These are the slides for the panel “Is This Feminist or Not? Ways of Talking about Women in Anime” as presented at Sakura Con 2017
These are the slides for the panel “Is This Feminist or Not? Ways of Talking about Women in Anime” as presented at Sakura Con 2017
Now we’re getting more into the actual, physical forms of abuse that are not just tropes in fiction. This is physical abuse – pulling hair, punching, slapping, kicking, biting, anything that brings harm to your body. Damaging your property out of anger. Forcing you to use drugs or alcohol was a really weird one in Hana Yori Dango because he kidnaps her, drugs her, and she wakes up to being given a makeover, and that’s like, “Oh, he just doesn’t understand how to be nice to her, that’s why he did that. He was just trying to be nice!” He drugged her. He drugged her. The property tends to involve phones, because that is an avenue of communication with other people. If they’re communicating with other people, the guy will destroy the phone in a temper tantrum.
At this year’s Sakura Con, I had the amazing opportunity to present a panel on Abuse in Shoujo Manga and Anime to a completely full room. Starting today, I will be posting a transcript of the panel in four parts. Because of the more spontaneous, imperfect nature of speech, the my thoughts and grammar will be messier than usual.
Hi everyone, my name is Caitlin Moore. I write for the blog heroineproblem.com, and thank you so much for coming to “Romance and Abuse in Shoujo Manga and Anime”. I chose this panel because growing up, I read a lot of shoujo manga, and as I got older, I was reading and realized, a lot of these guys are just not good! They’re not good guys! I started thinking about exactly how relationships work and how people in relationships should treat each other. As I started getting older and getting into feminism, it only got more alarming to me.
So, just a content warning: this panel will contain discussions of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, including sexual assault. If anyone thinks they need to leave for any reason, that’s fine, no judgment.
While Yukari’s story is a wonderful coming age story of a girl learning not to be defined by those around her, the female secondary characters, Miwako and Isabella, are not so lucky. Although they too are coming of age in their own right, their storylines are severely lacking compared to Yukari’s. That is more or less to be expected, considering they are supporting characters, but they deserve much more fleshed out characterizations than they got.
Miwako’s primary role in Paradise Kiss is Yukari’s friend and confidant, an essential ally in her tumultuous period of self-discovery and shifting identity. She plays this role admirably, supporting Yukari and using her connections to introduce her to the fashion industry. Yukari has, however, unwittingly reintroduced an old conflict back into her life: the love triangle between her, her boyfriend Arashi, and their childhood friend Tokumori Hiroyuki. Miwako chose Arashi and cut off contact with Hiroyuki years ago, despite harboring feelings for both of them. Now that Yukari has gotten Miwako and Hiro back in touch, Arashi is obsessively jealous and possessive.
If that summary sounds like a run of the mill shoujo soap, it more or less reads that way. One of my consistent objections to shoujo manga is that they romanticize men who treat the women in their lives like trash. Arashi, despite his unconventional appearance, behaves in a way that is fairly typical for that sort of character: when he learns that Miwako is in touch with Hiro, he starts acting like a complete ass. Around midway through the series, he snottily refuses to do beadwork with Miwako at her house: “I’m mad because you’ve been talking to me all day like nothing happened. You’ve got some kind of nerve… You were playing dumb all this time. I’ve gotta think something happened.” “Miwako thought you’d be mad if she told you! You get mad either way, Arashi!” Miwako feels trapped and guilty not because of any wrongdoing, but because of Arashi’s childish, passive-aggressive tactics and irrational jealousy.
As the series continues, Arashi grows increasingly paranoid and controlling, and Miwako turns more and more to Hiro for emotional support in dealing with her volatile boyfriend. Eventually, Miwako comes into the bedroom to find Arashi going through her phone and looking at the texts she’s been exchanging with Hiro, and throws it against the wall in rage, breaking it. There is no two ways to look at it: Arashi’s behavior is abusive. No amount of justification, apologizing, or self-deprecation will change that. It only gets worse as Hiro, talking with Arashi, reveals that he knows how he got Miwako to choose him: he raped her, using sex to bind her to him. Arashi feels guilty, for their past and his present temper, but Hiro reassures him, “Miwako understood best how much you loved her. That’s why she wanted to make amends. Because she thought her reaction might hurt you.” I can not evenbegin to described how fucked up and frustrating this whole scene is, seriously marring an otherwise great manga. Arashi realizes his actions are wrong and his choices hurt Miwako. The other characters are all much, much, much too willing not only to forgive him, but actively assuage his guilty conscience. There is nothing in the text to imply that what Arashi did was reprehensible, nor are there any consequences for his actions beyond his guilt.
