Sexist Static: How a lust for crude misogyny is hobbling an important artform

Rui: brilliant trans cyber revolutionary from the anime Gatchaman Crowds

Rui: brilliant trans cyber revolutionary from the anime Gatchaman Crowds

If modern art has a single defining characteristic that sets it apart from the efforts of previous epochs, it is that no era of art has so fully, so consciously, and with such studied diversity, embraced consciousness as its subject. The Mona Lisa of the industrial and post-industrial eras has been the psyche; the foreboding and bewitching horizons that stretch across our own minds. More than outer space, psychology is the final frontier of our time and the undiscovered country that art has only just begun to traverse.

But the most fascinating, bleeding-edge meditations on the subject have come from what some might deem an unlikely source: anime.

For those who are unfamiliar, the Japanese animation style is one most commonly associated with such popularly translated, child-targeted fare as Sailor Moon and Dragonball Z, or Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. But the full oeuvre of anime has left me quite starry eyed about the politically revelatory possibilities of psychodrama; from a cyber-morality tale that takes on the excesses of Anonymous-style politics and charts a path to virtual revolution premised on the perfectibility of humanity, to a story that dwells deep in the fissures of neoliberal individuality to painfully explore the deep scars left by peculiarly modern crimes, anime is giving us a unique angle on modern life and quite a lot of fruit for the leftist, humanistic spirit.

Yet its flights of creative majesty pitch into inky miasmas of sexism and puerile gags that have come to define the stereotype of anime: a heaving, fan-service bosom and a palpating young male fan verbing to that noun. This is a dismal state of affairs, not least because many of the best recent anime programs promise salvation from the tepid explorations of even the best top shelf, black label Western cable drama.

Indeed, it might be said of the best anime that it makes a universe of interiority, in the process exploring the terrain on which we build our lives—somewhere in the fissures of peculiarly postmodern neuroses, traumas, and fears.

Cracking the World’s Shell

Kunihiko Ikuhara, the playful director behind the astonishingly queer Revolutionary Girl Utena, and the strikingly less queer Mawaru Penguindrum, exemplifies this tendency.

The first program is a surreal high school psychodrama that details the struggles of its title character, Utena, with the demons that are endemic to a labyrinthine nightmare of self, created by the very environment she inhabits. An athletic student drawn into a world of revolutionary duels with the school elite, Utena finds herself inexorably trying to “crack the world’s shell” and left with no choice but to “revolutionize the world.” This conjures grand images of street battles, barricades, and raised fists bathed in tear gas. Yet what these words actually mean is far more chilling, and far more interesting. What is the world of nightmares that a high schooler might rebel against? The answer is much less, and much more than one expects.

This duality of self and society—making a world of the struggles of self—is a theme repeated in Mawaru Penguindrum, where the principals begin the program in the domestic counterpart of Utena’s high school small world narcissism. How the series develops, however, is indicative of both anime’s promise and the failings that drag it back to earth.

Himari, who suffers from a terminal illness, is brought back from death’s door by a relentlessly adorable penguin hat, which her brothers—Kanba and Shouma—discover is the host of a foulmouthed alien spirit that wants them to find the eponymous “Penguindrum,” with the aid of three equally adorable penguins. The show sprawls out from this premise, like the subways that are its guiding metaphor, into a spider web of warrens.

Penguindrum, just another show about a girl possessed by a penguin hat that is itself possessed by an alien.

Penguindrum, just another show about a girl possessed by a penguin hat that is itself possessed by an alien.

Penguindrum orbits a peculiarly modern tragedy, allowing it to descend deep spirals into each of its primary characters, who all bear the indelible scars of that trauma, and are all bound by a red thread—to the traumatic “incident” and to each other. From the homey premise the show gives us in its first episode, we free-fall into depravity, sexual violence, mass murder, and the tyranny of childhood in the shadow of neoliberalism’s skyscrapers.

As the show clatters down its tracks, we see revelatory visions of personhood in the modern world—visions of pain and self that ten oceans could not stop us from empathizing with.

At its worst, however, we have one of those cute penguins looking up women’s skirts, stealing their panties, and otherwise sexually harassing them. We have our “alien” dragooning a servant woman into a brief stint in pornography, and we have a litany of abusive misogynist slurs hurled at one of the principal characters—none of this is in service of the pretty picture I painted in the preceding paragraph, they’re all meant as jokey, insignificant asides that “lighten the mood” amidst the chiaroscuro psychologizing.

