The Consumption of Women's Bodies and Cosplay

A handful of photographers scurry around the halls of conventions, sent by their media outlets. They quickly ask for permission to take photos of the most gorgeous cosplayers, snap the shutter button, check the viewfinder to make sure everything is okay, give a quick “thank you,” and go on their way to the next cosplayer. At the end of the day, the photos get compiled into galleries, get titled "Best Cosplay of (event name here)," and give the subject little thought otherwise.

Coverage of cosplay has stagnated over the past couple of years as galleries of unattributed cosplayers have become popular. There are a few reasons for this: online journalism’s fight for clicks for ad revenue has made click-through galleries overused, and it’s relatively easy to take a bunch of hall photos and put them together. It leads to a fairly good payoff without too much effort. These kinds of articles often pay for the more in-depth articles; unfortunately, cosplay rarely gets more than a surface-level glance.

When Adult Men Sing the Stories of Teenage Girls

When Adult Men Sing the Stories of Teenage Girls

I walked to high school with the music of my favorite male singers sharing their loneliness and heartbreak through my earbuds. I trusted these singers—usually men—with my feelings, screamed my heart out at their concerts and allowed them to console me when I locked myself in my room. I would always be a stranger to them, but they influenced me.

Playing Life is Strange, the latest game by DontNod Entertainment about a teenage girl with the power to reverse time, was like going back in time to when I was their age.

Kill la Kill: Empowerment vs. Exploitation

(This post discusses sensitive material, such as sexual violence.)

Since Kill la Kill began airing, people have been asking the question, "Is this anime feminist, or is it sexist?" And most of all, "Is it good for women?" Being able to succinctly answer a question like this in regard to media is always convenient, but things can't be tied up neatly with a bow like that. Short answer: As a whole, no, Kill la Kill isn't feminist. Long answer: Kill la Kill has some great female characters who lead the story, but elements of the show objectify these characters and should be examined critically. In this post, I will break down my thoughts on Kill la Kill in a way I hope better educates people about concepts necessary for examining media from a critically feminist lens. There will be spoilers concerning the plot, but I will do my best to keep them to a minimum, and will flag each explicit spoiler. This will be a lengthy post, beginning with many of the aspects I find problematic and exploitative before I move onto its more empowering aspects.

For context, Kill la Kill is an anime series from Japanese animation studio Trigger, best known pre-Kill la Kill as the producers behind Little Witch Academia, an animated short about a group of girls studying magic. Kill la Kill begins with the story of Ryuko Matoi and her quest to find her father's killer. Believing Honnouji Academy's student council president, Satsuki Kiryuin, to be the person behind it, Ryuko swears to fight her way through the school to get to Satsuki. Little Witch Academia and Kill la Kill both have women at the forefront of the series, but the two are very different in tone. Before leaving animation studio Gainax, the co-founders of Trigger worked on Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann and Panty & Stocking With Garterbelt. Gurren Lagann and Kill la Kill appear to have more in common; both are high energy and have over-the-top animation sequences. They're both full of headstrong characters, some sense of teamwork (though the dynamics are very different in Kill la Kill, which also has an emphasis on family), and fanservice. After all, the trope "Gainaxing" gets its name from studio Gainax and its animation of bouncing breasts.

The word "fanservice" generally elicits binary reactions. People love it or hate its existence. As a woman, it's disappointing seeing your gender repeatedly objectified over and over for an assumed male audience. The term for this circumstance is "the male gaze," a concept Laura Mulvey introduced in her 1975 essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." The concept addresses imbalances in gender power and gender politics, specifically that women are objectified in film because heterosexual men are the ones producing, writing, directing, and filming the material. If at any point the camera is put into the perspective of a man, the male gaze has occurred. Usually when this happens, the viewer (also often assumed to be a heterosexual man) sees women in a passive role while the man is considered dominant and active. This creates imbalances in power, tipping control into the patriarchal male role (a system in which men hold political/social/familial power, actively excluding women from authority), thus subjugating women. To be objectified is to be treated passively, like an object. An objectified character is one who only has things happen to them. For example, in Gurren Lagann, Yoko Littner is often objectified for brief moments due to the animation directing attention to her breasts whether it be another character staring at them or the audience watching her lose her clothing (immediately followed by a shot of the two male characters gawking).

