Sometimes topics are difficult to get a feel for and properly expand on, and sometimes topics suddenly come out of an idea I wish I could talk about in the moment I got inspiration for them, but for whatever reason I couldn’t. Today’s is a sort of mix. I have had the idea of how anime differed from mainstream media in it’s representation of females for a long time and wanted to discuss the matter for quite some time, but I could never find the right words. Then, this Wednesday, in my English 211 course we were discussing the portrayal of women in modern media. Not in a liberal “Women are so unrepresented it’s a crime” kind of way, but a genuine dissection of how women are shown in advertising, film, and television. The latter half of the class, we asked the question of what did this mean for society? Then, it clicked. How to talk about this topic that I’ve had swimming around in my head for nearly a year now suddenly made sense to me. No, I don’t think women are overly sexualised in anime, under or over represented, or any of the common things of that nature that probably annoy people to no end; instead I want to explore how the “feminisation” (not sure if this is a word, but going to treat it like one) of anime has differed from the “feminisation” of other media.
It should go without saying that anime in general is an incredibly unique form of media. While it has it’s ties to other popular media, anime has sort of stayed fairly on it’s own in a world of genuinely mature and unique storytelling in the form of animation. Of course, the mature storytelling isn’t unique only to Japanese animation, as western studios like Pixar have created thought provoking films in an incredibly artistic way, but we’re still over here in a world somewhat separate of mainstream animation. With that said, anime isn’t necessarily popular enough to dodge the feminism bullet and avoid getting talked about in regard to feminism. While anime has never really done anything to try and feminise the productions coming out, at least not in an obvious or outspoken way, it still catches the attention of feminists as consistently doing the opposite. Anime is openly criticised by ignorant people for being extremely masculine, over-sexual, and synonymous to pornography in some circumstances. I don’t say ignorant as an insult, but rather as a genuine observation. As someone who’s been avidly watching anime for the past five years of my life, I’d argue that the opposite is apparent to active consumers of this media.
The “Disney Princess Effect” is one I’ve become all too familiar with over the past god-knows-how-many years of my life. It’s an active argument that little girls will see Disney princess films and get and unrealistic expectation of love planted in their mind along with unrealistic goals of beauty to reach. While there’s definitely cases to back up this argument (none of which, as far as I know, are scientific), it’s always seemed a bit too out there to claim that animated princess films have a direct coloration with how little girls see themselves. Me my sister, and all of my cousins used to watch Disney princess films as little kids all the time and all of the girls in my family are extremely confident and independent girls, so either this sample size eight girls wasn’t large enough to get one to be heavily influenced by the cartoons, or there’s a deeper element at play here. Regardless, there is a point being made, no matter how flimsy the research behind it may seem to individual cases.
Playing devil’s advocate a bit, I can definitely see where people get the perception that things like Disney princess films can paint an unrealistic expectation for love and standards of beauty. Even if I don’t know literally anyone who has ever been that deeply influenced by any piece of animated media, to some degree I can see where the argument stems from. If we boil down the movies so deep, even to the point where we’re straight up missing the point and intent of the production, there is a way that the common order of events could be misinterpreted as “Women wait for their prince to save her, and in order for that to happen they have to look absolutely flawless”. Children sometimes don’t understand intent or overall messages of productions. They can take what they see and cut out all of the important information simply because it was too boring or too complicated.
This isn’t to say that children are just incapable of seeing the great message behind Cinderella, but it’s a legitimate possibility to whatever degree. I see it as one extremely unlikely possibility, but the fact that it exists is important. Now take that, the fact that movies about empowerment of women can be misunderstood as standards for how a woman should live life, and step back and realise what a majority of western popular media stands as. This isn’t to say that western popular media is bad by any means (or that pop media somehow has a responsibility to not be the way it is), but if children’s films can be misinterpreted by children, then how can regular airing television be misinterpreted? What about the parts of pop media that are genuinely objectifying women? Maybe I’m even being a little too harsh on western media, and perhaps at this point my point towards how anime relates to all of this has been lost. But with what I’ve said already out there, how can anime be seen as the opposite when it’s so easy to take something incorrectly and run with a false narrative convinced it’s the truth?
Anime, as a unique form of media, is also a very easy tool of escapism. Anime is so clearly fiction, so massively diverse, that it’s easy to see the presentations as a fantasy. On top of this the empowerment yet simultaneous objectification for women here, to me at least, speaks deeper volumes than what western media has done in a long time. While Sword Art Online II may not be the best example, it’s the one I chose because it’s the first one I think of when relating to the idea of a popular production empowering and objectifying in a positive way. Both of the main arcs of the show, however weak the writing may be or however you may feel about them, follow this idea at least slightly. Sinon in the Phantom Bullet arc is a well known player in GGO, she is very independent and the arc focuses more on her personal recovery through post-traumatic stress disorder than the overhanging conflict of a killer player inside of a video game. While Sinon is sexualised, this is rather unimportant because this isn’t made the focal point and I don’t think anyone could really argue that the story ever explicitly focused on Sinon’s appearance. What was important was her story, how she became traumatised, and how she overcame that; again no matter how unbelievable or poorly written the story was.
While the Mother’s Rosario arc could also be discussed here, Phantom Bullet fits what I’m going to be trying to talk about a lot better: Sinon’s portrayal does not paint an unrealistic bar for women, does not subtract from the overall message trying to come across, and does not distract a portion of the audience from the production. While I feel this same argument could, to a degree, be made for Disney movies, there are reasons I believe Sword Art Online II does this simultaneous empowerment and intentional objectification good enough to be used as an example case. So let’s go one by one.
