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Posts Tagged ‘sexism’

When you see a female character with a large chest, what do you think? Is it simply an artistic rendition of a curvy female body type, or does it fall under the category of fan service, and seem to exist as sexual titillation for consumers of a certain sex and sexual orientation? Leaning toward the latter line of thought, feminist bloggers such as myself often point out those big-breasted women of manga, anime, and video games as problematic. Just in my last post, I again attempted to tackle the issue, using the popular shonen manga series Fairy Tail as that week’s example of the prevalent trend.

While many previous readers have voiced disagreement with the concept that something is wrong with the fan service I highlight, a recent reader got me thinking about the issue in a slightly different fashion: where do we draw the line between “pure” artistic rendition of the human body and bodies draw for the purpose of sexual fan service?

One of the many charms of fiction like manga and anime is the varied art styles, the way the artist chooses to visualize a world. Art styles range from highly cartoonish and deformed to relatively realistic, resulting in many ways to represent the human body. Just think of comparing the artwork in Hiroyuki Takei‘s Shaman King or Gainax‘s Panty and Stocking to that of Naoki Urasawa‘s Monster or Tsugumi Ohba’s and Takeshi Obata‘s Death Note. Clearly, these artists all have distinct ways of drawing the human body. Depending on the style, the body many be more or less exaggerated, and exaggerated in different fashions at that.

Here’s where we hit a snag. Artistic expression is something to enjoy, but all too often, a line is crossed in the fictional depictions of busty women that shifts attention away from the character and onto the character’s body. Instead of just being another character who happens to have a shapely body, the minds behind the fiction sexualize her, focusing on her breasts, her curves, or what-have-you. Her body becomes a tool intended to gratify the straight male consumer and the work encourages the reader/viewer to objectify her through those cleverly placed shots.

Nevertheless, there are ways of making the majority of one’s female characters curvy without giving the series a crazy injection of fan service. Compare the depiction of curvy female characters in works such as Fairy Tail to that of Hiromu Arakawa’s Fullmetal Alchemist. FMA is full of female characters with shapely bodies, from mechanic/childhood friend Winry to highly skilled military personnel such as Hawkeye and Major General Armstrong. Unlike other works, however, their (realistically) sizable busts are not the center of attention. Is it apparent that they’re shapely? Yes. Gone, however, are convenient shots of shiny breasts, bouncing boobs, or other gimmicks intended to draw the eye to their chest. Some female characters even wear clothing that could have been used as fan service in other series, like Winry’s tube top or Izumi Curtis’ cleavage, but the mangaka chose not to focus on. Perhaps Arakawa’s female villain Lust comes closest to fulfilling fan service, acting as this series’ sexy character, but even the fan service we see with Lust isn’t as pronounced as the fan service in many other series. The fan service in FMA is slight, allowing the consumer to appreciate each character as a whole. In other words, there is a way to depict shapely women without making them into sexpots, and demonstrates that those who do fulfill that role in manga or anime are drawn with the intent that they do so.

Of course, we have to recognize that fiction has a way of showing audiences ideal body types of both sexes. I tend to focus on the depiction of female body standards (large breasts and a tiny hourglass waist), but male characters have long appeared in superhero-type fashion, boasting six-packs and muscles in areas you didn’t even know it was possible to build up. One of my favorite examples is Gohan from DBZ, who ends up with a chiseled body long before he even hits puberty. Obviously, both sexes get to see unrealistic ideals reflected in fiction. Despite the fact that those six packs often represent strength and power while the sizable female chest serves to turn the female body into something pleasurable for a given demographic, such male representations still builds on traditional ideas of masculinity and unrealistic body ideals. There are also examplesthat put male characters in the sexualized spotlight.

Here’s where all those reading this post who are ready to defend fan service can relax a bit. I’ve laid out how I differentiate fan service bodies from shapely forms, I’ve touched on why I see fan service as problematic, and I’ve pointed out men suffer from this fan service, too. Nevertheless, I don’t think that this kind of fan service in and of itself is the biggest problem. There will always be fan service and, in limited doses, it’s not that big of a deal. The issue becomes the sheer volume of fan service.

