How Important is Consistency of Character Design Across Genders?

In a 2013 podcast interview, Paul Dini, creator of the DC Animated Universe, described how a stubborn refusal to move away from traditional marketing tactics spelled the end for the popular and beloved Justice League cartoon. Esssentially, because Dini had given the female characters of Justice League equal prominence and strong character development, the higher-ups who had planned their marketing around appealing to boys told the staff to cut it out. Girls should be on the sidelines, and never as good as the boys, because boys were supposed to buy the toys and merchandise, dagnabit. It’s a sad fact that proper marketing, trying to find the demographic that’ll give you the most bang for your buck, can often lead to things like happening, especially when so much money has been invested into a project and having things go not according to plan is seen as a nightmare scenario. Gendered marketing has been around for centuries, and it likely isn’t going anywhere soon.

I began thinking about this idea relative to anime, if only because anime and manga are known for gendered marketing. While anime does on a number of occasions portray strong female characters such as in the Precure franchsie, the primary audience is indeed young girls, even if a sizable male audience is willing to shell out some big bucks to get some DVDs and nice figures. However, there’s another side of anime marketing I’ve seen, one that seemingly both defies and reinforces gendered marketing, by placing idealized male characters for women and idealized female characters for men in the same space.

One such title I reviewed for an Anime Secret Santa a couple of years back: Acchi Kocchi: Place to Place. In it, I described the main couple as consisting of the small, moe girl and the tall, quiet bishounen, resulting in a combination of two popular yet often disparate archetypes in one relationship. Series such as Aquarion EVOL and Tytania have different artists on duty to design the male and female characters separately for maximum appeal/pandering. Perhaps nowhere is this more extreme than in the currently-airing Show By Rock, which takes the cute girl/handsome guy incongruity of Acchi Kocchi to a whole other level:

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(This isn’t even taking into account the fact that Show By Rock is already a rather eclectic mishmash of styles that also includes CG cute animal anthropomorphs playing in rock concerts.)

So you have these series with various creative forces involved—Okada Mari (Lupin III: The Women Called Mine Fujiko) wrote Aquarion Evol, while Tanaka Yoshiki (Legend of the Galactic Heroes) is the original author of Tytania, for example—which means that different philosophies and beliefs are involved on various levels of production. Marketing is still at work, the creators are overall looking for you to buy their anime, and if not that, then to buy their products. Focused marketing, gendered marketing is still happening. And yet, why are these anime willing to try and bridge the gap so at least within a single work there are elements that actively appeal to men and women, boys and girls, even if it’s for the sake of hitting some basic desire buttons on the audience? And if the argument is that the merchandise is designed to reflect those gender differences as well, then why were the people responsible able to produce goods in such a way that the executives behind Justice League could not?

Of course, one recent example of a franchise that has tried to appeal to both men and women within the same films has been the Marvel cinematic universe. Thor and Captain America both have looks and personalities that garner admiration from men and women, heterosexual and homosexual, and marketing has capitalized on that. At the same time, there’s also been a bit of an uproar over the fact that what should have been a Black Widow toy became instead a Captain America one. If this were Japan, there would certainly be some figures of Black Widow, but there’s also a fair chance that those examples wouldn’t be targeting girls.

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2 thoughts on “How Important is Consistency of Character Design Across Genders?

  1. There seems to be in general less of the “ewwww, girly stuff” attitude in Japan, or at least less of it applied as a broad, gneralized, and almost automatic response. Until relatively recently Western (MMO)RPGs rarely featured playable female characters, whether as a default or simply an option, and data shows that men in Japan are much more likely than their American counterparts to choose to play as females. Even if a lot of it is just some form of perverted self-indulgence (and I think simply assuming that is a bit reductive) there is, it seems, more room for marketing to at least more prominently feature women, even when it is targeted at men.

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  2. The existence of sakuga fans points to an ability to enjoy a piece of media for a very specific aspect, independent of the quality of the other aspects. (animation over structured plotting, for example) Similarly, mecha fans. In another case, someone could hone in on the girl characters and ignore the boy characters, or vice versa.

    The justifications of the cartoon marketing execs seemed to not consider this form of media enjoyment a plausible one. Hypothetical boys would be put off by having to deal with girl characters, even if the boy characters still existed. Some anime reviews by western fans kind of reflect this perspective, talking about how one aspect of a show ruined an otherwise-good show for them.

    If this were Japan, there would certainly be some figures of Black Widow, but there’s also a fair chance that those examples wouldn’t be targeting girls.
    This is something different, though. We have always had that in traditional action blockbusters. The Bond Girls, or the character of Mikaela in the Transformers Movies. On the other side, Mr. Big for Sex in the City. McDreamy and McSteamy in Grey’s Anatomy. The love triangle in Twilight. It’s all still single-demographic targetting.

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