Watching Anime As A Feminist

It’s Women’s History Month and since yesterday at the time of posting was International Women’s Day, I figured I’d write a little something for the occasion that’s been on my mind for a while.

I get the impression that there is an idea shared among some anime watchers. That feminism – and particularly being a feminist – clashes with being an anime fan. But why? Is it the boobs? It’s the boobs, isn’t it? I mean, it would make sense. After all, sexualization is one of the elements of anime that – for better or worse – comes to mind first when describing it as a medium. We all seem to get it.

So naturally, some people don’t like anime for those reasons. And just as naturally, there are defenders of anime who will draw a fine line between those pesky feminists and all the “real” anime watchers out there. The two groups seem contradictory to one another. How on earth can a feminist be a true anime fan?! Well, joking aside, I am here to reveal to you the truth of watching anime as a feminist.

And the truth is, it ain’t that different from watching anime normally…

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A Quick Lesson in Feminism

What is feminism? Furthermore, what is a feminist? To the former, I would first coin a bold statement from feminist author bell hooks. She’s the woman in the header image of this post. She wrote a book called “feminism is for everybody,” and it was after reading it that I stopped being afraid to call myself one and remembered that I’ve been one for about as long as I’ve been an anime fan.

Gloria Jean Watkins, known by her pen name, bell hooks.

In my own words, I would call feminism a movement to end sexist oppression through the uprooting of patriarchal ideologies that negatively affect and limit people of all gender and sexual identities. Men might benefit from patriarchy more than women, but they can still be victims of its strict gender roles.

Make no mistake; NO feminist ethic that paints men as the enemy of feminism can succeed.

The patriarchy is what’s wrong.

So what’s a feminist? Anyone who supports equality for all, regardless of gender, sexuality, or race. That’s fairly broad, but only because historically, feminism was founded on the concept of intersectionality. Intersectionality works like this: say it’s the 1700s, you’re a woman, and your group of female friends wants rights for ALL women. If you’re fighting for all women though, you can’t fight for the rights of just white women. If you’re taking the radical stance of fighting for the rights of women of color, you can’t just stop there. You ought to support the rights of people of color.

You can probably see where I’m going with this. Going further in history, the examples only become more numerous. If you’re fighting for ALL women, that also includes gay women, which means you ought to fight for gay rights as a whole. Since trans women are women too, that means the trans community is also being fought for. Feminism is for everyone. Even men. And if someone ever tries to tell you that you can’t be included in the fight for feminism because you are a straight white man, that’s not okay.

Because I can’t reiterate it enough, feminism is for everybody.

And Now, Back to Anime

When feminism comes up in anime discourse, it’s almost always in response to a controversy about something. So there’s this stigma that feminists watching anime only complain about shows having tits and ass on display. And since we tend to only discuss feminism in specific contexts (something being cancelled or people feeling as though they are being attacked by feminists), that’s really all the anime community at large will associate with feminists.

Granted, I’ve read a few pieces by women over the years of their struggles to get into anime because of the overtly sexual content and it being specifically targeted towards men. Funnily enough, my first reactions to articles such as those were never defenses of the sexualization nor thoughts of how they were overreacting. Rather, I kept thinking of numerous shows I’ve seen that these writers would probably love so much more.

After all, not every show is going to appeal to everyone, but in an entire medium? There has to be something for someone. The issue can’t simply be that “anime isn’t for them” because if they went to the trouble of writing an article or – hell – watching several different shows to try to get into it, clearly there is an underlying interest. Something about that medium is appealing to them and I want to help that person find something that will be worth their time.

If I were to look through my collection of just anime that I own, I think I could find plenty of shows and films that could satisfy female/feminist viewers who’ve been turned off by other anime. Of the shows I have in my collection, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood comes to mind easily. As do the smattering of Studio Ghibli films I own. Even with some sexual undertones, favorites of mine like Bungo Stray Dogs are shows I would recommend to anyone.

It helps that Fullmetal Alchemist was written by a woman.