There are many different body types in this world, and it’s a good thing to pull from and represent that variety. Art even has the power to expand on the vast variety we already have in this world. Unfortunately, instead of representing various body types, some fiction eliminate that variety in their efforts to provide fan service. Others reinforce stereotypes. Even when we see a female character who supposedly doesn’t have an ideal body (which often means she has small breasts), we aren’t encouraged to appreciate variety. Rather, our attention is thrown back to sex appeal and cultural ideals. It’s not unusual for female characters with small breasts to express dissatisfaction with their body and occasionally envy toward those who have the ideal body type. Although we may sympathize with that character’s feelings, at times, traditional ideals seem to be confirmed in these tiny melodramas: it’s presented as a given that girls should be dissatisfied with smaller chests. On the flip side, female characters with big chests are often doomed to fulfilling fan service, no matter what kind of personalities or skills they possess. Seeing this type of rendition repeatedly can feel limiting, which is a shame since art clearly has the potential to expand our perceptions of the world.

I’ll finish this post by stating that I don’t claim to hold all of the answers on this issue. There’s a bit of a gray area between artistic expression and all its exaggerated glory, and the realm of simple fan service. Viewpoints on fan service itself are largely varied as well. Much of it depends on the eye of the beholder, but I hope this clarifies my personal definition. With that thought, what do you think of this issue?

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Image from Barnes & Noble

Image from Barnes & Noble

From just a glance at the popular shonen series, Fairy Tail, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that this series is one of many that marginalize its female characters to the role of pin-up manga girls rather than, say, useful members of the team. You know, the ones that serve to satisfy the need for disproportionate busts on a slim body, topped with a face featuring big, doe-like eyes who are often featured in boob or panty shots. That was my first impression upon popping open the first volume of the series, which boasts its amply breasted female protagonist, Lucy Heartfilia, on the front. While it can’t be denied that Fairy Tail‘s female characters do suffer from something I like to call “power boobs,” the series boasts an array of female characters who actually are powerful, as opposed to the many faux action girls we see in shonen and other fiction. So, what are we supposed to make of this long-running action/adventure series?

Fairy Tail centers around a group of young wizards in a fantastical world of dragons and flying cats where people can join specialty guilds, including powerful guilds for wizards who take on job requests ranging from mundane to highly dangerous for money. Right away, Fairy Tail caught my interest by choosing to start the story following Lucy, a female wizard looking for one of the most well known (and slightly infamous) guilds around, Fairy Tail. Opening with a female character is a move that seems to be fairly rare in a sea of shonen series with male protagonists. Natsu, the boy Lucy meets while looking for Fairy Tail, is arguably the real protagonist of the series, evident from the fact that he is the one to fight the main villains and is often featured front and center on the cover, but the narrative usually sweeps back to her at the start of a new arc. As the rest of the guild is introduced, the series continues to impress when Erza, an armor-wearing, sword-wielding woman who takes command even in the presence of her male teammates and is one of the strongest members of the guild, enters the picture. And unlike some series, where only one or two female characters make frequent appearances, it quickly becomes clear that Fairy Tail is a world realistically populated with both sexes.

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Image from Barnes & Noble

Unfortunately, what also becomes clear is that out of the wide cast of female characters, ranging from villains to heroes, a couple have moderate to small chest sizes (one of those characters being a little girl) while the rest are drawn with very prominent breasts(1). Of course, it’s not just that practically all of the girls have large bust lines, but also the way the series cashes in on fanservice. Lucy is often featured in super-tight tank tops showing cleavage and even a little side boob, and even Erza uses magical armor that transforms into different sets, ranging from beautiful but impractical armor showing breast and skin to outfits that were clearly made as an excuse to show Titania wearing cat ears or in a sexy goth lolita look. Many of the other powerful female guild members are also highly sexualized in battle and out such as Mira, the wickedly strong demon girl turned wizard pin-up girl, which links back to the old power boobs trend. (Lucy aspires to be a featured pin-up girl in one of the wizard magazines like Mira one day, something she makes clear from the start of the series.) Frankly, whether the character wears more conservative outfits or not, the chest always seems to be accentuated. The female members of the guild also participate in beauty contests wearing swimsuits and cheer leading outfits, just to make sure your attention is where is should be. Despite the great power and skill of the women in the series, Fairy Tail falls into the trap of putting focus on the female characters’ bodies rather than their abilities.

The emphasis on the girls’ sexuality(2) continues in reoccurring jokes throughout the series, jokes that are usually at the cost of Lucy’s dignity. In volume 17, she’s humiliated twice, once when her short skirt falls down, revealing what readers can assume is her underwear since we see her skirt around her ankles and a few male characters gawking with hearts bulging out of their eyes, and a second time when an enemy transforms herself into Lucy and lifts her top to show off Lucy’s breasts. An ongoing joke is the perverted master of the guild, an old man with an adult grandson,who constantly hits on the girls in the guild. One of the most blatant and disturbing examples of this behavior comes when the guild master uses punishment as a thinly veiled excuse to repeatedly slap Lucy’s backside. It’s all supposed to be funny, but I find it especially troubling when a girl’s humiliation or sexual harassment are made into a sexually gratifying joke for readers. Fortunately, the latter type of fan service is not as prominent in the series as the former type, but the problems still remain. No matter which kind of fanservice it is, the overwhelming amount of it in manga (and in other forms of fiction) perpetuate ideas that men should look at women as breasts and butts or objects of sexual fantasy, a problem we certainly have here in the United States.

