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When it comes to debates regarding how women are portrayed in media and entertainment, one recurring trend is the way that sexualization gets conflated with objectification. Whether it’s comics or not, Japanese or not, often times the two are presented as one, so it’s no surprise that there are readers who see them as one and the same and argue from a stance that reducing or removing certain depictions of women means a puritan-like removal of sexuality itself from media. While I don’t have the same problems with objectification that others might, it’s still an issue because this misunderstanding begets many other misunderstandings. It’s for this reason that I’m impressed by how the manga Spotted Flower handles the female body, and I think it gives a very clear case of how it is possible to draw sexual characters who aren’t necessarily sex objects.
A manga by Genshiken author Kio Shimoku, Spotted Flower is about an otaku husband and his pregnant non-otaku wife, and the small challenges they face as their lives enter a new stage. With a title referencing Madarame and Saki from Genshiken (Madara refers to spots—take note Naruto fans—and Saki means “bloom”) but clearly pointing out that the characters are not them, much of the manga revolves around how being an otaku can influence the relationship in certain ways. The other prominent theme, and the one I’m more concerned with for this post, is that of the pregnant wife’s sexual frustration. The problem the wife faces is that even through pregnancy she still wants sex and wants it badly, but it’s difficult for the husband to overcome the misconception that pregnant women are entirely different from sexual women (despite the act that it takes to get them that way). This makes sense, as depictions of pregnancy tend to focus on their motherly qualities and ignore the woman’s sexuality.
Spotted Flower does not draw that line in the sand. Much like his work on Jigopuri (about raising an infant), Kio doesn’t play it safe. He draws nudity. He draws bare breasts. He doesn’t shy away from showing sex and the desire for sex as very physical, mental, and emotional, but at the same time also doesn’t reduce pregnancy into a simplistic fetish or kink that you would find in some adult manga. He expresses the wife’s frustration in such a way that, even if she does not have the ideal body or the easy appeal of the “virgin” or the “nympho,” there is a kind of sexual attractiveness to her, an undeniable sensuality radiating from her which has little to do with the woman as object of desire and more as a person who desires.
As is obvious at this point, Spotted Flower is rather unusual in a number of ways, but it is also a series of possibilities and potentials. It pushes boundaries which probably shouldn’t be boundaries in the first place, and does so with a strong sense of characterization fans of Kio Shimoku have come to appreciate.
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?