Sexism in animation: A few thoughts on a disconcerting trend in Japanese anime

Before anything else gets said here let me be clear, I really, REALLY, like Japanese Anime.  While I won’t say that I’ve seen every show and movie ever produced, I have seen my fair share, the Dragon Ball series, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagan, Full Metal Alchemist, Akira, Grave of the Fireflies, and half a dozen Miyazaki films, just to name a few.  And yes, I watched most of these with the original Japanese voice acting with English subtitles.   I am a huge fan of the medium; I love the freedom that animation gives you, as you can have shows ranging in subject matter from cute little cats like Hello Kitty, to giant mecha space battles like in the Gundam Wing series.

However, after bingeing on some of the anime titles available on Netflix, (mainly Kill la Kill, Sword Art Online, and Fairy Tail), I began to notice a disturbing trend prevalent in those shows and others that I have watched in the past.  This trend is over the sexualized way in which young (i.e. under the age of 21) female characters in these types of shows and movies are portrayed.

To make this article as current as possible, I will be focusing mainly on the show Kill la Kill, which has only recently been added to the Netflix library.  For those of you who have never heard of this show, Kill la Kill is about the quest of one Ryoko Matoi, a 17 year old female student studying at Honnouji Academy, a school whose main mission is to turn their students into weapons through the use of super powered clothes (yes I’m dead serious).  Ryoko must, over the course of the series, beat the various school club leaders in order to reach the school council president so that she can find out the mystery behind her father’s murder. It is, for the most part, a highly entertaining show, with gorgeous animation, funny dialogue, and action packed fight scenes; I would recommend this show to anyone.

However—and this is a fairly big however—I have one massive problem with this show, and that is how they portray the character of Ryoko.  In order to beat the schools various enemies Ryoko, who I remind you is a 17 year old girl, must don a super powered sexy sailor battle armor uniform.  Yes, again I am dead serious.  Just to make it clear, this armor (barely) covers Ryoko’s chest, waist and very little else. Just google Kill la Kill to get a good example.

Now in the show, Ryoko’s outfit is played mainly for laughs, with funny scenes being written either around various people (i.e. fellow students (both male and female), teachers, and other authority figures), finding the outfit ‘sexy’, or shaming her about it. This, however, is the main problem: it is played for laughs. The show isn’t reprimanding behaviours like the sexualized ogling of a teenage girl or shaming based on sexuality.  Rather it is illustrating these behaviours as funny and entertaining.

So why is this allowed in animated shows?  I guess it is for two reasons: one, that these are animated characters and what happens to them doesn’t really matter in the real world, and two, that as long as it’s played for laughs, then it’s supposedly ok.  I personally think that these are lame excuses, and that there can be no justification given for these acts.  Whether the person is animated or not dose not matter as these forms of behaviors sets a bad precedent.  It shows that some people consider shaming and ogling ok when they simply aren’t, especially when it’s directed at underage girls.

I need to make a point perfectly clear; the clothes themselves are not the issue here.  Were she a real person, I would have absolutely no problem with Ryoko dressing up in this way, as she would be her own person and should be free to do as she likes. Really who are any of us, both real people and the characters in the show, to judge a person choice of dress.  The real issue here is that Ryoko isn’t able to wear those cloths and feel comfortable and safe in them. Rather she, at least in the first story arch, is either shamed or ogled for wearing the revealing dress.  Neither of those two reactionsshould be allowed, as it sets ideas and standards that are not true or acceptable.  It implies, for the person doing the shaming, that they are somehow better then Ryoko for dressing in a more ‘conservatively’ and ‘socially acceptable’ fashion.  As for the people who ogle, they imply that Ryoko is a sex object and nothing more than a thing to take pleasure—even if that makes her uncomfortable. This last point goes hand in hand with the fact that Ryoko is often drawn in very promiscuous or sexy posses, further outlining how the shows creators think of her as nothing more than a sex object.

These sorts of attitudes and behaviors need to be phased out in anime, as well as in all forms of media.  They invoke unfair social restrictions on the characters and set precedents that these forms of behavior are acceptable in real life.  It is simply wrong to make a person feel uncomfortable and ashamed, just because of what the person happens to be wearing.  It is also wrong to reduce a person to the status of a sex object as it implies that they have no worth outside of being sexy, and that the person is nothing more than a thing to take pleasure from.

This article is not about how much of an impression media can make, as that would far exceed the scope of the piece.  Likewise this article is not saying that anime is responsible, either partly or in full, for sexist attitudes and behaviors prevalent in many societies.  What it is saying is that there is a correlation between these real world behaviors and their animated counterparts.  As such I hope that we will see a decrease in these sexist trends in animation and an increase in more positive portrayals of female characters as it could lead to, or be indicative of, a change in real world behaviors

I seriously doubt if this will stop me from watching anime, as I do really enjoy the medium and dearly love some of the shows and movies that it has produced.  However, this does not mean that I can forgive or ignore the issues that I have discussed here as they are to disturbing and too numerous to simply sweep under the rug.  Despite this, I hope that just like how comics are slowly beginning to better treat its female characters, that anime will prove more tasteful in its portrayal of women in the future.