OGIUE MANIAX

Anime & Manga Blog | 50% Anime Analysis, 50% Ogi

Precure is Not a Lesser Sailor Moon

curemoonlight

A few months ago at Otakon, I was talking with Alain from the Reverse Thieves, who had attended a panel about magical girls and feminism. He had described how the presenter went through the various series she’d be discussing, but made specific mention that she’d be omitting Precure from the discussion, citing the fact that she wasn’t particularly impressed. Although I did not attend the panel myself, I found that to be unfortunate, not because of the dismissal of Precure by the presenter in isolation, but because this stance on the long-running magical girl franchise is not that uncommon. Among many fans, presenters, and even scholars, Precure is assumed to be bland and generic and not worth discussion.

In my opinion, that kind of thinking is a mistake. Precure is not only the biggest and most popular magical girl property of the past ten years, eclipsing even Sailor Moon in certain ways (sales, longevity on TV, etc.) and therefore worth observing for its cultural footprint, but it is also a fount of positive imagery for girls. While there are certain elements that can remain issues, such as the increasing ubiquity of pink as the only possible color for the main heroine and the fact that a lot of the magical girl outfits have high heels, Precure utilizes strong female characters by default, rather than making a big deal out of their existence. What’s more, because the series refreshes itself every year or two, its variety results in different approaches to characterization of female characters and themes pertaining to feminism. You have weak girls who become strong over time (as well as a nuanced exploration of what it means to grow), heroines who are more ideals of human potential, and even characters who try to reclaim the term “princess” to mean something more than “demure.” Even the very first series is significant due to its portrayal of girls having aggressive, hand to hand fights (in a show for young girls, no less), and the fact that its two main characters are more about their life goals than pining at the boys around them.

I have my suspicions as to why Precure has ended up with this reputation, and a lot of it has to do with Sailor Moon. It was the first of its kind, the sentai-inspired battling magical girl genre of which Precure is a part. In terms of cultural influence around the world, Sailor Moon has crossed the barrier from niche interest for anime fans only to seminal work, and is frequently cited as a pivotal show in the development of many young artists. Just the fact that it portrays these mature-looking girls who fight and win is on a basic level empowering and inspiring, and so any similar series gets compared not only to Sailor Moon but also its presence as a kind of nostalgic defining moment where any weaknesses it possesses as a series are forgiven. It’s also very important to point out that, especially in the US, Precure is just plain hard to come by. As a result, for English speakers it has much less potential of becoming part of the fabric of one’s upbringing, with the possible exception of Smile Precure!, which has been loosely adapted to become Glitter Force on Netflix.

I get the feeling that, when the Sailor Moon generation typically sees Precure, a common process occurs. First, they see that Precure is similar, and that its story (depending on which version they watch) is often more lighthearted initially. Second, they see that the character designs are younger-looking, and so it seems less mature as well. Third, they might do a bit of research and become aware that the franchise is also popular with adult men, lending a sort of “creepy pervert” vibe to their impressions. Finally, they fill in the blanks, and without watching much more, jump to the conclusion that the franchise can’t possibly do things so differently from Sailor Moon that it’d be worth looking into more, or that it’s only for sad otaku (unaware that Sailor Moon was the show for doujinshi in its heyday). Moreover, because Precure doesn’t have the more immediately apparent dark appeal of a Revolutionary Girl Utena or a Madoka Magica, it’s further assumed to be generic kiddie fare. That’s not to say that the series isn’t for children, but that the type of maturity it carries is more in how it approaches the task of trying to show strong images for a female audience. As discussed above, I believe Precure does this to great success, and to see it brushed aside saddens and angers me.

I like Sailor Moon, and I don’t mean to paint fans of that series with the same brush. However, because it is a defining magical girl show for a lot of people, it gets written about as if it is the be-all, end-all of its particular brand of mahou shoujo. The reputation of Sailor Moon surpasses what is actually in the series in a certain way, and it casts an unfair shadow on Precure when Precure does many things that I would argue are improvements or directions that Sailor Moon never goes. This is especially the case with its feminist qualities. My hope is that, when people think about progressive portrayals in anime and the magical girl genre, they not only remember that Precure exists, but are aware of all that it offers.

 

If you liked this post, consider becoming a sponsor of Ogiue Maniax through Patreon. You can get rewards for higher pledges, including a chance to request topics for the blog.

Save

Advertisements

Is Feminism Grandma Shanking a Dude? Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road has received immense praise from critics like few films, both of its type and in general, have ever received. With an astounding 98% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a long and difficult production history, it’s the kind of movie that I would say was easily worth the wait, had I actually realized it existed prior to opening day. Even then, I didn’t even see the movie until a week later, when half the people I follow on Twitter repeatedly sang its praises and articles talked about just how well-executed a film it is, visually, conceptually, and in terms of narrative.