Part of the reason for Arashi’s insecurity is his guilt for “turning Miwako into a sexual being,” Hiro says. But Miwako didn’t suddenly turn into a sexual being the moment she was involuntarily penetrated by a penis. Female sexuality isn’t defined or initiated by the loss of virginity. Chances are, Miwako was already a sexual being, with her own desires and feelings well before she was assaulted, especially considering her home life was probably less restrictive and repressive than average. At best, the attitude that Arashi turned Miwako into a sexual being is ignorant; at worst, it is fuel to the idea that women are naturally purer than men, but can be sullied by sexual contact. The scene, even the whole subplot, is an ugly mark against an otherwise wonderful story.
Really, the fact that Miwako’s arc is a highly conventional love triangle is a shame. Early in the manga, Miwako talks to Yukari about how she struggles creating fashion designs that are truly her own, and not an imitation of her sister Mikako’s distinctive style. At the end, Miwako goes to work for Happy Berry, excited at the idea of being a help to her sister. This would have been a far more interesting arc for her: coming to terms with the fact that while she may not be destined to be a designer herself, she can still do what she loves and be an asset to those around her.
Isabella meets the bare minimum for a trans character, which is admittedly better than most series manage. Her gender identity is respected by the text and never questioned and, outside of some ignorant comments made by Yukari at the very start referring to her as a “drag queen”, the other characters are respectful as well. Her butler, who basically raised her, says he is “proud that she’s grown from such a timid young boy to an elegant lady.” When Arashi, annoyed that she’s asking the men to carry the groceries, complains, “You’re a gentleman too, Daisuke Yamamoto,” Yukari, Miwako, George, and Isabella herself react in shock and horror. There are no cheap “dude looks like a lady” jokes, nor any about her femininity or masculinity.
Unfortunately, there’s not too much to say about Isabella’s character other than “inoffensive transwoman” and “group mom”. She has no character arc on her own, instead playing a purely supportive role to the others. There are few statements to be made about her other than her appearance, her gender identity, and her position within the group. When she is doing Yukari’s makeup for the student fashion show, she tells a story from her childhood. In third grade, she came out to George and a few days later, he showed up on her doorstep, insisting they celebrate her birthday and giving her a box. When she tells him that her birthday was months ago, he says, “That was Mr. Yamamoto’s birthday.” The box he gave her contained a beautiful dress and hat he had made for her, his first design ever. It’s a sweet enough story, but it’s more about George and the power of fashion than about Isabella. Nonetheless, seeing a trans character who is loved and supported by those around her is a joy.
Yukari’s career of choice does present some issues. Yazawa chose it due to her love of fashion – she went to school for fashion design before she became a mangaka – and she displays some truly incredible fashion design throughout the series. Nonetheless, I am leery of a coming of age story where a woman’s primary asset is her appearance. Yukari was blessed with natural good looks, and because of that all she needs to do is knock lightly and all the doors will swing open. Mikako tells Yukari, “The fact that everything is falling into place is just proof that this is the right path for you.” If only things were that easy in reality! Yes, it takes initiative for her to knock, but it’s all too convenient. “If my longer-than-average limbs will be weapons for survival, maybe I should be a bit grateful to my parents for making it so.” In a world where a woman must be, above all else, beautiful, it is complacent at best to set a story in a world where beauty is favored above all other qualities. The modeling industry runs rampant with abuses: eating disorders, sexual abuse, racism, and a multitude of other problems. Yazawa’s vision of the industry is a kinder, gentler one, where the right friends, long legs, and a desire to make it suffice. Yukari’s success is due to her initiative, yes, but she is helped along amply by those around her, with no real obstacles other than her mother’s obstinacy. While this is preferable to a salacious soap opera where she is exploited at every turn, it all just seems a bit too glossed over.
There is, on the other hand, a distinct advantage. Yazawa’s version of the fashion world is one dominated by women, allowing Yukari to meet and be mentored by accomplished women in her field. Mikako, star of the prequel manga Gokinjo Monogatari, has gone from temperamental teenager to a highly sought-out fashion designer and the president of her own company; she even continues to go by her maiden name, despite marrying her high school sweetheart and lead photographer, Yamaguchi Tsutomu. Shimamoto Kozue is a former fashion model using her knowledge of the industry to start her own agency. In Japan, it is rare for women to progress above the position of office lady; industries where women are not only taken seriously, but at the forefront are rare. In this context, it makes more sense: the story of a young woman taking charge of her own life belongs in a world where women can take charge. She needs role models and mentors, women who have succeeded due to their drive and determination, in addition to friends and peers.
“Watching this slightly rude, but clearly prettier woman laugh at me, I felt like I got a glimpse of the world I was entering into,” Yukari thinks as Shimamoto laughs at her so hard she falls on the floor. This is a world where none of the usual rules apply, clearly.
