Gender in Recovery of an MMO Junkie

No, you did not accidentally click on a link to a different blog. I really did title this post “Gender in {Show}.” I think I’m okay, but I’m due for a physical soon anyway, so I’ll let you know if this turns out to be the result of a brain tumor.

Seriously, there’s nothing inherently wrong with examining the way any given show portrays gender; it’s just that the resulting analysis is something I usually find counterproductive. With most shows, you can usually find examples of gender tropes being reinforced, but also examples of these tropes being subverted. People will use either a glass-half-empty or glass-half-full perspective (“Why this Popular Show Secretly Hates Woman,” versus “Why this Popular Show is Surprisingly Feminist,”) to push whatever view they feel like on that particular day. On the rare occasion that someone is honest about what’s really going on with the show in question, then we get an essay that basically says that the show is gender-conforming sometimes, but not all the time. Which, despite the virtue of at least being honest, is a really boring read.

Therefore, most “Gender in {Show}” articles are either:

A) a lie

or

B) insipid.

Rarely do we get a show where enough of the meat on its bones is really about gender, meaning that writing about this topic is actually relevant. Recovery of an MMO-Junkie, (“Net-juu” if you’re saucy) is one show where a lot of the story actually relates to gender; how people think of themselves as female vs. male, how they present themselves, and what happens when they playact as the other gender.

The focus on gender isn’t that noteworthy in and of itself, because other anime have tread similar ground; what surprises me about Net-juu is just how nuanced the portrayal of gender is. When Morioka plays a male character in the MMO Fruits de Mer, she experiments with acting how she imagines a young man would act. However, what this show does that I’ve rarely seen elsewhere in anime, is acknowledge the fact that even her appearances as a woman involve a kind of role-playing.

Private Morioka: tousled hair, boring clothes, bags under her eyes and a furrowed brow. Poor gal could probably use a shower something fierce.

Left to her own devices, Morioka is unkempt: loose clothes, messy hair, heavy bags under her eyes from staying up too late in front of the PC. However, when she’s asked out on a date, she won’t go as her sweatpants-wearing, MMO-addict self. Her checklist for the things she needs to do to make herself attractive are very much like putting together a fairly elaborate costume. Does she need new stockings? Does she have stylish clothes that fit? How many different kinds of make-up does she need to buy? How is she supposed to know what hairstyle is considered optimal?

The post-makeover Morioka looks very different; classy, bright-eyed and healthy. Her skin seems to glow, likely because she’s wearing make-up on her face for the first time in months. She walks daintily in heels, as opposed to rough the way she throws herself around her room when she’s alone. She is essentially a different person.

However, is this pretty Morioka a fake? Not at all; dressing like this, being this person, was her life for a decade when she worked an office job. She’s a bit uncomfortable changing back to her old self after spending a long time shut up in her apartment, but once she’s there, she slips back into her old persona fairly well. Simultaneously, Morioka is putting on a performance (being the pretty, polite, well-coiffed woman that’s very different from who she is in the privacy of her bedroom), but she’s also being genuine; this is a different side of her than the one that plays a male warrior in Fruits de Mer, but it’s still her. But if her identity as a woman is at least part performance, doesn’t that make Hayate, her character in-game, a legitimate manifestation of herself? After all, whether she’s presenting herself as her actual gender or not, in both cases, there’s a large element of play-acting going on. What’s the difference?

Out-on-the-town Morioka: Stylish hair, Pretty outfit with jewelry, no lines on face (make-up, or just proper sleep?), etc. That little heart necklace calling attention to her clavicle is an especially feminine touch.

Sakurai presents another interesting case. A sensitive, soft-spoken man, he plays a pink-haired female healer in-game, where his kind nature is seen as an asset instead of a sign of weakness. We don’t see that much of his struggles with traditional ideas of masculinity (primarily because he’s not the main character), but it certainly seems like playing his female avatar is refreshing for him, something which probably wouldn’t be true if his role as a male didn’t grate on him sometimes.

Later in the show we find out that his elderly adoptive parents died when he was young, and that playing MMOs is the way he recreates the feeling of having family. Curiously though, as a nurturing-type character– not only a healer, but the kind of person who helps newbies by giving them great equipment– Sakurai is taking on the role of the kind of mother-figure that he clearly wishes he had. Wouldn’t it make more sense to try to get on the receiving end of that kind of relationship? Maybe, on some level, he doesn’t believe he deserves it. You could even say that playing the unfailingly generous Lily is a way of running away from his own neediness.

Then we have Koiwai, who makes the whole thing into a farce. He creates a female character, but purposefully makes her as large and muscular as possible. He has no real interest in role-playing as a woman, so it doesn’t make any sense for his avatar to look particularly feminine. If anything he’s just trying to be quirky, to stand out, but like a lot of fun-loving people, he may not fully realize the implications of what he’s doing. The whole point of Koiwai’s beefy Homare avatar seems to be that she looks out of place in the game; without necessarily meaning to, he’s reinforcing the idea that there’s something inherently ridiculous about masculine women.

