Maria the Virgin Witch and Compulsory Sexuality

Trigger Warning for discussions of sexual violence.

2015 in anime started off right, with an unusually strong winter season. The winter season is usually the dumping-ground for bad light-novel adaptations and harem fanservice, and sure, there was plenty of that. But even before that got off the ground, there was strong hype for Yurikuma Arashi, the latest work by Utena and Penguindrum creator Kunihiko Ikuhara (and something I’m sure will get its own post), as well as new seasons for fan favorites like Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, Durarara!! and Tokyo Ghoul. (One of those supposedly didn’t live up to its hype, but that’s beside the point.) Even among the new stuff this season, there were a lot of strong choices. Unfortunately, all that hype meant some of the best of them were overshadowed for all but the most diehard anime-viewers.

Then again, looking at the way a lot of the Fandom Feminist Internet (and by that, I mainly mean Tumblr) has wildly misinterpreted Ikuhara’s anime that aren’t Utena, I’m kind of glad that they’re not watching Maria the Virgin Witch–another new show with similar criticisms of the patriarchy (but far less trippy symbolism). This show deals directly with female sexuality and society’s oppression of it in ways that aren’t necessarily relatable or comprehensible to the socially awkward, sex-starved nerds who tend to spend a lot of time obsessing over this online. (Speaking as such a nerd myself.) Maria’s protagonist is a victim of something that a lot of these women—and most white, privileged women in the West—don’t often deal with, but is much more common to other women’s experiences, and comes up a lot in anime for whatever reason. That topic is: compulsory sexuality.

maria the vw 2

I was first introduced to the concept of “compulsory sexuality” when I saw it come up a lot as a critique to white straight women’s conceptions of the virgin-whore dichotomy like Jessica Valenti’s The Purity Myth. Books like hers focus a lot on how much the patriarchy sucks for the women seen as virginal and pure, when they decide not to act that way. Yet, they tend to ignore what it’s like for women on the other end of the equation. When you’re seen as already having “destroyed” your innocence, through sexual or other “deviant” behavior, or you’re born into that category by virtue of being a racial or sexual minority, the purity myth looks very different. Instead of being expected to keep your legs shut at all times, now you aren’t allowed to close them ever. You have to be completely sexually available to men, and if you’re not there’s something wrong with you.

“You’re already a bad girl,” you’re told. “So why aren’t you a bad girl in the way that makes men happy? How dare you define it in your own terms?” It’s another way that society defines women purely in terms of who we are to men, and denies us any kind of sexual agency. Because it primarily affects marginalized categories of women, though, it doesn’t come up in Western media that much. But maybe it works differently in Japan, because it seems to come up over and over again in anime, from Revolutionary Girl Utena to new Lupin III series The Woman Called Fujiko Mine. Of these, Maria is probably the most direct about this topic.

maria the vw 3

Maria is, as the title implies, a witch. And a virgin, having focused all her time and energy on improving her magic. Her fellow witches, her owl sex-demons (yes, really), and…well, anyone who comes to know this about Maria, finds this juxtaposition highly unusual. As a woman who’s already on the outs with the church and its traditional ideas about female sexuality, why hasn’t she popped her cherry yet? Even though Maria is still a young teen, she’s constantly subject to pressure about why she doesn’t just lose her virginity yet. Supporters of the church see this as a way to either win her over to their side, or weaponize her sexuality against her. All this is set against the backdrop of the Hundred Years’ War: Maria is in France, which saw the bulk of the conflict’s death and destruction, and wishes to stop the fighting. Both the church and the warmongers themselves, as well as many local people who rely on both, are opposed to this. Maria is a girl ahead of her time, and her time had swift ways to deal punishment to those who stepped too far out of line that way. Especially women, and especially witches.