This would normally be the point where I throw in a “however,” but I really can’t. Mad Max: Fury Road lives up to the hype and then some, even to someone like myself whose only knowledge of Mad Max is that it’s a heavy influence on Fist of the North Star. As a newbie to the Mad Max universe, I was taken in by a story that’s fun yet profound, the creative action sequences that give a true sense of continuity as well as cause and effect that never leaves you confused as to what’s actually going on (no shaky cams here), and a cast of characters that are surprisingly largely sympathetic. Mad Max: Fury Road leaves a lot up to the audience to read between the lines, but gives enough so that interpretations aren’t shots in the dark.

One major aspect of this movie that’s gotten quite a bit of attention is that its story can be interpreted as being quite feminist. On the surface this can be surprising, given that the aesthetic of the Mad Max world is centered around machismo cranked up to 11. Arthur Chu at the Daily Beast argues that Mad Max has always been critical of violent, belligerent masculinity and that the greater presence of female characters able to take a broader perspective on history in Fury Road is what finally make this directly obvious. Again, I have no experience with the franchise so I can’t agree or disagree, but along these lines I think there’s an additional component to the movie and its use of female characters that gives the movie a kind of feminist foundation.

The world of Mad Max is a post-apocalyptic wasteland, where water and other supplies are scarce and death is a common sight. In Fury Road, the antagonist Immortan Joe is the cult leader of a religion that combines emphasis on vehicles and technology with Norse mythology, and the result is a bunch of pale zealots spreading violence and destruction wherever they go. Deserts, blood, and bullets are what make up the environment, and what Fury Road does is say, “Well, of course women can be gritty, seasoned veterans of a war-torn Earth.” In this way, it’s kind of like how the anime series Precure assumes as a matter of fact the immense power of its female characters, though Mad Max: Fury Road takes it a number of steps further by removing much of the glamor, and being very deliberate in where the remaining bits of beauty and eroticism come up.

Imperator Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron, is just as much a fighter as the eponynous “Mad” Max, and the elderly female nomads who appear later show their decades of experience fighting both people and their harsh surroundings. Even the five wives of Immortan Joe, characters crucial to setting off the main conflict of the film who were locked away and are highly sexualized (what else would women selected by a cult leader specifically to bear his children be?), but they also show their desire to learn more about the world they were hidden away from, and the fact that their skin is so perfect and their clothing barely hides anything is more a contrast with the world than the sole image of women in the film. The film features women participating in this classically hyper-masculine setting as men typically would, and in doing so argues that it need not be considered a “man’s world” at all.

Another interesting point about the five wives is that, while their original purpose was to be sex slaves, this also affords them the power of knowledge: outside of Immortan Joe’s own family, they are the only ones who know that he is not an immortal god descended from Valhalla, but merely a weak, decrepit old man whose seemingly powerful appearance is a lie. Vulnerability is a persistent theme in Mad Max: Fury Road,  from the fact that Max is haunted by the memory of his dead daughter, to the fact that one of Joe’s fanatical followers, Nux, keeps ending up in different situations that force him to confront his own identity even as he struggles to please his god-king.

The story on the internet is that men’s rights advocates are upset at Mad Max: Fury Road, and while I don’t know how far that stretches even within that particular community, I can see why it might be a cause for alarm in that world. The film utilizes a setting that classically exploits women and views them as play-things (though that’s not to say such stories are inherently bad), and flips it on its head. All the while, the sheer sense of action and excitement is of a level higher than probably any movie in recent memory, so it’s not like focusing on female characters detracted from the presentation. If anything, it’s made Mad Max into something that can bridge generations.

If you liked this post, consider becoming a sponsor of Ogiue Maniax through Patreon. You can get rewards for higher pledges, including a chance to request topics for the blog.

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.

My Thoughts on the “Damsel in Distress” in Tropes vs. Women in Video Games

Over the past few months, Anita Sarkeesian has released the first two videos on her series concerning tropes regarding women in video games. Back when it was first announced, I had my concerns that she would so emphasize what has gone wrong that she wouldn’t leave sufficient space for what has gone right, or even what was meant to be female empowerment but fails for whatever reason. Later, after having done some further reading, I amended my thoughts on the matter when I realized that, even if it wasn’t my intent, the idea that women (as well as people in general) should settle for “good enough” as if that’s the best they could hope for in regards to portrayals of women in media is a problem.

