Good Harems vs. Bad Harems: Morality in Polyamorous Manga

The term “harem” gets thrown around often in anime and manga, but series considered to be part of the harem genre rarely feature actual polyamorous or polygamous relationships. Instead, the purpose of many of these series is pure, carnal power fantasy. However, I’ve noticed that a few series make a distinction being “good harems” and “bad harems.”

Case 1: Tales of Wedding Rings

For the most part, Tales of Wedding Rings is a fairly orthodox harem fantasy series about a boy who gets transported to another world and must wed powerful princesses across the land to defeat an evil entity revived. The girls are all beautiful in different ways, and unlike those works which tend towards having the hero choose a true partner, the implication is that none of the heroines mind a polygamous relationship. It’s no strings attached. Or is it?

More recent chapters have revealed an interesting wrinkle. The hero, Satou, is the new “Ring King,” and for most of the series, his predecessor has been spoken of as a legend savior. But one of his former wives reveals a dark secret: as he continued in his role as the first Ring King, his thirst for for power grew in more than one sense. Knowing that his might relied on his physical and emotional bonds with his wives, he began to abuse and even rape them. The wives endured all they could, but ultimately they worked together to take revenge and kill the Ring King.

Suddenly, a manga about an ideal male power fantasy, the harem of hot and powerful babes, carries a lesson that there’s a difference between genuine love and the desire for control and power that leads to abusive relationships. It’s not enough to have all the women, but to treat them with respect as well. Otherwise, the fate that the first Ring King brought upon himself through his violent behavior might very well befall Satou as well.

Case 2: Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans

The Gundam franchise traditionally doesn’t stray too far from heteronormative relationships, at best teasing about the prospect of other types of attraction and love through its characters. Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans is a major exception to this rule. Its romances feature homosexuality, major age gaps, and yes, actual harems.

The character Naze Turbine commands a ship piloted by his many wives. But while he might appear to be a dubious personality at first, his real goal in marrying so many women is to take them out of dangerous, dead-end situations. He makes them his wives so as to afford them the protection of his yakuza-esque organization, Teiwaz, and he provides training and education for them so they have the skills to survive in their own. He doesn’t even require his wives to actually sleep with him, so some are spouses in name only. Of course, he won’t refuse a physical relationship either, and has fathered many offspring as a result.

Like first Ring King in Tales of Wedding Rings, there is a character who represents the “bad harem” in Iron-Blooded Orphans: Jasley Donomikols. Another member of Teiwaz, he constantly tries to bribe Naze’s wives to his side with gifts of money and power with no success, failing to realize that what they value most in Naze is not riches but love and caring. Eventually, Jasley is murdered out of revenge by Naze’s wives.

Naze’s approach to love ends up influencing even the main love triangle of Iron-Blooded Orphans. At one point, Amida (Naze’s #1) says to a young Atra Mixta that a true man has enough love to go around, a lesson Atra takes to heart.

So What’s the Difference?

In both Tales of Wedding Rings and Iron-Blooded Orphans, a clear distinction is made between a healthy harem and an unhealthy one. The former is based on caring and generosity, while the latter is founded in greed, selfish desire, and the treatment of women like objects. Both the first Ring King and Jasley make this mistake, and end up paying the price for it.

This notion of the “selfless harem” is fairly idealistic and at odds with how harems are generally envisioned. Normally, they are wish fulfillment fantasy for boys and men filled with lust and eyes for many, or for those who don’t want to choose. Institutionalized polygamy (like the kind found among Fundamentalist Mormons) can become a dangerous source of power imbalances in communities, harming both men and women. The irony is that according to the series which champion selfless harems, they can only be truly obtained when one does not greedily desire for them, like some kind of Zen or Taoist riddle.

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On Loli Vampires, Morality, and Fiction

Anime and manga are full of relationships with large age disparities, ones that would assuredly get people arrested in real life. While fiction isn’t reality, and therefore doesn’t necessarily reflect what people desire or are willing to do in their actual lives, the fear of harm is founded in a simple and important value: adults having physical and romantic relationships with kids is wrong and impossible to justify in reality.

