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X-Men and The Fake Comics Diversity War

Some people think a female Wolverine is a cheap gimmick; this would be a more important concern if original-recipe Wolverine didn’t start out as a cheap gimmick too.

If you’re not a regular reader of American comics, you may not know that die-hards on all sides have been waging a ferocious culture war over them for the past several years. One side says that old, crusty comic book fans just can’t handle women and minorities taking over the roles of beloved superheroes, and these regressive, bigoted people need to either (preferably) die out, or get with the times; the other side says that a lot of the so-called “diversity” in modern comics is a cynical sales ploy used to deflect criticism from lazy, uninspired writing. They’re both right to a certain extent (in the same way that a stopped clock is still going to be right some of the time), but more importantly, they’re both kind of delusional.

But that’s not special; nonsensical arguments over pop culture that take place primarily on the internet are a dime a dozen. No, what makes this particular kerfuffle interesting to me is that it seems to take place in some kind of alternate universe where X-Men comics never existed. Now, considering the fact that Marvel has done basically everything to kill that franchise outside of taking it back behind the barn and shooting it, you may not believe this, but at one time, the X-Men were the most popular superheroes in the entire world; yet if you acknowledge that, the argument for not one but BOTH SIDES of this argument falls apart in pretty spectacular fashion. As tiresome as I find the “You’re a bigot!” “No, you’re the REAL bigot!” arguments, I have to admit to some fascination with this opportunistic, selective memory regarding comic book history…or, more bluntly, how can you ignore the evidence that’s right in your face?

Let’s examine the “Diversity is used as a cynical marketing ploy, and that just sucks,” side first.

Diversity for Diversity’s Sake…is Good?

The pushback against more diverse character types in comics is not about hatred of women and minorities…in most cases. (I mean sure, you can find a small group of legitimate bigots for whom that is the issue, but that’s a subject for another day.) No, the pushback is how diversity is shamelessly used as both carrot and stick for readers. Example: GenericHero, who has been portrayed as male for 40 years, suddenly passes the torch to a female successor. Marketing goes crazy: “It’s GenericHero, like you’ve never seen HER before! Forget everything you ever knew about GenericHero, it’s a new era of Ass-Kicking!” Every ad for this “event” features heroic pin-ups of GenericHero looking hella awesome, complete with her sexy (but not TOO sexy) redesigned-yet-classic costume, and from all the hype, you’d think this was the biggest thing to ever happen to comic books since Batman decided to put on a cape.

Then the new comic with GenericHero debuts, and the character does exactly the same boring shit he/she has been doing for the last 30 years; the only difference is that she often makes snide comments about how the bad guys underestimate her now because she’s a woman (or if the writers want to be REALLY edgy, they might insert a comment that vaguely alludes to the fact that she has a menstrual cycle.) When readers complain, “This is not the revolution of GenericHero that we were promised,” the answer from the creative team is invariably “Shut up, you just can’t handle the fact that there are women in comics now, you pathetic, basement-dwelling misogynists!” Then comic fans go “Umm, excuse me?”, and sales plummet. Then industry pundits say “Sales of GenericHero plummet since the mantle was taken up by a woman; indisputable proof that comic book readers CANNOT HANDLE CHANGE!” Rinse and repeat with the next costumed hero.

God, it’s tiresome.

Anyway, so we can all agree that Diversity for the sake of Diversity, or Diversity used as a mercenary selling point, doesn’t work, right? It’s always forced, and boring, and never as good as if the writers had just focused on the traditional char…..

…Oh, right. Uncanny X-Men happened. Diversity For the Sake of Diversity can actually be awesome when done right.

Make no mistake, the 1975 relaunch of the “All-New, All-Different” X-Men started out as tokenism at its finest. “Look, there’s a Native American! And a Black Woman! And a Russian, and a German, and a Japanese Guy! There’s even a Canadian named ‘Wolverine,’ because wolverines are from Canada!” Seriously, the entire concept behind Wolverine’s initial character was “let’s have a Canadian superhero, because we don’t have one yet;” then when the character failed to become popular immediately, the only thing that kept him from being written out of the book was the fact that the one Canadian who worked for Marvel lobbied for him. The only thing missing from Giant-Sized X-Men #1 was a giant sticker that said “Look How Progressive This Comic Book Is! Do We Get A Gold Star????”