Maria’s being a witch is important, given the legacy of the trope in anime and in popular culture at large. “Witches” have long stood as warnings for girls who focus too much on themselves and not enough on domesticity or finding a husband: this is what you will turn into one day. Your power will corrupt you and make you evil, and you will be lonely with no husband or child to love. In anime specifically, the “magical girl” genre was inspired by the American show Bewitched, and many early magical girls were explicitly described as witches. Madoka Magica plays with this by having its innocent, sparkly magical girls corrupt into witches when consumed by the world’s despair (a theme more than a few people have interpreted as a feminist parable about female puberty). But perhaps the most important Anime Witch here is Anthy Himemiya from Utena.

anthy the witch

Utena is all about the patriarchy, and the way that it strictly prescribes roles for men and women, as “princes” or “princesses.” Everyone is either one of these things, or looks up to and wants to be like them. Anthy is the exception: the last woman who tried to usurp the prince role and failed, but less for masculine heroism (like Utena aspires to) and more to protect her brother. She wasn’t either role, but instead, a strange and uncomfortable merging of the two. For that blow against the system, refusal to follow its rules, she became a witch—and is constantly punished for it with the swords eating at her. She is the Other Woman, with no place even in the future her now patriarchy-corrupted brother promises Utena. Even before that finale, she had no agency in the world of Ohtori Academy, and it was all tied in with her compulsory sexuality. She was the spoils of whoever won the duels, and why shouldn’t she be? She was already ruined, so she didn’t get to say no. Anthy could only ever be cast aside in the perfect Ohtori world, ignored or turned into an object. So that’s how she was treated, and she was “evil” and “deviant” either way, and especially when she tried to find some small amount of agency in manipulation of others. (Hell, even the fandom buys into this.)

There are also shades of this type of female character in how Princess Tutu deals with its own “bad girl,” Rue. She is not a witch exactly, but a dark “magical girl” framed against a more “positive” one, as a way to critique these distinctions. Rue is actually very interested in a boy, but in a way deemed as too predatory, obsessive in the wrong ways. So Drosselmeyer casts her as the villain in his story, ignoring the pain in her life that’s made her the way she is. Once again, it’s because Rue doesn’t fit in the ideal world of Princess Tutu’s fairytale. Luckily, Tutu rejects Drosselmeyer’s divisions and reaches out to Rue, and they all find a happily ever after in a newer, more just world.

All of these characters inform Maria, and both our perception of her as audience members, and how she’s treated in our world. She, too, is punished for a strange combination of an accident of birth, and her choice to color outside the lines.

Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 7.36.20 AM

On the topic of witches, I should say it’s meaningful that this particular feminist critique is set during the Late Middle Ages. Though the Middle Ages in general are often associated with “witch hunts” and burning, it was really only at the very end of the period, moving into the Renaissance, when they became a widespread phenomenon. The publication of infamous witch-hunting manual Malleus Maleficarum in the late 1400s, aided by the recent invention of the printing press, ignited the early modern “witch craze” or at least, spread it like wildfire. Maria is set right before the beginning of this hideous, misogynistic stain on European history, and I can’t help but think the historical placement is intentional. The women who were punished by it were those in similar positions to the witches of Maria’s world and the aforementioned anime worlds: those outside of society, or at least the traditional roles of maiden or wife. As the Reformation spread around Europe and more formerly-Catholic areas turned Protestant, similar ideas were used to attack and marginalize nuns, particularly ones who weren’t so eager to sacrifice even their limited education and authority for rushed, forced Protestant marriages. “Witch crazes” were ammo in both the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, and for those movements’ discontents.

