The Problem of Writing "Serious Drama" for Female Casts in Anime – Guest Essay by John B.

September 1st, 2011

Today is a real treat! Riffing off a comment I made, friend of Yuricon John B. has graciously let me print his email to me about The Problem of Writing “Serious Drama” for Female Casts in Anime. I have not edited this with the exception of the link in the beginning.

 Erica’s observation about the apparent discomfort with ;writing serious drama for female casts reminds me of something I noticed with female action roles in late-80s OVAs and shows.

Admittedly, I was looking at it through a very small lens: the particular selection of shows that were making it over here at the time, and the portion of that selection that I was able to see. The shows involved ranged from television series based on very popular manga to original OVAs with a much narrower audience in Japan, and I wasn’t always clear on the relative times between when they were written or produced and when they made it over to the States, so I was never certain if I was looking at a real pattern, or just an artifact of how they filtered over to me. With that disclaimer, here’s what struck me:

It seemed like they couldn’t really envision, or didn’t think their audiences could envision, a woman in a genuine action role, so they basically took standard male archetypes and grafted female characters onto those roles. Priss (BubbleGum Crisis) was the Street Tough With Heart. Noa Izumi (Patlabor) was the Earnest Neophyte With Talent. Leona Ozaki (Dominion) was the comedic twist on that, the Gonzo Rookie. The entire cast of Gall Force sprung from assorted “one of this type, one of that type, etc.” roles. Familiar-enough types that the mostly-male audience could empathize, but with varying levels of sex appeal thrown in. “Boys with boobs”, so to speak.

Even roles that didn’t fit the “bwb” characterization showed a lack of clear concept for a feminine action-oriented character: in City Hunter, Kaori was a sidekick pining for Ryo. The Dirty Pair couldn’t just be special agents, there had to be frequent breaks for Cheep Laffs. And at the tail end of this, how many times did Sailor Moon need to get bailed out by Tuxedo Mask? Eventually, though, we got Rally Vincent (GSC version), Motoko Kusanagi (Stand Alone Complex version), Utena, girls with guns on the run, and others, so it’s not necessarily a permanent state. The pattern can change once writers and producers (and audiences, for that matter) evolve a new familiarity that doesn’t rely on crudely-pasted-together bits of previous familiar types.

With drama it will take a breakout, or series of them, to make it more attractive than the timidity and retreat to familiar tropes that you were speaking of. Action roles had Sigourney Weaver, Linda Hamilton, Buffy and Xena to help wrap peoples’ heads around the concept. For drama, I have no idea where they might come from. I tend to be a latecomer to things, so I’m the last person to prognosticate.

Thanks John, I think you’ve said concisely what we’ve all thought at some point or another. I defined “strong woman” recently as a woman in control of her circumstances. This differs significantly from woman in sexy leather body suit shooting big-ass gun. A woman shooting big-ass gun has already lost control and is fighting to regain what was hers. Of course she never can…she and her family have had their lives destroyed and you don’t ever come back unscathed from that. What I want so desperately to see is stories of women who have made it past the scarring, have learned to not lose control of the situation, even when things are falling apart around her. A leader. A calm in the storm. Not the storm itself. Perhaps writing that story is too complicated, too “boring,” too alien for most male writers or male audiences. It has been done – Utena took control over very weird circumstances indeed, Yumi did it with compassion and charm. It will be done again. In between, I’m afraid we’re just going to have to wade through a lot of panty shots and big-ass guns.

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15 Responses

  1. Anonymous says:

    A woman shooting big-ass gun has already lost control and is fighting to regain what was hers. Of course she never can…she and her family have had their lives destroyed and you don’t ever come back unscathed from that.

    Could you explain the logical progression here? It makes no sense whatsoever as an inevitable progression. Why has a woman who shoots guns automatically lost control and cannot regain it because automatically her family is gone? How does A lead to B?

    I seriously don’t understand the logic here.

    And yes, I’m female. I find the whole argument a bit offensive, it reeks of arguments from guys why we can’t have female characters in action roles.

    I like female characters in action roles.

  2. DezoPenguin says:

    Following up from what Anonymous said, I also do not quite follow the progression there, as the implication seems to be that “strength” is incompatible with the mere fact of being an action-story protagonist:

    I defined “strong woman” recently as a woman in control of her circumstances. This differs significantly from woman in sexy leather body suit shooting big-ass gun. A woman shooting big-ass gun has already lost control and is fighting to regain what was hers. Of course she never can…she and her family have had their lives destroyed and you don’t ever come back unscathed from that.

