Archive for October, 2011

Warning! Some minor spoilers for volumes 5-24 of Naruto!

Well, I’ve already blabbed about Tsunade and Sakura and how they unfortunately fall into some female character pit traps so, I thought it was about time I wrote something positive about the women/girls of Naruto. I don’t know about the rest of you Naruto fans, but when I think of the girls/women of Naruto I think Sakura, Hinata, Tsunade, and maybe Ino. But as I was writing last week, a character that I really never fully appreciated popped into my head: Temari. Remember her, the tough girl from the Hidden Sand Village that tags along with Gaara? She may not be the star of the female characters of Naruto, but she might just be one of the best representations in Naruto of what a good female character in shonen (boys’) manga looks like.

Art by Masashi Kishimoto

When Temari first hits the scene just before the start of a large-scale ninja exam called the Chunin Exams, by mere virtue of the fact that the group that she’s with is intimidating, she becomes a bit scary herself, but she fades into the background in the presence of her comrades (and brothers), Gaara and Kankuro. Kankuro comes off as the tough, scary guy who you don’t want to mess with only to be swiftly upstaged by the seriously blood-chilling Gaara. Temari, on the other hand, stands by coolly, occasionally offering her brothers warnings or plays referee. While her brothers do overshadow her in the beginning, her sit-back-and-bide-her-time attitude makes her look like the most stable of the three in comparison; Kankuro picks a pointless fight with a kid and Gaara ends up looking psychopathic. Temari’s rational and cool behavior also pays testament to what readers later see are some of her major strengths. Her first appearance also shows her as the fountain of knowledge that many shonen girls seem to be and she does do a little batting of the eyes at Sasuke, but she shows a bite to her character that sets her apart from characters like Sakura.

Temari really doesn’t get a chance to show off her skills until the later parts of the Chunin Exam arc. Readers get a hint of her strength when she easily defeats her opponent in a match that decides who goes on to the finals, making her the only girl to advance, but it is not until the actual finals that Temari gets to show readers what she’s made of. When she finally does, it’s an exciting match between her and the hidden genius strategist of Naruto’s friends, Shikamaru. I loved this match-up for two reasons: 1) It’s a match between a girl and a guy. Too often do story writers of all medias restrict women to go up against women and men to go up against men. No, it doesn’t always happen, but it’s common enough that I find the former scenario more unusual. 2) By pitting Temari against such a brilliant mind, it shows off her strategical skills as well. Despite Shikamaru’s muttering about how a guy can’t lose to a girl and a guy can’t go around hitting a girl, it ends up being an interesting match between two very keen characters.

Art by Masashi Kishimoto/Translation by Mangareader.net

Art by Masashi Kishimoto

 I want to stop here and bring up something up about Temari’s character: her ruthlessness. As Temari establishes herself, she comes off as tough and even ruthless toward many of the other characters. When I first read through the Chunin Exam arc of Naruto I wasn’t a fan of Temari’s because of that; however, looking at it now I actually like this aspect of her character. Temari has lived in a tough environment and, when all this is taking place in the story, she’s in the middle of a tough situation and Naruto and his friends are her enemies. (It would be strange to say the least if she had frolicked around, giggling and making friends with everyone.)  Temari is certainly not the only female character that takes on an antagonist role, but she’s the only one that returns as an ally to use her powers alongside Naruto and the bunch. This allows readers to see her toughness as an asset. Yet she isn’t one of those female characters we’re seeing more of in fiction where they end up feeling like the Terminator (aka a male stereotype) in a women’s body. She’s tough, but she’s also definitely a woman.

The other wonderful thing about Temari is she is the only girl so far to have successfully protected a guy in Naruto. Thank you, Temari! Because, seriously, if these girls are supposed to be comrades shouldn’t they be able to aid a comrade?

Interestingly enough, she comes to the aid of none other than Shikamaru who can’t help but make some remark about men and women. Temari has a few words to say on that matter as seen in the picture below.