Image from Barnes & Noble

Image from Barnes & Noble

Of course, not everything is about how the female characters look. This cast of female characters has had plenty of chances to fight on their own and to prove that they are, in fact, capable members of the team. In almost every arc that I’ve read so far (up to volume 18), the girls typically play a larger or less gendered role in fights than some of the heroines in other shonen series. Too often, female characters in other series get sidelined as healers or stuck fighting–and even losing to–nameless villains while their male counterparts defeat the top guys, if they do anything at all. In Fairy Tail, the girls tend to get their chance to show off their worth. Erza takes out, or at least weakened, some of the major enemies and even Lucy usually defeats a notable villain or two. Many of the female characters who aren’t lead ladies are pretty powerful in their own right as well.

Still, there are some problems on the battlefield, too. Despite Lucy’s power, she’s still one of the weakest, and often says so herself. In addition, some of her biggest battles in the series recently have featured her summoning a Celestial Spirit (magical beings she makes contracts with and who usually fight in her stead) who looks just like a young man. Yes, I know, Lucy has the power to summon strong beings, which isn’t something to sneeze at, but when she summons something that looks like he could be any other powerful guy, it seems like she’s calling for a knight to save her from danger rather than a magical being summoned by her own strength.

Another issues arises when comparing how the series puts its male characters in a pinch versus its female characters. Male characters such as Gray struggle with similar emotional and physical duress that their female counterparts do, in which they face despair and take extreme action that requires their teammates to go after them and talk some sense into them, only the female characters are kidnapped so far. Their capture forces the other members to go save them, putting the girls in temporary states of near-to-complete helplessness. The example that perhaps best sums up this phenomenon is during an arc involving the entire guild, when all of the main female members are held hostage in a plot to get the guild members to battle each other. The rest of the guild fight against their wishes to ensure that the girls aren’t harmed. To add insult to injury, the battle is designed to determine who is the strongest in the guild, yet the girls are completely discounted from the start (3).

Nevertheless, the girls don’t usually stay completely helpless for long. In the above scenario, the hostages aren’t rescued by one of the many guys fighting to save them, but rather Erza. In general, Erza is viewed as a huge threat by her enemies and gets some great heroic moments that rival those of any male teammate of the series’ protagonist. Similarly, despite the fact that it’s a minor mission, Lucy shows herself capable enough to go off by herself and take out a whole gang of criminals. In addition, as a commenter on one of my previous posts points out, there have been some women in influential positions such as those on the Magic Council, a group of powerful wizards with a lot of authority over the guilds and wizards of the world.

So, eighteen volumes in and Fairy Tail is a mixed bag for me as far as its female characters are concerned. It’s a fun, whimsical series, but it hasn’t risen above some classic shonen series, forcing readers to suffer a whole cast of big breasted, fanservice females who all seem to get their chance to be damsels in distress. It does, however, offer fans a number of female characters who are regularly shown to be capable in their own right. I’ll keep reading, and I’m planning on writing more about what the series does right in an upcoming post, but in the meantime, what are your thoughts on the female characters of Fairy Tail?

  1. I know that in the past, some readers have argued that attacking the sexy way in which female manga/anime characters dress reminds them of slut slamming or that it seems like I am making fun of women with large breasts so, I will state my distinction now: if a creator of a fictional female character decides to present her in a hyper sexual fashion, complete with over-emphasized breasts, I must address how that person has chosen to depict women. Rather than thinking of these characters as women choosing to present themselves a certain way, compare it to how media such as Playboy make conscious choices in the clothing, positioning, and, in all likelihood, photoshopping of female models to make them appealing to male consumers. If a real woman has large breasts or makes the decision to dress in a revealing manner, that is a different matter.
  2. To be fair, Mashima, the creator of Fairy Tail, does include fan service for his female readers as well. Most evident is one of the lead male characters, Gray, who has a habit of stripping off his shirt or even down to his underwear at random yet frequent moments of the series. I appreciate that Mashima tries to even things out, and making men the object of fan service seems to be some people’s response to “equality,” but I’m not convinced that giving men the same treatment that women get is the right answer.
  3. It should be noted that Natsu is initially excluded as well, but he is not being held hostage.

