Chicks On Anime
Women in Comics and Manga (pg 2)

by B. Dong, C. Brienza, S. Pocock, Mar 10th 2009

Sara: That stereotype goes across the board, I think. In American comics the "girlfriend" character is often annoying as hell.
Barb: The first thing I thought of was Sailor Moon. She's the lead, and yet she's irritating, whiny and clingy. And a princess.
Casey: One of the things that troubles me about female characters in both American and Japanese comics is that, regardless of how smart and strong they are, they also have to be sexy or cute.
Barb: That's generally how it works when they get married and domesticated. Before that, they're allowed to be interesting; afterward, Lois has to warm Superman's slippers. In the recent relaunch of Thor, Hel was redesigned. Now Hel is supposed to be a pretty gruesome female character. She's half-rotted, queen of the damned. She was portrayed as such for decades in the comics. With the relaunch, we find her living in what appears to be Vegas with a bunch of showgirls. She's wearing a very revealing dress and is decidedly sexing it up. Even Loki, the male villain of the book, who's supposed to be ugly, gets turned into a sexy woman. It's systemic, I don't think women are allowed to be ugly in comics right now.
Sara: Don't you think that applies to men, too? There are just as many expectations for how "heroes" are portrayed in comics.
Bamboo: Right. It's worth pointing out that all characters are always expected to be somewhat attractive, unless they're meant to be villains, sleezes, nerds, etc. If you have a work in which the main characters aren't somewhat attractive, people start to question the character design. People expect handsome men, and they expect sexy/beautiful women, unless that man was previously mangled in an accident, which in that case, that's part of the story.
Casey: Well, the unattractive loser is much more a archetype for manga males than females, no?
Bamboo: I think the unattractive loser is ubiquitous across countries and genres and genders. They're all depicted the same way, whether it's in sincerity (Genshiken) or somewhat jokingly (Helm).

Casey: I don't know. It seems to me that the difference is that the female loser just thinks she's ugly, but she's actually cute (once she meets the right guy), whereas the male loser is actually one, and remains one irrespective of how many girls end up clinging to him.
Barb: Heroes don't get the expectation of sexiness the way women do. When was the last time Batman wore a Bat-thong? Actually, there's an interesting point in that. There was an issue of Batman/Superman where they cross into an alternate universe, all the genders are switched. Batwoman and Superwoman have about the same costumes as their male counterparts, but with thigh-high boots. The male counterpart to Supergirl, though, has a costume resign because the artists realized how ridiculous the costume looked when they put it on a guy. Tiny midriff shirt? Skirt you that barely hides her vulva? Quick, this man needs pants!
Sara: Do you notice this imbalance in the comics you work on as well? And, maybe to get a little more personal, have you ever resented anything you've drawn for work?
Barb: I'm lucky in that most of the books I've worked on don't have this problem at all. Because they're more intellectual, eye-candy is generally tongue-in-cheek ironic. I did have to work on one book where a female character was naked, but her skin was robotic (she was a robot) and slid away so you didn't see the naughty parts. Just circuitry. I thought that was kinda squicky. There's a surprising number of girls in anime and manga who just have to get contacts and take out their pigtails and suddenly they're gorgeous. That always bugs me.
Casey: Or their glasses!
Sara: It's the same thing in American movies, though. It's the classic switcharoo.
Barb: It's a universal constant.
Casey: It's kind of a pernicious message: That any girl can become gorgeous and attractive to guys if she'd just make a bit more effort with her appearance.
Sara: I agree, it's almost part of the social conscience.
Barb: It's always just a bit, too. It makes the beauty standard almost achievable. "All you have to do is this." And if it doesn't work, "this too." There's always another step.
Bamboo: What about Superman? Clark Kent is a shy, nerdy man until he takes off his glasses and rips off his clothes. It's similar, I think.
Barb: Well that's the difference. It's not Clark Kent becoming Superman. It's Superman becoming Clark Kent. He's naturally Handsome, Square Jawed, Perfect. His trick is hiding it. So he ruffles his hair, hunches over, puts on glasses and gets really clumsy and awkward. He affects the idea of what it means to be nerdy. In the comics he used to wink at the readers. "See, I fooled them but not you." When Wonder Woman becomes Diana Prince, she becomes the sexy librarian.
Sara: Wait, so Wonder Woman is sexy no matter what?