“But why is it wrong?” Generally, when presented with this question, people react that it is just morally repugnant, that it should cause disgust in all people. But what often isn’t taken into account is that there are two components to this answer that are conflated into a single response: the physical disgust and the moral disgust.

The Power of Fiction for Breaking Down Ideas

Before getting into the subject at hand, I want to emphasize some of the strengths of fiction: it can introduce ideas not easily found in reality, working alongside imagination to help people envision a world different from their own. It can also dissect and decouple concepts we believe to be either inextricably tied together, even those multifaceted ideas thought to be a single entity. This aspect of fiction enables people to reflect on its assumptions, and to further clarify how we think as human beings.

Take the example of being transgender, that one can potentially appear as one sex on the outside, but feel they are truly another gender on the inside. Thousands of years of social reinforcement emphasizes that the outer appearance dictates the inner mind, so for many someone being transgender is still a difficult concept to grasp. They cannot divorce sex from gender.

Yet fiction helps make this comprehensible. For instance, the old manga and anime Ranma 1/2 stars a boy who, due to a curse, changes physically into a girl every time he’s hit by cold water (hot water reverses the transformation). The more recent and wildly successful anime film, your name., features a boy and a girl who switch minds and have to live in each other’s bodies. In both works, the idea of “a girl on the outside but a boy on the inside” becomes more easily relatable. One need only watch these works, then think, “If I was in their shoes, how would I think? How would I feel?”

Physical vs. Logical Morality

Adults having relationships with minors is morally wrong, but in order to illustrate the complexities of this idea, I’m going to reference two characters from the company Arc System Works’, which specializes in fighting games. First is Dizzy from the Guilty Gear series. Second is Rachel Alucard from the BlazBlue series.

Visually, Dizzy appears as a fully-grown adult. Tall and voluptuous, she holds zero physical appeal for anyone who would be into much younger characters. However, in her first appearance in Guilty Gear X, she’s stated as being a mere three years old. While it’s more the case that she emerged fully grown like the goddess Athena, the conceptual contrast is still there: young in age, but old in appearance.

Rachel Alucard is the opposite. Having the appearance of a child, Rachel is actually an ageless vampire with the maturity and wisdom to go along with it. She’s very intentionally designed to follow that old lolicon trope of “she looks 10 but she’s 1,000 years old!” that often comes across as the flimsiest of excuses.

If you were to apply real-world laws to Dizzy and Rachel, you’d get two different results. If an adult had a sexual relationship with Dizzy, they’d be breaking the law 100%, but at first glance no one would find anything amiss. If an adult had something with Rachel, it would be legally justified but they would get pulled over by the cops every day for the rest of their lives.

Being bothered by Rachel’s design reflects a physical, visceral disgust—that one should not perceive her appearance as sexually attractive. On the other hand, being disturbed by Dizzy’s situation has more to do with the logic of morality. Even if someone appears fully mature, that does not mean they are mentally or emotionally ready. Age of consent laws are designed to protect minors from the inherent power imbalances that exist in adult-child interactions, even if she “looks like an adult.” The two sides of this argument can and do join together, but they’re fundamentally separate ideas.

So What About Those Stories?

While there is a clear immorality to having an underage relationship in reality, I do not believe that fiction is beholden to the same rules. Putting aside the fact that fiction, in and of itself, causes no harm, what ultimately makes those large age gaps morally problematic is the power dynamic. Adults inherently hold authority over children, even if those kids could pass for adults themselves, and the excuse that “she looked 18” doesn’t take into account the psychological harm that can occur. In stories, however, “power” comes in many different forms, and a story can be all about seeing how two individual characters can join together as equals. This doesn’t mean that people should never feel disgust at what’s depicted in fiction, especially because what goes on can potentially be used as an excuse or justification for bad behavior in real life. But it still, in the end, highlights how we perceive equality (or lack thereof) in fictional portrayals of romance.

