Here’s a hint: yes, and yes.
Anyone who’s followed this blog for a while knows that the depiction of males – especially teenage males – in anime today is a sore point with me. So this isn’t a new topic, but the recent prominence of Tari Tari and Kokoro Connect (two shows I like, by the way) on this site and elsewhere has brought the matter a little more front and center, on this site and elsewhere. In fact someone on Animesuki mentioned that it seems as if it’s become a hot topic lately – and while I don’t know if that’s true, I’d like to think it is because I think it’s a subject that merits discussion. And I've certainly done what I can to make people think about it, whether they want to or not…
Here’s what I see. Setting aside shounen action series and sports, with some rare exceptions like Tsuritama and Ano Natsu de Matteiru teenaged males usually get lumped into four categories in anime: timid and neutered, oversexed idiots, irrelevant or nonexistent. There are several defenses of the status quo I frequently see. One is, “It’s always been like that, and today is no different”. Another is that “anime is intended for a mostly male audience, and guys only want to watch shows about girls”. I don’t put much stock in either of those rationalizations. The first is easy enough to dispel – just look at a list of releases from 2002, or even 2007. There have always been shows with all-girl casts, and shows with idiotic male characters – but those shows being an overwhelming majority is a relatively recent phenomenon. And to the second, well – that sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you only make shows with no guys, spineless guys or stupid guys, only people who want to watch shows with no guys, spineless guys or stupid guys will watch (and more to the point, buy) anime.
I don’t want to turn this into a detailed analysis of the causes of the problem, but obviously otaku culture as it exists in Japan is part of the issue. The target audience for many Blu-rays is largely the same demographic that can ruin the career of an idol who admits to having a boyfriend, so there’s clearly something deeper going on here than simply a disinterest in male characters. The fact that many of the more complex male characters in anime are either pre-teens or older father figures – and thus not sexually threatening – is probably not a coincidence. But whatever the cause, that doesn’t justify the status quo – nor does that fact that gender bias against females is so prevalent in others mediums (and in anime too, as I’ll get to in a minute). The way to combat unrealistic portrayals of women in other mediums is not with unrealistic portrayals of men in anime – in fact, that simply makes the problem much worse.
Tari Tari and Kokoro Connect have prompted an interesting discussion on this topic on Animsuki, and I’ve seen some arguments made by smart, reasonable people that disturb me even more than the rationalizations above. One poster suggested that the male characters don’t need trauma or complex emotions or arcs devoted to them - as long as there are guys whose actions drive the plot, and as long as they function as avenues through which to explore the female characters, that’s all that’s needed. And those who prefer gender-balanced casts should be satisfied with that. Another said that if viewers want to watch shows about guys, they should just get a grip and watch shounens.
Needless to say, I strongly disagree.
Why is it acceptable for male characters to be explored only through the consequences of their actions? Or to have no traumas or complex emotional issues of their own (or arcs built around them)? Do males in real life not have these things? And why should we be satisfied with a medium where anime males exist only as avenues to explore the female characters? I don't think I'm asking for an impossibly high standard here. In RL males and females both are emotionally complex, and I'd like to see anime be a place where they're both treated as such. Wouldn’t anime be a better medium if that were the case?
One might reasonably ask why Tari Tari and Kokoro Connect should be the shows that lit the touch paper on this discussion, when they’re both good series, and there are so many more egregious examples of both males being portrayed as imbeciles and/or being emasculated entirely (not to mention the large subset of new series every season that have entirely female main casts). And that’s a fair question – they’re neither the cause of this problem, or among the worst offenders. But I think both of them, by their nature, need to be held to a higher standard than formula sex comedies and Okada-written shows where emasculation is price of admission. In the case of KC, it’s pretty simple. That ideal world I describe – the one where there are shows that feature both girls and boys as emotionally complex and interesting - well, it's obviously not going to be every series. But if not an ensemble series built around exploring psychological traumas than where, for Jeebus' sake? Shouldn’t a show like Kokoro Connect be the first in line to depict characters of both sexes in that way?
With Tari Tari, it’s a little different. I don't want to make this series out to be more offensive than it is - there are certainly shows that are far more overtly misandrist than Tari Tari. But TT is an example of teenaged boys being treated badly in both senses – both by the writing, and by the girls. I do think Taichi and Wien are generally treated quite shabbily by the girls – episode 7 is full of examples – and this is a much larger problem when the writing gives no indication that this behavior is wrong in any way. There's more a sort of general sense that guys are an inferior species, and thus being treated as such is just the natural order of things. If anything, that's what really nettles me in Tari Tari. It's not so much that the guys are so much worse off here than in other anime, but that TT presents itself as an ensemble show that treats all the main cast as important and in practice, is anything but.