Barb: Yep. Wonder Woman is always sexy, even when not in costume. Low cut tops, cat suits, she doesn't get to relax. She's still part of the fantasy. For men, the fantasy is to be nerdy on the outside and yet secretly be harboring amazing powers. You see that a lot in anime too. But for men, the fantasy of women is to always be sexy, even when they're "not." Superheroes, the part of the industry that contains this problem, is still a male dominated area. Lots of female heroines in their civilian lives are, for example, supermodels.
Bamboo: Well hold on, now. We've been talking about comics this whole time. What about manga? What are the parallels there? Does the transformation sequence suffice? Or is there a better parallel?
Barb: I think it works well for the male characters. Japanese hero characters, the leads, are usually nerds, or average guys who one day discover they're secretly heirs to magical thrones or swords or powers. Naruto is such a little dork, but ever so powerful.
Casey: The classic male wish-fulfillment fantasy. Naruto, Harry Potter, Star Wars—all the same story.
Barb: In manga, the two sides are integrated into one character. In comics, the sides are separate. He's a Hero and he's a Dork, separately. Never at the same time. I would call Wonder Woman a magical girl for the west too. She used to even have a transformation sequence.
Sara: Yes, and I feel like in comics it's often about the appearance, while in anime/manga it's about the powers themselves.
Bamboo: I suppose the closest female example I can think of are all the "makeovers" that happen. You have a nerdy girl, who gets made-over into some gorgeous woman, and all the guys go, "woah..." So all along, they were actually beautiful. But that doesn't really give them any powers. Even magical girls—the only difference is that they wear less clothes once they're magical.
Casey: Not necessarily. Some magical girls actually age when they power up. I'm thinking Fullmoon wo Sagashite. But I seem to remember that one of the classic magical girl anime had something similar...
Sara: In Hime-chan's Ribbon she could turn into different people, and the protagonist of Fancy Lala also grew older.
Barb: Well, I get the feeling in manga, there's a lot of resentment for the powers. Sailor Moon always wanted to become a normal girl again. In American comics, it's the thrill of leaving that normality behind. You don't ever have to be normal again, which I think is a cultural thing. The Japanese want to fit into the group, be one of the crowd. Here, standing out is more desirable.
Casey: Yet, at the same time, the very existence of magical girls stories suggests a tension between wanting to be special and wanting to fit in. If it were unequivocal wanting to fit in, you wouldn't get magical girl stories in Japan at all, I don't think.
Barb: Catch 22. You want something, but you can't say you want it because wanting it is wrong. The desire is still there, but how do you express it? Fantasy stories.
Casey: I agree wholeheartedly
Sara: I'm wondering where the creators fit in all of this. Barbara, you mentioned that superhero comics are still predominantly male. Meanwhile, the magic girl genre is created primarily by female manga-ka. Do you think this affects the differences we've pointed out?
Barb: I think it does. They play on different fantasies. Women and men have different fantasies in pop culture, because of the ways the genders are divided. For men, the fantasy seems often to be Desired. They want to be Most Desired Above All. They want to be powerful, save the girl, beat up the bad guy. It's a very primal fantasy. Women tend to fantasize about having the power they're denied in the real world. Women can get men, but they have to act a certain way to do it. They have to relinquish their assertiveness and their identity. So their fantasy tends to be about being able to be strong and assertive and not be called an unwoman for it. Sailor Moon gets to be powerful and wear a flowing dress and get the guy and no one insists that by saving the day, she's castrating Tuxedo Mask.
Casey: So, in other words, men want to be recognized and rewarded for being powerful, and women just don't want to be punished for being powerful.
Barb: At its core, right now? Yes. I think that's it exactly.

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