Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Reponse to Mary Oliver Leeds RE: Feminist Anime/Animation

I was alerted to a new comment on one of my recent posts today by a student writing her dissertation on the representation of women in media, specifically animation.  She did not leave an e-mail address with which I could answer her questions directly, so I will instead reply in the form of this blog post and hope that she finds it in time for it to be helpful.  At the very least it generates content and is a discussion worth having.  ^_^

The comment was as follows:

"I am currently writing my dissertation based around the representation of women in animation and media and would love if you could answer some questions surrounding this issue. Do you think that work produced solely by women show more respect for the equality of women rather than those produced by men? What do you feel are the greatest misrepresentation of women today? In the new Pixar animation ‘Brave’, did you feel that it genuinely tackled the issue of a female lead? Do you believe it is important for animated films to reflect womens varied roles in modern society or are they the last opportunity to escape from political correctness?

'Thank you in advance,

'Mary Oliver Leeds College of Art"

I would first like to say that I am flattered by your interest in my opinion, and will answer to the best of my ability, but please keep in mind that I am hardly an expert on either media representation or feminism.  If it's helpful I can try and put you in contact with a few of my friends who are more knowledgable if you are interested (looking at you Tory and Stacy), but for now here are my thoughts.

1)  Do you think that work produced solely by women show more respect for the equality of women rather than those produced by men?

The short answer is, no, I do not, but I will elaborate.  I think it is easier to create something that you have first hand experience with, IE being a woman and the issues and concerns of a woman, but I do not think that works produced by men about female characters are any less relevant or respectful, and (sadly), a lot of what is out there representing women comes from male creators because it is still a very male dominated world.

There is a wealth of sophisticated and sensitive portrayals of women in media generated by men which still manage to speak to a female audience.  Jaime Hernadez LOCAS series and his brother Gilbert Hernandez PALOMAR and LUBA series in LOVE AND ROCKETS have positively and realistically (to the extent which comics can) represented women for decades.  Writer Greg Rucka has worked almost exclusively on comics featuring female leads for Marvel and DC, and the books he's written with male leads always have a strong female presence, such as his recent run on PUNISHER in which he introduced a female protege for Frank Castle who is every bit as ruthless and driven as her male counterpart.  Joss Whedon is famous for creating television with female leads such as BUFFY and DOLLHOUSE, as well as championing same sex representation.  Hyao Miyazaki has created some of animes most endearing and enduring female characters in NAUSSICAA, KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE, and SPIRITED AWAY, and even his male lead films such as PORCO ROSSO, CASTLE IN THE SKY, and PRINCESS MONONOKE have a strong female presense that resonates with that audience.

I wish there was more being produced by women for a female audience (which is not to say that that work is not being created, but it would take a whole other conversation to go into the problems surrounding why that work is not being published/produced) in North America (Japan does not have this problem...women thrive in comics and animation and targetting a female audience has always proven lucrative, which makes North America's resistance even more baffling), but that does not mean that work being produced for a female audience by men is less respectful or sensitive to that audience.

It's a different story if you look at media produced by men for a male audience though.  There is a lot of material featuring female characters that is directed at a male audience that is not very well representative of the female experience, but that material is not being made to appeal to a female audience...for the most part.  WITCHBLADE was a comic created by a four men and one woman, Christina Z, who wrote the series at the beginning, was a comic created for a male audience featuring a female lead which found a devoted female audience.   This was back in the mid 90's and comics was a mostly male market, so this may have been a case of women finding something that was close enough an adapting, but in it's close to 20 years of being published WITCHBLADE has taken notice of that audience and has very carefully straddled the line between positive representation of women and titilating men...well, until Tim Seeley took over, anyways.

2)  What do you feel are the greatest misrepresentation of women today?

I'm not sure exactly what context you are addressing with this question; do you mean broad trends or are you asking me to cite specific works?

