Anime and the Treatment of Women

For those unfamiliar, anime refers to the animation (or cartoons) of Japan, manga refers to the graphic novels (or comic books) of Japan and doujinshi refers to the small self published comics of Japan. Now that the basic terminology is out of the way (though more to come), before discussing anime, it would be prudent to remember cultural relativism. For instance, a previous post on this blog entitled, “For the Anime (lovers) Among Us…” by Mary Casteen discusses the use of male host clubs in the anime, “Ouran High School Host Club”. An American typically wouldn’t know what a host/hostess club is, or might think is a sex club of some sort. It isn’t a sex club (though Japan does have plenty of those too), rather it is a place where men or women pay to have attractive people talk to them and drink expensive alcohol. For more information, “The Great Happiness Space” is a great documentary on the subject.

Image source- Anime Vice[1]

Women in anime have a variety of roles and in fact, many women write manga and anime. For instance, the aforementioned, “Ouran High School Host Club” was written by Bisco Hatori.  Naoko Takeuchi wrote, “Sailor Moon” (picture above).  Although there are others, these women all wrote manga/anime that were shojo, meaning there were marketed towards young women. Women tended to write for girls, however, some women have written popular shonen manga/anime, marketed to boys. Rumiko Takahashi wrote, both “Inu Yasha” and “Ranma ½”. Hiromu Arakawa wrote “The Full Metal Alchemist”. Each of these series was very popular both domestically in Japan and internationally. Also women didn’t turn away from typically masculine themes. “The Full Metal Alchemist” is a bloody and violent manga. Both “Inu Yasha” and “Ranma ½” didn’t shy away from repeated female nudity. Studio Ghibli films prominently feature young girl protagonists, like the popular movie “Spirited Away”, “Kiki’s Delivery Service”, “My Neighbor Totoro”, etc…  In Japan, many women and girls read manga and watch anime, so it would make sense that women would hold interesting and respectable roles.

However, as mentioned, women fill many roles in anime, not all of them universally positive. In the popular Harem genre, women are nothing more than objects of desire that fawn over the usual generic protagonist. The women fill stock character roles such as a tomboy, wealthy girl, smart girl, etc… “Love Hina”, “Tenchi Muyo!” and “Negima: Magister Negi Magi” are examples of this genre. It’s largely a sexist genre meant for the viewer to self insert himself in place of the generic often socially awkward protagonist. True enough that the depiction of women’s affection for the protagonist isn’t sexist in and of itself, but the harem genre’s exploitation of otaku (negative term for an obsessive geek) power fantasy is.

In the 2000s’, the anime market started to take a dip, so manga publishers doubled down on easy sells in moé characters. Moé is not a strict definition, but is typified by the embodiment of cute, prepubescent or early adolescent girls. “K-on” is an example; it is a manga/anime about young girls in a band with the main character acting as a cute, clumsy, and scatterbrained comedic foil. Some fans feel the genre is overused and chooses theme over substance. The larger issue is it tends to fetishize young girls.

Popular mangaka (manga creator), Rei Hiroe defined his distaste for the moé genre when he critiqued it in his interview in volume 8 of Black Lagoon.[2] He felt that no matter how tough the woman was, people tended to put the heroines below the men. Before anyone thinks he is a white knight of women should know the truth is less so.  In the same interview, He defined another genre as“bitch moé” which is to say it features strong, vicious, and violent women. On its own, not a terrible thing, but this is coupled with the fact that his anime puts several of the same strong women in costumes such as a maid, nun, and stereotypical Chinese dress. This only makes it more odd juxtaposed against the gritty story beats including: neonazis, political assassination, counterfeit money printing, gangster warfare, suicide, etc… and honestly the series includes even darker parts. Below is a clip of the show, showing off the violent and volatile nature of the show juxtaposed against the female characters wearing fairly sexist outfits. As such, with the cursing and violence, the clip is not safe for work.

So all and all, how should women feel about their portrayal and sometimes exploitation? Well, I’m not here to speak for women but, I would argue that they shouldn’t feel too bad. Why? Well, the harem genre is popular with males but “Ouran High School Host Club” was a popular harem manga with the female as the protagonist and the males as the stereotypes. What about moé? Well, yaoi or BL manga is a popular genre amongst women which features effeminate homosexual protagonists in relationships which tend to be on the younger side as well. What about bitch moé? That point is harder to argue. Many anime that feature strong, fairly masculine women still put them in skimpy outfits. For instance, Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell is a strong, masculine woman who is the commander of a military group which takes down terrorists. However, she typically wears a revealing outfit and is featured explicitly in an all female sexual encounter. As the author put it, “I drew an all-girl orgy because I didn’t want to draw some guy’s butt.”[3] Okay, maybe women should feel a little exploited.