This is more than a little shameful; Penguindrum moved me to tears with its excellent portrayal of childhood abuse and the terrorism of mothers and fathers; it wove a chilling tapestry of sexual entitlement, rape, and the distending of psyche and spirit occasioned by that abuse. There’s no great artistic work done by turning around and making a joke of the foregoing, especially ones so artless, yet it’s a trap anime stumbles into all too often. Of all people, Ikuhara ought to know better: Utena did not make the same mistakes, but it remained uproariously funny at points, bending surrealism into a ticklish feather-duster that coaxed laughter from the dourest of critics. The humor was dark and uplifiting; in Penguindrum it often felt forced and formulaic, as if the fallback to crudity was indicative of a creative vacuum.

Put bluntly, it got in the way; much as every panty-shot or closeup of unrealistically jiggling breasts (prominent features of the vast majority of anime, irrespective of quality or target-audience) gets in the way.

Ask Not the Sparrow How the Eagle Soars

Don't lose your way, Kill la Kill.

Don’t lose your way, Kill la Kill.

The 2013-14 hit new series Kill la Kill is a case in point. At its loftiest points, this is a magnificent combat-drama about two strong-willed young women (of high school age, naturally); the unstoppable force investigating her father’s death, and the immovable object dictatorially lording over a school of her own design like a majestically fallen Valkyrie. What dominates the series, however, and kept me looking away in scene after scene was the abject absurdity of the combat-suits each woman wears that define so much of the show’s visual theme, and the pornographic contortions of each transformation scene.

It’s a mite tough to explain in a sentence—but Kill la Kill is a show where the meaning of clothing, in a number of ways, is its guiding metaphor. Yet the chosen idiom for this lofty consideration is pornography. Scene after scene shows otherwise mighty women splayed like a four course meal for men’s visual consumption and nothing more–it occasionally remarks on this, but with a handwave rather than profundity.

Worse, however, is the sexual assault to which one of the characters is subjected—and in a way that smacks of sheer exploitation rather than critical commentary, which invariably makes the viewer complicit in the violation for how the scene is meant to arouse them.

The visual language strokes your inner thigh even as it whispers a rape scene; it titillates as it defiles, repeating an all too familiar pattern in mass media.

In short, for all their virtues, Kill la Kill, Penguindrum, and other anime merely reiterate and reproduce sexism rather than thoughtfully comment on it. These shows make a subject of psychology, but the realm of sexism remains a childish joke rather than a subject for serious analysis. But Penguindrum’s lurid flirtations are, at least, mere static that leaves the full picture less sharp, if still clear. Kill la Kill’s repeated nods and winks about rape and objectification leave one’s enjoyment of the show in ruins, by contrast.

Rebooting the World of Anime

Gatchaman Crowds is a hopeful, very recent example of anime that breaks new ground without conceding much to the demands of “fan service,” and gets more of its message out, unfiltered, in the process. Putatively a show about power-suit wearing superheroes, it blossoms into a majestic treatise on collective action, cyber-politics, and the role of emotion in changing society. The interior world of Rui, a tech genius and transgender woman whose social network, GalaX, forms the spine of the series, is rich, lavish, and heartbreaking; without that crimson-struck inner-self, her revolutionary ethic and dramatic intervention in Japan’s sclerotic politics would make little sense.

It's... a lot darker than it looks.

It’s… a lot darker than it looks.

Or consider another rather good recent entry: Puella Magi Madoka Magica, a show that parses as a superlatively darker Sailor Moon. Its title character, Madoka, and a cadre of “magical girls” do battle with malevolent witches in grotesquely nonsensical “labyrinths.” Like Utena and Penguindrum, the series’ plot is a fractal that blooms outwards like an ink stain from its basic premise, using its core elements as frighteningly elaborate set pieces for understanding the bonds between women in a world governed by calculations redolent of icily rational corporations. How do these young women survive in a nightmare imposed on them for “the greater good”?

Many of these shows play merrily with that dyad of self and society, and say something far grander than Breaking Bad or House of Cards in the process. The best contemporary US and UK dramas usually limit themselves to explorations of individual character. Anime, on the other hand, seems to effortlessly reunite personal troubles with the grand political problems of our age. It’s a surprisingly powerful antidote to neoliberalism’s individualizing gestures.

