No Escape: Sexuality in Schoolgirl Anime

anorton's picture

Introduction

Unlike Western-style cartoons largely marketed to children, Japanese anime (animated television series and films) are created for a plethora of different audiences grouped according to age, gender, subject matter, level of explicit sexuality, etc., in a seemingly endless system of genres and sub-genres. Because anime is so vastly varied, it is possible to comprehensively explore neither the range of categories nor the multitudinous different anime series within each category. Nevertheless, this paper seeks to expose explicit and implicit gender implications in several anime series aimed at adolescent boys (shōnen anime) and girls (shōjo anime).


Japanese high school students spend a mandatory two hundred forty days per year at school; they generally participate in after-school clubs for two or more hours each day, and they can spend up to four hours daily commuting to and from school (Johnson and Johnson). Because education is a universal experience in Japan, and because it takes up such a significant percentage of students’ time, school life and students are common subjects in anime for all audiences. This prominence helps to reinforce stereotypical behaviors and appearances of the oft-sexualized Japanese schoolgirl, the object of study in this paper.


The Anime

The opening scene of popular shōnen anime Great Teacher Onizuka (GTO) is an up-skirt shot of two schoolgirls; the “pervert” watching them is revealed to be none other than the twenty-two-year-old title character, Onizuka. Though Onizuka privately reveals his aspiration to marry a young, pretty schoolgirl, he consistently feigns innocence when presented with sexual opportunities with the only attractive girl in his class, Mizuki. Rather than portraying Onizuka as a lecherous pedophile, GTO suggests that schoolgirls use their sexuality for their own ends. This is most explicit when Mizuki strips off her school uniform and embraces Onizuka, posing for a picture she and her classmates intend to use to blackmail Onizuka. GTO explicitly sexualizes the schoolgirl image, putting the girls at blame for the attention they shamelessly solicit.


The first words spoken by the lead female character of Peach Girl, a shōjo anime, suggest a theme similar to GTO’s sexualization of the schoolgirl: From within a crowd, Momo pushes an older man to the ground, saying, “Go to hell, you perverted geezer!” (“Love”). Already, Momo contrasts both the oblivious schoolgirls from the opening of GTO and the sexually-opportunistic Mizuki. It is quickly revealed that although the anime will not feature sexual tensions between underage schoolgirls and older men, it will revolve around the love triangle between Momo, her crush (Touji), and the boy who likes her (Okayasu). Momo's romantic entanglements with these two boys drive the episode. The drama climaxes with Touji confronting Okayasu about his intentions with Momo, which clearly reveal themselves as sexual: Okayasu whispers, “Don’t you want to take a look under that school uniform and find out” whether Momo has always been so tan (“Love”). While Momo is quick to fight off the unwanted sexual advances from older men, she fails to recognize her peers' impure intentions; instead, Momo structures her life according to her romantic interests.


Though Peach Girl acts out the teenage girl fantasy of two boys fighting over one attractive girl, its plot is nevertheless realistic in nature; Fruits Basket, on the other hand, relies on a fantastical curse that masks the sexual nature of the anime. On her solitary way to school, Tohru comes upon a house, which turns out the be the house of “Sohma-kun! [Her] high school prince” (“Strangest”). Unknown to Tohru, the Sohma clan is under a curse by which they turn into the animals of the Chinese Zodiac when embraced by members of the opposite sex. This curse is a clever masking of sexuality, essentially necessitating that the men turn into animals—i.e. lose all human control—when girls touch them. By the end of the episode, Tohru manages to turn three members of the Sohma clan into their animal forms, implying a complicated web of romantic relations.