In Kill la Kill, main characters Ryuko and Satsuki wear uniforms that transform into skimpier versions that make them much stronger. They are literally weaponized femininity, something that is often seen in magical girl shows where the female characters use items/clothing gendered as female in fighting. Ryuko and Satsuki are at their strongest when they wear these kamui (often translated as "god robes").  Ryuko's kamui, named Senketsu (named for "blood"), forces itself on her in a scene that's made some rape survivors uncomfortable. Furthermore, when Ryuko wears Senketsu in the first few episodes, she is visibly embarrassed by the attention she receives. In the first several episodes, Ryuko is treated like an object. Even when the camera is not literally from the perspective of a man, viewers see an all-male audience getting worked up over Ryuko wearing Senketsu. This is played off as a comedic scene and normalizes the behavior of objectifying women.

By episode 3, Satsuki proclaims that she doesn't care what the masses think of her displaying her body, a message that many have taken to be body-positive and anti-slut shaming. That message is an important one. Media often tells women to be ashamed of their bodies and "preserve" their sexual behavior for "the right guy." Media and society also frequently blame women for instances of rape and sexual harrassment/abuse with questions like, "Well, what was she wearing?" Satsuki's acceptance of her body as her own is important, but it's equally important not to force sexuality onto others. Media plays into a double standard of telling women not to be sexual while all the while sexualizing women in society and in fiction. There's nothing wrong with Ryuko objecting to others undermining her for what she's wearing (against her will at first, which also brings up discussion of consent). Furthermore, Ryuko's weakness in strength due to her embarrassment tells women that they can only be strong if they sacrifice their rights to privacy and consent.

While I am of the belief that there is nothing inherently sexual about a person's body and that everyone should feel powerful about their bodies, society has repeatedly shamed women for their sexuality. Unsurprisingly, as a result many women are uncomfortable with showing their bodies. A better takeaway for people would be that we are powerful for our thoughts and actions rather than for how we look (clothes or no clothes).

Additionally, Ryuko is sexualized outside of wearing Senketsu. Ryuko befriends a girl and fellow classmate named Mako, and she begins living with Mako and her family, depicted as a dumb but lovable group. Mako's father, brother, and even sometimes their dog try to catch glimpses of Ryuko while she's changing or taking a bath. During one episode, Ryuko desperately needs their help to deliver her uniform to her, and each time the male members of the Mankanshoku are too distracted by Ryuko's body to help. They also try to peek on her in the bath, and in one scene Ryuko wakes up to find Mako's father breathing heavily on top of her after she was beaten up and left unconscious, alone. This may be a comedic gag meant to poke fun at the Mankanshokus' uselessness, but it also normalizes sexist behavior.

So, it's obvious that Ryuko and Satsuki are sexualized in Kill la Kill. With a show about clothing and (spoiler) specifically an alien force that can control clothing and enslave the human race (spoiler over), a lot of the characters are naked at some point. One group, named Nudist Beach opposes Satsuki and her army of powerful Goku uniforms. Nudist Beach's leader, (spoiler) Aikuro Mikisugi (spoiler over), receives the most teasing, as he frequently sheds his clothes and tries to act sexy for the camera. To make it even more over the top, his nipples and the region of his penis and testicles glow pink. They radiate pink. When he gets into a robot to fight, his butt hangs in the air. This goes for every other Nudist Beach member as well. The difference is that this is all done in a way to make the audience laugh at the ridiculousness of his fanservice. He also chooses to be naked. His agency is not taken away; therefore, he is not objectified in his fanservice. I think that no matter how Trigger tried to poke fun at the anime industry's fanservice, it just isn't going to break down rigid gender politics by doing more of the same -- but OVER THE TOP. Cultural history has placed women as the passive, weaker sex -- more akin to property than human beings, especially for working mothers in Japan (this is also a huge problem for American working mothers).