If things had continued in this vein, it would probably have been a pretty cringeworthy comic, and sometimes it was (See: Banshee the Irishman and his literal castle full of leprechauns.) But writer Chris Claremont took these created-via-checklist characters and did something interesting with just about all of them. Instead of being a stereotypical Earth Mother type, it turned out that Storm’s “all-loving African Goddess” shtick was a lie she told herself to escape from the horrors of her past, and when she let go of that role, she wasn’t sure she liked the person she was underneath. Nightcrawler explored religious guilt while still being charming and swashbuckling, and never committing the cardinal sin of becoming humorless. Soviet-born Colossus struggled with life in America for reasons having little to do with his superhero identity, especially when he started to have feelings for a young Jewish girl with a vastly different upbringing. And of course, Wolverine’s character went on to explore all these huge themes that have made the character one of the pillars of the genre: the nature of violence, which victimizes even its perpetrators; the role that memory, which is fallible, plays in identity; the concept of Logan as a sort of quintessential war veteran, suffering a kind of ongoing PTSD that never gets better, because there’s always another war.

This was stuff that really hadn’t been explored in comics, and rocketed the comic to a completely unexpected level of popularity; instead of being an oddity, UXM became the standard against which other comics were judged, rightly or wrongly. And it all happened because Claremont made good use of the “Diversity First” concept he was given; taking the opportunity to tell stories that hadn’t been told, couldn’t be told, with someone like Spider-Man. The promise of all-new, all-different stories wasn’t a marketing ploy, because the stories actually were new…and that’s something that’s much easier to do when you’re starting from a different place than you were before. Diversity, whether you want to tag it with the label “forced” or otherwise, can be a great jumping off point for creativity.

So the argument “Forced Diversity Never Works,” is somewhat undermined by the fact that, historically, it can work. And as to whether or not it’s cynical…how do you even judge that? “Let’s call the Canadian character Wolverine because wolverines are from Canada and it’s a new gimmick,” sounds pretty cynical, not to mention simplistic, but look at what writers have done with that character; look what James Mangold did with the film Logan, earlier this year. Just because someone has the gall to be cynical enough to hope that something catches eyes and makes money, that doesn’t mean it necessarily has to be thematically cynical. It doesn’t mean anything, really. If a great story comes from a cynical place, it’s still a great story; if a bad story comes from an idealistic place, the best you can say is “Well, at least your heart was in the right place, dear.”

Old Comic Fans Can’t Handle Diversity, Except When They Do

Okay, so we’re all on board that diversity in comics is awesome, right? No, we still have to worry about those old, regressive comics fans, who think a character named “Iron Man” should probably be a man and not a fifteen-year-old girl. These old fossils just can’t handle women, particularly minority women, in positions of power, and all of their arguments about so-called “forced writing” and “cynical marketing” are just a smoke screen for their hate! They just want to go back to the bad old times when superhero comics were predominantly WHITE and MALE and–

In this issue: Strong black woman beats up white men because they are dumb and totally deserve it.

In this issue: Strong black woman demands the return of her superpowers from brilliant Native American engineer/shaman, because that’s just how the ’80s rolled in superhero comics.

…Oh, right, the time when Uncanny X-Men was the best-selling comic in the world was during the time when it was led by Storm, who happened to have no superpowers at the time; having lost her powers, she was leading the team with a combination of street smarts and pure chutzpah. I’m confused: are these crusty old comics fans who can’t handle minority women in the spotlight, the same comics fans who were buying Uncanny X-Men in droves during the ’80s? Or were these different fans? Considering the fact that UXM was the best-selling comic, if readers had a huge aversion to minority women in positions of power, they had a really funny way of showing it.

it’s almost like readers accept diversity without comment when diversity leads to characters they love and stories they feel invested in, and only have a problem with it when the diversity itself is used as a stand-in for telling a decent story. So the argument was never really about diversity in the first place, but about the fact that many, if not most, American Superhero comics have been fundamentally directionless for decades and need a new raison d’être if they’re ever going to be worthwhile again. What we hear over and over again, bleated as though from a group of sheep, is “Diversity this, Diversity that, grrrr!”, when what we could be talking about is “What role does the superhero comic serve now in the age of immersive videogames, where you can really feel like you have superpowers? What can a superhero comic do to remain vibrant beyond serving as mere fodder for the summer movie franchises that have all but replaced it in popular culture?” These, to me, at least, are interesting questions. “How many of the people who loved Storm in the ’80s have become misogynist bigots since then?” is not an interesting question.