Implications

The school uniform skirts in each of these anime do not extend past the schoolgirls’ wrists, but it is only in GTO that the girls’ underwear is on display. The shōnen anime’s overt sexualization of Mizuki makes her stereotypical schoolgirl fantasy behavior unsurprising if not fully predictable. Yet contrary to expectations, this fetishized image from a boys’ anime actually gives the schoolgirl more credit than either of the anime aimed at her demographic: It is precisely her awareness of her sexualization that gives Mizuki her power over Onizuka, whose status as her elder, a man, and her teacher would otherwise earn him control in the power dynamic. Even when Onizuka should know not to trust her, Mizuki manages to make him do what she wants by giving him her underwear. As she rides on the back of his motorcycle, and he stares intently at the wind-rippling hem of her skirt, Mizuki teases, “What are you expecting, teacher? Could it be this [as her skirt blows up]? You are blushing. How cute!” (“Legend”). Mizuki’s conscious use of her sex-based power puts her in the position to patronize the male character interested in her—a position categorically denied the female leads in the shōjo anime.


Peach Girl seems to present Momo as a strong, capable young woman; unfortunately, this image does not hold in Momo’s thoughts about and encounters with her two love interests, which constitute the majority of the episode's content. Momo punches Okayasu for spreading a rumor that they kissed; but when he physically makes the rumor true, she has no reaction. Indeed, the image holds on the screen for eighteen seconds before Okayasu pulls away and Momo regains her feisty senses enough to knee him in the groin. That Momo could be strong enough to knock Okayasu to the ground but nevertheless holds passively still as the recipient of his kiss relegates her to a position of sexual submission: Whatever her strength in the world at large, Momo is hopelessly powerless in romantic exchanges. Unlike Mizuki, Momo is dangerously naive concerning her sexuality: Minutes after Momo frets about the kiss’ detrimental potential to her reputation, Okayasu expresses his desire to get under her uniform.


Through its fantastical plot, Fruits Basket manages to mask its sexuality altogether, resulting in an even more naive schoolgirl who simultaneously reinforces traditional female stereotypes. It is possible to assume that this anime masks sexuality in an effort to appeal to younger audiences; however, it is impossible to ignore the fact that Tohru innocently has no idea of her effect on members of the opposite sex while all of the Sohma males know what would happen to them should she embrace them. By the end of the first episode, Tohru has turned three of the Sohma men into animals without any knowledge of or intent to use her sexuality; to a greater extent than Momo, Tohru directly opposes the sexually-self-aware and -opportunistic Mizuki. Even more problematic than this romantic/sexual naivete—which seems not uncommon to shōjo anime—is the stereotypical feminine frailty and powerlessness embodied by Tohru. Sohma and his cousin discover that Tohru lives by herself and insist that she move in with them. In the midst of animatedly explaining how capable she is—and, indeed, she takes complete care of herself, including attending school and working a part-time job—Tohru faints: Her over-exertion makes her prone to fevers and fainting spells which necessitate that Sohma nurse her back to health and reinforce his decision that she should move into his house. Sohma and his cousin ignore Tohru's desperate argument against her taking up residence with them as they guide her to her new bedroom, where Tohru infamously finds out their sex-based curse.


Conclusion

These three anime, intended for teenage audiences, naturally capitalize on the age group's developing interests in sex and romance. Though their representations of schoolgirls differ drastically, not one presents an adequate role model for Japanese female youths. Interestingly, the anime that most asserts the schoolgirl’s power in sexual relations is the shōnen: Marketed to a young male audience, GTO recognizes the ultimate powerlessness of men when it comes to resisting the temptations of attractive seductresses. Though implicitly, Fruits Basket also acknowledges the personality-altering effects women have on men, even without their intent. In stark contrast, Peach Girl makes Momo the victim of Okayasu’s affections: She did nothing to solicit his kiss and does not appear to have wanted it, but she patiently suffers through it. Even though GTO is more carnal and Fruits Basket more frivolous, they both allow their schoolgirls an agency and power that Peach Girl forbids.


Unfortunately, this so-presumed power forces Mizuki’s and Tohru’s participation in a system even more detrimental than Momo’s submissive passivity. Peach Girl is undisputedly about the romantic entanglements surrounding Momo by virtue of her being Momo; conversely, in both Fruits Basket and GTO, the schoolgirls are of import not for who they are but for their effects on the more-compelling male characters. In order to be recognized as significant in the shows, Mizuki and Tohru must explicitly portray themselves as young, attractive schoolgirls. These anime marketed to Japanese adolescents offer schoolgirls no desirable escape from sexualization: They must either tolerate others’ imposition of it upon them or acknowledge—and even take advantage of—their inherent sexuality’s effects on defenseless men. The only way out of sexualization is falling into the oblivion of insignificance.



