Sakura Con 2014: Objectification in Anime: Agency, Nudity, and What It All Means

“A lot of times we don’t pay close attention to what’s going on in shows we’re watching just for entertainment. This can make it hard to have a productive discussion with people who try to point out that anime is misogynist or that it objectifies women. In this panel we’ll take a look at what objectification is really all about and whether anime really all boils down to just that.”

Read that panel description. Sounds pretty good, right? Come back up and read it again at the end of the article and see how your perceptions change.

Picture this: a man wears a backwards baseball cap, reflective aviator sunglasses, a matted ponytail to the middle of his back, a silkscreen button down shirt, and cuffed skinny jeans. He has just come from presenting a panel on harem anime in front of an audience that laughs uproariously at nosebleed jokes and cheers at panty shots. In a different room, in front of a different audience, he prepares to deliver another presentation. This audience is mostly women, here to listen to someone discuss objectification.

Well then. Can you guess how it went?

He kicked off the panel by defining “objectification” as characters without agency who are acted upon instead of acting themselves and saying that it is “less straightforward than it seems”. While I agree with the last point, and the definition is a good starting place, it is far from the whole story and, as you will see, he went with a definition of objectification that is vastly different from what social philosophers and and feminists use, which relies on the viewer’s point of view, not between the characters.

To illustrate his point, he showed a clip from the anime Dakara Boku wa H ga Dekinai. The clip, clearly R-rated in a panel that was ostensibly PG-13, had a pair of maids licking and massaging an unwilling male recipient. His point in showing it, he claimed, was to show that objectification can go both ways. Next was a clip from the show Senran Kagura about women who gain power by forming contracts with the male main character and occasionally even refer to him as a “magic battery”. While I agree the former clip, featuring a nonconsenting male character in a sexual situation, was upsetting and should absolutely be considered rape, I contest that these can be considered “objectifying”. After all, these are series made for men, by men. When the term “objectification” is used, it usually refers to the viewer’s relationship with the characters, not the characters’ relationships with each other. Since the male viewers are supposed to identify with the main character, they are being subjectified. But you all knew that, right? Let’s move on.

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Not depicted: The poor men being objectified by these vicious women

Next he made the claim that nudity isn’t inherently objectifying, but can be when used to draw in an audience. That’s true! There’s plenty of potential contexts in which nudity is not objectifying or sexual. People are naked sometimes. It happens. Of course, his go-to example of objectifying nudity was Free! Not, you know, one of literally hundreds of titty anime. He had to go for the one show made to show off the male body for a female audience. He claimed that large breasts being fetishized is a “slippery topic” and “anime that fetishize things, fetishize things both ways”. He didn’t name the show, but he showed a clip from a show where two girls were introducing the male protagonist to their hot mothers – one dressed in a kimono and very traditionally feminine, and one who immediately pressed his face into her breasts and told him he could “forcibly molest” her daughter. While it’s true that a wide variety of female traits are fetishized, they tend to all fall along the same stereotypes, as seen in the clip he presented, and present all women as sexual objects. Not to mention the incredible grossness levels inherent in what was going on there. Seriously, “forcibly molest her”? You couldn’t find anything that didn’t involve a mother telling a boy to rape her daughter? What the shit dude. He brushed off any concerns saying there was an “overstated assumption” that people who watch things will start acting like that and they indicate a level of “social permissiveness”. Which. No. No. That’s not what we’re worried about. It’s more insidious than that. It’s a much more subtle, creeping effect that does, yes, include growing levels of social permissiveness and men who do not see women as people because of their continuous consumption of media like this. It’s why an idol singer who was caught having a boyfriend – not having sex, not doing anything illegal, simply being in a monogamous relationship – shaved her head in penance and filmed herself crying and apologizing for ten minutes.

At this point, an audience member piped up that male and female nudity are NOT equivalent, and that buff male characters are usually a male power fantasy rather than made for women to look at. This comment was brushed off by the presenter, but applauded by the audience.

He had some statistics for us! A quarter of Japanese men and almost half of Japanese women are uninterested in sex. For most Japanese women, career or children is a binary choice. For the population that doesn’t apply to, he blamed the very vague concept of “rigid social structures”. This leads to certain segments of the population withdrawing, consuming anime and manga instead of socializing, and objectification of women and in a “much more harmful form…robbing self-insert male characters of agency.” By this point, the audience had grown noticeably hostile. The woman next to me was taking notes on points to refute and follow up on once she got the chance; I could hear others around me whispering to one another in confusion and anger.

So, what started the blatant catering to otaku? According to the man sitting in front of us, it was Neon Genesis Evangelion. It was the first successful niche anime, proving that otaku have deep enough to pockets to be a viable market, despite being a relatively small segment of the population. Its themes of alienation appealed to those who felt isolated; its success caused most anime made from there on to fall into two categories: anime about feeling alienation, and anime made to provide escapism to those who feel that way. Or rather, you know, menwho feel that way. But he didn’t make that distinction, probably because it would be sexist of him to differentiate. Or some shit like that.

Being blamed for this makes Shinji feel isolated and depressed
Being blamed for this makes Shinji feel isolated and depressed

“Male gaze is a slippery topic,” he said, and lately, there’s been the “stronger presence of female gaze”. After all, Free! exists, and Comiket has an entire day (out of three!) devoted to yaoi. So, of course, the female gaze is the much greater threat. Of course, to those of us who have an understanding of gender in the media at all – I almost said “beyond a basic level” but even that is enough to grasp it- male gaze isn’t a slippery topic. It’s actually an incredibly straightforward topic. The concept is almost 40 years old, well-documented, and one of the most important ideas in feminist media studies. The mere existence of the female gaze is a much more slippery topic and not universally accepted. Women creating content that appeals to themselves and self-publishing on a small scale is not even close to the way major media companies create series that pander to the male gaze. Not. Even. A. Tiny. Bit. Close.