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9a2149f150155b275461a2d912498eeaAt the suggestion of one of my readers, I recently started reading the Korean webtoon, Cheese in the Trap. Since I ended up spending most of my weekend reading all the chapters that have been translated into English, I can confidently say it’s addicting.

Hong Sul is a 23-year-old college student who has just returned to school after taking a leave of absence. Much to her surprise and suspicion, Yoo Jung, a handsome, popular, and super rich upperclassman, suddenly wants to hang out with her. While he seems like the perfect guy to just about everyone else, Sul is convinced he’s hiding a dark side.

cittThe premise may sound typical, but the execution is anything but. Switching between the past and the present, readers (and Sul) try to piece together what happened before the heroine took her leave of absence and reconcile that with the present situation. At first this can be a little disorienting, especially since some of the characters’ relationships are so different in the past compared to what they are in the present, but after a chapter or two, the pattern becomes clear and a good back-and-forth flow is established. Flashbacks often reveal something about Sul’s relationships and her experiences with people while simultaneously deepening the mystery.

Along the way, issues like bullying and stalking pop up and so far, those issues have been handled well. Those instances add drama yet are presented as serious problems. Perhaps that’s why watching Sul deal with bullies has been inspiring. Although she keeps many things (like her worries and problems) to herself, Sul speaks up and rationally confronts others when she needs to. Her attempts don’t necessarily end the problem and more often than not someone else–usually a guy–has to intervene, but there’s a sense of satisfaction at seeing her stand up for herself and others. She never feels like a damsel in distress who frivolously tries to make a stand. Her words and actions mean something and the help she receives–be it from a man or not–seems realistic.

There’s also much enjoyment to be found in the daily life of Sul and her classmates. While I’ve read slice-of-life manga before, Cheese in the Trap is one of the few that tackles the realities of college students in a way that is both entertaining and down-to-earth. How often have you seen your favorite slice-of-life characters complain about the cost of tuition? We see Sul talking to friends about school-related issues, dealing with horrid group projects, and trying to balance top grades with jobs. It’s common for school to become just a backdrop for the social drama that is the focus of the story.

Additionally, slice-of-life dramas/romances often center on the school-age heroine’s search for romance. When academics are mentioned, it’s customarily at the detriment of the heroine who is revealed to be a poor student. Making some heroines of school-based series struggling students is one thing. It’s good to represent a variety of people so, depicting such a protagonist strikes a chord with those of us who struggled in school or know someone who did. Yet at the same time, like with many of the trends and tropes I discuss on this blog, seeing the majority of those heroines fail academically gets old. Ultimately, the school girl heroine, who is supposed to represent an average, likable girl, coincides with academic underachievement and that’s not a particularly good message.

Therefore, the fact that Sul puts an emphasis on her academics set this comic apart from others that I’ve read. She works hard to get good grades so 97245321that she can get scholarships takes on jobs to support herself and get through school. She doesn’t even bother with romance because she’s afraid it will distract her from her academics. It’s made clear that Sul’s top grades aren’t the result of genius, which might have made her hard to relate to for a major of readers, but rather the result of hard work and sacrifice. Sul’s character is still that of a normal young woman, but she represents different struggles that are just as important to depict as the struggles depicted by the typical school girl type.

The rest of the cast and Sul’s relationships with them are equally remedying. The joys and troubles of relationships explored in Cheese in the Trap are not limited to those of dating and romance. Instead, there is a healthy mix of friendships, potential romances, classmates, family, and everything in between. Another nice change is that the romances aren’t presented as rosy dreams of young lovebirds, driven by destiny and the search for “the one.” While Cheese in the Trap‘s romances can be as touching as any good romance, these romances also feel more reality-bound. There are sweet, blissful moments mixed with tenser ones as the couples try to overcome issues and make their relationships work. The relationships aren’t limited to heterosexual relationships either. As the series goes on, a homosexual couple is introduced and I thought the series did a good job of creating two realistic characters who happen to be homosexual instead of two caricatures of gay stereotypes. When this couple becomes more involved in the plot, the difficulties of being homosexual when those around them aren’t so accepting is explored.

There’s so much more I’d like to say about this series, but for now, I’ll leave you all with this: Cheese in the Trap certainly has drama and mystery (and exceeds nicely at both), but at the heart of the story is a twenty-something woman trying to work her way through life, learning just as much about herself and relationships with others as she is about academics. Three-dimensional characters and relationships, a good mix of genres, entertainment, and serious issues, and an excellent execution make this a series I highly recommend.

Edit: Here is the link to a site that allows you to read the comic in English while still supporting the creator. Make sure to follow the site’s instructions on how to access the translation or you’ll just see the comic in Korean.