Real vs. Perfect: The Two Opposing Idol Values

1983’s Creamy Mami was the first idol anime, and it made an idol out of Mami’s voice actor as well. Watching her videos from back then, a 15-year-old Ohta Takako comes across as awkward and unaccustomed to the spotlight, even in “Love Sarigenaku” above, her most “grown-up” song. Compared to many of the slickly produced pop hits of later years, Ohta can come across as almost unprofessional, but that’s exactly where her appeal lies. When it comes to Japanese idols, there are two general directions: “unrefined and real” or “polished and perfect.”

When comparing the Japanese idol juggernaut AKB48 to the K-Pop sensation Girls’ Generation (who have been enormously popular in Japan), the latter visually comes across as a much more “professional-looking” group. While calling them idolsTheir dance and choreography are on point, and their music videos make them look like a million bucks. But while the girls of AKB48 have a kind of awkwardness about them, and many aren’t the greatest singers, there’s a sense of them “trying their best,” and this is exactly what the fans want. In other words, perfection isn’t necessarily desired. It can be, but that strain of inexperience and perseverance is just as strong.

These dual forces can be seen in idol anime in spades. In Love Live! School Idol Project, the main characters are the ragtag group μ’s (pronounced “Muse”), and the defending champions are the practically-professional A-RISE, who come from the richest high school in Akihabara. In Aikatsu!, Hoshimiya Ichigo is shown as having some kind of natural spark of genuineness that contrasts her from the seemingly unassailable Kanzaki Mizuki. And in Macross Frontier, the main love triangle features, as seen above, the humble waitress Ranka Lee (right) vs. the sultry Sheryl Nome (left). In every case, what causes the “small fry” to ascend isn’t that they transform into polished and perfect idols, but that even as they improve, that unrefined and authentic quality shines through. Perhaps it says something that the main heroines of these shows tend to lean that way as well.

And yet, as touched on briefly in the beginning, voice actors who play idols in anime actually end up being idols themselves. When the girls of Love Live! hold live concerts their flaws come out, but that’s part of the appeal of seeing them in person. When watching the characters in the anime or in music videos, that imperfection doesn’t come across in the performances so much as in the dialogue and supporting materials. A similar phenomenon exists all the way back with Creamy Mami. She comes across as much more “polished” than Ohta Takako does, yet they share the same voice.

An interesting case of the strange interaction with the 2D vs. 3D and real vs. perfect contrasts are those that toe the line, like Hatsune Miku or virtual youtubers. With Miku, her limitations—the fact that her voice sounds robotic—is considered part of her appeal. With virtual youtubers, the fact that there’s a person performing behind the character is much more obvious, and the idea that they start to break down or break character is what lends a sense of “realness.”

In this regard, California-born Japanese idol Sally Amaki is especially interesting. A member of 22/7, an “anime-style characters” idol group in the vein of Love Live!, she plays the bilingual character Fujima Sakura while bringing along her own fans as Sally. Not only does she perform the virtual youtuber role as Sakura, but her native English fluency brings an interesting dynamic that highlights a sense of “realness,” especially for English-speaking fans. Not only is there often a contrast between Sally’s “cute, practiced idol” voice and her Californian mannerisms when switching between Japanese and English, but she’ll mention something that only someone growing up in the US would know off the cuff. This lets American fans connect with her sense of authenticity in ways that they might not have been able to in the past.

In the end, “real vs. perfect” is not a true dichotomy by any means, and every idol/idol group approaches that divide in different ways. Whether you’re an idol fan or not, which do you prefer?

Darling in the Franxx: Thoughts on a Divisive Anime

WARNING: Spoilers for Darling in the Franxx, Gurren-Lagann, Evangelion, and Daitarn 3 (yes, you read that right)

When I first wrote about Darling in the Franxx and its sexual dystopia, the series had just presented some major revelations, among them how Hiro and Zero Two first met, and the true identity of the Klaxosaurs. Seven concluding episodes later, it turns out those “bombshells” were only the tip of the iceberg.

