So-called nerd culture has, over the last few years, been forced to take a moral inventory. Women and minorities have always consumed this media; lately, and loudly, some of us have been asking to see ourselves better-reflected, at least in comics and video games. In anime, that conversation is just starting.
Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood
Anime fan Amelia Cook is carving out a place for it. She's fluent in Japanese, just watched the whole slate of anime premieres for Crunchyroll's fall season and counts herself a proud feminist. For some time, she's been looking for a place online for anime fans to hold congress over fan service, anime content that, primarily, uses female sexuality to keep viewers interested.
Earlier this week, Cook launched the site Anime Feminist. She runs it along with about 20 contributors, all anime watchers, all people who believe that some of the tropes of anime , the fan-service, mainly, deserve a more substantial critique. Yesterday, I talked to her about her new site, about the idea of criticism vs. censorship and about her hopes for a wider array of anime for men and women to view that isn't determined by the "male boner":
Cecilia D'Anastasio: When did you start thinking that there was need for a site like Anime Feminist?
Amelia Cook: I watched anime first in the '90s and early 2000s. I stopped watching for a while because it became so hard and so expensive and time-consuming to find anime that treated female characters well. Now, with simulcasts, it's easier to test new anime to see how they treat their female characters. But there still wasn't a lot of discussion about feminism in anime. Viewers focus on their personal tipping points for what is acceptable and unacceptable. I want to see anime characters not objectified or infantilized.
D'Anastasio: What's an anime that you think portrays women well?
Cook: My personal favourite is actually Planetes. It's set in a workplace, men and women are working together. It's got women of colour. It's an anime I love, and every time I rewatch it, I enjoy it. It's not a perfect anime, but perfect is very difficult.
D'Anastasio: Was there a specific trope in anime that inspired Anime Feminist? Something that made you think, "A conversation about women in anime needs to exist"?
Cook: I think one example is Active Raid. It isn't a very popular anime. I was watching it and, for the first part, everything was very neutral. And then, suddenly, you get a close-up shot of [the protagonist's] butt when she's doing a transformation sequence. It was so unnecessary. It was so out of sync with the rest of the mecha show. There's nothing about its premise that needs to sexualize these characters.
That's what gets to me the most. When it's not baked into the premise. You go in with some expectations and then suddenly there's panty shots. It's just insidious.
D'Anastasio: Really, that just seems to be fan service. What's the issue? It's like, "Here's the meat of the anime, with a little pepper sprinkled on top." It's not the whole thing.
Cook: If you want something that's all fan service, seek out something like [butt-fighting sports anime] Keijo. The idea that this kind of thing adds value… It's "fan service." It's not serving the plot, not the characterization, but the hypothetical male boner. This is targeting straight men who specifically will be so turned on by this that they will see it as a reason to continue watching the anime.
D'Anastasio: What's wrong with catering to the so-called "hypothetical male boner"? That's an audience. I want you to tell me the goals of "Anime Feminist" when there is a big market for anime that objectifies women.
Cook: Our website isn't for taking anything away from anime at all. Fan service is threaded into all kinds of anime. One example I'd give is Flip Flappers. It's beautiful. It's a really beautiful fairy tale anime about two young girls. It seems to be headed down a queer route. Women will find that really appealing.
But then you have a scene where a root picks these girls up and starts grabbing at them with a mechanical tentacle-like extremity, grabbing at her skirt to get at her thighs. And she's screaming "No!" and looks tearful. That seems gratuitous to me. But that would count as fan service to someone else. It isn't expanded on in the story in a way that would justify that in my mind. But some people enjoy that and think its funny.
D'Anastasio: So would you have them get rid of the scene? What are you asking for?
Cook: It's not censorship, because we're not asking animators in Japan to stop making anything. Were not asking people to ban anything. We're not asking for any rules to be put in place. What we'd like to see is more anime being created to give more options to people. You watch Flip Flappers and think it's going to be a sweet, innocent story. In the middle, you get a scene that's quite uncomfortable to watch. With Scorching Ping Pong Girls, you think it will be about young women playing ping pong, but then you have moments that objectify these teenaged girls. You don't need all anime to have scenes like that in it. Most doesn't need to have those scenes to get an audience.
D'Anastasio: That's true. I like the idea of there being more options. How did you prepare to launch Anime Feminist?
Cook: I just watched every premiere in the Fall [Crunchyroll] season over the last week.
D'Anastasio: Woah. What'd you think?
Cook: There's never a season that's 100% bad or good. It's not like that. On one end of the spectrum, you have something like Yuri on Ice, which has a guy being naked in the first episode, some man service. There are female characters and they seem well-represented but they're not star characters just yet. That seems to be catering more toward female audiences who want to see that kind of content.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have Keijo, which is completely unembarrassed about the fact that it's trying to turn on straight male viewers. That's why it was made. You go in knowing what it's for, who it's for. It makes it easier to accept than stuff that's between two ends of the spectrum.