Of course, the characters’ attitudes toward female sexuality aren’t just late-medieval with regard to witches, but women in general. The period’s great “thinkers” debated whether women were naturally “purer” than men or…get this…”more promiscuous.” And when we were the latter, female sexuality was seen as innately dangerous and predatory. There’s a reason that succubi show up way more in folklore and popular culture than incubi. They were the greater threat, since the people who believed in this stuff saw women as more erotically-driven. After all, women were believed to be less intelligent than men, and therefore more easily tempted by baser desires. It’s a view that shows up in female sexuality through the end of the 18th century, only really going away with the advent of Victorian sexual attitudes…but even that really only applied to privileged women. The “women are more sexual” ideal just went underground, applied only to women society had deemed “degenerate” in another way. In both cases, the “looser” sexuality of women was seen as more reason for men to control them.

maria the vw 1

Of course, one of the reasons why some women do fiercely guard their sexuality is the high personal cost if things go wrong. In the era before widespread contraception and safe, accessible abortions, casual sex was fraught with peril for independent, career-driven women. If you got pregnant, say goodbye to any other goals you might have: your job now was to take care of your baby. It also often meant swift marriage to its father, who legally owned you and controlled your entire life. Society still hasn’t fully moved past this—our society still isn’t comfortable with women who prioritize their careers over raising a family—but it was far worse in Maria’s time.

The show has a useful analogue to this, too: Maria will lose her magical powers when she loses her virginity, thanks to the meddling archangel Michael. This not only keeps her from getting together with the boy she wants (Joseph), but also makes her an easy mark for the church once they learn her secret. Raping Maria shuts her up, and leaves her powerless and no threat to them. Sexual violence has been weaponized against women who step out of line throughout the centuries, but especially in times when effective contraception and safe abortions were nonexistent. It’s a metaphor that hits a little too close-to-home for many women.

So like Penguindrum before it, I can easily see people dismissing Maria’s feminist credentials for that plot point. Sensitively portrayed though it may be, using sexual violence to advance the plot cuts too close for many, and it’s also poorly handled in just about every other show. But to me, that’s all the more reason Maria deserves kudos for getting it right. Maria is indeed a feminist anime, for the poignant and direct way it engages with the pitfalls of female sexuality in a deeply patriarchal culture. It’s a testament to how great this season of anime is that I can say that. We thought we were blessed just by getting a new Ikuhara show, and Yurikuma Arashi has hit it out of the park consistently with its portrayal of lesbian oppression in Japan. For once, though, there’s more than one feminist-minded, woman-centric anime to choose from among currently airing shows. Do yourself a favor and give them both a look.

Advertisements

Hearts and Minds: Empathy, War, and the Problem of Us vs. Them

What I value most about history and film, my two favorite subjects in the world, is their ability to generate empathy. There’s a great Roger Ebert quote from the documentary Life Itself that comes to mind: “… for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.” Films and history can give voices to the voiceless and expose different sides of the dominant voice. On the flip side, films and history can reinforce false narratives to keep the voiceless oppressed and the dominant voice unchallenged. Films as recent as Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper reinforce the narrative of the savage enemy and the heroic American who puts them down. American Sniper was the second-highest grossing R-rated film ever, so clearly there was a demand for it, and those demanding it voiced their racist opinions about Arabs after seeing the film. It’s propaganda fanning the flames of nationalism and racism. However, film’s empathy-generating power can counter propaganda. Hearts and Minds is one of those essential examples of counter-propaganda.

Hearts and Minds is a Vietnam War documentary that depicts Vietnamese victims of war, the soldiers that bombed and poisoned them, the politicians and generals that told them to do so, and the American people’s attitude towards the war. The Vietnam War is remembered as America’s first real loss in a war, when people bother to remember it. Hearts and Minds shows in an interview with Captain Randy Floyd, a pilot whom ran 98 bombing missions in Vietnam, asking him what we’ve learned from Vietnam, he says “I think we’re trying not to.” 1974 was the year before the Vietnam War was truly over, and folks were already trying to unlearn everything they learned.

Some of those who chose to remember tried to justify their actions in Vietnam. One could take the side of Lt. George Coker, an American POW who appears in the film speaking at several conventions about his experiences as a POW and his views on patriotism. Several times Coker says things like “I was what you made to be.” He says this in front of young Catholic students and elderly women. He unflinchingly uses the word “gook” to describe the Vietnamese. He dehumanizes not only the North Vietnamese Army and Vietcong, but also the South Vietnamese by calling all Vietnamese backwards. This attitude comes directly from the top. General William Westmoreland tells director Peter Davis “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.” This scene is juxtaposed with a gut-wrenching Vietnamese funeral for a man most likely killed by American bombs or napalm. Hearts and Minds takes the side of the Vietnamese as victims of a foreign invasion, but in order to do so effectively it must document those invaders. We must understand the oppressors if we want to work against oppression, but not excuse them.