    While I’d agree with the added aspect of sexualization (the “sexy leather body suit” you mention) which is so often attached to women, the remainder of the argument would apply just as much to male action leads, the Jason Bournes and Indiana Joneses. Yes, by definition an action protagonist is not in control of their situation (the whole need to run around punching, kicking, and shooting people is by definition an attempt to impose control), but why does this mean that the character is not “strong”?

  3. Anonymous says:

    Anon three twenty-five, your missing the point, Erica is talking about the leather clad big gun female sexpot archetype/trope that several Anime and mainstream movies fall into.

    The character is an easy to write cop-out that sells as an emotionally damaged sexpot waiting to be rescued at some point in the plot line by the male lead.

    I like female characters in actions roles too. I just think most strong females would wear reasonable camouflage instead of leather catsuits.

  4. Rynnec says:

    What I want so desperately to see is stories of women who have made it past the scarring, have learned to not lose control of the situation, even when things are falling apart around her. A leader. A calm in the storm. Not the storm itself. Perhaps writing that story is too complicated, too “boring,” too alien for most male writers or male audiences.

    Oh, it’s boring alright, but it has nothing to do with gender or anything. Most writers don’t do that because characters like that seem boring be they male or female. A good character needs to lose control of the situation at some point, be it for 5 hours, or 5 minutes. This is all assuming that characters like this should be the leads, however.

    @Anonymous

    “The character is an easy to write cop-out that sells as an emotionally damaged sexpot waiting to be rescued at some point in the plot line by the male lead.”

    That is a problem. I think more writers should leave the “gets rescued by the male lead” plot entirely and/or make their Heroines more Byronic.

    “I like female characters in actions roles too. I just think most strong females would wear reasonable camouflage instead of leather catsuits.”

    What female’s in action roles need to wear more are longcoat’s. Longcoat’s are cool, and are sooo much sexier to boot. Also, more female characters wielding big-ass swords, because everyone knows that big-ass swords are cooler than big-ass guns.

    I also feel that female leads should be hurt a lot more, (be it impalement, bruising, being shot at, etc.) while still coming out of it looking attractive of course. Hey, if characters like James Bond, Indiana Jones, and Spike Spiegal can get bloodied and bruised during their venture’s, and still come out of it looking sexy and attractive, then by all means female characters should as well dammit.

  5. Cryssoberyl says:

    (This is going to be long and rambling, so excuse me in advance.)

    Personally, I’ve never been able to decide for myself whether or not the “boys with breasts” accusation has merit, or if it’s simply a byproduct of society’s gender role expectations that a woman doesn’t “count” as a woman unless she somehow shows or displays some poorly-defined difference from a male character in an identical situation.

    Undoubtedly that can’t always be the case, and maybe I’m just naive. But I think there can be positive aspects to taking the road of “women are human, and as such, really aren’t as different from men as the gender-normative gulf would have people believe”.

    Who decided that, for instance, the “Street Tough with Heart” was a male role? I think there are many women around the world who would fit that description, and they might indeed carry it off in a way that many would describe as “unwomanly”, but that doesn’t make it so.

    Women are fully human beings, and it is their birthright to be acknowledged as both having in themselves and embodying for others the full spectrum of everything it means to be human.

    And that means both bad and good. I like that the Dirty Pair are crass, lazy, arrogant, cynical, greedy WOMEN. They’re also completely competent and kick-ass women who are always either in control, or TAKE control of their situation. Space bikinis aside, they are always confident, always quick to catch on, and always come out on top.

    My ultimate example of this is a little unusual, but I hope that my experience isn’t unique: Female Zoicite. You couldn’t ask for a more “female copypasted into a male role” than that, because that’s exactly what was done in the English version of Sailor Moon.

    That was of course a nasty piece of homophobic censorship, but I didn’t know that at the time, and guess what? To me as an unwitting teenager, Female Zoicite was an awesome woman character. She dressed in a cool yet practical gender-neutral uniform. She was taken seriously by her male peers. She was given leadership and command responsibilities. She was smart, devious, ambitious, and powerful, and she repeatedly went toe-to-toe with Tuxedo Mask as an equal, a foe to be respected as such.

    Yes, even as a villain, Female Zoicite was a role model to me then. After learning the truth, you can imagine the mixed feelings I had, and continue to have, about the fact the character was never intended as such.

    So to me, these sorts of depictions, these sorts of characters, are just as much the purview of women as they are of men.

    Am I suggesting that the anime creators of the day were thinking these thoughts at the time? Am I saying that they were consciously (or unconsciously) channeling feminist sentiments?

