Women in Anime: Empowered or Undermined?

Satoshi Kon was famous for creating anime works with strong female protagonists.

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Pexels.com | Mali Maeder

Anime has risen over the last decade from a relatively obscure niche to a staple of pop culture. If you want to watch the latest series from Japan, you no longer have to go to your local VHS shop and hope that they have it in stock. Now, you can find any show you want, watch anything you want, whenever you want. In fact, anime is now so popular that people have written entire books filled with essays on the subject. I remember reading one, a long time ago, and one essay in particular. It focussed on the way women are portrayed in anime, and it got me thinking.

Anime is notorious for being chock-full of sexual content, not just in hentai, but in general. The same can be said of anime in the context of fandom. People eat up merchandise with anime girls plastered on it (more often than not, in compromising positions and states of dress), and fanfiction itself is often dedicated to steamy encounters with these animated babes.

It’s true that often in anime, girls are given skimpy outfits and “fanservice” is in abundance. Even in something as innocent as Sailor Moon (which is, for all intents and purposes, an anime targeted to younger viewers), the heroines have dramatically long legs and teeny tiny skirts. Even action-oriented shounen anime like Fairy Tail and Bleach will sometimes linger on a chest shot, or show you girls’ panties. Some people find this outrageous, and insist that anime portrays a bad image of women.

However, I would argue that point. While, yes, anime doesn’t always depict women in the best of ways, it does often empower them. The late anime director Satoshi Kon was famous for creating anime works with female protagonists, and strong ones at that. Perfect Blue is the perfect anime to watch and analyse if you’re interested in how genders are portrayed through the medium. Following the story of Mima, a former idol turned actor who has to cope with fans hating her career move, Perfect Blue is a psychological thrill ride. Roger Corman stated it was the sort of picture Alfred Hitchcock would make if he was partnered with Walt Disney.

The concept I remember most from the essay I read all those years ago, was simply, “the male gaze.” Perfect Blue is all about the male gaze. It’s about how the main character’s male fans see her, how her male stalker sees her, how her male managers see her. Yet, ironically, the most powerful and threatening character in the movie is a woman, and Mima herself only emerges stronger after the trials she faces. Though she endures some horrifying scenarios, these are never glorified and, in the end, she’s the one who wins. In essence, she’s a strong female character and she doesn’t need to pose with a gun to be one. She focusses on her career, her own dream, and doesn’t let others hold her back.

That being said, gun-toting females in anime can be role models too. A prime example is Makoto Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell. While, yes, she gets nude a few times (though she is a cyborg, and it is for the purposes of turning invisible), she’s easily one of the toughest characters to ever appear in fiction. Supremely skilled and deadly, she’s the exact opposite of the “housewife” image that Japan may have cultivated in the past.

While, yes, girls in anime probably aren’t going to stop flaunting their striped undies anytime soon, and yes, there will likely be an abundance of “quality” anime like Akikan! in the years to come, characters like Mima, Makoto, and even the recent Mikasa of Attack on Titan, and Touka from Tokyo Ghoul, are proof that the future for women in anime is bright.

On the other hand, with fans pleading for a third season of Free! Iwatobi Swim Club, the future for men in anime, is looking decidedly dark…

About Vanille Rose (1 Article)
I'm a fantasy author, avid fan of Japanese pop culture, and bad eighties movies are my guilty pleasure. I mostly analyse and review Japanese media and fandom (usually with a touch of sarcasm), but occasionally cover other topics. When I'm not writing, I'm usually huddled in a darkened room, trying to finish all the quests in Skyrim.

4 Comments on Women in Anime: Empowered or Undermined?

  1. Indeed, the trend of strong & independent women in anime is very encouraging. Of course there are still a lot of sexualization, but it isn’t limited to females. Male characters are also sexualized with all those smoking good looks and hot bodies. Besides Hollywood isn’t innocent either. Sexualization & objectification of all genders are prevalent. I love anime, but that doesn’t mean that I support the undermining of female characters is many shows. However, critics should learn more about the industry and culture before they criticize. They should watch a lot more anime before they say that ALL anime don’t have good portrayal of females. Anyway, great post. Keep it up. Cheers!

    • FAN/FIC Magazine // August 1, 2016 at 3:29 pm // Reply

      Very true. The medium of animation, although often associated with “children’s entertainment,” can often give creators the leeway to present more sexualized representations of the human body than live-action films. But there are so many exceptions to this rule that present strong, non-sexualized characters in the anime genre.

      Glad you enjoyed the article. Thanks so much for reading!

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