Last year, I visited Otakon, the East Coast’s largest anime convention, for the first time. I covered two panels there, about sexism in anime and fandom, and navigating LGBT representation in anime and fan culture.
This year was a different experience; I’ve watched more anime lately, and I spent way more time focused on anime-specific things this year – while the convention itself seemed to go further from its strictly Japanese focus, as there were even more people dressing as characters from or organizing meet-ups for Western geek properties. There were also less LGBT-focused panels this time around, though still plenty talking about women, and their representation. I ended up attending two panels related to this on Friday, a “Study in Heroines” talk focused on the magical girl series Revolutionary Girl Utena and Puella Magi Madoka Magica, and “Anime Amazons,” about what actually makes for a strong female character in anime and video games.
Again, I’ll make a disclaimer that I’m mostly reporting on what the panelists said with some of my own conclusions based on my own knowledge of the same media, but I’ll try not to make any sweeping assumptions about Japanese culture since I am a white, Western anime fan who doesn’t know a lot about it. And my article should be read with that clarification in mind.
Study in Heroines: Utena and Madoka Magica
I was excited for this, since I adore Puella Magi Madoka Magica and am getting into Revolutionary Girl Utena (after many recommendations for it). Utena is one of the most influential and iconic shojo (anime aimed at teenage girls) series of all time, doing so much to both define and deconstruct its genre. Puella Magi Madoka Magica is a dark, subversive take on magical girl that’s one of the most popular anime of the last few years, which I discussed in my article on magical girls and feminism.
The panelist here was Katriel “Kit” Paige of Digital Flowerstorm, who does a variety of panels for conventions on Japanese culture, and she discussed issues of heroism and compassion in Utena and Madoka. The panel focused particularly on whether the heroines of Utena and Madoka Magica showed a different type of “heroism” from traditional male heroes.
Warning: Spoilers for Puella Magi Madoka Magica ahead!
Utena and Madoka may be major examples in the anime genre of female heroism, but they both subvert a lot of gender roles associated with it. For example, take the idea that men go for direct confrontation and women go for emotional manipulation. Both have confrontational female characters (like Madoka‘s Sayaka and Kyoko) and Utena has manipulative male characters such as Touga. Utena subverts gendered types of heroism in its very premise: Utena Tenjou is both a prince and a princess, who wants to save others and be saved. Yet, the bulk of Paige’s focus on how the shows play with gender roles was with their attitudes toward compassion and sacrifice.
The difference in male and female heroines with regard to compassion is something that can be seen in a lot of magical girl series, when comparing them to boy-oriented series like those in the shonen (aimed at teenage boys) genre, which forms the plurality of popular anime series in the USA. While themes of self-sacrifice for others can be found in shonen (such as Fullmetal Alchemist), it’s a theme I’ve seen far more in stuff aimed at women and girls. There’s also much more of a sense of teamwork, rather than it all resting on one powerful hero(ine)’s shoulder, and of “defeating” people by being kind to them. (Princess Tutu, an iconic magical girl series I recently finished and loved, is a great example; the titular character cures those possessed by heart shards by dancing with them, and getting them to admit their true feelings. No “battle” necessary.)
Something Paige pointed out with regard to her two series is that they’re not as straightforward in their embrace of compassion as other works. There’s a repeated theme that compassion is good, but only to a point, and self-preservation is important, too. For example, in Madoka Magica, Homura’s strong investment in Madoka and continual time-resets to save her might temporarily make things better, but just keep delaying Madoka’s fate and, ultimately, worsen it. She’s paralyzed by her compassion, trapped in an endless loop. Sayaka, an even more altruistic character, is doomed to a sad fate in every timeline because she can’t separate her drive to save the world from her selfish desire to prove herself to her crush. Yet, at the end, it’s Homura’s and Sayaka’s compassion that cause Madoka to make her fateful wish that changes the system, and improves the state of magical girls by saving them from being turned into witches.
The point, Paige said, was that sacrifices had to mean something. One had to be fighting for something – not selfless – and to understand the consequences of their actions. Characters like Sayaka fail because she didn’t understand the consequences of her actions, and because toward the end, she was motivated by pure altruism, rather than toward any specific goal. Compassion is good, but it has its limits.
I thought one could apply this in a larger context in examining how these series’ approaches help feminism and better women. It’s easy for some to see a series that wholly praises compassion and self-sacrifice as a triumph for “feminine values” and therefore for feminism, while ignoring that those values’ emphasis for women has an anti-feminist purpose, too. Encouraging men to consider themselves first and keep going for their goals, while women are urged to sacrifice their ideals for others’ sake, reinforces patriarchal structures by making sure there are more men in positions of power. The fact that these series encourage women to think of themselves and not abandon their own desires, but still emphasize compassion as a virtue, means they uphold both female power and feminine-coded values.
As Paige put it, overall these series emphasize the idea of having someone to look out for you: that you’re not alone, as per Madoka’s line at the end of Madoka Magica. This is again, something that can be seen in other series: Princess Tutu’s method of saving people is not by “fixing” their feelings but rather recognizing and processing them. The idea is that everyone has their issues and often the best thing to do is not to save them – something often motivated by a selfish desire for recognition – but to simply listen. And that’s a triumph of feminine-coded values, of emotional intuition rather than direct confrontation, that doesn’t involve women having to sacrifice anything.
There is so much to talk about with this panel and what it said about anime heroines, and how they save the world in their own ways. Of the two panels on female characters that I attended, it was the one less-focused on feminist analysis, yet there was still plenty of discussion in that vein to be had. For a more explicit approach to those issues, though, I only had to wait a few hours for another look at anime ladies and how they stacked up to the dudes around them.