D'Anastasio: What stood out to you this season? Was there anything particularly bad or good in your view?
Cook: We have two sports anime featuring women this season. One is Keijo the other is Scorching Ping Pong Girls, which literally has a character named "mune-mune," which translates to "chest-chest." If you were to localise that, it's be "boobie-boobie." I know Japanese. She shows up on screen and it says "Third-year mune mune sempai." It would be, "15-years-old boobie-boob." That is horrendous. I find that much more difficult to deal with than Keijo, which tells you up front what it is. In Scorching Ping Pong Girls, they're wearing normal school uniforms and then you have the close-up to this girl's chest. People respond, "That's just Japanese culture." But Japanese girls shouldn't be named for their body parts like this.
D'Anastasio: So, do you feel comfortable evaluating a Japanese cultural product through a Western feminist lens?
Cook: I feel very comfortable. Anime fandom has a cultural resistance to critique that I don't really understand. I have a degree in Japanese studies. I speak Japanese. I understand Japanese. Much of the staff has lived in the country. One of the purposes of the site is to get Japanese people's voices published, too. We'd like to get Japanese people talking about this from their perspective.
Even if we get it wrong, we're fine apologizing. If we make a point and someone says, "Actually, in Japanese culture, this looks different because...," we'd accept that and make a new article. The point is to add to conversation. Right now, anime fandom seems very comfortable with one specific perspective.
D'Anastasio: What is the feminist discourse about anime like in Japan? It's a pretty niche thing over there. It's not like everyone in Japan watches anime, and especially not the super fan-servicey shows we're talking about.
Cook: Anime kind of exists on two levels in Japan. It's niche there. Like here, there's a culture of acceptance around anime, fan service, objectification. People either put up with it or they don't. That's how it's been in Western anime fandom for decades. Anime Feminist wants to create a space where people can raise those concerns, raise those questions, and change the conversation to encompass more views.
D'Anastasio: How exactly will you be doing that?
Cook: Right now, we're running on a blog level. We're posting reviews for the full season. We really look for what kinds of concerns feminist viewers might have. We've talked about fan service, offensive portrayals of gay people, female characters who aren't given a lot of agency. We're raising these points. We're creating a line of discussion that people will expand on. That's one approach.
We're not saying don't watch it or licence it, we're saying that's what's there. There have also been times that I, as a straight feminist, say, "I'm not happy with how these women are treated," only to be told by queer feminists, "Actually that portrayal was really meaningful to me." That's an important conversation. We'd like to create a discussion forum, where people can speak without worrying about the kind of backlash you expect speaking in forums now. It all depends on funding. We need to be able to play people fairly.
D'Anastasio: What do you think the response will be to Western feminist criticism in anime? Using words like "feminism," "objectification" and "infantilization" can be immediately off-putting to people who aren't used to talking like that. How do you rationalize it?
Cook: I published three articles on The Mary Sue this year. On objectification, sexualization, infantilization. As a result of publishing those articles, I was told to kill myself, I was sent pictures of dead bodies, nooses, guns, insults, abuse. It went on for days. People were digging up my LinkedIn, threatening to contact my work and get me fired. They tweeted at magazines I contributed to. I've been prepared for that backlash since before I started an anime blog.
The final article I put on The Mary Sue, which was on masculinity, got an enormous backlash. But after, people in anime fandom were standing up and saying, "This response is unacceptable. She didn't even say anything that controversial." A lot of people approach me and make it clear that there's an appetite in anime fandom for this kind of critique. A lot of people are appalled by the idea that this discussion can't or shouldn't take place. That's given me a lot more confidence starting a project like this.
D'Anastasio: I've received the question, "What does it matter if women are portrayed badly in anime? They're fictional women." What are your thoughts on this?
Cook: There are many, many women, queer people, non-binary people, people of colour who can tell you quite clearly why it matters to them personally, and I think everyone should listen to their stories. If empathy isn't enough to convince you, more objective reasons why sexualized or infantilized representation of women is a problem include the fact that it's poor storytelling. It ruined the immersive experience for many cinema-goers when Star Trek took Carol Marcus' clothes off for no narrative purpose, to the point that they apologised. But this kind of thing is common in anime and we accept it as the price of admission. Not everyone will care about storytelling quality in anime, or any media they consume, but high profile critics do, and most won't waste their time reviewing — in other words, promoting — anything that they don't expect to meet their basic standards for quality.
D'Anastasio: Yeah, it can be hard to recommend anime to people who have the impression that most of it is, well, not very thoughtful.
Cook: I have a lot of friends who used to watch anime but don't anymore, partly because, like me, it became too hard to seek out anime that treated women well. There are also lots of people who are enthusiastic about other geek properties but won't touch anime because of its reputation of infantilizing women and sexualizing children. It makes it hard to recommend anime to people who aren't already fans. Would anime lose viewers if women were only gratuitously sexualized in shows like Keijo rather than in shows like Scorching Ping Pong Girls? I don't think so.