This used to be my most enthusiastic defense of feminism being compatible with anime. However, whether it’s the growth of that collection in the years since I first considered writing this post or my continued studies of feminist analysis, I’ve been second-guessing myself. My argument used to be something like “my collection of shows that I considered good enough to buy demonstrates a wide variety of content that doesn’t have tons of fan service.” But… that depends on the definition of fanservice and the degree to which sexual content is included.

In that same Blu-ray collection of mine, I enjoy the popular and frequently lewd Monogatari series, of which I own the first season, Bakemonogatari, and the film trilogy, Kizumonogatari. I’m also a huge fan of Gunbuster and Diebuster, two mecha classics that took advantage of their straight-to-video releases to include female nudity without censorship.

My old justification for my argument probably stemmed from my collection rarely crossing any boundaries that even I could register as overtly sexual. But that’s not the most compelling argument. Firstly, if a work of art offends me, chances are I’m not going to own Blu-ray. Secondly, for example, I’ve watched shows before and thought to myself “I don’t think my sister would like this.” I’ve watched anime in the past where I recognized what appeared to be silly or unnecessary sexualization, not because it bothered me, but because I understood how it would be bothersome to others.

So what’s the line? Well, that’s just the thing. It’s different for everyone. What I consider fine, someone else could consider gratuitous. I think that Major Motoko Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell is one of the most powerful, badass, and liberated female characters I’ve ever seen. That said, her outfit in season one of Stand Alone Complex is stupid as fuck, and I’m glad they changed it in season two and onward.

In the case of Ghost in the Shell, I can totally understand someone’s irritation at the sexualization, because it clashes with the seriousness of the story. On the flip side, why do I love something as frequently sultry as Monogatari, whereas the fan service in Fire Force contributed to my hatred of the show? I think it comes down to the purposes for sexualization and the execution of it. I wrote more about my take on sexualization some years back, though it’s not particularly up to date with how I’ve reflected on the topic since. Still, check it out if you’re interested.

Sexualization can elicit a relatable emotional reaction from a viewer. It can also be used for comedy, or the introduction of a character from a protagonist’s perspective, or to inject sexuality into a relationship between characters. Sex appeal is valid, but objectification or unnecessary and jarring sexualization can take someone out of a story.

I like Monogatari because, despite being lewd as all hell, its cast of characters is a group of complicated and complex young women dealing with anxieties and traumas. They feel like real people who I give a shit about, so I can forgive the sexualization because my opinion of who the hottest and most interesting one is will always be somewhat influenced by who they are.

And even Monogatari isn’t perfect. It’s terribly indulgent and some of its characters are certainly treated with way more respect than others. Additionally, the scenes with Araragi and Hachikuji are infamous for teetering on the edge of pedophilia and saved only just by the cop-out that the entire series is “meta-commentary.” That alone can be used far too often as a catch-all when explaining problematic elements.

Still, I’ll take that over Fire Force. One of my more frequently read reviews detailed how the show tested my patience by failing to create compelling characters, failing to have good comedic direction, and still putting characters like Tamaki in revealing situations that clashed with the tone. Fire Force isn’t a funny show, but it can be reasonably dramatic at times. So they really should’ve just ditched the whole “accidentally falling into Tamaki’s boobs” joke when she’d just been horribly beaten an episode earlier.

“Oh man I can’t wait to turn this character into a joke again next epiosde,” said some asshole who wrote Soul Eater.

I don’t want this to turn into one of those arguments by example, where I’m just saying “hey, I’m a white male who identifies as a feminist and I approve of anime” because like, “who cares?” right? I’m not here to speak on behalf of feminists as a whole – and much less – women as a whole. I’m a dude. I will inherently not have the same experiences or traits that impact how I will respond to media’s depictions of women as say… oh, I don’t know, women.

But I am a feminist and a critic. It would stand to reason, then, that I am a “feminist critic” across all media, not just anime. It’s hard to tell since my only written critiques are of anime, but I’ve reviewed television and film before. Critiquing media as a feminist means looking at shows through a feminist lens. But… what the hell does that mean?