But this show has been full of surprises, and fan reactions to all of these twists and turns has been just as fascinating to follow as the show itself. Darling in the Franxx is, in a word, divisive—perhaps more than any other anime I’ve seen in a long time. I believe the reason for this boils down to one thing: the show attracted a wider range of fan types than most anything else, and the conflicting takes are a product of these differences. My own take is tha the series only got better as it went along, but I’m well aware that many do not share my view to the extent that it seems as if we were all watching different anime. When I give my opinion and analysis of Darling in the Franxx, it’s with this caveat in mind.

Eye of the Beholder

Let’s get into some of the major reveals in the last quarter of the series.

  • Magma energy is revealed to be the energy source that has allowed humanity to achieve immortality.
  • The Klaxosaurs don’t consider humans their true enemy, because the actual problem is a non-corporeal alien race of conquerors called the VIRM, who all but destroyed Klaxosaur civilization both directly and indirectly thousands of years ago.
  • “Papa” is actually one of the VIRM. They infiltrated the human race and purposely pointed them towards magma energy as a way to weaken the Klaxosaurs. This is because the planet’s magma is actually made up of Klaxosaurs who purposely sacrificed themselves to become an energy source for the monster-form Klaxosaurs to fight off the VIRM.
  • The VIRM basically takes the minds of all of the adults because their goal is to integrate all species in the universe within themselves. This leaves only the non-adults (namely the Franxx pilots!) left to fight. The remaining humans join forces with the Klaxosaurs and go into space to fight the VIRM.
  • Ultimately, through the power of love and friendship, Hiro and Zero Two manage to truly become one (more on that later) and defeat the VIRM. Humanity has to rebuild without the use of magma energy, fully aware of the price they paid for draining the planet of such an important resource, and out of respect for the Klaxosaurs.

That’s quite a lot for a series where the initial main debate was “which girl is better, Zero Two or Ichigo?”, and for every fan who fell in love with the show from episode 1 only to be disappointed by where it went by episode 24, there seems to be another fan who thinks the opposite. Moreover, unlike series such as Dragon Ball Z, where the things that fans love about it are the very same things the haters scoff at, no one can actually seem to agree what Darling in the Franxx is about or what it’s saying, let alone which parts are good or bad.

The anime appears to have drawn in a larger variety of anime fans to it than is typical, combining a multitude of genre signals (mecha, science fiction, romance, love triangle) with provocative, often sexual imagery. As a result, the disparate values (both in terms of personal values and ideas as to what makes a show good) of the viewers meant that people came to the show with wildly different expectations from one another. In this environment, I’m not certain I can change anyone’s minds, but I can at least put my thoughts out there.

Defying and Affirming Conventional Humanity Through Romance

Take the subject of my previous post: whether or not the anime reinforced heteronormative values, extending to the rule of man and woman as father and mother. While Darling in the Franxx indeed ends with multiple characters having children in heterosexual relationships, it’s still notable that the main couple of the story cannot have children together. The ultimate expression of their union and happiness instead involves Zero Two becoming a literal giant robot version of herself, in a cross between a wedding dress and Mechagodzilla, while Hiro pilots her from within, carrying connotations of both penis and womb but also referencing the series’s own world. Hiro, in a way, acts like the magma energy that powers the Klaxosaurs, moving away from “conventional humanity” in order to be with the one he loves.

On a less dramatic scale, Ikuno (the only lesbian in the series) ultimately does not have children, but instead devotes her life to science and medicine. Without having any offspring of her own, she makes for herself a position that can help ensure humanity’s future. Hiro, Zero Two, and Ikuno all found ways to help humanity without having to be directly involved in pregnancy. And while not entirely clear, it might just be the case that Ikuno found someone who reciprocated her feelings as well. So I can’t see Darling in the Franxx as being all gung-ho about baby-making at the expense of other people’s life choices, though those more sensitive to the topic might see the degree to which the core cast decides to have children to be the stronger message.

