Witch Craft Works as a Vehicle for Feminist Criticism

If you search online for Witch Craft Works, one of the first things you’re likely to see is the promotional art for the anime, pictured above. It’s an attention grabber for sure, as the image of a tall, voluptuous woman cradling a smaller, frailer man in her arms sends a whole array of messages that can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Of these possibilities, one question that arises asks, is Witch Craft Works feminist? I would argue that it is in certain respects, but not necessarily in the way that one might expect. While one may very well approach the gendered role reversal in terms of whether or not it’s a form of empowerment, I find that it’s better to consider it in terms of how it highlights how we view those roles in the first place.

Witch Craft Works is an anime and manga about a meek-looking teenage boy named Takemiya Honoka and his love interest/protector, the practically-perfect-in-every-way Kagari Ayaka, who is also a witch able to command flames. Weak protagonists are nothing new for anime at this point, but whereas a typical story would have the guy “man up” and defend the woman (see Fate/Stay Night, for example), Ayaka is clearly stronger than he is at all times. This is what creates the spark of potential for Ayaka to be a symbol of female empowerment, though people who read into her this way may potentially be disappointed, especially because her clear male-oriented attractiveness (wide hips, very large breasts, long raven-black hair) and moments of obvious fanservice can detract from such a portrayal.

While those unfamiliar with shoujo manga might see the series as more of a role reversal in general, in fact Witch Craft Works is more specifically a genderswap of a stereotypical shoujo manga. Instead of the girl being perpetually late for school and bumping into Mr. Tall, Dark, and Mysterious, it’s Honoka playing the part instead. All of the lines that the male love interest would make about protecting the female protagonist while holding her gently have instead gone to Ayaka. What makes it clearly shoujo as well is the trope of having Ayaka followed by a squad of fangirls who keep all potential partners at bay through bullying and trickery. The main difference, aside from the change in genders, is that the art style is more geared towards a male audience, which opens it up for the criticisms seen in the previous paragraph.

When I say that Witch Craft Works can be interpreted as a feminist work, however, my intent is not to argue that people should just get over the clear idealized appeal of Ayaka for heterosexual male viewers. Instead, the point I want to make is that this role reversal brings to the surface many assumptions we make about how characters behave. Imagine that, instead of Witch Craft Works acting as a reverse shoujo series, we instead made a genderswap version of James Bond, or better yet Golgo 13? In this version, a stoic woman would sleep with guys left and right, who would be so amazed at her instinctual command of the carnal arts that they would beg at her feet for more as she leaves without saying a word. Sometimes, they might get caught in the middle of a gunfight or perhaps themselves be assassins, which would result in them being violently murdered by “Golga 13.” As she goes about putting bullets in the heads of her targets, men and women would sing her praises and talk about how amazingly powerful she is.

Would this be empowering? Perhaps. Would this emphasize equality between male and female characters? Not really, as it’s more just flipping the issue. However, by turning the tables in that way, it would increase awareness of how these tropes are affected by how we perceive characters’ behaviors according to their genders. Witch Craft Works does something similar, only instead of using the typical narrative aspects of a guy-oriented series like Golgo 13, it uses the cultural markers of girl-oriented anime and manga to start with, and then pushes things a few steps further.

One of the arguments by fans of yaoi and yuri as to why they prefer those stories over ones about heterosexual relationships is that there’s less of a power imbalance between male and female. At the same time, categories like “seme” (top) and “uke” (bottom) complicate this issue because they can often be used to express a relationship of domination and submission. Witch Craft Works, through the interactions of its weak male and strong female leads and its mix of guy-oriented and girl-oriented aesthetics, calls to mind all of these different portrayals of romances. Kagari and Ayaka simultaneously behave like a shoujo romance, but also a bit of a shounen one as well, and even embody aspects of yaoi and yuri. Apparently the manga was originally supposed to be yuri itself but was changed to its current form.

For guys, this is a rare opportunity to see what it feels like for a male character to be made a damsel-in-distress, though the conclusion for them won’t necessarily be that this is a problem, and that the role is diminishing men as a whole. It’s possible that this can even be viewed as something desirable, that men rarely get the chance to feel the desire to be rescued, to have their troubles eliminated by someone more powerful than themselves, even less so when the rescuer is a woman (usually it’s a father or something along those lines). Instead of manifesting an empathy for weakness through moe girl character, it can be achieved through a boy, and there isn’t even a need to berate him for not being “man enough.” At the same time, male viewers can see the boy damsel, take comfort, and then return to endless images of macho heroes. Women, on the other hand, leave Witch Craft Works and go back to a sea of women being captured and waiting for their saviors. As a result, Witch Craft Works ends up emphasizing the fact that the “damsel-in-distress” issue is not that the trope is inherently dangerous or detrimental, but that it has been historically reinforced repeatedly as something “for women.”

By playing with the standard rules of its storytelling style but flipping the script, Witch Craft Works serves to make us aware of those storytelling tendencies, especially those found in anime and manga. and to look at them more critically. In that respect, Witch Craft Works is capable of contributing to feminist criticism.

Kill la Kill = Exploitation + Empowerment?

