Is This Feminist or Not? Ways of Talking about Women in Anime

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

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Persona 4: Reach Out to the Truth

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Summary: Due to work, Yuu Narukami’s parents are going out of the country for a year, leaving him with an uncle and a cousin he barely knows in the sleepy rural town of Inaba. Soon after he starts school, he hears of a rumor that if you watch a turned-off TV at midnight on a rainy night, you’ll see your soul mate. When he tries it, he finds that he physically enter the TV through the screen, which leads to a bizarre alternate world. What’s more, the TV world seems to be connected to murders that have taken place recently… murders with no visible cause of death and no evidence pointing to a killer. With his strange powers, it’s up to Yuu and his newfound friends to figure out what’s going on in Inaba.

Potential Triggers: Homophobia, attempted rape, misogyny

Would I recommend it? YES YES YES YES VERY MUCH YES

Note: Naoto’s gender is an extremely contentious issue in the Persona fandom. Though I use female pronouns for the purpose of this review, that is not meant to invalidate interpretations of her as trans.

Note 2: This is based on Atlus’ American localization for the Playstation 2. As always, spoilers abound.

There aren’t really any other games like Persona 4 out there right now. It is both deeply personal and collectivist in its philosophy, simultaneously universal and uniquely Japanese in its themes. The game has a light tone for the most part, but is rich enough in metaphor and symbolic imagery that those who do a little digging will be rewarded by a deeper understanding of its message: the pain of isolation caused by society’s assigned roles and misconceptions and the importance of the bonds between people in healing that pain. These roles can come from a variety of places: family, friends, society, and even from within. They can cause deep psychic pain, and even turn deadly. Though far from perfect, Persona 4’s central metaphor of perception clouding, and eventually overtaking, reality, bolstered by its varied cast, intelligent writing, and unique combination of JRPG and dating sim elements, make it a wonderfully feminist-friendly game.

The sleepy rural town of Inaba, its economy being slowly torn apart by the new department store Junes, sets the stage for a story about the isolation of modern life. The Midnight Channel is rumored to show who you’re supposed to marry, but, as the Investigative Team eventually realizes, instead shows people who have recently become local celebrities through appearances on television and in the news. The Midnight Channel, rather than being an independent entity or even a window to the TV World inside, is more like a mirror of the town’s collective unconscious. The images that appear on it are distorted and difficult to make out, but clearer to people who know the subject well. Popular media is not an independent entity. It does not exist in a vacuum, nor is it an accurate reflection of reality. Programming is reflective of the times concerns and expectations, exemplified in things such as “ripped from the headlines” episodes in crime procedurals. People watch things that reflect what is on their mind, and how they interpret what they see is influenced by their own biases and blind spots. A man may see no problem with a poorly-written or stereotypical female character, while a feminist would raise objections. One recent real-life example is Jared Leto’s performance as a trans woman in Dallas Buyer’s Club, which received widespread acclaim and dozens of awards, but was criticized by LGBT groups as informed by stereotypes and a missed opportunity to cast an actual trans actress.

Not pictured: A sensitive portrayal of a trans woman
Not pictured: A sensitive portrayal of a trans woman

On the other side of the screen lies the TV World, filled with a dense fog and populated by mindless monsters known as Shadows. In addition to the undifferentiated minor shadows, once a person enters the TV, a Shadow version of themselves forms. When the fog rolls into Inaba, it clears in the TV World and the Shadows become aggressive and attack, killing any unfortunate victims within the TV. The fog represents the false perceptions that people hold about others which often dominate popular narratives, and the Shadows are stereotypical, offensive, or otherwise problematic examples of representation. The fog clearing in the TV but shrouding Inaba is analogous to how those misconceptions overshadow narratives not just in fiction but in reality, and when that happens, people can get hurt… or killed. Individually, rumors and bullying can lead to grievous consequences, up to and including suicide; socially, oppressed groups battle myths that lead to hate crimes.