If it sounds like I'm ripping apart heterosexual men, don't get the wrong idea. If you are a heterosexual man (even moreso if you're white and cisgender), you have certain privileges in life that are not extended to people who do not fall in that category. This means that male employers may hire you over an equal female candidate based on unconscious biases (and people won't think you were hired because of your gender), much of history plays up your demographic's contributions while erasing minorities' contributions, you can walk outside without fear of someone shouting lewd comments at you, you can go to a mechanic and not have them talk down to you because of your gender, you're more likely to be taken seriously even if you're not conventionally attractive, you're more likely to see characters sharing your gender take up the majority of viewpoints in culture, and you can have sex and not be shamed for it. Before you go off and say, "Okay, I get it. I'm a straight man, so everything is obviously my fault," you should know that having privilege doesn't make you a bad person. Being unaware of your privilege is what's at fault, as is exploiting your privilege and turning a blind eye to it. This goes beyond the power dynamics of heterosexual, cisgender (people who identify with the gender assigned to them at birth) men vs. everybody else. Even within feminism, there are plenty of issues surrounding LGBTQA and women of color communities, as well as ideas founded on class. Back to the topic on hand, Kill la Kill treats the traditional exploitative thoughts of women as a joke, but for women who have had to put up with lifetimes of objectification and sexual harassment and abuse, the joke isn't funny because it's still objectifying women.

If you've stuck this far, I commend you. It probably sounds like I hate Kill la Kill. While the show fails to satirize fanservice in a way that subverts tradition, the plot is throttled forward by female characters. Ryuko and Mako have a wonderful friendship and are willing to put themselves in uncomfortable, dangerous situations to protect each other. Ryuko and Satsuki's dynamic also changes drastically from the beginning to the end of the series (crazy big spoiler, I'm warning you) once it's revealed they are actually sisters, and their mutual antagonist is their mother. In addition to their mom as the big baddie, Ryuko in particular has to face against Nui Harime, a fearsome and sadistic girl who works for Ragyo Kiryuin. (spoiler over) Within Satsuki's Elite Four are three men and one woman, all of whom admire and deeply respect Satsuki for various reasons. While all four are interesting characters individually, their role largely lies in supporting Satsuki. Action shows in shounen anime from Japan are generally directed at men. As such, the characters who shake up the plot in shounen series are male a significant majority of the time (think Naruto, Bleach, Death Note, One Piece, Fullmetal Alchemist, Yu Yu Hakusho) while women occupy the supporting roles. This is completely flipped around in Kill la Kill. The men are now the ones with the less significant roles. They're important -- they're just not running the show.

Beyond the plot, the animation framing moves away from treating Ryuko as an object and starts portraying her and Satsuki in powerful poses. Action heroes, typically male, usually embody the "superhero pose" in which they square their shoulders, look directly at the viewer (or if not at the viewer, stare off-screen with an expression that exudes determination and activeness), and stand with their legs roughly shoulder-width apart. Female characters often do not receive the same treatment. Even when they are supposedly acting strong, they are depicted as passive or meek. (Compare that Black Widow poster to the one from The Avengers.) I was pleasantly surprised to see gripping fight sequences that showed two women fighting with their all... and they just happened to be wearing clothing that doesn't cover much of their bodies. No close-ups on breasts, no sexy panning shots, nothing that would give off a tone that undermined Ryuko and Satsuki. Even at the end of their respective transformation sequences, Ryuko and Satsuki give off an air of power and agency.