Trust me, we're not objectifying you the way we do these guys
Trust me, we’re not objectifying you the way we do these guys

To illustrate the male gaze, he showed a clip from the Macross Frontier movie showing the idol singer Sheryl performing in a skimpy outfit. That’s it. That was the only thing even a tiny bit male-gaze-y about the clip. The camera didn’t linger over her body. There were no awkward camera angles meant to show off her anatomy. She wore the same kind of outfit that real-life pop singers perform in by choice all the time – Beyonce would have considered it conservative.

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Meanwhile, in many harem anime, the male character is in fact punished for gazing on a woman, regardless of his intent. To illustrate this, he showed clips from Love Hina – specifically, the scene in the beginning where Keitaro stumbles on Naru in the bath and she mistakes him for her female roommate Kitsune and, when she realizes her mistake, freaks out and drags him around by the penis – and Bokura wa Minna Kawaisou, the content of which I cannot be arsed to remember other than that it was trash of the same caliber as everything else he showed. “The self-insert male lead averts his gaze and/or is punished, subverting notion of women as sex objects is a kind of ‘training’ for male viewers,” he claimed. Rather, masochist male characters are further objectifying to men. Which, again, is a trash assertion. It doesn’t change that there is a naked woman displayed for the pleasure of male viewers on the screen. Her anger is a sign of her lack of consent, which for many only sweetens the pot. In Japan, phone cameras by law have to make a sound when you take a picture because there was such an epidemic of covert upskirt photography. Clearly, these men don’t fear violent retaliation for their illicit gaze. Furthermore, the girls are usually tsundere and over time end up falling for the male protagonist – the violence is only a symptom of their reluctant feelings. Yes, the downplaying of female-on-male violence is a problem and can reach disturbing levels; I remember a moment in Love Hina later in the series when Keitaro starts crying and apologizing for accidentally seeing another girl naked, and is surprised when the punch never comes. That’s really awful and reflective of real life abuse! But to claim that it is objectification of men, and that men are more objectified than women is wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong.

“My masochism has singlehandedly led to all men in Japan AND the panelist being oppressed!”
“My masochism has singlehandedly led to all men in Japan AND the panelist being oppressed!”

Finally, finally, he got to moe and lolicon anime. Moe and lolicon are more about fetishism of youth and purity and power relationships between the viewer and the characters, which was probably the first and only correct assertion he made in that entire hour and a half. He showed an extended coffee-making sequence from Gochuumon wa Usagi Desu Ka? and said, “As you can see, that totally subverts the male otaku view of women.”

“How is that subversive?” an audience member called out.

“Show a me a woman that acts that way.”

“That’s not what subversion means!”

He shrugged and continued on. It was clear: he knew the audience was hostile. He knew we weren’t buying his bullshit. He had shut down.

Row row fight the powah
Row row fight the powah

He showed a couple more moeshit clips without really saying anything, and then the panel moderator opened the floor to questions. I stood up and walked straight to the mic. This isn’t an exact transcript of what I said, but all the sentiments are the same and I’ve done my best to come as close as I can.

“You clearly had an agenda when you wrote this presentation, and now you’re standing in front of a room full of women and saying, ‘Silly feminists, men have it way worse!’ You obviously didn’t talk to a single woman or take any woman’s experience or views into account when you made this. Every time there was something that was against your point, you dismissed it as an inexplicable cultural difference or a ‘slippery topic’. How dare you say this to a room full of women? I’m sorry, but that’s crap.”

Cue the THUNDEROUS APPLAUSE from the audience. One of the people standing in line for the mic told me I was his heroine. It was incredible. His response was that he was very sorry I was offended, and he was a bit hurt that I felt the need to stay and say all that to him instead of leaving and complaining to con staff after I decided I was upset. He just wanted to present an alternate viewpoint instead of the same boring information everyone was expecting! He didn’t specify objectification of women in the panel title, so it wasn’t misleading! After that, a few people in line prefaced their remarks with, “Well I liked the panel and I learned a lot!” but a number of others disputed various points he made throughout the panel.

After the panel let out, riding high on the endorphins and adrenaline, I headed down to Con Ops to make sure he wasn’t leading any other panels I was planning to attend so I didn’t get another nasty surprise. They told me they’d already gotten a number of complaints about him, and another attendee – the one who had challenged him on his use of the word “subvert” – was already talking to the panel coordinator. The panel coordinator, who does the same job for Geek Girl Con, apologized for what we had gone through, and assured us he would be blacklisted from hosting panels at Sakura Con for violating the panel’s age rating in addition to a blatantly misleading panel description. But in hindsight, I’m not sure the description was really misleading. Read it again:

“A lot of times we don’t pay close attention to what’s going on in shows we’re watching just for entertainment. This can make it hard to have a productive discussion with people who try to point out that anime is misogynist or that it objectifies women. In this panel we’ll take a look at what objectification is really all about and whether anime really all boils down to just that.”

There’s definitely a combative, defiant tone to it. That people who call anime misogynistic are irrational and wrong and the enemy. In the end, there’s really only one thing to say about guys like him:

Fuck that guy.

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