It’s important to note that in depicting Vietnam as a victim, Hearts and Minds also avoids infantilizing the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese knew what was happening when American soldiers sprayed poison and napalm to destroy their crops and jungles. The South Vietnamese government was complicit in these actions because they benefited from the corporations and power America gave them. American companies like Ford, Coca-Cola, and Bank of America were setting up shop in capitalist South Vietnam. There’s a scene featuring the political leaders of Saigon having a lavish dinner party in a country club telling crude jokes about women. One of the leaders asks them to stop so they don’t look ridiculous in front of the camera. If there’s a flaw in Hearts and Minds, it’s the depiction of the North Vietnamese Army. That is to say they’re barely featured in the film. It’s understandable that Peter Davis would have an easier time filming in America and South Vietnam, but it would have been nice if the film could have presented a more complete picture of Vietnam. What Davis captured of Vietnam is still impressive and helps to understand the mindset of the South Vietnamese contrasted with the Vietnamese refugees. It demystifies Vietnam as the “Oriental” Other that General Westmoreland saw them as.

We justify acts of atrocity all the time as heroic or necessary. We had to accept Vietnam as a loss, but many refused to see the war as wrong. Ronald Reagan tried to justify the war with this speech in 1980 at a Veterans convention: “It is time we recognized that ours was, in truth, a noble cause.  A small country newly free from colonial rule sought our help in establishing self-rule and the means of self-defense against a totalitarian neighbor bent on conquest.  We dishonor the memory of 50,000 young Americans who died in that cause when we give way to feelings of guilt as if we were doing something shameful, and we have been shabby in our treatment of those who returned.  They fought as well and as bravely as any Americans have ever fought in any war.  They deserve our gratitude, our respect, and our continuing concern.” Note the language used. Vietnam was “newly free from colonial rule” and “sought our help… against a totalitarian neighbor bent on conquest.” This is the same rhetoric used by America to today to justify wars in the Middle East. We coat our ignorance of foreign affairs in the language of a savior of the weak. However, Vietnam was not “free from colonial rule.” The Vietnamese refugees saw Americans as colonists. The only difference between the French and Americans was the language they spoke and the companies they built.

I believe in respecting veterans, but I also believe in criticizing our involvement in war. I believe it is necessary to understand both sides of the conflict. We must not paint these narratives as black-and-white us vs. them politics. That leads to dangerous propaganda like American Sniper, which fuels hatred of Arabs and Muslims by depicting American murder of them as heroic. This kind of narrative not only affects movies, it affects video games as well. One of the writers on Battlefield Hardline recently said “I wrote one about this guy getting back together with his ex-girlfriend. Someone on the team pointed out that ‘hey idiot, this is someone you are about to shoot in the head, not deliver flowers to,’ so we decided, let’s not go down that route. We had to cut out the dialog and make it more informative. We had to make sure the bad guys felt like bad guys so the player isn’t as emotionally conflicted about the gameplay.” This is an admittance of removing empathy from the narrative, because empathy would make it less enjoyable for the player to murder people. To get back to Vietnam, think of how the Best Picture winner The Deer Hunter portrays the Vietcong. The Vietcong are depicted as sadists that enjoy forcing American POWs to play Russian roulette. The film is willing to show Americans as complex and empathetic, but unwilling to extend that same empathy to the Vietnamese.