An admission: yes, I’m basing a lot of this on the one-time popularity of UXM, which was only one comic among many. That said, it was not only the best-selling comic, it was essentially the flagship title of the entire industry for many years; it was the comic people gave to their friends to get them into comics. While UXM may have only been one title, I don’t think you can brush it aside as an exception when it was seen as not just a good comic, but the standard to be emulated. How can we act like “Old” comic fans are the problem, when the most popular comic from decades ago was filled with all of the things they supposedly aren’t progressive enough to handle today? How can we act like all sales-driven diversity initiatives are bad when they gave us Wolverine, which led to Hugh Jackman as Wolverine? It boggles the mind.

TLDR: This whole fight over diversity in comics is a total sham. Yes, some bigots exist among comics fandom, and yes, some writers use gender and racial diversity as a shield to deflect criticism of otherwise poor writing; both of these facts are largely irrelevant to what the medium is and where it’s going.

On AniFem

If I have any reputation at all in the anime blogosphere (which is optimistic), it’s for being critical of feminist criticism when applied to anime. So, when a site crops up that’s all about applying feminist criticism to anime, you might think I would be against it on principle, but that’s not true; in fact, it’s the opposite.

I don’t plan to support AnimeFeminist on Patreon, but I don’t have a problem with what they’re doing. A site by feminists, for feminists? Sure; that’s not my jam, but so what?

So why talk about it at all, when it has nothing to do with me? Mostly just because I see anime fans demonizing the site right from the getgo, which– in addition to coming off as just mean-spirited–implies that they don’t understand what the most dangerous problem is with current anime criticism. The problem is not the fact that feminist criticism, as one particular lens through which to examine media, exists; it’s when it’s treated as the default for ALL criticism, and anyone who doesn’t agree with its usage is in serious danger of being branded a misogynist.

Let’s look at AniFem: it’s clearly by feminists, for feminists. It wears what it’s doing 100% on it’s sleeve. There is the whole Patreon angle, but the only people who are going to contribute are people who genuinely want to read this kind of criticism; no one else is forced to pay one red cent. If you don’t find value in feminist criticism, you can simply not visit the site and it will never effect your life.*

Now let’s look at other sites, like Anime News Network and other sites that want to be Anime News Network. These sites use terms like “toxic masculinity,” “male gaze” as though they’re completely accepted mainstream terms, with no indication that these terms are associated with a certain ideology. Typically, fans who ask inconvenient questions like “Is masculinity really toxic?” and “Why are you using the original form of gaze theory, and ignoring how the concept has evolved?” are ignored at best, branded misogynists at worst. There’s a generally unspoken rule (although some people take care to make it explicit) that if you have any issue with the terms of academic feminism being engaged in pop culture criticism, it’s because you’re an anti-feminist, a.k.a. misogynist.

Perhaps worse, in this environment, anime criticism that doesn’t use feminist theory is seen as not doing its due diligence; it’s basically taken as an article of faith that a review MUST come from a feminist perspective, or else it’s lacking in intellectual rigor.

Now let’s compare ANN and to AniFem. If ANN were say, Anime Feminist News Network, it would be one thing, but it’s not: it is THE anime news network. You can ignore it if you want, but then you’re kind of shooting yourself in the foot; ANN provides a valuable service in terms of providing otaku news from Japan for English- language fans, and you’ll have a hard time keeping current on anime (and several related fandoms) if you refuse to use either ANN, or sites that source at least partially from ANN. Basically, it’s a hotbed of feminist criticism that you literally cannot avoid if you want to participate in the fandom.

Everybody is allowed to do whatever kind of criticism they want; if a bunch of Marxist fans want to set up a site to review anime from a Marxist perspective, they’re welcome to do that; wild horses couldn’t drag me over to read it, but that’s beside the point. If mecha fans want to build a site that critiques anime solely based on the inventiveness of a show’s mechanical design,** they’re welcome to do that. Many people feel burned out by feminism because of the feeling that they can’t escape from it on major outlets; that doesn’t mean that feminists don’t have the same right as absolutely everyone else to make sites, with their own labor, that cater to their own interests.

