Every time one of these feminist thinkpieces comes out on the subject of something I care about, I’m tempted to write a response. I usually don’t, since writing a response is elevating the article to the level of something that deserves a response, which may be doing more to legitimize it than if I had just ignored it altogether.
However, this piece on the problem with moé anime from The Mary Sue seems to be a straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back situation not just for me, but for a lot of people. To be fair, the piece itself isn’t nearly as obnoxious as a lot of others of this ilk; it feels like the writer is sharing her opinion out of genuine interest rather than the desire to spit on anime fans and everything they love from a high perch of assumed academic superiority, which is how these things often read.
The absolute worst part of it is the presumption of the title– the idea that “we” (who?) can “fix” moé, and according to Ms. Cook’s twitter account, that title was dreamed up by someone else at The Mary Sue. I don’t know how much of the things I take issue with here are the writer’s doing and how much is the TMS staff, and it doesn’t really matter; it was put out by TMS, so it’s their responsibility as far as I’m concerned. I don’t want to make this into any kind of personal thing against the author, who for all I know could be a college student. I also don’t want to infantalize her by taking her completely out of the equation, which isn’t fair, but I’d sooner do that than blame her for The Mary Sue‘s entire, err…doing their constant, self-aggrandizing, we-say-we’re-feminists-but-our-views-are-actually-insanely-sexist-when-you-really-sit-back-and-think-about-it thing.
Also, before we get into the problems with approaching moé in this manner, I need to point one thing out: one of the screenshots that TMS used to illustrate the evils of moe-branded misogyny is from Sweetness and Lightning. For those that don’t know, Sweetness and Lightning is an anime about a father who’s struggling to make a better life for his young daughter after the devastating loss of her mother. He does this by learning how to cook, even though it’s much more difficult and time consuming than just feeding the kid takeout, because he wants to show his daughter love in every way he can. The whole show is about using food to nourish people both physically and spiritually, and how this is a task everyone can and should participate in together, males and females alike. On this show, the power of nurturing knows no gender.
To try to use Sweetness and Lightning as an example of misogyny in anime is like…sigh. It’s like writing an article with the title “The Bland, Forgettable Nature of All Superhero Movie Performances,” leading with a picture of Heath Ledger’s Joker. It’s like, the example pictured belies the title to such a degree that an informed reader has to wonder if it isn’t intentional self-parody.
Yes, We Can Talk About Moé
Just in case you’re getting the wrong impression, it’s not like there’s any inherent problem with criticizing moé; in fact, some fascinating things have occurred just recently that are interesting to talk about.
For example, let’s look at Kuma Miko. This show took the idea that an idealized female protagonist should be innocent and vulnerable, and took it to such an extreme that it destroyed any chance of character development for the protagonist. Supposedly, straight men like moé females in part because they’re portrayed as childlike and in need of protection, but in the case of Machi, that idea was taken so far that many viewers who typically respond to these characters found it distasteful. What line did they cross, exactly? Is it that pushing the vulnerability angle too far breaks the illusion (the character feels artificial), or fans don’t necessarily want their heroines to be THAT vulnerable? Maybe that vulnerability only appeals when it’s one aspect of a more well-rounded character, who also has strengths.
Also, feeling like you want to protect the character is an essential element of moé, but Kuma Miko may be unique in that viewers were left feeling like they needed to protect Machi from the creative staff of her own show. We passed some kind of meta Moé Event Horizon here, and we didn’t notice because we were too preoccupied watching a once-promising anime jump about 15 sharks at once.
More broadly, examining why the idea of a cute, clumsy, vulnerable (but perhaps not too vulnerable) girl is so appealing to men in the context of Japanese pop culture is not a horrible thing to do, but immediately conceptualizing it as a problem that needs to be solved robs us of everything that’s good about the process. The logic seems to be “Men like the idea of women who fit this certain feminine ideal, therefore it’s misogyny, therefore it’s hurting real women, therefore we must stop it at any cost,” and whoah…nice job skipping steps #2-#500 on the list of reasonable analytical approaches there. Can we at least entertain the idea that maybe some of the men who find Yui from K-ON! charming do not, in fact, hate women? And if we accept the idea that maybe some K-ON! fans don’t hate real women and don’t wish all the women they knew were actually like Yui (dear God), then what else might be going on here to explain the appeal of her and her buddies?