Through the Lens of a Long-Time Mecha Fan

Another criticism of this series is that it’s shallow, schlock entertainment more interested in M. Night Shyamalan-esque swerves than any actual substance. What exactly this has meant in the context of Darling in the Franxx has changed over the course of the series, but one of the big sticking points is the VIRM reveal. Online discussion revolved around whether this was an unnecessary twist that betrayed the feel and purpose of the series, or if the show had cleverly set it up all along, and that it made perfect sense for Darling in the Franxx. I personally lean towards the latter, but I think this comes partly from being a long-time fan of the mecha.

Long before Gurren-Lagann took “go big or go home” to the most lovingly ridiculous degrees, sudden shifts to space or to larger-scale stakes were part and parcel of an anime genre founded in kids’ entertainment. The series Daitarn 3 (1978) literally goes immediately from Earth to space for the first time (barring flashbacks) in the final episode. In time, more creative and ambitious shows tried to incorporate that dramatic build-up more effectively, and I see the heavy emphasis on personal relationships and sexual tension of early Darling in the Franxx as an effective low-key cornerstone that sets up the eventual ramp-up in the long-term. Even the rapid pace of the last few episodes bothered me little for similar reasons, but fans who did not come into anime on shows that preferred such abrupt shifts could very well see it as clunky, headless-chicken writing. I understand, yet I still feel the progression to be appropriate and maybe even nostalgic.

Final Thoughts on the VIRM, and the Ending

It’s not uncommon to see Darling in the Franxx compared to either Evangelion or Gurren-Lagann for aesthetic and thematic reasons, but there’s another factor all three shows share: the idea that they in some way or form betrayed their audiences. Evangelion is probably the most famous example of an unexpected ending, with its compete stylistic departure and its abstract, introspection-heavy final episodes. Famously, the staff of Evangelion actually received death threats for it. Gurren-Lagann pulled the brakes on its do-anything, push-the-envelope mentality for its conclusion, which stung fans who watched it precisely to revel in that feeling of “doing the impossible.” Darling in the Franxx is capable of “betraying” large swathes of its diverse viewership, but I do not think the series actually crumbles when looked at with greater scrutiny.

While the opinion that the VIRM twist comes “out of nowhere” isn’t shared by all—some even accurately predicted the show’s move into space—I think an essential difference between detractors and supporters of the final episodes is that the finale comes with a tonal shift from being an anime that was focused heavily, at least on the surface, on the personal, intimate, and erotic. If that’s what you came to the show for, then it might feel like the two pieces don’t connect.

As mentioned previously, however, I don’t mind this change one bit. The reason? Because Darling in the Franxx has emphasized that something is terribly wrong with its world all along, and not just in terms of the Klaxosaur attacks. Whether it’s meeting other Franxx pilots and realizing how emotionally stunted they are, to the adult/child divide, to the sheer sterility of their cities, something has felt amiss from the start. Perhaps the VIRM being “the real enemy” can feel contrived, but taking a wide view of the series means seeing the depiction of a false Utopia that humankind bought into and that the children had to eventually make up for. Not enough people questioned the gradual consolidation of power around Papa and his organization, APE, or the exact nature of magma energy. Theirs was a society of ignorance, and it led to children like Hiro being punished for trying to fight that ignorance.

Even though Hiro and Zero Two manage to deal a crippling blow to the VIRM, the real challenge is trying to survive as a species without any magic bullets like magma energy. The libidinous energy that was once literally redirected into warfare goes to expressing love, whether that’s through making children, helping children, or just creating happiness. While personal perspective plays a significant role in how one interprets the series’s message, is it strange to see the main cast, poised to change the world since the first episode, end up doing so?

“Flukes”: Competitive Rigor vs. Sustainability in Esports

The question of whether or not to stratify different groups of competitors occurs in any competitive setting, but it tends to be ground zero for debate in gaming even more than in traditional sports or fields such as Chess. For this reason, a recent tweet by veteran League of Legends and Overwatch commentator MonteCristo lamenting the lack of “pros-only” tournaments for fighting games garnered a significant backlash.