Art by Masashi Kishimoto/Translation by Mangareader.net

Honestly, after I thought about it, how could Temari not join the ranks of my favorite shonen manga female characters? She stands on her own, undefined by the male characters around her, and doesn’t fall into any female character pit traps (if you want to know about some of those, check out my posts on Tsunade and Sakura.) She’s not the star of the show, but in the limited times she has appeared, Temari has managed to make a definitive mark amongst her fellow female characters.

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Warning!! Some minor spoilers for Naruto!

Art by Masashi Kishimoto

Naruto, Sasuke, and Sakura. Three names that are highly popular in the manga/anime community. These are the names of three characters from the ever popular series, Naruto. Naruto, the protagonist of the series starts off the oddball kid striving to gain acknowledgment, Sasuke begins as the cool and handsome type who excels at anything he tries, but has a certain darkness about him, and finally, Sakura…well, she likes Sasuke. Harsh, yes, but this is honestly the first thing we, as readers of the manga or viewers of the anime, know about Sakura. Well, that and that Naruto has a crush on her (even though Sakura wouldn’t give Naruto the time of day in the beginning).

But Sakura actually has a lot of potential. Similar to Hermione from Harry Potter, she is the brainiac of the bunch and she’s eager to let you know it, comprehending some concepts before even genius Sasuke figures it out completely. And while she doesn’t have the brute strength or any special skills (initially) like the guys, Sakura has good control over some of the finer, technical points of ninja training like chakra (a type of energy) control. (For those of you unfamiliar with the story, it takes place in a fantasy world filled with modern ninja.) Sakura teaches Naruto and Sasuke a few things, here and there.

Despite this, Sakura sits on standby through much of the first several volumes of manga. There are a few moments of glory (Sakura showing up both Naruto and Sasuke at training then essentially teaching them how she did it being the best one), but mostly, she gawks over Sasuke, snaps at Naruto, participates in some dialogues, and stands on the sidelines.

Art by Masashi Kishimoto

Sakura isn’t stupid though, as I’ve said. She knows she’s the weakest link and that Naruto and Sasuke end up being the heroes while she does practically nothing comparatively. She’s just along for the ride. In an almost palpable wave of depression, this dawns of Sakura accompanied by symbolic pictures of her watching the backs of her two comrades. Luckily, Sakura isn’t the type to wallow in despair and do nothing to change the situation. She decides to change; no more looking at Naruto and Sasuke’s backs, she’s going to walk beside them from now on and be a real asset!

Art by Masashi Kishimoto/ Translation by Mangareader.net

Finally, after sitting around uncomfortably for so long, her feet tingling with sleep, she moves somewhat awkwardly at first, but then with new-found energy that bursts forth spectacularly. Following these awakenings are beautiful times for Sakura, her real shining moments and the Chunin Exam arc of the Naruto series showcase a number of them. Protecting Naruto and Sasuke in a moment of crisis and taking on an opponet in a heated brawl of brains and brawns is one example. But while these moments are full of Sakura asserting herself, realizing new potentials, and allowing the readers to get to know her better, they are undermined ever so slightly for me. I say that because even though Sakura tries to protect Naruto and Sasuke (and it is truly intense), she ends up being protected. By the end of the Chunin Exam arc, Sakura is forced to play the damsel in distress more than ever before when she’s under the threat of being killed by another young ninja if Sasuke and Naruto don’t beat him. This kind of sequence of events (gaining power, playing a key part, but reverting back to leaving everything to her comrades) has repeated itself at least twice since the second part of the series began. It’s disappointing as a fan, watching her make a breakthrough, but having this remade Sakura yanked away just when I was getting excited.

