Women and Anime: A Deadly Project in Four Parts

The portrayal of women in media sucks. Let’s be straight, the vast majority of all protagonists are male, the women who make it into stories are often ineffectual or demeaned and sex still sells above all else. Now, anime is no different, and in some ways it’s worse than the 3D butts in Transformers: Dark of the Moon and the protective love men are supposed to have for Lara Croft. Yet, somehow, anime and manga have also turned out some fantastic gems that deal with gender roles in society that outclasses most American media.

My goal is to analyze four different anime, each of them showcasing a different perception of women in Japanese society. They are as follows: Mawaru Penguindrum (Spinning Penguindrum); Lupin III: The Woman Called Mine Fujiko; Ooku: The Inner Chambers; and High School of the Dead.

Now before anyone cries that I’m cherry picking certain series and skipping some others, I totally am. To be honest, I have a rather limited range when it comes to older anime. I do, however, know these series very well. For your consideration, I am skipping Miyazaki, who has fantastic female protagonists, but his movies don’t quite comment on women so much as he does a very good job at writing them.

Furthermore, I am well aware that High School of the Dead is a fetishistic mess of tits and guns. Its failure to portray women as anything except sex objects works as a great contrast to the others. In fact, I find portrayal of uncompromising masculine dominance to be as important to the discussion of women in media as the well-developed female characters featured in the other series.

Alright, we cool now? Good.

In each of these posts, I will take short succinct pieces from these series and demonstrate how the show succeeds (or fails) at modern gender dynamics and the overall message the show is trying to send regarding those dynamics. I’ll try to keep them short, though concision has never been a strength of mine.

Before I start the first passage, I think there needs to be some context for those who aren’t as familiar with anime or Japanese culture. I also want readers to know I am not trying to glorify anime as a medium. As I said, anime overall is no better than any other media. It has simply, by a combination of luck and cultural taste, managed to produce great commentaries on women in Japanese society. I’m going to be pretty reductive with this, and assume the reader knows close to nothing. If you already know a lot about Japanese society or anime, then I recommend you stop here or risk witnessing me fumble through a description of it.

American and Japanese societies differ from the balance between violence and sexuality. In America, over the top gun-toting violence is seen as typical of the American hero, and yet sexuality is either seen as juvenile or perverse. However, while there certainly is some overlap, the Japanese historically are far more obsessed with the body than the gun, and thus violence is seen as a personal affair between men, not an all out war or rebellion. If you’ve watched Dragon Ball Z or seen a samurai film, you’ll notice the fights are usually one on one, and the winner is victorious because of his inner moral victory, not just his physical strength or weapon. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, but generally, empowered by weapons to fight armies are a western ideal, empowered by the self to fight man to man is an eastern ideal.

For more on this, watch the following video. It’s not critical, but does a pretty good job at showing the history:

The Myth of the Gun

In any case, this bodily fixation leads to a beauty and ultimately sex fixation (the act thereof and of gender). Sex is also represented differently. Japan has a much larger focus on “cute” over “sexy.” The reasons behind this I don’t want to speculate on, but it’s a clear separation between cultures that permeates down to its fundamentals. In Japan, it’s called Kawaisa, and it has a long long long long history that goes back to the Tale of Genji written in the 11th century.

Again I’m trying to keep this short, so instead of trying to explain this all myself, I’ll show examples and quote someone who knows what they’re talking about:

Here are some construction signs in Japan that are cartoon animals:

And here’s a police station in the shape of an owl.

“Cuteness is not a concept limited to children in Japan, though it means childlike and sweet, happy and upbeat – and vulnerable, something to be taken care of and cuddled. Japanese adults are said to happily revert to such a state, and even macho truck drivers have cute mascots hanging from their mirrors.”

–         Merry White (The Material Child: Coming of Age in America and Japan)

In anime, kawaii characters, especially female characters, are called “moé.” If you’ve watched any amount of anime, you’ve encountered it and either love it, ignore it or hate it. For such a divisive yet all encompassing trope, moé is magnificently difficult to define. It can be a state of being for the viewer (lying on a pillow with a cute character on it is an example of moé). Or it can be a descriptor regarding a totality of a character’s actions (a cute girl tripping and falling is another example of moé). Moé is also a hobby as otaku (hardcore anime fans) will collect all the cute things surrounding a cute character.

Once again, let’s have a couple professionals explain.

Moe has to do with something more [than images], relating back to the idea of rorikon (sic) manga: the images and characters these otaku obsess about are more than likely characters that many would criticize as perpetuating this rorikon ideal. These images leave nothing to the imagination, not merely hinting at the idea of a young, sexualized girl. They are young girls with large eyes, short skirts, and are just “chô-kawaii.! But supporters of otaku culture, especially producers and distributors who rely on the booming moe market, in an effort to possibly disconnect from the negative connotation of these sexualized rorikon manga, claim that moe is radically different from rorikon, and specifically ero-manga or pornographic manga. Rorikon would have the reader wanting to consume the female lead as a sexual partner: Lolita requires sex. Moe, they claim, is more of a need to protect their beloved character. If rorikon images emphasize the sexual nature of young girls, moe emphasizes instead their innocence and virginity.”

–          Joseph Dela Pena (Otaku: Images and Identity in Flux)

Another thing I don’t want to get into but very quickly, “rorikon”, now more commonly romanized as lolicon, is the depiction of children, or child-like people, engaging in pseudo-sexual behaviour often involving adults. Basically, if a character looks twelve but is trying to have sex, that’s lolicon. Yep.

If you have some extra spare time, I also recommend you watch Japanorama’s piece on moé here:

To be clear, this is an extreme end of kawaisa, and as Dela Pena mentioned, it’s mainly an otaku thing. But the penchant for otaku to buy literally everything related to a cute character because of moé makes them a fairly large market, which has pushed for over the years quite a bit of pandering towards that demographic. Overall, this has the added effect of making female characters, who were already docile (and thus cuter) more infantile.

It’s a problem any anime fan encounters, though whether they choose to go with the flow or get enraged is up to them. Ultimately, however, this pandering is so pervasive it’s hard to escape. Here’s a couple shots from some popular mainstream series.

I mean


the fuck


I know what you’re doing guys.

This is starting to get annoying.

None of these, except the needlessly explicit Nisemonogatari, are overtly sexual, but they are supposed to make you feel protective and even pick one of the female leads as the one you (as a viewer) personally protect. I could go on a rant about how making women look infantile is bad and demeaning, but really, that’s obvious. My problem with moé is, it’s boring. The characters are the same. The stories are the same. And it has a shitty effect on the male characters, who become a Twilight-esque vacuum, waiting for the essentially male audience to project themselves into the vacant space.

My point is, through this rambling attempt to describe Japanese culture, anime has its own problems. These series I’m about to talk about are not the average, but deviation from the norm. I still love anime. Out of the series I showed, the one that probably looks the worst is Nisemonogatari, and I actually enjoy that show a lot. It’s just that particular scene (amongst many others) that disgusts me.

And that’s the basics to the sexuality in anime, and its main issues. There are quite a few other unique features to Japan when it comes to sex and femininity, but I’ll leave those to the specific series I’m going to discuss.

I unfortunately can’t guarantee any concrete schedule, but I will have the first part of my analysis, Mawaru Penguindrum, finished by the end of the week.

Posted on July 1, 2012, in Anime, Television and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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