There’s one core reason for the negative response to MonteCristo: those who consider themselves part of the fighting game community tend to consider the ability for “gods” and “mortals” to meet in open competition—and for god slayers to emerge at any moment—as one of the strengths of fighting games. In particular, people latched onto the use of the word “flukes” as evidence of the esports works being afraid of “true competition.” If esports could be compared to tennis, then to the FGC a world of invitationals (and nothing else) would be akin to the pre-open era of tennis—when pros and amateurs were not allowed to compete against each other at major tournaments.

However, having followed esports for over ten years now, I’ve noticed that this seeming incongruity in values stems from a difference in what aspects of competitive gaming are prioritized. Is it about competition and camaraderie, or competition and sustainability? While the two are not wholly incompatible, the esports side has long expressed a desire for recognition, expansion into the mainstream, and eventually a reverence similar (but not necessarily identical) to traditional sports. With respect to this, figures in esports have emphasized the importance of “narratives,” and seeing how big a deal they are is very telling as to how esports tends to try and achieve sustainability.

In 2010, StarCraft II ushered in a new era in esports, and tournament circuits such as GOM Starcraft League in Korea and the US-based Major League Gaming were established to give players a chance at competition. While there were many differences in their formats—GSL participants played only a handful of matches per day over the course of weeks and months, while MLG pitted hundreds of players against each over a single weekend—both came to the table early on with a certain goal in mind: to create stars.

GSL created a distinction between the cream of the crop (Code S) and the almost-greats (Code A), where players from the latter could earn the right to be promoted to the former. However, in the first few incarnations of the GSL, it was purposely made difficult for players to fall out of Code S. Essentially, the players who performed the worst in Code S had to compete against the best of Code A in a potential changing of the guard. The number of players who dropped down to these “Up and Down Matches” was restricted, and the Code S players could still end up defeating the hopefuls from Code A and send them back down. The reason? To make sure that recognizable faces remained on camera so they could establish fanbases, and by extension garner a sense of celebrity—to be people that fans and players could remember and look up to.

This was also the reasoning behind MLG‘s seeding system for its multi-tournament season, which saw players who did well at earlier tournaments get byes into much, much later stages of later league tournaments. Going on a tear in your first tournament could pay off down the line. If a player earned a top-32 spot in one tournament, they could keep getting place into a high spot for the next, and then play just well enough to not tank out, it meant a stable spot for increased visibility.

Eventually, both GSL and MLG revised their formats to encourage less ossification of brackets and more chances for rising stars to make a name, but that still doesn’t erase the fact that their initial versions tried to create a delineation between the “Pros” and the “Joes.” Central to all of this was the idea that “good narratives draw viewers in.” What better way to encourage a good narrative than to have a consistent cast of “characters” for the audience to know and root for?

Examples of the benefits that heroes and heroic narratives provide to competition are numerous, but one that stands out in particular is the story of basketball legend Larry Bird. At the time, basketball was seen in the US as largely a “black sport,” and thus had a relatively small white audience. Larry Bird helped to change that, as could be seen from one nickname of his: the Great White Hope. Was this racist? Yes, to a degree. Did it also help pull basketball into the mainstream? Yes it did.

(Is there a comparison to be made between this example and the fact that esports vs. FGC exists along something of a similar divide in terms of racial demographics? Also yes, but that discussion will be for another time.)

Narratives do not have to be manufactured whole-cloth. Seeing an underdog defeat a champion, or watching a winner cement his place with an undefeated streak happens just from competition existing. However, in a world where visual presentation can often be confusing to those unfamiliar, presenting these bouts as being between humans with wants and desires and emotions (especially simple ones like anger) can bridge that gap. So it’s no wonder why esports organizations frequently try to control it through player perception, delineations between pros and amateurs, and so on. But one question that arises is, does setting things up so conveniently end up compromising the integrity of competition? The answer is that it can, but it largely depends on severity.

