Caitlin posted the slides from our joint panel at this year’s Otakon, covering female creative staff in anime. Check it out! We could use some feedback, as we had 20 minutes left and would like to make it longer for future panels.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
This is an entry from my old Tumblr (the one I deleted about a month ago). I was requested to make this available again, so I dug it out of my archives and reposted it. I first wrote this on February 5, 2014.
I’ve thought a lot about what frustrates me about social justice conversations about media on Tumblr, and something that Gabbo articulated in response to a post I made about FMA (of course) keeps coming back to me. It’s not just that the social-justice conversations push out every other way of analyzing media – though that’s part of it – but the way people are talking about it. They’re making representation arguments, and not thematic arguments.
Representation and “strong female characters” are important, but it’s frequently a very…surface-y way of looking at a narrative. It’s also primarily a systematic problem, rather than an issue with one particular narrative. Even one or two “badass” female/POC/LGBTQ characters doesn’t necessarily mean a show is overall progressive, which usually has far more to do with its themes. So, you see people using the “representation” argument to completely miss the real point of the story with regard to social-justice narratives…in both directions. There’s plenty of using it to beat up on a fairly progressive story, and using it to applaud a more reactionary one.
But perhaps what’s most frustrating is when those things line up, and there is a good feminist reading to be had but… people won’t talk about other than “it has badass ladies!” Like with anime, I think the only ones where I’ve seen a lot of discussion on how it promotes feminism through its themes are ones where it’s really obvious, like Revolutionary Girl Utena or Sailor Moon. Otherwise, it’s all about “this has great ladies you should watch it because ladies!” which is just the tip of the iceberg.
One such example of this is Princess Tutu. I’ve gone back and forth on whether I consider it a “feminist” anime, since for me, that definition requires actually focusing on issues related to gender roles and sexism, not merely having good female characters. Ahiru and Rue are great, don’t get me wrong, but writing women well and focusing on their stories seems like something we should expect from media, not something that gets you a gold star. But as I’ve delved more into the themes of Princess Tutu in working on my thesis, I’ve discovered there is a lot there to qualify it for a feminist reading. It’s not as explicit as it is with something like Utena, but it’s there.
(ETA: SPOILER ALERT FOR THE ENTIRE SERIES)
For example, there’s the issue of “agency” and how it’s denied to women by a patriarchal society that dictates our choices. I’m not a fan of how the concept gets distorted on Tumblr, as you know, but it is an important issue. Princess Tutu is all about the characters in the story regaining it from the writer who controls them from beyond the grave. Drosselmeyer could easily be read as a patriarchal figure and so the characters’ struggle against him, to be allowed to design their own fates rather than fit into his boxes, is a feminist one. I don’t know if that’s what I would argue, since two of those four main characters are male (including the one with the overall least amount of agency throughout the story, Mytho), but then again… someone could counter that saying that Mytho’s and Fakir’s arcs show how patriarchy can hurt men, too.
More of what I’d say would be from the “weaponized femininity” angle: again, another idea that gets distorted a lot on Tumblr, but which I think is pretty awesome when that’s really what’s going on… and I strongly believe that is the case with Princess Tutu. This anime is a truly genuine case of a feminine-coded “compassionate” value system triumphing over masculine-coded “aggressive” one. Ahiru heals people through the Power of Love, expressed through dance. Rue’s crowning moment is about compassion and sacrifice, and about learning what genuine love is and that she is both deserving of it and capable of giving it to others. But it doesn’t end there. Because the thing that makes Princess Tutu really and truly feminist in my mind, and that makes it a shining example of “weaponized femininity” is that this – get this – isn’t limited to the girls!
A lot of what bothers me about how (distortion of) the “weaponized femininity” concept is used on Tumblr is that it is gender-essentialism (so, a type of sexism) dressed up in a progressive veneer. People are so quick to talk about how awesome it is that this or that female character is admirable and courageous but still girly, but still a non-combatant… and ignore that the boys are still being praised and held up as role models for their masculine combativeness. The boys are still marching off to battle while the girls stay home. They’re not praising femininity, they’re praising fitting within your gender role. And that’s not progressive and it’s certainly not feminist, no matter how you slice it.