I watched the first two episodes, which concern the “damsel in distress” trope. The third one, which is supposed to address some of the inversions or subversions of the damsel device, is not yet out, so I can’t at this point speak about that element, but I’d still like to state my thoughts on what I’ve seen so far. I find Anita’s strongest overall argument to be the idea that video games have tended to assume violence as a primary course of action so often that as games have tried to become more sophisticated this mechanic limits the potential avenues for solutions beyond “punching them until they die.” As Anita notes, the inertia created by the games of old, both in terms of having damsels and having violence as a means to save them (or not), is perpetuated, though not out of malice but from not thinking about other alternatives.

Multiple times during the videos, Sarkeesian talks about how the hero having to rescue (or even mercy kill) the damsel turns the woman into an object or goal for a male power fantasy, and one of the concerns I have with this is that, even if she might not mean it, it can be interpeted as casting male power fantasies in a negative light. Certainly I understand some of the problems of the male power fantasy and how its ubiquity can create a narrow scope of examples of acceptable behavior for men in lieu of male characters capable of functioning in different capacities , but I don’t think male power fantasies are wholly the product of perceived gender role imbalances where a man must protect the woman, nor are they mainly about the trivialization of women, even if it on some level contributes to the perpetuation of such stereotypes.

Rather, rescuing the girl speaks more to the fantasy that a man can be relied on no matter what, and is capable of accomplishing anything and everything. Thus, when the damsel is fridged (killed or injured for the sake of advancing the male character’s story), it is about playing with these assumptions and desires, an attempted move towards more diversity and creativity in storylines even if the products end up not being very well thought out, containing many of the problems which Anita points out. The power to do something in every possible circumstance can also be found in the idea of the self-made man or the rugged outdoorsman, who can be thrown in the middle of a jungle and come out of it with muscles flexing. I think it’s a valid desire for men to want to be able to be relied on, though once again I understand that wanting to be relied on and being relied on as a requirement for masculinity are two different things.

You might be asking, “But if there are all of these problems with the male power fantasy, why even defend it?” In that case, compare the male power fantasy to another type of “power” fantasy, the rags-to-riches story, where a person uses their wits, hard work, and/or luck to go from a life of poverty to one of profit and wealth. There are many valid criticisms for such stories, such as the idea that it reinforces an unforgiving capitalist mindset where money is the most important thing in life, or that if rags-to-riches stories present the idea that anyone can pull themselves up by the bootstraps then it implies that people who haven’t done so simply haven’t tried hard enough. In other words, there’s a clear downside to this type of narrative. However, there are people who enjoy these stories and fantasize about doing the same thing, even if they are conforming to a flawed concept that is a product of assumed societal values it still speaks to their desires. This ability to respond to people’s desires is one of the things I think art and creative media can and should have, as is the ability to criticize that very same thing.

To restate, it’s not entirely clear if Sarkeesian is saying that male power fantasies are tainted from the roots, but I could see this being an issue that skeptical viewers might jump on to show that she is “man-hating” even though she isn’t. At the very least, Sarkeesian points to the ability for male characters to get captured and then break out of captivity through their own strength and wits as a way in which male characters are not truly in distress, and this scenario has a clear power fantasy component which can function without the victimization of women as a plot device.

Of course, this leaves the question of where the “female power fantasies” are, and in this regard Sarkeesian is right that the repeated use of women as damsels in video games feeds into the perpetuation of these scenarios. However, my opinion is that this does not make the male power fantasy in video game form itself the main problem and that the character in need of rescue needs to be removed from media, but the lack of alternatives for characters of all genders and sexualities to do more and be more. That said, I think Anita’s goal in making these videos is on some level to create awareness so that people will think to produce these alternatives, and in that regard she is getting people to talk.

Strength in Precure

With its combination of cute characters, kid appeal, and detailed fighting scenes, the Precure metaseries is presently the most popular and prominent magical girl anime. Though each series has its own share of unique features, one constant that always impresses me is the approach Precure takes to showing strength in its heroines.

When it comes to depicting strong female characters, there is a lot of media out there which relies on some sort of conflict revolving around a character’s gender. Confronted with a sexist/condescending/ignorant adversary, the idea is that the girl then shows what she’s made of and proves her equality/superiority. This is not inherently a problem, and there are many examples out there which make such scenes empowering, but there are also many cases where this becomes lazy or uncreative shorthand for conveying “girl power” as a way of achieving the bare minimum of inspiration.

Precure completely circumvents this issue by depicting its heroines as capable in a way where gender doesn’t really matter. Villains will mock them for inexperience, or talk about how hopeless they are for struggling, but the fact that they are girls and not boys is never really considered. When confronted with the question of whether or not girls can be strong, Precure simply says, “Of course they’re strong, why is that even a question?”

