Women in anime. There’s tons of ‘em, right? Magical girls, reverse harem protags, there’s even a female stand user in the current ‘JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure’! So what’s the problem?
They’re girls. As in, under 18. Apparently, if you’re a woman in anime, once you’ve graduated high school, you’re effectively retired. No central plotlines for you – you might get to be the teacher or the mother or the scientist who gets retconned from existence by someone else’s DIY time machine*, but don’t think about getting to be the lead in your own story.
Think I’m exaggerating? In the Spring ‘19 season, from the new anime listed on myanimelist.net, I count two shows that have female leads over the age of 18. One of those is ‘Nande Koko ni Sensei ga?/Why the hell are you here, teacher?’ which is tagged as ecchi, where the lead female is repeatedly placed in “perverted situations” with the 17-year-old male protag. The other, ‘Fairy Gone’, is about the only show out of the whole season with admirable adult women in leading roles.
Conversely, I counted six new shows with adult male leads, and several more which are continuations of longer running shows.
So where are all the women?
When Western media is championing female leads in stories of all genres, it feels troubling that anime, my format of choice for entertainment, seems stuck in the age of ‘Porky’s’ and ‘American Pie’, where adult women are either objects of unrestrained male desire or supporting characters in men’s stories.
It’s not as though adult women don’t watch anime – they make up the greatest share of the audience for ‘Osomatsu-san’ for a start, so it’s not like the anime industry is unaware of adult women as a target demographic. And we know that there are adult women involved in making anime – Kubo Mitsurou has been highly visible in the promotion of ‘Yuuri on Ice’, and CLAMP’s all-female team has been prominent for years.
How a writer presents people in their work (or fails to include them at all) tells us how they feel about those types of people. So when writers only show women in roles where they support or please men, that serves as a reflection of a society’s attitudes towards women. Then, when viewers only ever see older women (and by ‘older’ I mean ‘over 25’) in background roles, this informs those viewers of the roles older women are expected to play in society. They are being told (indirectly, but repeatedly) that adult women fade into the background. The only exception is to take up the villain role, and again, that’s still what gives the lead character the reason for their story. Last year’s ‘Mahou Shoujo Ore’ gave a perfect tongue-in-cheek example of this exclusion of older women; Saki’s mother had been a magical girl herself, but adventures eventually had to give way to motherhood. Doesn’t that just sum up the situation perfectly? No more saving the world for you, lady – get back into the kitchen and make your daughter’s breakfast!
Want some actual facts? I looked through the new series showing in the Spring ‘19 season (not the continuations of older shows – I wanted to look at the stories that are being picked up and distributed now). Of the new shows with female leads of any age, seven are slice-of-life or sports shows, five are fantasy or adventure, and three are ecchi. There were another three that didn’t solidly fit into those three categories: Carole & Tuesday, Shoumetsu Toshi, and Chou Kadou Girl ⅙. I haven’t seen any of these shows yet, as they’re either unavailable in my country or not genres that appeal to me, so I can’t honestly say how they treat their female characters.
That’s a little under half of this season’s new shows. Which might not sound terrible, until you remember that in most of these female-led shows, the female leads are under 18 (or are presented as children, as in ‘Helpful Fox Senko-San’). Take my (regrettable) look at ‘Ao-chan Can’t Study’ as an exploration of why this can be problematic.
So what’s the take-home here? Girls can have adventures and be the lead in fun stories, until adulthood arrives and they fade into the background? If a woman wants a major role in a story, she has to be either an ecchi fantasy, an endangered heroine to be saved, or the antagonist opposed to the male lead? ‘Fairy Gone’ has an adult lead who plays the rookie to a more experienced man. ‘Why the hell are you here, Teacher?’ places the women as the teenage boy’s “perverted” fantasy. There are no leading adult women in the slice-of-life dramas or sports anime. So women don’t even get to be visible in the realistic shows. Unless I’m mistaken, there are no leading adult women in sci-fi or historical anime this season. There are no romance stories about adult women this season. Women do not seem to have anywhere near the range of stories that girls or men of any age get.
There is no argument which validates the way adult women in anime repeatedly get ignored or shoved to the sidelines.
Adults watch anime. Adult women watch anime. And even if adult women are only a small portion of the whole anime audience, that still doesn’t change the way other viewers will see women being represented.This season, I can watch grown men having adventures in ‘Midnight Occult Civil Servants’, ‘RobiHachi’ or ‘Bakumatsu: Crisis’. Or I can keep up with longer-running shows like ‘One Punch Man’ and ‘Bungou Stray Dogs’, where men have been at the centre of the story for a while. But if I want female-led shows, my only options are shows with young girls. Even if I wasn’t a Fan Of A Certain Age, I’d still feel a bit icky about watching girls in shows like ‘We Never Learn’ or ‘Ao-chan Can’t Study’.
We’ve seen issues with female representation play out in Western animation in recent years recently. Growing up, I had any number of action and adventure shows with teams of men or boys out saving the world – I was raised on stuff like ‘He-Man’, ‘Transformers’ and ‘Voltron’. Where there were girls or women, there was usually one per team, or there’d be an older woman in the background giving advice or playing the villain role. As creators have made a visible effort to produce more female-led stories in recent years, they’ve had to deal with the unpleasant response from (mostly) male viewers who genuinely seem to believe that women have no right to take on those lead roles. ‘She-Ra and the Princesses of Power’ is a beautiful reboot of one of my favourite childhood shows, but it’s telling that people have objected to it on the grounds that She-Ra is no longer the sexualised adult she once was, and that the male characters are not the ‘manly’ men they used to be.
Anime lets girls have adventures. But only girls. The only exception that springs to mind is ‘Magical Girl Lyrical Girl Nanoha’, when the time-skip to the StrikerS series shows us an older Nanoha and Fate as leaders in the show’s magical military. Otherwise, once a girl grows up, it’s marriage and motherhood. Maybe even written out of a story altogether to become the dead mother who inspires the next generation’s plucky heroine.
My only salvation this season is ‘Fairy Gone’, and even then our female lead, Marlya, is playing the newbie role to the more knowledgable man, Free. I do very much appreciate that we have a female lead and a female antagonist who are shown to be capable, independent and dressed in practical clothes rather than trying to fight battles in heels and metal bikinis. It’s just incredibly sad that I only have one show out of a few dozen this season, and that capable adult women in anime are the exception rather than the norm.
It’s possible that there are manga series featuring older women that just don’t make the transition to anime. The only reason I picked up volume one of ‘Tokyo Tarareba Girls’ was because it has a female protagonist who’s *gasp* 33, and even then, the story’s focal point is her inability to find a husband.
I know that Western animation isn’t that much better, but UK and US live-action shows at least have seen a big push for female-led and female-created shows. And I know there are cultural differences to take into account, and this is a far more complex issue than I can fully explore in one blog-post. But at the same time, I also know there are plenty of adult male anime fans devouring these teen girl ecchi shows like they’re discounted post-Easter chocolate, and tons more younger viewers totally unaware that their shows are lacking in positive older female characters. There’s no denying that the stuff we watch absolutely shapes our understanding of the world – why else would all those boys who grew up watching He-Man and Transformers be so unused to the idea of heroic women in animation?
I just think we can all do better. Industry teams, distributors, and fans who choose what shows to watch. It’s kinda sad that the most relatable women in anime of the last few years have been the Girly-Matsus.
Please, if you think I’ve missed any good examples, do let me know. I want to know your favourite female leads in anime – I might even have to make a list of mine.
*I loved ‘Steins:Gate’ and ‘Steins:Gate 0’, but still, one female scientist looked like a child and the other was a dead woman recreated as an AI.