Japanese Anime: Deconstructing ‘Strong’ Female Character Tropes
Japanese anime is often designed to cater only to a particular demographic (ironically even within anime itself) of children. This may be because it is difficult to ignore the involvement of Shin Chanoutgoing personality and Doraemonthe daily jokes in ours desi childhood after school.
In my eight years of sticking around and exploring what Japanese anime had to offer, from fantasy to psychology and more, I’ve noticed character archetypes that are sprinkled across these two genres and beyond. Beyond: Japanese anime characters. Some loom in the background and some are the forerunners, and this article hopes to present a fairly non-exhaustive list of female character tropes in Japanese anime. That’s not to say the anime is regressive, on the contrary, there’s as much good content as there are issues, but the mainstream shows tend to raise eyebrows.
Many of them spend the Bechdel test (must include two women, they must talk to each other, and this conversation must be about something other than boys) but always push female characters in Japanese anime to elementary limits. For example, while the two female characters might not talk to each other about the boys, most of their self-development and focus would still be on inciting romance and preventing the other from doing so; or their sexuality might just be the only thing on offer, they stick around for ridiculous “fan-service” and nothing more. “But the anime also has strong female leads!” fans might scream. I know, me too. But addressing this “force” reveals to us the not so feminist aspect of Japanese anime, and this is my first category.
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The strong female lead who must be saved from her own wicked “masculine” ambition
The trait of this Japanese anime character is his strength and… absolutely nothing else. Unsurprisingly, that’s what the male lead has to work on as well. For her to gain happiness, her strength must be undermined and her supposedly inherent femininity must be enhanced. Her ‘happy ending’ would be apart from the so-called ‘battlefield’ (often not literal), with her longer hair and pants meeting in the middle to make a dress and if not a baby in hand, then in a stroller or in a picture on the coat. Her ‘sly’ and ‘manipulator’ the smile (their words, not mine) then becomes purely docile. The certain such spinoff in Japanese anime is that the girl is presented to the audience as the smartest or the brightest or the strongest (including all the superlatives here) but immediately loses all her authority to the mysterious male role that takes over. Its brilliance exists only as a benchmark against which to measure its success.
To direct this superlative degree of “intelligent” towards a specific position of a Bishoujo The Japanese anime character brings us to the “Cold Beauty” stereotype.
The “cold beauty” stereotype
A tsundere is a Japanese anime character who is mostly an upper class girl who constantly displays her “class”. As if to make her an “enemy” somewhat worthy of being defeated or corrected, we gave her the trait of being gifted for books. No other nuance is made, she has a side and is deemed unsympathetic from the start. She is often a bully, a predator looking for easy targets to retain some semblance of power, which she then gives up for ‘to like’. Roles assigned to female characters in Japanese anime under the ‘strong’ category are particular; or else it must spring from nothing and have ambition as its sole trait; or she must come from wealth and have the title of tyrant. Not much lies between this dichotomy.
The embodiment of toxic femininity
At the other end of this force of the masculinity spectrum is the embodiment of toxic femininity. Presented to the audience with graceful music and roses all around (literally), this Japanese anime character is ‘pure’ and ‘innocent’, which are coincidentally her only charms, with a touch of kindness. The flowers surrounding it could even be white, as if to emphasize virginal chastity; his ears should be covered when someone curses, his eyes should be closed when something inappropriate happens. She’s a damsel, sometimes in distress, but she’s mostly the main man’s trauma healer. Her stereotypical “maternal” nature is disturbing. Not only does it end up mocking the trauma healing process and reducing it to just “listening”; more often than not, his own trauma is ignored or covered by the motto of “love conquers all”. She starts out as an on-demand pseudo-therapist and resident cook, and few changes in the end. Again, this Japanese anime character ends up being a stepping stone to spotlighting the male lead. Her strength comes not from an extended good nature, but from her acceptance of the social expectations of a woman.
‘Gyaru’ or ‘Gal’: The impure woman trope
Since we looked at the “pure” Japanese anime character, it’s not hard to guess that there will also be an “unclean” woman trope. ‘Gyarou’ Where ‘Girl’ is actually a fashion aesthetic, but also used to name women “delinquent” so to speak. Japanese high schools are infamous for their strict dress codes, and delinquents don’t follow them, with bleached hair and tanned skin to begin with. While the male offenders (yes, we’re mostly sticking with gender binaries, not much beyond that is found in mainstream anime that isn’t a caricature) are overtly violent; women offenders are sometimes depicted with their “feminine” features raised a notch (or too much). Be a Gyaru is to be explicitly sexual, of course, this is only determined by the clothes you wear and gets worse the longer your fingernail. Ironically, the usual twist in this Japanese anime character trope is that she’s not sexual at all. She wears white panties (which will be revealed to us in a “panty-shot” scene, and which is, of course, the symbol of her purity) and has no ‘experience’ with boys. What I mean is obvious: she is reviled for flaunting her sexuality, caught between the two extremes of being a slut or being a virgin, her appearance matters more to the story than any role than her personality might have to play.
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The female Japanese anime “Otaku”
So of course we have the ‘Otaku’ Japanese anime character. For context, otaku are anime/manga fans and are looked down upon in Japan: there’s quite a bit of history there and are portrayed as the extremely isolated introvert (Umaru-chan can’t be included here) bordering on ” scary” almost (for more). But the female otaku trope I want to comment on explicitly is the obsessive ‘fujoshi’ who gets a nosebleed every time she sees a conventionally hot guy, not because she likes him, but because she fantasizes about him being gay and being with another man. We have many perverted men who get a nosebleed when they see attractive women and fantasize about them but, and listen to me, their attraction is for themselves, it’s an outright acceptance of their sexuality. In the ways fujoshi caricatures are depicted, we can trace two events:
One: By directing the by fujoshi sexuality of herself and on other men, given the “illegitimacy” of same-sex relationships in many anime, this ultimately negates it or makes it generally unacceptable. Moreover, the self-definition ‘rot’ of this attraction makes this Japanese anime character problematic on many levels.
Two: things get complicated when you consider fujoushi lesbian characters (presented by: Kanbaru Sugura and many more). Lesbianism is much less represented in Japanese anime than male homosexuality and sometimes fujoshi the characters interacting with each other allow them to explore female intimacy. But as Clarisse Graffeo suggests, while it can “awaken” their sexuality or help them identify with it; in anime they usually fall back to heteronormative conventions.
In conclusion, I believe that the character tropes of “strong women” in Japanese anime continue to be served in rigid molds that obviously satisfy the male gaze.
Featured image source: Japan today