Can They Beat Goku?

July 7, 2021 / Cat Hermansen

Anime is not just a “guy thing.”

Seventh-grade me would’ve been very embarrassed. She’d think I was cooler than this. “I’ll never watch anime!” I’d proclaimed. In my defense, I had perceptions of shame thrown at me for years in the form of a guided hand on my shoulder, pushing me away from that section in Hot Topic — to which I always weaseled my way back in glorious, adolescent rebellion.

Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh, and Studio Ghibli VCR tapes shown in my after-school daycare filled me with curiosity, magic, and adventure. Yet, I resisted watching anything on my own because I’d seen how “skimpily” the 12-year-old girls in anime were dressed or how they “sucked up” to boys around them. At least, that's what my middle school brain thought of anime. I also knew what happened when people found out that you liked “that weird anime stuff.”  Imagine my horror when a friend’s phone went off in class to the LoveLive theme. I just about died, as did our reputations when we were branded as “weebs.” We were victims to that unique prepubescent stage of life where we strongly desired to fit in.  From then on, I immediately shunned any exposure to anime, feeling superior in my decision and succumbing to peer pressure.

I was so publicly opposed to it because I didn’t like how girls were represented in anime. I thought it was made for teenage boys and teenage boys only — especially after only being exposed to anime series where peeping up girls’ skirts was a part of everyday life. That is, until my first college roommate told me she liked anime. I wanted to fit in, so down I went into the rabbit hole. I ended up watching everything and anything I could before the semester started; to my delighted surprise, I fell in love with its art, plot, and messages. In the midst of this wonderland, I noticed that the sexism in anime was more ingrained and complex than my middle school brain had understood it to be.

To get an idea of how gendered anime is, look at the names of its genres. The most popular category is shōnen (少年), which translates to “young boy,” and is accordingly aimed at eight to 14-year-old boys. Shōnen follows formulas that would rather give more screen time to male side characters than female leads — I’m looking at you, Fairy Tail — and often oversexualizes women with gratuitous panty shots and “accidental” boob grabs. While many shōnen anime don’t oversexualize their female characters at first, if and when viewership falls, they change female characters’ appearances for so-called “fan service.” By “changing appearances,” I mean newfound triple-D boobs and a size zero waist to match.

This is not to say all women in shōnen are inherently weak; rather, they aren’t allowed to be strong in the same way the men around them are. As always, anime has a trope for that: Here comes the asexual female warrior. Men aren’t attracted to her. She isn’t attracted to men. She serves no other purpose except to occasionally kick ass with a stone-faced expression; however, in final battles, she’s never the one to finish off the antagonist. Alongside her is the tsundere: the spitfire pretty girl who only seems to care about herself, at the expense of others. Her fatal flaw is that she cannot regard herself as any less than perfect, lest she loses her identity. She eventually becomes friendlier at the request of the soft-spoken love interest, who she realizes cannot handle her. She’s too independent, too bossy, and too opinionated for him, so she changes herself for his sake. This is, many times, her only form of character development.

While anime does have women represented as leads, these characters lack the dimension and leeway their male counterparts are fed in heaping spoonfuls. Women in anime simply cannot win. If they make a mistake, they are weak. If they desire, they are lustful. If they are strong-willed, they are annoying. Meanwhile, male characters are put on a pedestal and seen as growing, boyish, and full of integrity no matter what they do. Think of every time in Fairy Tail when the protagonist, Lucy, makes a mistake versus when her male counterpart, Natsu, does the same. The two have similar motivations and goals, but Lucy is characterized as overly emotional — Natsu is just seen as a little reckless.

Representation doesn’t always mean fair representation. We’ve settled for crumbs of realistic depictions since the boom of television anime in the ‘70s. These tropes have been canon for a long time, and it’s the industry's easy way of giving us characters we can choke down. It's something you swallow down the wrong pipe and have to force into complacency with water because … at least there’s a girl in the show!

I’m happy to say that there is a shift beginning to happen. The shōnen publications have found that their target audience is no longer who they think it is. This doesn’t mean everything has changed. Rather, women have started to speak out against tropes and voice their opinions whenever they see misogyny in their favorite animes. Unfortunately, per patriarchal tradition, when women become part of a male-dominated community, the chauvinists appear and attempt to shut them out. 

There’s a lot of irony in the insults that males throw to discredit any social progress in the anime community. Women “ruin anime” if they simp for characters, as if men haven’t always done the same in more degrading ways. When women positively impact the industry by way of content creation or even interaction within fandoms, they still face constant backlash — from the 12-year-old Naruto runner to the 30 year old who claims no one will ever beat “his” Goku. Many men don’t want women to watch what they consider “their” shows. This doesn’t mean women in the community are going to back down. The time has come to reclaim “their” anime and beat the misogyny that has manifested itself in Dragon Ball Z hero Goku.

Some creators have discovered this change and are catering to their new consumers, such as Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, written by Hiromu Arakawa. The show — written by a badass woman about badass women — has female characters who can hold their own, without being sex objects or damsels in distress. The most essential female character to the storyline is Winry, who uses her mechanic expertise to aid the protagonists and is often the show's voice of reason. Their teacher, Izumi Curtis, has a dual identity as both a housewife and a warrior, and she makes a point to let everyone know. When I watched the show, she was one of my favorite characters because she kept her femininity close instead of rejecting it — kicking ass and gender roles at the same time.

Female mangakas, people who write and illustrate manga, amaze me. They’ve been fighting in a male-dominated industry since the 1990s without backing down as their series progress. Sailor Moon, written by Naoko Takeuchi, is known for girls saving the world through “the power of love and friendship.” They weaponize their femininity when people need saving, transforming into skirts and magically powered makeup before fights. One lyric from the theme sums up the message Takeuchi has sent for years: “We are not helpless girls who need men’s protection!”

A newer anime rocketing to fame in America is Attack on Titan, which challenges these gender stereotypes. Every female character in this series has her own purpose, and none exist for any man’s benefit. The fanbase has its own share of gatekeeping men whose goal is to change the women to their liking, something the creator, Hajime Isayama, has refused to do. In the anime, there’s a character with an ambiguous gender identity who Isayama publicly defended when fans protested. His depiction of a nonbinary character gives a platform to nonbinary consumers who feel like they are finally seen in a non-fetishized way.

With all these creators changing the scene, consumers like me can crowd around their phones at lunch and say, “They’re/she’s so cool!” without feeling ashamed of how they’re being represented. When you’re younger and all you want to do is fit in, staring at girls your age in skimpy outfits doesn’t help your odds. When characters break free of the mold and are powerful for their own purposes, women and nonbinary consumers are drawn to the freedom they see illustrated before them. Whether it's a pimply middle schooler or an equally insecure college student, anime should make you feel cool.

And yes, I believe we can — and will — beat Goku.

By: Cat Hermansen

Layout: Jaycee Jamison

Photographer: Kaushik Kalidindi

Stylist: Ella Hernandez

HMUAs: Brandon Muniz, Claire Philpot & Sara Tin-U

Models: Danae Rivers & Tehreem Siddiqui

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