So the show is about pretending to be the opposite gender online, but also pretending to be your real gender in real life, because you try to present a more idealized version of what your real gender is. It’s also about people who see the whole thing for the sham it is and treat it as a farce, which is admirable in some respects, but can also accidentally cause harm to those for whom the nature of their gender identity is a very serious affair. And all of this is complicated by the fact that the majority of these interactions occur online, where obfuscation of your real identity is not only allowed, but encouraged…until you reach a certain point of intimacy, at which point lying about who you are starts to feel dishonest, even if it’s “only” a game.

To be perfectly honest, I’m not aware of how much analysis of MMO culture is out there; I’m a single-player gamer, and I generally have no reason to even think about MMOs. So it’s possible that there’s a whole body of literature that discusses this sort of thing, and Net-juu isn’t breaking any new ground at all. But from my (admittedly uninformed) perspective, it seems like the show is not only tackling the thorny issues of gender identity, but it’s doing so with the added complexity of gender in the age of limitless, anonymous online experiences, where gender is a reflection of something the player wants to express with their avatar. Furthermore, online, gender is something that’s optional to buy into; people can try to make their characters seem particularly masculine or feminine (however they define those two terms) all of the time, some of the time, or not at all, entirely on a whim.

As I write this, the show still has two episodes left to air, so I’m probably jumping the gun here. However, the show’s interesting portrayal of gender dovetails with what I believe to be the show’s main theme, which is that the online world only seems like an escape. It may be liberating to play as someone who looks completely different than you, is a different gender than you, and does things that you would never do. But we’re all roleplaying to some extent most of the time anyway; the online variety is just more explicit about it. So no matter how much you’d like to use a game to substitute for real life, it’s not going to work, because wherever you go, there you are. You can try to play a man when you’re really a woman, or play a woman when you’re really a man; that will never change the fact that the only person you can ever really play is yourself.

7 thoughts on “Gender in Recovery of an MMO Junkie”

  1. People like Koiwai are role-playing too, in their own way. It took me years of playing MMOs to realize that, but I think it’s true. Koiwai trivializes his own actions for the amusement/betterment of the people around him. He does that offline too. Creating a ridiculous female character is another a way to do that. It’s another persona that is still him, even if he didn’t put much thought into it. Sure, some people will be offended that what he did is considered ridiculous and that he trivialized it, but should those people be given ownership of how people portray themselves as a masculine women? Keep in mind that making light of himself is something he is doing offline too and I think the answer needs a bit more thought. I have friends who create these types of characters. I dislike how they are treated for it and how they are made to feel they have to play a male character if they want to be silly. True inclusivity doesn’t have much room for getting offended I think.

    I’m tempted to write my own post on this show. I’m amazed at how much of a chicken I’ve become. I feel like I have a lot I could say, but I’m not sure if I want to say it. I haven’t seen much literature on MMO culture. Most of what I’ve read is derogatory or otherwise ignorant to an annoying degree. MMOs culture doesn’t fit the gender narrative. I meet more women and trans-men playing Korean games with hyper-sexualized characters than I do in most other online games. It’s probably because they are quick to identify themselves, but true none the less. They are the first ones to defend the art choices in those games as empowering. Real people often don’t fit the narrative and MMOs are good at demonstrating that for anyone paying attention. I can go look for the thread full of allegedly straight men supporting the idea of a “package” slider for male characters in Blade in Soul if you are curious how far down the rabbit hole this kind of thing goes. (hint: Upon inspection I’m fairly certain that both human creativity and flexibility are practically limitless. For better or worse…)

    As someone who intentionally takes on a role for basically everything, I sometimes wonder if I have any real capacity left for being genuine. I feel like I should come with a warning label that responds to people who want me to be genuine with my identity by asking which perspective I’m supposed to be genuine with? While it’s true they are all me, It’s rare when I’m only formulating one perspective and I don’t think anyone actually wants me to give multiple answers to every question they ask. It’s impossible to act in two different ways according to two different methods at the same time. Most people fail to understand how my different perspectives can belong to the same person. It’s a huge relief when they can. That’s probably why most of my friends have analytical personalities.

    I think a lot of people don’t realize how taxing acting genuine can be, especially for the people who create personas for their identity intentionally and even more so for people who more naturally process the world in a negative light. Negativity comes more naturally to someone like that. I’m like that myself. If negativity comes more naturally to someone then acting genuine without a created persona is something that in most social cases is something no one actually wants. It would be childish to do that. We see a little of that in this anime. Why doesn’t Sakurai immediately come out and explain that he is Lily? On the one hand it’s that simple. On the other hand there is a lot of nuance to it that can get lost easily. Communicating that nuance can be very challenging. I can say for my own part that a lot of the motivation in playing a cute pink-haired MMO character is that it makes it easier to be nice to other players and honestly that it feels good to be kind to people who are grateful for it. It’s the complete opposite of how people respond to kindness in tech support work where it’s expected and taken for granted so maybe I use it for balance? I’ve never really thought it as motherly although I can understand your point on how Sakurai might. I can probably add more perspective to psychology of it all since it’s so close to my own experiences, but I should write my own post if I’m going to do that. I think I’ve ranted enough for one comment…

  2. Well, you know I’m going to defer to you in general on the subject of MMO culture. In the case of Koiwai’s character, it’s weird. When I was first watching the show the idea that his character could be seen as making fun of masculine women seemed like a minor thing. When I put on my specific “Let’s look at the portrayal of gender in this show” hat, then it suddenly seemed much more important. Which says a lot about the pitfalls of any sort of “let’s look at the show from THIS angle” posts, you’re sort of deliberately taking things out of context and then marveling that they look different out of context.