That’s why, while I like TT and KC and don’t want to be too hard on them, I think they make useful talking points to bring this discussion to the table. Factor out the dumb harem comedies and generic sex farces, then take away the worst of the fujoshi shows that are essentially guilty of the exact same offenses in gender-reverse: they objectify and idealize the males and give us bland or neutered female leads. Take out the series that aren’t even trying to tell a character-driven story, then the ones that are but just aren’t very good at it. That leaves a pretty small pool of shows from which we might reasonably hope to see complex and interesting teenage characters of both sexes in any given season – shows that are character-driven and have the ambition to enlighten human relationships, and have writers competent enough to accomplish that. That group is always going to be the minority in today’s market, and when one of those shows doesn’t do justice to their male characters we lose one of the very few realistic possibilities that exist.
Now, I’m realistic in my expectations. I see what sells on Blu-ray every Monday and Thursday, and I know that anime is a business like any other. But I also know that there are many recent examples of shows that treat the male cast as every bit as complicated and important as the girls that have done quite decently on Blu-ray or DVD – or even both. Ano Natsu and Tsuritama are good examples, and AnoHana (an Okada composition no less, though with heavy input from Nagai Tatsuyuki, who also directed Ano Natsu) was a genuine blockbuster. There’s a market for these shows – sometimes it’s a strongly female market and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but sometimes it’s demographically dominated by males, too. If you build series that are well-written and offer genuine insight into both boys and girls and the way they interact with each other, viewers (and buyers) will find them.
There’s another downside to this gender bias in anime, too, and I’ve already touched on it: the absence of complex and interesting (or any) teenaged males leads to the unrealistic portrayal of females. Make no mistake, nobody wins here. The same shows that depict males as idiotic sex-fiends or neutered and passive viewer avatars (when they’re present at all) tend to either idealize girls as impossibly moe, virtuous and pure - or merely objectify them as sexual objects. To their credit this is not such a problem with Tari Tari or Kokoro Connect, and there are certainly other exceptions as there are to every rule. But generally, the absence of realistic boys doesn’t lead to the presence of realistic girls – quite the opposite, in fact. Girls tend to be more complex and realistically balanced between positive traits and negative ones when there are boys who are similarly written. I don’t think girls are well-served by being held up as impossibly cute and pure, and I know they’re not well-served by being depicted as buxom airheads or objects presented for the gratification of the audience.
That’s the crux of the issue for me – the demise of the male character doesn’t mean the rise of the well-written female character, but the opposite. What’s bad for the goose is bad for the gander, and the marginalization of boys leads to the objectification and idealization of girls. I believe men can write girls well and women can write boys well, but we’re in a situation where probably 90-95% of anime is written by men, and even a higher percentage directed by men – and surely, some of those men lack the skill to write about the female experience in an authentic way. We desperately need more female writers and directors, absolutely – but more than anything, we need writers who give us realistic characters of both genders, not ones who try to sell discs by marginalizing, emasculating or ignoring boys and giving us preposterously idealized or oversexed parodies of girls. There’s an old saying: “A rising tide lifts all boats”. More shows with complex, realistic and interesting teenaged boys means more shows with complex, realistic and interesting teenaged girls – and vice-versa. Accepting one problem doesn’t make the other go away, it makes it worse.
I don’t want good series with all-girl casts to go away (the bad ones, like all bad ones of any genre, are another story). I don’t expect idiotic harem comedies and formulaic bad romances to disappear. They’re always going to be a part of the anime landscape, just like shounen action and sports (two categories that occasionally offer very good characters, it should be said) and kids’ shows written to sell merchandise. But if we can get just a couple of character-driven series every season that focus on teenaged males like Tsuritama, and more than a couple than feature girls and boys both being respected and treated as equally important by the scripts, anime as a whole will be much better off. Diversity is good for the medium, homogeneity is bad for it. And shows that realistically explore the way girls and boys interact can shed light on the human condition and rise above the level of pure escapism, which is all too many shows aspire to. There’s nothing wrong with escapism if it’s done well, but if that’s the limit of its reach anime is worse off for it. If anime wants to offer a palette as diverse as the world it speaks to, it needs to show us all of the population and not just half of it.