Unfortunately, later in the show, Satsuki loses her agency (and fortunately reclaims it later). This is portrayed through (spoilers, content warning) her mother's sexual abuse. Ragyo molests Satsuki in a "purification ritual" in the bath, gropes her, spanks her, and it's implied this has been going on for a very long time. Just after we see Satsuki triumph over her mother after the bath scene, Ragyo puts Satsuki in her place -- in a cage where she spanks her and runs her hands over her body. Satsuki remains a determined character and puts things back in motion by calling her Elite Four to action. Regardless, Satsuki is treated as an object in a sexual manner. (spoiler over) Character development does not have to be shown through sexual abuse; in fact, it's usually done in poor taste. That was the case in Kill la Kill. Each occurrence of familial sexual abuse mixed its signals of "this is wrong" and "this is kind of hot." Themes of rape and sexual abuse can be portrayed without mixing up signals. Unfortunately, Kill la Kill's already constant presence of fanservice means it has a lot of baggage to deal with. Mixed signals can be interesting (see Mirai Nikki/Future Diary and its character Yuno), but mixed signals of sexual abuse come off so, so wrong. What should have been purely a horrific scene gets mixed up in fanservice. The audience already knew this antagonist was clearly and objectively a bad person. Trigger could have shown her character's evil aspects without sexual violence. She could have invaded characters' personal space by standing too close, leaning in/over others, and placing her hand on Satsuki's shoulder or head. She could have talked in a patronizing manner. We know the character objectifies Satsuki, and as the audience we are supposed to be upset by this. Kill la Kill already toes a fine line between fanservice and sexual objectification of its strongest characters; when it comes to sexual violence, it's hard not to think about all the times the show has tried to elicit laughs at sexualization.

Sex doesn't sell. Degradation of women sells. Ideally, if I were to see fanservice depicted, it wouldn't diminish characters. These characters would be clearly expressing content. People have said Kill la Kill satirizes the anime industry's tendency to objectify women, but it's benefitting from the fanservice as much as any other anime would. (Anita Sarkeesian examines the idea of "ironic sexism" in video games and explains how they are a cheap excuse to feel okay about oppressive ideas because they do not "fundamentally change, challenge, or subvert" problematic tropes.) While it's true Kill la Kill is over the top and presents Ryuko and Satsuki as powerful women fighting for their own goals, it'd be naive to think Trigger won't be capitalizing on merchandise that objectifies the show's female characters. I think it's amazing that we have figurines that portray Ryuko akin to a typical shounen action hero, but I fear there will also be a fair share of merchandise focusing on Ryuko's close-to-naked body. Look at all of the merchandise of Yoko Littner from Gurren Lagann.

As far as my personal opinion on the show goes, I enjoyed watching Kill la Kill. Its twists and turns made the second half of the show particularly exciting to watch each week, and I loved watching the characters grow. The soundtrack's high-energy tunes are a blast to jam out to, and the rest of the music is just as wonderful. Its got a lot of comedy as well (comedy that isn't at the expense of female characters!). Unfortunately, it has some problematic aspects that dampened my enjoyment of the show at times, as some fanservice was at the expense of characters, and it was disrespectful of topics like sexual abuse. I'm split on Kill la Kill. I love its emphasis on female characters and how they lead the story, but certain scenes kicked me out of the high-energy mood and offended me.

If you're not turned off of Kill la Kill by reading this, I highly recommend you watch it. If what I've discussed makes you uncomfortable, it is equally acceptable to pass it by. As much as I enjoyed watching it, I've given it its fair share of head shakes.