Take professional wrestling, which has been predetermined for many decades precisely because the promoters understood that most audience members cared more when the wrestlers had charisma. Famously, when a bland 1940s wrestler named George Wagner dyed his hair blond and became the arrogant and effete “Gorgeous George,” his antagonistic demeanor drew audiences in droves to see him in the hopes that they’d get to witness George getting destroyed. Pro wrestling isn’t a true athletic competition precisely because it becomes easier to control the narrative and get viewers invested.

But even in a legitimate sport like mixed martial arts, the desire for narrative can influence decisions. While the results of matches aren’t fixed, the media and advertising machine surrounding MMA are there to try and produce the best narratives they can, either by using what’s there or cooking up some controversy. That’s because they know that narratives make people care. Athletes will be brought out to drum up a sense of animosity between the two. Is it real? Is it fake? Does it matter if it sells tickets? A guy like Conor McGregor, who’s naturally antagonistic but also an amazing fighter, puts butts in seats. People are eager to see him be on either the giving or receiving end of an ass-kicking.

At the same time, leaving things to chance can be scary for those who have substantial amounts of money riding on the success of their investment. Conor McGregor is in some ways the ideal, but he also has a tendency to get himself in trouble and make the UFC look bad in the process. One can even compare those blunders to the number of players caught blurting out racial slurs onstream. Just because someone’s a winner doesn’t mean they’re a good spokesperson, especially if they have no media training and are just kids plucked out of online lobbies and given an environment to train in. When there are so many variables at play where something can go wrong—quality of the game itself, image of competitive gaming to the outside world, the perception of “nerds”—it’s understandable (though not immune to criticism) why teams, tournaments, and organizations would want to control what they can.

The divide between FGC and esports, or the perception of it, has largely to do with community vs. respectability. The former looks inwards, and believes that having a solid core, a group of passionate players who can weather any storm together through a love of competition, is paramount. The latter looks outwards, and aims to establish itself as a permanent fixture in the world, something that cannot die because it has the size and backing to keep it going forever. The two are not irreconcilable, but finding a balance (if a balance is desired at all) requires parties that can trust each other to not abandon the other side’s principles.

Does “The Simpsons” Really Have a Problem with “The Problem with Apu?”

The Problem with Apu, a documentary by comedian Hari Kondabolu about growing up Indian with the well-known Simpsons character as the most prominent representation of his people, has been the center of a new and energized discussion about stereotypes and tokenism. Recently, an episode of The Simpsons referenced this debate, and it was criticized, including by Kondabolu himself, for being dismissive.

But the more I think about this scene, the more I’m uncertain that the writers of The Simpsons are actually opposed to Kondabolu. What I believe happened is that the writers tried to be a little too clever for their own good in trying to explain their stance.

The last scene of the episode has Marge reading Lisa a bedtime story while trying to censor all of the unsavory parts, only for Lisa to ask for everything to be kept in. She proceeds to say, “It’s hard to say,” Lisa responds, breaking the fourth wall. “Something that started decades ago, and was applauded and inoffensive, is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” She then looks at a photo of Apu, which says, “Don’t have a cow, Apu.”

Reading this one way, it seems as if Lisa is saying, “Oh well!” and that the people finding Apu “politically incorrect” are wrong. The “Don’t have a cow” can be thought of saying, “This isn’t a big deal. However, the scene, especially the use of that classic Simpsons line, sticks out to me in two important ways.

First, it’s a famous catchphrase from the earliest episodes of The Simpsons TV series originally meant to show Bart’s rebellious attitude, but is now viewed as a relic of its time. As far as I know, it hasn’t been used on the show in years except maybe ironically, and it dates any episodes in which it is used as being of the fairly distant past.

Second, it’s being attributed to Apu, a Hindu. With that in mind, the line can be interpreted differently. “Don’t have a cow” now references the fact that it is morally wrong to eat beef according to Hinduism.