Works Cited

Johnson, Marcia L., and Jeffrey R. Johnson. "Daily Life in Japanese High Schools." ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education (1996). 1 Oct. 2005. ERIC Digest. 9 Nov. 2008 <http://www.ericdigests.org/1997-4/daily.htm>.

The Legend Begins.” Great Teacher Onizuka. 16 May 1997. Fuji TV, Tokyo.

Love Hurricane!” Peach Girl. 8 Jan. 2005. TV Tokyo. You Tube. 6 Nov. 2008. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sWTYqnF6sQY>, <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CepSvAe4sQg>, <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qipWfZSGMCs>.

The Strangest Day.” Fruits Basket. Trans. by Bahamx Fansubs. Jan. 1999. TV Tokyo. You Tube. 7 Nov. 2008. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hh520mBiRcU>, <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zrZnCVd0nPM>, <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mJFmQP93teE>.


Comments

skumar's picture

Anime: characters as extension of Japan's gender binary

"The only way out of sexualization is falling into the oblivion of insignificance."

I am particularly interested in this idea, Allie, and the rest of what you wrote in "The Consequences" section of your paper on Anime. In a post to Raina, I wrote about how the salience of my social location as an Indian-American invited me into "Breast Giver" with a different perspective. In the same respect, I wonder how the gender binary in animations such effects the views of children/teens/society as a whole. I am thinking, more specifcally, the effect anime has on the younger generations of Japanese children in Japan in addition to adolescent Japanese-Americans who still enjoy Anime.

Your paper got me thinking about Gwen Stefani's Harajuku lovers dolls who are, like anime characters, very sexual females. There is a difference between western images of women and men and non-western images of men and women. Speaking for the non-western images (particulary South asian images of woman), a gender binary is so permanently ingrained into the CULTURE that deviants from the norm are unacceptable. In the same way, it seems, there exists a strong binary in the Japenese culture (which is, after all another Asian country). I know there are few homosexual Indian people (politicians) that have come out and been shunned from their families. I wonder, then, if there are any figure head Japanese people who have had the same situation. Maybe this is something you could explore in another paper? ...Just a suggestion.

Anne Dalke's picture

The Power of Peach Girl

Thank you, anorton, for extending our study of cultural feminism to another area of the world, and into another genre.

Your analysis of the "absence of desirable escape from sexualization" for the female characters in anime certainly forms a striking contrast to the multiple accounts,written by your classmates ,about the phenomenon of veiling in Islamic cultures, a practice which has the explicit goal of providing precisely that escape (see, for example, Veiling in Persepolis, Female Veiling in Iran, and Veiling in the United States).

My major question about your own project, in fact has to do with goals. You certainly give plenty of evidence to support your argument regarding the explicit, insistent and inescapable sexualizing of these female characters, but I find myself wanting to know more about how that representation accords with general cultural norms regarding young girls in Japan today: how is their sexuality represented in other cultural forms? How explicitly is it acknowledged in films and advertisements, how openly recognized in the home and in the school?

Does anime function, in other words, as an expression of cultural norms or as a subversion of them? Is it acknowledged or countenanced by adults, or part of a youth subculture largely unrecognized by grown-ups?

Your conclusion observes that none of three anime you study "presents an adequate role model for Japense female youths." Would we expect them to? (Did you expect them to?) How does the genre of anime operate in Japan? How do comics function, more generally, around the world? I'm not sure that "role modeling" is one of the functions of the genre, which is probably more about escape from socialization into cultural norms than incorporation into them.

My last question has to do with your own relationship to this material. You've done a nice job of focusing your study on a particular cultural form, but you don't explain where you are located, socially, in relation to it. What is your connection to--and what your distance from--anime? Through what cultural lens--and cultural presumptions--do you read it?

anorton's picture

Missing links?

Two of the Peach Girl links do not seem to be working, though the url is correct. Parts 1 and 3 of the first episode can be accessed from the list of "Related Videos" from the working link to part 2.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
randomness