Mikako and Shimamoto aren’t just businesswomen; they’re a bit strange. Quirky. Off-beat. They’re the kind of people who would feel restricted operating in the normal business world of sober suits and polite bows and endless keigo. The very same kind of people as Paradise Kiss, and that Yukari is learning to be, and really was always meant to be, now that her mother is no longer trying to stuff her into a pigeonhole she doesn’t fit. After her meeting with Mikako, Yukari walks through the streets of Harajuku, and says to herself, “It’ll be fine. I won’t lose. Even if my folks desert me, or I stick out from society, I won’t vanish.” That, more than anything else, is the most important lesson she learns from these older women. There’s plenty of time to learn about makeup application and business savvy and the best way to pose on a runway.
What Yukari needs to know, from older and more experienced women, is that there is room for someone like her in the world. That she can exist outside the restrictive mold she’s been forced into her entire life and not only get by, but flourish.
Paradise Kiss: A Coming of Agency Tale
Manga/Anime/Live Action Film
Summary: Hayasaka Yukari never considered a life beyond prep school and college exams, until she is approached by a group of students from Yazawa School for the Arts asking her to model for their senior art show. Yukari questions everything she ever knew when confronted with an outlook on life completely different from her own… and when she meets George Koizumi, the charismatic, eccentric leader of the group.
Potential triggers: Abuse, rape, transphobia
Would I recommend it? Yes
Paradise Kiss could easily have been a standard “Girl meets boy, girl’s life is changed forever” narrative. Luckily, in the capable hands of Yazawa Ai, it instead becomes a beautifully drawn, thoughtful meditation on adulthood, ambition, and the ways we hurt the ones we care about. With the issues of agency, identity, and non-conformism front and center,Paradise Kiss has the potential to be a powerfully feminist narrative, and while not an unqualified success, it certainly succeeds on some levels.
Yukari’s situation is utterly typical for many students who feel pressured to succeed: she goes to school all day and studies all night. Her evenings are spent at juku; weekends are for cram sessions at the library. For her entire life, she has been pressured to succeed by her education-obsessed mother, pushed into elite schools where she can barely stay afloat. She has had no time to develop any interests or hobbies of her own. “God, I’ve lived soberly for 18 years. Is this even fair? If so, instead of studying so much, I should have done more of what I wanted to do. But what would I have even wanted? I never even thought about it. My life was such a monotone world,” she complains as she revives from a shock-induced faint, convinced that she’s died.
It is her encounter with the members of Paradise Kiss: Isabella, Arashi, Miwako, and George. They are people unlike anyone Yukari has ever encountered: they dye their hair bright colors, wear unconventional clothes, have sex on the pool table, and openly discuss being gender non-normative. Such a world is a shock to her system at first, and she is quick to judge and dismiss them when they approach her about being the model for their student fashion show. “Sorry, but I’m studying for college entrance exams and I don’t have time for something like that,” she says with an air of condescension.
However, Arashi, bedecked in his punk rock couture, is quick to take her to task when she calls their fashion show “goofing around”: “Who you are or what the hell you do might not be our business, but we don’t work our sewing machines for fun! Hey, are college exams so much more superior?” Yukari is abashed, and tries to apologize and flee, but is stopped by Miwako calling her “Caroline” and inviting her back to the studio.
But it’s George who draws Yukari in, and the subsequent relationship between George and Yukari makes up a large part of the series. Theirs is not a healthy relationship, to say the least. It is clingy and simultaneously emotionally needy and emotionally withholding, frequently manipulative, and fraught with jealousy. They fight frequently over slights both real and imagined. It is a far more cynical look at first love than most media aimed at young women contains, and far more believable. Yazawa does an excellent job portraying an unhealthy, but still loving relationship between two immature, emotionally damaged people without slipping into abusive territory. Yukari doesn’t fall for George because of his dashing good looks (though those certainly don’t hurt), or because of any sort of bad boy, devil-may-care demeanor. She falls for him because he is passionate and driven. She falls for him because he takes an interest in her and listens to her problems without dismissing them. When complaining about her mother and her lack of direction in life, she stops herself and says, “I’ve done nothing but complain about my life. Hearing this isn’t fun. Sorry, I’ll stop now.”
He responds, “Why are you stopping? You’re talking about your life, right? Don’t say it’s stupid. I’ll listen seriously.”
In short, she falls for him because he respects her as a human being, something no one before him has done.
The most interesting part of the manga is Yukari’s internal struggles. Drawn out of living life on autopilot, she founders as she learns making her own decisions and figuring out her own priorities is more difficult than it seems. The first time she visits George’s apartment, it turns into a fight about her tendency to pin the blame for everything bad in her life on someone else, even as she claims, “I’m making my own decisions, and I’ll take responsibility for what happens to me.” She takes his refusal to take the blame for any negative consequences of her involvement with him as not caring. In the end, he tells her, “You may pretend to be rebellious, but in the end, you need to live by the rules. You can’t feel comfortable without someone setting boundaries. You can’t help it. It’s the way you were raised,” and sends her home.