And yes, anime is not created in a vacuum; you can certainly examine moé in the larger context of Japan’s social problems, including the fact that young Japanese men and women seem to have a huge disconnect in terms of what they want from each other nowadays. Of course, it’s much better for an actual Japanese person to do this, or at least someone with extensive experience living in Japan, because Westerners who attempt to do this tend to come off like ignorant busybodies, but sure: you can explore that relationship. However, people who do this always seem to get the causal relationship backwards; like if we only could only get rid of moé anime, Japanese men and women will suddenly all be on the same page and the things that drew people to moé in the first place will go away.
It’s using the logic that if you get rid of mirrors, the things that used be reflected in the mirror will magically cease to exist. I’m pretty sure that doesn’t work.
So yes, there is plenty of grist for the intellectual mill on the subject of moé, as there is with most things, and that’s all well and good. It’s just, so often when the writer dons their feminist hat to attempt to critique media, there are certain gaps of logic and good sense that keep cropping up. It wouldn’t be frustrating if it didn’t happen so often.
GAP #1: How Can You Examine Women’s Portrayal in Media Without Giving it Proper Context by Examining Men’s Portrayal in The Same Text or Genre?
I think it’s safe to say that many more female characters are meant to be moé than males, but plenty of male moé characters exist; in fact, it seems to be becoming more and more common over time. Something like Free! comes immediately to mind, but even characters in shows that aren’t predominantly targeted at women have male characters with moé features: Is It Okay To Pick Up Girls In A Dungeon, Bungou Stray Dogs, My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU, etc. Personally, I found the main male character in Beyond the Boundary to be moé as all get-out, but that might have just been me.
Moé guys are pretty similar to moé girls: cute as a button, usually young-looking with big eyes and ridiculously shiny hair, often unsure of themselves and clumsy. Given that moé is something that can be applied to both genders, how much of moé is about female representation specifically, and how much of it is about representation of a character who is meant to invoke romantic fantasies for the audience? If males are also portrayed as vulnerable, there’s an element of some otaku– male and female alike– preferring a vulnerable character that makes them feel needed.
Now, to be fair, women aren’t the ones going out and buying body pillows in droves, err…probably. It’s not incorrect to point out that men are the consumers of moé on a grand scale. However, how can you talk about it as an issue of “female representation,” if you refuse to examine the male characters who are treated in the exact same fashion? It’s like the female fans simply don’t matter…almost like we have a problem with female representation in feminist critique.
GAP #2: Intentionally(?) Misunderstanding “Inclusiveness” As a Concept.
For entertainment to be inclusive, that means there’s basically something for everyone, right? No one gets left out. If you like action movies but don’t like Vin Diesel, there’s something for you, and if you like comics but don’t like Justice League because the characters bore you, you can read X-Men, and so on and so forth. It does not mean that every single book, game, comic, anime, or film needs to appeal to every single person on every single possible level all the time. I feel like I’m taking the time to explain 2+2=4; we all know this.
Except, when we put on our feminist caps, we’re supposed to forget that we all know this. From a feminist perspective, if a female critic sees something that does not appeal to her– whether it be one aspect of a show, or the entire thing– this is a problem. Suddenly, “inclusive” is something that applies to individual pieces instead of genres and entire mediums, even though everyone and their grandma intuitively knows that this isn’t how it usually works.
Now, that doesn’t mean that if you dislike anything about a piece of media, your only option is to say “This isn’t for me,” with no opportunity to comment. There can be value in saying “I like this, but I would like it more if it didn’t do X, Y and Z.”
However, there’s only value in that if what you want and what the media is attempting to provide are in even remotely the same ballpark. For example, I don’t like horror movies; I have low tolerance for gore and I can’t stand jump scares, among other horror staples. Considering how the things I don’t like are defining features of the genre, it would make no sense for me to watch a horror movie and then point out how it could be better suited to my tastes; my tastes and that of the target audience are completely different, and that’s fine. I have plenty of other things to watch.
It’s not a perfect analogy, mostly since moé isn’t a distinct genre like horror and it’s hard to nail down exactly what does and doesn’t count as moé, but I believe the same principle applies. If you’re watching say, Is the Order A Rabbit?, and you’re thinking “I would like this show if it wasn’t for all these super-cute girls who are unrealistic,” you’re simply watching the wrong thing. What you dislike isn’t a detail that can be swapped out– it’s a feature, not a bug, as they say.
