For better or for worse, feminism has made its name around the globe. For some, it means the equality of women to men and to rise above the stations society has placed the “female” gender at for so long. Yet for others, feminism is the name of a plague where women have risen up to beat men down from their stations. As some preach for harmony under its name, others preach to fight. Regardless of what feminism means to you, it has made its mark in society as well as media, including the anime universe.
It is without doubt that the closing of the gender gap had taken a gradual road. In the past the value of a woman lies in her ability to stay at home and look after kids. Now, there is more emphasis on the ambitious business woman. In contrast, men who often only find a role in the money making macho can now find roles of the hopeless romantic or a shy boy. One of the most important pioneers to push for feminism in society has been literature and media. It is through stories that people first accept the ideas and through stories that people embrace or criticize the change.
However, feminism in the anime universe could be said to have crawled at a much slower pace than many other forms of media.
That is not to say the anime world has not made improvements. From the typical damsel in distress or the manipulative bitch, anime now introduces us to working single moms who are equally devoted to their children as they are to their careers (ERASED), to female protagonists who overshadow the male protagonist’s popularity among both gender audiences (Asuna from Sword Art Online), to whimsical, creative girls who shine a light onto a struggling protagonist’s life (Your Lie in April).
Yet with every new, complicated character, there is one more anime that explodes in popularity because of a single man with too many girls fawning over him. I am not talking of parodies like last season’s Renai Boukun where Akua presses herself against Seiji in fashions so ridiculous that the audience and writers themselves know are not to be taken seriously. But aside from parodies, there are plenty of other anime that advertise themselves as serious behind a façade of monster/alien/magic battles. By telling the audience of their legitimacy, the anime is allowing an unconscious acceptance of the treatment to women told in the story.
And even in those anime with incredibly complex female characters, fanservice scenes still seems to be a necessity. Many times, however, they do not contribute much to the storyline. From the more recent “massage” in Sukasuka that results in an erotic cry to the illogically bouncing boobs of Lust in something older like FMAB, it is almost as if the anime universe does not believe it can hold its audience without one explicit scene of sexualizing a female character’s body.
Even more conflicting are the anime that have a “feminism” tag to their storylines that only demeans the actual movement behind feminism. Last season’s Busou Shoujo Machiavellianism is the perfect example. It claims an utopia high school for feminists where girls run supreme and boys are forced to cower and even dress up as women. Pack that with completely irrational girls who overreact to anything the main character does, often resorting to very harsh violence, this anime not only regresses what many of the complicated female characters of anime have accomplished but also blackens the name of “feminism” and “feminists”. These types of characters also show up in the old but popular Ouran High School Host Club and the more recent Handa-kun.
One reason for this particular portrayal in Japanese anime can simply be because this is entertainment, and thus entertainment should be taken at face value and not be applied to real life. Yet a bigger reason that comes to suspect is the heavily rooted patriarchal culture that Japan is still in today.
Japan on the Global Gender Gap Index rating, where 1 is no gender gap and 0 is extreme, earned a .66 for 2016. Compared to other technologically advanced countries like USA (.722), United Kingdom (.752), Canada (.731), Japan lags a full 10% behind the rest. Even among the Asian countries, Japan is rated below China (.676), Indonesia (.682), and Phillippines (.786).
Evidence of this could be seen in the frequent sexual harassment problems on public transportation and the label of “Parasite Singles” for single women in only their 20’s. In fact, as of today, it is still 100% legal to commit sexual harassment on women in the workplace. There is a huge shame-rape-victims culture that surrounds the country. This patriarchal presence also extends into the personal lives. A Japanese vlogger once said that Japanese women typically could not marry men who are in a lower position than the women in their careers. For example, if a woman is the CEO of a company, she would have to marry a man who is the CEO of a more successful company and could not marry a CEO whose company is less successful than hers.
Inevitably, it would seem that before anime storylines can fully change, it will have to be Japan who makes the first step. Media is powerful and has a large impact on audiences not just within the country but all over the world. As the rest of the world slowly moves onto female leading protagonists, talks of self-love for body image, and encouragement for the fostering of ambitions in women, anime still appears to linger on the aftereffects of the patriarchal society and refuses to let go even as it attempts to move forward into the new world.
Only time will tell to see how women and feminism changes in their portrayal in anime storylines.