There will always be broad stereotypes, but that goes across the board.  Media still portrays gays on TV as flamboyant charicatures, men as meat-headed chauvanists, and women as objects, and nerds are anti-social rejects.  It's easy to resort to stereotype because it's's almost become a shorthand.  I do think that media has become BETTER representative than it ever has been. 

There is more representation for homosexuals now that there ever has been.  If you look at who our recent male action heroes are you'll find that the ultra-masculine muscleheads of the 80's/90's have given way to the more sensitive and female friendly men like Chris Hemsworth or Joseph Gordon Levitt.  As for women...that's a growing market! 

TWILIGHT, as much as I may not respect the work, played an important role in changing how media markets to a female audience.  WOMEN...HAVE...MONEY, and they WILL SPEND IT.  As with all things, money talks, and if there is a profitable market demographic that is STARVED for content, someone will seek to fill it.  TWILIGHT proved that marketing at women is not only viable but insanely profitable.  You can thank TWILIGHT for much better HUNGER GAMES.

If you want me to cite specific works, I refer you to this post I wrote about SUCKERPUNCH.  SUCKERPUNCH is what happens when a guy that does not know he is a misogynist tries to make a girl-power movie.  It is AWFUL.

3)  In the new Pixar animation ‘Brave’, did you feel that it genuinely tackled the issue of a female lead?

Again, I'm a little confused on the wording of this question; what is the issue of a female lead?

Frankly I cannot think of a better female driven movie than BRAVE.  Merida is a great and engaging character, and the underlying theme of the film could not have been more relevant to the female experience...either from Merida's perspective as the daughter or Queen Elinor's perspective as a mother, as well as being and exciting and humorous piece of fantasy and entertainment.  Whatever the issue of a female lead is, I do think that BRAVE tackled it head on, in every possible respect that it could.

4)  Do you believe it is important for animated films to reflect womens varied roles in modern society or are they the last opportunity to escape from political correctness?

This is not an easy question to answer, particularly since the subject we are discussing is escapist entertainment.  Animation in particular is firmly in the realm of fantasy; for example, I highly doubt you will see an biopic about Susan B. Anthony or Gloria Stienem.  I also do not not think that not being completely PC precludes positive representation.  PITCH PERFECT was a filthy gross-out comedy filled with vomit jokes and a just AWESOME menstration pun from Elizebeth Banks, but it was also a successful comedy with an all female cast (similarly BRIDESMAIDS).  Positive representation does not need to come at the expense of entertainment value.

For me, the most important thing that animation can do with it's representation of women is to provide young girls with heroes.  Our relationship with animation in North America is predominantly that it is a medium reserved almost exclusively for children.  Now, this is slowly changing as my generation (80's Baby), which grew up during something of an animation boom where animation aimed at children went from just entertainment to marketing (GI JOE, TRANSFORMERS, HE-MAN, MY LITTLE PONY, RAINBOW BRITE, etc were all built around media tie-ins), and now, as adults, there is a new market for nostalgia and those things are being remarketed at us as big budget motion pictures and related media tie-ins, but animation is still predominantly viewed as something for children. 

When I was a kid, my heroes where on TV and in comics, and they had a HUGE impact on me.  KIDS NEED HEROES.  And there have been so few for girls until recently.  Now you have Merida and Korra (of AVATAR: THE LEGEND OF KORRA), and with the introduction of anime to North America, a huge variety of female heroines aimed at girls in a variety of genre's, be it magical girls like Sailor Moon and Card Captor Sakura or angsty teens such as Makino Tsukushi in HANA YORI DANGO (and numerous other shoujo series that are probably more popular, relevant, and recent...I just can't think of one off the top of my head), or Katniss Everdeen in THE HUNGER GAMES, etc etc.  There needs to be more of that, and there is a market for it.

I think the most important thing that animation or any type of media can represent about women is that they are strong, intelligent, and beautiful, and can be heroes.

I hope this has helped.  If you have any follow up questions or wish to further discuss this subject, please e-mail me at