Male and female stereotypes have different power dynamics

If you haven’t been following this series of videos from PBS Game/Show, then you should do so! They’re interesting and argued well. The previous video addressed female stereotypes in games and Anita Sarkeesian’s tropes examination, while this video is about male stereotypes.
However, I do think there is some critical information left out in this video.
Yes, male stereotypes are harmful to men. Overwhelmingly, the average male character in a game is the hero, the man who’s got to save someone or the man who’s out for revenge. He’s large, he’s muscular (sometimes to a ridiculous amount), and he’s often portrayed as someone not struggling with the emotional consequences of his actions (I do find this to a much lesser degree in indie games of course, but Heavy Rain's Ethan Mars was also an appropriately emotional character). He's also almost always heterosexual and white. That's a problem on its own.
However, more important is the reason behind male stereotypes, and that is because AAA studios are overwhelmingly white, straight, and male and resistant to change. In these male stereotypes, the men are powerful. They may not be complex, but you can sure as hell bet they can get their way by smashing through things or shooting things down. When we look at female stereotypes, we see women who are in need of rescuing, moreover as a possession, sexual connotations or no. 
I say this over and over, but that’s only because I think it needs repeating. Male stereotypes are a power fantasy (“He’s so strong! I wish I was like him!”). Female stereotypes are objectifying (“She’s really hot! I’d like to f*** her.” Alternatively: “She’s someone I need to save/reclaim and I will hurt whomever took her from me.”)
Male stereotype: I want to be him.
Female stereotype: I want to do her.
Feminism calls for doing away with stereotypes for both men and women! Everyone needs feminism, not just women.

Satire or no?

This just in: DC Comics still thinks their audience is only made up of men.

This isn't the first time I've looked at a comic about nerdy things making fun of girls who are either nerdy or "pretending to be nerdy."

A part of me is really hoping this is trying to be a satire on people who think nerds should feel threatened by people pretending to be nerds because I can't see how anyone would possibly take that as a threat. (But there is plenty of anger online about people "pretending" to be a nerd. So that gives me pause to look at this as just a satire.)

And this is why I can't socialize in games.

Jenny Haniver is a woman who happens to enjoy playing Call of Duty. People often joke about 12-year-olds acting like they're "the shit" when they play COD, but seldom do people realize how often women have to deal with men making a big deal that a woman is playing a game with them.

So, she records it on her blog.

In this one post from yesterday, she recorded a COD session when a man called her a transsexual for having a deep voice. She ridiculed him (and it's quite fantastic), and it's admirable that she's able to take this so well.

But why should we women gamers have to put up with this crap? Men, you're not being cool by hating on or needlessly loving on a woman when she plays a game with you. We're not the ones making a big deal out of sexism in videogame culture. You're the ones who make a big deal out of our presence.

The Proper Venue

Nukezilla's Editor in Chief, John Kershaw, made a great post yesterday about confronting the discriminiation (sexism, racism, and ableism are the ones he mentioned, though homophobia in the community is an issue as well) in the world of gaming.

In response to arguments that defend objectification and dehumanization (yes, that includes jokes about rape), Kershaw says:
The arguments usually boil down to the point that it’s all “just the way [men are] wired”. It’s an argument used to uphold the patriarchy, it’s also mostly bullshit. Men are also “wired” to shit squatting, but somehow we’ve managed to rise above that.
 Kershaw's exactly right. Men (and even women at times) don't realize they're falling into sexist territory. By blaming it on the way you're programmed to act, men are only trying to weasel away from the blame.

An article Kershaw references also draws upon that point. Game designer Nicole Leffel wrote a guest editorial to Kotaku in which she wrote about a moment at a recent game design conference:
Blame Japan. And, well, why not? It's easier to imagine that vicious cultural problems are solely the product of some Over There place halfway around the world. Within the same minute Killian made another joke, this time dismissing the gratuitously sexualized camera angles used for female characters as a sign of improving technology. Again, the crowd laughed.
Kotaku has surprised me. I normally go to them for the usual in gaming news, but here are posts about problems within the gaming community. It's a pleasant surprise. And yet for both of these guest editorials from Latoya Peterson and Denis Farr, comments have been missing the point. On multiple occasions, I've seen people say Kotaku isn't the proper venue for discussing issues within the gaming community. But those issues are just as newsworthy as any rumor or hype Kotaku publishes.