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The Shadow-Persona dichotomy of the game draws on Jungian philosophy and Japanese folklore to deliver much of its main thrust. Once someone is kidnapped and thrown into the television, the content of the Midnight Channel changes. Rather than a simple blurry image, it becomes a TV show involving the person acting wildly out of character: Kanji, a violent punk who bleaches his hair and beats up local biker gangs for bothering his mother, prances around a bathhouse in nothing but a towel, lisping; Rise, a popular idol with a wholesome image, dons a gold bikini and promises to remove even that. These are their Shadow selves, versions of them that supposedly reflect their innermost thoughts. Inside the TV World, they construct labyrinthine dungeons around themselves and the kidnapped victims along the same themes as their shows: Kanji is in a steaming bathhouse, and dance music blares in Rise’s strip club-themed dungeon. At the end of each dungeon, the Shadow confronts the victim, voicing socially unacceptable thoughts and feelings. When the victim inevitably cries out, “You’re not me!”, rejecting the Shadow, the Shadow transforms into a monster and attacks. The Shadows are reflective of Jungian philosophy in that they are the parts of the individual that their conscious personality tries to ignore or reject. The Shadows don’t only occur in people thrown into the TV involuntarily; Chie and Yosuke both entered alongside Yuu the first time, but found their Shadow selves to be lurking in other people’s dungeons. The themes of the Shadows’ claims are personal to each character. Chie’s, for example, are related to self-serving motives that shape her friendship with Yukiko, whereas Kanji’s are about possible repressed homosexual feelings. They reflect feelings of selfishness, rebellion, violations of social norms – in other words, anathema to collective society.

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Once the Shadow transforms, it is not the victim who fights them, however; instead, the members of the Investigative Team do. This ostensibly is symbolic of the power of true friends, but only in a couple cases are the victims close friends of the team. Rather, they usually grow close after their Shadow selves are defeated and they have been rescued from the TV World. What I find far more significant is that, with the exception of Yuu for plot purposes, all of those fighting have faced their Shadow selves. The message here is less about friendship than solidarity, a vital social aspect of the struggle against oppression by all marginalized groups. It’s not that they can’t be friends with people outside their class – after all, Yuu forms social links with people who never face their Shadows – but for issues concerning identity, having that kind of camaraderie is essential. When I discuss my anger and frustration with the way women are treated, having other women who understand and have faced similar situations is more satisfying. On the other hand, while I may listen to and respect the experiences of my trans friends, I will never understand them the same way another trans person would. Being trapped in the TV, facing one’s Shadow, is a moment of weakness, and it is up to those who truly understand – the Investigative Team – to hold off the Shadow until the victim has the strength to face it themselves.

Once the battle is finished and the Shadow defeated, the victims must face their weakened Shadow selves. But rather than confrontation, the important thing is acceptance. If they were to reject the Shadow again, the battle would be forced to repeat; instead, once they accept that side of themselves and say, “You are me,” the Shadow transforms into a Persona they can summon and use in battle, allowing them to join the Investigative Team and battle shadows themselves. Persona 4 draws from Japanese folklore for its characters’ Personas, and the figures they select can be quite telling. For example, Yukiko’s Persona is Konohana Sakuya, who in folklore was a demigoddess who married a mortal. On their first night of marriage, she became pregnant and her husband accused her of infidelity. She entered a windowless hut and set it on fire, declaring that if she were innocent, she and the child would not be harmed. The myth is emblematic of the Japanese yamato-nadeshiko ideal, drawing strength from one’s feminine roles and chastity. Yukiko is the heiress to Inaba’s biggest landmark – the traditional Amagi Inn; she is implied to be a traditional beauty and she has a reputation as aloof because she rejects every boy who asks her out. These aspects are, of course, only a tiny part of who Yukiko is, and have more to do with the public’s perceptions of her. However, in accepting her Shadow self, she internalizes these qualities and can use them as a source of strength. Personas are not, however, their greatest source of strength – that comes later.