Art by Masashi Kishimoto

The other thing that always disappoints me about the Naruto series is that, despite showcasing many times the power of friendship, friendships between females are unfortunately lacking. Sakura’s one female friend that is depicted is her rival in both love and profession and the two constantly fight. It seems their chosen greeting for each other is Ino (the friend) making some jab about Sakura’s forehead (because Sakura believes she has a large one) and Sakura calling Ino a pig. It is revealed that once Ino and Sakura were close friends, but when they realized they both liked the same boy (Sasuke), they changed to rivals. Now as a reader and fan of Naruto I understand that being one’s rival is another way of being a friend in the series, something that is discussed often about Naruto and Sasuke’s relationship, but Naruto also has a lot of normal friends who aren’t rivals, but just plain old friends. It would have been good to see friendship between girls instead of the usual jealousy depicted between girls. I think the other problem is main reason why the two became rivals. Fighting over a guy that doesn’t return either of their feelings just seems a little sad. While Naruto is jealous of Sasuke because he has Sakura’s attention, that is not the main reason the two boys are rivals. It’s true, girls can be mean to each other and fight over guys, but it would be nice if good friendships were shown in fiction because, believe it or not, it does happen.

Art by Masashi Kishimoto

Both of these scenarios undermine great potential that exists and Naruto isn’t the only manga that does this to its female characters. I’m speaking to women and men both when I say wouldn’t it be more interesting if female characters like Sakura could make that extra leap of faith and not depend so much on the male characters around her or if good relationships were shown between girls? If for no other reason, it would be less expected and provide new scenarios. As I wrote this, it occurred to me that another female character in the series, Temari is a good example. She doesn’t appear as often as Sakura and readers don’t get much of a chance to see Temari interacting with other young women, but she stands on equal footing with her male comrades and is not placed in such weakened positions as other female characters in the series. Sounds like I need to do a piece on her!

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Today, I was delivered evidence for the need for the feminist cause in the form of a Halloween costume catalogue (Spirit Halloween‘s catalogue to be exact). It came just like all the other mail, smashed between a lot of junk mail, but its content had a lot more to say than my junk mail–whether the company that sent it knew it or not. Halloween catalogues used to bring me that anticipation and excitement akin only to Christmas when I would scan the ads for potential gifts. Halloween was different though; while I did pine for a massive collection of candy, I also looked forward to playing a character, being literally anything or anyone I wanted to be. I could be a bag of jelly beans if I wanted to!

Unfortunately, big Halloween costume companies aren’t always the best at providing such variety and in the past few years they’ve been giving me more of a stomach-ache than usual. Boys/men are offered manly costumes like bulked-up superheroes, scary chainsaw serial killers, as well as various historical costumes. Girls/women on the other hand can be pretty. A girl can be a pretty princess or a pretty pirate–even the scary costumes have been morphed into a gothic fairy tale full of dead cheerleaders and zombie prom queens! Vampires are always presented as seductive and it’s not uncommon for witches to be more like Glinda than the Wicked Witch of the West, but who ever heard of a stylish mummy? Other options include a punk-fashion Frankenstein, a ballerina-like skeleton, and tons of mischievously cute devils. Because, you know, girls/women don’t want to be scary. (Mummies are dead, right? Like, ew!) The women’s scary costumes shown in the catalogue are all sexy.

In fact, the scariest thing I typically see in the girls/women section of costumes is just how overtly sexy it all is. Yes, even the girls costumes. I have a problem with virtually all of the women’s costumes being sexy, but it’s really sick to be doing this to girls, too. Starting with the designated “tween” section, girls can get a taste for the sexy costumes their older sisters and moms can wear. Take a look at this tween costume below:(Note the handcuffs. Reminiscent of a profession other than a police officer?) The seller, Spirit places this costume called “Convict Cutie” under the age range of tween. According to Dictionary.com, a tween is “a youngster between 10 and 12 years of age, considered too old to be a child and too young to be a teenager.” Obviously, this model isn’t 10, but apparently that’s who Spirit is selling it to. I also love Spirit’s version of a teen girl costume of a police officer, firefighter, and other government jobs women have that pop culture feels compelled to sexualize. Hey, it matches Convict Cutie though! Now your pre-teen and teen can can parade as a pair as Convict Cutie and Officer Bombshell.

