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Image from Amazon.com

Have you ever looked at the cover of the latest fashion magazine or celebrity gossip magazine and envied the body of the featured model or actor? Have you gone to great lengths to look good, or feel bad because you don’t fit the image on the magazine? Even if you haven’t done or felt any of these things, it’s likely that someone you know has, which is what makes Kyoko Okazaki’s Helter Skelter, a josei manga about our obsession with beauty, such an unnerving read.

For a story of the hidden beastliness of the beauty culture, there’s no better protagonist than Liliko, a supermodel whose gorgeous face has all of Japan captivated. Yet behind that mask of perfect beauty lies dark secrets. Liliko smiles and titters in front of the camera, putting on an act of effortlessness, but in reality, she’s gone to the farthest lengths possible to achieve her beauty, undergoing an excruciating full-body plastic surgery in order to become gorgeous enough to make it in the modeling industry. Even so, the ticking hands of time haunt Liliko, an incessant reminder of the inevitable limit to her beauty and the interest the public has in her. After clawing her way to fame and fortune, her beauty, and the life she’s built around it, begin to unravel, and Liliko spirals further into a world of madness and violence as her desperation to stay beautiful and beloved grows.

Of all the books, manga, movies, and other fiction I’ve been exposed to, Liliko definitely ranks among the top levels of disturbed and disturbing protagonists. She attacks rivals in love and beauty, takes her hatred of herself out on others in the most twisted fashions, and in general seems the kind of unsavory character one would strive to avoid. What is perhaps most captivating about Helter Skelter is that, despite it all, Liliko’s desperation to retain her youth and beauty remains somehow understandable. Liliko exists in an amplified version of the daily pressure people experience to look, dress, and act a certain way, an industry where your worth (and income) depends entirely on your physical appeal. Low self-esteem and limited options eats at Liliko, and she relies on the image that she’s crafted to survive. It’s a job that leaves her feeling empty. In order to become the beloved Liliko, she makes herself into whatever the public desires, not just her body, but also her personality. She splits herself in two in order to present a dream Liliko to the media who manages to give the public what they want to hear without say anything at all, a pretty blank slate that reflects only fantasies. All the while she privately lets loose a personality shaped by a cruel reality.

As mangaka Okazaki suggests, however, hanging your self-worth on something as precarious as your fame as a supermodel, or more simply, your beauty, is a dangerous gamble, and one that will inevitably stop paying off. Liliko knows it, and this knowledge drives her further into a corner. She clings to a wealthy and spoiled young heir who the hardworking Liliko despises, believing that he’ll be her meal ticket when she’s too old to model. She becomes extremely antagonistic toward younger models and other women who threaten her position. And as her exterior begins to give way and all her struggling seems to be for nothing, her mental state crumbles as well. Liliko begins to wonder what her worth is when her only function is to wear clothes and pose, and tries to make herself feel better by abusing her manager, hellbent on dragging others down with her. She’s trapped, having made herself as beautiful as possible in the eyes of others yet with nowhere to go but down by the standards of society. Even her younger co-worker Kozue, the natural beauty who’s been modeling since she was a small child, cannot seem to break free of the fashion industry. Despite wanting to disappear from the public’s eye and desiring to pursue an education, she feels that her skills are limited to modeling. In one of the manga’s more surreal sections, an image of a beef cut chart slapped into one of Liliko’s dreams reiterates the sense that these women are little more than meat.

But as Helter Skelter shows, it’s not just the models trapped in a space where their worth rests on their beauty. This obsession with beauty is something that infects society as a whole. It’s interesting that the summary on Vertical’s English edition of Helter Skelter frames it as an examination of celebrity culture and the cost of fame. While it is indeed those things, Helter Skelter criticizes beauty culture, and peels back the layers to reveal a vicious cycle of body image, the media, and society.  Interspersed throughout Liliko’s breakdown are scenes of faceless girls and young women preoccupied with their looks, idolizing the illusion that is Liliko as true beauty, fretting over their flaws, and strategizing how to become prettier. Liliko’s full-body plastic surgery may seem fictitious, but it’s not too far from the truth. Women use plastic surgery in an attempt to obtain the unobtainable photoshopped beauty that we see daily on glossy magazine covers and movie posters. Ugly and disturbing as it is, what the desperate Liliko reflects is our own desperation to be perceived as beautiful, as well as our fears of aging. And it’s a never-ending cycle, as Okazaki shows us. As Liliko falls, other young women take her place, seeking beauty just as frantically as Liliko.

Okazaki’s Helter Skelter is not an easy manga to read. I knew that when I purchased it, and it sat on my bookshelf for months before I finally decided to brave this twisted josei manga that rips through the sleek appearance of the fashion industry and pop culture with knife-like sharpness. Readers should note that this manga is rated mature, and for good reasons. Although it’s presented to make an intelligent point, it nevertheless features numerous disturbing scenes of sexual abuse and violence. But Okazaki’s manga Helter Skelter isn’t supposed to leave its readers feeling warm and fuzzy. This harsh, surreal reflection of reality that Okazaki has created is meant to unnerve you. If you’re looking for a thought-provoking examination of beauty, media and celebrities, and the effects these things have on the mind, look no further.