Now, a reasonable criticism (meaning one I don’t see very often), would be that some shows have a lot to offer besides moé, and the moé elements could alienate some viewers who would otherwise enjoy the show. I believe Shirobako has this problem to some extent, because some fans like pretty much everything about it except the fact that the character designs for the ladies are so moé-tastic. The fact that the girls are idealized and the guys really aren’t can take people out of the story.
But to get back on point here, why is it okay for a feminist critic to either intentionally, or through ignorance, misconstrue how the entire process of fiction appealing to different people works? If a man writes about how he would enjoy Sex and the City so much more if the women in it didn’t do Thing X (I don’t know what they do– I don’t watch it), that guy would be told, and not without cause, to go fuck himself. Why is it okay for feminists to demand that everything appeal specifically to them, but anyone else who tries that is an asshole? I really don’t understand this.
GAP #3: Why Does Every Instance of Sexism Have to Be Misogyny?
I’ve written before about how sexism and misogyny aren’t the same thing, so I won’t hash it all out again. Still, I think it’s worth noting that treating every instance of sexism as misogyny has the effect of blowing everything out of proportion, as well as watering down the meaning of the word misogyny over time.
When you use the word misogyny a bunch of times to discuss fans of moé, you are lumping together religious extremists who want all women to live their entire lives as sex slaves with some anime fans who think K-ON! is entertaining; that’s insane. Furthermore, when you’re dealing with men who love their fantasy waifus and spend hundreds of hours curating their images and merchandise, is the real problem that they hate women? I think a lot of them probably love women, but women don’t love them. Indulging in a fantasy life where women are vulnerable and seem to need them, as manifested in many moé anime, does not mean that they hate, or even necessarily dislike, real-life women.
I mean hell, if every member of the opposite gender who doesn’t conform to our idealized fantasies is someone we therefore hate, then every man who isn’t either Gambit from X-Men or Squall from Final Fantasy VIII is straight-up fucked when they meet me.
GAP 4: Why Is It Always Okay To Erase Lesbian And Bi Women, As Long as Hetero Men Are the Primary Target?
I’m not a lesbian, but I get pissed off when feminists talk about the evils of male sexuality and the so-called “Male Gaze” being projected onto female characters without even mentioning that lesbian and bisexual women are also attracted to products that feature these things. This is a big issue when talking about fanservice in particular as opposed to moé (though obviously, there’s plenty of overlap there), and it comes up all the time.
There are women who find moé girls charming, and react to them in much the same way as male otaku do. If moé/fanservice/whatever is misogyny, does that mean that these lesbian and bi women are closet misogynists? Rather than grapple with this question, which is really thorny and bound to piss a lot of women off, feminist critics tend to sidestep the issue by simply pretending a lesbian/bi audience doesn’t exist.
Look, if you think all women who enjoy K-ON!! and have Ritsu as their waifu (good taste!) are misogynists who hate all women and therefore themselves, then say that. I’m pretty sure you’re wrong, and you’ll look like an extremist, but you can make that argument. Just pretending these women don’t exist, because they’re inconvenient, is one of the most unfeminist things I can possibly think of; it should be far beneath the dignity of any feminist critic.
I could go on (I’m sure you’re shocked), but I think I’ve hit the main points that bother me whenever TMS or another feminist outlet publishes their latest “Reasons Why This Media Is Bad And Needs To Change” screed. For the record, I’m not that into moé myself; I thought K-ON! was well-done, and I like the really breezy slice-of-life shows like Non Non Biyori, but a lot of moé shows I can take or leave. I would probably like this season’s New Game! better if it just focused on the game making and didn’t focus on moé appeal so much. I, too, have rolled my eyes when cute girl antics get in the way of shows telling a proper story.
I’m not mad that someone criticized my precious moé, because it’s not precious to me. I’m not even that mad that people are trying to police others’ fantasy lives under a thin pretext of nebulous social improvement, just because I’m numb to that already. And I am capable of reading criticism about things I like.
What I’m not capable of, apparently, is keeping quiet when people keep publishing really, really bad criticism.