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Although the game says that the shadows come from the expectations and beliefs of the town, I don’t believe that is solely the case; rather, they are a synthesis of that and the character’s own insecurities. For example, Naoto’s insecurities regarding her gender are unknown to the people of Inaba, while her youth is well-known, and her Shadow deals with both. People may see Yukiko as the stuck-up princess of a wealthy family, but her Shadow’s monstrous form – an anthropomorphic bird in a cage – relates to her own feelings of being trapped in exactly that role. Thematically, it still all makes sense. High school is an age where many people are just starting to figure out their identities, and their real selves – good and bad – can get snarled up and inextricably tangled with other people’s expectations and impressions. The Midnight Channel reflects and distorts the perceptions of all of Inaba – why would the victim’s own feelings be excluded?

Facing their Shadow isn’t the end of each character’s arc, however, and each one receives further examination in the game’s social links. It is up to the player to decide which social links they want to pursue – other than the three out of the game’s twenty-one social links (twenty-three in Golden) that are advanced by the plot – although players skilled at time management may be able to complete all of them in a single playthrough. Each link is connected to one of the Major Arcana of the Tarot and allows the player to fuse stronger Personas, but that is far from the only reason to pursue them. For me, the social links were the biggest draw of the game, the real meat of it. Each character – some figure prominently in the plot, others are purely peripheral – slowly opens up to Yuu, revealing their issues and, with his help, resolving them. The social links are incredibly well-written, with each character fully rounded and human, sometimes to devastating effect. They are advanced more quickly by tailoring your responses to each character, picking the option that they will respond best to. At a glance, this may seem insincere, but in reality, treating each person with sensitivity to their individual needs is an important skill; jokes about my legally blind boyfriend’s eyesight would not go over well with, say, a disability advocate whom I just met. When moving through a world populated with a huge variety of people, true equality is not just bulldozing through with identical approaches to everyone, but to sincerely treat everyone how they need to be treated.

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Think… very… carefully

Advancing the social links of party members offers an additional advantage: access to more powerful personas. Facing their Shadow is not the end of each characters’ story, nor the end of their inner conflict. In fact, in most cases it awakens them to internal conflicts they didn’t want to admit to themselves, such as Rise’s struggle with her feelings about her role as an idol. As is the case in most links, you help them through their issues, leading up to important moments of self-realization and self-acceptance. Once your social link is maxed, however, unlike others, their Personas evolve into more powerful forms. These evolutions, like those before them, draw from Japanese myth, but are more true to themselves, as discovered in the social link. As Tumblr user nenilein pointed out in a now-deleted post on the mythology of the Personas, Rise’s Persona evolves from Himiko, a legendary shaman queen who was beloved, but never left her palace staffed by one hundred women and one man and thus was distant and inaccessible, much like how Rise felt she was; to Kanzeon (usually written Kannon), the all-seeing Buddhist goddess of mercy, representing her desire to use her fame as a force of good in the world.

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The conclusions the characters reach at the end of each of their social links varies. Some, like Kanji, undergo a dramatic personal transformation – he decides to throw off his tough loner personality that he has worn like armor in favor of the kind boy with a deep love of handicrafts that he really is. Others, like Yukiko, may seem to be treading water: for much of her link, she is planning to leave behind the Amagi Inn and start a career of her own, but at the end realizes that the Inn and everyone involved with it is important to her and decides to stay. Some people I’ve known thought of this as being in favor of stagnation, and that accepting one’s assigned roles instead of rebelling is the path to true happiness, but I believe this is a dramatic misreading of the situation. Self-examination, as well as the examination of the world one inhabits, is essential, but to rebel just for rebellion’s sake is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Instead of passively accepting that she will someday take over, Yukiko becomes actively invested in her and the inn’s future. One common real-life parallel is girls who declare themselves “not like other girls”. Rather than examining the institution of female gender roles, they instead internalize misogyny and reject femininity for its own sake. It is often a step along the path to real feminism – I certainly was one of those girls, as were many of my friends – but it is, at best, immature and quickly grown out of after adolescence. At worst it is directly harmful as the girls align themselves with masculinity, thus indirectly perpetuating patriarchal systems, undermining not only themselves but women as a group.