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Hi readers! I’m sorry for the long stretch of silence! I am currently buried under a mountain of books and a small hill of essays as I finish up my final year as an English major and, much as I’ve wanted to, I haven’t been able to extract myself out from under it in order to blog. However, this blog is not dead, and I plan to start blogging again over the semester break. Thank you to everyone who has been popping in on the blog despite my absence the past several months! I’ve enjoyed reading your comments! I should be back on in a few weeks with a real post.

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I’ve written a number of posts on my perspective of Disney, but I’ll be the first to admit that those posts have largely been limited to problems related to the female characters and how the gendered stereotypes affect girls/women. Although I try to bring in the failings or successes of male representations, I tend to focus heavily on female representation since I know how these female representations affect and make me feel as a woman. But sometime ago, I came across an eye-opening post on Bustle about how Disney’s portrayal of men is in many respects no better than their female representations. Surprising or not surprising, many of the problems the blog post author, Alex Kritselis, highlights are similar to those that feminist bloggers have been bemoaning in female characters for years. The male characters are always straight, in a hurry to get married, and incredibly good-looking, naturally. Sounds a lot like the majority of Disney princesses, yes?

The other thing I enjoyed about Kritselis’ post is that it gives us a look at how the lopsided power dynamics that I have discussed before have an impact on the young boys watching. For example, while girls learn that jerks are princes in disguise, boys learn that women will practically fall at their feet even if they treat them like dirt. It was great hearing about the other side of this problematic portrayals for once, and it’s inspired me to keep a look out for these trends and more as I watch. So, if you haven’t read it yet, click the link and head over to Bustle to read this post!

While I’m at it, I also wanted to let you all know that the frequency of posts should be going up again very soon. I have finished up the work that has been keeping me so busy, and I’m already working on some posts that I’m excited about sharing, including one on a series called Natsume’s Book of Friends. Thanks to everyone who’s been reading despite the lack of activity on the blog recently, and I hope you’ll enjoy the upcoming posts!

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When I tell people that I am a feminist and especially when I reveal that I review fiction on my blog from a feminist perspective, it’s sometimes taken for granted that I dislike fiction that isn’t feminist. That’s a hell of a lot better than assuming I spend my days plotting the overthrow of men, but enjoying and reviewing fiction is a bit more complicated than that for me so, I thought I’d share my thoughts.

It goes without saying that I love finding stories that, in addition to being  generally well told, thought-provoking, and striking, promote healthy, modern ideas about gender and gender roles. When I discover those gems, they tend to get a special place in my heart, as well as on my blog. After all, finding fiction like that means I can enjoy every aspect of the story without feeling let down about gender representation. Even more than that, stories that present characters–male or female–fighting against gender norms or dealing with the real effects of gender norms in society can leave me with a sense of empowerment and make me think about gender roles in society and in media. Other times, fiction depicts characters who are non-stereotypical and appear unrestricted by gender norms, which is equally refreshing even without an obvious message on gender roles. Frankly, putting feminism aside, those types of non-stereotypical characters and plots appeal to me more as just a fan of fiction since that makes the overall story more interesting.

But to be honest, those examples aren’t particularly easy to come by. It’s like needling out one perfect book from the mounds of average ones. Excuse me for using a corny phrase, but if I had a penny for every time I crossed paths with fiction that had sexist content, I would be a rich woman. Sexism, racism, and other types of discrimination are, sadly, one of those elements of societies that are deeply engrained in our ways of thinking and are hard to get rid of entirely.

Writing on Gagging on Sexism and getting feedback from others has clarified the way I view sexism in fiction, just as it has helped me see larger issues differently. It is easy to pick out series that I personally feel do not have good stories and that promote highly sexist or archaic ideas about gender, roles, and relationships. It’s harder, however, to discuss series that I enjoy or maybe even really love in many ways, but that disappoint me in other ways relating to gender representation. Whether I am reviewing those series or simply reading/watching them for my own pleasure, as a story lover, I don’t want to dismiss a work of fiction that succeeds in entertaining me. Yet, at the same time, I am bothered by gender issues, which in one story may not be a problem, but that are often part of larger trends that promote unhealthy representations of gender. I can’t just ignore that or the problem will pass by as acceptable.

In those cases, I don’t think the stories should simply be dismissed as “bad.” Instead, I try to make others aware of these issues as they read/watch it. We can still enjoy fiction that may have non-progressive aspects and that feed into larger issues of gender representation. However, it is better to be aware of those issues as we enjoy that fiction, rather than mindlessly ingesting it.

When I write a post on a series, I try not to suggest that you to reject or accept a series based on whether it is feminist or sexist. Occasionally I come across a piece that offends me to the point that I recommend others against it, but usually I see other problems with those rare examples than just sexism. In fact, even series that I praise aren’t necessarily written to be “feminist,” but are series that I, looking at it from my feminist perspective, felt promoted ideas that are modern, non-stereotypical, and/or thought-provoking in addition to being plain good stories. In the end, whether I point out good aspects of fiction or bad, my goal is simply to stop and think, and get others to think, for just a moment to consider what fiction is saying to us.