    No I am not. But to me at least, “girls are just like boys except not” is far better than “girls are an alien other whose personalities and motivations can never realistically be the same as those of boys”.

  6. Anonymous says:

    The character is an easy to write cop-out that sells as an emotionally damaged sexpot waiting to be rescued at some point in the plot line by the male lead.

    I’ll repeat my problem: Erica’s comment is indistinguishable from comments by sexist men who claim that female characters should not have active roles, ever. That’s not really missing the point, since I cannot read minds and discern her intention and know it’s different.
    All I have is her comment.

    Not to mention: What’s a sex-pot character? Any female character not wearing a burka will be considered a sexpot character by someone.

    Is Ripley from Alien a sexpot? is Samus Aran a sexpot? (yes, in OtherM she is, but otherM is filthy garbage that made her weak so waifu otakus can obsess over her – I’m talking about the Samus from every other Metroid)
    How about Nanoha from StrikerS?

    Yes, a character in a bikini shooting stuff up is none I can take seriously. But most don’t actually fall in this category.

    Is it really too much to ask to want all sorts of female characters represented, including female characters blowing stuff up with large explosions?

  7. the_patches says:

    I find it interesting that original post mentions the SAC Major and the OVA version of Leona Ozaki.

    The Major is a strange character with a complicated sexuality and a very odd sense of self (read GiTS 2), but the movie that everyone loves does her no justice by paving over all of her interesting interactions. In Stand Alone Complex, she regains much of her lost personality.

    SIMILARLY, Leona proves different in the manga. In DC1, she shows herself to be a hard working woman trying to make it in a male-dominated police force with known high-turnover of female officers (marriage). She cultivates a hardass image to keep her squad in line and also because her commander , Brenten is the perfect image of an ’80’s action hero with no love for slackers or cowards. Even so, Leona wonders a lot about her future and wrestles with what it means to be a woman in a man’s world.

    It’s a pity Mr. Shirow now does only art books, I think Deunan and Leona are my favorite women in manga, with Kushana from Nausciaa as a close third.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I recommend that anyone trying to write serious drama for female characters – and anyone else interested in the topic – read some nonfiction books and articles about women and girls who were strong and daring IRL. :)

    Here are some Badass of the Week pieces to inspire you to go find the non-exaggerated real deals about these folks :)

    http://www.badassoftheweek.com/blenda.html
    http://www.badassoftheweek.com/brownell.html
    http://www.badassoftheweek.com/cloelia.html
    http://www.badassoftheweek.com/cochran.html
    http://www.badassoftheweek.com/curie.html (…jumped in a mobile radiation therapy truck, and drove out to the battlefield to help wounded and dying men in the trenches…)
    http://www.badassoftheweek.com/earhart.html (“…one of those Harriet Tubman sorts of historical figures that seem to dominate all the elementary and middle-school book reports, but never really get the badass cred they deserve…”)
    http://www.badassoftheweek.com/hester.html
    http://www.badassoftheweek.com/joanofarc.html (“…I should go ahead right now and tell you that she was definitely NOT the sort of oversexed licentious warrior babe you see in movies and video games that wears next to nothing in terms of clothing and gives you a boner because OH YEAH she’s also a fucking pure-as-the-driven Catholic Saint you goddamned perverts…”)
    http://www.badassoftheweek.com/kauser.html (the photo at the top is not of Ruhksana Kauser; she’s in the last photo on the page)
    http://www.badassoftheweek.com/khawla.html
    http://www.badassoftheweek.com/koepcke.html
    http://www.badassoftheweek.com/kuhnhausen.html
    http://www.badassoftheweek.com/litvyak.html
    http://www.badassoftheweek.com/maibhago.html
    http://www.badassoftheweek.com/matilda.html
    http://www.badassoftheweek.com/omalley.html
    http://www.badassoftheweek.com/pavlichenko.html
    http://www.badassoftheweek.com/pennington.html
    http://www.badassoftheweek.com/pingyang.html
    http://www.badassoftheweek.com/rani.html
    http://www.badassoftheweek.com/sandes.html
    http://www.badassoftheweek.com/tubman.html
    http://www.badassoftheweek.com/yegorova.html

    “…A woman shooting big-ass gun has already lost control and is fighting to regain what was hers. Of course she never can…she and her family have had their lives destroyed and you don’t ever come back unscathed from that…”

    Either that, or she enlisted in the military after civilian jobs in the area where she and her family live became few and far between, so their lives haven’t necessarily been *destroyed* (maybe her family’s living back in the home front on her paycheck and benefits, and maybe none of their other friends and loved ones have died yet) and of course it has an effect on them, or something else…

  9. Ellen says:

    I rather like big-ass guns. But a leather bikini isn’t a proper accessory for them. And with or without a big-ass sword, chainmail bikinis are even worse.