    I think the show deserves a lot of credit for it’s sensitive treatment of Morioka and Sakurai, and anything Koiwai does is just kind of a footnote. But I do find the issue his character raises interesting: was his intention: “I think it’s funny that I made a female character who maxed out the height and muscle sliders, because huge women are funny!” or was it more like “I’m going to make something that is somehow incongruous to clash with everyone else’s oh-so-perfect,conventionally attractive characters, because that’s how I express my devil-may-care attitude about the whole thing.”

    Given that I doubt we’re ever going to get that much insight into Koiwai’s thoughts, who knows? It’s one of those things that’s about as offensive as you want it to be: it can be viewed as a harmless display of Koiwai’s playful nature, or a misogynist/transphobic joke, or anywhere in between those two extremes.

    As to being genuine, I think the reason why I have so much trouble making friends has to do with that. Because in order for me to become really close to someone, I want them to be someone I feel like I don’t have to put on any kind of performance for, and I don’t seem to meet people who make me feel that way. If I have to be pretending to be a different side of myself (Academic Karen, Otaku Karen, Mother Karen, etc.) in order to spend time with them, I just don’t. Then I bitch that I’m lonely 😉

    1. Its interesting that this show being a lighthearted rom-com upfront can really make you think about things. On the topic of “being genuine” I think the show also does a pretty good job of discussing that you can be genuine even in being someone you are not, so long as your intentions are harmless and people are willing to accept that at face value. Even if we try to be someone else in some ways we are truly being ourselves or the selves we want others to see. We may call them “personas” or “characters” but deep down it’s who we are. (I may have been playing too much of a certain Atlus RPG…)

      I think the show reflects this pretty well, Morioka pretends to be a University student for fear of being teased for being a NEET, yet she is still herself which Sakurai/Lily sees through Hayashi and inevitably connects the dots thanks to some real life encounters. Not sure if Morioka is too dense for comedic effect to not realize the same about Lily. Despite that everyone in the guild still really likes her and aren’t skeptical of it and I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t change if she had been honest from the start or later reveals it. As we saw when Kanbe confronted her, it wouldn’t have been a big deal.

      Not sure what else to ramble about, but I have really enjoyed this show!

      1. PERSONA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

        I think there may be a trend lately of seemingly lighthearted shows that have some emotional heft to them. A Centaur’s Life just seemed like a fluffy monster girl show, then pretty much shocked everyone with an outright Holocaust episode. A Sister is All You Need was written off by a lot of people as a straight-up fetish show, yet it’s actually very on-point with how it portrays the insecurities of creative people, especially writers. The idea that there’s this divide between “deep,” respectable anime and fun/fanservice anime really isn’t true, to the extent that anyone still believes that.

        What’s really interesting to me about these personas we all put on is when you end up creating several of them– say an SRPG where you create your own party. Then they’re ALL aspects of you, and addition to getting to experience the charms of whatever fantasy world you’re in, you also get to experience Multiple Personality Disorder as an added bonus:)

        That’s probably an offensive thing to say, I’ll try to think of a better way to put it, lol.

        1. I still can’t accurately guess which shows will and won’t give me something extra to think about or even to talk about with other anime fans. If I were to make a list of shows that made me stop and think the most it would be a weird mix of laid back/no obvious ambition shows, high violence/fan-service stuff, anime manufactured to generate tears and only a few of the stories actually designed to be thoughtful… Sometimes it’s the shows that aren’t even very good that get the most mileage. Meanwhile anime that try to pass as intelligent tend to shoot themselves in the foot by setting the bar higher than they can actually reach. Then you have the high budget projects that set the bar low and still fail to reach it… (I grow a little more bitter about Izetta every time I think about this) Being an anime fan is so counter-intuitive at times.

          1. I can’t think of a good example right now for some reason, but I’ve definitely had the feeling sometimes that some shows are trying to be “smart” shows and just aren’t doing it. Maybe the writers just aren’t as clever as they think they are, or maybe the production schedule was too harsh, but those shows come off as pretentious rather than thought-provoking.

            Then you have stuff like Super Sonico which no one has ANY expectations for being unexpectedly great, and even contemplative at times. It’s really weird.

            Ghost in the Shell comes to mind as the one anime (or show, period), that actually is as smart as it thinks it is, but GitS isn’t above fanservice or silliness either. It takes itself seriously, but not “all fun is BENEATH our grand ambitions” seriously.

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