Kill la Kill for all of its visual creativity is a pretty controversial show, if only for its main heroine’s outfit and how it’s used in the series.  Whether Ryuko’s uniform (or lack thereof) is a symbol of feminine power or yet another case of women being objectified in media is the point of contention. I find that it can be difficult to navigate the intersection between “exploitation” and “empowerment” in Kill la Kill, partly because when we think of those ideas we usually find them mutually exclusive to the extent that one can only grow at the expense of the other, whereas I actually believe Kill la Kill is honestly and genuinely trying to do both at once.

Kamui_Senketsu

One of the key examples of this duality is in Ryuko’s transformation sequence, which ends in the pose shown above. Her uniform is ridiculously skimpy, but her actual stance exudes power and confidence, sharing more in common with the type of posing done by a tokusatsu hero rather than the almost fashion model-esque poses common to magical girl shows (and also JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure). It’s showing her body off to the world at the same time it shows off her will and determination.

Outside of Kill la Kill, of all the series I’ve seen which attempt this combination the one that tries the hardest is probably Shinkon Gattai Godannar. There, the fanservice is arguably more extreme and pretty impossible to avoid in its own right, but I find that its ideas and themes resonate with a desire for women to be the heroes of their stories. With either Kill la Kill or Godannar, it’s possible to “look past” the sexualization (or not), but neither the image of exploitation nor empowerment are necessarily merely in service to the other, as if one is an “excuse” and the other is the underlying true meaning.

It’s easy to think of the people who made Kill la Kill as perverts, and it’s maybe even true, but I wonder if the show is actually saying something along the lines of, “Hey, perverts can be feminists too!” Whether this approach is okay or not is of course still up for debate, and differs from show to show, or perhaps even episode to episode. Personally, I’m pretty okay with it but recognize the potential, positive or negative, in combining this imagery in that it can be appropriate and used according to the viewer’s wishes.

Taking Small Steps and Huddling Over Scraps

When I originally wrote about Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, a video series which plans to explore the treatment of women in the medium, I expressed my concern that the creator Anita Sarkeesian might potentially cast aside more subtly positive portrayals of women in video games because they might still be significantly flawed. “If a medium is sexist in certain ways,” I thought, “then progress has to come in not only big steps but also small ones.” However, after reading this article about the Pixar movie Brave (warning: spoilers, though I do recommend reading it) in which the author Lili Loufbourow describes growing up with film and essentially forcing herself to deeply cherish even the most remotely positive portrayals of women in a medium which often forces them into a very limited number of character types, I find myself somewhat re-evaluating my thoughts on these matters.

Critical theorist Theodor Adorno writes about how mass culture, that is to say popular culture created by modern industry and capitalism, has a tendency to take any sort of radical idea or value and simply transform it into something palatable for the masses until its progressive value is swallowed up. I deeply disagree with Adorno in this regard for a number of reasons, namely his disregard for small steps within the area of mass culture. I still believe that it is important to look at examples of mixed results, cases where movement forward might come with a couple of steps back, and to just pay attention to places where progress is not measured solely by overall success. This is the reason why, when I write about the portrayal of women in anime and manga, I think it’s important to not just label things as “sexist” and call it a day.

His view brings some important questions to mind, however. Enlarging the sphere of discussion from sexism/feminism to the greater topic of progress itself, I have to ask myself, what is the difference between “taking a small step forward”and “huddling over scraps?” Is there a difference? Does one turn into the other when filtered through the lens of personal imagination and the changing values of a society?

My immediate feeling is that there must be a difference between taking a small step and huddling over scraps, and that the boundaries between the two are not so rigidly defined given history and context, but just the idea that the two can be conflated makes it somewhat dangerous. For that reason I now recognize that Sarkeesian and Loufbourow are essentially fighting against the same opponent, the “good enoughs” of female portrayal that pay only lipservice at best and are actually subtly regressive at worst, and that for Sarkeesian this dictates her tendency towards hard, powerful language in her videos. When subtlety is utilized, there is always the risk that it will be overlooked to such an extent that any messages given will be overwhelmed by the greater whole, or at least be perceived as such. While I prefer to try and work with the nuances myself, I have to recognize the potential pitfalls of that approach as well.

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.

“Negative Portayal” of Men

When it comes to women in entertainment such as movies, books, and of course anime, it will sometimes be said that a work contains a “negative portrayal” of women. The finger of accusation can be pointed at many things, from having women who are too demure and helpless to women who are all too sexually promiscuous (or not promiscuous enough in some cases, a reaction against the idolization if virginity) to women who some would say are just “men with tits.” The specifics and whether or not something truly is a negative portrayal doesn’t matter here so much as the fact that the concept exists.

But what about the other side? What about “negative portrayal” of men? Personally, it’s something I never hear about. Sure, there’s “Shinji is a whiny baby,” or “Keitarou is completely lacking in any real personality,” but rarely do I see “This yaoi is offensive to men,” or “This is not how a man should be portrayed.” Keeping in mind that I’m talking about multiple cultures though primarily the one I live in (America), is this simply a product of a male-dominated society, that no matter the portrayal of a guy it never really leads back to how he stands up to men in the real world? Even my own thinking makes it difficult for me to really bring up any examples, while it would be much easier to do so on topics of race or class. Could it be that when it comes to gender, only one side has some goal to reach with their portrayal in media while the other perhaps already crossed that finishing line millennia ago? Or are there actually negative portrayals of men in entertainment and that finding them is even more difficult due to the way in which we were brought up?