Jasmine Pannu, Jubakshi Chakravorty, Lubhavani Singal, Yookta Ahuja
Image 1 (left): Ah! My Goddess
Image 2 (right): Nami, Marine Navigator, One Piece anime
Globalization combined with increased accessibility and advancement in technology has made the exchange of media, art and culture an effective and increasingly used tool by states for gaining soft power, internationally. This exchange of culture develops curious imaginations, worldviews, stereotypes and fantasies. The blossoming of Japanese Anime at the global stage— the United States being its biggest consumer— makes it an interesting case study to explore its real life impacts on identities and how this concentrated medium navigates through reinforcement of gendered stereotypes and prejudices under western ‘feminist’ gaze. This essay aims to analyze the global effects of shojo and otaku, two genres of anime, that influence representation and perception of women and its impact on masculinities and other real-life identities.
Representation of Women and Shojo
In anime culture, shojo is the genre of anime that targets young adolescent girls, by creating scripts around young, magical girls that navigate through life and their supernatural powers. Magical girl animation is also called maho shojo. This genre’s narrative and structure, around the magic girl, has interestingly managed to remain relatively stable since its emergence in the 1960s, despite the impact of technological evolution and societal changes. Kumiko Satio, a Japanese studies scholar explains that “the magical girl genre, especially the elaborate description of metamorphosis that enables an ordinary girl to turn into a supergirl, has been widely imitated across various genres and media….and has remained mostly unchanged” (2014, p. 144). What allows the maho shojo to remain unchanged in terms of its storyline and further, what implications does it have on consumers of such anime?
Two things are important to note in maho shojo– the showcase and reinforcement of heteronormative gender identities and the hypersexualisation of women. The storyline of these anime are built around similar tropes- a young adolescent girl in possession of magical powers, or a princess of a magical kingdom. Magic girl anime contextualizes girls in a patriarchal family, reinforcing heteronormative gender roles; the father being the controlling patriarch, and the mother being a gentle, submissive wife who listens to her husband and guides her daughter on how to fulfill the roles of a good wife and mother (Newitz, 1995, p. 6). The female characters are persuaded to invest in fashion, romance, and glorify the institution of marriage, where one must fulfill their predestined role of being a good wife and mother. Interestingly, female characters who do not follow the patriarchal path are represented as enemies who wear heavy make-up, tight suits and are sinister in their intentions. As Satio puts it “… female characters are often regarded as reflections or ideal models of actual women” (2014, p. 145).
The hypersexualized representation of female characters in anime also substantiates this reinforcement of the ‘ideal imagination’. Women’s bodies in anime mainly have large breasts, narrow waists and large eyes. They are depicted with colourful hair, sparkling feminine clothing like short skirts and crop tops, and high-pitched voices. In terms of actions and behaviour, they come across as giggly, clumsy and submissive. The female characters either abide by or evolve to conform to conventional heterosexual norms. They are hypersexualised to gain validation from their male counterparts and become the “ideal” woman.
For instance, Kiyomi Tkada in Death Note is depicted as a conventionally not so pretty girl who falls in love with the protagonist, but he only reciprocates her love when she transforms herself and starts conforming to the ideal beauty standards. Another example is from One Piece which has an interesting fan forum on the ‘bangability’ of the characters. Most of these forums find Robin much more appealing since she is calm and collected, versus Nami who is characterized as “greedy, rude, money loving, spontaneous and wild.” Both are exceedingly talented and powerful women, independent, but qualities such as greed and want of a better lifestyle make Nami more ‘human, attainable, and undesirable’, as compared to Robin. Since the United States is the biggest consumer of Japanese anime, the consumption of the content that affirms to the heteronormative roles rand standards, reaffirms the existing stereotypes about how Asian women are or should be like a ‘china doll’- pretty, docile and submissive (Mcdonough, 2021).
Popular Consumption and Otaku
Otaku, meaning “fanboy”, is a slang term used to refer to particularly loyal fans of certain anime subcultures. The Otaku group, which is predominantly male, helps reconstruct masculinities that not only reinforce the problematic conception of an ideal woman but also, serve as a fantasy escape for men who cannot claim dominant masculinities in real time. As some critics note, that for the “prime audience of young males often find a “fantasy escape and source of identification” within anime’s graphic violence, voluptuous female characters, and politically incorrect male-female relationships” (McCarthy et al. in Napier, 2001). As Jenkin finds the men consuming these anime operate from a position of cultural marginality and social weakness. (Napier, 2001, p. 245). As per Napier’s study, spectators also believe anime becomes an escape for many immature people who are incapable of being in an adult relationship in reality (Napier, 2001, p. 252). Therefore, anime becomes an escape to form and experience a masculinity which is dominant and otherwise unachievable.
Anime as an online culture and medium feeds into existing western identities that work through dissatisfaction and dissociation from ‘political correctness’. It is the medium’s most fascinating feature. It normalizes the production of light manga/anime, which basically sells on the voluptuousness of the female character and thereby normalizes the expectation of voluptuousness of women in real life. In comparison to western comics such as Marvel and DC which also have hypersexualised female superheroes, anime is greeted with more acceptance because the production is catered to fulfill fantasies of the predominantly western male consumers and therefore, the misogynist depiction of Asian women becomes normalized. Anime forms a fantastical cultural norm, which is tough to critique only using the western ‘feminist’ gaze without being orientally insensitive. Anime also provides a space to explore how real-life masculinities are formed and reclaimed in an online subculture.
Saito, K. (2014). Magic,Shōjo, and Metamorphosis: Magical Girl Anime and the Challenges of Changing Gender Identities in Japanese Society. The Journal of Asian Studies, 73(1), 143–164. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0021911813001708
Napier, Susan Jolliffe. (2001). Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke : experiencing contemporary Japanese animation. New York: Palgrave.
Who would you rather bang from One Piece, Nami or Robin? – Quora. (2014). Quora. https://www.quora.com/Who-would-you-rather-bang-from-One-Piece-Nami-or-Robin
Newitz, A. (1995). Magical Girls and Atomic Bomb Sperm: Japanese Animation in America. Film Quarterly, 49(1), 2–15. https://doi.org/10.2307/1213488
Mcdonough, S. “The Fetshization of Asian Cultures in the West”. (2021). CHSGlobe.