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Archive for April, 2013

images-74Gurren Lagann is one of those anime series I’ve long heard praised so, I decided it was high time I found about for myself what all the fuss was about. The series takes place in a world where humans have moved underground to flee the Spiral King and the “beastmen” who use machines to wipe humans off the earth. Thus, the humans secluded themselves into small villages with no contact with the surface or other humans. Simon, a small, unimposing young man who spends most his time digging, and his outspoken, reckless friend, Kamina dream of leaving their dank village underground and going to the surface.  One day, after Simon comes across a strange object that turns out to be a key to a machine like those the beastmen use. After a girl (Yoko) fighting a beastman falls from the surface into their village, Simon and Kamina use the newly-found machine to defeat the beastman and break through to the surface. Together with Yoko, they begin to wage war against the beastmen.

While Gurren Lagann is unique in many ways, at the halfway mark of the second season, I’m feelings a bit disengaged as a female viewer. Of the cast of female characters that have been assembled, almost all of them are heavily subjected to fan service and/or fall victim to the damsel in distress cliche to give the male characters motivation. That’s not to say that the female characters sit on the side lines all the time (Yoko and two side female characters do participate in battles), but somehow I feel the way they are presented undermines them.images-71

For instance, there have been two episodes that either had good portions or the full episode devoted to fan service. One takes place at a hot spring and involves Kamina and Simon trying to figure out how to catch a peek of the girls naked. Later, the girls are held hostage dressed in towels, reducing them to not only sex objects, but sex objects that need rescuing. The other episode involves bathing suits. Need I say more? The guys drool over the girls since it’s a chance to see them less covered. Yoko, who is usually in little more than a bikini top and short-shorts, actually wears a bathing suit that covers her more than usual and is disregarded as a result. To be fair, the show mixes in a fair amount of zaniness, which these episodes were playing up, but by focusing so much on the female characters’ bodies, it reduces them to fan fare.

yokoAs the two main female protagonists, Yoko and Nia, both suffer from female character clichés. Yoko is no helpless maiden. She’s been fighting the enemy for some time now in what seemed to be a losing battle. Once Simon and Kamina join the fight, new life is breathed into the resistance. At that point, Yoko could have just relied totally on the guys from then on, but she doesn’t. She is put into more of a supporting role, but she’s good at watching her comrades’ backs. Unfortunately, Yoko’s strengths, both inner and outer, take a back seat to her exterior appearance. For some reason, this character who’s fighting a war dresses in a bikini top that’s slightly too small for her and short shorts. Viewers are constantly getting shots of Yoko’s breasts, even when she’s in battle, taking a shot at the enemy, the view is such that we (conveniently) get to see her boobs bounce from the kick-back of her gun. Thus, Yoko largely gets reduced to eye candy.

On the other hand, Nia is more traditional, playing the part of the girl with inner strength that relies on the male protagonist. Don’t get me wrong; a female character doesn’t have to shoot a gun or punch people to be strong. In fact, if she can pick up a gun, but has nothing beyond that, I’m not sure I could call her a strong female character. There’s something to be admired in characters like Nia who show such inner strength. Nia has been abandoned by the people she knew and her own father. She’s told she was little more than a pretty doll to him, something to be admired for its beauty and discarded when one grows tired of it, and she has been thrust out into a world she knows very little about as being sheltered for so long. Her whole world has been turned upside down yet she has the strength to assess the situation and make her own decisions. The problem occurs here: whenever Nia is in trouble, she’s not worried in the least, not because she has a plan to save herself as Iimages-72 initially thought, but because she has such strong faith that Simon will rescue her and anyone else in trouble. It’s nice that she has such faith in Simon–one of the first besides Kamina to recognize it–but that total reliance, or rather dependence, and expectation that someone will come to her aid is pretty cliché.

As I watch Gurren Lagann I do see hope for its female protagonists. While I’m not sure it will ever be excellent in terms of female characters given the way the show has treated them so much as fan service, I’m hoping for more development to take these characters to the next level. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

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What is gender? Are people of one sex or the other inherently gifted with certain skills or strengths or does that have more to do with gender roles that we learn as we grow up? Earlier this week, I came across some intriguing questions of gender posed by none other than Haruka Ten’ou from the famous Sailor Moon series.

51NX8K6ppBL._SY300_When Haruka first makes an appearance in the manga, we see a person with short hair in a racer’s suit wearing a confident smile, pointing back to a race car and exclaiming excitement over the speed of it. Haruka is supposed to be the best race car driver in Japan. He goes to a prestigious private school where young talents supposedly gather, skilled in judo, handsome, and even has a famous and elegant violinist for a girlfriend. By all accounts, Haruka is the ideal man. However, things aren’t so simple in Sailor Moon. As we later discover, Haruka is actually biologically female, but she stretches protagonist Usagi’s (as well as the reader’s) ideas of gender.

During the time when Usagi and her friends still believe Haruka to be male, Haruka challenges one of the girls, Mako, to a friendly judo match. When Haruka easily defeats Mako, throwing her full-force onto the mat, one of the other girls scolds Haruka for using “his” full strength against a “frail girl.” Now, as readers of Sailor Moon will know, this series is not one to play on societal ideas of strong, stoic men who protect frail, helpless girls (in fact, more often than not, the roles are almost reversed with the girls rescuing the guys) and through Usagi and her friends, we a shown that strength takes a variety of shapes, both physical and mental. Yet even these strong young women have taken in the message the women are inherently frail compared to men. Haruka, however, questions this thought process. “Gender shouldn’t matter,” she tells them. “Do you think it’s okay for a woman to lose to a man just because of her gender? If you believe that, how could you ever protect those who are important to you?” In turn, Mako doesn’t want to believe she lost simply because of her sex. While biology works in such a way that men are often bigger and therefore likely stronger than many of their female counterparts, that doesn’t make women frail nor does it mean it is impossible for a woman to be stronger than a man.2108-25_FRQTJ-SM_comic_22_43

But Haruka takes it further than that. Eventually, Usagi realizes that there is more to Haruka than meets the eye. She is confused about Haruka’s sex and bothered that she can’t figure it out. Haruka appears to be male given her appearance and way of dress, but she could easily pass for female, too. She finally asks Haruka if she’s a man or woman, but Haruka replies with an interesting question: does it really matter one way or the other?

Usagi’s confusion over Haruka’s sex is understandable; after all, a person’s sex is usually obvious to us and whether we are conscious of it or not, this often changes the way we interact with that person. We can refer to someone as “he” or “she,” choose or avoid colors associated with a certain sex when we buy merchandise for that person, or treat that person more gently or bluntly depending on whether that person is a boy or a girl. That’s where we get into issues of behaviors that are more accepted or put down according to societal ideas of gender roles. Because someone’s sex plays such a defining role in life, it becomes important information to individuals. It should be noted that while most societies only recognize male and female, there are actually some societies that have three choices, including a third option for those who may be biologically male or female but identify more with the opposite sex.images-70

Finally, switching over to more magical elements, it struck me that Haruka is said to be endowed with both male and female strengths as a result of her having the powers of Uranus. Many of us may find that our sex (what we are biologically) and gender (socially constructed ideas about male and female identities) overall in that you are a female with feminine qualities or a male with masculine qualities, most of us probably also have some traits traditionally associated with the opposite sex.

The introduction of Haruka’s character has added some interesting dynamics to an already wonderful series. Once again, it’s amazing how something fiction can raise such complex and intriguing questions about things we all may deal with in our day-to-day lives without giving it a second thought. If you like questions about gender roles and want to read about more manga that bring up those kinds of questions, see my post on Otomen.

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