Sinon’s portrayal does not paint an unrealistic bar for women. The reason I very strongly believe this; Sinon is an avatar for a real life person that not only looks differently but has different habits, fears, confidences, and living styles. Sinon is a meta character inside of a video game that lives in a scarred land where gunfights are not only common but encouraged, Sinon works as a hitman and sniper to help groups of killers achieve their goal, and is extremely confident in her ability as a sniper. Asada Shino is a shy girl living in Japan as a high schooler, who is terrified of firearms due to post-traumatic stress disorder, shows very little signs of being confident in herself, and lives in a state where she uses the character Sinon to escape from reality. Sinon is painted as so unreal that it doesn’t matter what she looks like. She’s fictitious in a world of fiction. Taking what Sinon looks like as a standard to meet would be such a detachment from fiction that you can’t even notice when something is fictitious within fiction. On top of that Sinon’s living conditions as a hitman and sniper isn’t one that many people let alone women could even see as something they have to do in order to be desirable; if instead they chose Asada Shino to project into you’re trying to be someone so bluntly broken that it’s stated multiple times which again isn’t an idea that women would want to achieve in order to be desirable (or at least I would hope).
Sinon’s portrayal does not subtract from the overall message trying to come across throughout the production. In no way does Sinon’s portrayal as a blunt objectification take away from the story being told, because the story does not rely on her portrayal as it’s crutch. This isn’t to say that there aren’t scenes or shots where her objectification is incredibly clear, but it is saying that no matter how objectified she was, that didn’t change how people would interpret the story. You couldn’t look at Phantom Bullet and say “Oh yeah, that was totally about how Sinon was so sexy it saved the day and I should try to be like that.” Of course, that’s hyperbole, but not even slightly similar thoughts could come from the story. The objectification of Sinon was merely fanservice, it was there for those who would enjoy it and nothing more. It never drove the plot, it never pushed a narrative, it was just there.
Sinon’s portrayal does not distract a portion of the audience from the production. “But Tsuyuki you just said-” Nononono, shut up. If Sinon’s portrayal somehow distracted you, an audience member, from the production it was not her portrayal that was the only nail in the coffin. As I’ve stated before, the writing in Sword Art Online is… Well frankly, it’s garbage (excluding Mother’s Rosario). It’s not unenjoyable garbage, I eat up Sword Art Online like the hypocritical fanboy I am and love every minute of it even if I know it’s trash, but it is trash. If Sinon was the thing to distract you, you had to have already cared so little about the plot that you were already looking for anything to catch your attention while you were watching. Sinon herself does not make the audience look at her and forget what was happening if they were invested. She isn’t a pretty toy that the audience clings to in total disregard the the rest of the production, her appearance is something interesting to look at for those interested.
But then that begs the question of how is this better than Disney movies if Sinon is bluntly objectified while Disney princesses aren’t objectified at all. Well, Sinon is in a production that is already a part of a niche medium known for being used as escapism, is in a production that is at least trying to be mature, and has already turned off people who won’t be interested in it by the synopsis alone. Disney princess movies are family friendly, for everyone, a household name, and will likely be viewed by every human being living in the United States at least once in their lives. Sinon’s story isn’t influenced by how she’s sexualised at all, while the main take away from a Disney movie ignoring damn near everything is that the beautiful woman is saved by her prince. Sinon’s story is about overcoming pain and trauma through escapism and trust in others, the story of Cinderella is (again, ignoring damn near everything) about how a prince liked a pretty girl he danced with and saved her from the horrible living conditions she was under.
When anime empowers a female it does just that. It may sexualise her, it may objectify her, it may do everything it can to play to the fans of her design alone, but it will never subtract from the empowerment it gave and expect to go unscathed from it’s audience. This isn’t even to say that the anime community is so liberal that we hate when empowered women get their power taken away for objectification, rather I’m saying that the community at large is so critical that if a character suffered for a stupid reason (like objectification) then we would notice and we would complain. Western pop media doesn’t have the same luxury; it’s not niche it’s the literal opposite. Celebrities can sexualise themselves and demean themselves and paint themselves as an object and people will subconsciously ignore it. Movies and advertisements can push an agenda of objectification and no one would be the wiser. When something is mass consumed, it doesn’t matter if a group dislikes it or female empowerment was stripped for stupid reasons, the popularity of the object at hand will protect it from overwhelming negative criticism. Even with films as commonly agreed to be bad as Suicide Squad, in real life people who just consume the movie as a movie and that’s it will say it’s good. They’ll reach out to the positives and say what they liked in defence of what was genuinely objectively bad about the film. With that said, how does that effect blunt objectification?
As much as people would like to say that social justice warriors will push for such insensitive things to be undone, and while it does happen to a handful of real situations, what doesn’t change is pop media’s willingness to stop. Anime shows girls that being a girl is amazing, that being a girl can mean a lot of positive things, that being a girl is hard at times but that those hard times aren’t impossible because you’re a girl; those messages are apparent even if you ignore damn near everything. Pop media shows girls, in some cases, the opposite. Regardless of whether or not both situations are fantasy, the fact that only people who are truly ignorant can look at what anime creates for the female audience in many many cases in a bad light, it’s clear which is better. If you ask me, I’m glad that it’s like this; even if this is just my opinion.
So, not going to lie here, I’m genuinely a bit scared that people will totally avoid the point I was trying to get across in today’s editorial because the topic of feminism came up. Not in a like “Oh no all my work has gone to waste” way but more in an annoyed feeling of disbelief. With that said, if you’d like to see what I’m up to when I’m not writing for this blog, feel free to follow me on Twitter! That’s typically the best place to get a hold of me for direct questions concerning my writing since I like to leave the comment section alone for open conversation between everyone who reads it. I have a feeling a few people will have questions for me regarding why I believe what I do on this topic. With that said, I’ll see you all next week!
The featured image for this post was drawn by pixiv artist 土管.