TLDR: Even if you have no interest in patronizing AniFem, and even if you blatantly disagree with the show’s approach to criticism, for me it’s still part of the solution, not the problem, because engaging with feminist theory via the site is 100% a choice.

I think the anger of the fandom should be directed at those situations where we don’t really have a choice.

 

*Of course, you might see references or links to it in your Twitter timeline, but if you’re such a special snowflake you can’t even handle THAT level of engagement with views you disagree with, then you’re just being a hypocrite. After all, one of the best arguments in favor of letting all kinds of shows exist, no matter how ‘offensive’, is that if you don’t like it, you don’t have to watch it; similarly, if you don’t like an anime criticism website, you don’t have to visit it.

**I’d kind of like to see more stuff like this, although I can’t guarantee it doesn’t already exist and I’m just ignorant of it– for better or for worse, I spend more time watching anime these days then keeping track of anime fan projects online. I’m sure I miss stuff.

What is First Love Monster?

screenshot-2016-09-30-14-20-54Normally, when I want to write about a show, I have something in mind that I’d like to say about it. This is the exception: I am writing about First Love Monster in the hopes that by writing about it, I will figure out what I just watched. Considering the fact that I’m admitting up front that I have no plan, and this is more a form of attempted therapy than analysis of said show, I will not blame anyone for bailing out at the end of this paragraph.

Preamble covered, just what the hell is First Love Monster?  When I watched the first episode three months ago, I was confused about who the show was targeted at. Now, after catching up on the 11 remaining episodes, I’m still asking the same question. This is somewhat unique in my anime-viewing history.

It’s ostensibly shoujo, right? It’s a rom-com, and the guys are pretty much all tall and all handsome (with a few token moe boys who’re more cute than hot), and one of the really tall handsome guys has a thing for pushing the heroine up against the wall, and there’s even an episode where the dudes get shirtless. But most of the guys are also elementary schoolers who happen to be in fully adult male bodies for no reason that is ever explained, meaning they constantly talk about poop and wieners– especially poop. And even though Kanade and his friends are said to be in fifth-grade, to me they act more like second-graders, making the whole thing even more ridiculous.

So the premise of the show is that a high school girl, Kaho, ends up dating a fifth-grader, Kanade, because he looks so mature that she assumes he must be her age, if not older. However, since the constant potty-mouth antics make Kanade seem even younger than a fifth-grader, it feels like a high school girl is dating a developmentally delayed fifth-grader.

If you want to just write the whole thing off as ridiculously offensive and not spare it a moment’s more thought, I’m certainly not going to blame you. The whole show should really be five minutes long: Kanade saves Kaho, Kaho develops a crush on him and asks him out, he says “actually, I’m still in fifth grade,” and Kaho responds “Oh wow, I had no idea, why don’t you go back to the playground with your friends.” Of course, since Kaho’s social cluelessness is almost as overpowering as Kanade’s immaturity, she agrees to date him, and we have a situation.

The thing I can’t get past is just who the audience is supposed to be. Usually, when a show is pretty dumb in concept and just exists on pandering to its audience, at the very least, you know who’s being pandered to. But how does that work with this show? Sure, the guys are hunky-looking, but the constant potty humor is bound to be a turn-off for a lot of girls. It’s hard to think of a guy as hot when he’s talking about how he hurt his pee-pee when he sat down on a swing. I mean, I reckon there’s some girls somewhere who have that fetish, but there can’t be that many of them, right?

And since the boys are wearing elementary-school clothes that are way too small for them, I guess you could argue that the guys are showing lots of skin, hence pandering-to-the-ladies. However, tall anime guys squashed into tiny short sets and knee socks don’t look sexy; I’m hardly the arbiter of female sexuality, but I have to assume this is closer to fan disservice for many girls than fanservice. It just looks ridiculous, which is the point of course, since the show’s a comedy. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a comedy where the style of the humor has the side effect of rendering the fanservice unpalatable.