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It’s been quiet…

Hello everyone! I just wanted to break the silence that’s been prevailing on Gagging on Sexism for the past few weeks. (I had to break it. Long silences on blogs disturb me.) The blog is not dead in the least; rather, I’m simply swamped with other obligations at the moment. However, I am working on some posts, including my thoughts so far on Attack on Titan (my latest addiction) and a post I’ve been wanting to do for a long time now about a manga series called Please Save My Earth. I hope to get a post out in the next week or two so, please look forward to it!

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sunshine-award1While I was taking a short hiatus, I received a surprise: my fellow blogger, simpleek, was kind enough to nominate me for the Sunshine Blogger Award! It’s a bit late, but I wanted to thank her for honor of being considered an inspiration to others in the blogosphere. I started Gagging on Sexism as a way to get my thoughts out there and get myself writing with the hopes that maybe others would find what I have to say interesting. I’m very thankful to everyone who reads my posts and to everyone who takes the time to share his/her own thoughts by commenting. That always motivates me to write the next post. So, thanks to my readers and thank you, simpleek, for this wonderful award nomination and more inspiration to keep writing!

Here are the rules for the Sunshine Blogger Award:

1. Use the award logo in a post and/or on your blog.
2. Include a link back to whoever nominated you.
3. Offer 10 pieces of random information about you.
4. Nominate ten other bloggers who ‘positively and creatively inspire others in the blogosphere.’
5. Let your nominees know about their much deserved award.

And here are some random facts about a certain blogger called Erin:

1. When I was in elementary school, my brother was having problems in school and my family was moving to a new area that my parents weren’t sure had good schools, so my brother and I ended up getting homeschooled. That was one of those decisions in life that has a huge affect on one’s life. I certainly don’t think homeschooling is a good idea for everyone as there are definite downsides, but overall, I think it worked out well for me. While I missed out on things that my friends got to experience, I also gained some big opportunities that I’m very thankful for.

2. As a little kid, I once had the brilliant idea to get my hair cut like my brother’s. After the initial excitement of getting my locks chopped into the classic bowl cut, I came home, decided I’d had my fill of having short hair, and told my mom I wanted long hair again. Whoops.

3. Even if I only got a few hours of sleep and had the whole next day off, I cannot sleep in really late. The latest I’ve slept is until 9:30 a.m. and that’s unusual. I look at people who can sleep until noon with a combination of awe and disbelief. How is it possible, I wonder. I have never been able to do that.

4. I tend to worry about what others think of me and I guess you could say I’m what they call a “people pleaser.” Therefore, I don’t like to tell many people I know that I write this blog because if I know they’re reading it, I’m afraid it might affect how I write about the issues I talk about.

5. I really don’t like talking on the phone. I have no idea why or when I started to feel that way, but I don’t like making calls or taking them.

6. Speaking of phones, I took my time getting a cell phone. Even after I gave in and got a smart phone, it wasn’t with the intention of making calls and texting, but actually so that I could use it to look up Japanese vocabulary words on the spot and look up kanji characters. In others words, I got one for the purpose of studying.

7. I recently developed an addiction to anything matcha(green tea powder)-flavored. In Japan, I could often be caught in a convenience store buying a new type of chocolate with matcha in it and I loved the matcha-flavored shaved ice. And of course, drinking tea made from matcha was delicious! Before I left Japan, I made sure to buy a stock of matcha KitKats to take home with me to hold me over for now.

8. I used to draw manga when I was younger. I practiced for a number of years, but, as life usually goes, I got busy and gave it up. I was never great at it, but it was a fun hobby while it lasted.

9. I’m the type of person who has too many interests and not enough time to really delve into them all.

10. I love watching BBC dramas and mysteries. I often get shows based on classic novels such as Pride and Prejudice or modern retakes on old stories like Sherlock. Those shows are always so rich and addicting that I just want to marathon the series because I just can’t wait to see the next episode.

Finally, here are the bloggers I’d like to nominate:

1. Simpleek

2. Contemporary Japanese Literature

3. Pixels and Panels

4. Shojo Corner

5. The Beautiful World | diaries of two travelers

6. Manga Therapy

That’s it for now. I’m once again reminded that I need to read more blogs and unfortunately, I only have five to name right now, but they’re great ones! So, if you haven’t checked them out yet, they’ve got some interesting things to say. Two of them are on hiatus right now, but I’m hoping we’ll hear more from them soon. And to those of you waiting for my next commentary post, I’m still trying to get caught up with everything since I’ve been away for two months, but my next post will have more meat.

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Hello, everyone! I hope you all are enjoying summer (and hopefully getting a little break). I have finally returned from my trip to Japan (which was everything I hoped it would be and more) so, if you noticed I haven’t been replying to comments lately, that’s going to change. Thanks to everyone who commented on my blog while I was away and I’m sorry I couldn’t reply to each comment individually like I usually do. Things will be getting back to normal at Gagging on Sexism now. Now excuse me while I catch up on two months-worth of anime, manga, books, and movies!

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