Together, I believe the scene and that photo are highlighting a couple of things. For one, there are parts of The Simpsons once thought irrevocable that in hindsight had to change with the times. The “bad boy” Bart Simpson and his once-signature catchphrase have been supplanted by even more controversial characters with mouths that are far more foul. The Bart of the early 90s wouldn’t last today. The Simpsons is not as immune to cultural shifts as might be assumed for a show that’s been on TV for decades.

The Apu-Hinduism aspect touches on another consideration: cultural context changes how words and phrases are interpreted. A culture that assumes America and whiteness by default has classically resulted in The Simpsons and its particular portrayal of life, but if the presumed target was an Indian demographic all along, how might it have changed?

Together, these two points reveal to me a desire from The Simpsons to approach the criticisms brought up in The Problem with Apu with a degree of subtlety, and the issue is that The Simpsons has never been a vehicle for nuance. Sure, it’s been extremely clever, sure, and some of its humor in the past has required viewers to think a little harder, but an age of social media and the speed at which online discourse occurs means it ended up vulnerable to the harshest interpretations, with no real way to defend itself.

Being “True to Oneself” and the Necessity of Criticism

Ever since my teenage years, I’ve believed it important for nerds and geeks, otaku and gamers, to be proud of who they are. Back then, from seeing my own experience as well as that of others both online and off, it hurt me to witness people continuously talk about how they have to hide their hobbies. You’d find posts on forums of people talking about how they had to abandon their nerdy interests in order to make friends and get a significant other. And while I’m sure there are more than a few who found greater happiness this way, I could also see plenty who basically lived as frail shadows. As frivolous something like a love of RPGs or an attraction to anime girls could be, I saw it doing subtle psychological damage to those who forced themselves to abandon their passions, and I didn’t want to see people like me be hurt.

A lot of things have changed in the years since. Gaming is undoubtedly mainstream. Shows like The Big Bang Theory have, for better or worse, made the lives of nerds “hip” to watch. People needlessly worry about “fake geek girls.” One of the consequences of the prominence of geek culture is that, where once the main issue for many nerds was trying to get their voices out there, now the latent misogyny of gamer culture has become a real problem. Given this current environment, is it okay to just say, “Be confident and declare to the world that you’re proud to be who you are!” if it means that people are incentivized to harass others?

I understand that there are some generalizations I’m putting forward that are inevitably full of exceptions. Geek culture and fandoms are many-armed and camaraderie across different interests can be fractured. One does not even need to be a “social outcast” anymore to be considered an avid player of video games. Perhaps most importantly, it’s not like asking people to have confidence automatically leads to influencing people to attack others. Nevertheless, I think there is a potential path from self confidence and pride to anger towards and mistreatment of others, one that is dimly lit yet still visible upon closer observation.

To some extent, I think this wraps into the idea of variety of expression as a strength, be it in fiction or in, say, speech and dialogue. Much like freedom of speech, the difficult thing about supporting and celebrating it is that you have to accept that you can’t agree with every opinion or belief, even if you swear that it’s wrong with every fiber of your being. It is the constant potential for change that gives both art and speech strength, and for every poorly conceived anime that might exist there can also exist a work of endless wonder, broadly speaking.

That being said, criticism is necessary, and dissent towards ideas believed to be harmful should not be silenced just for the sake of variety. And I think this is where I find myself when it comes to people found in fandoms who continue to espouse racist, misogynistic ideas. I disagree vehemently with those ideas, but they are beliefs legitimately held by people, and to silence them is to build resentment. At the same time, giving them license to run their mouths and spread hate and harassment isn’t the right thing to do either. Ideally, conversations on matters such as the portrayal of male and female characters in games should happen in the open, rather than as rocks volleyed from across a chasm, but that might be wishful thinking.

I’ve increasingly thought about how wanting to make the world a better place and embracing all the beauty and ugliness of the world requires living a contradiction. However, I don’t believe that this is inherently a problem. Perhaps we try too hard to make every aspect of our life consistent, or to expect our thoughts and beliefs to line up perfectly with each other. If that’s the case, then I can continue to cheer for those who are able to express themselves, while putting more effort to guide those who I believe need it.