But Princess Tutu doesn’t do that. Its weaponized femininity, its uplifting of feminine-coded values like compassion and sacrifice and that someone can be a lover and accomplish just as much as a fighter, extends to the boys. It’s truly committed to upholding peace and compassion and creativity, all those things that make up feminine-coded “ethics of care”, over masculine-coded aggression. Both its boys have some shades of this – Mytho can only become the heroic prince through gaining his heart back, after all, and through his friends’ compassion – but the big one here is Fakir.
If it’s not obvious, Fakir is my favorite character in Princess Tutu. I’ve joked it’s because his superpower is writing, which is what I do best, but it’s more than that. Fakir’s arc is about him embracing his identity as a lover, not a fighter, and realizing his talents and abilities matter even if they aren’t the ones that he’s been told they should be. His “place” in Drosselmeyer’s story is as the knight, destined to protect the princess (Ahiru) with his sword. (And die in the process, because Drosselmeyer’s an asshole who doesn’t care if he wastes the potential of the best fucking character in the entire damn story.) But Fakir’s not very good at being a knight, and he doesn’t really want to be one except that he’s told that that’s what he’s expected to do. More or less, Fakir can be read as an example of how boys are hemmed-in by gender roles, too, since the patriarchy tries to force him to be a masculine combatant that he’s just not.
Fakir’s arc in the second half of the show is all about embracing his real talents, which are about creativity. It turns out he has a real knack for writing, and a rare gift that he can change the fates of his friends and himself by putting pen to paper. Ah, there’s that classic adage about the limited power of war and aggression: the pen is mightier than the sword! That’s Fakir. And it’s in using this power that he’s ultimately able to help save Gold Crown Town.
(Oh, and we can also go on about how much he, like Rue, realizes his talents through love – realizes it through his love for Ahiru – but I’m not going to turn this essay into gushing about my OTP. I won’t, I won’t!)
So through Fakir, we see that our culture’s bias toward masculinity and masculine-coded types of conflict-resolution hurts everyone, and femininity and feminine-coded values are presented as liberation for everyone. It’s not about fitting in with gender roles, because femininity is valued across the board. And it is only through embracing that femininity that our characters can fight those trying to destroy and control them, so it is truly weaponized.
I’m not a huge fan of “difference feminism” (where this “promote feminine values” stuff comes from) a lot of the time, but I do agree that the bias against the feminine in our society is a reflection of society’s bias against women, and as such, it hurts women even if they’re more masculine. And it hurts men, too, in how it discourages them from understanding the women around them, and forces them to try to be someone they’re not if they have any feminine qualities. Princess Tutu‘s embrace of femininity as a source of power is, thus, subversive and feminist.
But we never get to talk about this when we make issues of social-justice all about representation. It’s important, but the issue of whether a work as a whole is progressive or not should really come down to its ideas, its themes… what it teaches people. And it’s not only because focusing on representation only can give undue credit to not-so-progressive works, but that we rob the ones that are doing it right of what is truly interesting about them, why they are doing it right. And one of those is Princess Tutu.
That said, even Princess Tutu has way more to it than just how it deals with feminism, and those conversations are getting pushed to the wayside, too. But I have to save that shit for my thesis…
One of the weirder aspects of my engagement with anime fandom this year was the Twitter/Tumblr firestorm over Kill la Kill. The show began last year, but I didn’t really start watching it until the end of the fall season. I’d seen people go nuts over it on Tumblr, as well as get furiously angry at its fanservice and other perceived offenses. I figured there had to be something to this show to attract so much controversy, so I checked it out.