Maybe I’m looking at this the wrong way, and it’s actually very simple: First Love Monster is a comedy, and the fact that it’s also shoujo is more or less incidental. Maybe the entire appeal of the show is supposed to be the contrast between these guys who look like typical anime dreamboats acting like little children, and the target audience is “anyone who finds that funny.” Of course, it’s basically the same joke over and over again, but whatever.

screenshot-2016-09-30-14-25-52

Taga thinks he’s a character on Diabolik Lovers and treating his love interest like garbage will result in her falling in love with him. However, because this is not Diabolik Lovers, he’s going to lose to a guy who still believes in Santa Claus. So that’s something.

Still, it’s clear that Kanade is actually supposed to be taken seriously as a romantic lead. He sometimes sounds wise beyond his years (which is why Kaho has a thing for him in the first place) when he parrots things his mother once said to him– something that, if you ignore what it’s surrounded by, is kind of touching. And the last episode has a pretty amazing sequence where the premise is basically “What if this were a normal shoujo, and Kanade was a proper romantic hero because he wasn’t 10 fucking years old?” Said episode also contains Kaho having an epic meltdown about how her show makes no sense, which is probably worth watching in and of itself (I could say “it makes the show worth watching,” but let’s not get carried away.)

So it’s just a silly comedy that’s not meant to be taken seriously as a romance…except for those times when it’s explicitly presented as a romance. Throughout the show, I kept expecting a twist that would give the show some further identity beyond “hot guys say the word poo.” For a while, since they say that Kanade is in fifth-grade but never give his actual age, I was sure that Kanade and his buds were actually in a coma for a few years after a bus accident or something, making the boys older chronologically than they are behaviorally. Whether that would make Kanade’s relationship with Kaho much less inappropriate is debatable, but at least there would be something for the writers to explore there. Alternately, I thought that maybe Kanade had regressed to a childlike state after the death of his mother, but was actually the same age as Kaho.

If there had been some twist like the ones I was speculating about, then the show could explore the idea of a high school student dating someone with childlike tendencies without literally being a child. Then maybe something would happen to help Kanade start acting more like his chronological age, and Kaho and Kanade would become viable as a proper couple. But no: that is not this show. This show really is about a high-schooler dating a fifth-grader, with no mitigating circumstances.

The show isn’t entirely without, err, charm; it’s at it’s best when it becomes a total screwball comedy and ignores the romance angle entirely, like when Kanade befriends a crab that the crew is supposed to eat for lunch, names it “Crabita,” and starts using it like a Pokemon. And the aforementioned sequence in the last episode works pretty well as a parody of standard shoujo cliches.

One other thing that’s kind of interesting is the character of Taga, who tells Kaho that she is “lower than dogshit” and treats her in the same fashion, despite the fact that he clearly likes her. He acts like the romantic leads in shows like Diabolik Lovers, only instead of being seen as desirable, he’s pretty much cast aside as irrelevant. If you want to be generous– and I do mean incredibly, almost unreasonably generous– you can interpret the show as a critique of a certain kind of masochistic shoujo. The tall, hot guy who treats the heroine like dirt ends up alone and lonely, because he’s a massive asshole and the fact that he’s really hot doesn’t mitigate the fact that he’s a massive asshole, while the heroine falls for the genuinely nice guy. Of course, in this case, the nice guy happens to be 10, but let’s not quibble on details here.

So, yeah…First Love Monster is a show that doesn’t work as a romance, features leads that are largely unappealing to women, and only occasionally works as a comedy. Who bought enough copies of the manga for this to get made into an anime? What was Studio DEEN thinking when they adapted this? DEEN makes Super Lovers, so they’re clearly not afraid of salacious material, but what’s the point of a show being salacious if it’s so thoroughly un-sexy?

I just…I just don’t get it, guys. I’m not even saying the show is bad, because I don’t think of it a TV show so much as some strange science experiment, imposed by some mysterious alien intellect with motives I cannot begin to comprehend. I just wrote (checks) 1400 words and no, I still don’t know what I just watched. You win this round, Japan.

screenshot-2016-09-30-14-23-11

Anime Rescue: Spring 2016

Four times a year, dozens of young, bright-eyed anime characters are set loose upon the world. As joyous as this miracle of nature is, sadly, every season many characters are deployed to the wrong shows, leading to much unnecessary stress and existential angst. For the cost of just one Cup Ramen per day, YOU can send an anime character to where they’ll truly thrive; away from the unappreciative jerks on their own shows.