Only a few days later, Yukari runs away from home to escape her mother’s control, the first step in her enormous personal transformation into a determined, independent young woman.
Can a series be feminist if a woman decides to change herself because of a man? It’s a complicated question with no easy answer. We all have people who inspire us, who make us want to be the best version of ourselves. Those people could be friends, family, role models, those who look up to us, and, yes, romantic partners. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it. However, we can’t ignore the cultural precedent of men believing they know what’s best for women and narratives that support it – My Fair Lady and Pretty Lady are two of the most famous Western examples, and the tsundere archetype popular in moe culture is largely based around it. The difference between a woman being inspired to improve herself for her own sake, and paternalistic makeover stories, lies in how much of the woman’s motivation is intrinsic, how much she herself personally benefits, and how much she relies on that single man.
Yukari is definitely not wholly reliant on George for her change. In fact, when she first runs away, she doesn’t move in with him but stays at Arashi’s temporarily vacant apartment. While staying here, Yukari gets her first modeling job and discovers her true calling; she loses her virginity in Arashi’s bed. When she does move in with George, it is not because of any delusion that they will live happily ever after or a need for protection. It’s so she can access the purity of passion and energy that only George has, because she is naturally drawn to his personal magnetism. It’s not perfect; the two of them end up drawn into a borderline-combative back and forth of mind games and mental manipulation. And though Yukari always feels like he has the upper-hand, the text often makes it clear that they both feel equally helpless.
Even as she is inspired by George, she often falters at his hand and does start to lean on him. When she is accepted by a modeling agency but must acquire her parents’ permission, she plans to talk it over with George when it gets home. But he comes home horny and ready to play at domesticity, and when she tries to tell him, he waves her away, asking if it could be “more important than making love to me?” She gives in and forgets what she was even going to tell him. The next day, he’s both angry that she didn’t tell him, and that she wanted to discuss her dilemma with him. He’s being a complete asshole.
Two meetings earlier that day help Yukari break away from her dangerously increasing dependence on George and his approval. First, she meets with Hiroyuki, who is not acquainted with George and thus is not subject to his charisma. Thus, he is able to point out the flaws in how he treats Yukari and his reasoning. “No one can be completely sure of their own will. Everyone is worried and confused and influenced by the ideas of people around them.” Yukari realizes at this point that she’s been striving toward an unobtainable ideal, influenced by who she thinks George wants her to be, and it’s making her miserable. To be an island, completely uninfluenced by others, is an ideal as unrealistic as the photoshopped models and plastic surgery-enhanced porn stars that are marketed to women. Later, when she goes to meet Shimamoto, she meets George’s mother, Yukino, who was impregnated by a married man and forced to leave her modeling career. Now, trapped in the thrall of that married man, completely dependent on a man who does not need her at all, blaming everyone but herself, she is constantly unhappy. She, who raised George, is so the opposite of his ideal. “George doesn’t want me to end up a woman like that. I’d rather die than turn into a woman like that!” she thinks as she packs her bags. “Thanks to her, my eyes have been opened. I’m going to fight!”
Yukari realizes that she must find a point between the two extremes, one where she can follow her own path and make up her mind, but still accept the influence of the people around her. This is a major turning point for her, and the point where I can accept that Paradise Kiss can be a good model for teenage girls. To find a happy medium, instead of careening between two extremes, is essential to finding balance in one’s own life and achieving one’s goals. Trying too hard to be anyone else’s ideal, be it her mother’s or George’s, did not work. Trying to live completely free of anyone else’s influence was impossible and driving her toward a nervous breakdown. Instead, able to stay aware of the ways she is influenced by the world around her, to accept that influence when it suits her but to also assert her own will, she is able to find happiness and, more importantly, agency.
The final few chapters of Paradise Kiss are bittersweet, as Yukari and the members of Paradise Kiss are forced to enter the world of adults, where that ability to walk the line between independence and influence is vital to survival. Each one has their own path to walk, different from what they had been hoping. Even George prepares to become a makeup artist, ready to leave behind his beautiful, impractical designs, more art than marketable fashion, until his father agrees to pay for him to go to Paris to study haute couture. Yukari, knowing that her chances of making it on the international fashion scene are incredibly slim, decides to stay behind and pursue her own career. When George sails away, she receives a key in the mail that leads her to a storeroom. She opens it and finds all of the beautiful clothes he made, and falls down, weeping. “He turns the black and white landscape into beautiful colors. That’s what George was to me.“ For all their problems, by George’s side, Yukari learned to conceive of a world where there was more than studying and university, where beauty dominated. Armed with the strength of mind and practicality she learned in her months with George and Paradise Kiss, she becomes a successful model and, more importantly, her own woman.