[1] Image of Sailor Moon . (n.d.). Anime Vice. Retrieved October 2, 2012, from http://www.animevice.com/sailor-moon/11-702/all-images/84-48429/sailormoona3/83-498154/

[2] Hiroe, R. (2009). Black Lagoon, vol. 8. San Francisco, Calif.: Viz Media ;.. Pg. 191

[3] Motoko Kusanagi – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. (n.d.). Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved October 2, 2012, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Motoko_Kusanagi

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6 Responses to Anime and the Treatment of Women

  1. Hm…I never really thought much of the outfits in Black Lagoon. Ironic how it’s one of my favorite animes concerning strong female characters, and yet the women in it are still sexualized to an extent.

    Nice article, although I have two minor complaints:

    You describe repeated female nudity as a typically “masculine” trait. I know female nudity can be considered a masculine quality when used to please a hetero-male audience, but it sounds odd when you list it as such.

    Secondly (and more importantly), I would avoid using the term “white knight” to describe Rei Hiroe’s relatively progressive views towards women, as it’s generally become a slur against male feminists.

    • leylinesproject says:

      First off, thanks for the reply! Second off, regarding your first complaint, you hit the nail on the head. What I meant to say was that there are female artists who didn’t hesitate to use female nudity as “fanservice” to entice male readers (particularly ranma 1/2). After re-reading it, I realize that I failed to make that clear and instead made it seem as though female nudity in and of itself was masculine this of course is not the case.

      As to your second point about avoiding the term “white knight”, you’re probably right. I meant it sardonically in reference to his defense of strong women while objectifying them with sexist outfits. However, given the term’s use on the internet in belittling male feminism, it was a faux pas no doubt. I meant no offense. I just hope Black lagoon comes out of hiatus sooner rather than later. Thank again for the comment, it was some useful criticism! By the way, I checked out your blog, pretty cool.

  2. Great effort trying to make sense of the depiction of women in anime. Sometimes it seems we need an atlas to navigate all these genre’s and creators. I am wondering if the modern anime scene has gotten so diverse the scope of the question loses some of its meaning. I mean, its a bit like asking, “How are women depicted in film?” Or, “How are women depicted in novels?”

    At some point in the past, when manga and anime were more narrow fields I think we could confidently say that women were consistently objectified and female characters were relegated to supporting cast. Things are more complicated and nuanced now, there’s a lot going on with modern anime female characters. But they are always drawn as idealized beauties. That should tell us something about how Japanese and American society measures a woman’s worth – it starts with her outward appearance.

    • leylinesproject says:

      In manga and anime, I feel women are still given the short end of the stick in terms of female role. However, its hard to really define what makes a great female character. Is it the androgyny of Kino in Kino’s Journey who only until several episodes in is revealed to be a girl? Is it masculinity of Princess Sapphire who struggles being a woman that has to live her life pretending to be a male prince? Is it the feminine “girly girl” like Usagi Tsukino in sailor moon who is conflicted by her responsibilities as a “Defender of Justice” and just wanting to be a normal girl? Gender is a social function and the female definition is one that is hard to pin down. I guess the best way to judge if a female character is an exploitation of women or a praise of them is intent. It’s something that is hard to tell but if you watch a show and feel that the character, no matter how they act is a compelling character and not a 2-dimentional stereotype, it’s probably pretty okay.

  3. Pingback: THE PORTRAYAL OF FEMALE PROTAGONISTS IN ANIME, A BRIEF DISCUSSION | Permanent Socialism

  4. Αγγελος says:

    Let’s support Hiroe so he will continue his great manga,there are great mysteries waiting to get explained.Such as what happened to Rock’s parents.In episode 19(of Black Lagoon) Rock went to his parents home(somewhere in a serene Tokyo neighborhood),but he didn’t find them.His intention was to explain his news,and his decision to stay in Roanapur.
    He was so occupied with the one and other adventure that he forgot it.What would it take to make Rock open up and talk about his childhood?
    I still think Rock should see his parents,to have their blessings for his future.You see,in the last episode of “Black Lagoon:RBT” he states that somewhere on this planet someone outdid him and that he can’t save anyone.That’s why he needs to see to them,for a “You have our blessings,we love you son”.But if turns out they were killed in a tragic “accident” arranged by Kageyama?Guys like him say it so callously:“The cause justifies the means,and we have to save our company!”,” because he is estranged from his parents and whole of Japan is our advantage for the final cover up.We ‘Ill get rid of the pests Okajima’s.Rock will never know what happened,and even if after years he will.. this won’t help him to gather evidence against us!”

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