anime and manga is in some ways the same as what shapes people’s views of any media: what the most visible contemporary examples are.

    So, what are the most visible examples of “anime”? It’s what’s on television at channels (and dates/times) people are actually watching, and what’s on the popular general streaming media sites such as Hulu and Netflix. What are the most visible examples of “anime fans”? It’s what’s shown on television/popular websites, and what’s passed around on social media.

    We’re decades into the only photographs of anime congoers being people wearing costumes, generally of the “sexy pinup” variety. The anime on TV is either for very young audiences or is on at a time when few casual viewers would be tuning in. The most popular titles on the common media streaming portals deal very heavily in the sexual fanservice. It all adds up to the same “porn or Pokemon” perception that’s been held for many years, and most attempts to buck that are financially tenuous at best.

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  3. This is also not structured:

    0) The obligatory yadda yadda the cultural products of a sexist society will definition be sexist yadda yadda

    1) When I read the games cited list for the first two Tropes vs. Women videos, the first thing that struck me was how a very large percentage of the games (something like 80% in the first video and over 50% in the second) were Japanese

    2) How more or less every video game listed at Repair Her Armor is Asian (some Korean/Japanese MMOs in there).

    3) How when push comes to shove, there’s still no American-made video games along the lines of something like Scarlet Blade or Senran Kagura.

    4) How the sex industry is baked into the Japanese entertainment industry, and then how pornography further embedded into the anime industry in a way that is just totally inconceivable in America.

    5) The simultaneous reversal and segregation of gendered works (as in, all girl stuff for boys and all boy stuff for girls), with sexism meaning that the male tastes are what get attention (and said tastes frequently being sexist).

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  4. Another problem is that most people talking about sexism in regards to “geek culture” only discovered the concept 2 years ago when it became a hot topic, so thier opinions aren’t exactly sophisticated.

    Calling things sexist has just become another extension of the same old nerd tribalism. People who don’t like anime paint the entire medium as sexist because it gives them the opportunity to look down on a rival group and make them feel better about themselves, no examples or facts are gonna change thier minds.

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  5. Anyone who would call an entire artistic medium or culture “sexist” in broad strokes is just vying for the attention generated by such narrow-minded controversy. The medium has a large number of well-portrayed females, if you care to actually take it seriously enough to look.

    That said, omo’s probably right – it didn’t help that the anime they tried to popularize early on in North America tended to be stuff that portrayed women in (at best) ridiculously campy ways, like Sailor Moon, or as largely insufferable, like Dragonball Z.

    Overall, though, you can’t stop idiots from obsessing over the worst of a medium. They certainly do that for videogames, did so for film and television, and it stretches back in time to any art form. Few people outside of Japan seem to realize how pervasive anime is there, compared to other countries where it’s seen as just a shiny marketing distraction for kids. They just make assumptions that fit whatever argument they want to make.

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  6. You mentioned Rose of Versailles, but the “mischievous tomboy heroines” trend goes all the way back to Tezuka’s Princess Knight. (I think the elevator pitch for Rose of Versailles is “like Princess Knight, but in pre-revolutionary France”.) So that’s a very strong tradition.

    Daryl is on the right track about visibility. Strong portrayals of female characters in manga just don’t contribute to western mind share; to the extent that manga influences the way most Western audiences think about anime and manga (and nobody ever says “manga and anime”, you’ll note), manga is usually only seen through the lens of blockbusters like One Piece. (You can’t say with a straight face that Eiichiro Oda’s female character designs are unproblematic.)

    As a mecha fan, I’m painfully aware of the shortage of capable female characters who aren’t constantly played for fanservice. I think it hurts the credibility of the medium when great work has weird caveats of “this was made by a bunch of lonely single guys for lonely single guys, so ignore all the fanservice”. (I imagine this is similar to the problems of people who really, really love Leni Riefenstahl’s cinematography.)

    I have a friend who has been lamenting that Kill la Kill is wonderful, but he just can’t introduce people to it, because it’s prima facie so problematic if you aren’t already neck-deep in the medium – and this is a guy who gleefully introduces people to My Little Pony. That’s worrying.

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    • Well, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is probably the animated show with the best female characters (though they’re not strictly speaking “women”) to hit the air in the last years, so it’s not that surprising.

      But as someone who loves Kill la Kill I think its labeling as “problematic” is actually a misstep. For all the near-nudity, which actually has a very specific place in the show’s “clothing” theme, KlK is not really a fanservice show as it does not appeal to the viewers by making the girls subservient and needy of protection, a form of “psychological” fanservice which is complementary and almost more fundamental of the traditional one in recent anime. Also One Piece features a similar situation – lots of curves and dirty jokes, yes, but women are almost never truly deprived of agency nor they are defined by their sex; Nami is the one who is the most, maybe, but then again, that’s because she doesn’t shy away from actually making use of her sexiness as a tool of manipulation – and still, despite both that and the greed that is her most defining trait, she manages to come out as a fundamentally positive character, so I think that really says something about how OP characters are written.

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  7. When I first started watching anime as a child in the ’90s, I developed crushes on female characters like Sailor Jupiter. As Daryl suggested, I was mostly influenced by contemporary stuff and thought of female characters as “pinup girls” as a child. However, what’s funny is that I started talking to girls in high school and I started to change my perspective of female characters in anime. I was also becoming a bit more effeminate myself. That’s when I decided to explore more interesting titles and stopped thinking of them as just models, though I still like some fanservice.

    I know it sounds kinda weird, but that’s how I feel.

    If you think about the popularity of anything (i.e. anime/manga boom), when something grows, you start to notice some problems and people just love to report doubts. Everyone wants to be right. Unfortunately, we have little folks who has doubts and at least tries to address them to make things right.

