“Feminist Otaku” = An Oxymoron?
I have been thinking a lot about feminism lately. Specifically, I have been thinking about how gender politics relate to the anime fandom. It’s widely acknowledged that otaku culture is sexist and that the vast majority of anime marginalise women by objectifying or “Othering” them. But what about the individual people involved? Ordinary people like you and me who don’t necessarily think women are inferior to men but still involve themselves with anime culture anyway?
So I got to thinking… am I sexist for being an otaku? Am I a big, fat hypocrite for calling myself a “feminist” while also calling fictional female characters my waifus and buying merchandise featuring anime girls in sexual poses? This isn’t just a matter of enjoying ecchi anime – this is stuff I actually do, even if I intend it jokingly or ironically. Lately, I have been doing some hard thinking about what it means to be a “feminist” and what it means to be an “otaku” and I wonder if the two are mutually exclusive.
The problems arise as soon as you try to define what either term mean. They’re both very slippery. There are as many kinds of feminisms as there are feminists, although to keep things simple, let’s just say that feminism is about wanting both genders to be treated equally, with emphasis on changing how women are discriminated against. (This is putting aside, for instance, what “gender” is and on what terms this so-called “equality” should be.)
Then there’s the term “otaku”. It means something similar to “geek” (kind of). It’s a term that can be applied across all hobbies and to either gender. But in anime fandom – and particularly in Japanese anime fandom – it refers to a very specific kind of consumer, and the term has highly gender-specific connotations.
If you take the most reductive definitions of “feminist” and “otaku” possible and describe yourself as an anime/manga fan who believes in gender equality, then there is nothing contradictory about the term “feminist otaku”.
But in my case – and perhaps for others – it is not so simple. While I don’t fall into most blatant otaku stereotypes (especially as far as my physical appearance goes), I am immersed in the skeezy aspects of otaku culture, which is to say that I like 2D girls, play eroge, buy figurines, and so on. I have defended otaku culture on this blog and I value the otaku’s contribution to the diversity in the medium. Still, I’ve never gone far enough to argue that the otaku way is actually morally okay. For example, I wrote this in my post defending ecchi anime:
What I feel when I laugh at the boob jokes in [High School] DxD is not guilt related strictly to my questionable tastes as a fan. What I really feel, deep down, is a sense of moral guilt. I’m guilty because I’m focusing my attention on a woman’s chest rather than her personality. Along with the show, I’m objectifying the woman and seeing her as something less than human.
And then we come across stuff like this, which I wrote in my post stating myself to be an otaku:
Watching more and more otaku anime, I could see more and more of myself in it. Before I knew it, I was taking pride in my loserdom, cracking jokes at my own expense but secretly thinking I was the greatest for it. Somewhere along the line, my empathy warped into submission.
Reading over these old posts, it’s clear that I have always had an ambivalent relationship with my otaku identity. My awareness that this stuff is actively harmful towards women leads me to adopt a self-deprecating attitude. In other words, I make fun of myself for acting like a dirty creep. But at the same time, I secretly take pride in liking 2D schoolgirls because I find otaku culture empowering. I mean, why else would I want to identify with a widely ostracised minority group?
At this point, it needs explaining why being an otaku is empowering and why you would choose to become one in the first place. An otaku isn’t something you just passively are (no matter how much otaku like to paint themselves that way). Sure, there are certain traits that lend themselves easier to otakudom, like introversion and an obsessive personality, but these are definitely not otaku-specific traits. You need to make the conscious decision to embrace the otaku lifestyle, even if that amounts to small decisions that lead you down a slippery slope, as is what happened to me.
For me, the reasons why I “became” an otaku can be summed up as follows:
- I thought the quirkiness of the lifestyle would make me seem unique and special.
- I thought that I would be able to make friends with others with similar personality traits. (i.e. the simulated ethnicity of geek/otakudom if you want a more academic explanation of this)
- I thought I could compensate for my feelings of alienation when compared to other members of my own gender, and so I embraced the “herbivore male” image of male otakudom.
This last point is clearly the most relevant in a discussion about feminism, because here is where I wonder if my motives for becoming an otaku are inherently sexist.
It’s fair enough that I obtain my feelings of empowerment as an otaku from resistance against macho masculine norms. This, I feel, is actually the inspiring part of otaku (and geek) culture and is in no way toxic.
Unfortunately, this desire for emancipation tends to express itself in the form of superiority over helpless 2D females. This is where the “purity” complex in otaku culture comes from, as well as the widespread depictions of infantalised females in anime. Sure, dress up the appeal of moe as “brotherly, pure feelings”, but in the end, it’s about asserting power over a group of people even weaker than you are. It honestly isn’t really about being sexually attracted to women, although the relationship between sex and power is a close one.
So why my attraction to 2D girls? Why not real girls? Because I didn’t want to hurt any real women. In real life, I have female friends whom I like and respect very much. I certainly try not to practice sexism in my day-to-day interactions. But the fact remains that 2D girls is still escapism, and the very fictional nature of anime lends itself to more extreme forms of exploitation. At the end of the day, I am still using women to make myself feel powerful, even if it’s not a conscious thing. And yes, I do think that is inherently sexist, whether real women are involved or not.
But, well, I can’t deny that part of who I am. I am human. I have immoral desires like everyone else does. It’s unhealthy to repress one’s own sexual interests, which is why I’ve always been open about it. For better or worse, this is my outlet.
Perhaps my rabid otaku fandom is something I may eventually outgrow as I become more comfortable with my sexuality. I am already starting to experience some growing up pangs, so to speak. For example, No Game No Life horrified me because I saw a lot of my own unconscious values reflected in the show. I would probably have loved it unreservedly if I had watched it just a few months earlier.
This all explains the gradual shift in my recent posts towards more feminist critique. I criticised the sexism in Nisekoi and wrote sympathetically about bishonen and female fans. But actually, I’ve always wanted to believe in gender equality. One of my very first posts was an open letter of acceptance to yaoi fangirls. I think my close friendships with female anime fans and my immersion in fanfic culture has allowed me to combine masculine and feminine styles of writing in a way that challenges the masculine-dominated forms of anime blogging and criticism. (Notice, for instance, that I take shipping seriously as a form of literary consumption.)
So in the end, am I a feminist or not? I like to think I am. I want to be one. But I understand that calling yourself a feminist and actually practicing gender equality can be two different things. As contradictory and hypocritical as it is, I do think of myself as a feminist otaku. I think both perspectives offer a lot of valuable insight when it comes to how we consume media. As an otaku, I wish to seek a form of empowerment that doesn’t involve demeaning women in some way. You can be an otaku without being fixated on 2D girls, after all. I’ll continue searching for a way to empower both genders equally. That is my goal as a human being.
And on that note, I’ll finish this post here. But this isn’t the end of this blog’s focus on gender issues in fandom. Next post, you’ll be seeing the perspective of a tumblr user and her perception of sexism in the anime fandom, particularly focusing on prejudice against tumblr users. Look forward to it, guys!
Posted on July 15, 2014, in Editorials and tagged boku wa tomodachi ga sukunai, feminism, no game no life, politically incorrect views, politics? in my anime?, steins;gate, sword art online. Bookmark the permalink. 78 Comments.