One never loses sight of the mighty world of that ineluctable Fate–call it social structure, call it oppression—that governs the lives of these show’s traumatized individuals. For all the interiority of these shows, the universe they present us with reminds one of that old Howard Zinn lesson: you can’t remain neutral on a moving train.

And it’s a model too good to be weighed down by sexist, adolescent antics.

Katherine CrossKatherine Cross has often wondered what her Magical Girl power would be.

Katherine Cross is sociologist and Ph.D student at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City specialising in research on online harassment and gender in virtual worlds. She is also a sometime video game critic and freelance writer, in addition to being active in the reproductive justice movement. She loves opera and pizza.

Sociologist and Unofficial Nerd Correspondent.

Read more about Katherine

Join the Conversation

  • D

    I could not disagree more when it comes to Kill la Kill. The entire point of the series was to make fun of the ridiculous anime costumes. The only way I feel one could take that as misogynistic is if you think nudity is anti-feminist, or if you’re anti-sex as a whole. As the series goes on, the nudity goes from a silly gag in a very silly series, to a look at why we find nudity offensive. By the final episode (without giving away too much), nudity has pretty much been established as a natural and good thing. Is that not what we’re talking about when we fight for the de-sexualization of breasts? For the human body to be seen as natural instead of a sex object?

    Furthermore, the sexual assault in the show was not at all just passed over. Again, without giving away too much, the perpetrator was the villain of the show. They were evil. Everyone knew they were bad, and tried to kill them for it. Not ONCE do we see that character as sympathetic or good. I do think the “use rape to make a character seem more evil” trope is a little overdone, but that was a sadistic character, and the show never made us try to think otherwise.

    This series has some AMAZING female protagonists with a huge range of emotion and character development, better than in many anime or even Western shows and movies. I can only hope more anime will follow it’s example in the future. For you to say it’s shallow or eye candy has missed the point entirely, and does a massive disservice to an incredible work.

    • ellestar

      I almost wrote this exact response. I completely agree with you on the actual rape scene. And from the response I saw from the fandom, it did cement the villain into someone fully despised.

      However, there were two other scenes that made me uncomfortable in KlK. The first was when the kamui forced itself on Ryuko was written as kind of a rape scene. I know others would disagree, but it made me uncomfortable to watch. Then there was the wink-wink, nudge-nudge psuedo-rape scene with Mako’s father and an unconcious Ryuko. We find out it wasn’t an actual rape, just staged that way. For comedic effect. Turned my stomach.

      I get what the OP is saying. It comes down to whether or not we throw out watching some actually excellent and female-empowering anime that truly speaks to women’s life and relationships because it sinks into rape and abuse humor. I loved KlK, too. But I can also acknowledge that some of the “jokes” were unfeminist and wish they weren’t there.

  • Joel Powell

    This is stellar. Thanks very much for this insightful essay.

  • Jacqueline Hentzen

    Of all anime to talk about with feminist/sexist themes to point out you chose Utena, Penguindrum, Kill la Kill and Madoka Magica? That’s… that’s ABSURD cherry-picking, but I shouldn’t complain — anime is SO huge in swathe and influence that you really need to give each individual series/franchise an individual look. I mean, you wanna talk disgusting misogeny in anime, you gotta look at Ikki Tousen or other Battle Vixen, titty-time fight shows (actually don’t, because Ikki Tousen is nasty — it’s icky, if you will) or harem rom-coms or, god forbid, Moe anime. Just… ugh, moe is skin-crawling.

    And, on a side note, you compare Utena and Penguindrum because they have the same director, but in the anime industry, the director actually doesn’t do what we’d expect so, two animes having the same director doesn’t necessarily mean much — a closer comparison for the anime industry would be Head Writer, who writes the story, plot, and then lets the director chose art style, tone, mood and atmosphere. Or, in simpler terms, anime directors are more like Western media producers, and Head Writers are more what we expect from directors. So… yeah, your comparison fell a little flat.

    • Katherine Cross

      Hello Jacqueline,

      I’m unclear on what you were getting at when you accused me of cherry picking, but if I understanding your criticism correctly, I’d advise you to reread what I wrote: I praised Utena and Madoka as anime that live up to the potential of the medium and then some. If you thought I was accusing them of embodying sexism, well, I have to ask if you actually read what I wrote or skimmed it?

      As to your critique about the role of directors: noted, thank you. I’ll keep that in mind for the future.