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  8. The grey area with this topic is so fucking vague.
    It’s like…to what extent can a girl be feminine without it being considered sexist? And to what extent can a female take on traditionally macho traits without being considered a cop out? There’s lots of contention with overtly macho females that they’re just dudes with tits.
    Honestly, I’ve come to the conclusion that there really is no pleasing these folks.
    If you’re an artist, just make what you like, and the rest is noise.

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  9. Daryl: I agree with your observation, but having watched any anime at all probably doesn’t have anything to do with the reputation of anime. In fact doesn’t the fact that few people today has seen those shows from back then, relatively, seem to make those older concepts of what anime is more pronounced? More relevantly, among other nerd scenes, for people who have only tangential contact with anime, is that how they feel about the topic?

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  10. omo: I think we both agree that the reputation of anime isn’t about having watched the stuff. Tangential exposure is all it really takes. I think there are only a few real legacies carried over from that “anime’s reputation 20 years ago” era to the modern day, and you’re right they probably don’t have to do with having seen them. Examples: Sailor Moon (seen as “sexy schoolgirls in miniskirts” which feeds into the embedded pornography issue mentioned earlier), Dragon Ball Z (the perception of which has also been explained in above comments), and jokes about tentacle pornography. All of those do indeed hold water among people in other nerd scenes who have only tangential contact with anime…but what keeps those things alive isn’t the fact that they’re holdovers from the past. It’s that they still retain a high degree of visibility. How so? Well, this is a separate scattered thought:

    On Youtube, which is one of the single most popular sites on the Internet, most of the most-viewed videos of all time are music videos. But before they reach that high point of their popularity such that the official link and its mirrors/live-action reenactments occupy the first page of results, chances are (were?) high that if you search the name of that hit pop song or music video, you’re going to get anime music videos set to the song in question. These types of AMVs are notoriously not of the highest quality and invariably use a small set of anime titles for source video, many of which are from that era.

    What’s more, there’s a secondary effect at play here. Through repetition, the brain of the person looking for the actual song/music video is conditioned to instantly associate that anime image thumbnail with “not the thing I am interested in or want to see” on sight. That may very well be your tangential contact with anime, and that “wait, anime? NEXT!” mentality would carry over to your other media browsing habits as well. And then even if you take a slightly closer look, the titles you’re apt to encounter are still things like High School of the Dead which will only reinforce your “yep, this is a bunch of sexist stuff all right” perception.

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  11. There are so many wrong assumptions in this article, the comments section and in America in general that its infuriating.

    1. First of all, the very idea that being feminine/girly is something negative is itself extremely sexist. It implies that women/femininity are inherently inferior and that only masculine/tomboyish women are good, thus assuming that maleness is superior (hypocrisy much)?. The fact that so many people in the West (especially feminist) actually believe that crap shows that it is the Westerners (especially USA & Sweden) who are the real misogynist, NOT Japan because they (like most of non-western humanity) actually value both femininity & masculinity. Many girls around the world love Sailor Moon (and other Shoujo series) because it gives the message that femininity is good, something to embrace and not to be ashamed of. Neither It nor masculinity are “socially constructed” like what the leftist gender-denying morons believe, nor is it something “forced” on girls by the so-called “patriarchy”, but mostly natural and innate at birth.

    2. Second, the assumption that it is sexist, “demeaning” or even “problematic” to portray women as sexually arousing in any way is slut-shaming. Its based on the assumption that sexuality is evil, that the human body is evil, and that we should all become asexual robots. People who believe this drivel use false concepts like “objectification” in order to demonize and install guilt into others (especially males) for liking sex. Its a primitive view that comes from ancient matter-hating ascetics.

    3. No anime/manga (nor any media on Earth outside of pornography) actually reduces female characters to their bodies. They are always portrayed with character traits unrelated to fanservice and generally are not lacking in agency at all. “Objectification” is a feminist myth.

    4. One last point, sexism is the belief the one sex/gender is of inferior or superior value than another. Just because a female character does something you don’t like doesn’t mean it is sexist. People in Western society have become so politically correct that they can’t distinguish between that two, so they project malice onto things that aren’t even there. So the false accusations of sexism are not surprising.

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    • First, while I hardly think objectification is a “feminist” myth, and I disagree with you on certain points, a lot of the things you’re commenting on do not actually go against what I wrote about in the post. I mean, the point I was making about Itsuki in Heartcatch Precure is that her desire to be “girly” was indeed a sign of her strength, that she could do something “traditionally masculine” like martial arts and something “traditionally feminine” like wear dresses and collect dolls, and neither reflects poorly on her as a person. Both qualities make her strong.

      Second, in terms of the comments, people aren’t talking about how Sailor Moon is sexist and should be criticized for that, for example, but that it carries the reputation of being as such because people judge the book by its cover and assume the worst as soon as they see girls in short skirts. Whoever you’re arguing against isn’t really in the comments section, because they also agree with some of your key points, at least the first two.

      Third, I never once argued that sexualizing the female body is wrong, nor have I engaged in “slut-shaming.” In fact, I’ve written a couple of posts about how the formation of female characters as the target of sexual desire by readers is not a bad thing, but that it simply could stand to use more variety:

      https://ogiuemaniax.wordpress.com/2012/03/20/superhero-comics-and-being-sexy-on-an-individual-basis/

      https://ogiuemaniax.wordpress.com/2012/12/04/sexualization-without-objectification-in-spotted-flower/

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  12. I didn’t intend to accuse you of believing those things. I’m sorry if it came across that way. I have no issue with you. I was just venting the frustrations I have with people who believe in the stuff I was arguing about. My mistake.

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  13. Pingback: An epistemology of the male fujoshi closet | HEARTS OF FURIOUS FANCIES

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