Another aspect of the social link system is the dating option, an aspect I am somewhat less a fan of. With only a couple exceptions, most of the female characters have a romantic route as well as a platonic route. This is an improvement from Persona 3, in which the female social links were automatically romantic, but the subtle disregard for the girls’ agency undermines the game’s themes of self-determination. Love and attraction is a wholly different dynamic than friendship and emotional support, and gamification of romance and sex coincides uncomfortably with very real and unhealthy attitudes toward them. On top of that, it is possible to simultaneously date every girl in the game with no negative consequences in the base game (though Golden brilliantly punishes players who two-time girls). The ubiquity and simplicity of shifting from a platonic route to a romantic route – the player need only choose to hug a girl when given the option or tell her you like her at a high enough level – invites players to reduce the unusually complex female characters to two-dimensional waifus and disregard their character arcs. Unused voice clips pulled from the game disc provide strong evidence that at least one of the male characters was originally meant to be a romance option, which would certainly have mitigated the issue, but with it cut, the sexism remains.

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That said, Persona 4 does fall back on tired, gendered tropes for its humor a bit too often for comfort – that is to say, at all. It is sparse compared to the rest of the content, and the things that the game does right more than cancel it out, but I still couldn’t help but cringe at some parts. Jokes about none of the female characters being able to cook feel out of place juxtaposed with complex character arcs. Naoto’s discomfort with her body, particular her breast size – whether true trans-related dysphoria, garden-variety body image struggles, or somewhere in-between – is also played for laughs, which is a very real problem for many teenagers and wholly inappropriate.

The characters Ms. Kashiwagi and Hanako Ohtani are also played for sexist laughs. Kashiwagi, the characters’ homeroom teacher in the latter half of the game, is an unmarried woman in her forties; Hanako is their obese classmate. Both of them are viciously misogynistic stereotypes: as the desperate cougar and the fat girl unaware of how disgusting everyone else finds her. Although there is unfortunately no hope for Kashiwagi, who jealously tears down her female students and is prone to misogynistic rants, Hanako has potential to be a great character if presented in a less relentlessly negative light. She is confident and assertive, unafraid to appear in a bikini in front of her entire school. Her confidence is, of course, played up as comedically misplaced. How dare a fat girl hope to win against her thin counterparts? When Kanji mistakenly sneaks into her bed at the Amagi Inn, it’s presented as absurd that she thinks he would ever want to sleep with her. Japan is not a country that is kind to larger women – even at 140 pounds, I could never find pants there that fit – and though she is ultimately a tertiary character, portrayals like Hanako are not helpful, especially in a game that is about fighting stereotypes and assumptions.

Never change, Hanako. You do you.
Never change, Hanako. You do you.

There are two possible points in Persona 4 for the story to branch, both leading to premature endings. To avoid them and reach the game’s true ending, the player must aggressively pursue the underlying truth, refusing to take things at their face value at key junctures. As Margaret says, “Truth is a thing which only appears to those who have observed, considered, and made a choice.” Whether it is listening critically to others or introspection, truth is hard-won and requires careful thought. In the bad ending, the investigative team effectively pulls vigilante justice on the man who has been putting people in the TV, at Yosuke’s behest. He is not, in fact, the true villain, and if you accept Yosuke’s solution, seven-year-old Nanako dies and the fog never clears. Two lives are lost unnecessarily in addition to the truth. The normal ending is much gentler: the party defeats Ameno-sagiri, the Japanese god of fog, and sunny days return to Inaba. Yuu bids farewell to his completed social links, and leaves Inaba. However, Ameno-sagiri warns the party as he falls, “Mankind’s desires are my desires. If mankind wishes, I will return at any time… I am always at your side, watching…” Activists’ battles are never over; if they become lazy or complacent, it’s easy for the situation to backslide. A prime example is how many millennials consider America “postracial” since the highly visible civil rights struggles of the mid-1900s, despite the huge, quantifiable disparities between whites and people of color. Ameno-sagiri’s promise parallels this – old attitudes and hurtful stereotypes lurk beneath the surface, waiting for ignorance and intellectual laziness to give them space to rise to prominence and shroud reality – their reality – in a harsh, painful fog.