Kill la Kill is many things, among those being bombastic, weird, and certainly like nothing else out there. I mean, it’s a story about sentient pieces of clothing that threaten humanity, and the scissor-blade-wielding quasi-magical-girl who stands up against them. It’s been compared to everything from Gurren Lagann to Evangelion (but what anime isn’t compared to the latter in some way), but none of this really explains Kill la Kill. There are some things Kill la Kill decidedly isn’t, though. One of those is “deep”—despite any indications it may have been leaning there during its run, it didn’t make anything of them. All that was sacrificed in service of its fun-loving heart.
Another of those things is “feminist” or “anti-feminist.” Kill la Kill indulges in a lot of over-the-top fanservice, that made me feel a bit icky whenever I had to look at Ryuko’s cameltoe in her transformation sequences. It also has some moments of questionable use of sexual assault imagery, as with Satsuki being fondled by her mother—though, I never felt that they were outright tasteless, and they served a narrative purpose in showing how imprisoned and helpless Ragyo made her. Yet, the series still seems to fundamentally respect its female characters, and gives them equal development and prominence to the male ones. In fact, most of its important characters are female. This is certainly not a rule against an anime being sexist (as the “battle vixens” genre proves) and Kill la Kill plays a lot to the male gaze, but it rarely felt truly exploitative (or at least, no more than every other aspect of the show). I found a lot to enjoy from its portrayal of women as a feminist anime fan.
This series became a lightning rod for feminist debate on the Internet, and it was incredibly polarized. Either you thought Kill la Kill was the next Utena or a “female Evangelion,” or some sort of deep metaphor for female puberty (here’s where I have to stifle a laugh)… or you thought it was misogynistic, rape-apologist trash. It got pretty ugly and personal on both sides, with those who disliked it being accused of “looking for things to dislike,” and those who liked it in turn hearing that they were “just making excuses” and being unable to admit they “liked problematic things.” I thought there was a lot of confirmation bias on both ends—I know I was a little too quick to believe some of the pro-KLK theories I heard, and I’ll never for the life of me understand what some people’s big issue with episode 3 is—but also some intelligent arguments that it was frustrating to see so easily dismissed. The whole time, I couldn’t help but think it was odd to see so many people taking an anime incredibly seriously that doesn’t take itself remotely seriously.
It was also a strange place for me to be since, then and now, I never really had a strong feeling either way about Kill la Kill . That goes for the series’ overall quality, not just in terms of its “feminism” and whatnot. It’s a very visually-inventive and entertaining anime, with a really fun cast of characters. Yet, it never really captured my heart the way it did others. I found the first half hard to get through (and I marathoned most of it), and even the more engaging latter half never made me feel as emotionally-invested as my friends were. However, I seem to be pretty much the only person (apart from Bobduh) with such a middling reaction to this show. For whatever reason, it draws strong opinions.
Which I find very interesting, as Kill la Kill certainly doesn’t seem to be made with that in mind. It’s like a non-stop party, meant to be a rollicking good battling time and little else. Yet, if you were following anime in the winter of 2014, you couldn’t escape hearing people discuss everything I’ve mentioned and more: Is Kill la Kill good or bad? Does it treat its female characters well or not? Does Mako belong with Ryuko or Gamagoori? And above all: what does it mean? The series appeared to answer the last one for us: it didn’t mean much of anything, and it didn’t have to. It’s not meant to inspire so much thought and reflection. It only wants to entertain you.
The endless Kill la Kill debates were an interesting time in anime fandom for me, as they made me realize a lot of why I disliked the discussions around feminism in media online. Fandom is all about personal investment in media, and too often, that gets mixed in when those same people try to critique it. That goes both ways, too—plenty of the people I saw reading offensiveness into Kill la Kill in places where it wasn’t, seemed to be justifying other issues they had with the show (perfectly legitimate ones, I might add). Let those conversations be a lesson for 2015, to be more honest about what we’re trying to say when we talk about feminism and other fraught issues in media. And maybe consider whether the work we’re looking at is really engaging with these issues (or any) in the first place.
So, I think pretty much everyone knows at this point that I’m a huge Sailor Moon fan. I’ve seen most of the 1992 anime, and read the entire manga. I’ve even seen the live-action series, in fact. It’s a story I’d say I know pretty damn well, which meant I was pretty psyched when I found out about this year’s new anime and North American re-release of the old one. And I was pretty bummed when it all fell apart.
I could detail the problems with Sailor Moon Crystal endlessly—in fact, I already have—but I’m not sure if I need to at this point. As fun as it initially was just to have a new Sailor Moon anime to watch, it’s degraded to the point where it’s more of a slog than something I eagerly anticipate. It’s not even fun as a hatewatch unless you’re a diehard for the franchise. Which I am, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating. Crystal’s problems now go far beyond the poor animation and soulless delivery, because it’s progressed to actively disrespecting the source material. It’s making the story all about underdeveloped romances instead of the girls’ strong friendships and emotional journeys that earned it its fanbase. Its theme song may say “we don’t need the protection of men” but week after week, the girls fall apart when they don’t have it. In truth, I think a manga reboot might never have caught on as widely as I’d originally hoped, since the manga is far more standard shojo-fare than the more creative, quirky 1992 anime. Yet the Crystal anime waters down and cuts up the manga as well, leaving just a shallow husk. If this is really what Naoko Takeuchi wanted out of a Sailor Moon anime…then I can’t help but be glad she didn’t get her way the first time around, you know?
The mistakes on the Viz re-release just compounded the despair, after the old series’ return became such a hope spot for those of us frustrated with Crystal. Even so, at least its Hulu streaming schedule allowed me to revisit one of my favorite childhood shows, and the show that first got me into anime. Sailor Moon’s filler arcs are a lot less fun and more trying as an adult, but I was still pleasantly surprised by how much fun its creators had within that premise. There was clearly a lot of love and talent put into that old series, that shines through even in its most lackluster episodes. And it has its strong characters and relationships between them that captivated me at age six and still do now. It kept me watching every week as new episodes were put out…for a while, anyway.
2014 being the “year of Sailor Moon” meant that before I started writing for ANN, when I was writing for feminist/queer pop-culture media, that was basically all they would let me cover for a while. I was the “anime person” and that was the anime-of-interest for that crowd. It was hard out here for a Moonie this year, and the constant strivings and disappointments made me more than a little burned-out. I think it finally culminated when the disappointing reviews of the Viz release started coming in last month. I was in the middle of the R season’s dire Doom Tree arc, and just so fed up with stressing over that show that I had to put my re-watch on hold. I love the franchise, but even I can only take so much—especially when, at the end of the day, it’s a kids’ show that probably doesn’t deserve its mantle of That One Really Feminist/Queer Anime to casual anime fans.
Yeah, I said it. Sailor Moon is fun, empowering for little girls, and can be quite inventive in the hands of directors and writers like Kunihiko Ikuhara, Junichi Sato, Yoji Enokido and others. And yet… maybe it’s the burnout talking, but it endlessly frustrates me that this seems to be the only girl-targeted anime that the larger feminist and queer Internet wants to talk about at all. Non-anime fans know about plenty of boy-targeted shows—Pokemon, Dragonball, Naruto, maybe even Fullmetal Alchemist or Death Note—but seem to think Sailor Moon is the only girls’ show of note. It deserves that discussion about how it’s feminist and empowering and just quality girl-centered entertainment, but it always comes with the implicit assumption that it’s exceptional among anime in that regard. Even though every single one of those guys I mentioned who were involved with Sailor Moon have given us more interesting shojo series since then.
Sailor Moon’s dealings with gender are barely the tip of the feminism iceberg. Yeah, the 1992 anime creators certainly snuck in some social commentary on consumerism and restrictive fashion trends in-between the battles. Yeah, it has a wide variety of female characters, some of them even queer and gender non-conforming. But at the end of the day, Sailor Moon’s “feminist” message is mostly just that girls can be badass and do the rescuing of their love interests, not just be rescued. That’s it. There’s a lot more to feminism than that, and a lot more that media can say about it. Far from anime purely reflecting an antiquated patriarchal value system, Japan has produced quite a lot of cartoons that delve deep into the issues with restrictive gender roles, from Revolutionary Girl Utena to the works of Sayo Yamamato. There’s also anime’s (and especially the josei genre’s) tradition of strong coming-of-age stories about women that reflect gendered problems, like Paradise Kiss.
Those other works are far more challenging, and worthy of more attention and analysis, than is the so-called “weaponized femininity” of Sailor Moon and other magical-girl shows. Telling little girls they’re powerful is great, but it shouldn’t stop there. And Sailor Moon does pretty much stop there: it doesn’t do much to interrogate gender roles other than suggesting they’re too based in consumerism that can be taken advantage of, and shouldn’t be compulsory. Girls should be allowed to choose how boyish or girlish they want to be. But when Usagi confronts Jadeite over him using jewelry or fitness centers to dupe girls, it’s usually with a message that the underlying thing is good, and him using it is bad. That’s a far cry from Revolutionary Girl Utena’s doctrine that we’re all incubated from birth in this system, that both masculinity and femininity are toxic, and only through burning it all down–“smashing the egg’s shell”–can we break free:
Not that I expect a show for little girls to advocate for radical feminism and “world revolution.” But maybe that’s why us grown adults shouldn’t put those little girls’ shows on a pedestal. It is kind of amazing to me that so many American pop-culture writers think this is really the furthest that anime goes when it comes to feminism (and is just one example among many of the reductive ways that Americans essentialize and oversimplify non-Western cultures and their approaches to progressive issues).
I really love Sailor Moon, and I know it played a big part in my own feminist and queer awakening. I just wish that the feminist conversation on anime didn’t so often stop there. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing that the year of Sailor Moon was a bust. Maybe Sailor Moon just doesn’t work as well in 2014 as it did in 1992. Maybe it’ll give feminists who are casual anime fans the boost to move on, and explore the larger world of anime about women, for women.
So, first of all, news: I’ve started writing for Anime News Network! I got a position there this summer writing episodic reviews, then of Black Butler: Book of Circus, and now continuing into the fall season. You can read episode-by-episode reviews from me on Rage of Bahamut: Genesis, Shirobako and Your Lie in April each week over there. I’m really enjoying it–but all that does mean, however, that I don’t feel much investment in continuing my round-ups of each anime season on this blog.
Instead, I’m just going to write about and analyze whatever strikes my fancy, and I’m starting with what might be an odd choice, but should hopefully make more and more sense as I go on. Ouran High School Host Club chewed up my heart and spit it out when I first watched it this past summer, as well as making me laugh really freaking hard. It fully earned its spot as one of my all-time favorite anime, and as one of my obsessions for the next several months. But of course, I’ve seen plenty of “good anime comedies with heart” before: Azumanga Daioh, the better episodes of Hetalia, and so on. (Or this summer’s surprise hit, Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun, although that’s more the sort of exemplar title that deserves its own series of posts.) And I enjoyed them, but never on this level. What makes Ouran so special?
Well…there are a lot of reasons, but a lot of them boil down to its protagonist: Haruhi Fujioka.
Shojo anime–especially of the “reverse harem” variety where Ouran sits quite comfortably–revels in romantic wish-fulfillment. That usually means, however, a fairly weak female protagonist to soak up all the boys’ attentions. I don’t mean “weak” just in the sense of actual power, though she usually is that, too. But I mean weak as character. She has to be a vague fantasy for girls reading to slot themselves into, so they can easily imagine themselves in the story. Think Twilight here, since Bella Swan is a perfect example of this sort of character. Or think the dreaded fanfiction term “Mary Sue”–which has been rightly criticized for its sexism and how the Internet is eager to apply it to any female character aimed primarily at female audiences, but the characters themselves (the ones who actually fit the criteria) are rarely all that progressive, either.
Criticism of the “Mary Sue” concept points out that there are plenty of these for male readers, too, and that’s certainly true. And it’s especially true in genre fiction, like comic books and anime are. Heck, anime today is filled with male wish-fulfillment protagonists, from Kirito in Sword Art Online to Inaho in Aldnoah Zero: non-descript dudes where the point is their non-descriptness, that they get to be “badass” and the (male) viewer can imagine himself in their “badass” place, too. It says a whole lot, though, that that’s the fantasy that boys supposedly want, and that the equivalent for girls is to be waited on and protected by boys. (And again, this is hardly purely due to “Japanese gender roles”–YA in the West is full of this thing, too. Patriarchy can work surprisingly similarly across cultures.) And the personality traits go with this too, when the characters have any–the guys being powerful, the girls being meek icons of traditional femininity.
Haruhi is different from the get-go: she’s introduced looking like a boy (and being mistaken as one by the Host Club), and a rather awkward, dowdy one at that. She’s covered up in a baggy sweater and big glasses. It’s in this…“disguise” that she’s recruited for the Host Club, as the boys (and especially the clueless Tamaki) mistake her for one of their own. She’s surprisingly comfortable with this, as Haruhi has never been one to care much for either looks or gender roles. She says outright that gender is irrelevant to her conception of people and her own identity, so she doesn’t care if the student body thinks she’s male. She cut her hair short because she got gum in it and, at the end of the day, it didn’t matter to her: it was “just hair.”
This is pretty revolutionary on its own, especially for shojo, but there’s even more to her refreshing personality than that. Most shojo heroines are meek and sweet, going along merrily with the antics of the pretty boys around them. Haruhi’s reactions are… to laugh. Or roll her eyes. Or make sarcastic comments. As in, the way most people would to the over-the-top antics of one Tamaki Suoh:
It makes her that much more relatable and real to audiences watching–especially to female audiences, who are used to being represented in these by bland, cutesy ciphers. Haruhi’s still plenty cute, of course–and still totally has her pick of the boys in the host club, who all love her to bits–but her personality packs a punch, both in uniqueness and emotional resonance. She’s the kind of girl you actually want to root for here for who she is, not just what she represents.
It’s easy to see Ouran, then, as the sort of work that people think appeals to its female audience for the boys, when the girls are actually more key to the series’ success. Shojo reverse harems are full of pretty boys organized into “types” for girls to fawn over (though, of course, Ouran’s are better-written than most). When it comes to the characters, though, Haruhi is what makes the series unique. Not many shojo heroines are actually interesting people you’d want to be like beyond just in terms of getting you boys. Not many react to the ridiculousness of their situation with emotional honesty. And when ones adds in Haruhi’s rejection of traditional gender roles and side-eye toward societal expectations in general, she’s really more like the anti-shojo heroine–much more like the caustic female characters you’d find in more guy-oriented manga, but minus the fanservice, and with more emotional depth to allow other female readers to relate to her. It’s no wonder that she’s the series’ most popular character.
In this sense, Ouran is a lot like the appeal that, say, Jane Austen’s novels have on women, and Haruhi like many of her wittier, more spirited protagonists. I was actually inspired to write this by an article at The A.V. Club about the history of Pride and Prejudice adaptations. It explains that when P&P adaptations go wrong, it’s in assuming the book’s appeal is purely due to female wish-fulfillment, of getting courted by sexy guys. That’s certainly not nothing, but most women who really love and understand Austen’s work don’t actually want to live in that world. (That’s where it and Ouran differ–I would love to live in the Host Club’s world. I’d be first in line at Music Room 3.) And more importantly, her female characters tend to be more of a draw than the boys. Plenty of books from Austen’s era have brooding hunks, but most of them don’t have a Lizzy Bennet. Women read Pride and Prejudice for her as much as, if not more than, for Darcy. And likewise: we watch and read Ouran for Haruhi as much as, if not more than, our favorite boy(s) in her reverse harem.
All this makes Haruhi as a character, and Ouran as a larger work, seem like a feminist revelation, but there’s plenty to criticize about her and Ouran on those grounds, too. She seems a little too calculated to be the type of “clever” girl that boys will naturally like. She gets their jokes, she’s sarcastic, and not big on dressing or acting traditionally “girly”… and yet, she’s nurturing and caring, still fulfilling the role of support and caretaker that are the real crux of those feminine standards that Haruhi eschews. The idea brings up the ideal of the “just one of the guys” Cool Girl, who is able to get the boys in that way that their girlfriends who love shoes and shopping don’t, but is still conventionally feminine enough to be attractive, not off-putting to and challenging those standards in the way that a woman who is truly butch or mannish is. This could be my personal anxieties talking: As someone whose social-awkwardness goes beyond just not caring about certain social standards, but often not being able to read them in the first place, it was that aspect that made Haruhi a little harder to relate to for me. Depending on what kind of girl you are, Haruhi is either like you or she’s someone you should be. But what does that new standard mean? Is it progressive?
Perhaps not, if you’re looking at Haruhi in isolation. She’s progressive for the shojo genre, but ultimately just a new standard for women to live up to that defines us in what boys think of us. But the thing is, you can’t just look at her in isolation. The story is not just her own, and the way she rubs up against those male characters–and who they are–is necessary in examining Ouran’s gender politics, intentional or otherwise. (And considering the sort of people working on Ouran–such as Yoji Enokido, one of the major writers of Revolutionary Girl Utena–I have trouble completely sweeping this under the rug as “just a joke.” Ouran does have something to say about gender, and class, and gets in a lot of social commentary about those topics in-between the hijinks. Comedy, in fact, is probably one of the best genres for truly cutting and subversive social commentary, and always has been–but, more about that in the next post.)
The most important thing here, is that Haruhi isn’t the only character in the series who is defined, in part, by her unusual amounts of empathy and knack for reading people. This is also Tamaki’s greatest strength as a person and as a character. After seeing, throughout the series, how Haruhi is able to reach the boys of the Host Club (and often, the girls they try to help, too) in a way that no one else could, we’re shown, in two flashback episodes–one focusing on the Hitachiin twins, and another focusing on Kyoya–how Tamaki himself earned their trust and friendship by seeing through the masks they put on for the world, diagnosing their problems and offering solutions. Tamaki is the glue holding together the close-knit club for this reason, and Haruhi also penetrates their defenses due to her sharing this trait. Otherwise, Haruhi and Tamaki are quite different people, but this commonality is important to their relationship and their places in the Host Club (and also, what draws them together romantically).
This also reveals that Ouran doesn’t define this particular trait along gender lines, showing this as a positive in both men and women, and as a standard for everyone. Both Haruhi and Tamaki have masculine and feminine traits, and both can be positive and negative. And Ouran‘s gender politics go further, in impressing this message on all the characters. Kyoya has always valued emotional restraint and careful planning, but Tamaki encourages him to enjoy the more frivolous things in life–and nudges him toward the emotional honesty that allows Kyoya to admit how much he’s always wanted those things. He teaches Kyoya that masculine ambition is important but not in lieu of other pursuits. Mitsukuni, or “Honey-senpai”, had to hide his childish, girlish traits, like love for cake and all things kawaii, behind the façade of following in his family’s footsteps as martial-arts master, and it’s Tamaki and the host club that help him come to who he truly is.
Ouran’s gender-bending protagonist isn’t just a breath of fresh, more relatable air for shojo readers, and she isn’t a gimmick hiding more traditional and regressive gender attitudes that are typical of the genre. Haruhi is, in many ways, reflective of the show’s overall flippant, subversive attitude toward gender and gender roles. It’s why, at the end of the day, I have to say that she’s one of my all-time favorite female protagonists in anime, and a big plus for women’s representation in shojo.
Up next (probably): Ouran’s class- and genre-consciousness.