  10. Eugene says:

    Protagonists who are “the storm itself” have become a plague in action series and police procedurals, regardless of sex. Take the latest incarnation of Hawaii Five-0. Every male lead has “issues.” I much prefer Jack Lord’s Steve McGarrett, whose only “issues” are with the bad guys.

    In this respect, Colonel Jack O’Neill and Major Samantha Carter of Stargate SG-1 may have one of the most professional, issue-free relationships on television. As Kate explains here, Major Carter “falls into her own category of awesomeness.”

  11. With the last paragraph, I’ll keep those words in mind as I write my fic.

    Thanks.

  12. Mendhi says:

    I think the lack of more complex female characters stems from the desire to always portray a woman/girl in some sort of child-like state. For a lot of male viewers, it puts them in the perspective of a “daddy/hero” position. For a lot of female viewers, it lets them live that “daddy’s girl” thing. It plays on the insecurities of the audience – to control/be controlled.

    That leads to all the panty shots, battle bikinis, etc. Even when a writer tries to make a physically strong female character, there’s always that tendency to still somehow make them as ‘display only’, keeping them in that child-like position. It lures the focus away from their personality to just their appearance.

    And I think that’s where the root of the problem is. To me, a strong character, male or female, is someone that has a distinctive, unique personality, and that is their most identifiable trait. When you recognize someone for their individuality, you’re giving them respect, and unfortunately that’s what a lot of stories don’t do for women, be it anime or a western story or whatever. That underlying desire to keep the man as the ‘hero’ and woman as ‘support’ keeps making its way into stories, and it dumbs down the characters into traditional, bland roles.

    For example, how about a contrast: a story with a married couple. However, the woman is the bread maker, the male the home maker, and is physically shorter than his wife. What will be the typical response? “The guy is lazy/pathetic/whipped.” We don’t say that about a housewife, because we’re drilled into always making sure the guy is ‘in control’. Anything less and he’s “not a man”. In comparison, we don’t look at that woman as strong, confident, etc. We focus on the husband and his “weakness”, not the woman’s strength.

    It’s that desire to keep that pseudo child/parent relationship going between the genders that robs characters of their ability to be more complex. I’m thinking of an anime like Azumanga Daioh, where there are no real consistent male characters. What is the result? The girls are made to be very unique with very distinct personalities, strengthened even further since there’s no real fan service, because there’s no “support” role to be played out. You don’t think of them as ‘girls’, you think of them as Kagura, Sakaki, etc. As individuals. The only character who falls into the traditional “I need a man” thing is Minamo, and, from my view, that sort of makes her the blandest/simplest character. It’s Yukari that most people like, right? :)

    It’s like…when you take any relationship/romance/fan service out, then the only thing left is to develop the characters in another way, by making them complex and by giving them goals/ambitions outside of just finding a mate or just being display. And, to be honest, I think that’s hard for a lot of writers to do, because we’re showered with typical stereotypes all around us, and people who buy into those stereotypes because they *are* showered/built with them. It’s hard to sell such complex stories to a world that still wants traditional stereotypes to justify their egos.

    Sorry for the long post…:)

  13. Anonymous says:

    Hi,

    “It has been done – Utena took control over very weird circumstances indeed, Yumi did it with compassion and charm. It will be done again. In between, I’m afraid we’re just going to have to wade through a lot of panty shots and big-ass guns.”

    Who is this Yumi you mention?

  14. Pam says:

    I can think of at least two anime with strong women lead characters:
    – Seirei no Moribito (Balsa)
    – Kemono no Souja (Erin)

    Balsa, while an ultra competent fighter, also shows a maternal aspect partly due to the fact that, at 30, she’s a lot older than the typical anime heroine. The fact that she’s properly dressed up is just icing on the cake.

    Erin is a younger but very smart kid growing up to young adult in a time of brewing war. Also a very strong character in her own way.

    I loke the fact that both of them don’t trade away their feminity for competence. That said, I admit my definition of feminity doesn’t include G-cup breasts or white panties.

  15. @Pam – Absolutely, both of them are wonderful characters.

    I was thinking out loud on Twitter today and came up with this helpful guide for men in the comics industry:

    women in heat=/strong or independent

    That seems to be a problem for many comics creators. They mistake obsessive, mindless sexual craving for sexual independence.

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