Officer Bombshell

Of course, it’s no surprise that the women’s version of these uniforms are that much worse (in terms of cut anyway; the pre-teens and teens win as far as the creepiness factor). Everything is about sex, sex, sex! Perhaps it’s nothing new, but do the companies have to flaunt it in our faces just how lopsided the costume standards are? Parts of the adult section in the catalogue feature both women’s and men’s costumes together so, in some places the male costume is placed directly beside the female equivalent. While a select few were ok, most depicted a woman showing lots of skin, fishnets, and come-and-take-me faces next to normal grinning guys in good costumes. It makes me think, “Um, can I have his costume?”

Let me stop here for a moment to say I’m not saying I have a problem with a woman choosing one of these costumes. Honestly, it’s not my business if someone wants to put one of these on. What I do have a problem with is the lack of choices. Why must all of the costumes for females aged 10 and up be sexy? And why must tweens be sexy at all?

Which brings me to my next problem: it seems companies like Spirit Halloween are grooming girls into sexier and sexier costumes. Many of the tween/teen costumes that lean toward the sexy side have adult counterparts. Check out this Miss Muffet costume morph from tween to adult to really adult. 

It just strikes me as odd. In the end, I can’t say whether big costume companies like Spirit Halloween excel at quality, but they certainly excel at offering a sexist variety of costumes, feeding into social stereotypes.

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Last week I went to a book club discussion. I’ve never really been a part of a book club before, but when I heard the book being discussed would be Gail Collins’ When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, I decided to go at the last minute; if it gave me the opportunity to hear opinions on a good book on the history of feminism, I had to go.

It was a relatively small gathering, apparently not accumulating as many readers as last month’s, but promising an interesting discussion nonetheless. In the end, there were five women (including myself) and three men, ranging in diversity from a grandmother who experienced much of what the book discussed to a man and a woman from other countries who could compare America’s feminist progress to their own country’s. Certainly, it was an eye-opening experience.

However, one of the topics that stuck the most with me was about today’s feminism. A number of the people present seemed to believe that the feminism movement was going just as strong as in the past and without receiving as much grief from non-feminists. Certainly, there are feminists continuing to strive for equality, but there’s also a large group trying stubbornly to soundly undermine them. I also have to wonder how we can compare our current feminist movement to that of the past when nowadays many people (including young women that could be the strength of a feminist movement) are under the impression that feminism isn’t even needed anymore. These people think we’re all fine and peachy now that women are able to wear pants without grief even though women are still being paid less than men.

There’s the classic, “I believe in equal rights for women, but I’m not a feminist” phrase that really says a lot about some people’s view of feminism. It’s been warped in many people’s minds from a cause for equality to something ugly and extreme. Thanks to people like Rush Limbaugh and his famous invention of the word “feminazi” and other media, people don’t want to associate themselves with feminism.

On Feminist Frequency, Anita Sarkeesian used the sixth part of her Tropes vs. Women series for Bitch Magazine to point out just how the media has tried to sabotage people’s opinions of feminism through the use of what she calls the “straw feminist” trope. Sarkeesian explains that the media not only presents viewers with feminist extremists in this trope (if you can even call these characters “feminist”), but also feeds them the idea that feminism isn’t needed anymore. This makes anyone who dares to call themselves a feminist look crazy and extreme. Similar issues are discussed in Susan J. Douglas’ book Enlightened Sexism: the seductive message that feminism’s work is done.

 Hey. I’d love it if feminism wasn’t needed anymore, too, but if people are just going to believe it isn’t needed, they may as well try to believe away the recession as well. As long as companies like Hardee’s and JCPenny are still using scantily clad women as the bait to get customers, Hollywood is still shoving offense female stereotypes at viewers (while pointedly not presenting us with many realistic female characters), and the government won’t allow women to make their own health decisions, we still need feminism.

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