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Disney-FrozenOver the years, I’ve complained a lot about Disney’s expansive line of princess tales, from Cinderella to The Princess and the Frog. Even with renditions that I liked overall, namely their adventurous undertaking of Rapunzel (Tangled), I still had moments where I felt something was left to be desired. Well, Disney, you’ve finally done it. I enjoyed your newest princess movie, Frozen, as both a story lover and as a feminist. As a movie that follows your classic princess formula, i.e. one that has romance as a focus, this is an improvement.

Like many princess tales, Frozen‘s featured protagonist is a teenaged princess, Anna, but in this case, she’s not the only one. Anna’s got an older sister named Elsa and, as we’re quickly shown, the two are close. But Elsa has a little secret. She was born with a magical, wintry power that allows her to create ice and snow with just the touch or wave of her hands. It’s all fun and games until Elsa accidentally hurts Anna with her powers, which leads Elsa to close herself off from everyone to protect them. The years pass and the sisters grow distant as they live their separate lives in a castle completely shut off from the outside world. Soon, however, Elsa comes of age and must emerge for her coronation. While Elsa is terrified of what might go wrong, Anna is ecstatic and wants to use the opportunity to the fullest after the years of loneliness, maybe even find her “prince.” But when an argument breaks out between the sisters and Elsa’s powers are revealed, she’s labeled a sorceress and flees, inadvertently putting her kingdom into an eternal winter as she goes. Worried about her sister and the kingdom, Anna sets off to find Elsa, picking up some help in the form of a boy and his reindeer (not to mention a talking snowman) along the way.FROZEN_color_p2_3_V2

In recent years, Disney has made an effort to put forth princess protagonists who don’t wilt at the first sign of trouble and Frozen is no exception. Both Anna and Elsa are dynamic characters who display fears and flaws viewers of both genders can relate to while amply showcasing their inner steel as well. And although the sisters get into their fair share of difficult situations, neither feels like a helpless doll, collecting dust while they wait for a prince to save them. If anything, spunky Anna could be viewed as taking the hero’s place for her sister, although Elsa is anything but helpless and has her own crucial part to play. Needless to say, the interaction between Anna and Elsa is wonderful and while Anna’s relationships with Kristoff and Hans are very important, the plot between the sisters is just as much so. In Disney’s past princess films and many other romantic fiction, it’s been hammered home that romantic love can overcome anything, but through Anna and Elsa, Frozen wisely makes it clear that romantic love is not the only powerful form of love.

As for Elsa, overall, I like that the queen/witch character is not vilified. Typically, the queen/witch has great power and independence, but she endsElsa-and-Anna-Wallpapers-frozen-35894707-1600-1200 up ruled by jealousy, vanity, and other shallow, ugly emotions, resulting in her torment of the innocent heroine before her inevitable downfall. As a result, power and independence in women almost goes hand-in-hand with evil in many classic Disney princess movies. Elsa, however, is an independent, powerful woman who girls and boys can relate to and like. Of course, it’s arguable that Frozen‘s queen/witch character loses some of the authority and power her evil counterparts command since Disney puts her in the role of the persecuted victim. That was done to garner sympathy for a character that plays the villain in the tale Frozen is based on. This role change is something I’ll try to look at more in-depth in a later post. For now, however, I’m just happy that Disney is trying something new.

images-94Disney also continues its trend of pulling away from perfectly plastic prince charming in favor of a more layered, interesting male lead with flaws and quirks of his own. In Frozen, just as there are two female leads, there are two male leads: one prince (Prince Hans) and one average guy (Kristoff), both of which play vital roles in the story. Hans very successfully sets himself apart from the 2D princes of old and I found Kristoff to be an improvement to Disney’s gruff male lead formula. In their attempt to create a new down-to-earth male lead in the princess movies, Disney began featuring more rugged types, the opposite of the stark, clean blankness of past prince characters. The result in the last two movies were somewhat the “bad boy” type. Prince Naveen from The Princess and the Frog starts off as an egotistical playboy while Tangled‘s Flynn Rider is a wanna-be “cool criminal” type. Both were good guys deep down, of course, a goodness which the heroines eventually bring out in them. It’s a charming and fun concept in fiction, but since this trend has been used a lot and can send the wrong message about real-life relationships, I’m happy that Disney took a slightly different approach with Kristoff. As with the past two male leads, Kristoff is a little gruff with the heroine, Anna, resulting in fun and dynamic interactions between the leads, but not once does Kristoff try to pose as a “bad boy.” Instead, he’s an honest, hard-working guy who is perhaps a tad socially awkward, a trait which he shares with Anna and that reflects their mutual struggles with loneliness and isolation.

