We've been hearing a lot of complaints recently about how women and girls are still underrepresented on the big screen even though they've been making a killing at the box office. I've stumped some of the same talking points before, but I've been happy to stay out of the conversation this time. Things may not be improving quickly, but I'm satisfied that they are improving and more importantly the right people are aware of the issues.
And really, when you see the gender problems that are still running rampant in other, more niche segments of the entertainment universe, Hollywood movies don't look so backward after all. As a former anime fan, I've seen much, much worse when it comes to sexism and gender inequality onscreen. In fact, I have to admit that it's one of several reasons why I fell out of love with the genre a few years ago. Now talking about gender representations in anime is always going to be difficult because it's a reflection of a foreign culture, and we don't want to be insensitive to the Japanese. However, I don't think that makes the basic criticisms any less valid, when you get down to it.
First, let's acknowledge that there are anime creators who get it right, most notably Hayao Miyazaki of Studio Ghibli, who is known for his strong heroines, to the point where they're regularly pointed out by parents as good examples of the kinds of female characters we want to see more of from Hollywood. I've also been very happy with franchises like "Ghost in the Shell," which despite incorporating some occasional female nudity, places a strong, capable, mature woman in the central role, Major Makoto Kusanagi. And then there are the Rumiko Takahashi series like "Ranma 1/2" and "Inuyasha." Or Haruka Takachiho's "Dirty Pair." If you know where to look, there are a lot of good, positive, female anime characters out there.
On the other hand, these days you really have to look for them. Anime has always been a very male-dominated sphere, full of fantasy action shows and supernatural romances aimed at teenaged boys. There are whole genres devoted to guys dealing with "magical girlfriends" or "harem" scenarios where they have to juggle potential relationships with multiple love interests. There are shows specifically aimed at women and girls, but audiences have been shrinking and these days shows for female demographics are vastly outnumbered by the ones aimed at men and boys. These days, a "shojo" or girls' show will also try to appeal to male fanboys, often including characters or particular scenarios that appeal to male sensibilities.
Much of the current anime landscape has been overtaken by romantic comedies and slice-of-life shows about relationships. These often star "moe" girls. "Moe" roughly translates to "cute," and refers to female characters who embody youth and purity. They're not typically sexualized, but are intended to provoke feelings of protectiveness and affection from the male audience, similar for what they might feel for a younger sister. Moe girls tend to be sweet, quiet, shy, and passive. There's been a bit of a backlash to this type recently, with the rising popularity of "tsundere," or uptight, aggressive girls, who start out as hostile but gradually become friendlier to a male main character over time. And despite the asexuality of both types, they're all inevitably fetishized to an alarming degree.
I don't think this would be so bad if there were more variety in the types of anime girls you see, but moe and tsundere girls have crowded out most of the others, and they make for poor main characters. Few are actually in roles that have any agency. I stuck mostly to action and adventure anime for years, and what always drove me crazy was the way that they kept sidelining female characters from the action. Girls are not allowed to get into serious fights, unless it is with a female villain, and these clashes are usually very minor, preliminary bouts paving the way for the hero's big battle later on. Even when they are the main character, guys usually do the fighting for them, or girls battle through proxies like dolls or pets. They tend to get a lot of lip service abut being brave and smart and strong, but little opportunity to prove it.
The prime example? Sakura from the immensely popular action show "Naruto." She's the main character's love interest, a ninja trainee who is supposed to be learning to fight on the same level as her two male teammates. The whole show is centered around battles and showdowns between various opponents. Sakura and most of the other female ninja almost never get physical. They only display a handful of flashy moves and special techniques among them. Sakura is apparently gifted in certain areas applicable to combat, but we never see her do anything impressive. The bulk of her training takes place offscreen during a time-skip. And like so many other female characters before her, eventually she opts to train as a healer and leave the bulk of the fighting to the boys. But if there's anything involving love and angst - suddenly she's got plenty of screen time.
Commonly you see female characters limited to being girlfriends, sisters, daughters, mothers, and spiritual guides. If they have power, it's only symbolic and depends on the backing of a more powerful male figure. Or else, their power is compromised by being neurotic, emotionally unstable, and immature. Grown women are constantly depicted as childish in order to make them more sympathetic. It wasn't just one or two shows, but a consistent trend across nearly every anime I saw in the last few years I was actively part of the fanbase. It was particularly noticeable in the children's programs. You don't realize how careful Western cartoons are about balancing depictions of girls and boys, including strong girl-power messages, and promoting female role models, until you see anime that ignore this completely.
I see the same problems in Hollywood movies, which are mostly aimed at young adult male audiences these days. Actresses are too often stuck in minor, inconsequential roles, limited to being pawns or existing solely to give the male main character a reason to act heroic. However, they do tend to be more well-rounded, more assertive, more aggressive, and more interesting. The biggest problem is really that we don't see enough of them. There are plenty of anime girls, but they tend to be terrible characters with very limited parts to play. The best anime girls I've seen lately have been the comedic ones, who get to break out of the boundaries a little bit.
So sure, gender representation in Hollywood could be better, but it could also be a lot, lot worse. I may find superhero films terribly low on heroines, but at least they're not skewed to the point where I've gotten disenchanted with the entire genre. And little by little they are getting better. Anime? The only positive thing I've heard lately on the gender front is that they're remaking one of their most successful girls' shows soon - "Sailor Moon."