We must take care in how we portray all sides in any conflict. Not all sides are equally valid, of course. Modern hate groups like GamerGate should never be given the same legitimacy as the women they harass. Understanding does not excuse atrocities, but it can help us deal with atrocities. Films like Hearts and Minds resist the simplicity of the black-and-white narrative that we are spoon-fed in films like American Sniper. Whether you’ve studied the history of Vietnam in-depth or not, Hearts and Minds is a must-see. It’s one of the best documentaries I’ve seen, and appeals to my desire for empathy.

Q&A: Seeing Myself in Yurikuma Arashi

I’ve often thought about putting some of my ask.fm answers on my blog, either compiling related ones I’ve already answered, or turning longer ones into a single post here. I liked the way Bobduh has done this on his blog, and figured it would help me create more frequent content. But for whatever reason, I never got around to it–until now. Because one of you asked me a really good question, but my answer went over ask.fm’s word limit. And by God if I was gonna let that stop me from giving this the thorough answer it deserved.

Here’s the question: Are there parts of Yurikuma [Arashi] which resonate with you as a bi woman? I am a cis homosexual woman myself and find the characters too “moe-infantalised” to find attractive, but I do identify with their experiences. I am just interested in your opinion. yurikuma for blog 2 And my answer:

One thing that resonates with me a lot about Yurikuma is the way social exclusion is used to enforce the heterosexist status quo, since “being made fun of even more by the other kids” was a big reason why I suppressed my attraction to girls as a teenager. My parents were perfectly accepting and I didn’t give a shit about religion; it’s because I was already weird, already being teased and I didn’t want more of that. yurikuma for blog 5 Another thing is the way that it blurs the line between friendship and romance. I’ve seen a lot of criticism for that but I think it’s absolutely intentional and ties in with the show’s themes, and it’s also something particular to the queer female experience (as in, it’s less true for gay and bisexual men, since the line between “platonic” and “romantic” affection with guys more strictly enforced). Even here, where we don’t have the weird Class S baggage per se that Japanese culture has about lesbians, female friendships can be very affectionate and it’s often hard to know if your interest in another girl crosses that line–and easily to deny it if it does. I had an inkling even at 13 that how I felt about certain other girls–being unable to stop looking at them in class, fantasizing about being close to them, feeling this powerful yearning to be around them all the time–was not that different from my crushes on boys. But because I didn’t want to believe it, it was easy to pretend it was just a “strong friendship” feeling. Which I think Yurikuma captures well with the way that all these girls who are clearly in love with each other keep referring to their girlfriends as “my special friend” or “best friend” or whatever.

(Two things that make this worse that also don’t apply to men: Girls spend a lot of time looking at each other to compare and compete (that part in the movie But I’m A Cheerleader where Megan realizes she’s looking at other girls for different reasons than everyone else also resonated with me). Also, while boys are implicitly encouraged to do things like look at porn and otherwise try to explore and understand their sexualities, girls are not or even actively discouraged from doing so. That stuff can confuse even straight girls, so of course it compounds the problem further when you have a minority sexuality. In parentheses because that’s getting off-topic from Yurikuma specifically, but I thought was worth noting anyway.) yurikuma for blog 3 I also found some of the sexy parts titillating in spite of the girls’ “moe” appearance, and in a way that kind of illuminated for me why a lot of anime doesn’t do that for me. There’s a noticeable difference between portrayal of lesbian sexuality for actual lesbians (or bi women, in my case), and for straight men where you don’t want to disrupt their entitlement to watch or otherwise be a part of it. Something about Yurikuma’s sexuality is very “NO BOYS ALLOWED” and a lot closer to the ways that lesbians actually have sex (that probably seem kinda gross to the straight guys who fetishize us). That might just be my impression, but the fact that the Sakura Trick fanboys seem really uncomfortable with Yurikuma would appear to back it up. (And man, does their rage warm my heart.)

I don’t know how Ikuhara does it, what pact he’s made with the Lesbian Goddesses or whatever. But he’s consistently the best at depicting the lesbian experience in film, in spite of not living it himself. Certainly way better than Actual Lesbian Ilene Chaiken, anyway.