After Ameno-sagiri’s feats, there are still a lot of unanswered questions, and by interrogating the events that set the story in motion, the player finds them answered in the true ending. Refusing to accept the fog and Midnight Channel as happenstance, Yuu and the Investigative Team discover that Izanami, the Shinto goddess responsible both for the creation of Japan and human mortality, had orchestrated much of the plot by creating the Midnight Channel and granting Yuu, Adachi, and Namatame the power over Personas and the ability to enter the TV World. However, for much of the phenomena, “people’s curiosity was at fault”. “One person alone can only understand so much,” and the desire to exceed those limits causes people to gossip, stereotype, and create shortcuts: the result of limited knowledge without understanding. This is the ugly side of human curiosity, the side that gives way to rubber-necking, sensationalism, and tabloid journalism. It is not a thirst for truth, and can be easily satiated by packaged, easily digestible falsehoods that obscure, rather than reveal the complexities of the world.

Izanami claims that she is only granting humanity’s true desires with the fog, and that she has their best interests at heart. Her words echo those of magazine executives, tabloid journalists, and marketers – they’re only selling a product because there’s a demand for it. They’re just giving people what they want. People want the photoshopped, impossibly thin and smooth-skinned that populate magazine covers; that’s just simple biology. Women want five hundred pieces advice on how to burn that belly flab. People want to see handsome white masculine men fight and defeat the effeminate, ethnic, or ugly villains. But that claim is as false as the lies they sell us; we only want it because they spend billions of dollars convincing us that the phantasm of perfection and simplicity – achievable by buying their products! – is more satisfying than acceptance of flaws and complexity. Izanami’s monstrous true form, a rotting, skeletal corpse revealed by the Orb of Truth midway through the battle, is a reminder that behind the appealing lies are ugly, cynical intentions, whether they be power structures held up by the status quo or conscious desires to gain at the expense of others. Izanami is, after all, a vengeful goddess; spurned by Izanagi and trapped in the world of the dead, she promised to kill 1000 living things every day. The damage done by these falsehoods – hate crimes, eating disorders, incarceration – kill far more than that.

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Yuu almost falls to Izanami’s attack Thousand Curses, sucked through a black hole into a blank white space. Ghostly apparitions of his completed social links appear, expressing gratitude for his help and friendship and exhorting him to get up and find the strength to continue the fight: “So long as someone’s got your back, you can kick against the pricks no matter how tough they are,” Kanji says. No one is immune to despair, not even the protagonists of the world and, like those he aided, he needs support to be able to continue. It can be easy to be swallowed up by the darkness, the seeming insurmountable tide of prejudices and injustices to fight, the constant and relentless commoditization of female bodies and trans bodies being a punchline, and the sheer ignorance of the world. In those moments, like Yuu, reflecting on victories, great or small, can grant the strength to continue to fight.

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Stand he does, and creates Izanagi-no-Okami, the ultimate Persona, parallel to the Investigative Team’s Personas transforming at the end of their social links. “Can the will of so few surpass the will of all mankind?” Izanami marvels as Yuu withstands her attacks. Izanami-no-Okami has only one attack: Myriad Truths, “The word of power that banishes all the world’s curses and falsehoods.” The Investigative Party has two things that allow them to stand against Izanami: the truth, and their bond with each other. As he summons the Persona, Yuu throws his glasses aside. There is nothing between him and the Truth, no lenses or screens. He needs no augmentation. And with that, he defeats Izanami, banishing the fog from Inaba forever, with no threat of return.

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The end of Persona 4 is idealistic. We are a long way from destroying prejudice and falsehoods in our world, assuming that’s even possible. It’s a struggle both external and internal, as we combat not only harmful representations and stereotypes, but also the biases and unrealistic expectations we internalize. Nonetheless, it’s still a goal worth keeping in sight and fighting for: a world where people can be their true and authentic selves, and can accept their full identities, flaws and all. Persona 4 is not a perfect game and, on occasion, falls short of its own philosophy, but with witty writing, effective use of symbolism, and depth of character unparalleled in gaming, it is well worth the 60+ hours it takes to play.