I also feel Disney has improved its messages about romance. Toward the latter half of the movie, a song starts in which one of the male leads is disneys-frozen-2013-screenshot-kristoffreferred to as a “fixer-upper.” At that moment, my heart sank, thinking this was when fiction would once again announce that if your potential mate has traits you don’t like, all you have to do is stick with and change him/her. But Disney didn’t say that this time. In fact, they made a clear effort to tell viewers that you can’t change people like we’re always told you can. Rather than searching for the “perfect” one like Cinderella or even The Little Mermaid suggest, or finding someone who has flaws that you don’t like and believing you can change those aspects as movies like Beauty and the Beast and The Princess and the Frog seem to say, Frozen settles upon middle ground. That is, recognize that we all have flaws and don’t expect to whisk those flaws away with love. It also directly challenge the romantic idea that one can simply bump into the right person and know instantly that this is “the one.” Instead, Frozen sends the message that you must get to know someone before love truly enters the equation. In the end, it touches on the issue of accepting reasonable flaws, but cautions viewers to watch out for duds.

There are still things to improve such as including a lot more POC in their movies, but Frozen is a step in the right direct for Disney’s romance-focused princess films. After years of transition, trying to balance romantic fantasy with modern ideas, I feel they’re finally starting to hit the right notes; female and male leads who break stereotypes and standard roles, a plot with just the right touch of magic, hilarity, and heart-felt moments that both adults and kids can enjoy, and messages that freshen up an old genre, even directly contradicting old fairytale notions. I haven’t read “The Snow Queen” which Frozen is based on so, if you’d like to read an insightful post on that angle, check this post out, but just judging the film, I would recommend it as a large improvement to the classic Disney princess formula.

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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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tumblr_mmje5edfpD1rw9b6io1_1280As the new series from the team that brought us the stylish, over-the-top, and immensely popular Gurren Lagann,  Kill la Kill was destined to be a hit with the crowds. It following right along with its predecessor, packing in loads of zany characters and dramatic action sequences within every episode, not to mention a healthy dose of jaw-dropping outrageousness. Kill la Kill is the story of a high school girl named Ryuko in an alternative modern Japan where the student council of Honnouji Academy have taken over much of the country through the use of super-powered uniforms, living in luxury while keeping a tight leash on the people under their rule. Ryuko, however, is about to shake things up. After her father was murdered, she takes her only lead and sets her sights on the steely Satsuki Kiryuinleader of the council and someone who seems to know something about the murder. With the help of some *ahem* unusual allies and a uniform of her own, Ryuko is ready to take on the whole school to reach her goal.

Kill la Kill is an interesting sight to behold, full of wacky allies and enemies, humorously slick undercover agents, and plenty of insanely corrupt systems/people that one can’t help but want to watch what happens next. The series boasts two very strong ladies as its leads, a fun deviation from the standard action anime/manga with a shonen demographic, which typically tails a teenage boy around on his adventures. Female characters’ roles in these tales vary and, as we have seen, sometimes act as strong allies to their male comrades that the audience can take seriously, but often end up in more traditional positions as helpless but faithful lovers/friends, major fanservice caterers, and so on. This common dilemma is something I have previously pointed out in Gurenn Lagann.

Kill la Kill, on the other had, gives both the major roles (so far) to female characters, making both the spunky underdog lead (Ryuko) and the tyrannical antagonist (Satsuki) female. Both female characters have an incredible drive to reach their goals; Ryuko is literally fighting against an entire school to reach hers while Satsuki’s unshakable demeanor and strength puts her at the top of a monstrous system, plotting her moves with confidence. Thus far, Ryuko and Satsuki are also the only ones able to handle the mysterious power of uniforms that possess a soul of sorts, feeding off the blood of its wearer in exchange for tremendous strength.  Granted, Ryuko still seems to be in the dark about what is truly going on in this topsy-turvy world while the male mentor-like character (if you can even call him that) obviously holds, and withholds, information from Ryuko. Satsuki, however, appears to be in the know about everything. Given that the series is only eight episodes in, things are bound to change and I’m looking forward to how these characters progress.