Let’s learn more about this season’s crop of unfortunates, and what you–  no, what we ALL– can do to help. Continue reading Anime Rescue: Spring 2016

How Not To Investigate Gamer Identities

Back when I wrote my short Gender in Gaming series, I lamented the lack of good-quality academic papers on gaming freely available on the internet. Thanks to scholar Christina Hoff Sommers’ Twitter feed, I’ve just learned of a new journal, Press Start, that seeks to remedy that. At first I was pleased with this development, until I read the journal’s call for papers for a special issue called “Negotiating Gamer Identities.” Then I reminisced about my old, horrible college honors seminars, cried over my Milton textbook for about an hour, and decided I needed to go through this, piece-by-piece. Continue reading How Not To Investigate Gamer Identities

Final Fantasy VIII and Literary Criticism

RINOA

Note: All quotes from the game taken from Shotgunnova’s Script FAQ.

Warning: This post is going to devote a lot of time to analyzing a theory about Final Fantasy VIII, a game that is now 17 years old, in incredible detail. This is probably going to seem pointless and obsessive, because it is pointless and obsessive, but I’m going ahead with it anyway for two reasons:

  1. I love Final Fantasy VIII. Always have, always will.
  2. The way said theory is typically discussed in FF fandom is to me indicative of a larger issue within the gaming community, which is that– despite the leaps and bounds the medium has made in garnering critical attention– most gamers still have no use for anything that resembles literary criticism. I think that’s a bit of a shame.

Continue reading Final Fantasy VIII and Literary Criticism

FREE! and Masculinity

 

FREE!guys

I didn’t keep up with the second season of FREE! while it was airing; I liked the first season well enough, but the second one felt a bit dull. However, in a recent burst of “Let’s watch all my unfinished anime series because that’s a great way to avoid doing real work!” sentiment, I picked up FREE!: Eternal Summer again and watched it to the end. It’s still largely a retread of the first season, but it does pick up and get more interesting during the latter half.

One thing I couldn’t help but notice was that the series, in general, presents the exact opposite of the so-called “toxic masculinity” that many media critics complain about. The show is full of guys being empathetic, talking to each other about their most deeply-held feelings, expressing high levels of affection for each other, and relying on each other for emotional support rather than trying to go it alone. Continue reading FREE! and Masculinity

Gender in Gaming 2: How To Data

 

Confession Time: This installment is late because I changed gears. Originally, I wanted to do an overview of the current academic research regarding gender in video games, but it didn’t work out. Many of the papers are stuck behind academic paywalls I don’t have access to (which I should have surmised, but was in denial about), and the few papers openly available on the internet…are kind of awful? I can’t say so with authority, since I’m not any kind of an expert on social science research, but it seems like there are gaping flaws in the methodology of these studies that even a newbie can see: suspiciously small sample sizes, strongly opinionated language in the abstract that makes it seem like the conclusions were chosen before the study was even started, etc.

That said, there could be great research about gender as portrayed in video games out there, somewhere; I’m just not currently in a position to find it. However, for someone currently involved in academic research who has access to all these scholarly databases, I think this presents an intriguing area for study; look at all the papers on this topic, and see which ones pass muster as proper research, and which are fluff designed to bolster specific preconceived ideas. Once again, I can only speculate, but I would bet money that a lot of these studies will turn out to be light and inconsequential as a feather.*

So instead of delving into academic research, which I’m clearly ill-equipped to do, I’m going to try something else: talk about how we can analyze video games as though we were doing it from scratch. Before any serious data collection about gender representation can be done, I think there are some very basic questions that need to be addressed, yet are rarely mentioned.

Continue reading Gender in Gaming 2: How To Data

Do Video Game Reviews Matter?

When I wrote my “journalist’s take” on GamerGate a month or so back, my main point was that many games writers for sites like Kotaku and Polygon are just plain bad at their jobs; I didn’t think they were necessarily unethical, no matter what many gamers were saying. Since then, lots of new information has come to light and I’ve changed my mind about that: many of these people are seriously unethical. In a way, it’s not even their fault, since they’ve apparently never been held to journalistic standards before and thus don’t really understand what they’re doing wrong, but going into that is probably best saved for another day. Continue reading Do Video Game Reviews Matter?