The past weeks in the gaming community have been all about sexism. First the new Tomb Raider, then the Tropes vs. Women kickstarter, then Lollipop Chainsaw… pretty much all opinion leaders wrote their posts about women in gaming, or about something like rape in video games.
That latest part, the reactions to Lollipop Chainsaw, was the most interesting to me as an anime fan, because it is a really intreresting example of how baffling anime clichés are to everyone else. Lollipop Chainsaw is, basically, an ecchi anime in video game format. Complete with panty shots, falling into boobies face-first, a loser male lead being tossed around by the heroine, and with sexy battle sequences. In that context, this analysis sounds almost like a joke review, as it is calling it the game’s “underlying brilliance” that “Nick is frequently idealized and assessed by female characters who have little to no regard for how their words make him feel.” and that by turning table on objectification and victim blaming, “and placing a male figure into those situations, it goes some way toward making a character that’s easier for men to identify with”.
Did he just… did he just call a story brilliant because the male lead is a powerless whimp who gets assaulted by a harem? That sounds almost like those first impression reviews in the aniblogosphere, where we are using big words like “deconstruction” or “symbolism” about Who is Imouto. And yet, it kind of works. From a western perspective, the plot of your average ecchi harem comedy would be not just clever and original, but also flipping our old “sexist tropes” checklist upside down.
Just look at the Bechdel test. It definitely indicates that there is something terrible wrong with Hollywood, that even nowadays, such a small percentage of movies are passing it. In Anime, it would be far more common, if nothing else, then at least the overwhelming majority of female characters guarantee that. Even in Infinite Stratos, you can probably find some scenes where two of the girls are talking about the upcoming battle, or something like that. Hell, I’m pretty sure that I’ve read visual novels, with male POV protagonists, that somehow still featured dialogues between two girls without bringing up men.
In western animation, Lauren Faust is considered a creative genius for her feminist message that “there are many ways to be a girl and they are all equally valid”, and for Friendship is Magic, that demonstrated this “groundbreaking” message by presenting all the protagonists as moe archetypes. Bookworm, Tomboy, Genki Girl, Dandere, Ojou, and… err… Other Tomboy.
So, apparently the average anime has a progressive feminist worldview, compared to the primitive sexist cesspool that is western media? Or what?
That still sounds improbable. There are many commonly recurring elements of Anime, that are showing Japan’s own problems with sexism. For example the common portrayal of adult women as housewives first, planning to leave their potential career as soon as they get married. There is even an almost literal “stay in the kitchen” subtext, with practically fetishizing the cooking skills of girls. Think of how it’s always the most “default”, “normal” girl-next-door character who is bringing bento to the protagonist, while the quirky/alien/Tsundere/magical girl can’t cook, as another way to show her abnormalness.
These are the problematic elements of Japanese gender roles, not the portrayal of female personalities. Many of these scenes would appear unacceptably offensive in any western story, the same way as anime’s physically strong heroines with diverse personalities and strong wills, would appear notably progressive.
Bakuman and Death Note are two manga/anime that are always brought up in this issue, on the account that unlike most anime, they do explicitly glorify manliness, and portray women as weak. In Death Note, the few female characters are all Light’s playthings with no free will, and in Bakuman, they are shown as unable to understand “A Man’s Dream”, or acchive the same greatness.
While I don’t know wheter or not Tsugumi Ohba is personally sexist (though probably he is), I don’t think that Death Note and Bakuman themselves have problematic content, because they are not a portrayal of average life, they are both homages to the shonen battle-manga genre: The overtly dramatic art styles, the testosterone-filled male cast, the themes of determination and endurance, are all parts of an intentionally old-fashioned atmosphere, rather than reflecting on a mainstream worldview about the rle of men and women.
The way I see it, whether or not a piece of stratement about genders is accepted in the mainstream, is the difference between harmful sexism and personal fantasy:
When all of Hollywood mostly tends to produce movies where women never talk to each other about anything but men, that implies a dangerous subconscious attitude, that most writers actually think about real life women that way, and this is their attempt to portray them realistically. That’s sexist
When all Japanese media glorifies the role of housewives, that gives the impression that Japanese writers really don’t even any alternate choice for their female characters, and this is what they want to teach to real life Japanese girls. That’s sexist
But when an obscure otaku subgenre, like harem anime, has a premise that happens to serve a male fantasy, that doesn’t fuel any mainstream belief. The characters in Clannad are not falling in love with Tomoya because Jun Maeda believes that all men should have a harem, but because it’s a galge adaptation, and according to the rules of that genre, there have to be multiple heroines. That’s not sexism, that’s a personal fantasy. The characters in Zero no Tsukaima aren’t getting naked so often because the writer is making a statement about how all female bodies exist for eye-candy. It’s happening because it’s an ecchi series and it’s following it’s own genre. That’s a personal fantasy.
Likewise, Bakuman and similar shonen manga aren’t necessarily glorifying masculinity because they expect the world to be like that and women to conform the rules of a shonen world, but because in a way, that’s also a genre-specific personal fantasy. Not even a sexual fantasy, just a syle that feels pleasing to a bunch of people.