A “feminist lens” refers to looking at a story or a work of art and analyzing how it treats its female characters and why. Is a character or group’s arc analogous to an experience or dilemma fundamental to feminist politics? Are there moments in which the subtext could touch upon ideas discussed commonly in feminist philosophy? On a more accessible level, you could ask: are there incredibly empowered female characters, female characters in rare positions of power within stories, or endearing moments of women supporting women? The list goes on.

While not inherently political, Snow White with the Red Hair has always spoken to me as an iconic feminist work. I’ve written before how her perseverance in the face of men who see the value of her beauty more than that of her character adds an extra relatable layer of depth to the show. Added to that, her strength of character in general is truly inspirational.

This lens isn’t something I put on for everything I watch. Far from it. If I’m watching something like John Wick or – keeping with anime – Attack on Titan, I don’t think I’m analyzing it through a feminist lens. But if I watch a show and notice a pattern, or if a work has been explicitly advertised as something that might be intentionally feminist, I might take out the old feminist lens and look a little deeper.

I’ve watched films like 2020’s The Rhythm Section, starring Blake Lively, and though the film wasn’t amazing I found a lot to respect about how each of the few prominent female characters (and even the minor ones) interacted with and supported one another. Whether intentional or not, something was gratifying about a film whose subtext seemed to be about a woman finding strength and peace, albeit difficultly, through the support of both male allies and other women who were similarly conflicted.

That right there is what I get out of feminist analysis of media. It’s an extension of what I already get out of critiquing film and television. Media criticism is fun. Anybody can do it in some way, because like my dad always says, “everyone is a critic.” It helps me appreciate stories more and when I share my thoughts, I like to think I’m helping others understand what makes these stories meaningful as well.

The difference with being a feminist is that I feel compelled to look deeper when I see something that comments on, references to, or reminds me of, issues related to feminism. I may not be offended or annoyed by sexualization as much as others, but I can still look at what stories do right and analyze what about these female characters makes them special.

In the end, I tend to have far more nice things to say about women in anime than bad. Watching anime, I’ve seen a lot of iterative, tropey, and overplayed content. However, I’ve also seen LGBT representation, more emotionally expressive and vulnerable depictions of young adult males, and several women that I would call great role models if not simply phenomenal characters. All of these things are very important to me.

My perspective of anime is fairly positive. To me, watching anime as a feminist simply means looking at how a story treats its females, and what the subtext can teach us to make a story even more special. And sometimes, it means thinking about how a story could be better. Some feminists don’t like anime and some that do still have problems with certain stories and genres. And that’s fine. We should at least try to hear what they have to say.

I believe that the key to solving peoples’ issues with common depictions of people is to add more variety. This applies to depictions of women, as well as representation as a whole. I want everyone to feel like they are seen in some way. Is the issue big-titted anime girls? Or is it the perceived oversaturation of that compared to other kinds of women in anime? Maybe it’s the fear of unhealthy ideas about women being proliferated. I would argue that considerably less sexualized female characters and oversexualized women can be equally valid, as well as every type of character in between.

The point that I wanted to get across was that feminism is not just about complaining about sexual content, some currently airing show’s revealing character designs, or making bold blanket statements about male writers in the industry. It’s about thinking critically about the kinds of characters being written, why they work, why they don’t, and maybe asking a little bit more of our storytellers.

And isn’t that what we want at the end of the day? For our storytellers to go the extra mile and try harder without resorting to the easiest path of success and cheapening what could have been truly great characters for everyone?

If you try half as hard, you’ll only win over half as many people.

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I was very hesitant about whether I was happy with this piece or not. After all, it isn’t as though there is any immediately topical event within anime to justify it, but it’s something that’s been on my mind for a while. I hope that if you are one to be hesitant about feminism, my explanation could help you understand what the intentions of feminism are.

Anyways, thank you very much for listening and as always, I’ll see you next time!

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