HorribleSubs-Kill-la-Kill-01-720p.mkv_snapshot_20.03_2013.10.05_16.42.50That being said, Kill la Kill suffers in the extreme from fanservice. I’ve complained in the past about unrealistically big breasted female characters, convenient panty and cleavage shots, and the like, but as a show that likes to take things over the top, this series use of fanservice truly puts it on a different level. Remember those fancy, power-granting uniforms that Ryuko and Satsuki utilize? Well, when in use, they turn the protagonist and antagonist alike into breast-baring, buttocks-showing, midriff-exposed wonders. At the same time, the audience gawks at their power, we also can’t help but gape at the kinkiness of their outfits. Focus is torn between sex appeal and prowess, and mixes sexualization of the female character with violence.

When an audience gathers to watch the latest battle Ryuko participates in, male characters are shown openly drooling at her as she fights, getsKill-la-Kill-02-01 pummeled or wins, in such a revealing outfit. In these battle scenes, Ryuko also often moves or is moved in ways that exaggerate this further. Ryuko herself is embarrassed at first to be wearing such an outfit and, in fact, is forced to wear it in a disturbing scene that seemed to make some viewers (including myself) feel uncomfortable. As the series proceeds, she realizes she must embrace the baring of her body in order to access the full power of the uniform. Now, I’m all for the acceptance of one’s body, but the situation in the show is dependent on the acceptance of sexualization and objectification rather than the acceptance of the body itself. After all, embracing one’s sexuality or body is not the same thing as coming to terms with having your body on display as Ryuko does.

Of course, female characters are not the only ones subjected to showing skin. Male characters also are revealed when they transform for battle, although the final finished product is usually covered up. In addition, the creators of the show appear to realize the ridiculousness of Kill la Kill’s fanservice and have fun with it. As some viewers have argued, one could see the extremes of fanservice in the series as making fun of the trend. Then there is a certain previously mentioned professor/undercover agent, Aikuro, who is male and who has a knack for bathing in the limelight of partial nudity. At the same time Aikuro acts as male fanservice, his character also is obviously made fun of as the music switches to a tune that screams sexy and he then begins to try his hardest to be tempting.29957-Kill6Header

However, even if the show is trying to make fun of fanservice to a degree, that does not necessarily save it from rebuke. Pulling the “we know that you know this is a joke so, it’s okay” routine still draws on sexism and it therefore becomes a fine line between truly pointing out the idiocy of something and simply further perpetuating the problem. While I’m not getting the joke so far with Ryuko’s fanservice, I clearly get it with her professor, Aikuro, a character that, in his moments of ludicrous sexiness, reminds me of all those male characters that overtly fulfill the purpose of being sexy eye candy. As I mentioned, there are cues within the show that tip the audience off that sexy Aikuro scenes are truly supposed to be seen as ridiculous, such as the heroine’s dubious and exasperated reactions. On the other hand, even if the creators’ intentions are to make fun of fanservice with Ryuko’s character as well, I’m not getting any signals that I don’t see in normal instances of fanservice. Nevertheless, the series is only eight episodes in so, I’ll be watching (and probably rewatching) Kill la Kill to see where they take this series.

With that said, what’s your take on Kill la Kill‘s fanservice and characters thus far?

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47347 I believe it’s safe to say that Attack on Titan was the hit anime series of the season. Dramatic, stylish, and shocking, the series grabbed the audience with a titan-strength grip and wouldn’t let go, even after a season finale that went down with a boom! For those of you who don’t know the set up, the series is centered in an alternative world where humanity has been pushed to the brink by things called titans–human-like beings that tower above humans, making them look like dolls in comparison. For some unknown reason, titans began rampaging long ago, making humans their prey. Driven to desperation, humankind secluded itself within a space sectioned off by three impenetrable walls to stave off further titan attacks. In addition, they created a special military group trained in combating titans, although with little success. Despite the warnings from his mother and his adopted sister, Mikasa, that he’d get himself killed, young Eren dreams of joining the most ill-fated sectors of the military that venture outside the Walls. His other friend, Armin, also dreams of going outside the Walls, although doing so through the military is the last thing on his mind.

But after living in relative peace and safety for some time, Eren, Mikasa, and Armin’s lives are forever changed when a colossal titan breaks through the first Wall, once again releasing the horrors of titans on humanity. They manage to escape to the solace of the second Wall, but not without experiencing loss–Eren’s mother and later, Armin’s grandfather. Eren’s father has disappeared, too, but before that, he leaves Eren with a key to their basement and a mysterious message that Eren find out for himself what is hidden in the basement. Seeking revenge and the answer to his father’s strange demand, Eren becomes a military trainee with his two friends and begins the fight of a lifetime.