Next: ANIME AMAZONS
Probably my favorite panel of the entire convention, “Anime Amazons” was hosted by Kristiina Korpus, Kim Grzesik and Carly Smith and focused on the portrayal of “strong female characters” in anime, manga and (mostly Japanese) video games. They had a fairly expansive definition of “Amazon” – not just stereotypical female superheroes and gun-or-sword-slinging “badasses”, but just about any woman who was fighting for something.
They began by talking about the obvious example: magical girl series such as the aforementioned three, Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura. Their characters are generally pointed out as excellent role models for girls, and have influenced even Western girls’ cartoons, such as The Powerpuff Girls and the latest incarnation of the My Little Pony series, Friendship is Magic. Yet, the panelists pointed out that even some of these have limits. In the early episodes of Sailor Moon, heroine Usagi Tsukino had a tendency to be a damsel-in-distress to her love interest, Tuxedo Mask. Of course, by the end of the first season, that dynamic was very much reversed and would remain there, with Mamoru becoming a favorite whipping boy for each season’s Big Bad. But still, even Sailor Moon had places to improve, for playing into that stereotype initially.
Unsurprisingly, most of the series where they pointed out awesome female characters were those aimed at women – shojo or josei (the older version of shojo, anime focused on young adult women). It’s no surprise that media aimed at girls is generally going to try harder to represent women positively. Yet, the panelists made sure to examine anime aimed at men or boys, like shonen, and show how it was often better than we expected, but still left a lot to be desired.
In this section, they did an in-depth look at the female characters of one of the most popular shonen series of the past decade, Fullmetal Alchemist. This was fascinating to me since I love FMA; the first of its two anime series is my favorite anime ever. The franchise is one that also seems to get a lot of praise in fannish circles for how it treats its women, but I always felt like it majorly missed the mark in that regard, and the “Anime Amazons” panel helped me better articulate why.
On the plus side, the show’s female characters are well-developed, often showing a blending of “masculine” and “feminine” traits – like real women. For example, Winry Rockbell, the protagonist’s best friend and love interest, is girly and enjoys domestic tasks like baking, but her main goal in life is to become an accomplished mechanic, and she obsesses over fancy tools and the like. The series is also not too big on gratuitous fanservice or male-gaze pandering, and what it does have in that regard, it more than matches with shirtless scenes for its muscular men. The author of the FMA manga, Hiromu Arakawa, is a woman, and that shows in how she writes women.
However, even if FMA’s women are better-developed than a lot of shonen girls, they still are largely defined by their male love interests. For example, Lieutenant Riza Hawkeye, a badass gunslinger and war veteran, is still defined largely around her commanding officer and implied love interest, Roy Mustang, serving as his bodyguard and as support to his goal to reform the country; she outright says she couldn’t live without him. And while there’s plenty of focus on Winry’s career and her personal struggles, she is, as the panelists put it, mainly there to provide someone for the male protagonists to come home to when their battles end. There are at least two older ladies, powerful alchemist and housewife Izumi Curtis and fierce military commander Olivier Armstrong, who are excellent exceptions. But overall, there’s a very patriarchal pattern to how the women of FMA are written, as the panelists pointed out:
This brings me to one of the few places where I disagreed with the panelists: the issue of choice. Their conclusion was, because these characters chose to follow men, FMA ultimately wasn’t sexist. However, while I agree that “choice” is an important part of feminism when it comes to real-life women (though, it shouldn’t mean we don’t examine how societal gender programming influences said choices), it doesn’t quite apply to fictional characters, who literally don’t have agency – their choices are determined by their writers. Ultimately, it’s very easy for an author (like Twilight author Stephenie Meyer, who also uses this defense for her own books) to give his or her female characters a pattern of choices that are in line with restrictive gender expectations and that define them around men, by making it as though it’s the female character who wants them that way. And when it’s a pattern, as it is in FMA, it can suggest troubling things about “what women want.”
Even within the shonen genre, though, the panelists mentioned that there were other titles where women had greater presence. The anime Soul Eater, for example, includes a powerful girl as main character as well as a strong female antagonist, something relatively rare in male-centered anime, especially in a form where her character doesn’t imply hateful things about women as a class. Another example, Claymore, has women filling nearly the entire cast, in roles where the boys would usually be, and the men are in the sideline, “useless” roles.
At this point, the conversation largely shifted to video games, a topic where I’m less well-versed. But one thing that one could easily take away is that women’s presence in games has improved over the decades. They mentioned the Tomb Raider games as ones where, while perhaps not all that progressive in how they catered to the male gaze, set a precedent that men would play games with female protagonists. They also mentioned franchises like Pokémon which have made more room for women as time goes on, such as adding the option of playing as a female character in 2001. And now we’re getting more games that are actually aimed at women, or at least acknowledge that women who want strong-yet-relatable versions of themselves in games are a market. Video game culture is still very sexist, but they revealed with their examples that the games themselves have often given us some well-rounded and capable female characters.
Overall, the takeaway that was there are a lot of ways to be an “Amazon.” The panelists didn’t just talk about good-vs.-evil stories, but even more slice-of-life ones like Nana that had fantastic women in them. As they said at the end, what makes a female character an “Amazon” is not how she fights, but what she’s fighting for.
What’s great about anime and other fan conventions that are as large as Otakon, is you can find whatever niche you want among its myriad panels, workshops and other activities. If you want an autograph from a famous voice actor, to learn how to improve your cosplay, or simply to blow lots of cash in the dealer’s room, there’s a place for you. But there’s also a place for difficult conversations about women and their representation in anime, from various perspectives. And that continues to be the most rewarding part to me, year after year.