Women, Gender, Sexuality and Sex, In Anime and Manga by Erica Friedman

(Talk given at MIT’s seminar Schoolgirls and Superheroes: Gender and Sexuality in Japanese Anime, February 24, 2003)

As promised, here are the rough notes for my lecture at MIT. This is hardly a complete paper, since my presentation was at least partially done extemporaneously. These really are just notes – so feel free to ask me what I meant by them.

I’d like to begin with a basic history of anime and manga,so you have an idea of where the words we’ll use come from, and how women fit into the industry.

I. History

13th century – Drawings on temple walls scenes of afterlife and animals
1600s – woodblocks called Edo became popular, especially those with erotic themes
1702 – Print book of wood blocks with captions called Toba-e
1815 – Term manga coined by famed woodblock artist Hokusai. “Lax pictures”
1918 – First animated short “Peach Boy
1920’s – Yoshiya Nobuko creates modern shoujo literature with “Hana Monogatari
1932 – First anime talkie
1947 – First modern manga, “New Treasure Island” by Osamu Tezuka. It was akahon, a cheap post-war “red book”
1949 –Showa 25 group all born, 5 women who later influenced shoujo manga.
1958 – First anime film, “Tale of the White Serpent
1961 – First television anime “Otagin Manga Calendar.” Same year Osamu Tezuka’s “Astro Boy,” which was first anime that came to America.
Mid 60’s, Tezuka’s “Princess Knight” –inspired by Disney and Takarazuka Women enter manga field.
1966 – Magical Girl Sally, first “magical girl” anime – went for 109 episodes.
1976 – Song of the Wind and the Trees – Keiko Takamiya – first yaoi manga and anime.
Mid to late 70’s – Showa 25 group bring gender and sexuality into shoujo manga, with yaoi, while Ryoko Ikeda produces gender-bending and yuri Rose of Versailles and Brother, Dear Brother.
1990’s – CLAMP, an all-female anime and manga company. Still wildly popular, CLAMP known for producing blockbuster manga and anime in both genres.
1991-2 – Code Name Wa Sailor V, Sailor Moon – blew shoujo wide open, proved guys will watch shoujo…short skirts, sexy sweet girls helped.
1995 – Sailor Uranus and Neptune, actual lesbian couple on TV
Point of interest – Rumiko Takahashi, shounen mangaka is richest woman in Japan.

II. Conventions of genre

Shounen – traditionally more oriented towards action than words, more about sex than love.
Shoujo – traditionally more oriented towards stories of empowerment, emotional growth, romance.
Josei – stories of romance and sex, for an older audience.
* Both have strong themes of friendship, loyalty, duty. Also misfits banding together to succeed against enormous odds, even at the cost of one’s life. No one ever dies.
* Both – hero/ine object of multiple attractions from other characters male and female.

Women are typically portrayed with certain qualities, which I have rendered into what I’ll call archetypes: any character can have several of these qualities…but a few types are mutually exclusive. Any givenanime has almost all of these archetypes.



Little Girl (stays young) Little Girl (matures)
Object of Affection Teen Heroine
Magical Girl (older, nude transformation) Magical Girl (younger, silhoutted transformation)
Sexy Lesbian Cool Prince
Psychotic Ice Queen
Sexpot of Evil Evil Queen
Teen Temptress Best Friend
Chick with Weapon Angsty, Hypercompetent Upperclassman 

Enemy Type w/henchgirls

Cross-dresser Cross-dresser

III. Strong Women

  • Most women in anime are portrayed as strong – frequently physically, almost always emotionally.
  • Most shounen anime has strong women who control men through emotional manipulation, physical manhandling and magic powers. SD in comedies. Strength doesn’t of course, extend to ability to fend off sexual attacks.
  • Strong equated with sexy, well-endowed women.
  • Shoujo anime shows women grow and *become* strong through emotional or physical hardship, frequently as a result of new responsibility – saving the world, for instance. Strong equated with ability to not let others down.
  • In both case – “strong” almost always ultimately means strength of spirit.

Shoujo managaka from Japan that I’ve spoken to, say that the trend now is towards a melding of the two genres – resulting in manga and anime that holds strong appeal for both audiences. Anime and manga such as the popular series One Piece combines shounen style action and comedy and strong shoujo-styl emotional storylines, to make a genuinely satisfying whole.

IV. Doujinshi and Fandom

No discussion of anime and manga can be complete without a discussion of doujinshi, which are small press or self-published comics.
Because of “manga culture” which means that manga and all its conventions reaches through every layer of life in Japan, there is a thriving and fascinating subculture of doujinshi. Large publishing companies think of DJ as training camp and frequently hire popular DJ artists.

DJ are sold at Comic Markets held year round in Japanese cities, biggest is called “Comic Market,” which I was pleased to be able to attend thispast winter. Women are free to explore all types of manga in this environment, all barriers are removed. All artists, male and female, are free interpret characters from anime, manga and original works in any way they feel – on both extremes. Powerful characters are emasculated, disenfranchised characters get the power they lack in the original work…including yaoi and yuri relationships that were never intended by the original author. DJ also provide a neutral space for original yaoi and yuri work by either sex – one of the few places that gay or lesbian themes can be expressed openly.

Which brings us to fandom. There is no particular difference between Japanese and American fandom. “Fandom” implies an interactive relationship with anime/manga – not just watching, writing, drawing, making web site “shrines,” attending fan conventions, dressing up as characters, singing Karaoke of favorite songs…doujinshi is, at this point, the one thing that American fans have not yet embraced, but that is changing even as we speak – indeed Yuricon and other groups are leading the changing process.

The key here is, that as a fan, barriers and conventions disappear. Women as creators are free to address any audience, with any “type” of woman. The overused conventions of manga and anime also disappear. Female characters in fandom aren’t limited by the requirements of TV censors, or toy marketing – they are even sexier, more openly gay, more openly sexual, much less sexual, practically celibate, or whathave you. The spectrum of female characters in fandom is as varied as the fandom itself.

So, what have we really got here? Basically, manga and anime are a cultural acting out – where issues that cannot be discussed comfortably in a day-to-day setting are addressed: issues such as gender, sexuality, power or lack thereof.

Manga and anime are much like TV here in America – reality seen through a slightly distorted lens. The conventions of genre and audience dictate certain qualities, but within those conventions, women in anime and manga are basically any and everything under the sun.

So, if we had to summarize this whole discussion we could ask: How are women portrayed in anime and manga? And the simplified answer would have to be: Every way imaginable and then some.

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