Balancing combat sequences in which the threat of death is very real with intense moments of character interaction and development, elements of mystery, and even some humor, Attack on Titan quickly became my addiction of the season; it’s the full package. One of the best surprises of all was the way the series has handled its female characters in relation to its male characters so far. It’s been a trend in shonen manga/anime (that is, series directed at boys) to star a large cast of characters who fight alongside the male hero. Within that group, there have been a good number of female characters in the ranks of fighters, albeit significantly fewer relative to the number of male characters. The catch is, however, those female characters are often differentiated from the male fighters as intelligent and technically skilled, but lacking in prowess and actual battle ability compared to the men. That’s not to say there are not exceptions, but I often run into that type of set up.

That’s why it was nice to see Attack on Titan playing with this trend and switching things around a bit. Instead of making the hero’s female friend the strategically skilled but physically weak character and the hero’s male friend the super skilled, battle prodigy, as happens with popular series such as Naruto, the series flipped the stereotypes. Mikasa acts as the prodigy soldier whose skill excels her comrades and Armin plays the role of the physically weaker genius strategist. I like this change because it removes those skill sets (combat skill/intellect) from a stereotypical connection with one or the other gender. Guys can excel at using their heads instead of their fists and aren’t always great at combat. On the other hand, girls can be great–even better than their male comrades–at combat.shingeki_no_kyojin-06-mikasa-blade-sword-looking_totally_badass-crowd-scouting_team

That brings me to my thoughts on Mikasa. Mikasa, if nothing else, is an intriguing female character. Cool and collected to an almost alarming degree, you’re not going to see this female character hesitate in the face of danger. She’s shown over and over to be more than capable, starting in the first episode when Mikasa scares away a group of bullies who are about to hurt Eren and Armin with her mere presence. (Yes, you read that right: the female friend saves the guys for once.) In later episodes, she’s shown to have the potential to rival one of the best fighters in the military, a battle-hardened man named Levi. She’s not just physically strong, but also mentally as strong as steel. She’s able to rally herself to fight on even in the face of devastation.

She’s certainly far from perfect (she is human after all). Her devotion to Eren is at times worrying–sometimes it seems like Eren could tell Mikasa to jump off a bridge and she would–but it’s made clear that Mikasa has not made herself a mindless servant to Eren. Most notably, Eren tells her repeatedly that he doesn’t need or want her to protect him anymore, but that hasn’t stopped Mikasa from following her own wish to do so anyway. This absolute devotion does, however, make me pause and think of trends of female characters devoted to an extreme–romantically or otherwise–to a male character, which isn’t my favorite.  At least in Mikasa and Eren’s case, the devotion is a result of a traumatic event, which makes Mikasa’s reaction, and the strong bond that forms from the event, more understandable than simply being an unhealthily love-crazy girl. I also like that, from the beginning, Eren and Mikasa’s bond is founded on helping each other, instead of one (aka the girl) always hanging on the other for survival. So far, Eren and Mikasa’s has been fairly even give-and-take. With any luck, the series will keep it that way. In addition, rather than make the tough-as-nails Mikasa vulnerable, a gimmick used frequently, the revealing of her tragic past serves to depict how she became so tough. The use of Mikasa’s background (as well as Levi’s) brings difficult questions about what it means to obtain the strength we often see in action-driven series like Attack on Titan.

But Mikasa isn’t the only dynamic female character in Attack on Titan, not by a long shot. The series is full of female characters who are just as skilled and active as their male comrades. From fellow new recruits to veterans to zealous researchers, there are many types of female characters popping up to play significant roles. Without spoiling anything, there’s a particularly nice twist involving a female character at the end of the season.

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Imagine that. Practical uniforms for both men and women!

And can I just say that I am extremely happy that for once the female characters don’t get a cute/sexy, feminine version of the military uniform in the series? Creators seem compelled to give female officers miniskirts or pink versions of whatever uniforms the male officers are wearing, even combat operatives. Just because they’re female doesn’t mean you have to give them a cute uniform. It was refreshing to see a series that isn’t afraid of treating the female characters just like the male ones: they are treated seriously and don’t exist as attractive things to drool over. In fact, not only do the uniforms not objectify them, but the character designs themselves show that the female characters aren’t just there as eye candy. While there are some female characters in the cast that are cute or beautiful, there are also a number of female characters that don’t fit traditional and limited ideas of beauty. There are also no conveniently angled shots of female butts or boobs nor any unrealistically large female anatomy present. The female characters are treated just like the male characters. To me, that pretty much sums up how Attack on Titan succeeds with its female characters.

It’s violent. It’s brutal. But with interesting characters that break gender roles, good mix of character building and action, and a compelling plot that keeps you begging for the next installment, Attack on Titan is without a doubt my favorite series of the season. Give it a try if you haven’t already. You can watch the entire season for free (and legally) on Crunchyroll.com now.

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