The gradual building of inner strength and emotional resolve in Heartcatch Precure! is the obvious example, but let’s instead take a rather stereotypically feminine-looking character such as Kise Yayoi (aka Cure Peace) from Smile Precure! Yayoi can be described as a crybaby who’s full of enthusiasm but lacking in confidence, a point which the villains will constantly bring up to taunt her. In regards to strength, Smile Precure! does two things. First, it provides four other girls to show how crying is not just something girls “do,” but something specific to Yayoi as an individual person. Second, it has Yayoi prove that being a crybaby doesn’t mean you’re incapable, it just means you can be capable while also crying a lot. Even with a character such as this, where it wouldn’t be surprising to see a show  convey her as “strong, for a girl,” Yayoi’s gender is never the issue.

This is not to say that Precure is devoid of traditional notions of femininity, as other signature features are brightly colored frilly outfits and cosmetics/accessories-based merchandise, not to mention the rare romance. With respect to the potential and capability of of girls, just as there’s no need to spend time in a film or cartoon to show that the sky is blue or that fire is hot, this approach treats the existence of strong female characters as such an obvious non-question that it becomes capable of normalizing the very notion that girls are strong. Without the need to “prove” anything, it can tell stories without being bogged by the classic obstacle that is the gender-centered confrontation.

On the Use of Fending Off Sexual Assault as a Way of Defining Strength in Female Characters

In the past I’ve written in an attempt to pinpoint what I find so troubling about some portrayals of “strong” female characters, especially in American superhero and fantasy comics, but despite having expressed various reasons for these impressions as such I still have never felt that the answers I’ve given were entirely adequate. It’s been an on-going process of self-questioning and observation, and the reason I’m making this post is that I’ve come to realize another issue when it comes to the representation of female strength.

It came to me while I was reading the comic Flipside, which features as its main character a sexy and strong female jester named Maytag. Throughout the first volume, Maytag is repeatedly  confronted with a similar sequence of events. Some bad men confront her, threaten her with rape or call her a bitch, and then Maytag turns their expectations upside down and defeats them (for the most part), while still emphasizing her sexuality or making some sexual innuendos.

Keep in mind that Flipside isn’t a particularly egregious example, as it suffers more (at least early on, I haven’t read further) from a lack of experience and characters overly designed as wish fulfillment, nor are anime and manga completely innocent of this. Also, the act of knocking out your would-be rapists can be empowering imagery. Instead, what I realized by seeing this two-step process over and over in such a short span of pages is that the the seeming need for sexual threats to happen in order to establish a female character as strong diminishes a story because strength winds up being defined as the ability to not get sexually assaulted. In these scenarios, the girl can’t be strong in a world which accepts the possibility of strength in a woman as a believable occurrence, only in a world which has to constantly remind her what a girl she is and how as a girl she’s liable to be attacked.

Another problem is what I would label the “straw misogynist,” or characters who are purposely set up to be extremely sexist so that they can be put in their place when the girl fights back. The way straw misogynists are used in situations like the ones I’ve been describing is that by threatening rape or sexual abuse they immediately bring attention to the sexuality of the girl target, creating this mixed message where the thrill is both in that danger but also in the sexual way the girl fights back. As a result, it ends up conveying something along the lines of, “You might not be able to overpower me sexually, but if you could oh boy would you be having fun!” And even a sexual fantasy such as that is not a problem because it’s just fantasy, but if it’s being touted as an example of how female characters can be strong, then there should be no surprise if some readers reject that notion.

This is not to deny the use of dangerous situations for women in stories, nor do I think that stories need to “ignore” gender. Instead, what I want to emphasize is how showing someone is strong is a different experience from showing someone is strong with constant and persistent caveats to that notion.

On Powerful Female Characters

Seeing the comments I received on my post about strong female characters two days ago, I noticed that much of the difficulty in the discussion comes from people disagreeing on the very definition of the term (as is the case with so many anime arguments). Re-reading the examples given there and elsewhere, I’ve come to realize that the issue stems from the fact that when many people use the term “strong female character,” they actually mean “powerful female character.”

It’s a simple yet profound difference. Think about how you’d use the two words to describe a real person.

“That woman is strong.”

“That woman is powerful.”

It rings differently, doesn’t it? Power can refer to a number of things. Physical ability, political influence, knowledge, specialized skills, it all comes down something which gives a character the tools to do things better than others. But when you say someone is strong, you’re generally talking about something deeper inside, such as an iron resolve or strong convictions.

That’s not to say that just because a character is powerful can’t meant they’re strong or vice versa, of course. And many times a series can potentially undermine a strong character by intentionally or unintentionally placing emphasis on “power.” Even so, I think this is where most of the misunderstandings occur.

So I guess the real solution is to ask both questions.

What do you think of the status of strong female characters in anime and manga?

What do you think of the status of powerful female characters in anime and manga?

%d bloggers like this: