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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.

When it comes to debates regarding how women are portrayed in media and entertainment, one recurring trend is the way that sexualization gets conflated with objectification. Whether it’s comics or not, Japanese or not, often times the two are presented as one, so it’s no surprise that there are readers who see them as one and the same and argue from a stance that reducing or removing certain depictions of women means a puritan-like removal of sexuality itself from media. While I don’t have the same problems with objectification that others might, it’s still an issue because this misunderstanding begets many other misunderstandings. It’s for this reason that I’m impressed by how the manga Spotted Flower handles the female body, and I think it gives a very clear case of how it is possible to draw sexual characters who aren’t necessarily sex objects.

A manga by Genshiken author Kio Shimoku, Spotted Flower is about an otaku husband and his pregnant non-otaku wife, and the small challenges they face as their lives enter a new stage. With a title referencing Madarame and Saki from Genshiken (Madara refers to spots—take note Naruto fans—and Saki means “bloom”) but clearly pointing out that the characters are not them, much of the manga revolves around how being an otaku can influence the relationship in certain ways. The other prominent theme, and the one I’m more concerned with for this post, is that of the pregnant wife’s sexual frustration. The problem the wife faces is that even through pregnancy she still wants sex and wants it badly, but it’s difficult for the husband to overcome the misconception that pregnant women are entirely different from sexual women (despite the act that it takes to get them that way). This makes sense, as depictions of pregnancy tend to focus on their motherly qualities and ignore the woman’s sexuality.

Spotted Flower does not draw that line in the sand. Much like his work on Jigopuri (about raising an infant), Kio doesn’t play it safe. He draws nudity. He draws bare breasts. He doesn’t shy away from showing sex and the desire for sex as very physical, mental, and emotional, but at the same time also doesn’t reduce pregnancy into a simplistic fetish or kink that you would find in some adult manga. He expresses the wife’s frustration in such a way that, even if she does not have the ideal body or the easy appeal of the “virgin” or the “nympho,” there is a kind of sexual attractiveness to her, an undeniable sensuality radiating from her which has little to do with the woman as object of desire and more as a person who desires.

As is obvious at this point, Spotted Flower is rather unusual in a number of ways, but it is also a series of possibilities and potentials. It pushes boundaries which probably shouldn’t be boundaries in the first place, and does so with a strong sense of characterization fans of Kio Shimoku have come to appreciate.

One of my more popular posts seems to be the one discussing the portrayal of women in Dead or Alive 5, and my conclusion back then was that, at least according to the trailers, they seemed to fulfill some of their promises on making the girls more uniquely beautiful, to make them more “realistic.”

Now that they’ve revealed pre-order bunny outfits in DOA5 though, one might say that I’ve been proven wrong, but I don’t think that’s the case if only because I never said that Dead or Alive 5 would end up being completely without fanservice or sexual imagery, but simply that it has made progress compared to past iterations of the franchise. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the girls would not be treated as sex symbols, but that the type of sexiness would not be so singular. Even the original comment by the director is about giving them realistic mannerisms and voices, not removing their provocativeness.

One of the things that I find really strange though is that the girls’ poses and such are clearly aren’t designed for bunny outfits, so they look quite awkward while wearing them, sexy or not.

So basically, the bunny outfits are pretty silly (and obvious in their appeal), and they probably are indicative both the steps taken and not taken by Dead or Alive 5.

When I originally wrote about Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, a video series which plans to explore the treatment of women in the medium, I expressed my concern that the creator Anita Sarkeesian might potentially cast aside more subtly positive portrayals of women in video games because they might still be significantly flawed. “If a medium is sexist in certain ways,” I thought, “then progress has to come in not only big steps but also small ones.” However, after reading this article about the Pixar movie Brave (warning: spoilers, though I do recommend reading it) in which the author Lili Loufbourow describes growing up with film and essentially forcing herself to deeply cherish even the most remotely positive portrayals of women in a medium which often forces them into a very limited number of character types, I find myself somewhat re-evaluating my thoughts on these matters.

Critical theorist Theodor Adorno writes about how mass culture, that is to say popular culture created by modern industry and capitalism, has a tendency to take any sort of radical idea or value and simply transform it into something palatable for the masses until its progressive value is swallowed up. I deeply disagree with Adorno in this regard for a number of reasons, namely his disregard for small steps within the area of mass culture. I still believe that it is important to look at examples of mixed results, cases where movement forward might come with a couple of steps back, and to just pay attention to places where progress is not measured solely by overall success. This is the reason why, when I write about the portrayal of women in anime and manga, I think it’s important to not just label things as “sexist” and call it a day.

His view brings some important questions to mind, however. Enlarging the sphere of discussion from sexism/feminism to the greater topic of progress itself, I have to ask myself, what is the difference between “taking a small step forward”and “huddling over scraps?” Is there a difference? Does one turn into the other when filtered through the lens of personal imagination and the changing values of a society?

My immediate feeling is that there must be a difference between taking a small step and huddling over scraps, and that the boundaries between the two are not so rigidly defined given history and context, but just the idea that the two can be conflated makes it somewhat dangerous. For that reason I now recognize that Sarkeesian and Loufbourow are essentially fighting against the same opponent, the “good enoughs” of female portrayal that pay only lipservice at best and are actually subtly regressive at worst, and that for Sarkeesian this dictates her tendency towards hard, powerful language in her videos. When subtlety is utilized, there is always the risk that it will be overlooked to such an extent that any messages given will be overwhelmed by the greater whole, or at least be perceived as such. While I prefer to try and work with the nuances myself, I have to recognize the potential pitfalls of that approach as well.

Introduction

When it comes to the controversial approach to sexuality in superhero comics, probably nothing is more exemplary than the oft-seen exaggerated pose where a female character twists her torso such that both her butt and her breasts are facing at the reader directly. Known as the “brokeback,” the pose is frequently the target of criticism as an example of sexualization gone wrong. Generally, the criticisms concern the fact that, as action-based stories, the pose is a completely impossible and extremely impractical thing to do in fighting. The idea is that, by showing them as such, comics communicate the idea that when it comes to female characters the T&A is more important than their identities as heroes or characters in general.

The point at which I might diverge from other opinions is that I believe strongly in freedom of artistic expression and think that such works have a right to be drawn and a right to be enjoyed by readers on a sexual level. While I think that the disparity in idealization between genders can definitely be too much, something has to be said for the fact that the visual arts in general can make the impossible happen in the first place. If people are literally physically incapable of contorting themselves into the “brokeback” pose, then mediums such as comics are the only places where it is possible at all.

I also think people have the right to admire a character while simultaneously desiring her or the pose that she’s taking. Again, the fact that forms of fiction such as comics make it more than possible for the portrayal of a female character to be an effective fighter while doing the least physically sensible thing possible is not an inherent negative, as long as we’re being honest about the fact that it is indeed done for sex appeal. No matter how much we’re able to point out that those contorted positions would shatter someone’s spine, or that other poses come straight out of pornography, they successfully generate sexual attraction. Individual tastes may vary, but they’re also called “porn poses” because they work, and at the end of the day pornography drawn or otherwise does not automatically turn people into misogynists.

But while the act of making or consuming such products causes no harm in and of itself, when the brokeback pose becomes the default method for portraying sexual attractiveness, it creates two major problems in particular. First, while anyone has the right to enjoy any type and degree of sexualization, if the goal is to try and attract a larger female readership, then no one should be surprised when such portrayals lessen their desire to pick up superhero comics. Second, and what will be the primary concern in this article, is that by having that style of sexualization be so ubiquitous, it creates a singular image of how a female (character) is supposed to look when they’re being “sexy.”

Sex as Character

Over the month of February, comics news and editorial site Comics Alliance published a series of articles on sex in comics. One of the articles discussed Adam Warren’s Empowered, where writer David Brothers argues that, even though Empowered is more sexually explicit and has more overt fanservice than regular superhero comics, it still approaches the topic of sex in a much healthier and more mature fashion.

Although a majority of commenters have voiced their understanding of David’s points and explanations, there are a few dissenting responses which I found interesting for what they imply. The recurring criticism, which not only appears in David’s article on Empowered but also many of the other posts, basically calls out the writers for having a double standard, praising the portrayal of sex in indie comics, while lambasting the presence of sexuality in superhero comics, in something of a high art, ivory tower, porn vs. erotica-type argument. Another criticism leveled at Empowered in particular, is that its crass displays of actual sexual content and juvenile-sounding dialogue make it worse than the other superhero comics to which David compares it.

I think David actually addresses this well in the article itself when he describes the primarily sexual relationship in Empowered, that of the main heroine, Emp, and her ex-henchman boyfriend, Thugboy:

Empowered‘s eponymous heroine is a superhero with issues. Her costume is too skintight and ineffectually fragile, and neither her teammates nor her nemeses respect her. She gets tied up way too often for her liking.

They both get different things out of the relationship, aside from just sex. Thugboy clearly loves Emp, and expresses that in a way that’s both a little paternal and a lot touching. He gets her issues with her body and career, and when she doubts herself, he’s there to point out how wonderful she is. He supports her, and the reverse is true, too.

More important than that, though, is the fact that she’s comfortable expressing her insecurities to him.

The thing to take away from their relationship is that when Emp has sex, it’s not simply a display of sex but rather shows the specific scenario of “sex with Emp.” It takes all of the various bits and pieces of her characterization and doesn’t forget them even during moments of titillation. The trouble with how sexuality is frequently visualized in superhero comics then, assuming the goal is to show female characters in a sexual manner in the first place, is that this level of specificity doesn’t exist in most portrayals. Rather than a female character making a sexy pose, it becomes a female character conforming to a sexy pose template, no matter her personality, history, or quirks. When combined with the way that superhero comics can grow and reinforce bad ideas, we end up in the current situation where this approach to sexuality generates an entrenched position that causes people to staunchly defend it as if it is simply the way that comics communicate “sexy,” as if there is little alternative.

The issue of posing isn’t confined to just “bad” artists, as the above example from Jim Lee demonstrates. Taken from his famed X-Men run in the 90s, the image is well-drawn and the women are idealized without necessarily going off the deep end, but aside from Jubilee (front) all of them are taking the same sexy stance. Psylocke (left), Rogue (center), and Dazzler (right) all have very different backgrounds and personalities, so it seems strange that they would all be in the same pose. This goes double when you compare them with all of the male characters, each of whom showcase their individuality in the way they’re standing or sitting, or Jubilee once more, whose “attitude” comes across in her slouched position.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with showing attractive girls in exaggeratedly attractive poses in and of itself, nor is there any fault in enjoying them, but superhero comics are in the business of creating unique, iconic characters. This is why they have different origin stories, different costumes, and different powers. The goal is to be able to see how a particular character stands out from the rest, and if sexuality is involved, then comics can benefit from making sure that the erotic is also made to fit the characters.

Alternatives from Anime and Manga

I’m going to steer away from superhero comics and take a look at anime and manga, a territory I’m much more familiar with, and one which I find provides some strong examples of works where the sexuality of their characters is both emphasized and individualized. This is not to say that anime and manga are devoid of sexism, or that any of the examples shown below are perfect in their portrayal of women. Instead, I want to show how these works go out of their way to portray their characters’ sexuality in ways which also reflects their unique characteristics, and to point out how the issue with pushing just one type of sexuality can be an issue even when the goal is to portray characters in a sexual fashion.


Senjougahara Hitagi (above) and Kanbaru Suruga (below) from Studio SHAFT’s Bakemonogatari/Nisemonogatari

The first title is Bakemonogatari (and its sequel Nisemonogatari), which features a number of attractive and highly-sexualized female characters. The characters depicted above are both the same age and both attracted to the main character. However, Senjougahara’s seductive body language is fed by her sardonic personality, whereas the athletic Kanbaru, a self-admitted pervert and an exhibitionist, shows a more forward and aggressive approach. What isn’t as clear from these screenshots is that the show banks on their sex appeal being highly individualized down to the very way that conversations happen.

Left to right: Ran, Madoka, and Muginami, from Rinne no Lagrange by Studio XEBEC/Production IG

Next is the recent Rinne no Lagrange. The three main characters depicted above are all clearly meant to be attractive, but in addition to having varying styles of dress which set them apart at the same time that they emphasize their figures, the three girls also literally sit differently. Just having them relaxing on chairs in unique manners suggests the differences (as well as differences in physical appeal) between them, and I might even go so far as to say that a person could get a rough idea of their personalities based on this image alone.

What of the brokeback itself, then? Is the pose forced to contain only one connotation, such that it cannot become a characterization factor? I believe the answer is that any way of posing a character, even the brokeback, does not automatically void its own potential to be a factor in showing a character and their particulars. The easy answer here is that if some seductress character wanted to stand that way to entice men sexually (and I’m assuming heterosexuality here mainly because that is the site of this debate), then it would make sense, but it doesn’t require that the character herself to be hypersexual, provided that it does not take over her overall portrayal or the view of sexuality in the comic itself.

Akashi Kaoru (right), heroine of Zettai Karen Children by Shiina Takashi

In these pages from Zettai Karen Children, we have its main heroine Akashi Kaoru standing in a way that emphasizes both her chest and her rear. It’s in the context of “stretching for a run,” which lends some practicality to it, but as I said in the introduction, I find arguing from a point of realism as if to say that once you undermine the physics of the pose, you break its spell to be a flawed one, somewhat like arguing that Superman shouldn’t fly with one arm out because that would just create unnecessary wind resistance. Instead, the reasons I see Kaoru’s pose as being be different on some level compared to the typical broke back are that first, the twist of the torso isn’t quite as exaggerated, and second, it is shown to be just one pose among many within these two pages, let alone the rest of the book. Her stance is neither the primary display of athleticism nor the primary display of Kaoru herself, and on top of that she contrasts with the other girls shown.

To re-emphasize, my goal with these examples isn’t to assert some kind of general superiority of manga over American comics, but to say that the problem with having the brokeback and what it represents be the default for comics in general is problematic for more reasons than simply “sexism.” Comics and other media don’t necessarily have to go so far as to possess the highest quality of characterization, nor do they have to be the most tasteful or thought-out. Rather, if the goal is to create unique characters, then that uniqueness shouldn’t be subsumed by some generic template, sexual or otherwise.

Conclusion

The topic of poses and how they emphasize female sexuality in certain ways almost inevitably leads from the action of the body to the body itself. That is, the idea of “defaults” and “templates” can also encompass specific body types, and even a cursory glance at superhero comics shows that certain proportions on women are far more prominent than others. To address the issues of “body” and “body image” would make for an entire essay (or several) in and of itself, so I won’t touch on it except to acknowledge it, and to state that, like the brokeback for poses, the “big-breasted porn star” look isn’t inherently valueless, but it can be abused. Instead, the real problem lies not in the porn poses or the porn star bodies in and of themselves, but in their sheer ubiquity, as the singular image of sexuality that they create winds up narrowing the overall perception of beauty and idealization in comics. However, by broadening the approach to sexualization and showing that different forms of “erotic” exist, it is possible for even female characters with extremely similar bodies to show a greater degree of variety as characters, and can help to expand the number of ways a woman’s sexuality can be portrayed.

Official sources for Genshiken Second Season

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